My previous post referred to getting lucky with the light on dark winter days. At Ide Hill last Friday, the cloud layers parted to reveal a magnificent dusk sky full of colour. Photos don’t really capture it, and my basic digital SLR Nikon isn’t really up to capturing the Moon properly, but I’d like to post a few just to remind myself of this wondrous early evening. It was another reminder that late afternoon can be a superb time to go out – there’s no need to postpone a winter hike just because you’ve been busy in the morning and didn’t manage to get away.
A winter’s trail
Two very cold but contrasting days at the weekend just gone. Bright sunshine and rich colour on Saturday, fog, frost and monochrome tones on Sunday after a largely clear night. We walked near Shoreham on the North Downs then, on Sunday, at Ide Hill near Sevenoaks on the Greensand Ridge. I tried to keep an eye open for birds and saw a yellowhammer flying away from along the line of hedgerows beneath Fackenden Down plus several fieldfare. At Ide Hill we saw a brambling among a mixed bunch of chaffinches and great and blue tits (there may have been a female bullfinch among them too) on the eastern edge of Emmett’s Garden and later some greenfinches popped out of a hedgerow. At Ide Hill, as we had hoped, we were ‘above the cloud’ with a layer of fog obscuring the low weald below and little pinnacles of ridges further south poking up through the murk. The best frost was seen en route around the woods and heaths of Hayes and Keston Common – very beautiful. And then came the snow …
Anyone with time free over the next couple of days should try to get out on the walks to experience the snow at places like Knole and on the hill tops at Fackenden and Polhill. It can be spectacular. (See photos from 2021.)
If you haven’t seen it, please check out my piece for The Guardian on a Darent Valley walk ending at the Samuel Palmer, one of Guardian Saturday’s pub walk series. And on 31 December the paper is running a piece I wrote about birding while walking – describing walks at Underriver and on Handa Island in NW Scotland.
Pictured: elderberry, rosehips and views in the winter sun on Fackenden Down; fog and murk on the Low Weald from Ide Hill
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.
Hosed down after Hosey
A beautiful dusk walk around Chartwell and Mariners Hill on the Hosey route, accompanied by a stunning full moon and the mew of a buzzard, hit the spot last Sunday afternoon. It’s not always the early bird that catches the worm, you know. The mud just before point 8, the ‘dramatic’ crossing of the infant River Darent, is hilariously sloshy and treacherous enough to defeat any footwear bar stilts fitted with spikes but can be avoided by walking parallel in the grassy field alongside and rejoining just before the log bridge. A satisfying hose down of boots after returning home was called for.
Ide and seek on the greensand
With Saturday a washout it was a real pleasure on Sunday to find time for the Ide Hill route (a three-hour round trip from SE London). For some reason I often take this Greensand Ridge walk while my chosen football team is playing so it’s rarely the relaxing stroll it ought to be. Fortunately, after initial tension, the goals came in a rush so by the halfway point all was well and I could enjoy the subdued January colours, stillness of the woods and occasional bird calls. A huge buzzard glided away from us soon after leaving Scord’s wood leaving a cacophony of jackdaw and carrion crow calls its wake. There were few other birds evident though, a few robins, wrens and a dunnock the only compensation for the finches I was hoping for. The tiny cricket pitch at point 5 seemed even more titchy with no one on it. We caught the sun as it slipped out of the blue sky into a solid-looking bank of cloud draped across the western horizon as far as the eye could see. This gave us a strangely false sunset, and an early dusk at odds with the sky overhead. But those weald views – fantastic as ever. A pint in the cosy Cock Inn was a perfect way to conclude proceedings. Oh, happy new year by the way.
