All of a flutter

All of a flutter

Sultry summer evenings are very much my thing. There’s been a promise of a storm in south-east London for some time without one materialising. We’ve even heard them from time to time, thunder rumbling around, sudden winds forming as if a tornado were nearby and, beyond London, huge puddles and mud show where the downpours have already struck. On Saturday the humidity is on the up, the atmosphere is murky, lofty cloud peaks emerge from the haze and you walk only 50 metres before the first drops of sweat form. I love it. I don’t love the idea of floods and unnaturally damaging weather of course – what happened in Germany is truly horrific – but I’ve always been up for a lightning display. Going off at a tangent here but talking of the growing likelihood of floods because of the climate crisis, I look around at the number of front gardens that have been paved over with inadequate drainage and I worry about what may be around the corner.

The Downe walk today, which occasionally feels a bit mundane, was a joy. Wildflowers spangled the grassy meadows, a song thrush serenaded walkers from a hedgerow and charms of goldfinches passed wittering in transit from field to woods. Spitfires growled through the moist air, seemingly busier than ever whisking people on joyride flights across the now customary airliner-free skies of Kent. Wild marjoram (basically the same as oregano) was flowering along with ragwort, knapweed, vetch, hawksbeard, the odd orchid and trefoil. Butterflies were having a fine old day: the pick of the bunch being peacocks and silver washed fritillaries among the marbled whites and meadow browns.

The chalk North Downs are brilliant for wildflowers and butterflies, so walks such as Fackenden, Knockholt Pound, Shoreham, Downe and Polhill/Pluto are perfect for colour right now.

Sunday update: Another muggy day with storms nearby and another North Downs stroll with a route from Kemsing, courtesy of a good friend, Steve of Sydenham. Bird man Dave, of Tonbridge, was in line to join us but decided that the potential for lightning and thunder made it a risky undertaking. As it happened, the worst storm of the day had already passed once we arrived in Kemsing, and from then on the cloudbursts diverted to the north towards London – causing major flooding in parts, and south towards the High Weald. There were superb views, more Spitfires, and a fine pub at Heaverham – the Chequers. The wonderful meadow of Kemsing Down was a highlight – with plenty of marjoram, thyme, scabious and St John’s wort among the grasses. It’s not a walk we have on this site as yet but I’ll certainly try to conjure something similar – Kemsing station is nearby and could be a good starting point.

View from escarpment to the south from near Kemsing Down
Get your head in the clouds

Get your head in the clouds

Late afternoons in the mid-autumn have their own lighting design with special colours, particularly on days like Sunday (25 October) when a clear sky was punctuated with decaying shower clouds reflecting the whole spectrum in the setting sun. So even though the clocks have gone back (for some reason I’ve never understood) if you can squeeze in a couple of hours’ walking late in the day you can be rewarded with amazing tree and sky hues. The Downe walk isn’t the most spectacular route on this site, but today it was beautifully lit, as pictured above.

I’ve always paid a lot of attention to sky. Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations. I remember bugging my geography teacher about it: “So why did it rain for 40 minutes yesterday afternoon… was it a cold front or just a convection shower?” He’d study me with a bemused expression that said “yes, I know I gave a lesson on cloud identification yesterday but how the hell am I supposed to know?”, before giving me an answer in a tone of voice that suggested he was guessing.

I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather and hold in my memory particular freak weather moments from years ago.

I think an interest in clouds and meteorology (“I am a meteorologist not a weather man!” – sorry, Larry David reference there) adds something to the walks. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed. Here are some cloud photos from down the years from the walks and from south-east London.

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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

Why be the Fall guy?

When autumn gets it right these walks can be rather picturesque. Golden light, a fresh breeze, vibrant colours under a cobalt sky. And a pint of Harvey’s in the pub. But such days have been scarce for most of October and November I think we can agree. Autumn is great for cliches too (golden light, vibrant colours), which I am too readily resorting to. So I’ll shut up.

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Downe Downe deeper Downe

Downe Downe deeper Downe

I’ve always liked that Status Quo song ever since I was a young teenager. I’m no headbanger but it’s got energy and drive – which Kent walkers have in abundance of course.

GPX dodgy and iffy instructions

I did both Downe walks this weekend. The weather was distinctly iffy so I couldn’t be bothered to go far. So I did the new longer Downe walk on Saturday and the usual shorter one on Sunday with my wife. She was not too impressed by my instructions; “too wordy” she said in a slightly irritated fashion after about 50 yards. My attention was somewhat distracted by a B-17 Flying Fortress flying low overhead, but then she pointed out I had omitted to mention any stiles and gates and thought my ‘line of trees’ was really a wood. It made me realise that we all see things a bit differently and that I’m so familiar with the walk that I was imagining rather than actually seeing. That’s quite a phenomenon – try describing your walk to the station or to the office… it’s so obvious to you but you suddenly realise that you’ve completely misdescribed a house or a shop.

Compounding the unclear directions is the uncomfortable fact that the GPX tracks I’m pointing people to on the website are distinctly dodgy. On Saturday it was only right 50% of the time; often the blue dot marking your ‘live’ location would linger unhappily in a nearby road or layby. No idea why. Could be a signal thing or a sign you are running out of data, a position I’m very familiar with. Today, on the short Downe walk, the GPX was inaccurate the whole time. I’ll have to redo the track, maybe using a different website but then there might just be something about Downe, deeper Downe.

Here’s the pdf for the new instructions for Walk 1 Downe Circular. Gratitude to my wife for opening my eyes and apologies to anyone I’ve misled. And here is, hopefully, a more reliable GPX track.

