Party time for buzzards

Party time for buzzards

Yesterday I was lucky enough to emerge from the trees at the top of Fackenden Down just as eight – yes, eight – buzzards soared in the updraft together overhead, calling out and engaging in mock battles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearby Magpie Bottom was also a picture with mauve scabious flowers and purple knapweed giving the pollinators a real treat. On a small sandy lump, made by burrowing insects I guess, I spied a tiny, dark lizard which shot off as I reached for the camera inevitably.

Fackenden Down, near Shoreham and Otford stations, is a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve of rare and superb value. The trust is trying to encourage reptiles, butterflies and more varieties of wildflower to return to the spectacular site but needs money so please donate to them if you can.

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A weald of possibility

A weald of possibility

Just before the great May weather ended we headed down to the Kent low weald, to Chiddingstone for a walk. Usually there are quite a lot of tourists and daytrippers (like myself) in the Tudor one-street village which has the air of a film set (it was used in Room with a View among other films). But under lockdown restrictions very little stirred beneath the cloudless sky; the lovely Castle Inn was closed of course and there was rather an enchanting air of abandonment. The walk itself was subdued too; I had been hoping for cuckoos calling and sightings of house martins, bullfinches and swallows. But the restrictions seemed to have spread to the wildlife too and there was little to be seen or heard. One of the best things about walks at this time of year though was in full swing… groves of flowering foxgloves. I love ’em.

I’ve always wanted to find a way of avoiding walking along the road between points 6 and 7, so we took a detour into the parkland at Penshurst Place to examine the possibilities. Alas there is no side path that connects with the footpath at point 7. It’s a shame because it wouldn’t be too hard to set up a gate in the metal fence at that point and establish a little path. Still, it is possible to walk in the parkland for a couple of hundred metres before you have to rejoin the road; it’s something I suppose, and there was a nice view of the ancient manor house from there. We also did the Bough Beech walk nearby which despite its brevity always surprises me with how much beauty it packs in.

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Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

So from Wednesday it’s once again OK to drive into the countryside for a walk, but we are being urged to avoid using public transport to keep it safe for key workers. For the many without cars the walks will remain inaccessible but in the greater scheme of things, against the tragic current backdrop of lives and livelihoods lost, it’s not such a huge disaster. But it should be remembered that days spent out in the woods, fields and paths are hugely beneficial for mental health, I’d suggest in ways that the local park just can’t match. We also have to hope that the roads – and air – don’t become increasingly clogged as people jump in their vehicles for all purposes. Social distancing will need to be maintained, of course, and also take care around touching gates and fence posts – it would be a good idea to take wipes or hand sanitiser with you.

Speedwell.

Learning birdsong and wildflowers

This spring’s bluebells will mostly be over but there will be plenty of other spring delights to witness. Cowslips, vetch, bugle, stitchwort, speedwell and buttercups are all flowering and soon orchids will push their way through grassy fringes and meadows along with ox-eye daisies. Warblers have arrived from Africa and are burbling, chiff-chaffing, and whistling away unseen in the woods and hedges. Precious few swallows, martins and swifts are around so far, I hear – a worry perhaps. I’m always astounded at the volume generated by tiny wrens at this time of year, so definitely worth listening out for them. A great bird to see is the spotted flycatcher. They have been seen on many walks on this site, most recently in Knole Park, not by me, but by experts. They disappear back to tropical Africa in August having only arrived this month so seeing one is a relatively big deal.

A really good website for learning birdsongs is this oneDon’t be fazed by the huge number of species to learn. Just learn the ones most relevant – for example, wood warblers aren’t present (much) in Kent woodlands but willow warblers are more numerous. Try to learn the basics – say, robin, blackbird, wren, great tit, goldfinch and chaffinch – and soon you’ll be adding others. Don’t be too frustrated if you can’t see the bird you can hear: it’s often incredibly difficult with the trees in full leaf, and many of us find it hard to exactly pinpoint where the bird song is coming from, not only in terms of direction but in terms of distance. Kent walks near London birdwatching correspondent Dave, of course, is a master of not only identifying song but working out where the sound is emanating from him – remarkable talent built on experience gleaned when a nipper no doubt.

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Confined for now, but keep your eyes open

In my wildest dreams did I ever think when I set up this website that I’d be advising people not to take a walk. But current circumstances, like something from a disaster movie, dictate that really we shouldn’t go out into the countryside for our hiking fix. My last walk was in the Ashdown Forest (yes, I know, East Sussex… not Kent) on Sunday 22 March. And yes it was very busy with an atmosphere more of Easter holidays than a national crisis. It’s a beautiful place to be on a fine day but I kicked myself for suggesting it; there was always a high risk it’d be busy. So to reiterate the government’s advice:

  • Only go outside for food, health reasons or work (where this absolutely cannot be done from home)
  • Stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people
  • Wash your hands as soon as you get home

People should not meet friends or family members who do not live with them. Gatherings of more than two people (excluding people who live together) will be banned.

Of course the word ‘absolutely’ is up for debate and ‘who do not live with them’ is not exactly clear either given the comings and goings of adulty ‘kids’. It’s difficult to stay two metres away in a shop too, especially when the brave shop staff decide to check your receipt. But we get the gist. The full government guidance on social distancing is here.

All our sympathy and concern must be directed at those who are elderly, frail, have underlying health conditions and mobility problems. And then there are the self-employed, from musicians, actors to carpenters and yoga instructors, who’ve seen their incomes disappear overnight and little mechanism in place to compensate them at least in the short term. Many have pointed to the plight of the homeless, those living in abusive relationships, in poor quality housing among others. These are tough times.