Into the cold woods
It’s nearly bluebell time, probably a week to 10 days before that magical woodland period. The cold dry windy weather has certainly slowed down things. A quick afternoon walk on the Ide Hill route today revealed just a few primroses, with even the azaleas of Emmett’s Garden (pay if you want to wander the gardens off the public footpath) looking pretty discouraged. The view off over the Weald appeared grey and blurred – not the usual colourful Garden of England tapestry. I’ve been asked by a couple of people to mention that in view of recent reports of ‘bluebell thieves’ in Norfolk, it’s illegal to dig up wildflowers. As well as causing lasting damage to the environment, the transported flowers are unlikely to thrive in gardens because they are adapted to a different, long-established habitat and conditions. Trampling the flowers is pretty damaging too… I’d certainly hope people will stay to the main paths and keep dogs on the lead when going through areas where there area loads of wildflowers. Anyway, things were still pretty bleak out there from the flower point of view on today’s walk … we had to look quite hard to find violets, dead-nettle, alkinet and wood anenomes even. But birdlife has really picked up; our walk revealed treecreepers and nuthatches, and a possible brambling – all firsts for me this year – plus an enormous buzzard swooping low over pheasants. Scord’s Wood was as superb as ever – a verdant ancient woodland with loads of moss and lichen, coppiced trees with flitting birds and mysterious rustles.
Bough Beech – the lake you can’t quite get to
From the heights of Emmetts Gardens, perched on the Greensand Ridge by Ide Hill, the reservoir at Bough Beech off to the south looks so inviting on a hot summer’s day – a cool dash of blue among shades of green, dotted with the white of small sailing dinghies breezily tacking this way and that.
On a hot day you might even think: “Cor, let’s get down there, hire a boat, a pedalo, splash about, perhaps a bit of waterskiing, finish off with a swim followed up by a nifty little sundowner in a trendy bar surrounded by people almost as slick as me.”
Crushing disappointment awaits you; none of these things are possible. The clue is in the name: look how they spell Beech – there’s no ‘a’. True, there is a sailing club and it does have a bar (at the weekends at least) but its home page proclaims it is “run by the members for the members”. Which is lovely … for the members. Fair enough. All good.
Oh well, we can’t get on the lake to cool us off on a summer’s day, so how about a picnic in a delightful meadow with a spot of paddling in the softly lapping water?
Er… absolutely not! Much of the lake’s boundary is a nature reserve and you can’t get close to the water. Again … OK, fine. Nature is good, we love nature, even if we can’t touch it – in fact it’s best if we don’t touch it.
Right, we can’t go in it or stop next to it. We’ll just have to walk or cycle round it while enjoying views across it, in the same way as you can at Bewl Water, an even larger reservoir not that far away. I suspect you may by now have worked out the format of this post and are anticipating me writing “Sorry, but you can’t walk round it”.
Sorry, but you can’t walk round it. I did try a couple of times with no real luck. Although there is a nice walk nearby that goes to Bore Place organic farm and takes in some nice little meadows and woods. You can even glimpse the reservoir if you crane your neck.
Where you can almost see the lake
Ah, here’s the Kent Wildlife Trust to the rescue. I read the KWT has a visitor centre in an oast house, a habitat reserve, nature trail and bird hides. There are picnic tables, and a car park. Big whoop! We’ve got our beautiful lakeside view after all, co-existing nicely with nature. Haven’t we?
Don’t be so naive, joker. It’s closed down. Now it’s an educational facility for some school or other. Anyway, even when KWT ran it you could barely see the lake from the visitors’ centre. And the nature trail went for about a third of a mile close to the reservoir’s western edge without quite giving you a view of it. Well, it did at one point, but there’s a huge fence in the way to prevent people from messing with nature. Then you had to walk back on a country lane down which vast 4WD vehicles hurtle along at colossal speeds, often driven by morons.
I’m told the ex-KWT site is still a great spot for birdwatching (even us dullards spotted greylag geese and great crested grebe) and you can indeed still use the bird hides and unleash your binocular power. Don’t expect any riveting conversation. It’ll most likely be “Seen the osprey?” Suspicious look, “who’s asking?”. Birdwatchers aren’t always the most communicative. (Not my mate Dave though, he’s brilliant.) Bough Beech does in fact have ospreys from time to time – not a beast fond of beautiful natural areas being opened up to the masses for frolicking.
Damn it. We’ll have to just drive around the lake on the adjacent country lanes, admiring it from various viewpoints. Off we go. We pass a sign that seems to be warning us about frogs. Oh I see, they cross the road here.
Ah, hmmm, the lake should be over there … no – there’s woods, there’s fields… it’s over there somewhere, but now there’s a shallow hill in the way. Bloody hell, I give up – you can see it from Emmett’s but I’m beginning to think it was a mirage, it doesn’t exist. I’ll have to join the yacht people.
There it is!
