Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.

I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.

I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.

We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.

Tiny lanes, dry feet

Tiny lanes, dry feet

The mud on these walks is still in the mild-moderate category. Wellies useful but not essential… mostly. But if things get really boggy, which they are bound to do by midwinter, it’s easily possible to devise routes that take in tiny wandering lanes rather than swampy paths – of which there are more than few in these parts. Many such lanes were once paths… others service dispersed houses around villages and become footpaths or bridlepaths. It would be difficult to devise a proper circular walk of decent length using only these trackways – although I intend to give it a shot over the coming months. Two such lanes which intersect with a walk at KWNL are at Underriver. Take a look at the map; you’ll see two lanes roughly north to south acting as shortcut links between points 4, 5 and 8. These are lovely to explore, especially at the moment with the unfurling of the autumn wardrobe. They also intersect with footpaths so you can devise your own bespoke routes. With bird expert Dave I walked them yesterday, stopping often to admire berries and views, and to scan for les oiseaux. We didn’t see a lot (bird numbers have been in decline for years): a few siskins, a gorgeous flock of bullfinches flitting the hedgerows, and newly arrived redwings in threes and fours was about it. Oh, and a fantastic female kestrel which eyed us from a small scarlet tree close to the (excellent) White Rock Inn. We managed about 3.5 miles, half on tarmac, before resuming the Underriver route at point 4, but doing it anticlockwise. A pint of Harvey’s at the aforementioned pub in the autumnal twilight was a splendid bookend to a most satisfactory KWNL afternoon.

Rain shafts and redwings

I managed to squeeze in three walks between Friday and Sunday – Hosey CommonKnole Park and Underriver – and dropped by at Bough Beech. The weather was mostly grey on the first two days but a quick trip over to One Tree Hill late in the day on Saturday put us into pole position for enjoying a sliver of gold that marked the setting sun and some curious localised showers sweeping across the Weald, producing several rain shafts. Friday had burst into colour late on too, with a glorious rainbow at Bough Beech and ochre clouds layered above that sliver of gold and orange.

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However, Sunday proved the best day of all with blue skies punctuated by dense cumulus once again depositing rain in sheets for 30 seconds at a time leaving the sunlit landscape shimmering. Very unusual weather. I met up with birdwatching guru Dave and walked on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver. He was in top form, picking up the calls of siskin, little owl, bullfinch and treecreeper in between explaining why West Ham were going to have a decent season (for them). We marvelled at the ‘dancing’ beech trees on the sunken path leading up the escarpment.

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Later on, as the day turned red and mauve, we watched in awe as large flocks of redwings and fieldfares tracked west, arriving from Scandinavia or perhaps eastern Europe, no doubt heading for berry-laden hedgerows somewhere in the country. I think I’m getting into this birding lark but I think I’ll need expert guidance for some time yet.

But seeing those flocks on the move was something I felt privileged to witness – the kind of sight we can all see if we happen to look up at the right moment. But when you realise the significance and epic scale of these migratory movements you start to appreciate why some people wander around with binoculars and notebooks.

Summer’s lease

Summer’s lease

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date…

Any weather that isn’t warm and sunny feels like a major disappointment at the moment with autumn round the corner, Covid-19 issues and some fairly other horrendous news going on around the world. We need the compensation of mood-lifting sunlight. But even in these cold, cloudy conditions walks work wonders with wellbeing. Last week, with a few days off work I tried a new route starting from Underriver – in pouring rain as it turned out – that joins on with the One Tree Hill routes. It proved excellent and featured some really interesting farms with lovely old buildings as well as the familiar Greensand Ridge views. I’ll write it up soon but if you do Walk 6 in full (with the western extension past Romshed Farm) you’ll have done it anyway. But maybe I’ll work it into a shorter route too, so time won’t be such a pressure.

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The next day proved equally splashy, so failing to find anyone who wanted to join me I set off down the A2 in teeming rain to the Hoo peninsula. I’ve done the walk there, starting at Cliffe, several times but this was probably the most spectacular occasion yet, with huge storm clouds to the north and south and slivers of sunlight illuminating the bleak marsh. I heard cetti’s warbler, saw a whitethroat, lapwings, avocet and various unidentified waders. A marsh harrier glided across the track at one point; very thrilling if you like that kind of thing. My luck ran out on the final mile, however, as the heavens opened. It’s an hour’s drive from Sydenham but Cliffe is a good place to visit, particularly for bird watching, picking blackberries, elderberries and sloe and gazing over the Thames estuary. You can park at the RSPB reserve or in the car park by the main village church and just wander the marsh paths and tracks. There is a train service to Higham (three miles away) or to Strood – a Thameslink service that can be picked up at London Bridge, Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Charlton. There are local buses (the 133) from Higham/Strood but a taxi might work better.

Over the weekend I returned for the second time in a week to one of my favourites: Fackenden Down, this time in good company – I love a social walk even more than a solitary one! I never tire of this route, one that always delivers in terms of views, rustic atmosphere and so on. It’s still pretty colourful too with ripening berries, scabious and trefoil flowers aplenty on Fackenden Down itself and many chalkhill blue butterflies lingering in the sheltered spots. Very few birds around, however, just a solitary buzzard and a kestrel with a few lingering swallows speeding over the meadows.