Snowtime

Snowtime

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.

Snow done properly, Rochers de Naye, Montreux, only by rack and pinion train. A FANTASTIC place.

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.

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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.

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

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.

Bough Beech – the lake you can’t quite get to

Bough Beech – the lake you can’t quite get to

From the heights of Emmetts Gardens, perched on the Greensand Ridge by Ide Hill, the reservoir at Bough Beech off to the south looks so inviting on a hot summer’s day – a cool dash of blue among shades of green, dotted with the white of small sailing dinghies breezily tacking this way and that.

On a hot day you might even think: “Cor, let’s get down there, hire a boat, a pedalo, splash about, perhaps a bit of waterskiing, finish off with a swim followed up by a nifty little sundowner in a trendy bar surrounded by people almost as slick as me.”

Crushing disappointment awaits you; none of these things are possible. The clue is in the name: look how they spell Beech – there’s no ‘a’.  True, there is a sailing club and it does have a bar (at the weekends at least) but its home page proclaims it is “run by the members for the members”. Which is lovely … for the members. Fair enough. All good.

Oh well, we can’t get on the lake to cool us off on a summer’s day, so how about a picnic in a delightful meadow with a spot of paddling in the softly lapping water?

Bough Beech reservoir – don’t even think about it.

 

Er… absolutely not! Much of the lake’s boundary is a nature reserve and you can’t get close to the water. Again … OK, fine. Nature is good, we love nature, even if we can’t touch it  – in fact it’s best if we don’t touch it.

Right, we can’t go in it or stop next to it. We’ll just have to walk or cycle round it while enjoying views across it, in the same way as you can at Bewl Water, an even larger reservoir not that far away. I suspect you may by now have worked out the format of this post and are anticipating me writing “Sorry, but you can’t walk round it”.

Sorry, but you can’t walk round it. I did try a couple of times with no real luck. Although there is a nice walk nearby that goes to Bore Place organic farm and takes in some nice little meadows and woods. You can even glimpse the reservoir if you crane your neck.

Where you can almost see the lake

Ah, here’s the Kent Wildlife Trust to the rescue. I read the KWT has a visitor centre in an oast house, a habitat reserve, nature trail and bird hides. There are picnic tables, and a car park. Big whoop! We’ve got our beautiful lakeside view after all, co-existing nicely with nature. Haven’t we?

Don’t be so naive, joker. It’s closed down. Now it’s an educational facility for some school or other. Anyway, even when KWT ran it you could barely see the lake from the visitors’ centre. And the nature trail went for about a third of a mile close to the reservoir’s western edge without quite giving you a view of it. Well, it did at one point, but there’s a huge fence in the way to prevent people from messing with nature. Then you had to walk back on a country lane down which vast 4WD vehicles hurtle along at colossal speeds, often driven by morons.

I’m told the ex-KWT site is still a great spot for birdwatching (even us dullards spotted greylag geese and great crested grebe) and you can indeed still use the bird hides and unleash your binocular power. Don’t expect any riveting conversation. It’ll most likely be “Seen the osprey?” Suspicious look, “who’s asking?”. Birdwatchers aren’t always the most communicative. (Not my mate Dave though, he’s brilliant.) Bough Beech does in fact have ospreys from time to time – not a beast fond of beautiful natural areas being opened up to the masses for frolicking.

Damn it. We’ll have to just drive around the lake on the adjacent country lanes, admiring it from various viewpoints. Off we go. We pass a sign that seems to be warning us about frogs. Oh I see, they cross the road here.

Glimpse of Bough Beech near end of Walk 17

Ah, hmmm, the lake should be over there … no – there’s woods, there’s fields… it’s over there somewhere, but now there’s a shallow hill in the way. Bloody hell, I give up – you can see it from Emmett’s but I’m beginning to think it was a mirage, it doesn’t exist. I’ll have to join the yacht people.

There it is!

