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.)

Superb North Downs railway walk

Superb North Downs railway walk

It’s good to avoid using the car when possible – the traffic at the moment heading out of town seems pretty bad – so I’m hoping that when I add new routes there are viable public transport options.

That’s certainly the case with the 6.5 mile Otford Station to Kemsing station route, which is mostly on the North Downs Way on the crest of the chalk escarpment. It’s easy to navigate, being well signed all the way from Otford, then descends the downs at the St Clere estate, Heaverham. (Read full directions here.)

At Heaverham hamlet you emerge close to the super Chequers Inn. There’s still a good mile walk to the eccentrically positioned Kemsing station though on some quite indistinct footpaths through pastures. You have to cross over the M26 on a bridge (making navigation a bit easier) then cross the railway line 200 metres west of Kemsing station at a foot crossing hidden in woods (making navigation a bit more difficult!).

Now, here’s the twist; trains back to SE London from Kemsing are infrequent (usually once an hour, with an easy short change at Bromley South) but they are fast. So timing the inevitable beverage at the Chequers can be tricky. If you overcook it, then it’s a 15-minute walk straight down Watery Lane (no pavement so frankly dangerous) to the station. But allow 30 minutes at least for the far more attractive footpath route. If in doubt, just stay for another drink and take your time.

  • Wheat above Heaverham
  • St Clere estate house
  • Meadow on North Downs escarpment
  • North Downs Way near Kemsing

Thanks to Steve for getting me out to walk much of this route recently (and telling me about the friendly pub), and thanks to Will for agreeing to join me on a chaotic romp through the molehills and long grass of the last mile as I attempted to ‘pioneer a route’ on vague footpaths to Kemsing station in a doomed attempt to catch the 17.50.

Find directions for the walk here. In the meantime, if you are confident enough to give it a go without a description, here’s a GPX map, but I’d recommend taking an OS Map. I haven’t been able to embed a Google map for the walk thanks to WordPress’s new restrictive new rules. I’ll do a PDF soon.

For that last awkward bit, cross the M26 by a footbridge (easy to find) then head across a grassy, lumpy field aiming for a stile leading into woods close to the railway line. Immediately after climbing over the wonky stile you will see the foot crossing over the railway lines themselves. Cross then turn left along lovely Honeypot Lane to walk 200 metres to Kemsing station, which is opposite (wait for it) the Chaucer industrial estate.

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.)

Orchids in the mist

Orchids in the mist

Two walks around Shoreham at the weekend in subtly different conditions. On Saturday we went looking for orchids on the eastern valleys route. It was a mostly cloudy day but with good visibility. Towering cumulus held the promise of a storm in the evening – well, one did materialise even yielding a funnel cloud in a near-tornado touchdown in east London – and the humidity was something else, even in these chalk upland valleys which trap heat and moisture.

For Sunday, the cloud was almost at ground level, quite unusual for June I thought, again threatening heavy rain, which eventually arrived after dark. We kept our walk brief, venturing to Polhill from Andrew’s Wood but not heading down to ‘Pluto’ on the valley floor, instead hiking the hillside above Filston Lane, moving slowly, looking for flowers and birds (no luck there!). The chalk slopes were festooned with natural colour, the delicate pink of fragrant orchids, raspberry ripple of common spotted and rich pink/mauve of pyramidal orchids. Trefoil, ox-eye daisies, poppies, scabious, lucerne, foxgloves and others I don’t know the names of completed the scene.

Pyramidal orchid on Polhill Bank, managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust

There are bee orchids and more on these walks but I managed to miss them. Marbled white butterflies, commas and common blues were in abundance, plus a beautiful cinnabar moth, despite the lack of sun. It felt so rare to stroll on the flowering hillside in such dull conditions. Down at Headcorn, near Maidstone, the airshow had been cancelled through lack of visibility and nothing flew from Biggin Hill apart from one executive jet which made a beeline for the sunshine above the murk. Still no airliners.

I was taken by the private nature reserve sign on the footpath into the hillside from Shoreham station… “keep dogs on the lead, adder strikes common” grabbed the attention.

