Itchy feet and wings

Itchy feet and wings

It’s the time of year when birdwatchers start getting itchy feet… the autumn migration is revving up. Swifts, swallows and martins will be heading back to Africa along with yellow wagtails, chiffchaffs and the like. Some birds travel, some stay. Some species are split between resident populations and visitors; even blackbirds that hop on your lawn can be either from your hedge, or Belorussia. Soon redwing and fieldfare will begin to arrive from the east, maybe, later, waxwing too. I find it all a bit confusing to be honest and hard to remember the whys and wherefores. My friends Dave and Steve (check out the extraordinary North Downs and Beyond blog) are supremely accomplished in this area and languidly reel off reports such as ‘Box Hill 7am: 40 sand martins, 13 flycatchers, a honey buzzard, two cuckoos, 12 common buzzards and a female goshawk.’ Apparently, these birds, rarely seen by the layman, are all there just waiting to be spotted if you bother to wait and look.

Migrating birds can crop up anywhere but some maintain there are certain routes that are followed more than others. River valleys cutting through the downs make sense as a visual guide to birds but also as a way of keeping out of low cloud. You might imagine a warbler saying to another… you just head down the Darent Valley, then when you get past Fackenden Down chuck a left and you’ll eventually hit the Medway. When that gets wide you hit the Thames then spin right and soon you’ll be in Belgium, God’s own. So my tip for birds on the wing would be Shoreham, Lullingstone, Polhill and Fackenden walks. The Darent is, like the Mole and Wey further west in Surrey, a fine cut through.

This weekend will be a glorious opportunity to walk and get the binoculars out. The weather looks great, although the cricket and football’s on…

I’m not great at observing birds although I’m always seeing kingfishers out of the corner of my eye when near water. However, I did see a red kite last week on the chalk escarpment south of Cudham on my regular cycle route. It glided right over me at a height of no more than 50 feet. A sight like is not something you can forget easily.

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Awkward August with a sting

A distinctly autumnal tinge to the air this month. But I suppose when you have summer start in April it’s not surprising. There has been some welcome rainfall… though not so welcome if you were on holiday in the UK. There are still some interesting wildflowers aplenty in the margins, though not the spectacular vistas we saw in June on walks such as Fackenden Down. On a recent stroll at Ide Hill the vistas were as beautiful as ever but the woods had taken on that rather careworn look of late summer. Emmetts Garden though… wow, what beautiful blooms are still displaying there.

In terms of birdlife it’s a quiet time of year with few migrations taking place as yet, but anyone with a good eye and ear will notice increasing flocking of small birds in multi-species groups, flitting through woodland margins in search of seeds and insects. Often they include finches, tits, goldcrests and firecrests. Large flocks of woodpigeons and starlings will also be seen.

European hornet.

The Biggin Hill airshow, a far more modest affair than in pre-2008 financial crisis days, took place over the weekend just gone. There were wonderful sounds and sights, particularly of second world war aircraft and astonishing displays by the Typhoon fighter jet which certainly does not lack for power and speed. While enjoying the show, beer in hand, I had a most interesting encounter with a hornet (or large wasp) which stung me repeatedly between thumb and forefinger before being persuaded to fly off. It was a close-run thing between hornet and jellyfish (see previous Camber Sands entry) as to which was the most painful initially. The jellyfish imparted an electric shock-like sensation that the insect could not muster. But there is no question that for swelling and temporary unforeseen side-effects the hornet is the clear winner. I was able to finish my beer, however.

Awesome orchid wonderland

Awesome orchid wonderland

I was bowled over by the wildflowers on the Fackenden Down walk yesterday. I’ve never seen so many orchids; with yellow trefoil and tall ox-eye daisies blazing away as a background some of the meadows were mesmerising. Full credit to those managing the sites of special scientific interest at Magpie Bottom, Austin Spring and Fackenden Down along to White Hill (Kent Wildlife Trust in conjunction with local landowners?). Their hard work has produced a superb return. I’m not good at identifying orchids beyond the pyramidal variety, but I’ll give it a shot for the photos.

To strike a more negative note, I got the feeling there should still be more insects enjoying this abundance; there were plenty of bees around but not a lot else (a few marbled white butterflies, the odd peacock butterfly and red admiral notwithstanding). There was a distinct lack of swallows, martins and swifts, too. These species haven’t made it to these shores in great numbers this year it seems and that could be because of the effect of insecticides. But anyway, a beautiful and memorable walk.

And remember, this wonderland is only 50 minutes direct on the train from Peckham Rye, with the walk starting opposite Shoreham station.

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Downe Downe deeper Downe

Downe Downe deeper Downe

I’ve always liked that Status Quo song ever since I was a young teenager. I’m no headbanger but it’s got energy and drive – which Kent walkers have in abundance of course.

