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.

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

Here’s a longer Downe route to follow; double the length of the existing Downe walk at 4.2 miles, so a pleasant 90-minute walk. See, download pdf or use GPX track from this page

It can be viewed on the GPSies site where a GPX track is available for you to download and follow on your smartphone (to get your real-time location tap the bottom-most button on the left of the screen).

The route starts and finishes at the same locations as the original Downe walk. The extension misses out on the lovely fields by Charles Darwin’s garden (although they are an easy detour away) and the Sandwalk but gains the superb ancient woods of Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw Woods with its superb April bluebells then orchids and gentians.

Last bluebells, Downe

Ancient woods: Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw

Yesterday the trees were rich with the calls of song thrush, chaffinch and wrens (so loud… and weird!). A sharp thundery looking storm slipped by to the south, on its way to Tonbridge and Sevenoaks (pictured). After the woods the walk joins the valley on the eastern border of the historic Biggin Hill airfield. Hedgerows, giant beeches and wild meadows make this a really rich looking habitat for flora and fauna; yesterday I saw nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and a wonderful large tortoiseshell butterfly. Full description of walk here, but the GPX track should get you round easily enough. 

Next walk to be added to this site: Knockholt Pound/Chevening circular. By end of June.

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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Best bluebell walks in north-west Kent 2019

May 4: fading fast

Just last weekend the bluebells were superb at Ide Hill, Meenfield Wood and Downe Bank but, while the odd patch lingers on spectacularly, time is already running out on the bluebell season. They peaked for only a short period this year it seems. I won’t claim any inside knowledge of why – maybe the lack of rain until the last day or so. But they are definitely already in obvious decline. Oh well … till next year then.

Last bluebells, Downe

Last bluebells, Downe. May 4, 2019

April 18: beginning to peak

One of the most magical times of the year is when the woodland floor turns blue. From this weekend (April 19) onwards there should be a profusion of bluebells until the second week of May, so it will be worth heading for the woods. The best bluebell displays on the walks here are Ide Hill, One Tree Hill (walk 6 and 7), Polhill Bank/Meenfield Woods at Shoreham (walk 18), Hever, Petts Wood and Chislehurst, Westerham, Fackenden Down and Romney Street (19), and Downe (but only if you do the diversion down into the woods at Point 3 and continue to Berry’s Hill – marked on the map and the pdf). Eynsford/Lullingstone and Chiddingstone/Penshurst probably aren’t the best bluebell walks, although on the latter there are rich concentrations at one or two points.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Early bluebells at Meenfield Wood, near Shoreham, Kent. 2019, April 13. © Adam McCulloch

In many of the woods you’ll be walking with the pervasive aroma of wild garlic (which you can use to make pesto sauce etc) and alongside plenty of cheeky little wild flowers – primroses, wood anemone, common dog violet, arum, red campion, wood-sorrel (oxalis), yellow archangel and orchids (Downe Bank, Lullingstone up from the visitors’ centre, Bough Beech’s Bore Place meadows particularly good for the latter). A highlight not to be missed is the profusion of daffodils at Ightam Mote (One Tree Hill walks) where you should also see buzzards wheeling and soaring in the thermals and yellowy/greeny brimstone butterflies floating around clearings and copses. Emmett Garden’s tulip ‘plantation’ on the Ide Hill walk is also wonderful. Look out for migrant bird species arriving, particularly the following warblers: chiffchaffs newly arrived from southern Europe and north Africa can be heard in all the woodland on these walks, and it’s worth learning and listening for the song of blackcaps and common and lesser whitethroats. The latter two, which arrive from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa, migrate at night and are a favourite of the birdwatching fraternity.

That reminds me, the One Tree Hill routes are very good for butterflies – where the path goes through the lee of the Greensand Ridge amid boulders and rich vegetation the insect world gets particularly busy and peacocks, orange-tips and brimstones proliferate on a bright day. This coming weekend (April 20), forecast to be warm, should be a good time to see them.

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Easter Sunday silence

A very memorable walk on Easter Sunday. It was after 6pm when we set off for Downe, having waved friends off. We took the normal route, veering off at point 3 to see the bluebells. There was an extraordinary silence. No Heathrow or Gatwick aircraft in the stack and precious little activity at Biggin Hill; just one executive jet took off in the course of the hour.

For some reason there was no traffic at all, although the pubs in the village were reasonably busy. I don’t think I’ve ever walked in this corner of the world with so little background sound, just birdsong. On that subject we distinctly heard the call of stonechats at point 5-6 from nearby undergrowth (a sound like two stones being knocked together). This was odd because stonechats are usually a bird of heathland. Anyway, a lovely sunset added to the tranquil, timeless scene and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

A special stroll.

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The North Sea comes to the North Downs

South-east London’s first April weekend was a dullard; very disappointing at a time of year when colour is returning to parks, gardens and countryside. A breeze from the North Sea – not a particularly cold one – brought thick stratus, drizzly outbreaks and, on Saturday, a gloom that made it hard to distinguish 3pm from 7pm. Headlights were on, people hurried past, huddled, on the pavements. On the North Downs escarpment the cloud barely scraped over the hills and the drizzle intensified; but there was a snug softness in the air and sudden increases in brightness as the sun attempted to break through before being smothered by the North Sea murk once again.

Chevening church, Kent

Chevening church, St Botolph’s © Adam McCulloch

Chevening

Near Chevening, beneath the scarp, on a murky day in spring © Adam McCulloch

Sunday was marginally better, but the Spitfires and light aircraft of Biggin Hill were still well and truly grounded – so none of the flybys accompanied by the growl of piston aero engines you usually get in these parts. We did two walks at Knockholt Pound, taking in Chevening hamlet: one to the west that loops back on to the North Downs Way via Sundridge Hill; the other to the east, heading down by Star Hill Lane then swinging right past messy farmyards to Chevening’s ancient St Botolph’s Church. The first bluebells are out and other wildflowers punctuated the grey proceedings along with myriad ultra-busy birds. A bullfinch was spotted, a buzzard (always a buzzard or two at Chevening) and more pheasants than I’ve ever seen.

I may well add the combined walk to this site next week, but I’m not totally satisfied with it; some good views and points of interest but there’s one bit where there’s too many farm tracks and rubbish heaps and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to walk there. Also, the woods seem a bit too managed – logging, and probably something to do with all the pheasants.