Weald and wings in the heat

Weald and wings in the heat

The planned long sultry walk at Oldbury failed to materialise on Sunday – like a mirage it shimmered but gradually receded from view as the unaccustomed warmth altered rhythms and weakened resolve. A midday family cycle from Tonbridge to Penshurst Place along the River Medway formed Saturday’s low weald excursion, coupled with a wander around the Tudor mansion’s sumptuous gardens. It was a gloriously warm day but not as energy-sapping as what was to come. On Sunday morning I did a bit of gardening at home in SE London – Penshurst’s vivid borders had inspired me to cut back some of the long grass and weeds to show off what flowers were growing in our sun-bleached south-facing front garden. But as the temperature roared past 30C by 11am it all felt like too much hard work; by noon I withdrew to a book and a cold drink, reflecting on how physical gardening actually is. I also pondered how sad it was that the once common municipal open air pool has largely disappeared from London apart from busy lidos at Tooting, Charlton and Brockwell Park. Nearby, the River Pool near Bellingham Play Park had become a paddling pool – I just hope its clean enough for that.

House martin. Photo by Av Thomas Landgren/Creative Commons

At Penshurst Place I saw more house martins than I’d seen anywhere this year; I’d seen some in the distance at Chartwell from the Westerham/Hosey walk a few weeks previously and a few on the Thames west of London. Among their merry throng, swallows and swifts also proliferated. Finches – green and gold – called and flitted from fruit trees and up at the house itself a very keen spotted flycatcher darted out from its vantage point on top of a wall to catch flying insects with elegant and accurate pirouetting manoeuvres. What an amazing bird that is; it seems so improbable that they make their way here every year from southern Africa to breed. What a journey for a small perhaps nondescript looking bird. At least the martins, swallows and swifts make their epic journey each year in huge clumps and look capable of incredible feats of airmanship, staying airborne for weeks on end. Birds like that perky flycatcher and its musical warbler fellow travellers look incapable of such a trip, but thankfully they make it every year. They clearly feel at home in the manicured grounds of Penshurst.

I’ve also seen notable birds also at Emmetts Garden, around Darwin’s garden at Downe, Hever and Chartwell, despite the heavy footfall. That seems counterintuitive. My guess is that despite the constant pruning and tidying, these birds find more nesting places in the medieval buildings than in neighbouring areas. They are also drawn by these historic plots’ long-established water features. Then there are the old fruit trees that are maintained out of respect for tradition. Certainly Penshurst does a good job of keeping some of its superb garden quite wild with an orchard and unkempt grasses. Its lovely ancient brick walls must also attract a lot of insects. Neighbouring farms may also use pesticides and over-trim hedges.

So perhaps the heritage gardens, despite their topiary and cultivated blooms, may actually be wildlife oases doing their bit for biodiversity alongside the rewilding projects. Maybe.

I haven’t described it yet but there’s an excellent walk between Tonbridge and Penshurst Place, on a separate path mainly to the bicycles. It would be easy to join with the Chiddingstone route. I must investigate further; there are some beautiful stretches.

I’ve got something concrete to say about heat in my street

I don’t use these pages to vent usually but something’s got me hot and bothered, and the beauty of running a website is that you are your own editor. Not always a good thing I suppose. Anyway, I’ve realised on my evening cycles that my street is actually hotter than surrounding areas. My one-hour route takes in Lower Sydenham, Beckenham, West Wickham and Hayes, taking in urban environments that lean on the lush side.

I’m a casual cyclist with an old bike and not much appetite for speed or lycra but this is beside the point. When I re-emerge onto my own street I feel a blast of heat. It’s because there’s far too much concrete in relation to greenery. Other streets have trees and front gardens, but here people – not necessarily current residents – have paved over their lawns, the council has removed anything arboreal (thanks guys, it looks like s*** now), and there is no strip of grass by the pavement. Just concrete mercilessly radiating heat. The water run off, if it ever rains again, will be pretty appalling and I imagine the street is now vulnerable to flooding thanks to the collective thoughtlessness. Doesn’t anyone care about aesthetics or the environment? You don’t have to be a keen gardener to have a patch of grass and a few plants. I think it’s pretty poor.

River Pool path with no litter – for a change.

Now for a rant that’ll echo what we’ve all heard on the news and elsewhere. Close to my road there is a park and a stream: the River Pool. It’s pretty nice. I think it’s grand for the kids to go paddling in it (mind any glass though) but for adults to leave litter everywhere and not consider taking it home is beyond the pale. I’ve often tried to clean it up a bit myself and I know the Friends of the River Pool do their best too. So I say shame on you selfish people who foul up the place. Does this happen in Germany, France etc? I don’t think so, not to the same extent.

Beckenham Place Park ‘reopens’ – and looks great

Beckenham Place Park ‘reopens’ – and looks great

This Saturday (20 July) is the official opening of Beckenham Place Park, south-east London’s largest green space (well, before you get to Petts Wood). There’s a fantastic new 283-metre-long lake fed by water from an aquifer 50-odd metres down via a bore hole, which will be available for open-air swimming, canoeing and paddleboarding (swimming will be £3 per session). Aquatic plants around the lake should help to absorb nutrients, thus purifying the water, and oxygen pumps will help keep it clear of unwanted weeds and algae. A family of egyptian geese and another of mallards has already moved in and egrets have been spotted stalking around. Still loads of bloody noisy parakeets though.

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It all looks fantastic, in an area lacking open air swimming facilities since the 1980s but, slightly worryingly, some people have jumped the gun and each evening push aside the barriers to take to the waters. Dogs are another issue with owners allowing their pooches to enter the water – this will not be permitted after the opening, which is good, much as I love dogs.

I’ve walked around lots lately and loved the feel of the place in Friday evening’s drizzle and low cloud. It was quiet, the meadows were gorgeous under the grey sky and there weren’t many in the delightful little bar that’s popped up in the mansion.

Triathlons will be held in the park from autumn onwards. A concert featuring Neneh Cherry and a host of DJs and pretty cool nu-jazz acts will take place in the park on 27 July, tickets (£45 adults) here.

Read more about it in my article for the Guardian Travel website