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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
The word ‘meadow’ is synonymous with summer and June and July are the very best months to enjoy them. There are so many brilliant summer meadows on these walks now alive with oxeye daisies, orchids, vetch, poppies, buttercups, and lush grasses rippling in the breeze. They are alive with butterflies and other insects while swallows swoop above them forming brief gaggles before separating to make single passes. High above, buzzards are often seen soaring while spectacular red kites – now much common in Kent than at any time in the modern era – float into view closer to the ground. Of course there are issues, swallow and martin numbers are much lower than back in the day and there ought to be more butterflies and bees. Still, meadows are hubs for wildlife and we are lucky the North Downs, Weald and Greensand Ridge areas possess so many.
OK, for those going out this weekend expecting swathes of bluebells, you may be disappointed. They are late this year – particularly at One Tree Hill and Ide Hill, but not far off full bloom in Meenfield Wood. Probably a few too many cold nights of late has set them back. Next weekend will definitely be better. But there are other flowers to enjoy. Cuckooflowerclumps are great at this time of year and, like red campion, wood anenomes and celandine, get better the more you notice them. Primroses form eyecatching patches too, and soon cowslips will adorn the grassy slopes of the North Downs (with orchids and marjoram/oregano to follow). These all brightened up my walk from One Tree Hill to Ightham Mote then back up the hidden valley with the little stream yesterday (pictured below). Below are some recommendations of good places to see bluebells.
If you’re staying local, Beckenham Place Park has some good patches (or will have), although get ready to exercise emergency social distancing manoeuvres as oblivious joggers jag around, their ears full of choons. Oxleas Woods off Shooters Hill is another good local spot and I daresay Sydenham Hill Woods too. After that I think we’re talking Petts Wood and the adjoining Hawkwood and Little Heath Wood and Selsdon Wood south-west of Croydon. Of course, there are brilliant bluebells at Downe,Meenfield Wood, Ide Hill, One Tree Hill, Hosey Common and in woods east of Shoreham on this website’s walks, and the cobalt carpet reigns supreme in woods near Westerham and around Hever and Edenbridge.
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 foot 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.
Milder weather again now, little rain and presumably less mud. But bear in mind temperatures are set to veer wildly next week from mild to cold day by day. I haven’t been out on any of the walks for a few weeks now – possibly my longest period of absence for five years. I’m looking forward to seeing the first spring wildflowers, the daffodils at Ightham (pictured below), and in about three weeks the seas of wild garlic and bluebells in woodland on all the walks. First of all there’s blackthorn blossom to enjoy, primroses, wood anenome and violets, among others.
It’s amazing how rapidly the landscape transforms itself from its rather bedraggled and dreary state (it seems like that to me this year anyway) in early March to the rich promise of early April. It somehow surprises me every year. And from 12 April it will be possible to visit pub gardens after the walks – this seems like crazy talk. I hope there are still some pubs to go back to. There are one or two that may struggle to open up at all. It’s a grim old business, a global pandemic. My spring walks this year will be punctuated by regular halts to listen to birdsong and try to pick out various species. It wasn’t so long ago that I added wren to my aural recognition list… laughable that it took so long considering just how distinct and loud the call of that diminutive bird is. For some reason the walk I’m most looking forward to getting to this spring is the Chiddingstone loopespecially if the Castle Inn’s garden is open.
In the meantime I’ve stumbled across some BBC4 walks in Yorkshire that I’ve quite enjoyed – a couple of which I remember doing as a teenager on family holidays. The presenter, Shanaz Gulzar, is affable and doesn’t go on too much and if she starts to get pretentious, she soon thinks better of it. It’s all quite low key and accompanied by superb drone photography. Have a look on the iPlayer.
One of Shanaz’s walks crosses the Strid, a stretch of the River Wharfe that used to strike fear into a great uncle of mine, a local, who used to tell us stories of terrible events in those parts involving drownings and floods. He was extremely old at that point and had suffered the fate of being captured very early in – wait for it – the first world war. In fact as a very young man, perhaps still a teenager, he might have been living in Ypres as a civilian when the Kaiser’s army invaded. He was apparently given some very grisly work details and it was said he never quite recovered from his experiences. Nevertheless, here he was in the mid-1970s telling us kids about the Strid and the perils of trying to cross it. Good old Clifford. Slightly scary but a tremendous character.
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.