GPX dodgy and iffy instructions

I did both Downe walks this weekend. The weather was distinctly iffy so I couldn’t be bothered to go far. So I did the new longer Downe walk on Saturday and the usual shorter one on Sunday with my wife. She was not too impressed by my instructions; “too wordy” she said in a slightly irritated fashion after about 50 yards. My attention was somewhat distracted by a B-17 Flying Fortress flying low overhead, but then she pointed out I had omitted to mention any stiles and gates and thought my ‘line of trees’ was really a wood. It made me realise that we all see things a bit differently and that I’m so familiar with the walk that I was imagining rather than actually seeing. That’s quite a phenomenon – try describing your walk to the station or to the office… it’s so obvious to you but you suddenly realise that you’ve completely misdescribed a house or a shop.

Compounding the unclear directions is the uncomfortable fact that the GPX tracks I’m pointing people to on the website are distinctly dodgy. On Saturday it was only right 50% of the time; often the blue dot marking your ‘live’ location would linger unhappily in a nearby road or layby. No idea why. Could be a signal thing or a sign you are running out of data, a position I’m very familiar with. Today, on the short Downe walk, the GPX was inaccurate the whole time. I’ll have to redo the track, maybe using a different website but then there might just be something about Downe, deeper Downe.

Here’s the pdf for the new instructions for Walk 1 Downe Circular. Gratitude to my wife for opening my eyes and apologies to anyone I’ve misled. And here is, hopefully, a more reliable GPX track.

By the way, I’ve learnt a new wildflower name and I’m going to use it. Birds-foot-trefoil. It’s small and yellow and spectacular at Downe, particularly in the meadows close to Darwin’s house (of course!). Apparently the plant is a staple in the diet of caterpillars of common blue, silver-studded blue and wood white butterflies. There are also pyramidal orchids at the moment in the the hillside fields that end the walk.

Hillside field point 7-8, Downe

Bough Beech – the lake you can’t quite get to

Bough Beech – the lake you can’t quite get to

From the heights of Emmett’s Gardens, perched on the Greensand Ridge by Ide Hill, the reservoir at Bough Beech off to the south looks so inviting on a hot summer’s day – a cool dash of blue among shades of green, dotted with the white of small sailing dinghies breezily tacking this way and that.

On a hot day you might even think: “Cor, let’s get down there, hire a boat, a pedalo, splash about, perhaps a bit of waterskiing, finish off with a swim followed up by a nifty little sundowner in a trendy bar surrounded by people almost as slick as me.”

Crushing disappointment awaits you; none of these things are possible. True, there is a sailing club and it does have a bar (at the weekends at least) but its home page proclaims it is “run by the members for the members”. Which is lovely … for the members. Fair enough. All good.

Oh well, we can’t get on the lake to cool us off on a summer’s day, so how about a picnic in a delightful meadow with a spot of paddling in the softly lapping water?

Er… absolutely not! Much of the lake’s boundary is a nature reserve and you can’t get close to the water. Again … OK, fine. Nature is good, we love nature, even if we can’t touch it  – in fact it’s best if we don’t touch it.

Right, we can’t go in it or stop next to it. We’ll just have to walk or cycle round it while enjoying views across it, in the same way as you can at the extraordinarily pricey Bewl Water, an even larger reservoir not that far away. I suspect you may by now have worked out the format of this post and are anticipating me writing “Sorry, but you can’t walk round it”.

Sorry, but you can’t walk round it. I did try a couple of times with no real luck. Although there is a nice walk nearby that goes to Bore Place organic farm and takes in some nice little meadows and woods. You can even glimpse the reservoir if you crane your neck.

Where you can almost see the lake

Ah, here’s the Kent Wildlife Trust to the rescue. I read the KWT has a visitor centre in an oast house, a habitat reserve, nature trail and bird hides. There are picnic tables, and a car park. Big whoop! We’ve got our beautiful lakeside view after all, co-existing nicely with nature. Haven’t we?

Don’t be so naive, joker. It’s closed down. Now it’s an educational facility for some school or other. You can’t go in. Anyway, even when KWT ran it you could barely see the lake from the visitors’ centre. And the nature trail went for about a third of a mile close to the reservoir’s western edge without quite giving you a view of it. Well, it did at one point, but there’s a huge fence in the way to prevent people from messing with nature. Then you had to walk back on a country lane down which vast 4WD vehicles hurtle along at colossal speeds.

Bough Beech

There it is! Bough Beech

I’m told the ex-KWT site is still a great spot for birdwatching (even us dullards spotted greylag geese and great crested grebe) and you can indeed still use the bird hides and unleash your binocular power. Don’t expect any riveting conversation. It’ll most likely be “Seen the osprey?” Suspicious look, “who’s asking?”. Birdwatchers aren’t always the most communicative. (Not my mate Dave though, he’s brilliant.) Bough Beech does in fact have ospreys from time to time – not a beast fond of beautiful natural areas being opened up to the masses for frolicking.

