Summer is here; time for Pluto

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Continuing the theme of overlooked walks at Kent Walks Near London, the Polhill Pluto route yesterday proved the perfect choice on a bright, breezy summer’s day. There were plentiful orchids in the Andrews Wood-Meenfield Wood gap and fantastic ox-eye daisies, scabious and poppies in the fields below Polhill. It’s a great walk to do if you are a fan of the yellowhammer – the colourful, chirpy bunting (we’re talking about a bird by the way!) that adorns hedgerows in these parts and is particularly common for some reason between Shoreham and Otford. It’s repetitive and unworldy song is one of my favourites – it’s commonly described as sounding like ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ because of its rhythms but to me it’s simply the sound of summer. Listen out for it on the Darent Valley floor; around Sepham Farm it’s nearly always heard, and sometimes present in the lower parts of the Fackenden and Eastern Valleys route (such as around the Percy Pilcher memorial). The Pluto route (so called because you pass the final ‘planet’ on the Otford solar system scale model) can be combined with the Shoreham circular and even the Fackenden, Otford and Eastern Valley routes for a walk of up to 11 miles or so as all these routes intersect, or almost intersect, at various points. For some reason, I only think of this stroll as a summer walk – not entirely rationally, but it just feels right on a warm day.

Give Chevening a chance

Give Chevening a chance

Of all the walks on this site the one I’ve done the least is probably the Knockholt/Chevening circuit. I’ve not always been wildly effusive about it, even describing the early stages as dull. I was completely wrong it turns out. I strolled the route today and found it superb. The fields on the right of the North Downs Way in the early stages have been left fallow and look to be in a pretty advanced stage of rewilding – the flora is high enough to hide the odd lynx! As I hit Sundridge Hill the instantly recognisable and repetitive song of the yellowhammer burst from the hedgerows like some sort of alien morse code. A huge buzzard (what are they feeding them around here?) eyed me up from above. The views over Chevening House towards Ide Hill were delightful as I cleared the scarp face woodland. Chevening hamlet was as spooky as ever and the following climb back to Knockholt took in a broad vista of the Vale of Holmesdale under a moody sky with plenty of butterflies and wildflowers to admire. A red kite skidded and yawed above in the thermals and I startled a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers which suddenly took off from a fallen tree trunk a couple of metres ahead of me. I think my previous aversion to this walk was to do with the “private” signs around Chevening House, its association with some deeply unpleasant national figures, and the slightly creepy feel of the hamlet – it’s just so quiet, but it’s me, it’s not them – the road noise between points 4 and 5, and having to walk on the road for 100 metres by the farm at point 5. The truth is, there are great views, loads of wildflowers, wonderful trees and nothing much not to like.

As quite often happens in these parts the camera doesn’t capture the walk; slopes are flattened out so the scenery looks blander than it really is.

Moody blues on the way out

Moody blues on the way out

The bluebells have faded a little earlier than usual this year. It seemed to me on the Ide Hill walk today that the south-facing slopes may be drier than normal for spring, which has affected bluebells’ longevity while those in more sheltered parts of the woods were still full of colour. There’s certainly been a marked lack of rain this year – last month just 18mm fell in north-west Kent, about one-third of the usual April total.

In Meenfield woods, on the Shoreham and Polhill walks, the bluebells, while fading, were still hanging on last weekend – perhaps those woods have retained a little more moisture. I’m no expert. Anyway, instead of bluebells, look out now for wild garlic (or ransoms) growing in profusion in woods on Kent Walks near London. Their brilliant white/cream flowers (pictured above at Rook’s Hill on the One Tree Hill walk) are a sight for sore eyes where there are damp woods and subterranean water close to the surface. The Ide Hill walk is quite unusual for KWNL in having plenty of gorse (near the walk’s start) which is looking brilliant in the spring sunshine, too.

As for birds, things still seem a little quiet with few swallows, martins and swifts making it to the region so far, but I was delighted to see my first whitethroat of the year in one of the many superb country lane hedgerows between Shoreham and Well Hill, a great bird to watch for when on a country cycle. (Pictured in slideshow: whitethroat, Darent Valley view, faded bluebells, Ide Hill view, Scord’s wood, wild garlic in Scord’s wood, azalea in Emmett’s and faded bluebells of Meenfield Wood).

