Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

OK, for those going out this weekend expecting swathes of bluebells, you may be disappointed. They are late this year – particularly at One Tree Hill and Ide Hill, but not far off full bloom in Meenfield Wood. Probably a few too many cold nights of late has set them back. Next weekend will definitely be better. But there are other flowers to enjoy. Cuckooflower clumps are great at this time of year and, like red campion, wood anenomes and celandine, get better the more you notice them. Primroses form eyecatching patches too, and soon cowslips will adorn the grassy slopes of the North Downs (with orchids and marjoram/oregano to follow). These all brightened up my walk from One Tree Hill to Ightham Mote then back up the hidden valley with the little stream yesterday (pictured below). Below are some recommendations of good places to see bluebells.

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If you’re staying local, Beckenham Place Park has some good patches (or will have), although get ready to exercise emergency social distancing manoeuvres as oblivious joggers jag around, their ears full of choons. Oxleas Woods off Shooters Hill is another good local spot and I daresay Sydenham Hill Woods too. After that I think we’re talking Petts Wood and the adjoining Hawkwood and Little Heath Wood and Selsdon Wood south-west of Croydon. Of course, there are brilliant bluebells at Downe, Meenfield Wood, Ide Hill, One Tree Hill, Hosey Common and in woods east of Shoreham on this website’s walks, and the cobalt carpet reigns supreme in woods near Westerham and around Hever and Edenbridge.

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Bluebells, Scords wood, Ide Hill walk, April 2017

Anyway, here are some bluebell factoids gleaned from an excellent article with far more detail called Bloomageddon: seven clever ways bluebells win the woodland turf war at The Conversation website.

  • They are uniquely adapted to suited the multispecies ancient woodlands of the UK
  • Low temperatures trigger their growth (but might delay their blooming if in April). Bluebell seeds germinate when the temperature drops below 10°C.
  • Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight into fructose allowing them to photosynthesise at low temperatures.
  • They are supreme competitors with other plants, allowing them to carpet woodland floors. But they get help in the form of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic fungi.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world.

But please be careful never to tread on any; it takes bluebells years to recover from foot damage. Digging them up – surely no one visiting this site would consider such a thing – is illegal, and please don’t let dogs trample them either – keep them on the lead.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Meenfield Wood bluebells, near Shoreham, Kent

Into the cold woods

Into the cold woods

It’s nearly bluebell time, probably a week to 10 days before that magical woodland period. The cold dry windy weather has certainly slowed down things. A quick afternoon walk on the Ide Hill route today revealed just a few primroses, with even the azaleas of Emmett’s Garden (pay if you want to wander the gardens off the public footpath) looking pretty discouraged. The view off over the Weald appeared grey and blurred – not the usual colourful Garden of England tapestry. I’ve been asked by a couple of people to mention that in view of recent reports of ‘bluebell thieves’ in Norfolk, it’s illegal to dig up wildflowers. As well as causing lasting damage to the environment, the transported flowers are unlikely to thrive in gardens because they are adapted to a different, long-established habitat and conditions. Trampling the flowers is pretty damaging too… I’d certainly hope people will stay to the main paths and keep dogs on the lead when going through areas where there area loads of wildflowers. Anyway, things were still pretty bleak out there from the flower point of view on today’s walk … we had to look quite hard to find violets, dead-nettle, alkinet and wood anenomes even. But birdlife has really picked up; our walk revealed treecreepers and nuthatches, and a possible brambling – all firsts for me this year – plus an enormous buzzard swooping low over pheasants. Scord’s Wood was as superb as ever – a verdant ancient woodland with loads of moss and lichen, coppiced trees with flitting birds and mysterious rustles.

From bedraggled to bedazzled – hello spring

From bedraggled to bedazzled – hello spring

Milder weather again now, little rain and presumably less mud. But bear in mind temperatures are set to veer wildly next week from mild to cold day by day. I haven’t been out on any of the walks for a few weeks now – possibly my longest period of absence for five years. I’m looking forward to seeing the first spring wildflowers, the daffodils at Ightham (pictured below), and in about three weeks the seas of wild garlic and bluebells in woodland on all the walks. First of all there’s blackthorn blossom to enjoy, primroses, wood anenome and violets, among others.

