Farewell winter woods

Farewell winter woods

Before we start waxing lyrical about spring, wildflowers, birds and bees etc etc let’s salute the beauty of woods in late winter, particularly in March, which tends to be sunnier than February and reflects all kinds of subtle auburn nuances in the leafless trees. Around Bough Beech reservoir near Ide Hill the woods have been partially flooded by high water levels making for scenes somewhat reminiscent of the opening parts of that excellent film The Revenant. On the final Saturday in March the first bluebells, generally those in sunny spots in hedgerows, were showing, along with primroses, cuckooflower and so on but those trees around the north lake at Bough Beech in the late afternoon sun in their best end-of-winter finery stole the show. What a superb place that is to watch the sun go down. Pictured below: swamped woods at Bough Beech, silver birches in Stock Wood on the Hever walk, a stream though light woods at Bore Place, and a view back to the Greensand Ridge and Ide Hill across fallow fields from near Bough Beech on a perfectly serene late March day – winter’s last knockings. Finally, an iPhone pic of Shoreham and the Darent Valley on the Polhill/Shoreham Circular walk on Sunday 27 March… a rare day of low misty cloud and sunny patches.

Ide and seek on the greensand

Ide and seek on the greensand

With Saturday a washout it was a real pleasure on Sunday to find time for the Ide Hill route (a three-hour round trip from SE London). For some reason I often take this Greensand Ridge walk while my chosen football team is playing so it’s rarely the relaxing stroll it ought to be. Fortunately, after initial tension, the goals came in a rush so by the halfway point all was well and I could enjoy the subdued January colours, stillness of the woods and occasional bird calls. A huge buzzard glided away from us soon after leaving Scord’s wood leaving a cacophony of jackdaw and carrion crow calls its wake. There were few other birds evident though, a few robins, wrens and a dunnock the only compensation for the finches I was hoping for. The tiny cricket pitch at point 5 seemed even more titchy with no one on it. We caught the sun as it slipped out of the blue sky into a solid-looking bank of cloud draped across the western horizon as far as the eye could see. This gave us a strangely false sunset, and an early dusk at odds with the sky overhead. But those weald views – fantastic as ever. A pint in the cosy Cock Inn was a perfect way to conclude proceedings. Oh, happy new year by the way.

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.

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Underriver and Budds, Sevenoaks: a scenic route

Another new route. Walk 26, Underriver and Budds, cobbles together the optional scenic extension to Walk 6 with the Wilmot to Budds path of Walk 7. It’s a brilliant walk with a superb hedgerow-lined path currently full of berries, a sunken trail with amazing trees growing out of its embankment, atmospheric oasthouses and far-flung views of the Weald. The woods at One Tree Hill are always a pleasure to walk in, especially the ‘tropical’-feeling bit east of Rooks Hill lane and there are myriad springs and little streams that trickle out of the sandstone ridge at various points – mostly around where the farms are, their positioning being no accident. It’s a two-hour round-trip hike starting and finishing at Underriver village.

For those who do these walks with younger children, I wonder if any of them find the appearance of oasthouses a bit disturbing; I certainly used to when I was small. I still find them fascinating and this walk takes you close to some of the best.

‘Walking’ beech trees on the sunken path near Underriver

The only blot on the landscape is the temporary (we hope) closure of the White Rock Inn, one of the nicest pubs on these walks.

The farms encountered have attractive old houses attached and pasture for horses, sheep and cattle, plus a few alpacas. However, around Budds, the fields are for cereals and can be quite barren depending on time of year. They lack wildlife/wildflower margins too – a slight blemish on what is a tremendous afternoon’s stroll. Check out the interractive map below and, as ever, on the walk’s page there are links to GPX (real time location) maps – including a nice short cut variation too.

 

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.

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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A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A rare day off afforded me (us, actually) to venture somewhere during an afternoon when it didn’t rain continuously. We settled on the Ashdown Forest, an hour’s drive from my corner of south-east London, in East Sussex between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead. A perusal of the visitor centre’s maps online led us to choose Walk 11, Chelwood Gate, in the south-west of the Forest.

