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.

Bough Beech – the lake you can’t quite get to

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?

Bough Beech reservoir – don’t even think about it.

 

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.

Glimpse of Bough Beech near end of Walk 17

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.

Bough Beech/Bore Place walk

Fabulous Fackenden

Fabulous Fackenden

The Fackenden Down walk is such a winner at all times of year – and it’s so easy to get to from SE London, because it starts right outside Shoreham train station. In yesterday’s perfect weather wildflowers illuminated the hillsides and meadows; cirrus clouds offered a dramatic dreamscape high above and incessant birdsong filled the air. So many highlights on this walk: the bit when you leave the ancient beech wood and enter the timeless Magpie Bottom valley is my favourite. And the distant views of the City and the Shard from Romney Street are dramatic too. I was disappointed to see my team lose in the Champions League final later on (yet so thankful we got to the final) but the memories of the walk compensated. I created a GPX track of the walk too… so going off-route is now impossible (if you have a smartphone that is). The walk does have some steep sections though, so take it easy.

Interactive pdf of walk (to print or download on phone) is here.

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Chiddingstone larks and a pint of Larkins

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.

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