Farewell winter woods

Farewell winter woods

Before we start waxing lyrical about spring, wildflowers, birds and bees etc etc let’s salute the beauty of woods in late winter, particularly in March, which tends to be sunnier than February and reflects all kinds of subtle auburn nuances in the leafless trees. Around Bough Beech reservoir near Ide Hill the woods have been partially flooded by high water levels making for scenes somewhat reminiscent of the opening parts of that excellent film The Revenant. On the final Saturday in March the first bluebells, generally those in sunny spots in hedgerows, were showing, along with primroses, cuckooflower and so on but those trees around the north lake at Bough Beech in the late afternoon sun in their best end-of-winter finery stole the show. What a superb place that is to watch the sun go down. Pictured below: swamped woods at Bough Beech, silver birches in Stock Wood on the Hever walk, a stream though light woods at Bore Place, and a view back to the Greensand Ridge and Ide Hill across fallow fields from near Bough Beech on a perfectly serene late March day – winter’s last knockings. Finally, an iPhone pic of Shoreham and the Darent Valley on the Polhill/Shoreham Circular walk on Sunday 27 March… a rare day of low misty cloud and sunny patches.

A suburban saunter around Petts Wood

A suburban saunter around Petts Wood

The Chislehurst station to Petts Wood station walk via the Hawkswood Estate might be ‘just’ a suburban saunter surrounded by 1930s mock Tudor, but it has loads going for it: it’s obviously great for public transport being between two stations with links to inner SE London; it’s near to London; it has surprisingly good views at points as far as Biggin Hill and Croydon; the woodland is beautifully managed by the National Trust with a huge variety of trees and restored patches of the heathland that was once common here; there are loads of paths to explore often crossing mysterious little streams running down to the lovely Kyd Brook river (which later becomes the Quaggy and joins the Ravensbourne); and it’s big, so makes for a decent workout. You can go off piste without really getting truly lost because the extensive woods are enclosed by suburbia. On the other hand you can adapt it into a much longer walk taking in Scadbury Park nature reserve and Jubilee country park, both adjacent to the Petts Wood/Hawkwood hub. There are usually plenty of people around, in my experience mostly very friendly and with docile pooches. Owls can be seen and heard at dusk and woodland birds proliferate here.

Today, in glorious late March weather, it was a picture. My route is intended as a guide to some of the best bits: the heather areas with their raised path embankments; the central fields with their long views; hidden ponds and mires; chestnut groves; the Willett Memorial glade; pine clumps and bluebell vistas. And once you leave the woods to get to the station, there are quite a few interesting inter-war houses and gardens, and the town of Petts Wood doesn’t disappoint when it comes to food and beverages.

Tudor trails and tales from Hever

Tudor trails and tales from Hever

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.

A wintry reminder

A wintry reminder

The gloom of December and early January has lately given way to bright, often mild conditions.
Great tits are blasting out their rhythmic calls optimistic that spring is around the corner and thrushes have been showing off at dusk with their varied, almost tropical-sounding tones. But this time last year all was silent: we were in the grip of a rare icy blast with heavy snow on the 7th and freezing conditions for the following week. If you’d stayed in south-east London you might have thought the snowfall was very light. But out in Kent, beyond the M25 and on the escarpments of the chalk North Downs and the Greensand ridge, the storm struck more powerfully. It seemed a good time to get out and get the feel of things, so here’s a photographic reminder of what real cold actually looks like. And believe me, the top of Fackenden Down on 12 February was bone-shakingly cold. Enjoy the photos! (Pictured are scenes from the Knole and Fackendon walks)

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

Personally I don’t mind ‘busy’ walks. Anyone who’s hiked the Samaria Gorge, climbed Snowdon or sauntered along the Amalfi coast’s spectacular ‘Walk of the Gods’ trail, will be familiar with routes’ long lines of dehydrated tourists in frankly inappropriate footwear. These Kent walks offer comparative splendid isolation and are undertaken by people who are generally dressed for the conditions. But if it really is solitude you are after you might find that the Shoreham circular isn’t the best choice on a sunny Sunday, and Petts Woods main paths are much frequented by families and dog walkers – unsurprisingly considering its suburban location. Lullingstone is particularly busy around the visitor’s centre and river and Knole around the house – but both are big enough country parks to escape the crowd. There were snaking queues of day trippers on the One Tree Hill routes before the winter mud arrived on sunny weekends. Personally I like to see everyone out and about; it’s great to see people of all ages enjoying the local countryside and greeting strangers as walkers do. But if you want a quieter walk the best routes are Shoreham’s eastern valleys, Otford to Kemsing, Hever, Otford circular and Fackenden Down. The Cudham and Knockholt walks aren’t exactly choc-a-bloc either usually. Don’t get me wrong, there are always people around on these walks – you won’t feel like Cheryl Strayed in Wild (as portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film). By the way, if you do choose a Shoreham route and happen to be hungry, the Mount Vineyard does great pizzas I’ve found recently – and it’s a great spot for a drink if you’re waiting for the train (the station’s an eight-minute walk up the road).

