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.

Find a walk that suits you

Find a walk that suits you

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. Each walk description has a GPX map attached so you can follow your progress in real time – if you have signal. Failing that please use an Ordnance Survey map to check the route (OS Explorer 147 has them all).

Best walks for travelling without a car are those in the Darent Valley – the ones starting from Shoreham, Eynsford and Otford/Kemsing stations. Knole Park can also be reached from Sevenoaks station.

The walks around Shoreham, Downe, Cudham, Otford and Knockholt are on North Downs chalk fairly close to or on the escarpment itself. They have a different character to the more wooded southerly routes around Ide Hill, Westerham, One Tree Hill and Sevenoaks, which are on the Greensand Ridge.

Further south are the Hever and Chiddingstone walks, which are in the Low Weald of Kent… a different flavour again with fewer steep slopes.

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 displayed here.

Creatures of the sun

Creatures of the sun

In a largely cloudy wet summer in these parts the sightings of butterflies are all the more precious. As an ‘ectotherm’ these insects need warmth to fly for any duration. So on cooler days they need to open their wings to sunlight and heat their bodies to about 29C before take off. Slopes with wildflowers on them facing the sun are particularly great places to see them.

Populations of these absurdly beautiful creatures are falling the world over because of climate swings and pesticide use – another reminder that apart from robins, goldfinches, magpies, deer and rats, etc, it’s quite hard to write about many facets of the natural world without doom and gloom encroaching, but that’s the reality. Take the small tortoiseshell butterfly: its numbers have declined because its larvae need to feed on wet leaves (mainly of nettle), so the increasing tendency toward drought has really hit its population over the past 40 years or so. The large tortoiseshell meanwhile has nearly completely vanished. Having said that, other species, such as silver washed fritillary, are said to be expanding if anything.

From top left clockwise: peacock in Downe feeding on marjoram; female silver washed fritillary; gatekeeper in Polhill; red admiral in Catford; marbled white in Downe; comma near Shoreham; male silver washed fritillary in Downe; chalk hill blue – photo by Steve Hart –Fackenden Down

However, Kent walks near London are graced at the moment by a variety of lovely species: on the chalk North Downs you’ll see silver washed fritillaries, the small but smart brown argus (actually classed as a blue), dark green fritillaries (if you’re very lucky), gatekeepers, marbled whites and meadow browns, plus many of the common names such as the incredible migratory painted lady, red admiral, brimstone, tortoiseshell large and small and a host of others. Chalk hill blue, the common blue and the adonis blue (very rare) are particular favourites. It might just be me but I tend to see more orange tips, peacocks, commas, brimstones and large whites on the Greensand Ridge walks around Sevenoaks, but I’m not being scientific here – they are widespread.

To see wonderful butterflies you might not have leave your garden or park as we all know – now the prolific south-east London buddleia is in flower, the migratory red admirals are often seen a-flutter in the suburban streets. Small species, like skippers, I don’t know much about. But I often see gem-like butterflies on the walks – I’d need to be with an expert to identify them.

It’s hard to photograph butterflies because they are rather skittish unless in the mood for a bit of showing off, or just super drunk on nectar (is that possible?) but I have managed to take a few shots over the past couple of years, which I’ve compiled in this montage above (the chalk hill blue centre right was taken by a friend though).

Not a butterfly but the very smart looking cinnabar moth, pictured at Romney Street while on the eastern valleys stroll
Orchids in the mist

Orchids in the mist

Two walks around Shoreham at the weekend in subtly different conditions. On Saturday we went looking for orchids on the eastern valleys route. It was a mostly cloudy day but with good visibility. Towering cumulus held the promise of a storm in the evening – well, one did materialise even yielding a funnel cloud in a near-tornado touchdown in east London – and the humidity was something else, even in these chalk upland valleys which trap heat and moisture.

For Sunday, the cloud was almost at ground level, quite unusual for June I thought, again threatening heavy rain, which eventually arrived after dark. We kept our walk brief, venturing to Polhill from Andrew’s Wood but not heading down to ‘Pluto’ on the valley floor, instead hiking the hillside above Filston Lane, moving slowly, looking for flowers and birds (no luck there!). The chalk slopes were festooned with natural colour, the delicate pink of fragrant orchids, raspberry ripple of common spotted and rich pink/mauve of pyramidal orchids. Trefoil, ox-eye daisies, poppies, scabious, lucerne, foxgloves and others I don’t know the names of completed the scene.

