Matters of degree

Matters of degree

Snowtime is no more. Now sub tropical air is drifting up from the south with the giddy heights of 14C being likely in our neck of the woods. Walks last weekend and the previous week were some of the coldest I can remember. Superb, I thought! But we’re in that time of year where anything is possible, particularly given the effects of the climate crisis. We could have balmy days or freezing days in the month ahead.

Looking at all the mud I’m beginning to wonder if it might not be an idea from next month to have some grass seed or wildflower seed at the ready to scatter on the edges of paths when on a walk, or around stiles and gates where huge swathes of mud have appeared. There might be some good reasons why not but I can’t think of them.

As it’s Friday night I’m going to suggest a piece of music to enjoy while making dinner. It is Earth Wind & Fire’s version of The Beatles’ Gotta Get You Into My Life. Very uplifting. Next song on my playlist was Gill Scott-Heron’s The Bottle.

Pictured above is Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in early March, which I first visited this time last year.

Snowtime

Snowtime

It’s nailed on they say. Bound to happen. Everything is in place. The polar vortex is distorted. Sudden stratospheric temperature change has occurred. Low pressure and a front moving in from the north. The North Sea is suitably cold. Tottenham Hotspur keep losing (an extremely unpleasant winter development in my view). But – after a load of rain forecast on Saturday afternoon – it’s going to snow from the early hours of Sunday on and off for a couple of days or more. From 3am on Sunday the temperature won’t get above 0C until sometime on Thursday, which is sobering. Many of us don’t plan on staying sober, however. The rain will turn to snow well before dawn and the daytime will see us having fun in parks, woods and countryside. A little bit of Norway coming to Kent and south-east London.

Snow done properly, Rochers de Naye, Montreux, only by rack and pinion train. A FANTASTIC place.

But – hate to be a killjoy – there’s a pandemic and we mustn’t let our guard down. The usual scenes of sledging and snowball, snowman abandon may be missing. I don’t know how dangerous or not playing in the snow and ice really is but hospitals are certainly not the place to be right now, and they certainly don’t need A&E full of sheepish snow berks. Whatever we do, social distancing must be observed and I reckon masks worn when out, with hand gel at the ready. The best idea is to stay local and enjoy the unaccustomed spectacle stoically and cautiously. Keep the bird feeder as full as you can and enjoy nature close to home. Hey, there’s the Six Nations to watch and the usual football (thank God). Normally I’d suggest places to go sledging but I don’t feel I can do that this year, sadly. I can recommend a flask of hot chocolate and a dash of rum, however.

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I do wish I’d invested in a pair of skis sometime ago, when my limbs felt more flexible. I’ve never been skiing, but love watching it – it’s just incredibly spectacular and sort of romantic. It’s probably not for me as I recently found I’m extremely uncomfortable on chairlifts; a summer trip to the Pyrenees a few years ago having alerted me to this. It’s also a good thing I don’t ski because I can’t even go jogging without falling arse over tit and spraining my ankle. I’m OK now, though, thanks for asking.

I’ve surrendered to the mud

I’ve surrendered to the mud

The mud I’ve encountered out walking is worse this year than in any other I can remember (much worse than the picture I’ve used from Meenfield wood suggests). It has been much wetter than normal, with regular heavy rain over the past two months, but the number of people out and about is another major factor in churning it up. It’s going to take some paths a long time to recover I suspect.

The situation in parks is the same, though of course there are more hard surfaced paths to take; I cycled over to Beckenham Place Park earlier and there are patches of mud where there should be grass in many places. The number of people in the park was good to see; surely it’s better to see everyone in the fresh air trying to enjoy themselves and keep body and soul together than not. On the other hand social distancing was a problem and there were some large groups. Hardly anyone wore a mask, strangely. I know transmission of Covid is thought to be unlikely in the open air but, still, with so many people surely a mask might add a little extra security. We do it on railway platforms so why not in parks? The air was very still, too – something to consider? I’m not sure. Truly remarkable were two ice cream vans down by the car park. That’s not in the spirit of lockdown at all. And it felt about 1C. I still can’t believe it. A deadly plague, it’s 1C and we’re queueing for ice cream or coffee?

One Tree Hill… snow and a river of liquid mud instead of a path

Anyway, back to mud. If using Kent Walks near London for the first time I feel I should point out that the walks are, for 9 months of the year, much better than this squelchy experience! Even with wellies you have be careful not to slip over in it and stretches of up to 100 metres are fraught on some routes. Steep hills are out of the question. Maybe – and it goes against the grain with me to write this – it’s time to leave the countryside alone for a bit. Either join the hordes in the local park (but with a mask and careful distancing) or trudge the streets. Sorry.

