With such gentle southern breezes up from Spain and a cobalt February sky we joined hundreds of others in getting out into the nearby Kent countryside today. Once again we chose the Shoreham Fackenden Down route, but this time in reverse: up the steps in the ancient Dunstall woods, across the muddy eponymous farm and down into the steep Austin Lodge valley then the climb to Romney Street. By the time we reached superb Magpie Bottom low clouds had drifted in and a strange quiet had descended, rendering that solitary place strangely eerie. Great! Our only notable bird sightings were both in the fallow fields at Romney Street: a female kestrel hunting exactly where we’d seen the short eared owl a few weeks ago and a huge buzzard lazily enjoying the mild weather. We’d expected to see more. Among the pictures, note the trees growing out of the obvious bomb crater.
I’m often accused of being Kentist or Kentcentric. Maybe north-west-kentcentric. So in the interests of clearing my parochial name, I recommend this magnificent blog on local flora and fauna a bit further west along the North Downs. It’s called ND&B the author of which, Steve Gale, has dedicated years to observing what goes on in his ‘uber-patch’ in north-east Surrey and has racked up an astonishing list of species. On a sombre note, however, he is somewhat downcast about the future of wildlife and has documented a steep decline in bird, plant and invertebrate numbers over recent years. Gale’s writing and photography is of the highest order, and his work is an education for anyone interested in life outside.
Deciding to do a half-remembered walk without map or instructions I set off from Westerham to Chartwell on a 4.5-mile circular route taking in French Street hamlet. Of course I got lost. These woods (Tower wood, Hosey Common) are pretty full-on and some of the paths they contain draw you in only to spit you out into a ditch or thicket with no choice but to retrace your steps. Still, I stumbled across Chartwell eventually but saw nothing of French St. Being Remembrance Sunday it seemed a good choice; but then I remembered that Churchill hadn’t stayed there much during the war, having been withdrawn to Chequers – far away from possible commando raids. It’s not a particularly amazing house but it’s hard to think of one in the south of England with as much significance and in such a brilliant setting.
Looking back towards Westerham and the North Downs ridge, 11 November 2017
The path up on Mariners Hill gives a great view over Winston’s house and into the Weald beyond to the Ashdown Forest. There are also some fantastic sequoia-type trees (giant firs?) to admire. I took a trail back in the direction of Westerham in the twilight; another false path that delivered me without fanfare right on to the dangerous B2026, which hairpins around the greensand ridge on its way to Edenbridge. As I hugged the verge, most cars slowed and gave me a wide berth – and I thank them, but not Mr Audi Q5; he sped around the bend oblivious to the possibility of a vehicle coming the other way and me, a pedestrian, plodding along on the verge. He nearly ran me down. I gestured; he beeped. A prime SUV numpty – a person wrapped up in their own importance I thought.
Chartwell from Mariners Hill
By now it was the gloaming time and I spotted another path on the left leading down through woods into a valley. What a joy this was: a carpet of red leaves and glimmering water to my left. I later found out this was the infant River Darent. A gorgeous path. I’ll have to incorporate it into a walk soon.
Of the countless arboreal delights of north-west Kent there are a few standout trees. There’s the tall, straight oak on the Ightam Mote path, the enormous yew near the sandstone holloway’s entrance on the Hever walk, the high, buzzard-friendly larches encountered on the Shoreham eastern valleys walk, just about every tree in Knole…
But few are more striking – or precarious – than this beech growing out of the greensand escarpment at One Tree Hill, which walkers pass on their way towards, or back from, Ightam Mote. The picture below doesn’t do it full justice: because the camera is pointing down, it’s hard to appreciate the gradient this amazing tree is growing out of. Let’s hope it lasts a while yet.
The amazing tree growing out of the escarpment at One Tree Hill
Despite the bluebells having gone, the Kent countryside is looking fantastic, so verdant, so ancient, so colourful with green, yellow and white predominating. This is especially true on the Hever circular walk with its constant shifting between wood and meadow, long views and short, allowing distant glimpses of mysterious old homesteads and farm buildings with seemingly Tudor chimney stacks appearing between gaps between the trees. At a point on the route near the hamlet of Hill Hoath (nr Chiddingstone) there’s an old ‘holloway‘ – an absurdly venerable trail (part of the Eden Valley Path) enclosed by trees. People must have used this path since pre-Roman times, until a few 100 years ago, to move their herds between pastures. Over the centuries their herds and wagons appear to have worn the path through the sandstone, which has the roots of large beeches growing improbably from its mossy stone sides. At the western end of his section of the path, guarding over it, is an enormous yew tree, clearly 500-plus years old. This was a truly memorable afternoon’s walking. It even featured an inquisitive llama (pictured).
On the 5-mile stroll we didn’t encounter a single soul; surprising for such a great day and the fact the walks starts off next to the visitor honeypot that is Hever Castle. It’s great that you can use their car park for free to visit the wonderful St Peter’s Church – final resting place of Thomas Boleyn and Margaret Cheyne – and the starting point of the walk.
On returning to south east London we watched the very gripping Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, in which Luka Modric showed yet again that he’s the world’s best midfielder. A great day.
I’ve added two new circular walks, a bit further than the others from south-east London, at Hever (walk 9) and a few miles to the east, Chiddingstone/Penshurst (walk 10). They are both possible on public transport from south London: trains from East Croydon run to Hever and Penshurst, but unfortunately neither station is en route; being 1.5 miles from the start in the case of Hever and two miles from the walk for Chiddingstone/Penshurst. Both are lovely and quiet; Hever has more woods and sandstone outcrop, whereas Chidd/Pens is more meadowy and crosses the river Eden twice. Each has a small section on roads where you have to be careful. The bit on the road at Penshurst on the Chiddingstone walk is particularly bad so don’t do it with younger kids. Both walks use the Eden Valley Path for the first half. Hever, Chiddingstone and Penshurst are all Tudor villages with great houses linked with Henry VIII, the Boleyns and others so these walks, or parts of, are particularly good for youngsters studying that period at school. Both have great pubs: the Henry VIII at Hever and the Castle Inn at Chiddingstone.
Here’s a reminder of the historical connections of the walks on this site and a map of their locations.