Summer is here; time for Pluto

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Continuing the theme of overlooked walks at Kent Walks Near London, the Polhill Pluto route yesterday proved the perfect choice on a bright, breezy summer’s day. There were plentiful orchids in the Andrews Wood-Meenfield Wood gap and fantastic ox-eye daisies, scabious and poppies in the fields below Polhill. It’s a great walk to do if you are a fan of the yellowhammer – the colourful, chirpy bunting (we’re talking about a bird by the way!) that adorns hedgerows in these parts and is particularly common for some reason between Shoreham and Otford. It’s repetitive and unworldy song is one of my favourites – it’s commonly described as sounding like ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ because of its rhythms but to me it’s simply the sound of summer. Listen out for it on the Darent Valley floor; around Sepham Farm it’s nearly always heard, and sometimes present in the lower parts of the Fackenden and Eastern Valleys route (such as around the Percy Pilcher memorial). The Pluto route (so called because you pass the final ‘planet’ on the Otford solar system scale model) can be combined with the Shoreham circular and even the Fackenden, Otford and Eastern Valley routes for a walk of up to 11 miles or so as all these routes intersect, or almost intersect, at various points. For some reason, I only think of this stroll as a summer walk – not entirely rationally, but it just feels right on a warm day.

Moody blues on the way out

Moody blues on the way out

The bluebells have faded a little earlier than usual this year. It seemed to me on the Ide Hill walk today that the south-facing slopes may be drier than normal for spring, which has affected bluebells’ longevity while those in more sheltered parts of the woods were still full of colour. There’s certainly been a marked lack of rain this year – last month just 18mm fell in north-west Kent, about one-third of the usual April total.

In Meenfield woods, on the Shoreham and Polhill walks, the bluebells, while fading, were still hanging on last weekend – perhaps those woods have retained a little more moisture. I’m no expert. Anyway, instead of bluebells, look out now for wild garlic (or ransoms) growing in profusion in woods on Kent Walks near London. Their brilliant white/cream flowers (pictured above at Rook’s Hill on the One Tree Hill walk) are a sight for sore eyes where there are damp woods and subterranean water close to the surface. The Ide Hill walk is quite unusual for KWNL in having plenty of gorse (near the walk’s start) which is looking brilliant in the spring sunshine, too.

As for birds, things still seem a little quiet with few swallows, martins and swifts making it to the region so far, but I was delighted to see my first whitethroat of the year in one of the many superb country lane hedgerows between Shoreham and Well Hill, a great bird to watch for when on a country cycle. (Pictured in slideshow: whitethroat, Darent Valley view, faded bluebells, Ide Hill view, Scord’s wood, wild garlic in Scord’s wood, azalea in Emmett’s and faded bluebells of Meenfield Wood).

Tiny lanes, dry feet

Tiny lanes, dry feet

The mud on these walks is still in the mild-moderate category. Wellies useful but not essential… mostly. But if things get really boggy, which they are bound to do by midwinter, it’s easily possible to devise routes that take in tiny wandering lanes rather than swampy paths – of which there are more than few in these parts. Many such lanes were once paths… others service dispersed houses around villages and become footpaths or bridlepaths. It would be difficult to devise a proper circular walk of decent length using only these trackways – although I intend to give it a shot over the coming months. Two such lanes which intersect with a walk at KWNL are at Underriver. Take a look at the map; you’ll see two lanes roughly north to south acting as shortcut links between points 4, 5 and 8. These are lovely to explore, especially at the moment with the unfurling of the autumn wardrobe. They also intersect with footpaths so you can devise your own bespoke routes. With bird expert Dave I walked them yesterday, stopping often to admire berries and views, and to scan for les oiseaux. We didn’t see a lot (bird numbers have been in decline for years): a few siskins, a gorgeous flock of bullfinches flitting the hedgerows, and newly arrived redwings in threes and fours was about it. Oh, and a fantastic female kestrel which eyed us from a small scarlet tree close to the (excellent) White Rock Inn. We managed about 3.5 miles, half on tarmac, before resuming the Underriver route at point 4, but doing it anticlockwise. A pint of Harvey’s at the aforementioned pub in the autumnal twilight was a splendid bookend to a most satisfactory KWNL afternoon.

