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.)
Winter has arrived but it remains mild; with more rainfall the mud has churned up on the most of the walks so it’s time for wellies. But take care: the chalky Darent Valley hillside paths can be a bit slippery at this time of year, particularly where the paths are worn and the chalk is close to the surface. But the austere beauty of the North Downs in winter is now evident, especially on the eastern side of the valley – walks 5, 14 and 19 – and on the Eynsford routes: walks 3 and 12. If the temperature drops a bit take a flask out with some hot chocolate and maybe a shot of something stronger – really works out here in an easterly wind!
Each of the walks on this site have their own character. There’s definitely a split between the southern routes, such as Chiddingstone, Ide Hill and at Hever, which are more wooded and somehow bucolic, and the more hilly, more grassy northern routes of the Darent Valley where the ridgelines are the highest points for an easterly winds for hundreds of miles. It’s all very atmospheric; when walking I often imagine what life was like for Saxons, Romans, Britons and Vikings who settled these parts and picture them on their long, painstaking journeys.
So, here’s a useful way of choosing a walk near SE London … enlarge the map, then just click on the labels and lines to find a walk that suits you. You’ll see there’s quite a spaghetti junction of walks around Shoreham, you can combine them all and stay out all week if you like! My tip this week is Walk 19: Fackenden Down. It’s on the eastern side of the Darent Valley – straight out of Shoreham train station and the views are terrific. The walks are also on the menu at the top. Enjoy…
An online version of the Ordnance Survey map 147 can be found herebut strangely some public footpaths are not included. I’m gradually working on making GPX files for the walks so they can be followed ‘live’ on smartphone, but, ahem, slow progress is being made!
A beautiful stroll on Sunday in 32C sunshine at One Tree Hill, Sevenoaks. We did a version of the figure-of-eight walk, past Ightam Mote, skirting Shipbourne then on to the hamlet of Budds before climbing back up the green sandstone ridge at Wilmots Hill. We passed hardly a soul but nor did we see many birds. Everything was still, waiting for evening coolness as the last of the daytrippers sidled contentedly away from Ightam Mote, smiling and clutching bags containing goodies from the National Trust shop. The hushed reverential mood of the day was only heightened by the sudden appearance of one of the Biggin Hill Spitfires glistening in the sun, banking hard towards Plaxtol and briefly getting into formation with a slow twin-engine passenger plane (maybe a photo sortie?) before dashing off west. A thrilling sight.
Once again off to Chiddingstone, this time without birding maestro Dave. But saw my first two bullfinches of the year, plus very large slow worm (too fast for me to take pic of however), skylarks and cuckoo. Plus the best variety of dragonflies – some real beasts – I’ve ever seen on a walk, perhaps brought out by the number of winged insects after the huge storm last nght. Some awesome cumulus nimbus forming beyond north London (Channel 4 news’ weatherforecaster Liam Dutton reckons this storm was the one that wrought temporary havoc to Buckinghamshire yesterday evening). The cloud tops of this storm reached 40,000ft so everyone who saw it from Kent and Surrey thought it was much closer than it actually was.
Whenever I do the Chiddingstone walk it seems to be fantastic weather. Sunday was a real beauty, clear skies, bright sunshine, a whisper of cool breeze. Our resident anonymous birdwatcher Dave came along and straightaway I heard and saw far more species than usual; cuckoo, song thrush, skylark, goldfinch, and best of all, marsh tit in the swampy woods near the start of the walk. The latter is rare enough to be worth recording with the Kent Ornithological Society, which Dave duly did.
The cuckoo we later saw flying between oaks. For a moment I thought it was a kestrel, with its rapid flap, but Dave pointed out that the wings stayed too low for that to be the case.
Odd though that we didn’t see buzzards or kestrels. And there were only a few swallows, despite the many fantastic meadows left untamed and absolutely buzzing with insect life including mayflies. No swifts at all or house martins. Dave said this was troubling and representative of the mass decline in bird numbers (and, actually, insect numbers) in Europe as a probable result of farms’ use of neonicotinoid insecticides, now being somewhat tardily restricted by the EU.
However, one insect we did see several examples of was the european hornet (Vespa crabro). There’s clearly a nest in the village somewhere, but we also spotted some individuals at the Penshurst side of the walk. These are native hornets and are less troublesome than wasps in many ways; they don’t seem to be such suckers for sweet things for one thing. We certainly enjoyed a swift Larkins at the Castle Inn without being troubled by those we saw zooming around nearby. Of course, when they sting, they hurt. Like hell.
An unexpectedly superb weekend of weather; it seems to me that late summer and early autumn are now routinely drier and warmer than mid-summer but I’m too lazy to look for figures to back that up. I hope, dear readers, you’ve been able to get out and about. A small component of my family ventured forth by car and bicycle to Penshurst Place (on the Chiddingstone circular walk) yesterday. We parked at Haysden country park a mile or so from Tonbridge station, then cycled the remaining 3.5 miles to Penshurst Place, on lanes at first, then off-road alongside the river Medway.
We passed a good swimming/picnic spot in the river close to the bridge as it passes beneath Ensfield Rd, before ascending the moderate hill at Well Place Farm then freewheeling down the slope to Penshurst Place manor house itself. The gardens are always a joy and so is the cafe by the house in a large courtyard dominated by a lime (I think) tree. I wrote about the house and its interesting history for the Guardian a while back – also got more detail there on how to get there and prices. A great afternoon out if you are fancy free on the bank holiday but best done with a car/bike combination.
There are trains from Victoria (via East Croydon) and London Bridge but Penshurst station is two miles from the house. I haven’t devised a walking route from the station away from the road yet but there must be one. Hmm…
Yep, crisp winters’ days are great; mellow autumn walks can be lovely; and spring fills you with hope. But can you really beat heat? Humid, sultry but not too hot today. Clear enough for views stretching for miles too. With my younger son I did the Hever walk in reverse (yes I’ve got the nagging feeling it’s better than the way round I’ve suggested in the description – you get the half-mile road bit out of the way early, for starters). The insect world was happily whirring away; flotillas of butterflies arose from the buttercup-rich meadows. A sparrowhawk glided past us silently in one glade. And in a field by Stock wood we came across some friendly older guys flying large radio-controlled aircraft, including aerobatics, next to a little grass runway cut out of the meadow. They were the only people we met on the 5 mile route; remarkable really when you consider that Hever Castle was, well, heaving. Some pix…