Hosed down after Hosey

Hosed down after Hosey

A beautiful dusk walk around Chartwell and Mariners Hill on the Hosey route, accompanied by a stunning full moon and the mew of a buzzard, hit the spot last Sunday afternoon. It’s not always the early bird that catches the worm, you know. The mud just before point 8, the ‘dramatic’ crossing of the infant River Darent, is hilariously sloshy and treacherous enough to defeat any footwear bar stilts fitted with spikes but can be avoided by walking parallel in the grassy field alongside and rejoining just before the log bridge. A satisfying hose down of boots after returning home was called for.

Ide and seek on the greensand

Ide and seek on the greensand

With Saturday a washout it was a real pleasure on Sunday to find time for the Ide Hill route (a three-hour round trip from SE London). For some reason I often take this Greensand Ridge walk while my chosen football team is playing so it’s rarely the relaxing stroll it ought to be. Fortunately, after initial tension, the goals came in a rush so by the halfway point all was well and I could enjoy the subdued January colours, stillness of the woods and occasional bird calls. A huge buzzard glided away from us soon after leaving Scord’s wood leaving a cacophony of jackdaw and carrion crow calls its wake. There were few other birds evident though, a few robins, wrens and a dunnock the only compensation for the finches I was hoping for. The tiny cricket pitch at point 5 seemed even more titchy with no one on it. We caught the sun as it slipped out of the blue sky into a solid-looking bank of cloud draped across the western horizon as far as the eye could see. This gave us a strangely false sunset, and an early dusk at odds with the sky overhead. But those weald views – fantastic as ever. A pint in the cosy Cock Inn was a perfect way to conclude proceedings. Oh, happy new year by the way.

My moment in the sun

My moment in the sun

I hope everyone who dips into this website had a decent Christmas.

Yesterday (Boxing Day) there was a strange interlude on the Downe walk: a shard of blue sky suddenly appeared ahead, to the north. This was a most welcome sight given I’d accepted the walk would be a uniformly grey and dank trudge. It was also completely out of context with what has been a remarkably gloomy couple of months.

I hadn’t realised that a similar clear gap had developed behind me to the south west. Suddenly, without warning, the landscape was bathed in an utterly spellbinding glow. This reminder that the sun also rises in the UK lingered on for 45 minutes or so as curtains of impenetrable low cloud with rain began to threaten from the London direction. It was pure magic while it lasted.

The final field on the walk (pictured below) was laughably squelchy – definitely wellies only. The mud on all the walks is fairly horrendous at the moment. I was concerned to see the Polhill Bank/Pluto walk being viewed a lot on this site over the past 24 hours. The steep escarpment slope will be absolutely treacherous at the moment. The Fackenden route would be best avoided for the same reason. The best bets for lower mud levels are Knole and Lullingstone (although the woods will be a quagmire). One thing about mud though: I reckon you get more fitness benefits from trying to squelch your way round the walks, necessitating extra and lighter steps. (Best not to take dogs to Knole because of deer; they must be kept on lead at all times.)

Field in winter at Downe
The final (horrendously muddy) field during Boxing Day 2021’s half hour sunny interlude. This was once a lovely wildflower meadow with hawthorn trees, alive with bees and home to yellowhammers and bullfinches. But all biodiversity was ripped out around 2014.
‘What is this place?’

‘What is this place?’

A spectacular winter’s day on Sunday. A pale blue polar sky, completely still, with saturated colours in the unfettered low sun. Knole was spectacular, the west-facing Tudor mansion ablaze in the late afternoon.

Despite the various woes affecting travel and holidays there were still visitors from abroad there, which was good to see – a reminder of better times.

“What is this place called?” I heard one man with an Italian accent ask an National Trust volunteer while gazing around the outer courtyard.

It seemed an odd question given that visiting Knole would involve taking a unique route leading to … well, Knole.

“Knole House,” the volunteer intoned with slow, exaggerated clarity, clearly pleased to be asked.

“So, who lived here?” he enquired, gazing at the enormous structure in wonder, perhaps hoping to hear “King Henry the Eighth” or “Queen Elizabeth the First”.

“The Sackville-Wests,” came the reply, delivered in an awed tone deemed suitable for heralding (minor) aristocracy.

“Ah”, said the man, nodding as if he were an old acquaintance of Vita’s, but betraying a false reverence that screamed: “Never heard of ’em”.

I too felt slightly disappointed at the answer, despite knowing what it would be.