Windy, cold, grey, damp. Yep, this May is a shocker. We needed the rain yada yada (or yabba yabba, take your pick). I won’t go on leisure cycles in this kind of weather, but walking is still a possibility if the wind drops. I know, it’s hard to believe I’m talking like this – it’s May in south east England! My walking activities do mean I have some accurate memories of weather and there were a couple of days not dissimilar to this last May. But only a couple. Anyway, for once I had time last weekend to devise an epic by joining up group of routes. Some old friends were joining me from west London; so we wanted to stretch our legs and truly earn that pint at the end. So we took on the Shoreham eastern valleys walk joined it up with a section of the Fackenden Down route then slipped into Shoreham circular mk2 before segueing smoothly into half of Shoreham mk1, taking in the Meenfield wood bluebells.
On the map it looked to be 8.5 to 9 miles but we reckoned it was about 11.5 miles with our inability to walk straight and a diversion to see the Percy Pilcher memorial. Back in the village the choice was between the Crown, the King’s Head or the Mount Vineyard for the aprés. We settled on the vineyard for its proximity to the station, though both the pubs were passed with regret. In the manner of a walk in the Highlands or west Wales we encountered a number of different weather conditions – beginning with a colourful combination of shades of grey at different levels punctuated by shards of blue sky and varying degrees of sun.
What with the multitude of greens and yellow tones in the woods and fields the effect was dazzling at times. But as we left Magpie Bottom a period of nimbo stratus with heavy rain fell upon us and we emerged at the top of Fackenden Down with that great view shrouded in mist and ragged low cloud. But by the time we’d left the hillside after sheltering we were in bright sunshine and what felt like a 10C rise in temperature. Finally, at the vineyard, we caught the edge of a thunderstorm somewhere around London bringing further rain. In the sunny bits buzzards soared, yellowhammers posed on the tops of hedgerows – with blackcaps, robins and whitethroats chirping away within – and Spitfires from Biggin Hill growled overhead. All part of the Kent wonderland.
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. Cuckooflowerclumps 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.
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.
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.
The countryside has truly woken up. I saw my first peacock butterfly of the year at Ide Hill on Sunday (the more observant among you will be wondering what took me so long I’m sure, they’ve been around for a couple of weeks now) although oddly I haven’t seen a brimstone yet. Maybe I’m just walking along, daydreaming, not really taking stuff in. Anyway, I have noticed the woods developing a healthy green sheen, patches of primroses, and even the odd impatient bluebell bursting into flower. In Scord’s Wood, below Emmetts Garden, I came across clusters of cardamine pratensis – cuckoo flower, a somewhat overlooked spring flower (it’s pretty but not vividly colourful). My camera ran out of juice though, so no pix.
Birdsong has gone up several notches, with chiff chaffs arriving from African and great tits getting particularly busy, blackbirds clearing their throats and robins getting very territorial about everything. Out running recently I surprised a couple of fieldfare picking out worms at Beckenham Cricket Club, no doubt soon to head east to their breeding grounds in continental Europe and further afield. They might have been mistle thrushes, when I come to think of it. Up close very beautiful.
I tried to find a new walk today and decided that the Chevening area round the corner from the Darent Valley looked good. It’s got a lovely old church, a secluded 17th-century grand mansion used by the government for dignitaries (are there any still?) and the North Downs chalk escarpment. The house was probably designed by Inigo Jones (trendy name you’ve got to say).
It’s an area I often cycle around out of winter, using the Pilgrims’ Way road at the foot of the scarp and climbing steeply on the likes of Sundridge and Brasted hills. A lovely area in summer.
My route started at the end of Chevening Lane, Knockholt Pound, where I parked up. I followed the path down the slope through woods toward Chevening, then swung a right across farm/park land with great views of the mansion. Eventually you enter more woods and emerge on Sundridge Hill by a house with the most extraordinary number of bird feeders. With tits and finches all a flutter around me I strode up the hill on the narrow lane then took the North Downs Way back to Chevening Lane with more woods to the south, blocking the view. All in all about 3.5 miles.
It was boring. And muddy.
I passed very few people; there was an angry woman shouting at her dog. The woods seemed lifeless and over-managed. The agricultural land was dull. I saw a buzzard. Great. And some violets flowering. I was pleased with the views of Chevening House, but then I remembered Boris Johnson stayed there sometimes when he was (a useless) foreign secretary. And that was it.
I’ll need to add something, a diversion of some sort, before I can include it on this site. I’ll think of something. But all the paths around Knockholt are a bit stop start. It’s a better area for cycling perhaps.
If the abysmal weather puts you off travelling out of town for a walk, but the local park bores you rigid, I suggest Beckenham Place Park and Petts Wood for a stroll this Easter. Plenty of great woodland, only a few minutes’ drive from Forest Hill/Lewisham; a great chance for some fresh-ish air close at hand. Beckenham has a good cafe in the mansion; Petts Wood (a bit further out) has ample pubs dotted around it. Below are two pictures from yesterday late afternoon in Beckenham.