By the way, I’ve learnt a new wildflower name and I’m going to use it. Birds-foot-trefoil. It’s small and yellow and spectacular at Downe, particularly in the meadows close to Darwin’s house (of course!). Apparently the plant is a staple in the diet of caterpillars of common blue, silver-studded blue and wood white butterflies. There are also pyramidal orchids at the moment in the the hillside fields that end the walk.

Hillside field point 7-8, Downe

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

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.

Last bluebells, Downe

Ancient woods: Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw

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.

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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The austere beauty of the Kent Downs in winter

Winter has arrived but it remains mild; with more rainfall the mud has churned up on the most of the walks so it’s time for wellies. But take care: the chalky Darent Valley hillside paths can be a bit slippery at this time of year, particularly where the paths are worn and the chalk is close to the surface. But the austere beauty of the North Downs in winter is now evident, especially on the eastern side of the valley – walks 5, 14 and 19 – and on the Eynsford routes: walks 3 and 12. If the temperature drops a bit take a flask out with some hot chocolate and maybe a shot of something stronger – really works out here in an easterly wind!

Each of the walks on this site have their own character. There’s definitely a split between the southern routes, such as Chiddingstone, Ide Hill and at Hever, which are more wooded and somehow bucolic, and the more hilly, more grassy northern routes of the Darent Valley where the ridgelines are the highest points for an easterly winds for hundreds of miles. It’s all very atmospheric; when walking I often imagine what life was like for Saxons, Romans, Britons and Vikings who settled these parts and picture them on their long, painstaking journeys.

So, here’s a useful way of choosing a walk near SE London … enlarge the map, then just click on the labels and lines to find a walk that suits you. You’ll see there’s quite a spaghetti junction of walks around Shoreham, you can combine them all and stay out all week if you like! My tip this week is Walk 19: Fackenden Down. It’s on the eastern side of the Darent Valley – straight out of Shoreham train station and the views are terrific. The walks are also on the menu at the top. Enjoy…

My walks

Download Walk 1: Downe circular (near Bromley, 2.6 miles) View on your phone/desktop
Download Walk 2: Shoreham circular (3.5 miles) View
Download Walk 3: Shoreham to Eynsford (4.2 miles) View

Download Walk 4: Ide Hill circular (3 miles) View
Download Walk 5: Otford circular via Romney St (5.5 miles) View

Download Walk 6: One Tree Hill circular (near Sevenoaks, 5.5 miles) View
Download Walk 7: One Tree Hill figure of eight (near Sevenoaks, 5 miles) View
Download Walk 8: Shoreham/Otford circular (5 miles) View
Download Walk 9: Hever circular (4.5 miles) View
 Download Walk 10: Chiddingstone/Penshurst circular (4 miles) View
Download Walk 11: Knole Park’s Wild Side (3.5 miles) View
 Download Walk 12: Eynsford/Lullingstone circular (4 miles) View
 Download Walk 13: Chislehurst station to Petts Wood station (3.7 miles) View
Download Walk 14: Shorehams mystery eastern valleys (5 miles) View
Download Walk 15: Westerham/Chartwell (5.5 miles)
View
Download Walk 16: Shoreham circular mk2 (3.5 miles) View
• Download Walk 17: Bough Beech/Bore Place (2.5 miles) View
Download Walk 18: Shoreham/Polhill Bank (4 miles) View
Downland Walk 19: Fackenden Down (4 miles) View
Download Walk 20: Downe circular mk2 (4 miles) View

An online version of the Ordnance Survey map 147 can be found here but strangely some public footpaths are not included. I’m gradually working on making GPX files for the walks so they can be followed ‘live’ on smartphone, but, ahem, slow progress is being made!

Darwin’s fields and Downe

My favourite of all the wonderful meadows on these walks is the one adjacent to Darwin’s house at Downe. In August the grass is yellowing and long; it shines in the sun and bends, waving with the breeze. The thought of the scientist wandering these paths, perhaps with his wife and children, pondering some quirk of fauna and flora makes it all the more atmospheric.

After passing through this field, you cross Darwin’s ‘sandwalk’ and a hillside meadow with views across woods with no sign of human habitation in sight. Deer gather in this field at dusk and it’s a good place to spot birds in the surrounding beeches. For some reason green woodpeckers are often seen on the ground here. A tranquil, timeless place, but deceptive: there’s Biggin Hill airport (the former Battle of Britain base and now a major heritage and business aviation centre) just on the other side of the woods, and beyond that the eponymous town.

I’ve added a link to a GPX map now too, where you can check your progress on the Downe walk in real time – if you can get a network connection.

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New Downe walks

Much as I like the little Downe walk on this site, a walk with its roots in being taken by Dad to watch Biggin Hill airshows ’round the back’ in the late 1960s, it’s time to add another Downe walk. It’s a popular walk here, because of its proximity to south London, Charles Darwin’s house, the pleasant village and verdant hills. I’m a bit torn though. I could add one I’ve done a few times that takes in Cudham and Downe Bank; I could add an extension to Jail Lane and the airfield perimeter … but neither totally satisfy me for one reason or another. I’d like to do one that takes in Knockholt but that might end up being too long. Anyway, I’ll reach a conclusion soon… perhaps it’ll end up being two walks; one from Downe and one from Knockholt taking in the North Downs escarpment and various woods. We’ll see.

Hawthorn on Downe walk

Threatening clouds. Between point 6 & 7 hawthorn on Downe walk in May