South-east London’s first April weekend was a dullard; very disappointing at a time of year when colour is returning to parks, gardens and countryside. A breeze from the North Sea – not a particularly cold one – brought thick stratus, drizzly outbreaks and, on Saturday, a gloom that made it hard to distinguish 3pm from 7pm. Headlights were on, people hurried past, huddled, on the pavements. On the North Downs escarpment the cloud barely scraped over the hills and the drizzle intensified; but there was a snug softness in the air and sudden increases in brightness as the sun attempted to break through before being smothered by the North Sea murk once again.
Chevening church, St Botolph’s © Adam McCulloch
Near Chevening, beneath the scarp, on a murky day in spring © Adam McCulloch
Sunday was marginally better, but the Spitfires and light aircraft of Biggin Hill were still well and truly grounded – so none of the flybys accompanied by the growl of piston aero engines you usually get in these parts. We did two walks at Knockholt Pound, taking in Chevening hamlet: one to the west that loops back on to the North Downs Way via Sundridge Hill; the other to the east, heading down by Star Hill Lane then swinging right past messy farmyards to Chevening’s ancient St Botolph’s Church. The first bluebells are out and other wildflowers punctuated the grey proceedings along with myriad ultra-busy birds. A bullfinch was spotted, a buzzard (always a buzzard or two at Chevening) and more pheasants than I’ve ever seen.
I may well add the combined walk to this site next week, but I’m not totally satisfied with it; some good views and points of interest but there’s one bit where there’s too many farm tracks and rubbish heaps and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to walk there. Also, the woods seem a bit too managed – logging, and probably something to do with all the pheasants.
A more subdued airshow than last year’s fast jet bonanza but with some wonderful flying. During our weekly Downe-Knockholt-Pilgrims Way cycle we enjoyed the sight and sound of Spitfires, Blenheim, Sea Fury and Hurricanes, and arrived at the airfield via Tatsfield just in time for the Red Arrows, the Flying Fortress and the fantastic Spitfire solo aerobatic display flown by Dan Griffiths. This brought to mind the great Spitfire displays of the legendary Ray Hanna in times past.
Red Arrows split
Red Arrows peel off to land
My favourite of all the wonderful meadows on these walks is the one adjacent to Darwin’s house at Downe. In August the grass is yellowing and long; it shines in the sun and bends, waving with the breeze. The thought of the scientist wandering these paths, perhaps with his wife and children, pondering some quirk of fauna and flora makes it all the more atmospheric.
After passing through this field, you cross Darwin’s ‘sandwalk’ and a hillside meadow with views across woods with no sign of human habitation in sight. Deer gather in this field at dusk and it’s a good place to spot birds in the surrounding beeches. For some reason green woodpeckers are often seen on the ground here. A tranquil, timeless place, but deceptive: there’s Biggin Hill airport (the former Battle of Britain base and now a major heritage and business aviation centre) just on the other side of the woods, and beyond that the eponymous town.
I’ve added a link to a GPX map now too, where you can check your progress on the Downe walk in real time – if you can get a network connection.
The Downe walk is very handy when you haven’t got much time (and you have a car) because it’s relatively close to SE London. It’s also great to do after/before visiting Downe House and has two good pubs, a lovely cake shop and a pretty good curry house. It’s also quite short (2.5 miles) – enough for a bit of exercise without risking pulling a hamstring. One thing I’ve noticed of late is that whoever farms the final field on re-entering the village keeps obliterating the footpath every time they harvest/plough. It’s quite annoying and thoughtless. There are enough walkers to re-establish the path but after it rains that final field won’t be a lot of fun. I can’t really suggest a diversion either. Anyway, with autumn colours it’s all looking rather nice … (pictured is the penultimate field, not the ploughed up one).
Autumn colours on the Downe walk
Walks this weekend (October 7-8) in Downe and Darent Valley revealed shades of green rather than oranges and reds. Is it because of the relative warmth at the moment? Just feels as if the countryside just wants to hang on to summer and its leaves at the moment. Look a bit closer though and there’s plenty of scarlet in the form of rose hips. Apparently they are very edible and full of vitamin C.
One of the largest kestrels I’ve ever seen is currently hunting around the north-western (Eynsford end) of Lullingstone – a spectacular, silent bird. It must have been a female – they are noticeably bigger than the males. But even so, a real whopper. And on the Downe cycle yesterday we came across a red kite floating and flopping low down. It had probably spotted a dead thing.
Meanwhile, the Biggin Hill two-seater Spitfire was incredibly busy on joy flights. During our two-hour cycle it made three sorties, heading out to east Kent over Toys Hill and back over Shoreham. A great sight and sound. Few other aircraft up, probably due to the stiff breeze. Some pictures from Lullingstone/Eynsford today…
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.