Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

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.

Common spotted orchid and trefoil, White Hill, Shoreham, on the Fackenden Down walk (in June 2019)

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.


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Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Saturday was a pleasant winter’s day so we ventured once again to the eastern Darent Valley watching the sunset and hoping for an early evening owl. We were rewarded instead by wonderful and close views of three juvenile buzzards hanging motionless above Fackenden Down calling to each other plaintively.

I haven’t got the lenses to capture wildlife unless it’s less than two feet away. My lack of super-duper equipment was also brought home to me by the rise of a huge moon behind Dunstall Farm; my camera could only represent it as a small white disc. Still there’s a bit of atmosphere in the shot, seen below. For starters, I love the pines that surround the secluded farmhouse, an attractive and venerable building with a hint of Normandy about it.

Today of course (Sunday, 9 February) I imagine nobody in their right mind went walking what with Ciara wreaking havoc across the land. (There is a shorter version of the Fackenden Down walk that’s quite handy for short winter days here – you can start it at Shoreham Station and walk up the track almost opposite to join the walk or park at the layby in Rowdown Lane as marked. It’s 2.6 miles but good exercise because quite up and down.)


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Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

I’ve felt watching sunsets was a bit of a cliche ever since visiting a club on the Greek island of Ios 30 years ago.

Scorpions, as the place was called I think, offered the chance to be spellbound as our golden orb sank below the Aegean – accompanied by a tequila cocktail costing 100 drachma (40p). For some reason the occasion made no impression on me whatsoever and I found the applause of the assembled horde hilarious in my then youthful arrogance.

However, I did see a terrific sunset rather more recently in Cornwall when the sun seemed to dissolve on contact with the surface of the sea coating it with a blazing trail … most peculiar. Perhaps it’s an age thing – one is drawn to sunsets on realising there aren’t all that many left.

Anyway, we were atop Fackenden Down doing a truncated version of the walk on these pages on Sunday (a clear day for once) at about 4pm when sunset happened. It was quite fun and there were a few people around to see it (actually seeing the sun at all is pretty rare these days after all). I took some frankly quite boring photos of it which I will now share as well as some hopefully atmospheric woodland shots (one with staring sheep) in the gathering winter dusk.

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Walking is brain food and so is Camber Sands

Walking is brain food and so is Camber Sands

A new article on walking has popped up at The Guardian‘s website. It’s a Superpower: How Walking Makes us Healthier, Happier and Brainier by Amy Fleming is in the form of a chat with neuroscientist Shane O’Mara while strolling around Dublin. O’Mara makes a great case for walking’s mental benefits; even why strolls are superior to going to the gym or running. I particularly like this quote: “My notion – and we need to test this – is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources.” I have to say I often feel my own brain is emptying during a walk rather than becoming more powerful – perhaps that’s what he means!

O’Mara seems to walk around cities mostly – Dublin, Oxford etc – and there’s no mention of nitrogen dioxide and low level ozone and their possible negative effective on our health. I reckon he needs to hit the countryside, where he’ll find the mental benefits even more striking … I recommend the Fackenden Down walk in late summer sunshine, the ultimate brain nutrition.

Camber canter

Meanwhile, we chose another daytrip to south-east Kent and East Sussex on the hottest day of the year last Thursday. Once again we took in the RSPB reserve at Dungeness, the Britannia pub nearby, Camber Sands and glorious Rye, all of an afternoon. We hit the dunes at Camber at about 3.30pm amid blazing 35C sunshine and air as thick and moist as treacle. Visibility on the southern horizon was curiously murky, however. I noticed gleaming white pinnacles of cloud and the ragged whispy fringe of a cumulus nimbus, towering above northern France I guessed. By 5pm the whole southern sky was black, yet miraculously the coast was still bathed in scorching sun. Lightning flickered horizontally over the English Channel and a regular deep rumbling marked the end of the heatwave. I lay back in the sea enjoying the unusual scene, paddling softly, and got a tremendous sting off a jellyfish.

