I’ve surrendered to the mud

I’ve surrendered to the mud

The mud I’ve encountered out walking is worse this year than in any other I can remember (much worse than the picture I’ve used from Meenfield wood suggests). It has been much wetter than normal, with regular heavy rain over the past two months, but the number of people out and about is another major factor in churning it up. It’s going to take some paths a long time to recover I suspect.

The situation in parks is the same, though of course there are more hard surfaced paths to take; I cycled over to Beckenham Place Park earlier and there are patches of mud where there should be grass in many places. The number of people in the park was good to see; surely it’s better to see everyone in the fresh air trying to enjoy themselves and keep body and soul together than not. On the other hand social distancing was a problem and there were some large groups. Hardly anyone wore a mask, strangely. I know transmission of Covid is thought to be unlikely in the open air but, still, with so many people surely a mask might add a little extra security. We do it on railway platforms so why not in parks? The air was very still, too – something to consider? I’m not sure. Truly remarkable were two ice cream vans down by the car park. That’s not in the spirit of lockdown at all. And it felt about 1C. I still can’t believe it. A deadly plague, it’s 1C and we’re queueing for ice cream or coffee?

Anyway, back to mud. If using Kent Walks near London for the first time I feel I should point out that the walks are, for 9 months of the year, much better than this squelchy experience! Even with wellies you have be careful not to slip over in it and stretches of up to 100 metres are fraught on some routes. Steep hills are out of the question. Maybe – and it goes against the grain with me to write this – it’s time to leave the countryside alone for a bit. Either join the hordes in the local park (but with a mask and careful distancing) or trudge the streets. Sorry.

Not entirely listless

Not entirely listless

I’ve idly tried to keep a record of every different type of bird I’ve seen so far this year. No binoculars or stalking around, just the ones I’ve come across without going anywhere special – just local trips. It’s been disappointing. We’ve reached 22 January and I haven’t seen a single heron, little egret or kingfisher, birds that are commonly seen on the River Pool between Lower Sydenham and Catford. It took 20 days before I saw my first coot (on the lake at Beckenham Place Park) and notched up a collared dove! No yellowhammer as yet (pictured). No buzzards or even the local sparrowhawk. One solitary kestrel on New Year’s Day and that’s it for birds of prey. At this rate I shouldn’t expect to see a black redstart or bullfinch much before 2025. Still, it’s a list and it’s quite interesting and making me look out more.

An easy one to get for the list: a blue tit
Adam McCulloch

Ah, I’ve just remembered, the weather has been awful, I’ve forgotten to buy any bird seed for the feeder and I work quite a lot. My anonymous birder friend Dave doesn’t seem to have this trouble – he only has to stick his head out of the window and snipe, goosander, waxwing and montagu’s harrier dive headlong for his yard. He has once again written a fine update about winter birding on these walking routes, which can be read here – of course he lists all the birds you or I might see, but leaves out all the rare and exotic species that he usually encounters.

View Dave’s winter birds of the North Downs 2021 page

A lull after Lullingstone

A lull after Lullingstone

It’s time to batten down the hatches again. For some of us, the need to walk in in the open and find a bit of solitude is strong; others can adapt perfectly well to spending the whole day indoors. Personally I’m glad the football is still on! Let’s stay safe in all circumstances but not judge each other too much, unless someone is really busting the spirit of the rules. We know the situation in hospitals is dire and to add to the crisis by carelessness or selfishness would be terrible. Anyway, it’s horrendously muddy out there. I think we can let the paths, meadows and woods recover from our feet for a bit. Those walks will still be there once that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel starts turning into a dazzling orb in the spring. My last proper country walk was at Lullingstone Country Park (pictured) over Christmas where I walked the whole circumference of about five miles. Highlights included a panoramic view of the Darent Valley from the lonely plane tree a mile south-west of the Roman Villa, the amazingly tall and straight beech trees in Beechen Wood and a beautiful goldcrest, Britain’s second smallest bird, that had unusually come down to ground level to feed amid bracken and ignored me even as I stood just a few feet away. I reckon they’ve been doing a lot more of that in recent days as frost and ice has coated trees in the North Downs. I’ll describe my ‘new’ Lullingstone route in the next few weeks.

