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.
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.
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.
It can be viewed on theGPSies 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 Woodswith its superb April bluebells then orchids and gentians.
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.
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.
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…
An online version of the Ordnance Survey map 147 can be found herebut 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!
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 walkin real time – if you can get a network connection.
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.
Threatening clouds. Between point 6 & 7 hawthorn on Downe walk in May