Hold on though, what’s that? Suddenly there it is; a roadside vista of Bough Beech lake. And you can park up. In the north-east corner of the lake, close to the KWT reserve, there’s a causeway traversed by a lane; handily there’s a pavement so it’s a good spot to get out of the car and have a gaze and a twitch maybe. The photos here were taken from there.
I suppose Bough Beech lake might be ruined if we were able to do what we want on it and around it. So really I’m glad I can’t organise a barbecue on a summer’s evening on the shoreline, and that there’s not a kiosk charging £7 to plonk one’s jam jar there with an ice cream van for company. I’m delighted not to be able to pedalo on it – disturbing the geese – or cycle round it – and risk squashing toads.
I rest easy at night knowing I haven’t had a snifter while watching the sun go down over this elusive but idyllic spot. But suddenly my sleep is broken; I jolt upright – did I just run over a frog?
June 2020 update! In a barely credible incident totally in tune with these disturbing times, a young couple climbed over a fence at Bough Beech early in June and sat by the lake in the heat, dangling their feet in the water and eating Doritos (chili flavour). This endearing but incendiary scene lasted for about 7 minutes before irate birdwatchers rounded on them and ordered them out. I witnessed these events unfolding in real time; it was all so shocking that I forgot to film it and put it on social media.
Chiddingstone larks and a pint of Larkins
Not a bad bank holiday weekend for weather, if not anything special. Partly because I had a craving for Larkins bitter I took a walk with friends at Chiddingstone yesterday. We were determined to ‘spot birds’, but decided that we lacked the necessary expertise in song identification to really distinguish the various warbler-type things merrily burbling away in the undergrowth. We had an ID app for birdsong but after it had decided that the tell-tale call of a chiff-chaff was actually a collared dove we gave up on it.
However, with the good old eyeball we saw a treecreeper, a nuthatch, two yellowhammers, two skylarks, three or four buzzards and a possible blackcap, but perhaps bullfinch (a very fleeting view and unable to recognise song). There were fewer than 10 swallows seen and no swifts or martins; this despite huge wild watermeadows down by the River Eden near Penshurst. It became cloudy as we walked with a hint of drizzle so butterflies were nowhere to be seen. Still, a lovely walk and the Larkins at the Castle Inn didn’t disappoint.
It was great to meet someone using a downloaded pdf of the Chiddingstone walk en route; if you’re reading this, I hope you managed the whole walk and enjoyed it.
The previous day, spurned by my boys who are usually up for a walk, I looked for a new route east of Ide Hill, ie turning left at the Octavia Hill seat rather than right towards Scord’s wood. It proved a pleasant woody walk with One Tree Hill resonances and plenty of paths to take. A couple of lovely views of Bough Beech reservoir opened up (pictured) from Stubbs Wood (an SSSI, like Scord’s), which apparently is ancient woodland. At Hanging Bank there’s a quiet car park with an informative nature noticeboard. As ever at this time of year, the wildflowers (and some cultivated ones) were wonderful.
The previous week we walked at Petts Wood. What a great job the National Trust has done in this superb woodland, heather clearings with raised pathways, superb pines and oaks and a multitude of well-maintained paths; it really is one of the best woods in London. The memorial to William Willett, of summer time fame, is pictured in the gallery below.
Wakey wakey woodland
The countryside has truly woken up. I saw my first peacock butterfly of the year at Ide Hill on Sunday (the more observant among you will be wondering what took me so long I’m sure, they’ve been around for a couple of weeks now) although oddly I haven’t seen a brimstone yet. Maybe I’m just walking along, daydreaming, not really taking stuff in. Anyway, I have noticed the woods developing a healthy green sheen, patches of primroses, and even the odd impatient bluebell bursting into flower. In Scord’s Wood, below Emmetts Garden, I came across clusters of cardamine pratensis – cuckoo flower, a somewhat overlooked spring flower (it’s pretty but not vividly colourful). My camera ran out of juice though, so no pix.
Birdsong has gone up several notches, with chiff chaffs arriving from African and great tits getting particularly busy, blackbirds clearing their throats and robins getting very territorial about everything. Out running recently I surprised a couple of fieldfare picking out worms at Beckenham Cricket Club, no doubt soon to head east to their breeding grounds in continental Europe and further afield. They might have been mistle thrushes, when I come to think of it. Up close very beautiful.
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…
• 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: Shoreham’s 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!