Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

OK, for those going out this weekend expecting swathes of bluebells, you may be disappointed. They are late this year – particularly at One Tree Hill and Ide Hill, but not far off full bloom in Meenfield Wood. Probably a few too many cold nights of late has set them back. Next weekend will definitely be better. But there are other flowers to enjoy. Cuckooflower clumps are great at this time of year and, like red campion, wood anenomes and celandine, get better the more you notice them. Primroses form eyecatching patches too, and soon cowslips will adorn the grassy slopes of the North Downs (with orchids and marjoram/oregano to follow). These all brightened up my walk from One Tree Hill to Ightham Mote then back up the hidden valley with the little stream yesterday (pictured below). Below are some recommendations of good places to see bluebells.

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If you’re staying local, Beckenham Place Park has some good patches (or will have), although get ready to exercise emergency social distancing manoeuvres as oblivious joggers jag around, their ears full of choons. Oxleas Woods off Shooters Hill is another good local spot and I daresay Sydenham Hill Woods too. After that I think we’re talking Petts Wood and the adjoining Hawkwood and Little Heath Wood and Selsdon Wood south-west of Croydon. Of course, there are brilliant bluebells at Downe, Meenfield Wood, Ide Hill, One Tree Hill, Hosey Common and in woods east of Shoreham on this website’s walks, and the cobalt carpet reigns supreme in woods near Westerham and around Hever and Edenbridge.

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Bluebells, Scords wood, Ide Hill walk, April 2017

Anyway, here are some bluebell factoids gleaned from an excellent article with far more detail called Bloomageddon: seven clever ways bluebells win the woodland turf war at The Conversation website.

  • They are uniquely adapted to suited the multispecies ancient woodlands of the UK
  • Low temperatures trigger their growth (but might delay their blooming if in April). Bluebell seeds germinate when the temperature drops below 10°C.
  • Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight into fructose allowing them to photosynthesise at low temperatures.
  • They are supreme competitors with other plants, allowing them to carpet woodland floors. But they get help in the form of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic fungi.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world.

But please be careful never to tread on any; it takes bluebells years to recover from foot damage. Digging them up – surely no one visiting this site would consider such a thing – is illegal, and please don’t let dogs trample them either – keep them on the lead.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Meenfield Wood bluebells, near Shoreham, Kent

A return to winter – and mud

A return to winter – and mud

To those of you hardy souls thinking of venturing out to local countryside for a break from the local park tomorrow, I’m sad to report the mud is back with a vengeance. I claimed in my newsletter that it was drying up rapidly, but the heavy rain and low temperatures over the past few days have put the situation into reverse unfortunately. I ventured out on to the Downe route yesterday and found it extremely slippery with the corner of the final field before reentering the village impassable without wellies. Then the hail started…

While I’m here, thanks to everyone who has donated to the website. A sizeable proportion of donations will now be winging its way to the Kent Wildlife Trust and to Project Seagrass, which restores marine environments to help capture carbon and improve biodiversity.

(Pictured: Hail storms in winter from the Greensand Ridge near Sevenoaks, 2018)

Crisp and clear

Crisp and clear

Despite all the rain and mud, winter was at it’s best on Christmas Day. Today (27 December) looks good too. Things get a bit cloudier – and colder – from tomorrow. Maybe enough ground will freeze up to take the edge off the mud. Keep a look out for birds – we saw sparrowhawks and a tawny owl hunting on Christmas Day at Lullingstone – and enjoy the fantastic light effects created by the afternoon sun as it illuminates the stark trees. Another bird you’ll be sure to hear is the high-pitched calls of goldcrests particularly in pines and cypress. It’s quite hard to see them though, because they are tiny and stay high up generally. Watch out for small flocks of redwings on the search for berries. But generally speaking I haven’t seen a lot of birds this winter on my walks.