It’s amazing how rapidly the landscape transforms itself from its rather bedraggled and dreary state (it seems like that to me this year anyway) in early March to the rich promise of early April. It somehow surprises me every year. And from 12 April it will be possible to visit pub gardens after the walks – this seems like crazy talk. I hope there are still some pubs to go back to. There are one or two that may struggle to open up at all. It’s a grim old business, a global pandemic. My spring walks this year will be punctuated by regular halts to listen to birdsong and try to pick out various species. It wasn’t so long ago that I added wren to my aural recognition list… laughable that it took so long considering just how distinct and loud the call of that diminutive bird is. For some reason the walk I’m most looking forward to getting to this spring is the Chiddingstone loop especially if the Castle Inn’s garden is open. 

In the meantime I’ve stumbled across some BBC4 walks in Yorkshire that I’ve quite enjoyed – a couple of which I remember doing as a teenager on family holidays. The presenter, Shanaz Gulzar, is affable and doesn’t go on too much and if she starts to get pretentious, she soon thinks better of it. It’s all quite low key and accompanied by superb drone photography. Have a look on the iPlayer.

One of Shanaz’s walks crosses the Strid, a stretch of the River Wharfe that used to strike fear into a great uncle of mine, a local, who used to tell us stories of terrible events in those parts involving drownings and floods. He was extremely old at that point and had suffered the fate of being captured very early in – wait for it – the first world war. In fact as a very young man, perhaps still a teenager, he might have been living in Ypres as a civilian when the Kaiser’s army invaded. He was apparently given some very grisly work details and it was said he never quite recovered from his experiences. Nevertheless, here he was in the mid-1970s telling us kids about the Strid and the perils of trying to cross it. Good old Clifford. Slightly scary but a tremendous character.

Lullingstone’s wild garden is a match for its World Garden

Lullingstone’s wild garden is a match for its World Garden

I don’t publicise Lullingstone Country Park that much because it’s busy enough already and it’s easy to devise your own walk around its lush acres. The visitors’ centre car park is full to brimming by mid-morning of a sunny weekend and, just down the road, Castle Farm catches much of the overspill and is a lovely attraction in its own right with its lavender fields and local produce. And then there is the excellent World Garden at Lullingstone Castle. Throw in picnic tables, viewpoints, a cafe, the river path and there’s no mystery about its popularity.

Credit where it’s due; whoever looks after the place – I guess it’s Kent County Council – has done a wonderful job of rewilding areas of meadow and wildflower around the paths and fairways of the golf course. In spring it’s all about orchids, bugle, speedwell and cowslips but at this time of year the profusion of marjoram, thyme, fine grasses and wild carrot growing all over the place is spectacular. 

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A walk around the park’s curvy contours and its superb ancient woodland (probably the quietest parts of the park) is a very civilised activity indeed. Those big North Downs skies are good for spotting birds of prey (I’ve seen all the major UK species here) and yellowhammers have made a comeback in the hawthorn/buckthorn thickets on the slopes. I’ve seen grass snakes here, too. Biggin Hill’s Spitfires often appear overhead on their joyriding flights … all in all it’s a real picture. Maybe visit later in the day on a fine weekend – they say the car parks are freed up a bit after 3pm. 

I think during the pandemic it’s best to avoid the river path, however. It gets a little too busy for my liking with myriad dogs confusing the issue. I’ve got two walks on here (3 and 12) that venture into the park from nearby Eynsford and Shoreham railway stations, but I’m considering adding another … perhaps starting at the public golf club entrance and taking in more of the woods. We’ll see.

Lullingstone CP’s Facebook page has all the latest news including whether or not the car park is rammed.

