Again we returned to Meenfield Woods and Shoreham to do the Polhill loop at the weekend. There was some lovely light in late afternoon on Saturday. Surprisingly there were few birds around given the migrations taking place. Clearly the route does not intersect particularly with the flightpaths of redwings, fieldfares and various other birds heading into the UK from the continent, although a red kite glided above us as we turned the corner to enter the ‘jungle zone’ beneath Polhill itself in the lower part of Pilots Wood. I’d like those redwings to know there are more than a few hawthorn bushes on Polhill with nice juicy scarlet berries right now. What are they waiting for? Maybe the frost, which makes certain berries more appealing to les oiseaux. Dark cloud combined with a lilac sky and soft sunlight to show off the autumnal Darent Valley at its best. My photography doesn’t quite capture it, but I tried.
The Darent Valley and its surrounding valleys near Otford, Romney Street and Austin Lodge to the east and Andrew’s Wood to the west seem to me to trap heat and moisture. Even on dull summer days the area feels more humid and sticky than the London suburbs for example. I love it. The area feels ‘different’ and somewhat mystical. It’s certainly very verdant and with rewilding projects, such as at Magpie Bottom, several SSSIs and Kent Wildlife Trust reserves, it’s worth having to change your shirt for. Just take a flask of water. Even on a mostly dull day like last Sunday, you might get a fleeting pool of sunshine to enjoy and the sight of cloud shadows racing across the rippling wildflower rich meadows towards you. (Dogowners are advised to keep their animals on the the lead though…. there’s apparently a threat of adder strikes on dogs in the area and occasionally livestock. Cases of dog theft have occurred too.)
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.
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.
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.
I’m having to change my banner photographs with every passing week to keep them current as we hurtle into winter. Autumn officially ends on 21 December but we all know that’s baloney. A few stormy days over the past week or so have stripped away the leaves and although temperatures are still fairly mild, it gets dark at 4.30pm and the ground is saturated. It looks like winter, it smells like winter, it feels like winter, it’s winter.
Last Sunday’s stroll at Cudham was beset by hefty squalls and paths are awash. Today I set out with a friend to walk between Otford and Eynsford via Polhill, Pilot woods, Mill Lane, and Lullingstone. I continually slipped trying to ascend the steep sodden face of Polhill ending up on all fours sliding backward downhill, much to my friend’s mirth. We shared a cereal bar and discussed footwear. It was actually so wet that our boots never really got muddy despite regularly sinking ankle-deep into the mire.
The light seemed to go at about 3pm as the clouds sank ever lower so we abandoned the Eynsford leg and scoured the dank but still delightful streets of Shoreham for something to drink. We struck lucky and gratefully downed our Westerham ales under an awning outside the closed, deserted Ye Olde George (set for redecorating and reopening next year we hear).
The conditions throughout the walk had been pretty ropey with low stratus scraping Fackenden Down opposite and a constant patter of precipitation slightly too heavy to be dismissed as drizzle. Darkness fell as we reached the railway station and faced a cold wait, which fortunately proved short as the Thameslink rolled in bang on time.
To add some perspective to the “inclement conditions” encountered on the walk we discussed a book I’m currently reading: The Worst Journey in the World, by a member of Scott’s team, which is about the ultimately horrific Antarctic expedition of 1911-13. Lots of things went wrong before the final tragedy, some before they’d even left Britain. None seemed insurmountable at the time but added together, like pieces in a jigsaw, they each played their part in the deaths of Scott and four of his fittest, doughtiest fellow explorers.
Underlying all of these mishaps were some truly horrendous meteorological experiences, which make walks in the Darent Valley even in murk, mud, darkness and constant rain, feel like a carefree saunter in the Shire. So, this winter, take a small leaf out of Scott’s book and say “to hell with the weather, let’s go for a walk”. There won’t be any crevasses after all; you will get back in one piece even if it rains or snows, and you might even be able to find an acceptable beverage. Just make sure you’ve got some decent boots.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to emerge from the trees at the top of Fackenden Down just as eight – yes, eight – buzzards soared in the updraft together overhead, calling out and engaging in mock battles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearby Magpie Bottom was also a picture with mauve scabious flowers and purple knapweed giving the pollinators a real treat. On a small sandy lump, made by burrowing insects I guess, I spied a tiny, dark lizard which shot off as I reached for the camera inevitably.
