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.
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.
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.
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.
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 one. Don’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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