In the depths of springter

In the depths of springter

Of all the seasons-within-seasons, the end of winter, or springter, is one of the least enjoyable for walking I find. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy getting out into the countryside; it just means that when I do, I look around and think “meh” quite a bit. There’s still a lot to look out for in early March: old man’s beard (clematis vitalba), hazel and alder catkins, blossoming blackthorn, the vigorous growth of bluebell shoots, redwings and fieldfares flocking to migrate east, small birds breaking into song, the passage of gulls at high level etc, but the predominant colours are grey and brown, the air is still harsh and raw, mud clings to your boots and you slip on steep paths.

On recent walks to Hosey, Fackenden Down, Bough Beech and Downe, I found plenty to like but not much to inspire. This was partly because, apart from at Fackenden where there was an eyecatching sunset, the sky was unyielding and grey. Drama is needed in the sky at times like these, and springter often provides it as great air masses come into conflict, showering us with rain, hail, snow and sleet and producing fascinating aerial vistas. But at Hosey, all was monotone, at Bough Beech a thin Sunday drizzle dampened down any sense of vitality and at Downe, the morning brightness was consumed by a blanket of altostratus – the precursor to an approaching front – which had stealthily taken over the day as I was en route. But everyday is different if you look closely enough and the sun, a white ball behind the veil, did its best to make the stroll memorable.

  • View over Chartwell, Hosey walk
  • Bough Beech nature reserve
  • View over Bough Beech reservoir from the Bore Place chair
  • Downe walk under altostratus cloud
  • View from Fackenden Down

That terrific birder Dave accompanied me at Bough Beech, educating me as we went on the courtships of goldcrests, the behaviour of gadwall – a much underappreciated duck, he said – West Ham’s unsatisfactory season, the calls of marsh tit and treecreeper (I’d forgotten, again), and the distribution of local chaffinch populations. Although we made it to 39 species we saw no snipe, barn owl, brambling, kestrel or even buzzard as we hoped. The bird of prey fraternity was represented only by a solo red kite who lazily loitered above the low weald landscape for nearly half the walk, sometimes close, sometimes distant – an almost spectral presence so unfettered was it by the subdued, squelchy land below.

Thinking back to that red kite (which by the way would have been an extraordinarily rare sight in this part of the world until about 10 years ago) my springter moans and groans appear misplaced; these grey walks were brilliant.

Photographs by AMcCulloch

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The heat is on – escape from SE London?

The heat is on – escape from SE London?

For many of us, the coming heatwave will be a bit OTT what with not being particularly near a beach and with so little access to open-air pools in London – unless you are lucky enough to live close to one. There was a time when we were much better served with lidos but – rather like the railway cuts 60 years ago – short-term profit for a few was allowed to triumph over health and environmental benefits for the many in the early 1980s. The result is that the queue for places like Brockwell Park Lido is usually pretty mega in hot weather. Crap isn’t it? But there it is. Compare with Germany where every city seems to provide fantastic open water swimming spaces. Beckenham to the rescue. The pleasant lake there offers £5.80 tickets for an hour long swim and it looks as if slots are still available this week. (Pictured below: the woods on the Cudham and Downe walks offer respite from the heat)

Anyway, I’ve noticed my old blog post on Bough Beech reservoir getting a lot of hits. This is probably because people are dreaming of having a swim. Forget it. It’s not possible there I’m afraid and strictly forbidden – it’s a nature reserve and an important facility, so it’s definitely a no-go zone. I’ve noticed people taking to local rivers; the River Pool, the Darent, the Medway, the Eden and the Cray, in certain places. I wouldn’t recommend it: there are just too many issues, including pollution, dangerous substances in the water etc, and although I know a few places where I might take a dip it would be irresponsible to recommend them to others (he said, pompously). OK, OK, OK … cycle or walk from Tonbridge Castle to Penshurst Place on the Hayden country park path; there’s a lovely spot a mile short of Penshurst for a dip in the Medway. But you won’t be alone!

Summer evening sky, early July

The beach is the best option along with dedicated sites such as Leybourne Lakes just west of Maidstone, and the previously mentioned Beckenham Place Park. But other than swimming, woodland walks are great for getting exercise while staying cooler at this time of year: Petts Wood, the Meenfield woods routes near Shoreham, the Hever walk and Hosey Common are the best for shade, along with walks within Bromley borough (but not yet on this site) at High Elms and Hayes Common towards Downe. Yesterday on the superb, understated Cudham walk, just as we began to feel the power of the sunshine we would enter the cool woods and comfort levels shot up. Take water obvs. It was on 10 July that the Battle of Britain started, so a good day to hear the distant murmur of Merlin engines as the Biggin Hill Spitfires headed out on their joyriding sorties.

Farewell winter woods

Farewell winter woods

Before we start waxing lyrical about spring, wildflowers, birds and bees etc etc let’s salute the beauty of woods in late winter, particularly in March, which tends to be sunnier than February and reflects all kinds of subtle auburn nuances in the leafless trees. Around Bough Beech reservoir near Ide Hill the woods have been partially flooded by high water levels making for scenes somewhat reminiscent of the opening parts of that excellent film The Revenant. On the final Saturday in March the first bluebells, generally those in sunny spots in hedgerows, were showing, along with primroses, cuckooflower and so on but those trees around the north lake at Bough Beech in the late afternoon sun in their best end-of-winter finery stole the show. What a superb place that is to watch the sun go down. Pictured below: swamped woods at Bough Beech, silver birches in Stock Wood on the Hever walk, a stream though light woods at Bore Place, and a view back to the Greensand Ridge and Ide Hill across fallow fields from near Bough Beech on a perfectly serene late March day – winter’s last knockings. Finally, an iPhone pic of Shoreham and the Darent Valley on the Polhill/Shoreham Circular walk on Sunday 27 March… a rare day of low misty cloud and sunny patches.

