It’s nearly bluebell time, probably a week to 10 days before that magical woodland period. The cold dry windy weather has certainly slowed down things. A quick afternoon walk on the Ide Hill route today revealed just a few primroses, with even the azaleas of Emmett’s Garden (pay if you want to wander the gardens off the public footpath) looking pretty discouraged. The view off over the Weald appeared grey and blurred – not the usual colourful Garden of England tapestry. I’ve been asked by a couple of people to mention that in view of recent reports of ‘bluebell thieves’ in Norfolk, it’s illegal to dig up wildflowers. As well as causing lasting damage to the environment, the transported flowers are unlikely to thrive in gardens because they are adapted to a different, long-established habitat and conditions. Trampling the flowers is pretty damaging too… I’d certainly hope people will stay to the main paths and keep dogs on the lead when going through areas where there area loads of wildflowers. Anyway, things were still pretty bleak out there from the flower point of view on today’s walk … we had to look quite hard to find violets, dead-nettle, alkinet and wood anenomes even. But birdlife has really picked up; our walk revealed treecreepers and nuthatches, and a possible brambling – all firsts for me this year – plus an enormous buzzard swooping low over pheasants. Scord’s Wood was as superb as ever – a verdant ancient woodland with loads of moss and lichen, coppiced trees with flitting birds and mysterious rustles.
Milder weather again now, little rain and presumably less mud. But bear in mind temperatures are set to veer wildly next week from mild to cold day by day. I haven’t been out on any of the walks for a few weeks now – possibly my longest period of absence for five years. I’m looking forward to seeing the first spring wildflowers, the daffodils at Ightham (pictured below), and in about three weeks the seas of wild garlic and bluebells in woodland on all the walks. First of all there’s blackthorn blossom to enjoy, primroses, wood anenome and violets, among others.
It’s amazing how rapidly the landscape transforms itself from its rather bedraggled and dreary state (it seems like that to me this year anyway) in early March to the rich promise of early April. It somehow surprises me every year. And from 12 April it will be possible to visit pub gardens after the walks – this seems like crazy talk. I hope there are still some pubs to go back to. There are one or two that may struggle to open up at all. It’s a grim old business, a global pandemic. My spring walks this year will be punctuated by regular halts to listen to birdsong and try to pick out various species. It wasn’t so long ago that I added wren to my aural recognition list… laughable that it took so long considering just how distinct and loud the call of that diminutive bird is. For some reason the walk I’m most looking forward to getting to this spring is the Chiddingstone loop especially if the Castle Inn’s garden is open.
In the meantime I’ve stumbled across some BBC4 walks in Yorkshire that I’ve quite enjoyed – a couple of which I remember doing as a teenager on family holidays. The presenter, Shanaz Gulzar, is affable and doesn’t go on too much and if she starts to get pretentious, she soon thinks better of it. It’s all quite low key and accompanied by superb drone photography. Have a look on the iPlayer.
One of Shanaz’s walks crosses the Strid, a stretch of the River Wharfe that used to strike fear into a great uncle of mine, a local, who used to tell us stories of terrible events in those parts involving drownings and floods. He was extremely old at that point and had suffered the fate of being captured very early in – wait for it – the first world war. In fact as a very young man, perhaps still a teenager, he might have been living in Ypres as a civilian when the Kaiser’s army invaded. He was apparently given some very grisly work details and it was said he never quite recovered from his experiences. Nevertheless, here he was in the mid-1970s telling us kids about the Strid and the perils of trying to cross it. Good old Clifford. Slightly scary but a tremendous character.
To those of you hardy souls thinking of venturing out to local countryside for a break from the local park tomorrow, I’m sad to report the mud is back with a vengeance. I claimed in my newsletter that it was drying up rapidly, but the heavy rain and low temperatures over the past few days have put the situation into reverse unfortunately. I ventured out on to the Downe route yesterday and found it extremely slippery with the corner of the final field before reentering the village impassable without wellies. Then the hail started…
While I’m here, thanks to everyone who has donated to the website. A sizeable proportion of donations will now be winging its way to the Kent Wildlife Trust and to Project Seagrass, which restores marine environments to help capture carbon and improve biodiversity.
(Pictured: Hail storms in winter from the Greensand Ridge near Sevenoaks, 2018)
Snowtime is no more. Now sub tropical air is drifting up from the south with the giddy heights of 14C being likely in our neck of the woods. Walks last weekend and the previous week were some of the coldest I can remember. Superb, I thought! But we’re in that time of year where anything is possible, particularly given the effects of the climate crisis. We could have balmy days or freezing days in the month ahead.
Looking at all the mud I’m beginning to wonder if it might not be an idea from next month to have some grass seed or wildflower seed at the ready to scatter on the edges of paths when on a walk, or around stiles and gates where huge swathes of mud have appeared. There might be some good reasons why not but I can’t think of them.
As it’s Friday night I’m going to suggest a piece of music to enjoy while making dinner. It is Earth Wind & Fire’s version of The Beatles’ Gotta Get You Into My Life. Very uplifting. Next song on my playlist was Gill Scott-Heron’s The Bottle.
Pictured above is Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in early March, which I first visited this time last year.
It’s nailed on they say. Bound to happen. Everything is in place. The polar vortex is distorted. Sudden stratospheric temperature change has occurred. Low pressure and a front moving in from the north. The North Sea is suitably cold. Tottenham Hotspur keep losing (an extremely unpleasant winter development in my view). But – after a load of rain forecast on Saturday afternoon – it’s going to snow from the early hours of Sunday on and off for a couple of days or more. From 3am on Sunday the temperature won’t get above 0C until sometime on Thursday, which is sobering. Many of us don’t plan on staying sober, however. The rain will turn to snow well before dawn and the daytime will see us having fun in parks, woods and countryside. A little bit of Norway coming to Kent and south-east London.
But – hate to be a killjoy – there’s a pandemic and we mustn’t let our guard down. The usual scenes of sledging and snowball, snowman abandon may be missing. I don’t know how dangerous or not playing in the snow and ice really is but hospitals are certainly not the place to be right now, and they certainly don’t need A&E full of sheepish snow berks. Whatever we do, social distancing must be observed and I reckon masks worn when out, with hand gel at the ready. The best idea is to stay local and enjoy the unaccustomed spectacle stoically and cautiously. Keep the bird feeder as full as you can and enjoy nature close to home. Hey, there’s the Six Nations to watch and the usual football (thank God). Normally I’d suggest places to go sledging but I don’t feel I can do that this year, sadly. I can recommend a flask of hot chocolate and a dash of rum, however.
I do wish I’d invested in a pair of skis sometime ago, when my limbs felt more flexible. I’ve never been skiing, but love watching it – it’s just incredibly spectacular and sort of romantic. It’s probably not for me as I recently found I’m extremely uncomfortable on chairlifts; a summer trip to the Pyrenees a few years ago having alerted me to this. It’s also a good thing I don’t ski because I can’t even go jogging without falling arse over tit and spraining my ankle. I’m OK now, though, thanks for asking.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.