Blazing saddles through the North Downs

Blazing saddles through the North Downs

One of the vital balancing pleasures of this frustrating, disturbing and tragic summer has been cycling the local North Downs.

There are often loads of cyclists with the same thought at weekends and on weekday evenings in this area but the backroutes I use are almost free of all kinds of traffic.

I’ve been really enjoying exploring the lanes between Downe, Cudham, Knockholt Pound and Brasted; to improve fitness and stamina, because they are beautiful and in the hope of ‘creeping up’ on wildlife. Well, I’ve become a bit fitter – though not lighter – and, yes, I never tire of the area’s aesthetic qualities, but the wildlife has been somewhat elusive. The escarpment near Chevening is always good for buzzards, however, and the odd red kite, but my birdspotting by bike adventures have fallen generally flat. Yes there are deer, and I’ve had close up encounters with bats, tawny owls and dragonflies. But that’s about it.

I’ve cycled around the area from my front door in SE London but also take the bike by car to Downe or Cudham and cycle from there for 90 minutes or so. Clear evenings, such as those we’ve had lately, are particularly atmospheric as the skies to the west turn orange and pink and long shadows are punctuated with the gold of the setting sun. And with hardly any traffic there’s quite a profound silence much of the way, with only the odd bit of birdsong and the occasional growl of a Spitfire cruising back to Biggin Hill at the end of the day’s joyrides to break it.

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One of my favourite parts of the ride, although I only deviate my route to take it in if I have extra time, is the Pilgrim’s Way, which runs west to east towards the bottom of the escarpment. The views to the east are superb as is the view back up to the ridge. The hill I take to get back up the escarpment is Sundridge Road, a never-ending lung-buster of a climb, and yet as you stand at the foot of the North Downs the ridge seems mild and shallow. Appearances can be deceptive, believe me.

Since lockdown started at the end of March I’ve seen bluebells come and go, birdlife spring into action then go silent, trees turn from brown to emerald and now to all shades between yellow and black, peacock and red admiral butterflies fill the lanes and now berries ripen, lining the hedgerows with scarlet and midnight blue.

Some of this gently rolling landscape routes appears bland in photographs, which tend to flatten it out. You need the wider perspective of the naked eye to really appreciate these surroundings – but here is a pictorial record anyway.

• You can follow my recommended cycle routes in the area here

Something to chew on in Cudham

Something to chew on in Cudham

Here’s a new circular route not far to drive from SE London that’s great for a bit of quiet contemplation and is fun to navigate. Sadly public transport options for getting there aren’t great, though the R5 and R10 buses from Orpington station do drop by from time to time and Knockholt station is a couple of miles away. The Cudham/Knockholt area is rich in paths and sleepy lanes, linking up its chalk valleys and lovely woods. With lots of old hedgerows, meadows and pasture it’s not bad for birdlife with buzzards and finches aplenty.

The walk starts at the recreation ground car park just off Cudham South Lane, close to the hamlet’s lovely church and attractive pub, the Blacksmiths Arms, and takes about 1.5 hours. As car parks go it’s a really pleasant one, too, with playground and huge cricket pitch backed by trees. I’ve called the route “Cudham chalk paths” because it sounds nice and early on there are a couple of trails where the North Downs chalk comes right to the surface. It also differentiates it from the many Cudham circular walks on various other websites.

Being close to walks at Downe, Knockholt and Andrews Wood/Polhill, it’s an easy route to combine with others for a full day out. It also is a bit of a marker as it is the 25th walk I’ve added to Kent Walks Near London. I’m sure there’s another 25 I can rustle up… and I’m open to ideas.

I’ve only ever done this four-mile walk on dull drizzly days so my photos are lacking dazzle but, like I say, it’s a walk that seems to suit quiet reflection and I wouldn’t want to oversell it.

Full instructions with PDF, GPX maps and all the trimmings here.

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