Meadow mystery magic and a forgotten aviator

Meadow mystery magic and a forgotten aviator

I’d only ever done Walk 14 (Shoreham’s ‘mysterious’ eastern valleys) in winter and autumn prior to today. It then had a lonely, almost eerie quality. I’d assumed it would be busier but my friend and I were alone as we traversed fantastic woodland and wildflower meadows, and yes, it still had that timeless feeling of loneliness. Dark green fritillary butterflies and commas were seen as were bee orchids, fragrant orchids and fields of poppies and thistle.

After the hamlet at Austin Lodge we made it up the hill to the Percy Pilcher memorial; a beautiful spot overlooking a typical North Downs dry valley. Pilcher was a 19th-century glider designer and pilot who tested many of his designs right here, a couple of miles south of Eynsford. He was poised to become the first man in the world to achieve powered heavier than air flight but crashed and died in the south Midlands flying his Hawk glider before he could get his powered machine – a revolutionary triplane – in the air. Pilcher would have beaten the Wright Brothers by four years had he succeeded. A more impressive monument to the great man was put up at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire, scene of his last crash, but the one near Eynsford (pictured below) felt perfect in the hush of this breezy, warm day.

One day in 1897 Pilcher let his cousin Dorothy Rose Pilcher take the controls of his Hawk glider – probably the first time a woman had flown a heavier-than-air-aircraft. She flew down the hill and collided with a man operating a cinematograph camera. I reckon it was his fault but no one was hurt thankfully.

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A great thing about this walk is that it starts right by Shoreham (Kent) station (obviously an even better thing once the pandemic is over, whatever that means). Please don’t try to get to the Pilcher memorial by car; there’s no parking at Austin Lodge and the whole essence of this remarkable place is its tranquility. You can park the car by Shoreham station (please avoid driving through the village which can get snarled up and spoilt by traffic) for free if you feel the train service is unsafe for Covid-19 reasons.

Learn more about Percy Pilcher.

Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

Thanks and best wishes to all readers… let’s get walking again

First of all, I wish all the best to Kent Walks near London readers as we all try to get through this period unscathed in terms of our health, your livelihoods and sense of wellbeing. To those who have had or still have Covid-19, many sympathies – it sounds horrendous in many cases. The countryside is slowly opening up, but we should all be mindful of social distancing and try to make way for each other on narrow paths. Let’s avoid overcrowding in good weather and take wipes for handling gates and stiles if possible.

Second thing, thanks to all those who have donated to this website… entirely voluntary so a heartfelt thanks from me. It’s only a small amount of course but it will help me produce more walks, better mapping and information and some will be going to charities too. There are adverts on the site too, you’ll see, but a niche page like this is never going to pull in the big bucks from the AdWords model so it’s little more than a token gesture towards commerciality. Maybe display ads from dedicated sources – outdoor retailers, pubs, or as you are about to read, apps – may be the way forward.

Oh, and please check out the Kent Wildlife Trust website. KWT manages some of the woods and sites on here (as does the Woodland Trust), helping maintain the paths and creating brilliant areas for flora and fauna. It deserves our full support (and donations right now).

’appy days with wildflower apps

Out and about for the first time in a while at the weekend made me reflect that May, June and July are probably the best times of year for trying to work out what kinds of wildflowers you hopefully aren’t trampling over.

Many wildflowers aren’t that spectacular compared with cultivated garden plants and we sort of take them for granted. But notice how, unlike some of our garden species, they don’t seem to suffer from the dry conditions so much.

Until recently I only knew obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercup, ox-eye daisy, buttercup, pyramidal orchid, etc. I was a blooming ignoramus you might say. But I started adding to my list by asking friends, looking at my dear departed mama’s old, faded book of illustrations (complete with samples turning to dust) and looking at websites. I half remembered things my mum told me as a kid, so pretty soon I could identify scabious, red campion and the like. And the more you keep an eye out and record, the more interesting the whole caboodle becomes. You start to appreciate the shy little flowers of the woods, meadows and margins, their colour and what they give to various creatures.

Common spotted orchid and trefoil, White Hill, Shoreham, on the Fackenden Down walk (in June 2019)

But by downloading the Picture This app on my phone (there are other similar tools too in the App Store, such as the excellent iNaturalist which I’ve also used) I’ve revolutionised my learning. The app compares your photos with its database pictures in seconds to tell you what you’re looking at. This has helped me identify stitchwort, bugle, white helleborine, yellow pimpernel, archangel, ground ivy, vetch, sainfoin, trefoil and milkwort, among others. It does tree leaves too. I’ve been quite oblivious to all this stuff for a long time, so please forgive my excitement.

Soon, an abundance of orchids will appear in places like Polhill Bank, Fackenden Down, Lullingstone, Magpie Bottom (see Walks on the menu above) and I can’t wait to get stuck into working out what’s what. The walks on this site are excellent for flora with chalky soils predominating on the North Downs; sandy soils on the Greensand Ridge and Weald routes.

I suppose flowery stuff is not the most useful information you’ll pick up in life but I find being able to identify wildflowers really does pique my interest and triggers curiosity about other things too… insects, birds and how our ancestors used these plants. It also makes up for the fact I am a pretty useless gardener.

