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.
Saturday was a pleasant winter’s day so we ventured once again to the eastern Darent Valley watching the sunset and hoping for an early evening owl. We were rewarded instead by wonderful and close views of three juvenile buzzards hanging motionless above Fackenden Down calling to each other plaintively.
I haven’t got the lenses to capture wildlife unless it’s less than two feet away. My lack of super-duper equipment was also brought home to me by the rise of a huge moon behind Dunstall Farm; my camera could only represent it as a small white disc. Still there’s a bit of atmosphere in the shot, seen below. For starters, I love the pines that surround the secluded farmhouse, an attractive and venerable building with a hint of Normandy about it.
Today of course (Sunday, 9 February) I imagine nobody in their right mind went walking what with Ciara wreaking havoc across the land. (There is a shorter version of the Fackenden Down walk that’s quite handy for short winter days here – you can start it at Shoreham Station and walk up the track almost opposite to join the walk or park at the layby in Rowdown Lane as marked. It’s 2.6 miles but good exercise because quite up and down.)
When autumn gets it right these walks can be rather picturesque. Golden light, a fresh breeze, vibrant colours under a cobalt sky. And a pint of Harvey’s in the pub. But such days have been scarce for most of October and November I think we can agree. Autumn is great for cliches too (golden light, vibrant colours), which I am too readily resorting to. So I’ll shut up.
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.
I was bowled over by the wildflowers on the Fackenden Down walk yesterday. I’ve never seen so many orchids; with yellow trefoil and tall ox-eye daisies blazing away as a background some of the meadows were mesmerising. Full credit to those managing the sites of special scientific interest at Magpie Bottom, Austin Spring and Fackenden Down along to White Hill (Kent Wildlife Trust in conjunction with local landowners?). Their hard work has produced a superb return. I’m not good at identifying orchids beyond the pyramidal variety, but I’ll give it a shot for the photos.
To strike a more negative note, I got the feeling there should still be more insects enjoying this abundance; there were plenty of bees around but not a lot else (a few marbled white butterflies, the odd peacock butterfly and red admiral notwithstanding). There was a distinct lack of swallows, martins and swifts, too. These species haven’t made it to these shores in great numbers this year it seems and that could be because of the effect of insecticides. But anyway, a beautiful and memorable walk.
And remember, this wonderland is only 50 minutes direct on the train from Peckham Rye, with the walk starting opposite Shoreham station.
The Fackenden Down walk is such a winner at all times of year – and it’s so easy to get to from SE London, because it starts right outside Shoreham train station. In yesterday’s perfect weather wildflowers illuminated the hillsides and meadows; cirrus clouds offered a dramatic dreamscape high above and incessant birdsong filled the air. So many highlights on this walk: the bit when you leave the ancient beech wood and enter the timeless Magpie Bottom valley is my favourite. And the distant views of the City and the Shard from Romney Street are dramatic too. I was disappointed to see my team lose in the Champions League final later on (yet so thankful we got to the final) but the memories of the walk compensated. I created a GPX track of the walk too… so going off-route is now impossible (if you have a smartphone that is). The walk does have some steep sections though, so take it easy.
Interactive pdf of walk (to print or download on phone) is here.
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
With such gentle southern breezes up from Spain and a cobalt February sky we joined hundreds of others in getting out into the nearby Kent countryside today. Once again we chose the Shoreham Fackenden Down route, but this time in reverse: up the steps in the ancient Dunstall woods, across the muddy eponymous farm and down into the steep Austin Lodge valley then the climb to Romney Street. By the time we reached superb Magpie Bottom low clouds had drifted in and a strange quiet had descended, rendering that solitary place strangely eerie. Great! Our only notable bird sightings were both in the fallow fields at Romney Street: a female kestrel hunting exactly where we’d seen the short eared owl a few weeks ago and a huge buzzard lazily enjoying the mild weather. We’d expected to see more. Among the pictures, note the trees growing out of the obvious bomb crater.
Thanks to those who donated to the site today.
Stunning walk at Fackenden Down today. Far more snow than I expected. Just a few extra metres at the top of the ridge made all the difference and there were some reasonable accumulations in Magpie Bottom. I had birdwatcher Dave for company which led to some more exciting sightings than I even manage without him. We saw bullfinch, coal tits, heard linnets, a probable marsh tit and, best of all, saw a short-eared owl hunting low over a rewilded field at Romney St. Big thanks to those who donated to the site today, much appreciated.
Hi there, dear readers. Don’t be afraid. I haven’t gone all corporate and just come out of a meeting where my shareholders demanded I ‘monetise’ my ramblings. Or fallen on hard times and am now sleeping in my car. It’s just that, well, this website has involved quite a lot of expenditure in the three years it’s been running and a lot of work – which I love doing – but I just thought that if (and only if) you’ve enjoyed one of the walks on this site, particularly with one of the free print-out downloads, you might want to make a small donation. This is possible with PayPal. If you don’t want to, fine, no problemo; but if you do, thanks a lot and it will encourage me to update walks, add new walks, improve my photography etc. Thanks!
If you’ve enjoyed one of the walks on this site and feel it’s enriched your day, feel free to make a small donation here if you wish. It'll encourage me to add more walks, update information and work harder to improve accuracy and quality. Thanks a lot.