Let’s hear it for foxgloves (and rosebay willow)

Let’s hear it for foxgloves (and rosebay willow)

People (like me) go on about orchids but undeniably our most spectacular native flower is the foxglove. Agreed? They’re flowering now and bees love ’em. Maybe it’s because they’re not rare they don’t get quite the attention all the little more obscure ones receive. So what are the best walks on this site for foxgloves? Ide Hill, Chiddingstone, One Tree Hill, Hever, Hosey Common/Westerham. Most will have stopped flowering by mid-July I’d guess. It’s a beautiful flower but highly toxic – and our distant ancestors associated it with evil because of this toxicity, calling places where it appeared ‘Witches’ Grove’ and the like. It really can cause harm, including heartbeat fluctuations, vomiting, blurred vision and collapse. However, its digitalin chemical, which gives it these qualities, is also used to treat heart conditions. Besides, it’s very pretty – if you like pink – so let’s move on from all that.

It particularly likes lighter acidic soils and seems to thrive in woodland gaps, glades and recently cleared land. I’d say it’s more a flower of the Greensand Ridge than the North Downs chalk though you can find it in the woods and hedgerows of the latter.

Also spectacular from now until August is rosebay willow herb. Just as tall as foxgloves this beautiful flower grows even more abundantly on the walks than foxgloves. There’s one particularly impressive ‘forest’ of rosebay willow on One Tree Hill, just behind the famous viewpoint, in a glade.

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A weald of possibility

A weald of possibility

Just before the great May weather ended we headed down to the Kent low weald, to Chiddingstone for a walk. Usually there are quite a lot of tourists and daytrippers (like myself) in the Tudor one-street village which has the air of a film set (it was used in Room with a View among other films). But under lockdown restrictions very little stirred beneath the cloudless sky; the lovely Castle Inn was closed of course and there was rather an enchanting air of abandonment. The walk itself was subdued too; I had been hoping for cuckoos calling and sightings of house martins, bullfinches and swallows. But the restrictions seemed to have spread to the wildlife too and there was little to be seen or heard. One of the best things about walks at this time of year though was in full swing… groves of flowering foxgloves. I love ’em.

I’ve always wanted to find a way of avoiding walking along the road between points 6 and 7, so we took a detour into the parkland at Penshurst Place to examine the possibilities. Alas there is no side path that connects with the footpath at point 7. It’s a shame because it wouldn’t be too hard to set up a gate in the metal fence at that point and establish a little path. Still, it is possible to walk in the parkland for a couple of hundred metres before you have to rejoin the road; it’s something I suppose, and there was a nice view of the ancient manor house from there. We also did the Bough Beech walk nearby which despite its brevity always surprises me with how much beauty it packs in.

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New(ish) walking route – Hosey Common and Chartwell circular

New(ish) walking route – Hosey Common and Chartwell circular

The new Walk 21 a shorter version of Walk 15, starting up the road from Westerham at the free car park at Hosey Common. It includes a lovely stretch by the stream of the Darent soon after its emergence as a spring. If you don’t drive it’s easiest to get to Westerham on the 246 bus which connects the town with Bromley, Hayes and Keston. You can then join this walk between points 8 and 9 having started it from the green at Westerham (as per Walk 15). There’s a GPS map link included.

The route is about a mile shorter than Walk 15 (3.9 miles as opposed to 5 miles) but has the same great views at Chartwell and Mariners Hill. Kent Wildlife Trust has a great resource if you really want to get down and dirty with the trees, species, geology and topography of the area. The walk is part of the Greensand Ridge… so a companion to routes on this site at Ide Hill, Ightham Mote, One Tree Hill and Knole (see menu, top). There are so many paths that with a map it’s easy to customise the walks to your own requirements, but I think this route captures the best of the area’s great woods, views and valleys.

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Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

First of all, I wish all the best to Kent Walks near London readers as we all try to get through this period unscathed in terms of our health, your livelihoods and sense of wellbeing. To those who have had or still have Covid-19, many sympathies – it sounds horrendous in many cases. The countryside is slowly opening up, but we should all be mindful of social distancing and try to make way for each other on narrow paths. Let’s avoid overcrowding in good weather and take wipes for handling gates and stiles if possible.

