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.

The autumnal art of the Darent Valley

The autumnal art of the Darent Valley

What a superb walk on the Polhill route recently. Superb weather and the trees in their best autumn finery. The views across the Darent valley were at their very best with every little detail sharply visible: the church tower, the oasts, the route of the river … It was a view that would have inspired Samuel Palmer, the brilliant mystical romantic artist inspired by William Blake and Turner who roamed this locale with his equally arty mates ‘The Ancients’ in the late 1820s and early 30s. He was mainly based in a rundown cottage nicknamed Rat Abbey before joining his dad at the lovely Water House – still standing of course. Repros of his beautiful art can be seen in the Samuel Palmer pub. He fell in love with and married 19-year-old Hannah Linnell when in his early thirties while in Shoreham and went on a two-year honeymoon in Italy where his art developed further. But it’s his Shoreham works that seem to attract the most attention. Strangely, his surviving son Alfred (another son had tragically died at 19) in 1909 burned loads of his pieces after his death saying that they were a humiliation because no one could understand them, or something. Odd that.

Darent Valley view from above Shoreham
View across Darent Valley toward Fackenden Down on Shoreham circular and Polhill walks. iphone pic

It’s interesting to reflect when gazing across these lovely pastoral valley, and at Palmer’s beautiful paintings, that all was not well in the countryside in the 1830s. Mechanisation was putting farmhands out of work leading to disturbances and the destruction of agricultural equipment, incidents collectively known as the Swing Riots. In 1830 more than a thousand protesters were transported to Australia or imprisoned while 19 people in Kent were hung for their part in the fire-setting and destruction.

Incidentally, the Samuel Palmer pub, formerly Ye Olde George, received unexpected visitors on 15 September 1940 when two very shaken pilots from a shot down German bomber were taken there for a stiff drink by the Home Guard. For some reason I had thought the pub they were taken to was the now defunct Fox and Hounds in Romney St, but the very friendly Shoreham Aircraft Museum custodian, Geoff Nutkins, tells me it was almost certainly the George. Geoff himself is an excellent artist; although what the mystic Palmer would have made of his depictions of Spitfires and Hurricanes boggles the mind.

Scenery changes rapidly at this time of year as greens meld into yellows, browns, reds and golds. So many species of tree seem to go their own way, diverging increasingly in colour until they lose their leaves. Ash turns red, birch gold, chestnuts almost yellow.

View from Mariners Hill near Chartwell
Weald view from Mariners Hill on the Hosey walk, in early autumn

Other recent walks have included Hosey Hill, Petts Wood and Cudham. Autumn colours are really becoming apparent now – it really is a great time to get out into our local countryside. Petts Wood was wonderful on Monday 17 October; what a gem that area is for a walk within suburbia.

Petts Wood walk early autumn
Hawkwood Estate, Petts Wood in mid autumn. Birches along the Kyd Brook. iphone pic

The Westerham and Hosey walks are brilliant in autumn too, with huge views of the Kent Weald from Mariners Hill (near Chartwell) and a wealth of woodland, at times tangled and impenetrable and others spaced and stately.

Near Westerham early autumn
Tower Hill, behind the infant River Darent, in early autumn 2022, on the Hosey and Westerham walks

Conditions underfoot remain pretty dry considering we’re past October’s mid-point, as rain remains an unusual event. It also continues to be very mild, thankfully, considering the energy crisis and on several walks lately I’ve felt overdressed. My next sorties will hopefully be further south, to Hever – well overdue – and then the Ashdown Forest.

Gate in late afternoon in autumn
Gate in early autumn on Hosey walk
The difference a bit of rain makes

The difference a bit of rain makes

Interesting to see the effect of normal weather on the colour of the landscape. The first picture was taken on 15 August on the Fackenden Down route with the summer drought at its peak; the second picture on 17 September. It had rained during the week of 4-11 September.

Parched grass, Dunstall Farm
Parched ground near Dunstall Farm – the tree branch was dead years ago
Back to normal after the early September rains – and, below, a silver birch tree on Fackenden Down photographed on the same days
A few changes around Shoreham

A few changes around Shoreham

I walked the Shoreham eastern valleys route (near Romney Street pictured) yesterday for the first time this year and much has changed! First off, the path along the field between points 2 and 3 were more overgrown than usual at this time of year… I’d actually brought secateurs with me to help matters and did some highly satisfactory bramble snipping. Next up and of more structural significance, the barn between points 4 and 5 at Austin Lodge has disappeared; apparently the land has been earmarked for a couple of houses. I’ve amended the route instructions. Later, I was disappointed to see that the steep hillside between points 6 and 7 has been munched by grazers and now there are no wildflowers. It used to be a sea of oxe-eye daisies and orchids at this time of year. What happened? Has the owner decided they don’t like rewilding after all? It’s probably complicated but I was a bit saddened by it. The next thing I saw on hitting Shoreham village was that Ye Olde George, having been refurbished for the past couple of years, has now reopened as The Samuel Palmer. Good name actually, but it stupidly hadn’t occurred to me that the Mount Vineyard people would also change the name of the pub. It looks excellent and I can’t wait to visit. I must have gone past it and not noticed it had reopened a couple of times because the refurb was complete by April 2022. But there’s also sad news; just across the bridge the King’s Arms remains shut after a damaging fire in March. I had no idea. Funny how quickly things can change.

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).

Soft sunshine bathes the Darent Valley

Soft sunshine bathes the Darent Valley

Again we returned to Meenfield Woods and Shoreham to do the Polhill loop at the weekend. There was some lovely light in late afternoon on Saturday. Surprisingly there were few birds around given the migrations taking place. Clearly the route does not intersect particularly with the flightpaths of redwings, fieldfares and various other birds heading into the UK from the continent, although a red kite glided above us as we turned the corner to enter the ‘jungle zone’ beneath Polhill itself in the lower part of Pilots Wood. I’d like those redwings to know there are more than a few hawthorn bushes on Polhill with nice juicy scarlet berries right now. What are they waiting for? Maybe the frost, which makes certain berries more appealing to les oiseaux. Dark cloud combined with a lilac sky and soft sunlight to show off the autumnal Darent Valley at its best. My photography doesn’t quite capture it, but I tried.

No time to dieback

No time to dieback

As I write it’s pitch black outside and teeming with rain. After another year of somewhat unusual weather it’s quite reassuring to hunker down to the sounds and sights of North Atlantic storms swinging past. KWNL paths will be getting a lot muddier though, so it’s time for that wellies purchase. On the Polhill Bank/Shoreham and Fackenden Down routes recently I became really aware of the extent of ash dieback, a disease caused by the arrival (about 30 years ago) of a fungus that species of ash in Asia live happily with. Ash trees here have evolved no defences, however, and it is killing them by the thousand. The Woodland Trust estimates that 80% of our ashes – one of our most beautiful trees – will be destroyed. It’s sad to see the bare dead branches and the spots of dye marking the ailing trees facing the chop.

But among happier sights are the profusion of berries and fruits now dotting the hedgerows with scarlet, orange, purple and orange. Hawthorn, black bryony (don’t eat that one), spindle, sloes, crab apples, damsons, guelder rose, rowan berries and rose hips … they’re all knocking around on these walks, especially in the hedgerows on the Underiver/One Tree Hill strolls and at Fackenden Down. I’m trying to get better at identifying them but I’m not a natural forager or jam-maker; I’m happy to leave the berries to the winter migrants – redwings, fieldfare, waxwings and the like. If anyone could identify the berries pictured in the slideshow below at Polhill please tell me at amac49@hotmail.co.uk. I’m thinking hawthorn but I’m not sure.

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.