Easter Sunday silence

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.

A special stroll.

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The North Sea comes to the North Downs

South-east London’s first April weekend was a dullard; very disappointing at a time of year when colour is returning to parks, gardens and countryside. A breeze from the North Sea – not a particularly cold one – brought thick stratus, drizzly outbreaks and, on Saturday, a gloom that made it hard to distinguish 3pm from 7pm. Headlights were on, people hurried past, huddled, on the pavements. On the North Downs escarpment the cloud barely scraped over the hills and the drizzle intensified; but there was a snug softness in the air and sudden increases in brightness as the sun attempted to break through before being smothered by the North Sea murk once again.

Chevening church, Kent

Chevening church, St Botolph’s © Adam McCulloch

Chevening

Near Chevening, beneath the scarp, on a murky day in spring © Adam McCulloch

Sunday was marginally better, but the Spitfires and light aircraft of Biggin Hill were still well and truly grounded – so none of the flybys accompanied by the growl of piston aero engines you usually get in these parts. We did two walks at Knockholt Pound, taking in Chevening hamlet: one to the west that loops back on to the North Downs Way via Sundridge Hill; the other to the east, heading down by Star Hill Lane then swinging right past messy farmyards to Chevening’s ancient St Botolph’s Church. The first bluebells are out and other wildflowers punctuated the grey proceedings along with myriad ultra-busy birds. A bullfinch was spotted, a buzzard (always a buzzard or two at Chevening) and more pheasants than I’ve ever seen.

I may well add the combined walk to this site next week, but I’m not totally satisfied with it; some good views and points of interest but there’s one bit where there’s too many farm tracks and rubbish heaps and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to walk there. Also, the woods seem a bit too managed – logging, and probably something to do with all the pheasants.

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.

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Knockholt Pound on woods

I tried to find a new walk today and decided that the Chevening area round the corner from the Darent Valley looked good. It’s got a lovely old church, a secluded 17th-century grand mansion used by the government for dignitaries (are there any still?) and the North Downs chalk escarpment. The house was probably designed by Inigo Jones (trendy name you’ve got to say).

It’s an area I often cycle around out of winter, using the Pilgrims’ Way road at the foot of the scarp and climbing steeply on the likes of Sundridge and Brasted hills. A lovely area in summer.

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My route started at the end of Chevening Lane, Knockholt Pound, where I parked up. I followed the path down the slope through woods toward Chevening, then swung a right across farm/park land with great views of the mansion. Eventually you enter more woods and emerge on Sundridge Hill by a house with the most extraordinary number of bird feeders. With tits and finches all a flutter around me I strode up the hill on the narrow lane then took the North Downs Way back to Chevening Lane with more woods to the south, blocking the view. All in all about 3.5 miles.

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It was boring. And muddy.

I passed very few people; there was an angry woman shouting at her dog. The woods seemed lifeless and over-managed. The agricultural land was dull. I saw a buzzard. Great. And some violets flowering. I was pleased with the views of Chevening House, but then I remembered Boris Johnson stayed there sometimes when he was (a useless) foreign secretary. And that was it.

I’ll need to add something, a diversion of some sort, before I can include it on this site. I’ll think of something. But all the paths around Knockholt are a bit stop start. It’s a better area for cycling perhaps.

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

A proper crisp winter’s day

It’s been cloudy and mild on the whole; dull really, but the past two days have been crisp limpid classics, with a giant full moon thrown in for good measure. Some pictures from yesterday’s stroll at Meenfield Wood/Polhill Bank: walk 18. And, here’s a batch from Cliffe on the Hoo Peninsula from a trip there in mid-January, quite a haunting place in the right light.

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Lullingstone country park – perfect for a winter walk in fading light

The open spaces and long valley views of Lullingstone make for a very atmospheric walk at this time of year in clear conditions. The Shoreham-Eynsford stations walk takes in an area of the park, as does Walk 12 but its easy to devise your own stroll from the Visitor’s Centre or from Eynsford’s Roman Villa car park (not free) or train station. There is also parking in Eynsford village or in laybys along the road to the Villa. It’s a bit cloudy as I write but on Thursday the sky was fantastic, though there was no moon.

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