Beckenham Place Park mansion with a bunker from the rapidly disappearing old golf course
Sunshine at last … A view down a former golf fairway at Beckenham Place Park
There’s going to be another blast of cold air this weekend but otherwise we’re in that period of great change now as the first blossoms – usually blackthorn – starts to appear, and you begin to encounter wood anenome, celandine, violets and primrose on the ground. Wild garlic will soon be everywhere and, after, bluebells from mid-April. It’s an interesting time to be walking – still a bit muddy, yes, but with the consolation of lots of wildlife to look out for, flowers, trees coming into leaf, often drama in the skies with showers and rapidly moving fronts. Swallows will start arriving I’d guess in about two weeks, with house martins and swifts. Another arrival from Africa, the chiff chaff, will be heard with its hypnotic song particularly evident in Scords wood on the Ide Hill walk. But first, according to today’s forecast, there could be more snow for the weekend. Anyway, some early spring pix for you from the walks:
I love to do this walk several times over the spring, catching the various colours as they flare up and die down at Emmetts and in the woods and fields. The bluebell clouds are starting to fade now; by next weekend they’ll be well past their best (although the wild garlic is still vibrant), but soon the foxglove ‘forests’ of the Ide Hill/Toys Hill valley will spire up to replace them. I wonder if the bluebells have been a bit short-lived this year because of the cold, dry weather, which followed a very warm early spring. Meanwhile, the browns of early spring have been replaced by shades of vivid green. Emmetts of course is always a kaleidoscope of colour and right now is peak azalea. And those tulips… weird and so photogenic. This year’s black, red and white scheme is the best I’ve seen – check out the pictures below. Here are a few pix from the past two years in Emmetts and on the Ide Hill walk.
Here’s a map of all the walks on this site so far. Click on the pointers to take you to descriptions of the walks online or in printable pdf format. Alternatively, use the walk tabs at the top of this page. No one likes standing for ages at bus stops or on railway platforms but I will say the bus to Downe is relatively reliable and frequent and the train to Eynsford, Shoreham and Otford is pretty good too (and there are pubs to dip in to if you have to wait for ages anyway) – although watch out for engineering work on Sundays. More details below. Tell me if you have any tips I’ve left out.
The best walks on this site for public transport, if you live in SE London are:
Best for public transport: Chislehurst/Petts Wood walk (13): direct train to Chislehurst/Petts Wood/Bickley stations from Brixton/Hither Green/Catford/Herne Hill/West Dulwich/Peckham Rye/Nunhead. For the Shoreham/Eynsford and Otford routes (walks 2, 3, 5, 8, 12, 14) there are trains direct to the starts of the walks on Thameslink services between London Blackfriars and Sevenoaks (stopping at Peckham Rye, Nunhead, Catford, Bellingham, Bromley South etc). Trains are relatively frequent and take about 30 minutes from, say, Catford to Otford. Pubs in Shoreham and Eynsford well placed for any delays or cancellations! So-so for transport: Downe (walk 1): closest route to SE London but involves a (fairly frequent) 25-min bus ride – 146 from Bromley South station OK for transport: Knole Park (walk 11) – you’ll have to walk from Sevenoaks station (good rail services to Sevenoaks station on Thameslink – see above – or Charing Cross line (Hither Green etc) for nearly a mile to the leisure centre and enter Knole from there, joining the walk as per instructions and map. Bit of a stretch but do-able:Hever (walk 9) actually has a station, on the London Bridge line via East Croydon, so quite easy from Forest Hill, Brockley etc if you plan ahead. The walk starts at Hever Castle, 1 mile from the station but there’s a path that will take you there from the station. Not so accessible: Sevenoaks routes (walks 4, 6, 7): can take train to Sevenoaks station on Thameslink or Charing Cross line (Hither Green etc), but then a taxi ride – Ide Hill is about 4 miles from the station; One Tree Hill about 3 miles (also quite close to Hildenborough station). Car only, although…: I think Chiddingstone is definitely best by car. But, you can take the train to Hildenborough or Edenbridge and get a taxi (more details on walk’s page).
Two weeks ago I walked at Downe in snow (see pictures below) – a reminder that villages near the leading edge of the North Downs (Ide Hill is another) are just enough metres higher than SE London to convert rain into snow. Since then there have been signs of spring; no sightings of ridiculously early bluebells so far, unlike this time last year, but a milder feel despite Doris rushing through. This past weekend a drizzly Knole Park walk was hugely enjoyable. Although the park was surprisingly busy there was a lovely wild atmosphere about the place and the removal of scaffolding from the side of Knole House restores the Tudor integrity of that fantastic structure. Busy green woodpeckers and flitting small mixed groups of finches provided the evidence that change is in the air. No owls though, even as dusk came on.