Summer’s lease

Summer’s lease

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date…

Any weather that isn’t warm and sunny feels like a major disappointment at the moment with autumn round the corner, Covid-19 issues and some fairly other horrendous news going on around the world. We need the compensation of mood-lifting sunlight. But even in these cold, cloudy conditions walks work wonders with wellbeing. Last week, with a few days off work I tried a new route starting from Underriver – in pouring rain as it turned out – that joins on with the One Tree Hill routes. It proved excellent and featured some really interesting farms with lovely old buildings as well as the familiar Greensand Ridge views. I’ll write it up soon but if you do Walk 6 in full (with the western extension past Romshed Farm) you’ll have done it anyway. But maybe I’ll work it into a shorter route too, so time won’t be such a pressure.

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The next day proved equally splashy, so failing to find anyone who wanted to join me I set off down the A2 in teeming rain to the Hoo peninsula. I’ve done the walk there, starting at Cliffe, several times but this was probably the most spectacular occasion yet, with huge storm clouds to the north and south and slivers of sunlight illuminating the bleak marsh. I heard cetti’s warbler, saw a whitethroat, lapwings, avocet and various unidentified waders. A marsh harrier glided across the track at one point; very thrilling if you like that kind of thing. My luck ran out on the final mile, however, as the heavens opened. It’s an hour’s drive from Sydenham but Cliffe is a good place to visit, particularly for bird watching, picking blackberries, elderberries and sloe and gazing over the Thames estuary. You can park at the RSPB reserve or in the car park by the main village church and just wander the marsh paths and tracks. There is a train service to Higham (three miles away) or to Strood – a Thameslink service that can be picked up at London Bridge, Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Charlton. There are local buses (the 133) from Higham/Strood but a taxi might work better.

Over the weekend I returned for the second time in a week to one of my favourites: Fackenden Down, this time in good company – I love a social walk even more than a solitary one! I never tire of this route, one that always delivers in terms of views, rustic atmosphere and so on. It’s still pretty colourful too with ripening berries, scabious and trefoil flowers aplenty on Fackenden Down itself and many chalkhill blue butterflies lingering in the sheltered spots. Very few birds around, however, just a solitary buzzard and a kestrel with a few lingering swallows speeding over the meadows.

Party time for buzzards

Party time for buzzards

Yesterday I was lucky enough to emerge from the trees at the top of Fackenden Down just as eight – yes, eight – buzzards soared in the updraft together overhead, calling out and engaging in mock battles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearby Magpie Bottom was also a picture with mauve scabious flowers and purple knapweed giving the pollinators a real treat. On a small sandy lump, made by burrowing insects I guess, I spied a tiny, dark lizard which shot off as I reached for the camera inevitably.

Fackenden Down, near Shoreham and Otford stations, is a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve of rare and superb value. The trust is trying to encourage reptiles, butterflies and more varieties of wildflower to return to the spectacular site but needs money so please donate to them if you can.

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Yellowhammers and Spitfires

Yellowhammers and Spitfires

An idyllic new route: walking down Polhill Bank then past Sepham Farm towards Otford takes you into a summery wonderland of wild marjoram, myriad butterflies, hedgerow birds while, in the (hopefully) azure sky, two-seat Spitfires purposefully head off to deep Kent on joyriding trips.

There are loads of paths to take from the car park off Shacklands Rd by Badgers Mount; it’s easy to customise walks from there. But you need to stroll a mile or so before you can rid yourself of the M25 noise. But even close to the motorway there are compensations: Andrews Wood, Meenfield Wood and Pilots Wood are beautiful and each has its own character. Visit late in the day and the shadows and sunbeams among the beeches form a light art installation on a scale the Tate could only dream of. Kent Wildlife Trust is taking care of some of Pilots Wood these days, and of Polhill Bank which it leads on to, a south-facing slope full of wildflowers and a perfectly framed window of the vale between the North Downs and Greensand Ridge.

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Continue down the steep slope and enter a world resonant with birdsong – yellowhammers in particularly (de-de-de-de-de-de-deeeeeee) – and the growl of Merlin engines overhead from time to time.

There are views over rich meadows, cereal fields, apple trees and ancient hedgerows. In the haze oasthouses stand out black and white against the darkly wooded valleysides. Right now, in July, butterflies abound – peacocks, commas, red admirals, gatekeepers, meadow browns and more. Buzzards drop by for the views (and carrion). At one point you come across Pluto, the furthest point of the to-scale Otford solar system model (the sun is in the recreation field in the village somewhere). At four miles, the route is doable for the kids with a couple of tough slopes thrown in to test out the oldies’ knees. Check it out.

• GPX map of route, click here
• PDF, click here

Google map

Meadow mystery magic and a forgotten aviator

Meadow mystery magic and a forgotten aviator

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.

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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.

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

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.)

 

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Why be the Fall guy?

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.

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I’ve heard some bull in my time…

I’ve heard some bull in my time…

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.

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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.

Awesome orchid wonderland

Awesome orchid wonderland

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.

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Fabulous Fackenden

Fabulous Fackenden

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.

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Ah, the warming winds of … February?

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

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.

On Walk 19, steps up White Hill; Dunstall Farm, Austin Spring

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.

Dunstall farm house

18th-century Grade-II listed Dunstall Farm House – an attractive building, with a hint of Normandy

Fackenden Down above Otford Mount

Fackenden Down dusk: end of an amazingly mild February day, looking south-west towards Brasted