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.

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 (Read 2020 bluebell piece here)

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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