Fackenden Down, near Shoreham and Otford stations, is a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve of rare and superb value. The trust is trying to encourage reptiles, butterflies and more varieties of wildflower to return to the spectacular site but needs money so please donate to them if you can.
An idyllic new route: walking down Polhill Bank then past Sepham Farm towards Otford takes you into a summery wonderland of wild marjoram, myriad butterflies, hedgerow birds while, in the (hopefully) azure sky, two-seat Spitfires purposefully head off to deep Kent on joyriding trips.
There are loads of paths to take from the car park off Shacklands Rd by Badgers Mount; it’s easy to customise walks from there. But you need to stroll a mile or so before you can rid yourself of the M25 noise. But even close to the motorway there are compensations: Andrews Wood, Meenfield Wood and Pilots Wood are beautiful and each has its own character. Visit late in the day and the shadows and sunbeams among the beeches form a light art installation on a scale the Tate could only dream of. Kent Wildlife Trust is taking care of some of Pilots Wood these days, and of Polhill Bank which it leads on to, a south-facing slope full of wildflowers and a perfectly framed window of the vale between the North Downs and Greensand Ridge.
Continue down the steep slope and enter a world resonant with birdsong – yellowhammers in particularly (de-de-de-de-de-de-deeeeeee) – and the growl of Merlin engines overhead from time to time.
There are views over rich meadows, cereal fields, apple trees and ancient hedgerows. In the haze oasthouses stand out black and white against the darkly wooded valleysides. Right now, in July, butterflies abound – peacocks, commas, red admirals, gatekeepers, meadow browns and more. Buzzards drop by for the views (and carrion). At one point you come across Pluto, the furthest point of the to-scale Otford solar system model (the sun is in the recreation field in the village somewhere). At four miles, the route is doable for the kids with a couple of tough slopes thrown in to test out the oldies’ knees. Check it out.
The new Walk 21 a shorter version of Walk 15, starting up the road from Westerham at the free car park at Hosey Common. It includes a lovely stretch by the stream of the Darent soon after its emergence as a spring. If you don’t drive it’s easiest to get to Westerham on the 246 bus which connects the town with Bromley, Hayes and Keston. You can then join this walk between points 8 and 9 having started it from the green at Westerham (as per Walk 15). There’s a GPS map link included.
The route is about a mile shorter than Walk 15 (3.9 miles as opposed to 5 miles) but has the same great views at Chartwell and Mariners Hill. Kent Wildlife Trust has a great resource if you really want to get down and dirty with the trees, species, geology and topography of the area. The walk is part of the Greensand Ridge… so a companion to routes on this site at Ide Hill, Ightham Mote, One Tree Hill and Knole (see menu, top). There are so many paths that with a map it’s easy to customise the walks to your own requirements, but I think this route captures the best of the area’s great woods, views and valleys.
First of all, I wish all the best to Kent Walks near London readers as we all try to get through this period unscathed in terms of our health, your livelihoods and sense of wellbeing. To those who have had or still have Covid-19, many sympathies – it sounds horrendous in many cases. The countryside is slowly opening up, but we should all be mindful of social distancing and try to make way for each other on narrow paths. Let’s avoid overcrowding in good weather and take wipes for handling gates and stiles if possible.
Second thing, thanks to all those who have donated to this website… entirely voluntary so a heartfelt thanks from me. It’s only a small amount of course but it will help me produce more walks, better mapping and information and some will be going to charities too. There are adverts on the site too, you’ll see, but a niche page like this is never going to pull in the big bucks from the AdWords model so it’s little more than a token gesture towards commerciality. Maybe display ads from dedicated sources – outdoor retailers, pubs, or as you are about to read, apps – may be the way forward.
Oh, and please check out the Kent Wildlife Trust website. KWT manages some of the woods and sites on here (as does the Woodland Trust), helping maintain the paths and creating brilliant areas for flora and fauna. It deserves our full support (and donations right now).
’appy days with wildflower apps
Out and about for the first time in a while at the weekend made me reflect that May, June and July are probably the best times of year for trying to work out what kinds of wildflowers you hopefully aren’t trampling over.
Many wildflowers aren’t that spectacular compared with cultivated garden plants and we sort of take them for granted. But notice how, unlike some of our garden species, they don’t seem to suffer from the dry conditions so much.