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I think that’s summer over with

I think that’s summer over with

There’s no point pretending. It’s definitely autumn. It might even be winter. I’m not sure. But it’s not summer anymore. And it’s getting so dark so quickly after 6.30pm. I mean I’ve been through all this before – quite a lot actually – but this year it’s caught me out. The light just seems to go. There’s none of this ‘oh look there goes the sun but we can carry on getting jiggy with it’ malarky now. A nagging cold wind rubs salt in the wounds. Thoughts of a wander in the backyard to look at the tomato plants and their failed crop with a glass of sauvignon in hand seem so eccentric as to impinge on insanity.

Still, there are things worth getting out to see. Migrating birds for example. I was fortunate to be asked to write this piece on the subject for the Guardian last week. I learnt a lot writing it, especially from talking to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Paul Stancliffe; an expert who’s happy to talk to a layman and amaze them with stories and observations. It also gave me the opportunity to pick North Downs and Beyond blogger Steve Gale’s brains and discuss matters with the mysterious Dave of these pages. Who knew that until the 19th century many people believed swallows hibernated in mud in ponds during winter and that we only found proof of their migration in 1912? Well, I didn’t.

Meanwhile, there’s a pandemic going on. The infection rate is rising after a lull in which many of us had kidded ourselves into thinking it was kind of over. Of course it wasn’t. Without a vaccine it can’t be. But treatment of the disease is better now and most people ‘get’ social distancing and modified behaviour so I can’t believe we’re all for the chop quite yet. I don’t want to go on about politics here, so I won’t – there are enough opinions floating around. Let’s just say I’m not quite sure the virus outbreak has been handled too well and, on an unrelated matter, I don’t want Kent to be turned into a lorry or car park.

Anyway, walks are good! Very good for thinking, watching and reflecting and saying ‘hi’ to strangers. I recommend walks!

It might be an idea on walks to take hand sanitiser with you and use it after touching stiles and gates.

The picture above is of geese flying east of Shoreham at the end of August 2019 at the end of one of that year’s last hot days.

 

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

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Another new route. Walk 26, Underriver and Budds, cobbles together the optional scenic extension to Walk 6 with the Wilmot to Budds path of Walk 7. It’s a brilliant walk with a superb hedgerow-lined path currently full of berries, a sunken trail with amazing trees growing out of its embankment, atmospheric oasthouses and far-flung views of the Weald. The woods at One Tree Hill are always a pleasure to walk in, especially the ‘tropical’-feeling bit east of Rooks Hill lane and there are myriad springs and little streams that trickle out of the sandstone ridge at various points – mostly around where the farms are, their positioning being no accident. It’s a two-hour round-trip hike starting and finishing at Underriver village.

For those who do these walks with younger children, I wonder if any of them find the appearance of oasthouses a bit disturbing; I certainly used to when I was small. I still find them fascinating and this walk takes you close to some of the best.

‘Walking’ beech trees on the sunken path near Underriver

The only blot on the landscape is the temporary (we hope) closure of the White Rock Inn, one of the nicest pubs on these walks.

The farms encountered have attractive old houses attached and pasture for horses, sheep and cattle, plus a few alpacas. However, around Budds, the fields are for cereals and can be quite barren depending on time of year. They lack wildlife/wildflower margins too – a slight blemish on what is a tremendous afternoon’s stroll. Check out the interractive map below and, as ever, on the walk’s page there are links to GPX (real time location) maps – including a nice short cut variation too.

 

Yellowhammers and Spitfires

Yellowhammers and Spitfires

An idyllic new route: walking down Polhill Bank then past Sepham Farm towards Otford takes you into a summery wonderland of wild marjoram, myriad butterflies, hedgerow birds while, in the (hopefully) azure sky, two-seat Spitfires purposefully head off to deep Kent on joyriding trips.

There are loads of paths to take from the car park off Shacklands Rd by Badgers Mount; it’s easy to customise walks from there. But you need to stroll a mile or so before you can rid yourself of the M25 noise. But even close to the motorway there are compensations: Andrews Wood, Meenfield Wood and Pilots Wood are beautiful and each has its own character. Visit late in the day and the shadows and sunbeams among the beeches form a light art installation on a scale the Tate could only dream of. Kent Wildlife Trust is taking care of some of Pilots Wood these days, and of Polhill Bank which it leads on to, a south-facing slope full of wildflowers and a perfectly framed window of the vale between the North Downs and Greensand Ridge.

