I hope everyone who dips into this website had a decent Christmas.
Yesterday (Boxing Day) there was a strange interlude on the Downe walk: a shard of blue sky suddenly appeared ahead, to the north. This was a most welcome sight given I’d accepted the walk would be a uniformly grey and dank trudge. It was also completely out of context with what has been a remarkably gloomy couple of months.
I hadn’t realised that a similar clear gap had developed behind me to the south west. Suddenly, without warning, the landscape was bathed in an utterly spellbinding glow. This reminder that the sun also rises in the UK lingered on for 45 minutes or so as curtains of impenetrable low cloud with rain began to threaten from the London direction. It was pure magic while it lasted.
The final field on the walk (pictured below) was laughably squelchy – definitely wellies only. The mud on all the walks is fairly horrendous at the moment. I was concerned to see the Polhill Bank/Pluto walk being viewed a lot on this site over the past 24 hours. The steep escarpment slope will be absolutely treacherous at the moment. The Fackenden route would be best avoided for the same reason. The best bets for lower mud levels are Knole and Lullingstone (although the woods will be a quagmire). One thing about mud though: I reckon you get more fitness benefits from trying to squelch your way round the walks, necessitating extra and lighter steps. (Best not to take dogs to Knole because of deer; they must be kept on lead at all times.)
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.)
Milder weather again now, little rain and presumably less mud. But bear in mind temperatures are set to veer wildly next week from mild to cold day by day. I haven’t been out on any of the walks for a few weeks now – possibly my longest period of absence for five years. I’m looking forward to seeing the first spring wildflowers, the daffodils at Ightham (pictured below), and in about three weeks the seas of wild garlic and bluebells in woodland on all the walks. First of all there’s blackthorn blossom to enjoy, primroses, wood anenome and violets, among others.
It’s amazing how rapidly the landscape transforms itself from its rather bedraggled and dreary state (it seems like that to me this year anyway) in early March to the rich promise of early April. It somehow surprises me every year. And from 12 April it will be possible to visit pub gardens after the walks – this seems like crazy talk. I hope there are still some pubs to go back to. There are one or two that may struggle to open up at all. It’s a grim old business, a global pandemic. My spring walks this year will be punctuated by regular halts to listen to birdsong and try to pick out various species. It wasn’t so long ago that I added wren to my aural recognition list… laughable that it took so long considering just how distinct and loud the call of that diminutive bird is. For some reason the walk I’m most looking forward to getting to this spring is the Chiddingstone loopespecially if the Castle Inn’s garden is open.
In the meantime I’ve stumbled across some BBC4 walks in Yorkshire that I’ve quite enjoyed – a couple of which I remember doing as a teenager on family holidays. The presenter, Shanaz Gulzar, is affable and doesn’t go on too much and if she starts to get pretentious, she soon thinks better of it. It’s all quite low key and accompanied by superb drone photography. Have a look on the iPlayer.
One of Shanaz’s walks crosses the Strid, a stretch of the River Wharfe that used to strike fear into a great uncle of mine, a local, who used to tell us stories of terrible events in those parts involving drownings and floods. He was extremely old at that point and had suffered the fate of being captured very early in – wait for it – the first world war. In fact as a very young man, perhaps still a teenager, he might have been living in Ypres as a civilian when the Kaiser’s army invaded. He was apparently given some very grisly work details and it was said he never quite recovered from his experiences. Nevertheless, here he was in the mid-1970s telling us kids about the Strid and the perils of trying to cross it. Good old Clifford. Slightly scary but a tremendous character.
Blade Runner quote there, ho ho. So scrub my last post about being in tier 2. London, from Wednesday, is in tier 3 along with Kent. It means you can meet up to six people you don’t live with outside (but not in a garden or outdoor venue). If you live with more than six that’s fine to walk with them all too. However, the guidance states: “You should avoid travelling outside your area and reduce the number of journeys you make wherever possible.” I’m not sure how “your area” is defined to be honest. But I guess it still means our walks will have to be a bit closer to home than an hour’s drive away. (See official tier 3 guidance here.)
The four walks on this site closest to south-east London are walks 1,13, 20, and 25 – they are in each within the London Borough of Bromley. So, Chislehurst-Petts Wood, Downe and Cudham walks probably count as “in your area”. You can also walk from Keston to Downe via Keston Ponds – a walk I haven’t as yet got round to adding to the site. But it’s easy to follow on a map. The Knockholt and Darent Valley walks from Eynsford and Shoreham are the next closest. Maybe stay away from the villages and take to the more remote paths, such as at Fackenden Down and the eastern valley routes. I think beyond that can’t be described as “your area”. Other lovely places to explore closer to SE London are Joyden’s Wood and Foot’s Cray Meadows in the London Borough of Bexley. There’s also Scadbury Park north-east of Chislehurst and I’ve previously described Beckenham Place Park and the Waterlink Way, which runs from Beckenham’s Cator Park to Greenwich along the Pool and Ravesbourne rivers. It’s easy to improvise your own routes in these places. Common sense, regular handwashing and social distancing remain of course the crucial issues. Stay safe and be patient with the many other walkers, joggers, dog walkers and cyclists you are bound to encounter.
If you do venture into the local countryside on any of the KWNL routes, go prepared… not just for Covid but for mud. Only wellies will really do it on most of the walks at the moment. Even the Downe walk is a quagmire at points. Lullingstone and Knole are best for mud avoidance. It looks like continuing to be a wet, mild winter so this won’t change anytime soon. Still, the mud is mainly at hot spots… it’s not continuous throughout any of the walks.