I love how Bill Bryson always homes in on the essentials: he’s a writer who’s really connected to what’s best about people and our environment and he doesn’t bother too much with noise. These are troubling times in the UK, certainly relative to the past 25 years or so. But here’s Bill, helpfully retweeted by broadcaster John Simpson:
This is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in the view.
I read that and immediately felt better about the currency crashing, the divisions stoked up by the B word, the erratic leadership of the current prime minister, the inadequacy of the official opposition, the possibility of a national crisis. It’s a great quote and I like to think it kind of sums up why I put this website together. And here’s a picture from a recent stroll at Knole Park of nothing much – just late afternoon autumnal light. (Top picture is of Knole House, of course, catching the rays as it does so beautifully at this time of year.)
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.
You can now see bluebells growing strongly on these walks and wood anenomes are about to flower; primroses too. But, other than early fruit tree blossoms, much of the colour in the countryside at the moment is provided by catkins. Sometimes they make up a golden sheen in the undergrowth – really rather alluring. Most catkins you can see in north west Kent and the burbs are on hazel, alder, goat willow, silver birch and pedunculate oaks, but walnut, hop hornbeam (not many in UK) and white poplar trees all develop them too.
Alder catkins in Pilot’s Wood, Shoreham
Essentially they are flowers without petals that distribute pollen. They help the female flowers to be pollinated after the pollen from the male flowers is taken by the wind. Once the seeds have developed the wind disperses them so they don’t growing right beneath their parent. Willow uses insects for pollination rather than wind. Here’s Countryfile’s guide to how to ID them, and here’s the Woodland Trust’s. I suddenly started noticing them on the Ide Hill walk that I did last Sunday in wind and rain. Took them for granted before. A bit unobservant that.
Another lovely little thing to see at this time of the year are the ‘baubles’, dainty balls, hanging off London plane trees. Mostly you’ll see them closer to and in the city but there are plenty in the suburbs. Funny tree the London plane… a hybrid of sycamore and oriental plane, they didn’t exist before the 16th century. Here’s a guide to them, by the excellent Londonist.
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