Well here’s hoping the weather clears up a bit. I’m no expert but the orchids already looked to be on the wane just about, but there’s plenty more in the way of wildflowers yet to come on these thin chalk soils. Marjoram, thyme, wild carrot, more scabious, rosebay willow etc are all yet to explode into colour.

I should mention that Polhill is looked after very well by the Kent Wildlife Trust as is some of the land close to the Eastern Valley route, notably Fackenden Down. Apparently both sites support common lizards and adders (hence the warning sign), dark green fritillary butterflies, willow warblers and man orchids. I never see any of these species but it’s great to know they are present.

I liked the gloomy atmosphere. For a bit. But this is going on for far too long now. Still, there’s the football to enjoy.

Top picture is the hillside opposite Romney Street, east of Shoreham. Below (in order of appearance): White Hill nature reserve sign; Magpie Bottom seen from Austin Spring; fragrant orchid White Hill; common spotted orchid White Hill; cinnabar moth near Austin Lodge hamlet; common spotted orchid Romney Street; fragrant orchid Polhill. All photographs by AMcC

Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Windy, cold, grey, damp. Yep, this May is a shocker. We needed the rain yada yada (or yabba yabba, take your pick). I won’t go on leisure cycles in this kind of weather, but walking is still a possibility if the wind drops. I know, it’s hard to believe I’m talking like this – it’s May in south east England! My walking activities do mean I have some accurate memories of weather and there were a couple of days not dissimilar to this last May. But only a couple. Anyway, for once I had time last weekend to devise an epic by joining up group of routes. Some old friends were joining me from west London; so we wanted to stretch our legs and truly earn that pint at the end. So we took on the Shoreham eastern valleys walk joined it up with a section of the Fackenden Down route then slipped into Shoreham circular mk2 before segueing smoothly into half of Shoreham mk1, taking in the Meenfield wood bluebells.

Meenfield wood bluebells

On the map it looked to be 8.5 to 9 miles but we reckoned it was about 11.5 miles with our inability to walk straight and a diversion to see the Percy Pilcher memorial. Back in the village the choice was between the Crown, the King’s Head or the Mount Vineyard for the aprés. We settled on the vineyard for its proximity to the station, though both the pubs were passed with regret. In the manner of a walk in the Highlands or west Wales we encountered a number of different weather conditions – beginning with a colourful combination of shades of grey at different levels punctuated by shards of blue sky and varying degrees of sun.

Percy Pilcher memorial

What with the multitude of greens and yellow tones in the woods and fields the effect was dazzling at times. But as we left Magpie Bottom a period of nimbo stratus with heavy rain fell upon us and we emerged at the top of Fackenden Down with that great view shrouded in mist and ragged low cloud. But by the time we’d left the hillside after sheltering we were in bright sunshine and what felt like a 10C rise in temperature. Finally, at the vineyard, we caught the edge of a thunderstorm somewhere around London bringing further rain. In the sunny bits buzzards soared, yellowhammers posed on the tops of hedgerows – with blackcaps, robins and whitethroats chirping away within – and Spitfires from Biggin Hill growled overhead. All part of the Kent wonderland.

Reverse the route

Reverse the route

Doing the walks in reverse is almost as good as trying a new walk. Of course, you have to be familiar with the route the ‘right way round’ first because having to read instructions from the bottom up isn’t easy and would suck the joy from the experience. The Fackenden Down stroll (pictured above in May last year – spot the difference in conditions!), soon to be coming into its own what with orchids and various other wildflowers such as sainfoin, changes character considerably when walked clockwise; although you’ll have to look over your shoulder for that distant view of London from Romney Street the wonderful vista taking in the head of the Darent Valley and North Downs escarpment awaits you once you hit the down itself. I’ve taken to doing Hever the ‘wrong way round’ too. But some of the others it wouldn’t occur to me to try, which is a bit odd. Nonetheless, it’s a great way of breathing new life into familiar routes and the cause of some aimless fun banter in my family as to which way round walks should be done.