 

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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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More Dungeness dallying

More Dungeness dallying

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I usually visit Dungeness in winter for some reason. But on Saturday I chose the hottest day of the year to drop by the surreal headland jutting out into the English Channel. The place was awash with deep blue viper’s-bugloss flowers; very atmospheric and spectacular. The two-mile walk around the RSPB reserve was exceptional and we saw a bittern – a first for me – reed buntings, snipes and sedge warblers.

After a quick pint at the Britannia pub and a stroll in the shingle looking out for seals and porpoises, which everyone else sees but I don’t, we headed for the bedlam of Camber Sands. Miraculously a space became available in one of the car parks as we arrived (it was 6pm but as many people were arriving as leaving) and we got our cooling dip in. The water was particularly brown, however, perhaps because the tide was on the way in and picking up a lot of sediment. One hopes so. There was still time for a walk at Rye and a pizza before the drive up the A21 back to south-east London. Great day out but to squeeze all that in a car is needed really. You could take a train to Ashford then the connecting train to Rye, and a bus, I guess. You’d have to set off a lot earlier than we did though.

 

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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From blue to yellow

I declare bluebell time officially over. It is now the moment for hawthorn, yellow archangel, buttercups, pyramidal orchids and so on to take centre stage, along with flowering trees like horse chestnut. Very spectacular still and worth getting out for to enjoy. You might even like the fields of oil seed rape that are particularly in evidence on the Eynsford-Lullingstone area walks this year, and up around Romney St, but they’ll soon be harvested leaving really unattractive barren fields where the wind will probably take the topsoil. This often leaves chalk exposed – I’m no expert but it’s a worrying sight and no doubt not much good for wildlife. Near Eynsford there are several barren fields; how can that be economic? Any farmers out there, please enlighten me…

Oil seed rape in the Darent valley near Eynsford

I’ve been hit by a virus of late so not been out much; enjoying the reports of others though!

Best bluebell walks in north-west Kent 2019

May 4: fading fast (Read 2020 bluebell piece here)

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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Easter Sunday silence

A very memorable walk on Easter Sunday. It was after 6pm when we set off for Downe, having waved friends off. We took the normal route, veering off at point 3 to see the bluebells. There was an extraordinary silence. No Heathrow or Gatwick aircraft in the stack and precious little activity at Biggin Hill; just one executive jet took off in the course of the hour.

For some reason there was no traffic at all, although the pubs in the village were reasonably busy. I don’t think I’ve ever walked in this corner of the world with so little background sound, just birdsong. On that subject we distinctly heard the call of stonechats at point 5-6 from nearby undergrowth (a sound like two stones being knocked together). This was odd because stonechats are usually a bird of heathland. Anyway, a lovely sunset added to the tranquil, timeless scene and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

A special stroll.

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Wakey wakey woodland

The countryside has truly woken up. I saw my first peacock butterfly of the year at Ide Hill on Sunday (the more observant among you will be wondering what took me so long I’m sure, they’ve been around for a couple of weeks now) although oddly I haven’t seen a brimstone yet. Maybe I’m just walking along, daydreaming, not really taking stuff in. Anyway, I have noticed the woods developing a healthy green sheen, patches of primroses, and even the odd impatient bluebell bursting into flower. In Scord’s Wood, below Emmetts Garden, I came across clusters of cardamine pratensis – cuckoo flower, a somewhat overlooked spring flower (it’s pretty but not vividly colourful). My camera ran out of juice though, so no pix.

Birdsong has gone up several notches, with chiff chaffs arriving from African and great tits getting particularly busy, blackbirds clearing their throats and robins getting very territorial about everything. Out running recently I surprised a couple of fieldfare picking out worms at Beckenham Cricket Club, no doubt soon to head east to their breeding grounds in continental Europe and further afield. They might have been mistle thrushes, when I come to think of it. Up close very beautiful.

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Catkins and baubles decorate early March

You can now see bluebells growing strongly on these walks and wood anenomes are about to flower; primroses too. But, other than early fruit tree blossoms, much of the colour in the countryside at the moment is provided by catkins. Sometimes they make up a golden sheen in the undergrowth – really rather alluring. Most catkins you can see in north west Kent and the burbs are on hazel, alder, goat willow, silver birch and pedunculate oaks, but walnut, hop hornbeam (not many in UK) and white poplar trees all develop them too.

Alder catkins

Alder catkins in Pilot’s Wood, Shoreham

Essentially they are flowers without petals that distribute pollen. They help the female flowers to be pollinated after the pollen from the male flowers is taken by the wind. Once the seeds have developed the wind disperses them so they don’t growing right beneath their parent. Willow uses insects for pollination rather than wind. Here’s Countryfile’s guide to how to ID them, and here’s the Woodland Trust’s. I suddenly started noticing them on the Ide Hill walk that I did last Sunday in wind and rain. Took them for granted before. A bit unobservant that.

Another lovely little thing to see at this time of the year are the ‘baubles’, dainty balls, hanging off London plane trees. Mostly you’ll see them closer to and in the city but there are plenty in the suburbs. Funny tree the London plane… a hybrid of sycamore and oriental plane, they didn’t exist before the 16th century. Here’s a guide to them, by the excellent Londonist.

Catkin

Hazel catkins © Wikimedia Commons

On a completely unrelated subject, what a magnificent band Steely Dan are. SE London legend Danny Baker’s a huge fan and I’m hoping he was at the Wembley Arena gig last week for their show. Here’s my review at Jazzwise and a better one by ex-Melody Maker chief reviewer Chris Welch.