Most of the time the wildlife on these walks is pretty elusive, the small birds skulk in the undergrowth, lizards and amphibians dart away as you approach. Badgers are asleep. But every now and then something odd happens. They forget about us and say ‘I want to bask in the sunshine, I can’t be bothered with all this hiding’. Clearly, this grass snake spotted by the legend that is Birder Dave (and photo courtesy of Dave) near the River Medway at Tonbridge, wasn’t too bothered about the prospect of a bird of prey swooping down or a fox pouncing. But then it was rather big and may have learned not to worry so much – Kent’s very own anaconda.
Grass snakes often hang out close to water; they are good swimmers and have a liking for amphibians among other things. I’ve only seen them once; at Lullingstone where there were at least two similarly long ones slithering in and out of grass cuttings. Adders are all also present on the walks but are even more rarely seen. Lizards are a wee bit less elusive – I’ve seen them on the Knole, Ightham Mote and Fackenden walks.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve idly tried to keep a record of every different type of bird I’ve seen so far this year. No binoculars or stalking around, just the ones I’ve come across without going anywhere special – just local trips. It’s been disappointing. We’ve reached 22 January and I haven’t seen a single heron, little egret or kingfisher, birds that are commonly seen on the River Pool between Lower Sydenham and Catford. It took 20 days before I saw my first coot (on the lake at Beckenham Place Park) and notched up a collared dove! No yellowhammer as yet (pictured). No buzzards or even the local sparrowhawk. One solitary kestrel on New Year’s Day and that’s it for birds of prey. At this rate I shouldn’t expect to see a black redstart or bullfinch much before 2025. Still, it’s a list and it’s quite interesting and making me look out more.
An easy one to get for the list: a blue tit Adam McCulloch
Ah, I’ve just remembered, the weather has been awful, I’ve forgotten to buy any bird seed for the feeder and I work quite a lot. My anonymous birder friend Dave doesn’t seem to have this trouble – he only has to stick his head out of the window and snipe, goosander, waxwing and montagu’s harrier dive headlong for his yard. He has once again written a fine update about winter birding on these walking routes, which can be read here – of course he lists all the birds you or I might see, but leaves out all the rare and exotic species that he usually encounters.
I managed to squeeze in three walks between Friday and Sunday – Hosey Common, Knole Park and Underriver – and dropped by at Bough Beech. The weather was mostly grey on the first two days but a quick trip over to One Tree Hill late in the day on Saturday put us into pole position for enjoying a sliver of gold that marked the setting sun and some curious localised showers sweeping across the Weald, producing several rain shafts. Friday had burst into colour late on too, with a glorious rainbow at Bough Beech and ochre clouds layered above that sliver of gold and orange.
However, Sunday proved the best day of all with blue skies punctuated by dense cumulus once again depositing rain in sheets for 30 seconds at a time leaving the sunlit landscape shimmering. Very unusual weather. I met up with birdwatching guru Dave and walked on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver. He was in top form, picking up the calls of siskin, little owl, bullfinch and treecreeper in between explaining why West Ham were going to have a decent season (for them). We marvelled at the ‘dancing’ beech trees on the sunken path leading up the escarpment.
Later on, as the day turned red and mauve, we watched in awe as large flocks of redwings and fieldfares tracked west, arriving from Scandinavia or perhaps eastern Europe, no doubt heading for berry-laden hedgerows somewhere in the country. I think I’m getting into this birding lark but I think I’ll need expert guidance for some time yet.
But seeing those flocks on the move was something I felt privileged to witness – the kind of sight we can all see if we happen to look up at the right moment. But when you realise the significance and epic scale of these migratory movements you start to appreciate why some people wander around with binoculars and notebooks.
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.