Bluebells in north-west Kent: where’s best?

Bluebells in north-west Kent: where’s best?

It’s that time of year when the cobalt carpet spreads its magic in many of the woods covered in the KWNL area. Bluebells are now fully out on the North Downs chalk hills walks such as the Cudham stroll (in New Year’s Wood particularly), and Meenfield Woods on the various Shoreham circular and Polhill routes. Further south the Greensand Ridge walks at Underriver, One Tree Hill, Ide Hill (perhaps the best bluebells), Oldbury and Hosey Common are awash with blue. Closest to south-east London, Beckenham Place Park, High Elms and Petts Wood-Hawkwood Estate (in the lower, damper parts) has several swathes too. The Downe walk mk1 doesn’t have a lot of bluebell action en route but a quick diversion down to Downe Bank (the west side of the Cudham valley) from point 3 or at the start of the walk should see you in the magical blue realm. Following the Downe Mk2 walk will be kind of blue too, particularly at Downe Bank and Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw woods. I’m sure there are loads on the Hever walk too but I’ve never been on that stroll at this time of year so can’t vouch for them. The Chiddingstone route doesn’t have many bluebells I can confirm, not that this detracts from the superb stroll. (Pictured below: bluebells at New Year Wood on Cudham walk; Meenfield wood, Shoreham circular/Polhill routes; Ide Hill route)

  • New Year's Wood: early bluebells
  • New Year's Wood bluebells 2022
  • Bluebells on the Ide Hill walk, April 25, 2015
  • Bluebells, Emmetts/Scords wood, 2017
  • bluebells Meenfield wood
  • bluebells

Anyway, here are some bluebell factoids gleaned from an excellent article with far more detail called Bloomageddon: seven clever ways bluebells win the woodland turf war at The Conversation website.

  • They are uniquely adapted to suited the multispecies ancient woodlands of the UK
  • Low temperatures trigger their growth (but might delay their blooming if in April). Bluebell seeds germinate when the temperature drops below 10°C.
  • Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight into fructose allowing them to photosynthesise at low temperatures.
  • They are supreme competitors with other plants, allowing them to carpet woodland floors. But they get help in the form of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic fungi.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world.

But please be careful never to tread on any; it takes bluebells years to recover from damage. Digging them up – surely no one visiting this site would consider such a thing – is illegal, and please don’t let dogs trample them either – keep them on the lead.

Cudham route firmed up – literally

Cudham route firmed up – literally

The Cudham chalk paths route is a superb saunter through meadows, valleys and woods; its lack of grandiose views doesn’t detract at all. There’ll be plenty of bluebell vistas though from this weekend onwards, but the other day wood anemone and celandine were still the stars, waiting to be eclipsed by the vast swathes of dark green shoots just waiting to burst into glorious dark blue flower. Gamboling lambs, buzzards and the growl of the occasional Spitfire overhead, heading back to Biggin Hill, provided additional entertainment. On entering the wonderful New Year’s Wood, on the second half of the stroll, I was delighted to see the normally muddy path (actually a bridlepath) had been surfaced with mulch and stone – I don’t know the name of that kind of surface – adding to the pleasure of this lovely walk. Great!

Splashes of colour into autumn

Splashes of colour into autumn

Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) is a flower from the honeysuckle family and it looks so cool right now. Maybe not for much longer but it’s currently fairly prominent on the chalky walks such as Fackenden, Polhill, Chevening and Kemsing. Where the grassy hilly slopes are looked after by naturalists, the Kent Wildlife Trust for example, the flower supplants regular scabious – another superb flower and particularly sweet smelling – by mid September. The marjoram is no longer flowering much, and thyme has died down somewhat too so for pollinators the devil’s-bit, which looks a bit like knapweed at first sight, is the main show in town. It is certainly being enjoyed by butterflies and bees on the wonderful ‘wild garden’ path – which in June is great for orchids – leading to Fackenden Down this week. But the star of the walk – apart from the landscape and sky – was a superb green common lizard in a sunny spot near the top of the down. Few birds were in evidence but chiffchaffs called from the hedgerows, a buzzard soared in the distance and being I’m optimistic I’d say I may have seen a pair of late-migrating turtle doves heading south. Apparently devil’s-bit scabious got its name from its ability to treat scabies, a property that the devil didn’t like much (the devil wants us all to be itchy you see). Slightly weird but there you go.

