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. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.)

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Downe Downe deeper Downe

Downe Downe deeper Downe

I’ve always liked that Status Quo song ever since I was a young teenager. I’m no headbanger but it’s got energy and drive – which Kent walkers have in abundance of course.

GPX dodgy and iffy instructions

I did both Downe walks this weekend. The weather was distinctly iffy so I couldn’t be bothered to go far. So I did the new longer Downe walk on Saturday and the usual shorter one on Sunday with my wife. She was not too impressed by my instructions; “too wordy” she said in a slightly irritated fashion after about 50 yards. My attention was somewhat distracted by a B-17 Flying Fortress flying low overhead, but then she pointed out I had omitted to mention any stiles and gates and thought my ‘line of trees’ was really a wood. It made me realise that we all see things a bit differently and that I’m so familiar with the walk that I was imagining rather than actually seeing. That’s quite a phenomenon – try describing your walk to the station or to the office… it’s so obvious to you but you suddenly realise that you’ve completely misdescribed a house or a shop.

Compounding the unclear directions is the uncomfortable fact that the GPX tracks I’m pointing people to on the website are distinctly dodgy. On Saturday it was only right 50% of the time; often the blue dot marking your ‘live’ location would linger unhappily in a nearby road or layby. No idea why. Could be a signal thing or a sign you are running out of data, a position I’m very familiar with. Today, on the short Downe walk, the GPX was inaccurate the whole time. I’ll have to redo the track, maybe using a different website but then there might just be something about Downe, deeper Downe.

Here’s the pdf for the new instructions for Walk 1 Downe Circular. Gratitude to my wife for opening my eyes and apologies to anyone I’ve misled. And here is, hopefully, a more reliable GPX track.

By the way, I’ve learnt a new wildflower name and I’m going to use it. Birds-foot-trefoil. It’s small and yellow and spectacular at Downe, particularly in the meadows close to Darwin’s house (of course!). Apparently the plant is a staple in the diet of caterpillars of common blue, silver-studded blue and wood white butterflies. There are also pyramidal orchids at the moment in the the hillside fields that end the walk.

Hillside field point 7-8, Downe

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

Here’s a longer Downe route to follow; double the length of the existing Downe walk at 4.2 miles, so a pleasant 90-minute walk. See, download pdf or use GPX track from this page

It can be viewed on the GPSies site where a GPX track is available for you to download and follow on your smartphone (to get your real-time location tap the bottom-most button on the left of the screen).

The route starts and finishes at the same locations as the original Downe walk. The extension misses out on the lovely fields by Charles Darwin’s garden (although they are an easy detour away) and the Sandwalk but gains the superb ancient woods of Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw Woods with its superb April bluebells then orchids and gentians.

Last bluebells, Downe

Ancient woods: Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw

Yesterday the trees were rich with the calls of song thrush, chaffinch and wrens (so loud… and weird!). A sharp thundery looking storm slipped by to the south, on its way to Tonbridge and Sevenoaks (pictured). After the woods the walk joins the valley on the eastern border of the historic Biggin Hill airfield. Hedgerows, giant beeches and wild meadows make this a really rich looking habitat for flora and fauna; yesterday I saw nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and a wonderful large tortoiseshell butterfly. Full description of walk here, but the GPX track should get you round easily enough. 

Next walk to be added to this site: Knockholt Pound/Chevening circular. By end of June.