At 6.30 we set off for Rye pursued by hail, huge raindrops and a wonderfully warm wind. Walking through the beautiful town the sky went orange, a huge rainbow spanned the Romney Marsh to the east and lightning continued to sear through the heavens. Quite a day.

Awesome orchid wonderland

Awesome orchid wonderland

I was bowled over by the wildflowers on the Fackenden Down walk yesterday. I’ve never seen so many orchids; with yellow trefoil and tall ox-eye daisies blazing away as a background some of the meadows were mesmerising. Full credit to those managing the sites of special scientific interest at Magpie Bottom, Austin Spring and Fackenden Down along to White Hill (Kent Wildlife Trust in conjunction with local landowners?). Their hard work has produced a superb return. I’m not good at identifying orchids beyond the pyramidal variety, but I’ll give it a shot for the photos.

To strike a more negative note, I got the feeling there should still be more insects enjoying this abundance; there were plenty of bees around but not a lot else (a few marbled white butterflies, the odd peacock butterfly and red admiral notwithstanding). There was a distinct lack of swallows, martins and swifts, too. These species haven’t made it to these shores in great numbers this year it seems and that could be because of the effect of insecticides. But anyway, a beautiful and memorable walk.

And remember, this wonderland is only 50 minutes direct on the train from Peckham Rye, with the walk starting opposite Shoreham station.

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Fabulous Fackenden

Fabulous Fackenden

The Fackenden Down walk is such a winner at all times of year – and it’s so easy to get to from SE London, because it starts right outside Shoreham train station. In yesterday’s perfect weather wildflowers illuminated the hillsides and meadows; cirrus clouds offered a dramatic dreamscape high above and incessant birdsong filled the air. So many highlights on this walk: the bit when you leave the ancient beech wood and enter the timeless Magpie Bottom valley is my favourite. And the distant views of the City and the Shard from Romney Street are dramatic too. I was disappointed to see my team lose in the Champions League final later on (yet so thankful we got to the final) but the memories of the walk compensated. I created a GPX track of the walk too… so going off-route is now impossible (if you have a smartphone that is). The walk does have some steep sections though, so take it easy.

Interactive pdf of walk (to print or download on phone) is here.

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Ah, the warming winds of … February?

What a strange, beautiful day. Golden light flooding in from a cloudless sky and a startling clarity in the warm air produced scenes as colourful as anything I’ve seen in an English winter. February? We toiled up the steps ascending the steep hillside of Dunstall Wood amid hectic birdsong; the trees were silent only two weeks ago. I half expected humming birds to zip by and howler monkeys to playfully crash through the canopy.

Dunstall Wood steps

Dunstall Wood steps – quite a climb on a warm day

At Austin Spring (this was, again, the Fackenden walk) a huge flock of finches rose from the unkempt fringe and flitted into that row of oaks that strides through the fields there. Without binoculars I couldn’t be sure of all the species but among them were goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches and siskins. There must have been 100-plus; quite a surprise.

On Walk 19, steps up White Hill; Dunstall Farm, Austin Spring

Austin Spring – trees full of finches that had been feeding below

Later, in the twilight at White Hill, a tawny owl flew past us – my younger son saw it first as a silhouette on the path ahead of us, and I’m ashamed to say my first reaction was to think ‘pigeon’.

No butterflies though, not a single brimstone, the first to fly most years. You’d think on such a warm day they’d be present. All in all an excellent way to exorcise an away defeat at Burnley.

Dunstall farm house

18th-century Grade-II listed Dunstall Farm House – an attractive building, with a hint of Normandy

Fackenden Down above Otford Mount

Fackenden Down dusk: end of an amazingly mild February day, looking south-west towards Brasted

Snow on the North Downs ridge

Stunning walk at Fackenden Down today. Far more snow than I expected. Just a few extra metres at the top of the ridge made all the difference and there were some reasonable accumulations in Magpie Bottom. I had birdwatcher Dave for company which led to some more exciting sightings than I even manage without him. We saw bullfinch, coal tits, heard linnets, a probable marsh tit and, best of all, saw a short-eared owl hunting low over a rewilded field at Romney St. Big thanks to those who donated to the site today, much appreciated.

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