Summer is here; time for Pluto

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Continuing the theme of overlooked walks at Kent Walks Near London, the Polhill Pluto route yesterday proved the perfect choice on a bright, breezy summer’s day. There were plentiful orchids in the Andrews Wood-Meenfield Wood gap and fantastic ox-eye daisies, scabious and poppies in the fields below Polhill. It’s a great walk to do if you are a fan of the yellowhammer – the colourful, chirpy bunting (we’re talking about a bird by the way!) that adorns hedgerows in these parts and is particularly common for some reason between Shoreham and Otford. It’s repetitive and unworldy song is one of my favourites – it’s commonly described as sounding like ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ because of its rhythms but to me it’s simply the sound of summer. Listen out for it on the Darent Valley floor; around Sepham Farm it’s nearly always heard, and sometimes present in the lower parts of the Fackenden and Eastern Valleys route (such as around the Percy Pilcher memorial). The Pluto route (so called because you pass the final ‘planet’ on the Otford solar system scale model) can be combined with the Shoreham circular and even the Fackenden, Otford and Eastern Valley routes for a walk of up to 11 miles or so as all these routes intersect, or almost intersect, at various points. For some reason, I only think of this stroll as a summer walk – not entirely rationally, but it just feels right on a warm day.

Give Chevening a chance

Give Chevening a chance

Of all the walks on this site the one I’ve done the least is probably the Knockholt/Chevening circuit. I’ve not always been wildly effusive about it, even describing the early stages as dull. I was completely wrong it turns out. I strolled the route today and found it superb. The fields on the right of the North Downs Way in the early stages have been left fallow and look to be in a pretty advanced stage of rewilding – the flora is high enough to hide the odd lynx! As I hit Sundridge Hill the instantly recognisable and repetitive song of the yellowhammer burst from the hedgerows like some sort of alien morse code. A huge buzzard (what are they feeding them around here?) eyed me up from above. The views over Chevening House towards Ide Hill were delightful as I cleared the scarp face woodland. Chevening hamlet was as spooky as ever and the following climb back to Knockholt took in a broad vista of the Vale of Holmesdale under a moody sky with plenty of butterflies and wildflowers to admire. A red kite skidded and yawed above in the thermals and I startled a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers which suddenly took off from a fallen tree trunk a couple of metres ahead of me. I think my previous aversion to this walk was to do with the “private” signs around Chevening House, its association with some deeply unpleasant national figures, and the slightly creepy feel of the hamlet – it’s just so quiet, but it’s me, it’s not them – the road noise between points 4 and 5, and having to walk on the road for 100 metres by the farm at point 5. The truth is, there are great views, loads of wildflowers, wonderful trees and nothing much not to like.

As quite often happens in these parts the camera doesn’t capture the walk; slopes are flattened out so the scenery looks blander than it really is.

‘What is this place?’

‘What is this place?’

A spectacular winter’s day on Sunday. A pale blue polar sky, completely still, with saturated colours in the unfettered low sun. Knole was spectacular, the west-facing Tudor mansion ablaze in the late afternoon.

Despite the various woes affecting travel and holidays there were still visitors from abroad there, which was good to see – a reminder of better times.

“What is this place called?” I heard one man with an Italian accent ask an National Trust volunteer while gazing around the outer courtyard.

It seemed an odd question given that visiting Knole would involve taking a unique route leading to … well, Knole.

“Knole House,” the volunteer intoned with slow, exaggerated clarity, clearly pleased to be asked.

“So, who lived here?” he enquired, gazing at the enormous structure in wonder, perhaps hoping to hear “King Henry the Eighth” or “Queen Elizabeth the First”.

“The Sackville-Wests,” came the reply, delivered in an awed tone deemed suitable for heralding (minor) aristocracy.

“Ah”, said the man, nodding as if he were an old acquaintance of Vita’s, but betraying a false reverence that screamed: “Never heard of ’em”.

I too felt slightly disappointed at the answer, despite knowing what it would be.

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?

Find a walk that suits you

Find a walk that suits you

To help you find suitable walks here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map. Just click on the lines and blobs to get more information about that walk. You can use the menu at the top of the page to print off pdfs and to look at more detailed directions. Each walk description has a GPX map attached so you can follow your progress in real time – if you have signal. Failing that please use an Ordnance Survey map to check the route (OS Explorer 147 has them all).

Best walks for travelling without a car are those in the Darent Valley – the ones starting from Shoreham, Eynsford and Otford/Kemsing stations. Knole Park can also be reached from Sevenoaks station.

The walks around Shoreham, Downe, Cudham, Otford and Knockholt are on North Downs chalk fairly close to or on the escarpment itself. They have a different character to the more wooded southerly routes around Ide Hill, Westerham, One Tree Hill and Sevenoaks, which are on the Greensand Ridge.

Further south are the Hever and Chiddingstone walks, which are in the Low Weald of Kent… a different flavour again with fewer steep slopes.

Many of the walks overlap with each other such as Westerham and Hosey Common, One Tree Hill and Underriver – leading to severe spaghettification on the map displayed here.

Splashes of colour into autumn

Splashes of colour into autumn

Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) is a flower from the honeysuckle family and it looks so cool right now. Maybe not for much longer but it’s currently fairly prominent on the chalky walks such as Fackenden, Polhill, Chevening and Kemsing. Where the grassy hilly slopes are looked after by naturalists, the Kent Wildlife Trust for example, the flower supplants regular scabious – another superb flower and particularly sweet smelling – by mid September. The marjoram is no longer flowering much, and thyme has died down somewhat too so for pollinators the devil’s-bit, which looks a bit like knapweed at first sight, is the main show in town. It is certainly being enjoyed by butterflies and bees on the wonderful ‘wild garden’ path – which in June is great for orchids – leading to Fackenden Down this week. But the star of the walk – apart from the landscape and sky – was a superb green common lizard in a sunny spot near the top of the down. Few birds were in evidence but chiffchaffs called from the hedgerows, a buzzard soared in the distance and being I’m optimistic I’d say I may have seen a pair of late-migrating turtle doves heading south. Apparently devil’s-bit scabious got its name from its ability to treat scabies, a property that the devil didn’t like much (the devil wants us all to be itchy you see). Slightly weird but there you go.

The accompanying photos were taken on my iphone and hence are poor quality – they certainly don’t do the blue-purple sparks of devil’s-bit any justice; my camera is once again defunct at the moment. (Close up of flower photo by Anne Burgess/Geograph creative commons.)

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.)

Sweet meadows

Sweet meadows

The word ‘meadow’ is synonymous with summer and June and July are the very best months to enjoy them. There are so many brilliant summer meadows on these walks now alive with oxeye daisies, orchids, vetch, poppies, buttercups, and lush grasses rippling in the breeze. They are alive with butterflies and other insects while swallows swoop above them forming brief gaggles before separating to make single passes. High above, buzzards are often seen soaring while spectacular red kites – now much common in Kent than at any time in the modern era – float into view closer to the ground. Of course there are issues, swallow and martin numbers are much lower than back in the day and there ought to be more butterflies and bees. Still, meadows are hubs for wildlife and we are lucky the North Downs, Weald and Greensand Ridge areas possess so many.

Meadow bordering Scord wood on the Ide Hill walk, June 2021. Sheep have munched this one a fair bit, and that in the lead photo, but there are still plenty of wildflowers and bees
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)