The accompanying photos were taken on my iphone and hence are poor quality – they certainly don’t do the blue-purple sparks of devil’s-bit any justice; my camera is once again defunct at the moment. (Close up of flower photo by Anne Burgess/Geograph creative commons.)

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
All of a flutter

All of a flutter

Sultry summer evenings are very much my thing. There’s been a promise of a storm in south-east London for some time without one materialising. We’ve even heard them from time to time, thunder rumbling around, sudden winds forming as if a tornado were nearby and, beyond London, huge puddles and mud show where the downpours have already struck. On Saturday the humidity is on the up, the atmosphere is murky, lofty cloud peaks emerge from the haze and you walk only 50 metres before the first drops of sweat form. I love it. I don’t love the idea of floods and unnaturally damaging weather of course – what happened in Germany is truly horrific – but I’ve always been up for a lightning display. Going off at a tangent here but talking of the growing likelihood of floods because of the climate crisis, I look around at the number of front gardens that have been paved over with inadequate drainage and I worry about what may be around the corner.

The Downe walk today, which occasionally feels a bit mundane, was a joy. Wildflowers spangled the grassy meadows, a song thrush serenaded walkers from a hedgerow and charms of goldfinches passed wittering in transit from field to woods. Spitfires growled through the moist air, seemingly busier than ever whisking people on joyride flights across the now customary airliner-free skies of Kent. Wild marjoram (basically the same as oregano) was flowering along with ragwort, knapweed, vetch, hawksbeard, the odd orchid and trefoil. Butterflies were having a fine old day: the pick of the bunch being peacocks and silver washed fritillaries among the marbled whites and meadow browns.

The chalk North Downs are brilliant for wildflowers and butterflies, so walks such as Fackenden, Knockholt Pound, Shoreham, Downe and Polhill/Pluto are perfect for colour right now.

Sunday update: Another muggy day with storms nearby and another North Downs stroll with a route from Kemsing, courtesy of a good friend, Steve of Sydenham. Bird man Dave, of Tonbridge, was in line to join us but decided that the potential for lightning and thunder made it a risky undertaking. As it happened, the worst storm of the day had already passed once we arrived in Kemsing, and from then on the cloudbursts diverted to the north towards London – causing major flooding in parts, and south towards the High Weald. There were superb views, more Spitfires, and a fine pub at Heaverham – the Chequers. The wonderful meadow of Kemsing Down was a highlight – with plenty of marjoram, thyme, scabious and St John’s wort among the grasses. It’s not a walk we have on this site as yet but I’ll certainly try to conjure something similar – Kemsing station is nearby and could be a good starting point.

View from escarpment to the south from near Kemsing Down
Microclimates and wild meadows

Microclimates and wild meadows

The Darent Valley and its surrounding valleys near Otford, Romney Street and Austin Lodge to the east and Andrew’s Wood to the west seem to me to trap heat and moisture. Even on dull summer days the area feels more humid and sticky than the London suburbs for example. I love it. The area feels ‘different’ and somewhat mystical. It’s certainly very verdant and with rewilding projects, such as at Magpie Bottom, several SSSIs and Kent Wildlife Trust reserves, it’s worth having to change your shirt for. Just take a flask of water. Even on a mostly dull day like last Sunday, you might get a fleeting pool of sunshine to enjoy and the sight of cloud shadows racing across the rippling wildflower rich meadows towards you. (Dogowners are advised to keep their animals on the the lead though…. there’s apparently a threat of adder strikes on dogs in the area and occasionally livestock. Cases of dog theft have occurred too.)

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