Second thing, thanks to all those who have donated to this website… entirely voluntary so a heartfelt thanks from me. It’s only a small amount of course but it will help me produce more walks, better mapping and information and some will be going to charities too. There are adverts on the site too, you’ll see, but a niche page like this is never going to pull in the big bucks from the AdWords model so it’s little more than a token gesture towards commerciality. Maybe display ads from dedicated sources – outdoor retailers, pubs, or as you are about to read, apps – may be the way forward.

Oh, and please check out the Kent Wildlife Trust website. KWT manages some of the woods and sites on here (as does the Woodland Trust), helping maintain the paths and creating brilliant areas for flora and fauna. It deserves our full support (and donations right now).

’appy days with wildflower apps

Out and about for the first time in a while at the weekend made me reflect that May, June and July are probably the best times of year for trying to work out what kinds of wildflowers you hopefully aren’t trampling over.

Many wildflowers aren’t that spectacular compared with cultivated garden plants and we sort of take them for granted. But notice how, unlike some of our garden species, they don’t seem to suffer from the dry conditions so much.

Until recently I only knew obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercup, ox-eye daisy, buttercup, pyramidal orchid, etc. I was a blooming ignoramus you might say. But I started adding to my list by asking friends, looking at my dear departed mama’s old, faded book of illustrations (complete with samples turning to dust) and looking at websites. I half remembered things my mum told me as a kid, so pretty soon I could identify scabious, red campion and the like. And the more you keep an eye out and record, the more interesting the whole caboodle becomes. You start to appreciate the shy little flowers of the woods, meadows and margins, their colour and what they give to various creatures.

Common spotted orchid and trefoil, White Hill, Shoreham, on the Fackenden Down walk (in June 2019)

But by downloading the Picture This app on my phone (there are other similar tools too in the App Store, such as the excellent iNaturalist which I’ve also used) I’ve revolutionised my learning. The app compares your photos with its database pictures in seconds to tell you what you’re looking at. This has helped me identify stitchwort, bugle, white helleborine, yellow pimpernel, archangel, ground ivy, vetch, sainfoin, trefoil and milkwort, among others. It does tree leaves too. I’ve been quite oblivious to all this stuff for a long time, so please forgive my excitement.

Soon, an abundance of orchids will appear in places like Polhill Bank, Fackenden Down, Lullingstone, Magpie Bottom (see Walks on the menu above) and I can’t wait to get stuck into working out what’s what. The walks on this site are excellent for flora with chalky soils predominating on the North Downs; sandy soils on the Greensand Ridge and Weald routes.

I suppose flowery stuff is not the most useful information you’ll pick up in life but I find being able to identify wildflowers really does pique my interest and triggers curiosity about other things too… insects, birds and how our ancestors used these plants. It also makes up for the fact I am a pretty useless gardener.

 

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Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

So from Wednesday it’s once again OK to drive into the countryside for a walk, but we are being urged to avoid using public transport to keep it safe for key workers. For the many without cars the walks will remain inaccessible but in the greater scheme of things, against the tragic current backdrop of lives and livelihoods lost, it’s not such a huge disaster. But it should be remembered that days spent out in the woods, fields and paths are hugely beneficial for mental health, I’d suggest in ways that the local park just can’t match. We also have to hope that the roads – and air – don’t become increasingly clogged as people jump in their vehicles for all purposes. Social distancing will need to be maintained, of course, and also take care around touching gates and fence posts – it would be a good idea to take wipes or hand sanitiser with you.

Speedwell.

Learning birdsong and wildflowers

This spring’s bluebells will mostly be over but there will be plenty of other spring delights to witness. Cowslips, vetch, bugle, stitchwort, speedwell and buttercups are all flowering and soon orchids will push their way through grassy fringes and meadows along with ox-eye daisies. Warblers have arrived from Africa and are burbling, chiff-chaffing, and whistling away unseen in the woods and hedges. Precious few swallows, martins and swifts are around so far, I hear – a worry perhaps. I’m always astounded at the volume generated by tiny wrens at this time of year, so definitely worth listening out for them. A great bird to see is the spotted flycatcher. They have been seen on many walks on this site, most recently in Knole Park, not by me, but by experts. They disappear back to tropical Africa in August having only arrived this month so seeing one is a relatively big deal.

