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.
I walked the Shoreham eastern valleys route (near Romney Street pictured) yesterday for the first time this year and much has changed! First off, the path along the field between points 2 and 3 were more overgrown than usual at this time of year… I’d actually brought secateurs with me to help matters and did some highly satisfactory bramble snipping. Next up and of more structural significance, the barn between points 4 and 5 at Austin Lodge has disappeared; apparently the land has been earmarked for a couple of houses. I’ve amended the route instructions. Later, I was disappointed to see that the steep hillside between points 6 and 7 has been munched by grazers and now there are no wildflowers. It used to be a sea of oxe-eye daisies and orchids at this time of year. What happened? Has the owner decided they don’t like rewilding after all? It’s probably complicated but I was a bit saddened by it. The next thing I saw on hitting Shoreham village was that Ye Olde George, having been refurbished for the past couple of years, has now reopened as The Samuel Palmer. Good name actually, but it stupidly hadn’t occurred to me that the Mount Vineyard people would also change the name of the pub. It looks excellent and I can’t wait to visit. I must have gone past it and not noticed it had reopened a couple of times because the refurb was complete by April 2022. But there’s also sad news; just across the bridge the King’s Arms remains shut after a damaging fire in March. I had no idea. Funny how quickly things can change.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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!
The Hever walk isn’t the most spectacular of the routes in terms of views but its unspoilt, remote-feeling woods, undisturbed meadows, and clay-tiled houses melding into the countryside give it a rare charm. Its position on the Weald of Kent between the high Ashdown Forest to the south and Greensand Ridge to the north means its topography is dotted with mires (woodland bogs) and ghylls (mini-ravines concealing vigorous little streams), each with its own distinct character and sense of mystery. Throw in the area’s prominent place in English history, what with the Boleyns’ fantastic castle and the area being a stamping ground of Henry VIII in the 16th century, this route has a special atmosphere. A wonderful holloway through the middle of a sandstone outcrop comes as a surprise after the gently sloping serenity of the rest of the walk. But a warning: the mud is horrendous at points until about mid-April. This is compensated by the walks’ multitude of wildflowers beginning to stir, the colours of silver birches in the wan late winter sun, the beautiful Hever church with its medieval tombs and brasses, and the Shepherd’s Neame Masterbrew in the excellent Henry VIII pub, now adorned with the flag of Ukraine.
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).
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.
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).