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Continue down the steep slope and enter a world resonant with birdsong – yellowhammers in particularly (de-de-de-de-de-de-deeeeeee) – and the growl of Merlin engines overhead from time to time.

There are views over rich meadows, cereal fields, apple trees and ancient hedgerows. In the haze oasthouses stand out black and white against the darkly wooded valleysides. Right now, in July, butterflies abound – peacocks, commas, red admirals, gatekeepers, meadow browns and more. Buzzards drop by for the views (and carrion). At one point you come across Pluto, the furthest point of the to-scale Otford solar system model (the sun is in the recreation field in the village somewhere). At four miles, the route is doable for the kids with a couple of tough slopes thrown in to test out the oldies’ knees. Check it out.

• GPX map of route, click here
• PDF, click here

Google map

At last, a sunny weekend

At last, a sunny weekend

The weekend promises to dry and fairly sunny. This is highly novel and should not be ignored. I recommend a walk. For the mud averse I’d suggest a Lullingstone or Knole Park expedition. I regretfully add that One Tree Hill and Hever are quagmire-atic at present. Overtrousers, perhaps full body armour, would be required, along with thigh-length boots, which I doubt many Kent walkers possess. The other walks should be passable if distinctly squelchy.

I have been walking in Suffolk today, in search of pastures new. And yes, the pastures are very large there. More of that later. In the meantime here are some pictures of sunny scenes in late autumn on Kent walks … scenes that many of us have almost forgotten ever happened.

Inspiring words from Bill Bryson

Inspiring words from Bill Bryson

I love how Bill Bryson always homes in on the essentials: he’s a writer who’s really connected to what’s best about people and our environment and he doesn’t bother too much with noise. These are troubling times in the UK, certainly relative to the past 25 years or so. But here’s Bill, helpfully retweeted by broadcaster John Simpson:

This is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in the view.

I read that and immediately felt better about the currency crashing, the divisions stoked up by the B word, the erratic leadership of the current prime minister, the inadequacy of the official opposition, the possibility of a national crisis. It’s a great quote and I like to think it kind of sums up why I put this website together. And here’s a picture from a recent stroll at Knole Park of nothing much – just late afternoon autumnal light. (Top picture is of Knole House, of course, catching the rays as it does so beautifully at this time of year.)

Awkward August with a sting

A distinctly autumnal tinge to the air this month. But I suppose when you have summer start in April it’s not surprising. There has been some welcome rainfall… though not so welcome if you were on holiday in the UK. There are still some interesting wildflowers aplenty in the margins, though not the spectacular vistas we saw in June on walks such as Fackenden Down. On a recent stroll at Ide Hill the vistas were as beautiful as ever but the woods had taken on that rather careworn look of late summer. Emmetts Garden though… wow, what beautiful blooms are still displaying there.

In terms of birdlife it’s a quiet time of year with few migrations taking place as yet, but anyone with a good eye and ear will notice increasing flocking of small birds in multi-species groups, flitting through woodland margins in search of seeds and insects. Often they include finches, tits, goldcrests and firecrests. Large flocks of woodpigeons and starlings will also be seen.

European hornet.

The Biggin Hill airshow, a far more modest affair than in pre-2008 financial crisis days, took place over the weekend just gone. There were wonderful sounds and sights, particularly of second world war aircraft and astonishing displays by the Typhoon fighter jet which certainly does not lack for power and speed. While enjoying the show, beer in hand, I had a most interesting encounter with a hornet (or large wasp) which stung me repeatedly between thumb and forefinger before being persuaded to fly off. It was a close-run thing between hornet and jellyfish (see previous Camber Sands entry) as to which was the most painful initially. The jellyfish imparted an electric shock-like sensation that the insect could not muster. But there is no question that for swelling and temporary unforeseen side-effects the hornet is the clear winner. I was able to finish my beer, however.