Rain shafts and redwings

I managed to squeeze in three walks between Friday and Sunday – Hosey CommonKnole Park and Underriver – and dropped by at Bough Beech. The weather was mostly grey on the first two days but a quick trip over to One Tree Hill late in the day on Saturday put us into pole position for enjoying a sliver of gold that marked the setting sun and some curious localised showers sweeping across the Weald, producing several rain shafts. Friday had burst into colour late on too, with a glorious rainbow at Bough Beech and ochre clouds layered above that sliver of gold and orange.

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However, Sunday proved the best day of all with blue skies punctuated by dense cumulus once again depositing rain in sheets for 30 seconds at a time leaving the sunlit landscape shimmering. Very unusual weather. I met up with birdwatching guru Dave and walked on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver. He was in top form, picking up the calls of siskin, little owl, bullfinch and treecreeper in between explaining why West Ham were going to have a decent season (for them). We marvelled at the ‘dancing’ beech trees on the sunken path leading up the escarpment.

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Later on, as the day turned red and mauve, we watched in awe as large flocks of redwings and fieldfares tracked west, arriving from Scandinavia or perhaps eastern Europe, no doubt heading for berry-laden hedgerows somewhere in the country. I think I’m getting into this birding lark but I think I’ll need expert guidance for some time yet.

But seeing those flocks on the move was something I felt privileged to witness – the kind of sight we can all see if we happen to look up at the right moment. But when you realise the significance and epic scale of these migratory movements you start to appreciate why some people wander around with binoculars and notebooks.

A weald of possibility

A weald of possibility

Just before the great May weather ended we headed down to the Kent low weald, to Chiddingstone for a walk. Usually there are quite a lot of tourists and daytrippers (like myself) in the Tudor one-street village which has the air of a film set (it was used in Room with a View among other films). But under lockdown restrictions very little stirred beneath the cloudless sky; the lovely Castle Inn was closed of course and there was rather an enchanting air of abandonment. The walk itself was subdued too; I had been hoping for cuckoos calling and sightings of house martins, bullfinches and swallows. But the restrictions seemed to have spread to the wildlife too and there was little to be seen or heard. One of the best things about walks at this time of year though was in full swing… groves of flowering foxgloves. I love ’em.

I’ve always wanted to find a way of avoiding walking along the road between points 6 and 7, so we took a detour into the parkland at Penshurst Place to examine the possibilities. Alas there is no side path that connects with the footpath at point 7. It’s a shame because it wouldn’t be too hard to set up a gate in the metal fence at that point and establish a little path. Still, it is possible to walk in the parkland for a couple of hundred metres before you have to rejoin the road; it’s something I suppose, and there was a nice view of the ancient manor house from there. We also did the Bough Beech walk nearby which despite its brevity always surprises me with how much beauty it packs in.

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Chiddingstone larks and a pint of Larkins

Chiddingstone larks and a pint of Larkins

Not a bad bank holiday weekend for weather, if not anything special. Partly because I had a craving for Larkins bitter I took a walk with friends at Chiddingstone yesterday. We were determined to ‘spot birds’, but decided that we lacked the necessary expertise in song identification to really distinguish the various warbler-type things merrily burbling away in the undergrowth. We had an ID app for birdsong but after it had decided that the tell-tale call of a chiff-chaff was actually a collared dove we gave up on it.

However, with the good old eyeball we saw a treecreeper, a nuthatch, two yellowhammers, two skylarks, three or four buzzards and a possible blackcap, but perhaps bullfinch (a very fleeting view and unable to recognise song). There were fewer than 10 swallows seen and no swifts or martins; this despite huge wild watermeadows down by the River Eden near Penshurst. It became cloudy as we walked with a hint of drizzle so butterflies were nowhere to be seen. Still, a lovely walk and the Larkins at the Castle Inn didn’t disappoint.

It was great to meet someone using a downloaded pdf of the Chiddingstone walk en route; if you’re reading this, I hope you managed the whole walk and enjoyed it.

The previous day, spurned by my boys who are usually up for a walk, I looked for a new route east of Ide Hill, ie turning left at the Octavia Hill seat rather than right towards Scord’s wood. It proved a pleasant woody walk with One Tree Hill resonances and plenty of paths to take. A couple of lovely views of Bough Beech reservoir opened up (pictured) from Stubbs Wood (an SSSI, like Scord’s), which apparently is ancient woodland. At Hanging Bank there’s a quiet car park with an informative nature noticeboard. As ever at this time of year, the wildflowers (and some cultivated ones) were wonderful.

The previous week we walked at Petts Wood. What a great job the National Trust has done in this superb woodland, heather clearings with raised pathways, superb pines and oaks and a multitude of well-maintained paths; it really is one of the best woods in London. The memorial to William Willett, of summer time fame, is pictured in the gallery below.

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