Exceptionally mild temperatures have lured bats out into the autumnal gloaming to catch late flying insects. I love watching these animals swoop, flutter and flit around and it’s a bonus to see them so late in the year. Usually you can only pick them out against the sky but at Downe and Keston on last weekend’s strolls I was buzzed by bats so closely I sensed rather than saw them zooming past. Yesterday at Polhill one or two emerged from the mist to pass close over our heads before vanishing into the gloom.
I’d thought we’d set off rather too late for a walk. Traffic was bad on the A21 slowing us further (the train is by far the best option for Shoreham walks) and low cloud had covered the sky. But by Locksbottom the skies cleared and we were bathed in a beautiful golden light. This was a false dawn: by the time we parked up by Meenfield Woods above Shoreham we were in quite dense fog. This magically cleared at Polhill, the walk’s halfway point, to give us unusual views before swirling back in as the sun set. With the mist below we had the feeling we were much higher above the valley than we were. I think this weather effect is called a temperature inversion, where warmer air passes over the relatively cold air on the valley floor, causing condensation.
By the time we finished the walk, visibility was down to about 50 metres and driving home the twisty, twiny country lanes needed total concentration if we were to avoid a close encounter with a hedgerow.
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.
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.
What a strange, beautiful day. Golden light flooding in from a cloudless sky and a startling clarity in the warm air produced scenes as colourful as anything I’ve seen in an English winter. February? We toiled up the steps ascending the steep hillside of Dunstall Wood amid hectic birdsong; the trees were silent only two weeks ago. I half expected humming birds to zip by and howler monkeys to playfully crash through the canopy.
Dunstall Wood steps – quite a climb on a warm day
At Austin Spring (this was, again, the Fackenden walk) a huge flock of finches rose from the unkempt fringe and flitted into that row of oaks that strides through the fields there. Without binoculars I couldn’t be sure of all the species but among them were goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches and siskins. There must have been 100-plus; quite a surprise.
Austin Spring – trees full of finches that had been feeding below
Later, in the twilight at White Hill, a tawny owl flew past us – my younger son saw it first as a silhouette on the path ahead of us, and I’m ashamed to say my first reaction was to think ‘pigeon’.
No butterflies though, not a single brimstone, the first to fly most years. You’d think on such a warm day they’d be present. All in all an excellent way to exorcise an away defeat at Burnley.
18th-century Grade-II listed Dunstall Farm House – an attractive building, with a hint of Normandy
Fackenden Down dusk: end of an amazingly mild February day, looking south-west towards Brasted
It’s been cloudy and mild on the whole; dull really, but the past two days have been crisp limpid classics, with a giant full moon thrown in for good measure. Some pictures from yesterday’s stroll at Meenfield Wood/Polhill Bank: walk 18. And, here’s a batch from Cliffe on the Hoo Peninsula from a trip there in mid-January, quite a haunting place in the right light.
Here’s a map of all the walks on this site so far. Click on the pointers to take you to descriptions of the walks online or in printable pdf format. Alternatively, use the walk tabs at the top of this page.
The best walks on this site for public transport, if you live in SE London are:
Best for public transport: Chislehurst/Petts Wood walk (13): direct train to Chislehurst/Petts Wood/Bickley stations from Brixton/Hither Green/Catford/Herne Hill/West Dulwich/Peckham Rye/Nunhead. For the Shoreham/Eynsford and Otford routes (walks 2, 3, 5, 8, 12, 14, 16) there are trains direct to the starts of the walks on Thameslink services between London Blackfriars and Sevenoaks (stopping at Peckham Rye, Nunhead, Catford, Bellingham, Bromley South etc). Trains are relatively frequent and take about 30 minutes from, say, Catford to Otford. Pubs in Shoreham and Eynsford well placed for any delays or cancellations! So-so for transport: Downe (walk 1): closest route to SE London but involves a (fairly frequent) 25-min bus ride – 146 from Bromley South station OK for transport: Knole Park (walk 11) – you’ll have to walk from Sevenoaks station (good rail services to Sevenoaks station on Thameslink – see above – or Charing Cross line (Hither Green etc) for nearly a mile to the leisure centre and enter Knole from there, joining the walk as per instructions and map. Bit of a stretch but do-able:Hever (walk 9) actually has a station, on the London Bridge line via East Croydon, so quite easy from Forest Hill, Brockley etc if you plan ahead. The walk starts at Hever Castle, 1 mile from the station but there’s a path that will take you there from the station. Not so accessible: Sevenoaks routes (walks 4, 6, 7): can take train to Sevenoaks station on Thameslink or Charing Cross line (Hither Green etc), but then a taxi ride – Ide Hill is about 4 miles from the station; One Tree Hill about 3 miles (also quite close to Hildenborough station). Car only, although…: I think Chiddingstone is definitely best by car. But, you can take the train to Hildenborough or Edenbridge and get a taxi (more details on walk’s page). Westerham/Chartwell is best with a car, though again bus from Bromley is possible (246), as is taxi from Sevenoaks station.