The area has got the lot: interesting geology, flora and fauna, views, history and literature, being the landscape for Winnie the Pooh’s capers with many recognisable spots. These include Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, Galleons Lap, the Heffalump trap, for example, all of which can be identified.

The walk was beautifully laid out in printable format, with lots of informative text. But it was very difficult to follow; a “narrow path” beside a ditch was actually a wide path that went through a huge puddle – that sort of thing, but we made it around thanks to careful map analysis. In fact, with a compass, a sense of direction and an Ordnance Survey sheet you can pretty much make it up as you go; there are many paths to choose from and the Forest’s inner Pale is open for exploration in a similar way to Knole Park, for example.

What was immediately apparent was just how much rain has fallen this winter; everywhere there were overflowing ponds, gushing streams, seas of mud. You’d think it was Scotland at times. But in fact the Forest, being easily the highest point of the Weald between the North and South Downs does attract far more rainfall than the lower surrounding areas and really does pep up the local rivers, eventually flowing into the Eden and Medway. The high heath and the Pale melds into wooded valley mires where the pines give way to alder and birch, and planks serve as bridges over vigorous streams, alongside some very old looking stone bridges.

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I love how the Forest has its own vocabulary: there are ghylls, hatches, laps … And the names of the car parks are evocative too: Friends, King’s Standing, Roman Road, Goat, and of course Piglets and Pooh.

After we finished with Chelwood Gate (where medieval hero John of Gaunt used to enter for hunting and a home to Howard Macmillan, who once entertained JFK here) we drove a few miles east past Nutley and up onto the highest part of the Forest, to Gills Lap (Galleons Lap in Winnie the Pooh). Up there the views extend over bright yellow gorse for mile after mile in all directions. We walked down to the memorial to AA Milne and EH Shepherd. I felt quite moved, those stories have a real character and a sense of an innocent time that has been lost.

Our final port of call was the 15th-century Anchor Inn in the small village of Hartfield, a cosy labyrinth of a pub that serves two of the finest ales in all England: Harvey’s and Larkins. As we arrived at dusk a barn owl glided across the road in front of us. Then it was back to the smoke to plonk in front of the telly to watch Chelsea beat Liverpool … who would have credited that?

Getting there on public transport: Train to East Grinstead from East Croydon then the 261 or 270 bus seems to be the best option. At East Grinstead the brilliant Bluebell Railway takes day trippers by steam train down to Sheffield Park, south of the Forest. At the moment a landslip caused by rain means trains can’t reach East Grinstead, but there is a bus service from Lingfield. Boring though… so best wait ’til services are restored, hopefully in spring.
Getting there by car: Drive via Keston, Biggin Hill, Westerham, Edenbridge, Cowden and Hartfield on the rather pleasant B2026.

Soggy Saturday: super cool Sunday

A dull damp Saturday, a stormy Sunday morning then a bright breezy, cold afternoon. Big contrasts. Two walks: Polhill Bank (an extension of Shoreham mk1) and Ide Hill. I love Meenfield woods high on Shoreham’s western ridge in wet weather, wisps of cloud scraping past the tree tops. Further south, at Ide Hill on Sunday, the sudden bright sunshine, after a morning of torrential rain, strangely failed to warm the air which carried with it hints of the Arctic. We saw a buzzard and a red kite. Chaffinches, a bullfinch pair and blue tits hopped busily in the undergrowth on Emmetts’ southern bank. My boy suggested the pub, then changed his mind: he wanted to see if Arsenal would lose to Everton. They didn’t, and we put the central heating on. There’s a non sequitur for you.

Polhill Bank

September, rainy day looking out from Polhill Bank near Shoreham.

Ide HIll

The new clearing looking south 250 metres in to the Ide Hill walk. September, bright, cold afternoon