Sweet meadows

Sweet meadows

The word ‘meadow’ is synonymous with summer and June and July are the very best months to enjoy them. There are so many brilliant summer meadows on these walks now alive with oxeye daisies, orchids, vetch, poppies, buttercups, and lush grasses rippling in the breeze. They are alive with butterflies and other insects while swallows swoop above them forming brief gaggles before separating to make single passes. High above, buzzards are often seen soaring while spectacular red kites – now much common in Kent than at any time in the modern era – float into view closer to the ground. Of course there are issues, swallow and martin numbers are much lower than back in the day and there ought to be more butterflies and bees. Still, meadows are hubs for wildlife and we are lucky the North Downs, Weald and Greensand Ridge areas possess so many.

Meadow bordering Scord wood on the Ide Hill walk, June 2021. Sheep have munched this one a fair bit, and that in the lead photo, but there are still plenty of wildflowers and bees
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

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

So from Wednesday it’s once again OK to drive into the countryside for a walk, but we are being urged to avoid using public transport to keep it safe for key workers. For the many without cars the walks will remain inaccessible but in the greater scheme of things, against the tragic current backdrop of lives and livelihoods lost, it’s not such a huge disaster. But it should be remembered that days spent out in the woods, fields and paths are hugely beneficial for mental health, I’d suggest in ways that the local park just can’t match. We also have to hope that the roads – and air – don’t become increasingly clogged as people jump in their vehicles for all purposes. Social distancing will need to be maintained, of course, and also take care around touching gates and fence posts – it would be a good idea to take wipes or hand sanitiser with you.

Speedwell.

Learning birdsong and wildflowers

This spring’s bluebells will mostly be over but there will be plenty of other spring delights to witness. Cowslips, vetch, bugle, stitchwort, speedwell and buttercups are all flowering and soon orchids will push their way through grassy fringes and meadows along with ox-eye daisies. Warblers have arrived from Africa and are burbling, chiff-chaffing, and whistling away unseen in the woods and hedges. Precious few swallows, martins and swifts are around so far, I hear – a worry perhaps. I’m always astounded at the volume generated by tiny wrens at this time of year, so definitely worth listening out for them. A great bird to see is the spotted flycatcher. They have been seen on many walks on this site, most recently in Knole Park, not by me, but by experts. They disappear back to tropical Africa in August having only arrived this month so seeing one is a relatively big deal.

A really good website for learning birdsongs is this oneDon’t be fazed by the huge number of species to learn. Just learn the ones most relevant – for example, wood warblers aren’t present (much) in Kent woodlands but willow warblers are more numerous. Try to learn the basics – say, robin, blackbird, wren, great tit, goldfinch and chaffinch – and soon you’ll be adding others. Don’t be too frustrated if you can’t see the bird you can hear: it’s often incredibly difficult with the trees in full leaf, and many of us find it hard to exactly pinpoint where the bird song is coming from, not only in terms of direction but in terms of distance. Kent walks near London birdwatching correspondent Dave, of course, is a master of not only identifying song but working out where the sound is emanating from him – remarkable talent built on experience gleaned when a nipper no doubt.

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Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Ever been somewhere on your doorstep that you’d heard about but not hitherto bothered with, then been blown away by it? So after several decades of never going there I headed the way of Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. I’d thought it was just a nondescript lake, a couple of bird hides and a few twitchery types in unfashionable knitwear dotted around. Instead, it was a veritable waterworld with one very large lake, four medium-sized ones, lots of bird hides, a large visitor centre, the River Darent, islands, ponds galore, reedbeds, loads of paths to explore and rich damp woodland of alder, birch and so on. I immediately saw lapwing, egret, pochard and curiously large number of long-tail tits. All in all, a more satisfying place to visit than Bough Beech, perhaps. When spring gets going it will be a real treat.