Hold on though, what’s that? Suddenly there it is; a roadside vista of Bough Beech lake. And you can park up. In the north-east corner of the lake, close to the KWT reserve, there’s a causeway traversed by a lane; handily there’s a pavement so it’s a good spot to get out of the car and have a gaze and a twitch maybe. The photos here were taken from there.

I suppose Bough Beech lake might be ruined if we were able to do what we want on it and around it. So really I’m glad I can’t organise a barbecue on a summer’s evening on the shoreline, and that there’s not a kiosk charging £7 to plonk one’s jam jar there with an ice cream van for company. I’m delighted not to be able to pedalo on it – disturbing the geese – or cycle round it – and risk squashing toads.

I rest easy at night knowing I haven’t had a snifter while watching the sun go down over this elusive but idyllic spot. But suddenly my sleep is broken; I jolt upright – did I just run over a frog?

June 2020 update! In a barely credible incident totally in tune with these disturbing times, a young couple climbed over a fence at Bough Beech early in June and sat by the lake in the heat, dangling their feet in the water and eating Doritos (chili flavour). This endearing but incendiary scene lasted for about 7 minutes before irate birdwatchers rounded on them and ordered them out. I witnessed these events unfolding in real time; it was all so shocking that I forgot to film it and put it on social media.

Bough Beech/Bore Place walk

Camber Sands and Romney Marsh on a hot holiday Monday

After the verdant delights of Penshurst I headed to the coast on Monday – I knew there’d be terrible traffic but the chance to enjoy Camber Sands on a genuinely hot day was too good to pass up. I took my bike and before hitting the sands cycled 7 miles to Dungeness RSPB reserve and back, via Lydd. The area truly is unique… I think it qualifies as a desert, though not one of sand; after you leave Lydd heading east, shingle and strange scrubby flora take over – nothing to do with the nuclear power station I’m sure. Dunge is a mecca for birders, though it was very quiet when I was there, despite fresh reports of a merlin, marsh harriers, exotic sounding warblers and yellow wagtails all being active and visible. The area is very elemental… little softens the border between land and sky and I wondered what it must be like in winter with an easterly wind. Lydd looks a good village in some ways but quite cut off feeling. Not sure how the ambitious plans for Lydd airport will pan out… seems absurd to expand an airport here, when Manston up at Margate with its huge runway, failed to become a sustainable proposition. Great area though, a wonderful day out. Enjoy the pictures.

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Hot bank holiday and Penshurst Place

An unexpectedly superb weekend of weather; it seems to me that late summer and early autumn are now routinely drier and warmer than mid-summer but I’m too lazy to look for figures to back that up. I hope, dear readers, you’ve been able to get out and about. A small component of my family ventured forth by car and bicycle to Penshurst Place (on the Chiddingstone circular walk) yesterday. We parked at Haysden country park a mile or so from Tonbridge station, then cycled the remaining 3.5 miles to Penshurst Place, on lanes at first, then off-road alongside the river Medway.

We passed a good swimming/picnic spot in the river close to the bridge as it passes beneath Ensfield Rd, before ascending the moderate hill at Well Place Farm then freewheeling down the slope to Penshurst Place manor house itself. The gardens are always a joy and so is the cafe by the house in a large courtyard dominated by a lime (I think) tree. I wrote about the house and its interesting history for the Guardian a while back – also got more detail there on how to get there and prices. A great afternoon out if you are fancy free on the bank holiday but best done with a car/bike combination.

There are trains from Victoria (via East Croydon) and London Bridge but Penshurst station is two miles from the house. I haven’t devised a walking route from the station away from the road yet but there must be one. Hmm…

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Metropole Orchestra’s Charles Mingus tribute at the Proms

Metropole Orchestra’s Charles Mingus tribute at the Proms

A bit off the beaten track here, but I ventured to the Proms for the first time in my life this week and caught a truly magnificent concert by the Dutch Metropole Orkest. Joined by brilliant soloists and a great vocalist from the UK and US, the orchestra performed songs associated with and by the bassist/composer Charlie Mingus, including two superb Joni Mitchell tracks. Here’s my review (slighty hurried in the writing) at Jazzwise magazine.

