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.

Get your head in the clouds

Get your head in the clouds

Late afternoons in the mid-autumn have their own lighting design with special colours, particularly on days like Sunday (25 October) when a clear sky was punctuated with decaying shower clouds reflecting the whole spectrum in the setting sun. So even though the clocks have gone back (for some reason I’ve never understood) if you can squeeze in a couple of hours’ walking late in the day you can be rewarded with amazing tree and sky hues. The Downe walk isn’t the most spectacular route on this site, but today it was beautifully lit, as pictured above.

I’ve always paid a lot of attention to sky. Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations. I remember bugging my geography teacher about it: “So why did it rain for 40 minutes yesterday afternoon… was it a cold front or just a convection shower?” He’d study me with a bemused expression that said “yes, I know I gave a lesson on cloud identification yesterday but how the hell am I supposed to know?”, before giving me an answer in a tone of voice that suggested he was guessing.

I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather and hold in my memory particular freak weather moments from years ago.

I think an interest in clouds and meteorology (“I am a meteorologist not a weather man!” – sorry, Larry David reference there) adds something to the walks. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed. Here are some cloud photos from down the years from the walks and from south-east London.

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Rain shafts and redwings

I managed to squeeze in three walks between Friday and Sunday – Hosey CommonKnole Park and Underriver – and dropped by at Bough Beech. The weather was mostly grey on the first two days but a quick trip over to One Tree Hill late in the day on Saturday put us into pole position for enjoying a sliver of gold that marked the setting sun and some curious localised showers sweeping across the Weald, producing several rain shafts. Friday had burst into colour late on too, with a glorious rainbow at Bough Beech and ochre clouds layered above that sliver of gold and orange.

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However, Sunday proved the best day of all with blue skies punctuated by dense cumulus once again depositing rain in sheets for 30 seconds at a time leaving the sunlit landscape shimmering. Very unusual weather. I met up with birdwatching guru Dave and walked on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver. He was in top form, picking up the calls of siskin, little owl, bullfinch and treecreeper in between explaining why West Ham were going to have a decent season (for them). We marvelled at the ‘dancing’ beech trees on the sunken path leading up the escarpment.

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Later on, as the day turned red and mauve, we watched in awe as large flocks of redwings and fieldfares tracked west, arriving from Scandinavia or perhaps eastern Europe, no doubt heading for berry-laden hedgerows somewhere in the country. I think I’m getting into this birding lark but I think I’ll need expert guidance for some time yet.

But seeing those flocks on the move was something I felt privileged to witness – the kind of sight we can all see if we happen to look up at the right moment. But when you realise the significance and epic scale of these migratory movements you start to appreciate why some people wander around with binoculars and notebooks.

Where are these walks exactly?

Where are these walks exactly?

Here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map to show you where the walks are. 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… Walks are needed from Farningham, Kemsing, between Ide Hill and Sevenoaks and perhaps from Trossley country park. The only problem with these latter places is that they aren’t great for public transport. We’ll see – it’d be nice to get to 30 walks.

I think that’s summer over with

I think that’s summer over with

There’s no point pretending. It’s definitely autumn. It might even be winter. I’m not sure. But it’s not summer anymore. And it’s getting so dark so quickly after 6.30pm. I mean I’ve been through all this before – quite a lot actually – but this year it’s caught me out. The light just seems to go. There’s none of this ‘oh look there goes the sun but we can carry on getting jiggy with it’ malarky now. A nagging cold wind rubs salt in the wounds. Thoughts of a wander in the backyard to look at the tomato plants and their failed crop with a glass of sauvignon in hand seem so eccentric as to impinge on insanity.

Still, there are things worth getting out to see. Migrating birds for example. I was fortunate to be asked to write this piece on the subject for the Guardian last week. I learnt a lot writing it, especially from talking to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Paul Stancliffe; an expert who’s happy to talk to a layman and amaze them with stories and observations. It also gave me the opportunity to pick North Downs and Beyond blogger Steve Gale’s brains and discuss matters with the mysterious Dave of these pages. Who knew that until the 19th century many people believed swallows hibernated in mud in ponds during winter and that we only found proof of their migration in 1912? Well, I didn’t.