Damn it. We’ll have to just drive around the lake on the adjacent country lanes, admiring it from various viewpoints. Off we go. We pass a sign that seems to be warning us about frogs. Oh I see, they cross the road here.

Ah, mmmmm, the lake should be over there … no – there’s woods, there’s fields… it’s over there somewhere, but now there’s a shallow hill in the way. Bloody hell, I give up – you can see it from Emmett’s but I’m beginning to think it was a mirage, it doesn’t exist. I’ll have to join the yacht people.

There it is!

Hold on though, what’s that? Suddenly there it is; a roadside vista of Bough Beech lake. And you can park up. In the northeast corner of the lake, close to the KWT reserve, there’s a causeway traversed by a lane; handily there’s a pavement so it’s a good spot to get out of the car and have a gaze and a twitch maybe. The photos here were taken from there.

Bough Beech reservoir

I suppose Bough Beech lake might be ruined if we were able to do what we want on it and around it. So really I’m glad I can’t organise a barbecue on a summer’s evening on the shoreline, and that there’s not a kiosk charging £7 to plonk one’s jam jar there with an ice cream van for company. I’m delighted not to be able to pedalo on it – disturbing the geese – or cycle round it – and risk squashing toads.

I rest easy at night knowing I haven’t had a snifter while watching the sun go down over this elusive but idyllic spot. But suddenly my sleep is broken; I jolt upright – did I just run over a frog?

Bough Beech/Bore Place walk

Fabulous Fackenden

Fabulous Fackenden

The Fackenden Down walk is such a winner at all times of year – and it’s so easy to get to from SE London, because it starts right outside Shoreham train station. In yesterday’s perfect weather wildflowers illuminated the hillsides and meadows; cirrus clouds offered a dramatic dreamscape high above and incessant birdsong filled the air. So many highlights on this walk: the bit when you leave the ancient beech wood and enter the timeless Magpie Bottom valley is my favourite. And the distant views of the City and the Shard from Romney Street are dramatic too. I was disappointed to see my team lose in the Champions League final later on (yet so thankful we got to the final) but the memories of the walk compensated. I created a GPX track of the walk too… so going off-route is now impossible (if you have a smartphone that is). The walk does have some steep sections though, so take it easy.

Interactive pdf of walk (to print or download on phone) is here.

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Best bluebell walks in north-west Kent 2019

May 4: fading fast

Just last weekend the bluebells were superb at Ide Hill, Meenfield Wood and Downe Bank but, while the odd patch lingers on spectacularly, time is already running out on the bluebell season. They peaked for only a short period this year it seems. I won’t claim any inside knowledge of why – maybe the lack of rain until the last day or so. But they are definitely already in obvious decline. Oh well … till next year then.

Last bluebells, Downe

Last bluebells, Downe. May 4, 2019

April 18: beginning to peak

One of the most magical times of the year is when the woodland floor turns blue. From this weekend (April 19) onwards there should be a profusion of bluebells until the second week of May, so it will be worth heading for the woods. The best bluebell displays on the walks here are Ide Hill, One Tree Hill (walk 6 and 7), Polhill Bank/Meenfield Woods at Shoreham (walk 18), Hever, Petts Wood and Chislehurst, Westerham, Fackenden Down and Romney Street (19), and Downe (but only if you do the diversion down into the woods at Point 3 and continue to Berry’s Hill – marked on the map and the pdf). Eynsford/Lullingstone and Chiddingstone/Penshurst probably aren’t the best bluebell walks, although on the latter there are rich concentrations at one or two points.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Early bluebells at Meenfield Wood, near Shoreham, Kent. 2019, April 13. © Adam McCulloch

In many of the woods you’ll be walking with the pervasive aroma of wild garlic (which you can use to make pesto sauce etc) and alongside plenty of cheeky little wild flowers – primroses, wood anemone, common dog violet, arum, red campion, wood-sorrel (oxalis), yellow archangel and orchids (Downe Bank, Lullingstone up from the visitors’ centre, Bough Beech’s Bore Place meadows particularly good for the latter). A highlight not to be missed is the profusion of daffodils at Ightam Mote (One Tree Hill walks) where you should also see buzzards wheeling and soaring in the thermals and yellowy/greeny brimstone butterflies floating around clearings and copses. Emmett Garden’s tulip ‘plantation’ on the Ide Hill walk is also wonderful. Look out for migrant bird species arriving, particularly the following warblers: chiffchaffs newly arrived from southern Europe and north Africa can be heard in all the woodland on these walks, and it’s worth learning and listening for the song of blackcaps and common and lesser whitethroats. The latter two, which arrive from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa, migrate at night and are a favourite of the birdwatching fraternity.

That reminds me, the One Tree Hill routes are very good for butterflies – where the path goes through the lee of the Greensand Ridge amid boulders and rich vegetation the insect world gets particularly busy and peacocks, orange-tips and brimstones proliferate on a bright day. This coming weekend (April 20), forecast to be warm, should be a good time to see them.

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