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.)
I’d only ever done Walk 14 (Shoreham’s ‘mysterious’ eastern valleys) in winter and autumn prior to today. It then had a lonely, almost eerie quality. I’d assumed it would be busier but my friend and I were alone as we traversed fantastic woodland and wildflower meadows, and yes, it still had that timeless feeling of loneliness. Dark green fritillary butterflies and commas were seen as were bee orchids, fragrant orchids and fields of poppies and thistle.
After the hamlet at Austin Lodge we made it up the hill to the Percy Pilcher memorial; a beautiful spot overlooking a typical North Downs dry valley. Pilcher was a 19th-century glider designer and pilot who tested many of his designs right here, a couple of miles south of Eynsford. He was poised to become the first man in the world to achieve powered heavier than air flight but crashed and died in the south Midlands flying his Hawk glider before he could get his powered machine – a revolutionary triplane – in the air. Pilcher would have beaten the Wright Brothers by four years had he succeeded. A more impressive monument to the great man was put up at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire, scene of his last crash, but the one near Eynsford (pictured below) felt perfect in the hush of this breezy, warm day.
One day in 1897 Pilcher let his cousin Dorothy Rose Pilcher take the controls of his Hawk glider – probably the first time a woman had flown a heavier-than-air-aircraft. She flew down the hill and collided with a man operating a cinematograph camera. I reckon it was his fault but no one was hurt thankfully.
A great thing about this walk is that it starts right by Shoreham (Kent) station (obviously an even better thing once the pandemic is over, whatever that means). Please don’t try to get to the Pilcher memorial by car; there’s no parking at Austin Lodge and the whole essence of this remarkable place is its tranquility. You can park the car by Shoreham station (please avoid driving through the village which can get snarled up and spoilt by traffic) for free if you feel the train service is unsafe for Covid-19 reasons.
Learn more about Percy Pilcher.
Bulls and cows in fields can be unnerving to walk past, particularly if calfs are involved and they all start following you. This situation is encountered rarely on these walks. The Chiddingstone Walk’s latter stages often features a herd, however, made up of a benign group of individuals. Not so the bunch encountered on Tuesday evening in one field on the Romney Street walk. This was in a field between points 5 and 6. You might also blunder into them on the Fackenden Down walk if you choose to take the higher route after Magpie Bottom rather than walk along the valley floor. There is a yellow sign by the stile that says ‘Beware bull in field, keep dogs in the lead’. I’ve been this way many many times before without an issue but this time the herd was in the field and disconcertingly close to the stile. We passed determinedly and swiftly but one bull calf decided to follow us to the stile. Fine, just curious.
What we hadn’t bargained for was that, behind us, in the woodland above the eastern rim of Magpie Bottom was another herd… a historic variety I guessed, noticing their impressive horns. They blocked the route down. There was nothing for it but to hop over a barbed wire fence and get down the hill through thick protected woods and hope they didn’t follow us on their side and meet us at the bottom. As it turned out they were not there for us but for a face-off with the field herd above. The ensuing bellowing was positvely primeval – I was reminded simultaneously of Jurassic Park and of angered elephants in the savannah. It was a situation to be avoided, although my boys enjoyed it hugely, and I wonder if farmers should do their best to keep mixed herds with bulls and calfs away from footpaths when possible.
This was a beautiful evening’s walk though, with bats and the odd hoot of an owl, followed by a pint at the Olde George where we relived that barbed wire leap and blunder down the hill.
In other news, check out the Travels page for news of this week’s foray to the Brecon Beacons, where southern Britain’s highest peak was conquered heroically by yours truly in conditions that were more January than August.