A really good website for learning birdsongs is this oneDon’t be fazed by the huge number of species to learn. Just learn the ones most relevant – for example, wood warblers aren’t present (much) in Kent woodlands but willow warblers are more numerous. Try to learn the basics – say, robin, blackbird, wren, great tit, goldfinch and chaffinch – and soon you’ll be adding others. Don’t be too frustrated if you can’t see the bird you can hear: it’s often incredibly difficult with the trees in full leaf, and many of us find it hard to exactly pinpoint where the bird song is coming from, not only in terms of direction but in terms of distance. Kent walks near London birdwatching correspondent Dave, of course, is a master of not only identifying song but working out where the sound is emanating from him – remarkable talent built on experience gleaned when a nipper no doubt.

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A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A rare day off afforded me (us, actually) to venture somewhere during an afternoon when it didn’t rain continuously. We settled on the Ashdown Forest, an hour’s drive from my corner of south-east London, in East Sussex between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead. A perusal of the visitor centre’s maps online led us to choose Walk 11, Chelwood Gate, in the south-west of the Forest.

The area has got the lot: interesting geology, flora and fauna, views, history and literature, being the landscape for Winnie the Pooh’s capers with many recognisable spots. These include Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, Galleons Lap, the Heffalump trap, for example, all of which can be identified.

The walk was beautifully laid out in printable format, with lots of informative text. But it was very difficult to follow; a “narrow path” beside a ditch was actually a wide path that went through a huge puddle – that sort of thing, but we made it around thanks to careful map analysis. In fact, with a compass, a sense of direction and an Ordnance Survey sheet you can pretty much make it up as you go; there are many paths to choose from and the Forest’s inner Pale is open for exploration in a similar way to Knole Park, for example.

What was immediately apparent was just how much rain has fallen this winter; everywhere there were overflowing ponds, gushing streams, seas of mud. You’d think it was Scotland at times. But in fact the Forest, being easily the highest point of the Weald between the North and South Downs does attract far more rainfall than the lower surrounding areas and really does pep up the local rivers, eventually flowing into the Eden and Medway. The high heath and the Pale melds into wooded valley mires where the pines give way to alder and birch, and planks serve as bridges over vigorous streams, alongside some very old looking stone bridges.

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I love how the Forest has its own vocabulary: there are ghylls, hatches, laps … And the names of the car parks are evocative too: Friends, King’s Standing, Roman Road, Goat, and of course Piglets and Pooh.

After we finished with Chelwood Gate (where medieval hero John of Gaunt used to enter for hunting and a home to Howard Macmillan, who once entertained JFK here) we drove a few miles east past Nutley and up onto the highest part of the Forest, to Gills Lap (Galleons Lap in Winnie the Pooh). Up there the views extend over bright yellow gorse for mile after mile in all directions. We walked down to the memorial to AA Milne and EH Shepherd. I felt quite moved, those stories have a real character and a sense of an innocent time that has been lost.

Our final port of call was the 15th-century Anchor Inn in the small village of Hartfield, a cosy labyrinth of a pub that serves two of the finest ales in all England: Harvey’s and Larkins. As we arrived at dusk a barn owl glided across the road in front of us. Then it was back to the smoke to plonk in front of the telly to watch Chelsea beat Liverpool … who would have credited that?

Getting there on public transport: Train to East Grinstead from East Croydon then the 261 or 270 bus seems to be the best option. At East Grinstead the brilliant Bluebell Railway takes day trippers by steam train down to Sheffield Park, south of the Forest. At the moment a landslip caused by rain means trains can’t reach East Grinstead, but there is a bus service from Lingfield. Boring though… so best wait ’til services are restored, hopefully in spring.
Getting there by car: Drive via Keston, Biggin Hill, Westerham, Edenbridge, Cowden and Hartfield on the rather pleasant B2026.