Always check ‘live departures’ online for trains – service disruption is quite the thing these days you know.
Best for views
One Tree Hill, Ide Hill, Otford circular via Romney St, Fackenden Down, Westerham/Chartwell, Shoreham’s mystery eastern valleys, Polhill, Eynsford/Lullingstone. Oh… actually all of ’em.
This weekend is bound to be a big one for walking; I’m just hoping the mud has subsided a bit now it’s been dry for a while. The early weather forecasts are suggesting that Good Friday will be best on the meteorological front; after that it’s downhill with a drizzly Saturday and showery Sunday in store. Check the Met Office here. Spring proper is just round the corner and the countryside is waking up. I’ve seen my first queen bumblebee of the year; ponds are full of frog and toad spawn; birdsong is taking off (though I’m yet to hear signs of chiffchaff arrivals from Africa – Ide Hill walk great for them); wood anenomes, hawthorn, and wild garlic are flowering; and the carpet of green in the woods will be turning blue by mid-April from the looks of it, although I spotted my first flowering bluebell in early February this year – see previous blog post.
It’s a good time to visit National Trust and other interesting places, which usually offer nature walks and children’s activities in the coming days. Here are some of my favourites, either on or close to the walks listed here:
• Penshurst Place(nr Tonbridge): crafts, storytelling and, for adults, a spring guided stroll including lunch (£28 including admission) • High Elms nature reserve (nr Bromley): excellent nature centre with orchards, ponds, cafe, wildlife information plus gardens (free) • Hever Castle (nr Edenbridge): an array of easter stuff including a Lindt Gold Bunny Hunt (free after paying admission) • Emmett’s Gardens: (nr Ide Hill/Brasted): Cadbury’s (or should that be Kraft?) easter egg hunt (free after paying admission) • Knole: (Sevenoaks) guided walks, easter egg hunt (free after admission) • Lullingstone Country Park (Eynsford): activity trail and easter egg hunt
• Down House (Downe/Bromley): something interactive and historical for kids involving people in costumes (basically I’m not quite sure, but chocolate will happen). Very close to High Elms though, so could tie in.
And here are those walks again. They work for me at all times but in the spring I’ve always favoured the Otford circular via Romney St and the Ide Hill walks for some reason.
Thunderstorm approaching – seen after leaving point 7. April 2012. This storm ended a long warm spell from March to April and ushered in the rain that went on for all of May and much of June that year (spoiling the queen’s regatta among other things)
I’ve finally got around to adding the Otford circular walk. At six miles it’s the longest on this site so far and the most hilly, but it’s worth it. But it’s a crying shame that the halfway-point pub, The Fox and Hounds, has shut down. It had a really good, large beer garden and giant fairytale shoe for kids to play in with a slide on top. I guess it was a bit isolated to survive the rural pub blight – especially in the winter months – not being in a village. Also newly shut is the Austin Lodge golf course, which clearly was suffering from the downturn in golf. There are also quite a number of courses in the area and competition must be tough. Presumably the valley it was in will now go back to farmland, but for now it’s got a rather wistful, wild look to it. The walk, like the others on this site, is within the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The walk is best in April-October – after that it gets too muddy at some points. The first time I did it, in 2005, I got home just in time to see Steve Harmison bowl Michael Clarke in the amazing 2nd Test of that momentous ashes series. A big moment (for some of us anyway), and a great ending to a great day.