My previous post referred to getting lucky with the light on dark winter days. At Ide Hill last Friday, the cloud layers parted to reveal a magnificent dusk sky full of colour. Photos don’t really capture it, and my basic digital SLR Nikon isn’t really up to capturing the Moon properly, but I’d like to post a few just to remind myself of this wondrous early evening. It was another reminder that late afternoon can be a superb time to go out – there’s no need to postpone a winter hike just because you’ve been busy in the morning and didn’t manage to get away.
Look to the light
January walks are all about timing. Things can appear dreary, muddy, dank and generally unappealing but with the right weather conditions the quality of the light can make everything right. Clear, bright, frosty days are definitely the best for a Kent hike at this time of year and despite all the low cloud and rain this month, there have been quite a few such days falling at the weekend. Well, a couple anyway. We’ve tried to make the most of it and walks at Cudham, One Tree Hill, Ide Hill, Hosey, Downe (despite the new fences) and Petts Wood have come up trumps. With a hard frost, like the one we found at One Tree Hill last Sunday, a lot of the mud freezes, which helps considerably. Such days can be good for a spot of casual birdwatching too with small birds often so keen to feed that they care less for human presence – I’ve enjoyed up-close views of goldcrest, nuthatch, coal tit and brambling this winter. But it’s a mysterious affair; sometimes there are no birds at all.
My favourite photos of the year: 2022
To mark the year’s passing I’ve picked one photo from each month looking back over the year so will hope to show the passage of the seasons. In some months I took few photos … which is why September’s picture is a bit “meh”. One photo is a complete cheat because it’s not from the walks here, but from north-west Scotland! I think my favourites are the final two of the year: Underriver view and Lullingstone in the snow, although the sharpness of that Cudham shot in remarkably clear July air does a lot for me.
I don’t rate myself as any kind of photographer, and I’m sure a true pro could do a lot better, but I do enjoy capturing an atmosphere or certain aesthetic. If others like them too, even better!
Happy Christmas to all who visit and use this website and best wishes for 2023.
Chilled at Lullingstone
Lullingstone park is a great place to feel the winter vibes in the North Downs, with sweeping views of the Darent valley, big skies, mists swirling down by the river and a variety of terrain: from grassy expanses to rich beech and oak woods. Some walkers in Kent on Saturday saw a double sun – a trick of the light in which the sun seems to appear twice. It’s also called a sun dog, and is a type of halo. We weren’t so lucky, but the atmosphere was superb – wispy cloud, patches of cobalt sky, a low sun and a light mist. Small flocks of linnets were feeding in scrubby fields at the start of our route, up by the golf course entrance. It was the last day of this week of snow and freezing temperatures so we wanted to make the most of it, taking a 4-mile route around the park. A very deep frost had formed on top of the snow, producing some incredible branch-like crystal structures. It was a truly memorable stroll.
See an Ordnance Survey map of the route we took across Lullingstone – with GPX.
A winter’s trail
Two very cold but contrasting days at the weekend just gone. Bright sunshine and rich colour on Saturday, fog, frost and monochrome tones on Sunday after a largely clear night. We walked near Shoreham on the North Downs then, on Sunday, at Ide Hill near Sevenoaks on the Greensand Ridge. I tried to keep an eye open for birds and saw a yellowhammer flying away from along the line of hedgerows beneath Fackenden Down plus several fieldfare. At Ide Hill we saw a brambling among a mixed bunch of chaffinches and great and blue tits (there may have been a female bullfinch among them too) on the eastern edge of Emmett’s Garden and later some greenfinches popped out of a hedgerow. At Ide Hill, as we had hoped, we were ‘above the cloud’ with a layer of fog obscuring the low weald below and little pinnacles of ridges further south poking up through the murk. The best frost was seen en route around the woods and heaths of Hayes and Keston Common – very beautiful. And then came the snow …
Anyone with time free over the next couple of days should try to get out on the walks to experience the snow at places like Knole and on the hill tops at Fackenden and Polhill. It can be spectacular. (See photos from 2021.)
If you haven’t seen it, please check out my piece for The Guardian on a Darent Valley walk ending at the Samuel Palmer, one of Guardian Saturday’s pub walk series. And on 31 December the paper is running a piece I wrote about birding while walking – describing walks at Underriver and on Handa Island in NW Scotland.
Pictured: elderberry, rosehips and views in the winter sun on Fackenden Down; fog and murk on the Low Weald from Ide Hill
Walking weekend in the Brecon Beacons
I do enjoy a trip to the Brecon Beacons. Rather than the rushed but hugely enjoyable daytrip last time I took the train to Swansea then stayed with old friends in Llandeilo for the weekend. It rained, of course it did. Then it rained some more. But a great time was had despite Wales losing at both football and rugby while I was there. As well as walking at Llyn y Fan Fach (pictured), Dinefwr Park and Tair Carn Uchaf (pictured) on the western edge of the Beacons we took in a jazz concert by Claire Teal with Jason Rebello and band at Swansea university’s Taliesin arts centre, an old haunt. Some of the scenery, particularly Llyn y Fan Fach (of Lady of the Lake myth fame) reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Icelandic landscapes. A brilliant trip, but a wet one.
Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver
The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.
I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.
I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.
We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.
Bats in the mist – dusk at Downe, Keston and Polhill
Exceptionally mild temperatures have lured bats out into the autumnal gloaming to catch late flying insects. I love watching these animals swoop, flutter and flit around and it’s a bonus to see them so late in the year. Usually you can only pick them out against the sky but at Downe and Keston on last weekend’s strolls I was buzzed by bats so closely I sensed rather than saw them zooming past. Yesterday at Polhill one or two emerged from the mist to pass close over our heads before vanishing into the gloom.
I’d thought we’d set off rather too late for a walk. Traffic was bad on the A21 slowing us further (the train is by far the best option for Shoreham walks) and low cloud had covered the sky. But by Locksbottom the skies cleared and we were bathed in a beautiful golden light. This was a false dawn: by the time we parked up by Meenfield Woods above Shoreham we were in quite dense fog. This magically cleared at Polhill, the walk’s halfway point, to give us unusual views before swirling back in as the sun set. With the mist below we had the feeling we were much higher above the valley than we were. I think this weather effect is called a temperature inversion, where warmer air passes over the relatively cold air on the valley floor, causing condensation.
By the time we finished the walk, visibility was down to about 50 metres and driving home the twisty, twiny country lanes needed total concentration if we were to avoid a close encounter with a hedgerow.
Wet, wild and wonderful
I’m intrigued about how many of us look outside on a day like today – drab, cold, raining – and just think that curling up with a book or making a great meal or something would be a far better use of time than a walk. Who can blame those who decide such days are for doing stuff indoors? But judging by the views on this website there is a hardcore who come what may will not only brave the elements, they will relish them. I’m in this camp – although I do have a good book to read. Anyway, lovely autumn colour awaits those who make it out, all the more inspiring against the grey backdrop. Waterproof trousers and good boots will be handy though. Photos are from the Fackenden Down route last weekend on which the weather was actually fine as it turned out. Scroll through the photo gallery below right for autumn colour from all the walks.
A waft of Knole
A walk in late afternoon around Knole was superb for autumn colour, acorn-munching deer and beautiful tints of pink and orange in the sky and reflected on the austere frontage of that superb medieval-Tudor house. We ventured off the main path as usual and veered through woods on minor trails discovering yellow and ochre fungi. The walk ended amid wafts of woodsmoke at One Tree Hill. Wonderful.