Garden and street birdwatching

Goldfinch on my battered old seed feeder

Those of us lucky enough to have gardens might enjoy a spot of very local birdwatching: to that end, here’s my latest piece for Guardian Travel, which leans on the great experience, skill and knowledge of my friends Steve Gale and Dave, of these pages. Just prior to that I wrote a short piece on the Ightham Mote estate, also for Guardian Travel, as part of a round-up of National Trust gardens and parklands that at the time were remaining open. I guess the estate is still open seeing as it’s not fenced in but the NT has closed all its gardens now. Maybe this year the bluebells will only be enjoyed by true locals, not us more inner suburbanites.

If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that local pollution levels have fallen markedly and we can hear birdsong now the whine of jets has disappeared. But I can’t wait for this to be over so we can all get out there (not all at once of course).

Update: Monday 6 April

In the past week I’ve written another piece for the Guardian around birds and wildlife, this time around watching webcams and using social media to deepen our understanding. An inspiration for this was the excellent Facebook (I know, I’m not a huge fan either) page and live show set up by Chris Packham and Meghan McCubbin called the Self Isolating Bird Club. In researching the piece I had a long chat with another Springwatch presenter, Michaela Strachan, who spoke to me from her house in South Africa, where she too is in lockdown. She was as delightful to talk to as you’d expect from her television appearances. The article is here.

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

I’ve felt watching sunsets was a bit of a cliche ever since visiting a club on the Greek island of Ios 30 years ago.

Scorpions, as the place was called I think, offered the chance to be spellbound as our golden orb sank below the Aegean – accompanied by a tequila cocktail costing 100 drachma (40p). For some reason the occasion made no impression on me whatsoever and I found the applause of the assembled horde hilarious in my then youthful arrogance.

However, I did see a terrific sunset rather more recently in Cornwall when the sun seemed to dissolve on contact with the surface of the sea coating it with a blazing trail … most peculiar. Perhaps it’s an age thing – one is drawn to sunsets on realising there aren’t all that many left.

Anyway, we were atop Fackenden Down doing a truncated version of the walk on these pages on Sunday (a clear day for once) at about 4pm when sunset happened. It was quite fun and there were a few people around to see it (actually seeing the sun at all is pretty rare these days after all). I took some frankly quite boring photos of it which I will now share as well as some hopefully atmospheric woodland shots (one with staring sheep) in the gathering winter dusk.

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Christmas and New Year’s walk choices

Christmas and New Year’s walk choices

Family walks are a fab tradition at this time of year. They often entail waiting for Grandpa to catch up and the kids to finish in the playground, dogs rolling in something unmentionable, and departing so late (because everyone’s trying to find suitable footwear) you arrive at the walk in time for dusk. No, of course, they are much more fun than that. But given all the rain and resultant mud it would be best not to go out in your festive season finery this week. A flask with some hot chocolate and perhaps a wee dram aren’t a bad idea either.

These are the walks I reckon are best for families this Christmas. My choice has been limited by all the rain – I’d love to recommend the Fackenden Down and One Tree Hill routes but the footpaths on the thin chalky soil of Fackenden could be treacherous and easily damaged, and One Tree Hill is a winter a mudbath for reasons not entirely clear to me. Anyway those walks have more strenuous sections not entirely appropriate or the ‘whole’ family. So my top five are:

1 Shoreham Circular (good pubs in Shoreham, not too muddy, one steep hill)
2 Lullingstone (visitors’ centre cafe, pubs in Eynsford, not too muddy; also can park at golf club or visitors’ centre for DIY walks – my route is just one of many variations)
3 Knole Park (best for lack of mud, cafe closed Christmas Day, shuttle available from Sevenoaks station Sunday 29th and 5th Jan) 
4 Downe short and long (a bit muddy in places but relatively good, one steepish hill stretch on the long version, two pubs in Downe) 
5 Otford and Shoreham (pubs in Otford and Shoreham; easy to make a good train walk with stations in both villages).

Another recommendation if you don’t want to travel out so far is Beckenham Place Park with its lovely new cafe, playgrounds, woodland, lake and gardens; it’s easy on the train too with three stations (Beckenham Junction, Beckenham Hill and Ravensbourne) on the doorstep. A little further out is Petts Wood (a bit muddier but beautiful woods), also easy by train (my route starts at Chislehurst station and finishes at Petts Wood station.

Of course it won’t be snowing but the picture above shows Knole in Sevenoaks on a particularly atmospheric winter’s day.

Lullingstone – winter walking wonderland

Lullingstone – winter walking wonderland

The walks through Lullingstone country park (nos 3 and 12) take in superb chalk grassland, rewilded areas of scrub, wonderful beech woodland and long views of the Darent Valley. Walkers don’t truly need to follow the prescribed routes; you can take off in whatever direction you fancy, just don’t walk straight across a golf fairway if there are golfers visible. If you have time it’s great to wander in Beechen Wood, a site of special scientific interest, with 500-year-old oaks, hornbeams, towering beeches and ash.

The park is great for winter walks, not being quite as muddy as some of the routes on this site (One Tree Hill you have been warned) and dusk brings excellent sunset views. There’s adventure playground stuff dotted around too, if you have kids you want to bring. Buzzards and kestrels are usually seen at all times of the year and field birds such as yellowhammer, corn bunting and skylark are often spotted despite the decline in their numbers. And it’s easy to get there to on public transport: it’s just 20 minutes’ walk from Eynsford station with its trains to south-east London (Peckham Rye/Catford line). Throw in the terrific Roman Villa and Lullingstone Castle you have a great day out.

Here are some winter pix over the years, two from yesterday and a passing rain squall.

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Inspiring words from Bill Bryson

Inspiring words from Bill Bryson

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.)

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.

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.