East Lake, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve

I shall return there; it’s a surprising place, rewilded after years of use as sand and gravel pits, and offers views of the Darent Valley from a perspective I hadn’t really seen before. There was a strange atmosphere though… the coronavirus suddenly felt as if it had got exponentially more serious on Saturday. I dropped by the local mega-Sainsbury’s on the way back; you could tell that the UK was trying to decide what kind of country it was – greedy and panicky, or stoic and rational. I think it’s still undecided.

 

Itchy feet and wings

Itchy feet and wings

It’s the time of year when birdwatchers start getting itchy feet… the autumn migration is revving up. Swifts, swallows and martins will be heading back to Africa along with yellow wagtails, chiffchaffs and the like. Some birds travel, some stay. Some species are split between resident populations and visitors; even blackbirds that hop on your lawn can be either from your hedge, or Belorussia. Soon redwing and fieldfare will begin to arrive from the east, maybe, later, waxwing too. I find it all a bit confusing to be honest and hard to remember the whys and wherefores. My friends Dave and Steve (check out the extraordinary North Downs and Beyond blog) are supremely accomplished in this area and languidly reel off reports such as ‘Box Hill 7am: 40 sand martins, 13 flycatchers, a honey buzzard, two cuckoos, 12 common buzzards and a female goshawk.’ Apparently, these birds, rarely seen by the layman, are all there just waiting to be spotted if you bother to wait and look.

Migrating birds can crop up anywhere but some maintain there are certain routes that are followed more than others. River valleys cutting through the downs make sense as a visual guide to birds but also as a way of keeping out of low cloud. You might imagine a warbler saying to another… you just head down the Darent Valley, then when you get past Fackenden Down chuck a left and you’ll eventually hit the Medway. When that gets wide you hit the Thames then spin right and soon you’ll be in Belgium, God’s own. So my tip for birds on the wing would be Shoreham, Lullingstone, Polhill and Fackenden walks. The Darent is, like the Mole and Wey further west in Surrey, a fine cut through.

This weekend will be a glorious opportunity to walk and get the binoculars out. The weather looks great, although the cricket and football’s on…

I’m not great at observing birds although I’m always seeing kingfishers out of the corner of my eye when near water. However, I did see a red kite last week on the chalk escarpment south of Cudham on my regular cycle route. It glided right over me at a height of no more than 50 feet. A sight like is not something you can forget easily.

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

Here’s a longer Downe route to follow; double the length of the existing Downe walk at 4.2 miles, so a pleasant 90-minute walk. See, download pdf or use GPX track from this page

It can be viewed on the GPSies site where a GPX track is available for you to download and follow on your smartphone (to get your real-time location tap the bottom-most button on the left of the screen).

The route starts and finishes at the same locations as the original Downe walk. The extension misses out on the lovely fields by Charles Darwin’s garden (although they are an easy detour away) and the Sandwalk but gains the superb ancient woods of Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw Woods with its superb April bluebells then orchids and gentians.

Last bluebells, Downe

Ancient woods: Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw

Yesterday the trees were rich with the calls of song thrush, chaffinch and wrens (so loud… and weird!). A sharp thundery looking storm slipped by to the south, on its way to Tonbridge and Sevenoaks (pictured). After the woods the walk joins the valley on the eastern border of the historic Biggin Hill airfield. Hedgerows, giant beeches and wild meadows make this a really rich looking habitat for flora and fauna; yesterday I saw nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and a wonderful large tortoiseshell butterfly. Full description of walk here, but the GPX track should get you round easily enough. 

Next walk to be added to this site: Knockholt Pound/Chevening circular. By end of June.

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