Not entirely listless

Not entirely listless

I’ve idly tried to keep a record of every different type of bird I’ve seen so far this year. No binoculars or stalking around, just the ones I’ve come across without going anywhere special – just local trips. It’s been disappointing. We’ve reached 22 January and I haven’t seen a single heron, little egret or kingfisher, birds that are commonly seen on the River Pool between Lower Sydenham and Catford. It took 20 days before I saw my first coot (on the lake at Beckenham Place Park) and notched up a collared dove! No yellowhammer as yet (pictured). No buzzards or even the local sparrowhawk. One solitary kestrel on New Year’s Day and that’s it for birds of prey. At this rate I shouldn’t expect to see a black redstart or bullfinch much before 2025. Still, it’s a list and it’s quite interesting and making me look out more.

An easy one to get for the list: a blue tit
Adam McCulloch

Ah, I’ve just remembered, the weather has been awful, I’ve forgotten to buy any bird seed for the feeder and I work quite a lot. My anonymous birder friend Dave doesn’t seem to have this trouble – he only has to stick his head out of the window and snipe, goosander, waxwing and montagu’s harrier dive headlong for his yard. He has once again written a fine update about winter birding on these walking routes, which can be read here – of course he lists all the birds you or I might see, but leaves out all the rare and exotic species that he usually encounters.

View Dave’s winter birds of the North Downs 2021 page

A lull after Lullingstone

A lull after Lullingstone

It’s time to batten down the hatches again. For some of us, the need to walk in in the open and find a bit of solitude is strong; others can adapt perfectly well to spending the whole day indoors. Personally I’m glad the football is still on! Let’s stay safe in all circumstances but not judge each other too much, unless someone is really busting the spirit of the rules. We know the situation in hospitals is dire and to add to the crisis by carelessness or selfishness would be terrible. Anyway, it’s horrendously muddy out there. I think we can let the paths, meadows and woods recover from our feet for a bit. Those walks will still be there once that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel starts turning into a dazzling orb in the spring. My last proper country walk was at Lullingstone Country Park (pictured) over Christmas where I walked the whole circumference of about five miles. Highlights included a panoramic view of the Darent Valley from the lonely plane tree a mile south-west of the Roman Villa, the amazingly tall and straight beech trees in Beechen Wood and a beautiful goldcrest, Britain’s second smallest bird, that had unusually come down to ground level to feed amid bracken and ignored me even as I stood just a few feet away. I reckon they’ve been doing a lot more of that in recent days as frost and ice has coated trees in the North Downs. I’ll describe my ‘new’ Lullingstone route in the next few weeks.

Find a walk that suits you

Find a walk that suits you

In these Covid-limited times I get the sense that more of us have been out walking than ever before – hopefully in total safety. Things will quieten down a bit now I expect, given that Christmas is over, although walks are a great way of keeping fit and helping to remove extra pounds gained of late. Then again the mud, more extensive this year than I’ve ever seen, may be putting a lot of walkers off getting out at the moment. People I’ve met on these routes have been fully aware, by and large, about social distancing and most walkers make way for each other on narrower paths. Extra care is required in car parks, however, with people moving more around more randomly – often rounding up children and dogs. Please please take all litter home with you – I’ve seen a lot more discarded packages than usual on the walks of late.

To help you find suitable walks here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map. Just click on the lines and blobs to get more information about that walk. You can use the menu at the top of the page to print off pdfs and to look at more detailed directions. The Google maps are not GPX maps; ie, they don’t show your current location, they are indicators that have extra info embedded in them. They are also a bit rough, being hand-drawn, so please use the GPX maps linked on each walk page or a printed Ordnance Survey map for real detail. Many of the walks overlap with each other such as Westerham and Hosey Common, One Tree Hill and Underriver – leading to severe spaghettification on the map.

Looking at the map there are plenty of holes in Kentwalksnearlondon.com coverage I can see… so this year I hope to add walks around Farningham, Kemsing, between Ide Hill and Sevenoaks, and Foots Cray Meadows/Joyden’s Wood and perhaps from Trossley country park. We’ll see – it’d be nice to get to 30 walks.

 

Crisp and clear

Crisp and clear

Despite all the rain and mud, winter was at it’s best on Christmas Day. Today (27 December) looks good too. Things get a bit cloudier – and colder – from tomorrow. Maybe enough ground will freeze up to take the edge off the mud. Keep a look out for birds – we saw sparrowhawks and a tawny owl hunting on Christmas Day at Lullingstone – and enjoy the fantastic light effects created by the afternoon sun as it illuminates the stark trees. Another bird you’ll be sure to hear is the high-pitched calls of goldcrests particularly in pines and cypress. It’s quite hard to see them though, because they are tiny and stay high up generally. Watch out for small flocks of redwings on the search for berries. But generally speaking I haven’t seen a lot of birds this winter on my walks.