Biggin Hill airshow

Just a heads up that the Biggin Hill airshow is back next weekend (19-20 August). This year’s event is a bit bigger than the recent ones and features on Sunday the French air force’s display team, the Patrouille de France (and the Red Arrows). Very spectacular. There will also be three extremely noisy modern jet fighters performing as well as Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster and various stunt and biplanes, some of first world war vintage. Worth getting tickets for, or at least taking the Downe circular walk for a peek. If you don’t like that kind of thing then take a walk a long way away!

Update: 26 August. Well the airshow proved a great success with brilliant displays and a very supportive crowd. The weather behaved too, despite being a little cold on the Saturday – although as you can see from my pix cloud cover was variable. The Red Arrows and Patrouille de France were extraordinary – amazing skill and training. The jet fighters (Typhoon, F-16, Gripen) all splendidly noisy and rapid and the solo Spitfires’ aerobatics quite moving considering the history of the location. The sight of Hurricanes, Spitfires and the B-17 over the Kent countryside was very evocative as always. For some truly epic photographs of the event by a pro, take a look here.

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An early Easter as the meadows and woods wake up

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This weekend is bound to be a big one for walking; I’m just hoping the mud has subsided a bit now it’s been dry for a while. The early weather forecasts are suggesting that Good Friday will be best on the meteorological front; after that it’s downhill with a drizzly Saturday and showery Sunday in store. Check the Met Office here. Spring proper is just round the corner and the countryside is waking up. I’ve seen my first queen bumblebee of the year; ponds are full of frog and toad spawn; birdsong is taking off (though I’m yet to hear signs of chiffchaff arrivals from Africa – Ide Hill walk great for them); wood anenomes, hawthorn, and wild garlic are flowering; and the carpet of green in the woods will be turning blue by mid-April from the looks of it, although I spotted my first flowering bluebell in early February this year – see previous blog post.

It’s a good time to visit National Trust and other interesting places, which usually offer nature walks and children’s activities in the coming days. Here are some of my favourites, either on or close to the walks listed here:

• Penshurst Place (nr Tonbridge): crafts, storytelling and, for adults, a spring guided stroll including lunch (£28 including admission)
• High Elms nature reserve (nr Bromley): excellent nature centre with orchards, ponds, cafe, wildlife information plus gardens (free)
• Hever Castle (nr Edenbridge): an array of easter stuff including a Lindt Gold Bunny Hunt (free after paying admission)
• Emmett’s Gardens: (nr Ide Hill/Brasted): Cadbury’s (or should that be Kraft?) easter egg hunt (free after paying admission)
• Knole: (Sevenoaks) guided walks, easter egg hunt (free after admission)
• Lullingstone Country Park (Eynsford): activity trail and easter egg hunt
Down House (Downe/Bromley): something interactive and historical for kids involving people in costumes (basically I’m not quite sure, but chocolate will happen). Very close to High Elms though, so could tie in.

And here are those walks again. They work for me at all times but in the spring I’ve always favoured the Otford circular via Romney St and the Ide Hill walks for some reason.

Download Walk 1: Downe circular (near Bromley, 2.6 miles) View on your phone/PC
Download Walk 2: Shoreham circular (3.5 miles) View
Download Walk 3: Shoreham to Eynsford (4.2 miles) View
Download Walk 4: Ide Hill circular (3 miles) View
Download Walk 5: Otford circular via Romney St (5.5 miles) View
Download Walk 6: One Tree Hill circular (near Sevenoaks, 5.5 miles) View
Download Walk 7: One Tree Hill figure of eight (near Sevenoaks, 5 miles) View
Download Walk 8: Shoreham/Otford circular (5 miles) View
Download Walk 9: Hever circular (4.5 miles) View
 Download Walk 10: Chiddingstone/Penshurst circular (4 miles)
View