Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Windy, cold, grey, damp. Yep, this May is a shocker. We needed the rain yada yada (or yabba yabba, take your pick). I won’t go on leisure cycles in this kind of weather, but walking is still a possibility if the wind drops. I know, it’s hard to believe I’m talking like this – it’s May in south east England! My walking activities do mean I have some accurate memories of weather and there were a couple of days not dissimilar to this last May. But only a couple. Anyway, for once I had time last weekend to devise an epic by joining up group of routes. Some old friends were joining me from west London; so we wanted to stretch our legs and truly earn that pint at the end. So we took on the Shoreham eastern valleys walk joined it up with a section of the Fackenden Down route then slipped into Shoreham circular mk2 before segueing smoothly into half of Shoreham mk1, taking in the Meenfield wood bluebells.

Meenfield wood bluebells

On the map it looked to be 8.5 to 9 miles but we reckoned it was about 11.5 miles with our inability to walk straight and a diversion to see the Percy Pilcher memorial. Back in the village the choice was between the Crown, the King’s Head or the Mount Vineyard for the aprés. We settled on the vineyard for its proximity to the station, though both the pubs were passed with regret. In the manner of a walk in the Highlands or west Wales we encountered a number of different weather conditions – beginning with a colourful combination of shades of grey at different levels punctuated by shards of blue sky and varying degrees of sun.

Percy Pilcher memorial

What with the multitude of greens and yellow tones in the woods and fields the effect was dazzling at times. But as we left Magpie Bottom a period of nimbo stratus with heavy rain fell upon us and we emerged at the top of Fackenden Down with that great view shrouded in mist and ragged low cloud. But by the time we’d left the hillside after sheltering we were in bright sunshine and what felt like a 10C rise in temperature. Finally, at the vineyard, we caught the edge of a thunderstorm somewhere around London bringing further rain. In the sunny bits buzzards soared, yellowhammers posed on the tops of hedgerows – with blackcaps, robins and whitethroats chirping away within – and Spitfires from Biggin Hill growled overhead. All part of the Kent wonderland.

Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

OK, for those going out this weekend expecting swathes of bluebells, you may be disappointed. They are late this year – particularly at One Tree Hill and Ide Hill, but not far off full bloom in Meenfield Wood. Probably a few too many cold nights of late has set them back. Next weekend will definitely be better. But there are other flowers to enjoy. Cuckooflower clumps are great at this time of year and, like red campion, wood anenomes and celandine, get better the more you notice them. Primroses form eyecatching patches too, and soon cowslips will adorn the grassy slopes of the North Downs (with orchids and marjoram/oregano to follow). These all brightened up my walk from One Tree Hill to Ightham Mote then back up the hidden valley with the little stream yesterday (pictured below). Below are some recommendations of good places to see bluebells.

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If you’re staying local, Beckenham Place Park has some good patches (or will have), although get ready to exercise emergency social distancing manoeuvres as oblivious joggers jag around, their ears full of choons. Oxleas Woods off Shooters Hill is another good local spot and I daresay Sydenham Hill Woods too. After that I think we’re talking Petts Wood and the adjoining Hawkwood and Little Heath Wood and Selsdon Wood south-west of Croydon. Of course, there are brilliant bluebells at Downe, Meenfield Wood, Ide Hill, One Tree Hill, Hosey Common and in woods east of Shoreham on this website’s walks, and the cobalt carpet reigns supreme in woods near Westerham and around Hever and Edenbridge.

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Bluebells, Scords wood, Ide Hill walk, April 2017

Anyway, here are some bluebell factoids gleaned from an excellent article with far more detail called Bloomageddon: seven clever ways bluebells win the woodland turf war at The Conversation website.

  • They are uniquely adapted to suited the multispecies ancient woodlands of the UK
  • Low temperatures trigger their growth (but might delay their blooming if in April). Bluebell seeds germinate when the temperature drops below 10°C.
  • Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight into fructose allowing them to photosynthesise at low temperatures.
  • They are supreme competitors with other plants, allowing them to carpet woodland floors. But they get help in the form of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic fungi.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world.

