Farewell winter woods

Farewell winter woods

Before we start waxing lyrical about spring, wildflowers, birds and bees etc etc let’s salute the beauty of woods in late winter, particularly in March, which tends to be sunnier than February and reflects all kinds of subtle auburn nuances in the leafless trees. Around Bough Beech reservoir near Ide Hill the woods have been partially flooded by high water levels making for scenes somewhat reminiscent of the opening parts of that excellent film The Revenant. On the final Saturday in March the first bluebells, generally those in sunny spots in hedgerows, were showing, along with primroses, cuckooflower and so on but those trees around the north lake at Bough Beech in the late afternoon sun in their best end-of-winter finery stole the show. What a superb place that is to watch the sun go down. Pictured below: swamped woods at Bough Beech, silver birches in Stock Wood on the Hever walk, a stream though light woods at Bore Place, and a view back to the Greensand Ridge and Ide Hill across fallow fields from near Bough Beech on a perfectly serene late March day – winter’s last knockings. Finally, an iPhone pic of Shoreham and the Darent Valley on the Polhill/Shoreham Circular walk on Sunday 27 March… a rare day of low misty cloud and sunny patches.

Tudor trails and tales from Hever

Tudor trails and tales from Hever

The Hever walk isn’t the most spectacular of the routes in terms of views but its unspoilt, remote-feeling woods, undisturbed meadows, and clay-tiled houses melding into the countryside give it a rare charm. Its position on the Weald of Kent between the high Ashdown Forest to the south and Greensand Ridge to the north means its topography is dotted with mires (woodland bogs) and ghylls (mini-ravines concealing vigorous little streams), each with its own distinct character and sense of mystery. Throw in the area’s prominent place in English history, what with the Boleyns’ fantastic castle and the area being a stamping ground of Henry VIII in the 16th century, this route has a special atmosphere. A wonderful holloway through the middle of a sandstone outcrop comes as a surprise after the gently sloping serenity of the rest of the walk. But a warning: the mud is horrendous at points until about mid-April. This is compensated by the walks’ multitude of wildflowers beginning to stir, the colours of silver birches in the wan late winter sun, the beautiful Hever church with its medieval tombs and brasses, and the Shepherd’s Neame Masterbrew in the excellent Henry VIII pub, now adorned with the flag of Ukraine.

My moment in the sun

My moment in the sun

I hope everyone who dips into this website had a decent Christmas.

Yesterday (Boxing Day) there was a strange interlude on the Downe walk: a shard of blue sky suddenly appeared ahead, to the north. This was a most welcome sight given I’d accepted the walk would be a uniformly grey and dank trudge. It was also completely out of context with what has been a remarkably gloomy couple of months.

I hadn’t realised that a similar clear gap had developed behind me to the south west. Suddenly, without warning, the landscape was bathed in an utterly spellbinding glow. This reminder that the sun also rises in the UK lingered on for 45 minutes or so as curtains of impenetrable low cloud with rain began to threaten from the London direction. It was pure magic while it lasted.

The final field on the walk (pictured below) was laughably squelchy – definitely wellies only. The mud on all the walks is fairly horrendous at the moment. I was concerned to see the Polhill Bank/Pluto walk being viewed a lot on this site over the past 24 hours. The steep escarpment slope will be absolutely treacherous at the moment. The Fackenden route would be best avoided for the same reason. The best bets for lower mud levels are Knole and Lullingstone (although the woods will be a quagmire). One thing about mud though: I reckon you get more fitness benefits from trying to squelch your way round the walks, necessitating extra and lighter steps. (Best not to take dogs to Knole because of deer; they must be kept on lead at all times.)

Field in winter at Downe
The final (horrendously muddy) field during Boxing Day 2021’s half hour sunny interlude. This was once a lovely wildflower meadow with hawthorn trees, alive with bees and home to yellowhammers and bullfinches. But all biodiversity was ripped out around 2014.
Trains, buses, walks around Keston and Whitstable

Trains, buses, walks around Keston and Whitstable

I’m trying to add more train/bus walks to the KWNL site; the traffic in SE London is a factor, as is the need to reduce car use and pollution. Then there’s the fact that lots of keen strollers don’t have cars anyway. I’ve got two new routes up my sleeve using public transport to access, but I haven’t quite got them finalised yet. One is Herne Bay to Whitstable (5 miles) which hardly needs a map… you just follow the coast path. Both stations are on the Ramsgate line from Bromley South. It’s quite expensive (£26 return) of course being a British train but definitely worth it. But I want to see if I can continue the walk to Faversham (doubling the length), which is also on the same line, using decent paths. I know you can but I haven’t done it yet. Also it means stretching the ‘Near London’ remit of this website somewhat, though the fastish train makes the trip fairly short in relation to distance and you arrive without feeling worn out by having to drive.

Closer to home would be a walk from Hayes station, the terminus of the London Bridge line via Catford Bridge, to Keston Ponds and then Downe (about 6 miles). From Hayes station you traverse Hayes Common, an attractive area of woods and heath to reach Keston. Behind the village is another woods from where you reach Keston Ponds. Looking at the OS map there is a ribbon of ponds from Keston and Hayes to Bromley Common. These are fed by springs and the Ravensbourne river, which rises at Keston Common.

Keston Common heathland

Beyond the two main ponds is an important area of heath then, after crossing the A233 you head through woodland to the Wilberforce Oak, where in May 1787 William Wilberforce talked with prime minister William Pitt the Younger (who lived at adjacent Holwood House, the Chequers of its time), about abolishing the slave trade. The spot is marked with a stone bench plonked there in 1862 and now behind the Holwood perimeter fence and a sign. There’s a dead oak still standing but that isn’t the Wilberforce oak. There are also bits of old oak lying about… maybe some of that is from the original. But there’s a nice healthy young oak anyway, planted about 30 years ago. There are also echoes of Roman and prehistoric settlements around this spot.

From here it’s pretty easy to walk all the way to Downe; cross the somewhat hairy Shire Lane, walk past the Holwood Farm Shop then take the footpath on the right which joins up with the Downe circular walk to bring you into the village from where you can get the 146 bus back to Hayes/Bromley South/Bromley North. One further appalling fact about the slave trade that only recently came to light: the descendants of slave owners in the UK were paid compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ from 1835 to, wait for it, 2015. Hard to believe isn’t it?

Microclimates and wild meadows

Microclimates and wild meadows

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.)

Autumn takes its leave

Autumn takes its leave

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).

Nr Romney Street, Round Hill, Austin Spring, near Shoreham, winter 2017

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.