Pyramidal orchid on Polhill Bank, managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust

There are bee orchids and more on these walks but I managed to miss them. Marbled white butterflies, commas and common blues were in abundance, plus a beautiful cinnabar moth, despite the lack of sun. It felt so rare to stroll on the flowering hillside in such dull conditions. Down at Headcorn, near Maidstone, the airshow had been cancelled through lack of visibility and nothing flew from Biggin Hill apart from one executive jet which made a beeline for the sunshine above the murk. Still no airliners.

I was taken by the private nature reserve sign on the footpath into the hillside from Shoreham station… “keep dogs on the lead, adder strikes common” grabbed the attention.

Well here’s hoping the weather clears up a bit. I’m no expert but the orchids already looked to be on the wane just about, but there’s plenty more in the way of wildflowers yet to come on these thin chalk soils. Marjoram, thyme, wild carrot, more scabious, rosebay willow etc are all yet to explode into colour.

I should mention that Polhill is looked after very well by the Kent Wildlife Trust as is some of the land close to the Eastern Valley route, notably Fackenden Down. Apparently both sites support common lizards and adders (hence the warning sign), dark green fritillary butterflies, willow warblers and man orchids. I never see any of these species but it’s great to know they are present.

I liked the gloomy atmosphere. For a bit. But this is going on for far too long now. Still, there’s the football to enjoy.

Top picture is the hillside opposite Romney Street, east of Shoreham. Below (in order of appearance): White Hill nature reserve sign; Magpie Bottom seen from Austin Spring; fragrant orchid White Hill; common spotted orchid White Hill; cinnabar moth near Austin Lodge hamlet; common spotted orchid Romney Street; fragrant orchid Polhill. All photographs by AMcC

Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Windy, cold, grey, damp. Yep, this May is a shocker. We needed the rain yada yada (or yabba yabba, take your pick). I won’t go on leisure cycles in this kind of weather, but walking is still a possibility if the wind drops. I know, it’s hard to believe I’m talking like this – it’s May in south east England! My walking activities do mean I have some accurate memories of weather and there were a couple of days not dissimilar to this last May. But only a couple. Anyway, for once I had time last weekend to devise an epic by joining up group of routes. Some old friends were joining me from west London; so we wanted to stretch our legs and truly earn that pint at the end. So we took on the Shoreham eastern valleys walk joined it up with a section of the Fackenden Down route then slipped into Shoreham circular mk2 before segueing smoothly into half of Shoreham mk1, taking in the Meenfield wood bluebells.

Meenfield wood bluebells

On the map it looked to be 8.5 to 9 miles but we reckoned it was about 11.5 miles with our inability to walk straight and a diversion to see the Percy Pilcher memorial. Back in the village the choice was between the Crown, the King’s Head or the Mount Vineyard for the aprés. We settled on the vineyard for its proximity to the station, though both the pubs were passed with regret. In the manner of a walk in the Highlands or west Wales we encountered a number of different weather conditions – beginning with a colourful combination of shades of grey at different levels punctuated by shards of blue sky and varying degrees of sun.

Percy Pilcher memorial

What with the multitude of greens and yellow tones in the woods and fields the effect was dazzling at times. But as we left Magpie Bottom a period of nimbo stratus with heavy rain fell upon us and we emerged at the top of Fackenden Down with that great view shrouded in mist and ragged low cloud. But by the time we’d left the hillside after sheltering we were in bright sunshine and what felt like a 10C rise in temperature. Finally, at the vineyard, we caught the edge of a thunderstorm somewhere around London bringing further rain. In the sunny bits buzzards soared, yellowhammers posed on the tops of hedgerows – with blackcaps, robins and whitethroats chirping away within – and Spitfires from Biggin Hill growled overhead. All part of the Kent wonderland.

A return to winter – and mud

A return to winter – and mud

To those of you hardy souls thinking of venturing out to local countryside for a break from the local park tomorrow, I’m sad to report the mud is back with a vengeance. I claimed in my newsletter that it was drying up rapidly, but the heavy rain and low temperatures over the past few days have put the situation into reverse unfortunately. I ventured out on to the Downe route yesterday and found it extremely slippery with the corner of the final field before reentering the village impassable without wellies. Then the hail started…

While I’m here, thanks to everyone who has donated to the website. A sizeable proportion of donations will now be winging its way to the Kent Wildlife Trust and to Project Seagrass, which restores marine environments to help capture carbon and improve biodiversity.

(Pictured: Hail storms in winter from the Greensand Ridge near Sevenoaks, 2018)

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.



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