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Christmas strolls

Christmas strolls

The weather is set fair for Christmas Day – perfect walking conditions will ensue, despite the abundant mud. I seem to remember last Christmas Day was clear and crips too in these parts. Most of us of course will stay close to home and just wander out with the kids, as a couple or singly given the Covid restrictions. People living alone will have a strange Christmas and I wish you all the best. Zooms and phone calls should help and great books and films.

If you live close to enough to the edge of town then places like Lullingstone, Shoreham and Knole are brilliant in this weather. Getting out can be difficult of course with the demands of present-giving, board games and cooking but now we’re in much smaller groups it shouldn’t be too difficult and all this rich food tastes so much better and is much easier to get down the hatch after a good stroll. A walk will help you feel better come Boxing Day, when the weather takes a turn for the worse again. Sunday looks a bit brighter, however. Anyway, have a good one.

Autumn takes its leave

Autumn takes its leave

I’m having to change my banner photographs with every passing week to keep them current as we hurtle into winter. Autumn officially ends on 21 December but we all know that’s baloney. A few stormy days over the past week or so have stripped away the leaves and although temperatures are still fairly mild, it gets dark at 4.30pm and the ground is saturated. It looks like winter, it smells like winter, it feels like winter, it’s winter.

Last Sunday’s stroll at Cudham was beset by hefty squalls and paths are awash. Today I set out with a friend to walk between Otford and Eynsford via Polhill, Pilot woods, Mill Lane, and Lullingstone. I continually slipped trying to ascend the steep sodden face of Polhill ending up on all fours sliding backward downhill, much to my friend’s mirth. We shared a cereal bar and discussed footwear. It was actually so wet that our boots never really got muddy despite regularly sinking ankle-deep into the mire.

The light seemed to go at about 3pm as the clouds sank ever lower so we abandoned the Eynsford leg and scoured the dank but still delightful streets of Shoreham for something to drink. We struck lucky and gratefully downed our Westerham ales under an awning outside the closed, deserted Ye Olde George (set for redecorating and reopening next year we hear).

Nr Romney Street, Round Hill, Austin Spring, near Shoreham, winter 2017

The conditions throughout the walk had been pretty ropey with low stratus scraping Fackenden Down opposite and a constant patter of precipitation slightly too heavy to be dismissed as drizzle. Darkness fell as we reached the railway station and faced a cold wait, which fortunately proved short as the Thameslink rolled in bang on time.

To add some perspective to the “inclement conditions” encountered on the walk we discussed a book I’m currently reading: The Worst Journey in the World, by a member of Scott’s team, which is about the ultimately horrific Antarctic expedition of 1911-13. Lots of things went wrong before the final tragedy, some before they’d even left Britain. None seemed insurmountable at the time but added together, like pieces in a jigsaw, they each played their part in the deaths of Scott and four of his fittest, doughtiest fellow explorers.

Underlying all of these mishaps were some truly horrendous meteorological experiences, which make walks in the Darent Valley even in murk, mud, darkness and constant rain, feel like a carefree saunter in the Shire. So, this winter, take a small leaf out of Scott’s book and say “to hell with the weather, let’s go for a walk”. There won’t be any crevasses after all; you will get back in one piece even if it rains or snows, and you might even be able to find an acceptable beverage. Just make sure you’ve got some decent boots.

Get your head in the clouds

Get your head in the clouds

Late afternoons in the mid-autumn have their own lighting design with special colours, particularly on days like Sunday (25 October) when a clear sky was punctuated with decaying shower clouds reflecting the whole spectrum in the setting sun. So even though the clocks have gone back (for some reason I’ve never understood) if you can squeeze in a couple of hours’ walking late in the day you can be rewarded with amazing tree and sky hues. The Downe walk isn’t the most spectacular route on this site, but today it was beautifully lit, as pictured above.

I’ve always paid a lot of attention to sky. Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations. I remember bugging my geography teacher about it: “So why did it rain for 40 minutes yesterday afternoon… was it a cold front or just a convection shower?” He’d study me with a bemused expression that said “yes, I know I gave a lesson on cloud identification yesterday but how the hell am I supposed to know?”, before giving me an answer in a tone of voice that suggested he was guessing.

I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather and hold in my memory particular freak weather moments from years ago.

I think an interest in clouds and meteorology (“I am a meteorologist not a weather man!” – sorry, Larry David reference there) adds something to the walks. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed. Here are some cloud photos from down the years from the walks and from south-east London.

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