Hawthorn is now coming into flower, as pictured on the Downe walk

Bit of a parish notice here, but one worth mentioning: when parking for walks in the countryside, make sure there’s nothing of any value visible in the car. Recently there have been reports of car break-ins around Shoreham and I know Toy’s Hill car park has been the site of a few smashed car windows.

My KWNL bird list has come on a bit lately – a wheatear spotted at Emmett Gardens and a pair of whitethroats on the Polhill/Pluto walk among the highlights plus a brambling and tree creepers on the Ide Hill walk. But still no kingfisher or house/sand martin. It’s a distinctly non-birder’s list… just birds I come across while walking, usually without binoculars – real twitchers see these species before breakfast most days.

Check out Dave’s bird page for more on spring birds to look out for

Lullingstone’s wild garden is a match for its World Garden

Lullingstone’s wild garden is a match for its World Garden

I don’t publicise Lullingstone Country Park that much because it’s busy enough already and it’s easy to devise your own walk around its lush acres. The visitors’ centre car park is full to brimming by mid-morning of a sunny weekend and, just down the road, Castle Farm catches much of the overspill and is a lovely attraction in its own right with its lavender fields and local produce. And then there is the excellent World Garden at Lullingstone Castle. Throw in picnic tables, viewpoints, a cafe, the river path and there’s no mystery about its popularity.

Credit where it’s due; whoever looks after the place – I guess it’s Kent County Council – has done a wonderful job of rewilding areas of meadow and wildflower around the paths and fairways of the golf course. In spring it’s all about orchids, bugle, speedwell and cowslips but at this time of year the profusion of marjoram, thyme, fine grasses and wild carrot growing all over the place is spectacular. 

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A walk around the park’s curvy contours and its superb ancient woodland (probably the quietest parts of the park) is a very civilised activity indeed. Those big North Downs skies are good for spotting birds of prey (I’ve seen all the major UK species here) and yellowhammers have made a comeback in the hawthorn/buckthorn thickets on the slopes. I’ve seen grass snakes here, too. Biggin Hill’s Spitfires often appear overhead on their joyriding flights … all in all it’s a real picture. Maybe visit later in the day on a fine weekend – they say the car parks are freed up a bit after 3pm. 

I think during the pandemic it’s best to avoid the river path, however. It gets a little too busy for my liking with myriad dogs confusing the issue. I’ve got two walks on here (3 and 12) that venture into the park from nearby Eynsford and Shoreham railway stations, but I’m considering adding another … perhaps starting at the public golf club entrance and taking in more of the woods. We’ll see.

Lullingstone CP’s Facebook page has all the latest news including whether or not the car park is rammed.

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Saturday was a pleasant winter’s day so we ventured once again to the eastern Darent Valley watching the sunset and hoping for an early evening owl. We were rewarded instead by wonderful and close views of three juvenile buzzards hanging motionless above Fackenden Down calling to each other plaintively.

I haven’t got the lenses to capture wildlife unless it’s less than two feet away. My lack of super-duper equipment was also brought home to me by the rise of a huge moon behind Dunstall Farm; my camera could only represent it as a small white disc. Still there’s a bit of atmosphere in the shot, seen below. For starters, I love the pines that surround the secluded farmhouse, an attractive and venerable building with a hint of Normandy about it.

Today of course (Sunday, 9 February) I imagine nobody in their right mind went walking what with Ciara wreaking havoc across the land. (There is a shorter version of the Fackenden Down walk that’s quite handy for short winter days here – you can start it at Shoreham Station and walk up the track almost opposite to join the walk or park at the layby in Rowdown Lane as marked. It’s 2.6 miles but good exercise because quite up and down.)

 

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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.

Why be the Fall guy?

When autumn gets it right these walks can be rather picturesque. Golden light, a fresh breeze, vibrant colours under a cobalt sky. And a pint of Harvey’s in the pub. But such days have been scarce for most of October and November I think we can agree. Autumn is great for cliches too (golden light, vibrant colours), which I am too readily resorting to. So I’ll shut up.

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