Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.

I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.

I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.

We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.

Bats in the mist – dusk at Downe, Keston and Polhill

Bats in the mist – dusk at Downe, Keston and Polhill

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.

  • Mist obscures Sevenoaks
  • Mist at Polhill looking towards Otford, November 2022
  • Mist at Polhill looking towards Otford, November 2022
Wet, wild and wonderful

Wet, wild and wonderful

I’m intrigued about how many of us look outside on a day like today – drab, cold, raining – and just think that curling up with a book or making a great meal or something would be a far better use of time than a walk. Who can blame those who decide such days are for doing stuff indoors? But judging by the views on this website there is a hardcore who come what may will not only brave the elements, they will relish them. I’m in this camp – although I do have a good book to read. Anyway, lovely autumn colour awaits those who make it out, all the more inspiring against the grey backdrop. Waterproof trousers and good boots will be handy though. Photos are from the Fackenden Down route last weekend on which the weather was actually fine as it turned out. Scroll through the photo gallery below right for autumn colour from all the walks.

A wintry reminder

A wintry reminder

The gloom of December and early January has lately given way to bright, often mild conditions.
Great tits are blasting out their rhythmic calls optimistic that spring is around the corner and thrushes have been showing off at dusk with their varied, almost tropical-sounding tones. But this time last year all was silent: we were in the grip of a rare icy blast with heavy snow on the 7th and freezing conditions for the following week. If you’d stayed in south-east London you might have thought the snowfall was very light. But out in Kent, beyond the M25 and on the escarpments of the chalk North Downs and the Greensand ridge, the storm struck more powerfully. It seemed a good time to get out and get the feel of things, so here’s a photographic reminder of what real cold actually looks like. And believe me, the top of Fackenden Down on 12 February was bone-shakingly cold. Enjoy the photos! (Pictured are scenes from the Knole and Fackendon walks)

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

Personally I don’t mind ‘busy’ walks. Anyone who’s hiked the Samaria Gorge, climbed Snowdon or sauntered along the Amalfi coast’s spectacular ‘Walk of the Gods’ trail, will be familiar with routes’ long lines of dehydrated tourists in frankly inappropriate footwear. These Kent walks offer comparative splendid isolation and are undertaken by people who are generally dressed for the conditions. But if it really is solitude you are after you might find that the Shoreham circular isn’t the best choice on a sunny Sunday, and Petts Woods main paths are much frequented by families and dog walkers – unsurprisingly considering its suburban location. Lullingstone is particularly busy around the visitor’s centre and river and Knole around the house – but both are big enough country parks to escape the crowd. There were snaking queues of day trippers on the One Tree Hill routes before the winter mud arrived on sunny weekends. Personally I like to see everyone out and about; it’s great to see people of all ages enjoying the local countryside and greeting strangers as walkers do. But if you want a quieter walk the best routes are Shoreham’s eastern valleys, Otford to Kemsing, Hever, Otford circular and Fackenden Down. The Cudham and Knockholt walks aren’t exactly choc-a-bloc either usually. Don’t get me wrong, there are always people around on these walks – you won’t feel like Cheryl Strayed in Wild (as portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film). By the way, if you do choose a Shoreham route and happen to be hungry, the Mount Vineyard does great pizzas I’ve found recently – and it’s a great spot for a drink if you’re waiting for the train (the station’s an eight-minute walk up the road).

‘What is this place?’

‘What is this place?’

A spectacular winter’s day on Sunday. A pale blue polar sky, completely still, with saturated colours in the unfettered low sun. Knole was spectacular, the west-facing Tudor mansion ablaze in the late afternoon.

Despite the various woes affecting travel and holidays there were still visitors from abroad there, which was good to see – a reminder of better times.

“What is this place called?” I heard one man with an Italian accent ask an National Trust volunteer while gazing around the outer courtyard.

It seemed an odd question given that visiting Knole would involve taking a unique route leading to … well, Knole.

“Knole House,” the volunteer intoned with slow, exaggerated clarity, clearly pleased to be asked.

“So, who lived here?” he enquired, gazing at the enormous structure in wonder, perhaps hoping to hear “King Henry the Eighth” or “Queen Elizabeth the First”.

“The Sackville-Wests,” came the reply, delivered in an awed tone deemed suitable for heralding (minor) aristocracy.

“Ah”, said the man, nodding as if he were an old acquaintance of Vita’s, but betraying a false reverence that screamed: “Never heard of ’em”.

I too felt slightly disappointed at the answer, despite knowing what it would be.