Meanwhile, there’s a pandemic going on. The infection rate is rising after a lull in which many of us had kidded ourselves into thinking it was kind of over. Of course it wasn’t. Without a vaccine it can’t be. But treatment of the disease is better now and most people ‘get’ social distancing and modified behaviour so I can’t believe we’re all for the chop quite yet. I don’t want to go on about politics here, so I won’t – there are enough opinions floating around. Let’s just say I’m not quite sure the virus outbreak has been handled too well and, on an unrelated matter, I don’t want Kent to be turned into a lorry or car park.

Anyway, walks are good! Very good for thinking, watching and reflecting and saying ‘hi’ to strangers. I recommend walks!

It might be an idea on walks to take hand sanitiser with you and use it after touching stiles and gates.

The picture above is of geese flying east of Shoreham at the end of August 2019 at the end of one of that year’s last hot days.

 

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Another new route. Walk 26, Underriver and Budds, cobbles together the optional scenic extension to Walk 6 with the Wilmot to Budds path of Walk 7. It’s a brilliant walk with a superb hedgerow-lined path currently full of berries, a sunken trail with amazing trees growing out of its embankment, atmospheric oasthouses and far-flung views of the Weald. The woods at One Tree Hill are always a pleasure to walk in, especially the ‘tropical’-feeling bit east of Rooks Hill lane and there are myriad springs and little streams that trickle out of the sandstone ridge at various points – mostly around where the farms are, their positioning being no accident. It’s a two-hour round-trip hike starting and finishing at Underriver village.

For those who do these walks with younger children, I wonder if any of them find the appearance of oasthouses a bit disturbing; I certainly used to when I was small. I still find them fascinating and this walk takes you close to some of the best.

‘Walking’ beech trees on the sunken path near Underriver

The only blot on the landscape is the temporary (we hope) closure of the White Rock Inn, one of the nicest pubs on these walks.

The farms encountered have attractive old houses attached and pasture for horses, sheep and cattle, plus a few alpacas. However, around Budds, the fields are for cereals and can be quite barren depending on time of year. They lack wildlife/wildflower margins too – a slight blemish on what is a tremendous afternoon’s stroll. Check out the interractive map below and, as ever, on the walk’s page there are links to GPX (real time location) maps – including a nice short cut variation too.

 

At last, a sunny weekend

At last, a sunny weekend

The weekend promises to dry and fairly sunny. This is highly novel and should not be ignored. I recommend a walk. For the mud averse I’d suggest a Lullingstone or Knole Park expedition. I regretfully add that One Tree Hill and Hever are quagmire-atic at present. Overtrousers, perhaps full body armour, would be required, along with thigh-length boots, which I doubt many Kent walkers possess. The other walks should be passable if distinctly squelchy.

I have been walking in Suffolk today, in search of pastures new. And yes, the pastures are very large there. More of that later. In the meantime here are some pictures of sunny scenes in late autumn on Kent walks … scenes that many of us have almost forgotten ever happened.

Why be the Fall guy?

When autumn gets it right these walks can be rather picturesque. Golden light, a fresh breeze, vibrant colours under a cobalt sky. And a pint of Harvey’s in the pub. But such days have been scarce for most of October and November I think we can agree. Autumn is great for cliches too (golden light, vibrant colours), which I am too readily resorting to. So I’ll shut up.

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Inspiring words from Bill Bryson

Inspiring words from Bill Bryson

I love how Bill Bryson always homes in on the essentials: he’s a writer who’s really connected to what’s best about people and our environment and he doesn’t bother too much with noise. These are troubling times in the UK, certainly relative to the past 25 years or so. But here’s Bill, helpfully retweeted by broadcaster John Simpson:

This is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in the view.

I read that and immediately felt better about the currency crashing, the divisions stoked up by the B word, the erratic leadership of the current prime minister, the inadequacy of the official opposition, the possibility of a national crisis. It’s a great quote and I like to think it kind of sums up why I put this website together. And here’s a picture from a recent stroll at Knole Park of nothing much – just late afternoon autumnal light. (Top picture is of Knole House, of course, catching the rays as it does so beautifully at this time of year.)