Find a walk that suits you

Find a walk that suits you

In these Covid-limited times I get the sense that more of us have been out walking than ever before – hopefully in total safety. Things will quieten down a bit now I expect, given that Christmas is over, although walks are a great way of keeping fit and helping to remove extra pounds gained of late. Then again the mud, more extensive this year than I’ve ever seen, may be putting a lot of walkers off getting out at the moment. People I’ve met on these routes have been fully aware, by and large, about social distancing and most walkers make way for each other on narrower paths. Extra care is required in car parks, however, with people moving more around more randomly – often rounding up children and dogs. Please please take all litter home with you – I’ve seen a lot more discarded packages than usual on the walks of late.

To help you find suitable walks here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map. Just click on the lines and blobs to get more information about that walk. You can use the menu at the top of the page to print off pdfs and to look at more detailed directions. The Google maps are not GPX maps; ie, they don’t show your current location, they are indicators that have extra info embedded in them. They are also a bit rough, being hand-drawn, so please use the GPX maps linked on each walk page or a printed Ordnance Survey map for real detail. Many of the walks overlap with each other such as Westerham and Hosey Common, One Tree Hill and Underriver – leading to severe spaghettification on the map.

Looking at the map there are plenty of holes in Kentwalksnearlondon.com coverage I can see… so this year I hope to add walks around Farningham, Kemsing, between Ide Hill and Sevenoaks, and Foots Cray Meadows/Joyden’s Wood and perhaps from Trossley country park. We’ll see – it’d be nice to get to 30 walks.


Crisp and clear

Crisp and clear

Despite all the rain and mud, winter was at it’s best on Christmas Day. Today (27 December) looks good too. Things get a bit cloudier – and colder – from tomorrow. Maybe enough ground will freeze up to take the edge off the mud. Keep a look out for birds – we saw sparrowhawks and a tawny owl hunting on Christmas Day at Lullingstone – and enjoy the fantastic light effects created by the afternoon sun as it illuminates the stark trees. Another bird you’ll be sure to hear is the high-pitched calls of goldcrests particularly in pines and cypress. It’s quite hard to see them though, because they are tiny and stay high up generally. Watch out for small flocks of redwings on the search for berries. But generally speaking I haven’t seen a lot of birds this winter on my walks.

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Christmas strolls

Christmas strolls

The weather is set fair for Christmas Day – perfect walking conditions will ensue, despite the abundant mud. I seem to remember last Christmas Day was clear and crips too in these parts. Most of us of course will stay close to home and just wander out with the kids, as a couple or singly given the Covid restrictions. People living alone will have a strange Christmas and I wish you all the best. Zooms and phone calls should help and great books and films.

If you live close to enough to the edge of town then places like Lullingstone, Shoreham and Knole are brilliant in this weather. Getting out can be difficult of course with the demands of present-giving, board games and cooking but now we’re in much smaller groups it shouldn’t be too difficult and all this rich food tastes so much better and is much easier to get down the hatch after a good stroll. A walk will help you feel better come Boxing Day, when the weather takes a turn for the worse again. Sunday looks a bit brighter, however. Anyway, have a good one.

Walks are the only show in town

Eynsford-Lullingstone walk in late afternoon, winter. Photo KWNL

Updated 19 December

It’s hard to keep up. A few days I wrote “Country walks are now the only safe activity we can indulge in this Christmas. Pubs, clubs, theatre, cinema, restaurants are sadly all out. And with the rules stating it’s OK to meet up to six people who don’t live with you, walks are pretty much the only shout at a social gathering (at a safe distance) we can get up to.”

That’s now incorrect. Going for a walk is not OK with more than one person who doesn’t live with you.