Find a walk that suits you

Find a walk that suits you

To help you find suitable walks here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map. Just click on the lines and blobs to get more information about that walk. You can use the menu at the top of the page to print off pdfs and to look at more detailed directions. Each walk description has a GPX map attached so you can follow your progress in real time – if you have signal. Failing that please use an Ordnance Survey map to check the route (OS Explorer 147 has them all).

Best walks for travelling without a car are those in the Darent Valley – the ones starting from Shoreham, Eynsford and Otford/Kemsing stations. Knole Park can also be reached from Sevenoaks station.

The walks around Shoreham, Downe, Cudham, Otford and Knockholt are on North Downs chalk fairly close to or on the escarpment itself. They have a different character to the more wooded southerly routes around Ide Hill, Westerham, One Tree Hill and Sevenoaks, which are on the Greensand Ridge.

Further south are the Hever and Chiddingstone walks, which are in the Low Weald of Kent… a different flavour again with fewer steep slopes.

Many of the walks overlap with each other such as Westerham and Hosey Common, One Tree Hill and Underriver – leading to severe spaghettification on the map displayed here.

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Another new route. Walk 26, Underriver and Budds, cobbles together the optional scenic extension to Walk 6 with the Wilmot to Budds path of Walk 7. It’s a brilliant walk with a superb hedgerow-lined path currently full of berries, a sunken trail with amazing trees growing out of its embankment, atmospheric oasthouses and far-flung views of the Weald. The woods at One Tree Hill are always a pleasure to walk in, especially the ‘tropical’-feeling bit east of Rooks Hill lane and there are myriad springs and little streams that trickle out of the sandstone ridge at various points – mostly around where the farms are, their positioning being no accident. It’s a two-hour round-trip hike starting and finishing at Underriver village.

For those who do these walks with younger children, I wonder if any of them find the appearance of oasthouses a bit disturbing; I certainly used to when I was small. I still find them fascinating and this walk takes you close to some of the best.

‘Walking’ beech trees on the sunken path near Underriver

The only blot on the landscape is the temporary (we hope) closure of the White Rock Inn, one of the nicest pubs on these walks.

The farms encountered have attractive old houses attached and pasture for horses, sheep and cattle, plus a few alpacas. However, around Budds, the fields are for cereals and can be quite barren depending on time of year. They lack wildlife/wildflower margins too – a slight blemish on what is a tremendous afternoon’s stroll. Check out the interractive map below and, as ever, on the walk’s page there are links to GPX (real time location) maps – including a nice short cut variation too.

 

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Ever been somewhere on your doorstep that you’d heard about but not hitherto bothered with, then been blown away by it? So after several decades of never going there I headed the way of Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. I’d thought it was just a nondescript lake, a couple of bird hides and a few twitchery types in unfashionable knitwear dotted around. Instead, it was a veritable waterworld with one very large lake, four medium-sized ones, lots of bird hides, a large visitor centre, the River Darent, islands, ponds galore, reedbeds, loads of paths to explore and rich damp woodland of alder, birch and so on. I immediately saw lapwing, egret, pochard and curiously large number of long-tail tits. All in all, a more satisfying place to visit than Bough Beech, perhaps. When spring gets going it will be a real treat.

East Lake, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve

I shall return there; it’s a surprising place, rewilded after years of use as sand and gravel pits, and offers views of the Darent Valley from a perspective I hadn’t really seen before. There was a strange atmosphere though… the coronavirus suddenly felt as if it had got exponentially more serious on Saturday. I dropped by the local mega-Sainsbury’s on the way back; you could tell that the UK was trying to decide what kind of country it was – greedy and panicky, or stoic and rational. I think it’s still undecided.

 

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

I’ve felt watching sunsets was a bit of a cliche ever since visiting a club on the Greek island of Ios 30 years ago.

Scorpions, as the place was called I think, offered the chance to be spellbound as our golden orb sank below the Aegean – accompanied by a tequila cocktail costing 100 drachma (40p). For some reason the occasion made no impression on me whatsoever and I found the applause of the assembled horde hilarious in my then youthful arrogance.

However, I did see a terrific sunset rather more recently in Cornwall when the sun seemed to dissolve on contact with the surface of the sea coating it with a blazing trail … most peculiar. Perhaps it’s an age thing – one is drawn to sunsets on realising there aren’t all that many left.

Anyway, we were atop Fackenden Down doing a truncated version of the walk on these pages on Sunday (a clear day for once) at about 4pm when sunset happened. It was quite fun and there were a few people around to see it (actually seeing the sun at all is pretty rare these days after all). I took some frankly quite boring photos of it which I will now share as well as some hopefully atmospheric woodland shots (one with staring sheep) in the gathering winter dusk.

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