But please be careful never to tread on any; it takes bluebells years to recover from foot damage. Digging them up – surely no one visiting this site would consider such a thing – is illegal, and please don’t let dogs trample them either – keep them on the lead.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Meenfield Wood bluebells, near Shoreham, Kent

Into the cold woods

Into the cold woods

It’s nearly bluebell time, probably a week to 10 days before that magical woodland period. The cold dry windy weather has certainly slowed down things. A quick afternoon walk on the Ide Hill route today revealed just a few primroses, with even the azaleas of Emmett’s Garden (pay if you want to wander the gardens off the public footpath) looking pretty discouraged. The view off over the Weald appeared grey and blurred – not the usual colourful Garden of England tapestry. I’ve been asked by a couple of people to mention that in view of recent reports of ‘bluebell thieves’ in Norfolk, it’s illegal to dig up wildflowers. As well as causing lasting damage to the environment, the transported flowers are unlikely to thrive in gardens because they are adapted to a different, long-established habitat and conditions. Trampling the flowers is pretty damaging too… I’d certainly hope people will stay to the main paths and keep dogs on the lead when going through areas where there area loads of wildflowers. Anyway, things were still pretty bleak out there from the flower point of view on today’s walk … we had to look quite hard to find violets, dead-nettle, alkinet and wood anenomes even. But birdlife has really picked up; our walk revealed treecreepers and nuthatches, and a possible brambling – all firsts for me this year – plus an enormous buzzard swooping low over pheasants. Scord’s Wood was as superb as ever – a verdant ancient woodland with loads of moss and lichen, coppiced trees with flitting birds and mysterious rustles.

Best bluebell walks in north-west Kent 2019

May 4: fading fast (Read 2020 bluebell piece here)

Just last weekend the bluebells were superb at Ide Hill, Meenfield Wood and Downe Bank but, while the odd patch lingers on spectacularly, time is already running out on the bluebell season. They peaked for only a short period this year it seems. I won’t claim any inside knowledge of why – maybe the lack of rain until the last day or so. But they are definitely already in obvious decline. Oh well … till next year then.

Last bluebells, Downe

Last bluebells, Downe. May 4, 2019

April 18: beginning to peak

One of the most magical times of the year is when the woodland floor turns blue. From this weekend (April 19) onwards there should be a profusion of bluebells until the second week of May, so it will be worth heading for the woods. The best bluebell displays on the walks here are Ide Hill, One Tree Hill (walk 6 and 7), Polhill Bank/Meenfield Woods at Shoreham (walk 18), Hever, Petts Wood and Chislehurst, Westerham, Fackenden Down and Romney Street (19), and Downe (but only if you do the diversion down into the woods at Point 3 and continue to Berry’s Hill – marked on the map and the pdf). Eynsford/Lullingstone and Chiddingstone/Penshurst probably aren’t the best bluebell walks, although on the latter there are rich concentrations at one or two points.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Early bluebells at Meenfield Wood, near Shoreham, Kent. 2019, April 13. © Adam McCulloch

In many of the woods you’ll be walking with the pervasive aroma of wild garlic (which you can use to make pesto sauce etc) and alongside plenty of cheeky little wild flowers – primroses, wood anemone, common dog violet, arum, red campion, wood-sorrel (oxalis), yellow archangel and orchids (Downe Bank, Lullingstone up from the visitors’ centre, Bough Beech’s Bore Place meadows particularly good for the latter). A highlight not to be missed is the profusion of daffodils at Ightam Mote (One Tree Hill walks) where you should also see buzzards wheeling and soaring in the thermals and yellowy/greeny brimstone butterflies floating around clearings and copses. Emmett Garden’s tulip ‘plantation’ on the Ide Hill walk is also wonderful. Look out for migrant bird species arriving, particularly the following warblers: chiffchaffs newly arrived from southern Europe and north Africa can be heard in all the woodland on these walks, and it’s worth learning and listening for the song of blackcaps and common and lesser whitethroats. The latter two, which arrive from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa, migrate at night and are a favourite of the birdwatching fraternity.

That reminds me, the One Tree Hill routes are very good for butterflies – where the path goes through the lee of the Greensand Ridge amid boulders and rich vegetation the insect world gets particularly busy and peacocks, orange-tips and brimstones proliferate on a bright day. This coming weekend (April 20), forecast to be warm, should be a good time to see them.

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Easter Sunday silence

A very memorable walk on Easter Sunday. It was after 6pm when we set off for Downe, having waved friends off. We took the normal route, veering off at point 3 to see the bluebells. There was an extraordinary silence. No Heathrow or Gatwick aircraft in the stack and precious little activity at Biggin Hill; just one executive jet took off in the course of the hour.