Until recently I only knew obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercup, ox-eye daisy, buttercup, pyramidal orchid, etc. I was a blooming ignoramus you might say. But I started adding to my list by asking friends, looking at my dear departed mama’s old, faded book of illustrations (complete with samples turning to dust) and looking at websites. I half remembered things my mum told me as a kid, so pretty soon I could identify scabious, red campion and the like. And the more you keep an eye out and record, the more interesting the whole caboodle becomes. You start to appreciate the shy little flowers of the woods, meadows and margins, their colour and what they give to various creatures.
But by downloading the Picture This app on my phone (there are other similar tools too in the App Store, such as the excellent iNaturalist which I’ve also used) I’ve revolutionised my learning. The app compares your photos with its database pictures in seconds to tell you what you’re looking at. This has helped me identify stitchwort, bugle, white helleborine, yellow pimpernel, archangel, ground ivy, vetch, sainfoin, trefoil and milkwort, among others. It does tree leaves too. I’ve been quite oblivious to all this stuff for a long time, so please forgive my excitement.
Soon, an abundance of orchids will appear in places like Polhill Bank, Fackenden Down, Lullingstone, Magpie Bottom (see Walks on the menu above) and I can’t wait to get stuck into working out what’s what. The walks on this site are excellent for flora with chalky soils predominating on the North Downs; sandy soils on the Greensand Ridge and Weald routes.
I suppose flowery stuff is not the most useful information you’ll pick up in life but I find being able to identify wildflowers really does pique my interest and triggers curiosity about other things too… insects, birds and how our ancestors used these plants. It also makes up for the fact I am a pretty useless gardener.
After the watery dip into the Ashdown Forest in midweek it was back to terra-not-so firma today with a squelchy trip to Lullingstone. Up the steps we went, past the Roman Villa to vast flint and chalk fields where several buzzards glided. It’s strange how wild birds of prey congregate near Eagle Heights; I guess they just want to peep at their captive exotic cousins. Storm clouds were fragmenting to the east having a deposited another ocean on our blighted county.
The river was extremely high and the water meadows living up to their billing with Eynsford’s small herd of highland cattle looking a bit hacked off as they nuzzled soggy hay bales and pondered their liquid domain.
On the way home we popped in on Eynsford Castle, basically a bunch of Norman ruins. The place was built within 20 years of the Battle of Hastings on the site of a Saxon tower by William de Eynsford I (for it is he) but was vandalised and left derelict 300 years later after an ownership dispute. Such a shame, it enjoyed a beautiful setting close to the river and would have contributed significantly to English Heritage or the National Trust if it had been maintained. Such a lack of foresight some of these medieval people.
Family walks are a fab tradition at this time of year. They often entail waiting for Grandpa to catch up and the kids to finish in the playground, dogs rolling in something unmentionable, and departing so late (because everyone’s trying to find suitable footwear) you arrive at the walk in time for dusk. No, of course, they are much more fun than that. But given all the rain and resultant mud it would be best not to go out in your festive season finery this week. A flask with some hot chocolate and perhaps a wee dram aren’t a bad idea either.
These are the walks I reckon are best for families this Christmas. My choice has been limited by all the rain – I’d love to recommend the Fackenden Down and One Tree Hill routes but the footpaths on the thin chalky soil of Fackenden could be treacherous and easily damaged, and One Tree Hill is a winter a mudbath for reasons not entirely clear to me. Anyway those walks have more strenuous sections not entirely appropriate or the ‘whole’ family. So my top five are:
1 Shoreham Circular (good pubs in Shoreham, not too muddy, one steep hill)
2 Lullingstone (visitors’ centre cafe, pubs in Eynsford, not too muddy; also can park at golf club or visitors’ centre for DIY walks – my route is just one of many variations)
3 Knole Park (best for lack of mud, cafe closed Christmas Day, shuttle available from Sevenoaks station Sunday 29th and 5th Jan)
4 Downe short and long (a bit muddy in places but relatively good, one steepish hill stretch on the long version, two pubs in Downe)
5 Otford and Shoreham (pubs in Otford and Shoreham; easy to make a good train walk with stations in both villages).
Another recommendation if you don’t want to travel out so far is Beckenham Place Park with its lovely new cafe, playgrounds, woodland, lake and gardens; it’s easy on the train too with three stations (Beckenham Junction, Beckenham Hill and Ravensbourne) on the doorstep. A little further out is Petts Wood (a bit muddier but beautiful woods), also easy by train (my route starts at Chislehurst station and finishes at Petts Wood station.
Of course it won’t be snowing but the picture above shows Knole in Sevenoaks on a particularly atmospheric winter’s day.