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.

Party time for buzzards

Party time for buzzards

Yesterday I was lucky enough to emerge from the trees at the top of Fackenden Down just as eight – yes, eight – buzzards soared in the updraft together overhead, calling out and engaging in mock battles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearby Magpie Bottom was also a picture with mauve scabious flowers and purple knapweed giving the pollinators a real treat. On a small sandy lump, made by burrowing insects I guess, I spied a tiny, dark lizard which shot off as I reached for the camera inevitably.

Fackenden Down, near Shoreham and Otford stations, is a Kent Wildlife Trust reserve of rare and superb value. The trust is trying to encourage reptiles, butterflies and more varieties of wildflower to return to the spectacular site but needs money so please donate to them if you can.

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Lullingstone’s wild garden is a match for its World Garden

Lullingstone’s wild garden is a match for its World Garden

I don’t publicise Lullingstone Country Park that much because it’s busy enough already and it’s easy to devise your own walk around its lush acres. The visitors’ centre car park is full to brimming by mid-morning of a sunny weekend and, just down the road, Castle Farm catches much of the overspill and is a lovely attraction in its own right with its lavender fields and local produce. And then there is the excellent World Garden at Lullingstone Castle. Throw in picnic tables, viewpoints, a cafe, the river path and there’s no mystery about its popularity.

Credit where it’s due; whoever looks after the place – I guess it’s Kent County Council – has done a wonderful job of rewilding areas of meadow and wildflower around the paths and fairways of the golf course. In spring it’s all about orchids, bugle, speedwell and cowslips but at this time of year the profusion of marjoram, thyme, fine grasses and wild carrot growing all over the place is spectacular. 

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A walk around the park’s curvy contours and its superb ancient woodland (probably the quietest parts of the park) is a very civilised activity indeed. Those big North Downs skies are good for spotting birds of prey (I’ve seen all the major UK species here) and yellowhammers have made a comeback in the hawthorn/buckthorn thickets on the slopes. I’ve seen grass snakes here, too. Biggin Hill’s Spitfires often appear overhead on their joyriding flights … all in all it’s a real picture. Maybe visit later in the day on a fine weekend – they say the car parks are freed up a bit after 3pm. 

I think during the pandemic it’s best to avoid the river path, however. It gets a little too busy for my liking with myriad dogs confusing the issue. I’ve got two walks on here (3 and 12) that venture into the park from nearby Eynsford and Shoreham railway stations, but I’m considering adding another … perhaps starting at the public golf club entrance and taking in more of the woods. We’ll see.

Lullingstone CP’s Facebook page has all the latest news including whether or not the car park is rammed.

New route to a hamlet that’s no tragedy

New route to a hamlet that’s no tragedy

Last year I wrote about the walk from Knockholt Pound to Chevening. I wasn’t that impressed by it; a fairly long boring bit and woods with too many ‘Private’ signs which I can’t help but feel are a bit rude. However, I tried it again last, rainy, Saturday and concluded that if you do it the wrong way round with the drab bit first, it’s actually a really nice walk. You emerge from the woods with a great view over towards Ide Hill and with Chevening House before you. And Chevening hamlet itself has an atmospheric church. The route later takes in a nice path back up to Knockholt Pound across the face of the escarpment. There are two sections on roads; thankfully the longer section (about 800 metres) is on a very quiet lane called Sundridge Hill. The bit on busier Sundridge Road is only around 200 metres, so pretty safe though I wouldn’t take young children. The walk is about 5 miles but easy to follow. It’s pretty good for blackberry picking right now, particulary the hedgerow path after Point 5. But leave some for me. I have a shorter loop walk covering some of the same ground I’ll add soon.

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Yellowhammers and Spitfires

Yellowhammers and Spitfires

An idyllic new route: walking down Polhill Bank then past Sepham Farm towards Otford takes you into a summery wonderland of wild marjoram, myriad butterflies, hedgerow birds while, in the (hopefully) azure sky, two-seat Spitfires purposefully head off to deep Kent on joyriding trips.

There are loads of paths to take from the car park off Shacklands Rd by Badgers Mount; it’s easy to customise walks from there. But you need to stroll a mile or so before you can rid yourself of the M25 noise. But even close to the motorway there are compensations: Andrews Wood, Meenfield Wood and Pilots Wood are beautiful and each has its own character. Visit late in the day and the shadows and sunbeams among the beeches form a light art installation on a scale the Tate could only dream of. Kent Wildlife Trust is taking care of some of Pilots Wood these days, and of Polhill Bank which it leads on to, a south-facing slope full of wildflowers and a perfectly framed window of the vale between the North Downs and Greensand Ridge.

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Continue down the steep slope and enter a world resonant with birdsong – yellowhammers in particularly (de-de-de-de-de-de-deeeeeee) – and the growl of Merlin engines overhead from time to time.

There are views over rich meadows, cereal fields, apple trees and ancient hedgerows. In the haze oasthouses stand out black and white against the darkly wooded valleysides. Right now, in July, butterflies abound – peacocks, commas, red admirals, gatekeepers, meadow browns and more. Buzzards drop by for the views (and carrion). At one point you come across Pluto, the furthest point of the to-scale Otford solar system model (the sun is in the recreation field in the village somewhere). At four miles, the route is doable for the kids with a couple of tough slopes thrown in to test out the oldies’ knees. Check it out.

• GPX map of route, click here
• PDF, click here

Google map

Let’s hear it for foxgloves (and rosebay willow)

Let’s hear it for foxgloves (and rosebay willow)

People (like me) go on about orchids but undeniably our most spectacular native flower is the foxglove. Agreed? They’re flowering now and bees love ’em. Maybe it’s because they’re not rare they don’t get quite the attention all the little more obscure ones receive. So what are the best walks on this site for foxgloves? Ide Hill, Chiddingstone, One Tree Hill, Hever, Hosey Common/Westerham. Most will have stopped flowering by mid-July I’d guess. It’s a beautiful flower but highly toxic – and our distant ancestors associated it with evil because of this toxicity, calling places where it appeared ‘Witches’ Grove’ and the like. It really can cause harm, including heartbeat fluctuations, vomiting, blurred vision and collapse. However, its digitalin chemical, which gives it these qualities, is also used to treat heart conditions. Besides, it’s very pretty – if you like pink – so let’s move on from all that.

It particularly likes lighter acidic soils and seems to thrive in woodland gaps, glades and recently cleared land. I’d say it’s more a flower of the Greensand Ridge than the North Downs chalk though you can find it in the woods and hedgerows of the latter.

Also spectacular from now until August is rosebay willow herb. Just as tall as foxgloves this beautiful flower grows even more abundantly on the walks than foxgloves. There’s one particularly impressive ‘forest’ of rosebay willow on One Tree Hill, just behind the famous viewpoint, in a glade.

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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.