The North Sea comes to the North Downs

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, Kent

Chevening church, St Botolph’s © Adam McCulloch

Chevening

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.

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Wakey wakey woodland

The countryside has truly woken up. I saw my first peacock butterfly of the year at Ide Hill on Sunday (the more observant among you will be wondering what took me so long I’m sure, they’ve been around for a couple of weeks now) although oddly I haven’t seen a brimstone yet. Maybe I’m just walking along, daydreaming, not really taking stuff in. Anyway, I have noticed the woods developing a healthy green sheen, patches of primroses, and even the odd impatient bluebell bursting into flower. In Scord’s Wood, below Emmetts Garden, I came across clusters of cardamine pratensis – cuckoo flower, a somewhat overlooked spring flower (it’s pretty but not vividly colourful). My camera ran out of juice though, so no pix.

Birdsong has gone up several notches, with chiff chaffs arriving from African and great tits getting particularly busy, blackbirds clearing their throats and robins getting very territorial about everything. Out running recently I surprised a couple of fieldfare picking out worms at Beckenham Cricket Club, no doubt soon to head east to their breeding grounds in continental Europe and further afield. They might have been mistle thrushes, when I come to think of it. Up close very beautiful.

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Super Sunday for walks

With such gentle southern breezes up from Spain and a cobalt February sky we joined hundreds of others in getting out into the nearby Kent countryside today. Once again we chose the Shoreham Fackenden Down route, but this time in reverse: up the steps in the ancient Dunstall woods, across the muddy eponymous farm and down into the steep Austin Lodge valley then the climb to Romney Street. By the time we reached superb Magpie Bottom low clouds had drifted in and a strange quiet had descended, rendering that solitary place strangely eerie. Great! Our only notable bird sightings were both in the fallow fields at Romney Street: a female kestrel hunting exactly where we’d seen the short eared owl a few weeks ago and a huge buzzard lazily enjoying the mild weather. We’d expected to see more. Among the pictures, note the trees growing out of the obvious bomb crater.

Thanks to those who donated to the site today.

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A brilliant wildlife blog from further west…

I’m often accused of being Kentist or Kentcentric. Maybe north-west-kentcentric. So in the interests of clearing my parochial name, I recommend this magnificent blog on local flora and fauna a bit further west along the North Downs. It’s called ND&B the author of which, Steve Gale, has dedicated years to observing what goes on in his ‘uber-patch’ in north-east Surrey and has racked up an astonishing list of species. On a sombre note, however, he is somewhat downcast about the future of wildlife and has documented a steep decline in bird, plant and invertebrate numbers over recent years. Gale’s writing and photography is of the highest order, and his work is an education for anyone interested in life outside.

No red October – yet. And a giant kestrel

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…

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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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Beckenham Place Park – great for a local stroll

Sadly for us south-east London golfers the 18-hole Beckenham course – once the UK’s busiest – has gone; happily for us south-east London walkers the space now opened up is superb! There are expansive grass areas, a mildly hilly terrain, footpaths through woods adorned with bluebells just now, plus excellent birdwatching and a no-nonsense cafe in the striking, though decaying, 18th-century mansion (where there are also yoga classes and an artist’s studio). If you can’t make it out to the countryside or to Chislehurst/Petts Wood, the park is a great place to get some exercise locally: it’s possible to do a three-mile walk within and around it.

Beckenham Place Park mansion

Beckenham Place Park mansion

Access

You can enter it from opposite Ravensbourne Station or from several points on Beckenham Hill Rd and from Westgate Rd. If you get off the train at Beckenham Junction or New Beckenham, just walk up to Foxgrove Rd and take the lane off to the left with rather grandiose houses on it called Beckenham Place Park. It’s also a short walk from Beckenham Hill station on the Thameslink (like Ravensbourne).

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Development

There are no plans to build on the park yet thankfully – but maximum vigilance is urged on that score. The only development at present will be flood defences (the Ravensbourne, Quaggy, Pool and Honor Oak rivers have been known to flood houses in the past), so bore holes and the creation of a water meadow kind of thing are on the cards. There has also been a lot of tree planting (native species).
The Friends of Beckenham Place Park website provides more details on events, development plans and amenities in the park. It’s possible to do a good urban walk linking Beckenham Place with the excellent Kelsey Park and South Norwood Country Park without too much pavement stomping. Oh, and there are kingfishers regularly seen on the Ravensbourne river.