For some reason there was no traffic at all, although the pubs in the village were reasonably busy. I don’t think I’ve ever walked in this corner of the world with so little background sound, just birdsong. On that subject we distinctly heard the call of stonechats at point 5-6 from nearby undergrowth (a sound like two stones being knocked together). This was odd because stonechats are usually a bird of heathland. Anyway, a lovely sunset added to the tranquil, timeless scene and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

A special stroll.

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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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Emmetts Garden and the Ide Hill walk colours

I love to do this walk several times over the spring, catching the various colours as they flare up and die down at Emmetts and in the woods and fields. The bluebell clouds are starting to fade now; by next weekend they’ll be well past their best (although the wild garlic is still vibrant), but soon the foxglove ‘forests’ of the Ide Hill/Toys Hill valley will spire up to replace them. I wonder if the bluebells have been a bit short-lived this year because of the cold, dry weather, which followed a very warm early spring. Meanwhile, the browns of early spring have been replaced by shades of vivid green. Emmetts of course is always a kaleidoscope of colour and right now is peak azalea. And those tulips… weird and so photogenic. This year’s black, red and white scheme is the best I’ve seen – check out the pictures below. Here are a few pix from the past two years in Emmetts and on the Ide Hill walk.

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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.

Bluebells around Shoreham, Ide Hill, Downe, Chislehurst, Kent

It’s that astonishing time of year when woods turn blue. I think from Easter to early May the bluebells will be great – there are some patches already in full bloom. The best of my walks for bluebells are Ide Hill and One Tree Hill (see below). Read 2020 bluebell piece here

Bluebells on the Ide Hill walk, April 25, 2015

Bluebells on the Ide Hill walk

Here are the best places on my walks:

  • Shoreham circular: take the high path through Meenfield woods, the one that goes along the top of the hill. It’s marked on my digital map with a blue line. It just means continuing to the top of the hill after point 7 and turning right (north) at the top rather than two-thirds of the way up. The parallel paths meet later, by Shacklands Rd. There are not many bluebells on the regular route, so as I say, take the high Meenfield woods path.
  • Ide Hill: the best walk for continuous bluebells. There are great bluebells straightaway once you enter the Ide Hill NT woods behind the church, and even better in Scords wood just below Emmetts Garden. (Picture.) Amazing bluebells at Emmetts of course, but it’s best to pay the fee (or at least buy some cake!) if you linger in the gardens.
  • One Tree Hill walks: Good bluebells throughout these NT woods and also at the top of Wilmots Hill (on the ‘figure of eight‘ walk). Some lovely pockets of mixed bluebells and wild garlic (picture) off to the side of the path as you near Ightam Mote too (including a kind of garlic ‘jungle’ at one point). Some in the woodland between Shipbourne and Underriver too.
  • Downe: like the Shoreham circular you just have to make a small diversion to get the best bluebells, which are to be found in the hillside woods between Downe and Cudham (picture). Just turn left instead of right at point 3 and walk down to the woods. The hillside is called Downe Bank – a favourite place of study for Charles Darwin and John Lubbock (these great scientists’ names still make infuse this area with greatness and give it a special atmosphere). There aren’t many bluebells to be seen without the diversion.
  • There are good stretches of the blue stuff on the Hever walk, but perhaps less so on the Chiddingstone walk except in the woods above the river Eden (picture) on the return leg of the walk. There are excellent areas of the flowers on the Chislehurst/Petts Wood walk in the lower part of the wood, amid the chestnut groves just east of point 7 close to the railway tracks, stretching north towards the central fields. Knole Park is not great for bluebells compared with the other walks – but then One Tree Hill is just round the corner to sate your blues. However, back to Shoreham, the two Romney St/Shoreham eastern valley walks (5 and 14) have fantastic patches of bluebells in most of the woods the paths pass through.

Wild flowers after the bluebells

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So that’s it for this year’s bluebells but buttercups, cow parsley and hawthorn are making for some fairly spectacular viewing, I noticed on the Downe Circular walk today. The buttercups in the meadows next to Down House are superb right now, as are the hawthorns forming the hedges of the three fields on the second half of the walk. A strangely murky day which eventually turned into a downpour. Quite fun really.