The rest of the blog post now appears curiously dated and irrelevant: “So expect popular locations to be busy; it might be best to avoid Lullingstone Visitors’ Centre car park, for example, and the road parking around Knole. Even the One Tree Hill car park has been full at times recently. It might be a case of arriving before 10am or after 2pm in those locations or indulge in a bit of creative parking. Anyway, there are plenty of other options; peruse Kent Walks near London to find the right hike for you. But whatever you do, take wellies or walking boots. The mud is quite something at points on all the walks. And I’ve found a flask with hot chocolate, possibly laced with something a wee bit stronger, can add a bit of value too.”

At least the bit about mud is still accurate. I just hope everyone can chill out and make the best of it and I wish you all well.

Tiers in the rain

Downe, Kent, England
Photo: Frosty hillside fields, Downe. Photo: KWNL

Blade Runner quote there, ho ho. So scrub my last post about being in tier 2. London, from Wednesday, is in tier 3 along with Kent. It means you can meet up to six people you don’t live with outside (but not in a garden or outdoor venue). If you live with more than six that’s fine to walk with them all too. However, the guidance states: “You should avoid travelling outside your area and reduce the number of journeys you make wherever possible.” I’m not sure how “your area” is defined to be honest. But I guess it still means our walks will have to be a bit closer to home than an hour’s drive away. (See official tier 3 guidance here.)

The four walks on this site closest to south-east London are walks 1, 13, 20, and 25 – they are in each within the London Borough of Bromley. So, Chislehurst-Petts Wood, Downe and Cudham walks probably count as “in your area”. You can also walk from Keston to Downe via Keston Ponds – a walk I haven’t as yet got round to adding to the site. But it’s easy to follow on a map. The Knockholt and Darent Valley walks from Eynsford and Shoreham are the next closest. Maybe stay away from the villages and take to the more remote paths, such as at Fackenden Down and the eastern valley routes. I think beyond that can’t be described as “your area”. Other lovely places to explore closer to SE London are Joyden’s Wood and Foot’s Cray Meadows in the London Borough of Bexley. There’s also Scadbury Park north-east of Chislehurst and I’ve previously described Beckenham Place Park and the Waterlink Way, which runs from Beckenham’s Cator Park to Greenwich along the Pool and Ravesbourne rivers.  It’s easy to improvise your own routes in these places. Common sense, regular handwashing and social distancing remain of course the crucial issues. Stay safe and be patient with the many other walkers, joggers, dog walkers and cyclists you are bound to encounter.

If you do venture into the local countryside on any of the KWNL routes, go prepared… not just for Covid but for mud. Only wellies will really do it on most of the walks at the moment. Even the Downe walk is a quagmire at points. Lullingstone and Knole are best for mud avoidance. It looks like continuing to be a wet, mild winter so this won’t change anytime soon. Still, the mud is mainly at hot spots… it’s not continuous throughout any of the walks.

Blog updated 14 December 2020

Autumn takes its leave

Autumn takes its leave

I’m having to change my banner photographs with every passing week to keep them current as we hurtle into winter. Autumn officially ends on 21 December but we all know that’s baloney. A few stormy days over the past week or so have stripped away the leaves and although temperatures are still fairly mild, it gets dark at 4.30pm and the ground is saturated. It looks like winter, it smells like winter, it feels like winter, it’s winter.

Last Sunday’s stroll at Cudham was beset by hefty squalls and paths are awash. Today I set out with a friend to walk between Otford and Eynsford via Polhill, Pilot woods, Mill Lane, and Lullingstone. I continually slipped trying to ascend the steep sodden face of Polhill ending up on all fours sliding backward downhill, much to my friend’s mirth. We shared a cereal bar and discussed footwear. It was actually so wet that our boots never really got muddy despite regularly sinking ankle-deep into the mire.

The light seemed to go at about 3pm as the clouds sank ever lower so we abandoned the Eynsford leg and scoured the dank but still delightful streets of Shoreham for something to drink. We struck lucky and gratefully downed our Westerham ales under an awning outside the closed, deserted Ye Olde George (set for redecorating and reopening next year we hear).

Nr Romney Street, Round Hill, Austin Spring, near Shoreham, winter 2017

The conditions throughout the walk had been pretty ropey with low stratus scraping Fackenden Down opposite and a constant patter of precipitation slightly too heavy to be dismissed as drizzle. Darkness fell as we reached the railway station and faced a cold wait, which fortunately proved short as the Thameslink rolled in bang on time.

To add some perspective to the “inclement conditions” encountered on the walk we discussed a book I’m currently reading: The Worst Journey in the World, by a member of Scott’s team, which is about the ultimately horrific Antarctic expedition of 1911-13. Lots of things went wrong before the final tragedy, some before they’d even left Britain. None seemed insurmountable at the time but added together, like pieces in a jigsaw, they each played their part in the deaths of Scott and four of his fittest, doughtiest fellow explorers.

Underlying all of these mishaps were some truly horrendous meteorological experiences, which make walks in the Darent Valley even in murk, mud, darkness and constant rain, feel like a carefree saunter in the Shire. So, this winter, take a small leaf out of Scott’s book and say “to hell with the weather, let’s go for a walk”. There won’t be any crevasses after all; you will get back in one piece even if it rains or snows, and you might even be able to find an acceptable beverage. Just make sure you’ve got some decent boots.

Locked down but not locked in

Locked down but not locked in

Here we are again. Many of us will be looking on with horrified fascination at events in the US over the past few days thinking ‘wow, maybe it’s not so bad here in the UK after all right now’.

Well I don’t know. Things aren’t great here but they will get better in time. Reading books, learning to put the phone down, enjoying some quality drama and documentaries on TV will help, and of course checking out great music. But when it comes to getting out; it’s a little more complicated. Let’s not get too bogged describing the exact ‘rules’ right now, all readers on KWNL know to be sensible. Don’t go too far out, stick to social distancing and stay in your bubble. Some pubs are doing takeaway beverages, which might be handy. So, if you’re staying local here’s a few ideas to enjoy a jog or a walk that little bit more:

  • Really look at the trees in your street, neighbourhood and local park. Don’t take any tree for granted – there are some beauties in most streets that we just walk past without really looking and places like Beckenham Place Park (cafe still doing takeaway drinks and pictured below) have some absolutely brilliant arboreal gems. Use an app like Leaf Snap, Picture This or iNaturalist to record and identify trees. British Trees is also an excellent app which helps you identify species rather than just tell you. Remember we can only preserve beauty when we learn to appreciate beauty.
  • Learn a few common birdsongs and calls online and practise listening out for them. The best site I know is british-birdsongs.uk. It won’t make you a twitcher but it’s pretty cool to point without looking and tell your friend ‘song thrush in that oak tree’. Well, a bit cool. Maybe a bit uncool actually.
  • I’ve noticed that people are taking more interest in fungi these days and it’s the perfect time for looking out for toadstools and the like. The names are brilliant in themselves: “fly agaric” (the classic red with white spots), “lemon disco”, “stinkhorn”, “collared earthstar”, “jelly ear”, “scarlet elf cup”, etc. Snap them on your phone and try to match them to pictures online at sites like woodlandtrust.org. There are also apps, such as Picture Mushroom.
  • I don’t do this myself but maybe give some sketching a go. This article gives some good guidance I think.
  • If you have a bicycle take a trip into central London to in-between places like Bloomsbury and along the canals. It’s amazing the buildings and history you come across. And it’s such a rare opportunity to do this without much traffic. I’ve been working one day a week in central London and my route home takes me past St Paul’s Cathedral in the evening – it’s magical.

Anyway, stay safe, see you on the other side. And thanks to those who donate on this site. I’m building up to passing another bunch of not-so-filthy lucre to Kent Wildlife Trust and a local food bank.