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.

A return to winter – and mud

A return to winter – and mud

To those of you hardy souls thinking of venturing out to local countryside for a break from the local park tomorrow, I’m sad to report the mud is back with a vengeance. I claimed in my newsletter that it was drying up rapidly, but the heavy rain and low temperatures over the past few days have put the situation into reverse unfortunately. I ventured out on to the Downe route yesterday and found it extremely slippery with the corner of the final field before reentering the village impassable without wellies. Then the hail started…

While I’m here, thanks to everyone who has donated to the website. A sizeable proportion of donations will now be winging its way to the Kent Wildlife Trust and to Project Seagrass, which restores marine environments to help capture carbon and improve biodiversity.

(Pictured: Hail storms in winter from the Greensand Ridge near Sevenoaks, 2018)

Matters of degree

Matters of degree

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.

Snowtime

Snowtime

It’s nailed on they say. Bound to happen. Everything is in place. The polar vortex is distorted. Sudden stratospheric temperature change has occurred. Low pressure and a front moving in from the north. The North Sea is suitably cold. Tottenham Hotspur keep losing (an extremely unpleasant winter development in my view). But – after a load of rain forecast on Saturday afternoon – it’s going to snow from the early hours of Sunday on and off for a couple of days or more. From 3am on Sunday the temperature won’t get above 0C until sometime on Thursday, which is sobering. Many of us don’t plan on staying sober, however. The rain will turn to snow well before dawn and the daytime will see us having fun in parks, woods and countryside. A little bit of Norway coming to Kent and south-east London.

Snow done properly, Rochers de Naye, Montreux, only by rack and pinion train. A FANTASTIC place.

But – hate to be a killjoy – there’s a pandemic and we mustn’t let our guard down. The usual scenes of sledging and snowball, snowman abandon may be missing. I don’t know how dangerous or not playing in the snow and ice really is but hospitals are certainly not the place to be right now, and they certainly don’t need A&E full of sheepish snow berks. Whatever we do, social distancing must be observed and I reckon masks worn when out, with hand gel at the ready. The best idea is to stay local and enjoy the unaccustomed spectacle stoically and cautiously. Keep the bird feeder as full as you can and enjoy nature close to home. Hey, there’s the Six Nations to watch and the usual football (thank God). Normally I’d suggest places to go sledging but I don’t feel I can do that this year, sadly. I can recommend a flask of hot chocolate and a dash of rum, however.

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I do wish I’d invested in a pair of skis sometime ago, when my limbs felt more flexible. I’ve never been skiing, but love watching it – it’s just incredibly spectacular and sort of romantic. It’s probably not for me as I recently found I’m extremely uncomfortable on chairlifts; a summer trip to the Pyrenees a few years ago having alerted me to this. It’s also a good thing I don’t ski because I can’t even go jogging without falling arse over tit and spraining my ankle. I’m OK now, though, thanks for asking.

I’ve surrendered to the mud

I’ve surrendered to the mud

The mud I’ve encountered out walking is worse this year than in any other I can remember (much worse than the picture I’ve used from Meenfield wood suggests). It has been much wetter than normal, with regular heavy rain over the past two months, but the number of people out and about is another major factor in churning it up. It’s going to take some paths a long time to recover I suspect.

The situation in parks is the same, though of course there are more hard surfaced paths to take; I cycled over to Beckenham Place Park earlier and there are patches of mud where there should be grass in many places. The number of people in the park was good to see; surely it’s better to see everyone in the fresh air trying to enjoy themselves and keep body and soul together than not. On the other hand social distancing was a problem and there were some large groups. Hardly anyone wore a mask, strangely. I know transmission of Covid is thought to be unlikely in the open air but, still, with so many people surely a mask might add a little extra security. We do it on railway platforms so why not in parks? The air was very still, too – something to consider? I’m not sure. Truly remarkable were two ice cream vans down by the car park. That’s not in the spirit of lockdown at all. And it felt about 1C. I still can’t believe it. A deadly plague, it’s 1C and we’re queueing for ice cream or coffee?

One Tree Hill… snow and a river of liquid mud instead of a path

Anyway, back to mud. If using Kent Walks near London for the first time I feel I should point out that the walks are, for 9 months of the year, much better than this squelchy experience! Even with wellies you have be careful not to slip over in it and stretches of up to 100 metres are fraught on some routes. Steep hills are out of the question. Maybe – and it goes against the grain with me to write this – it’s time to leave the countryside alone for a bit. Either join the hordes in the local park (but with a mask and careful distancing) or trudge the streets. Sorry.

Not entirely listless

Not entirely listless

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.

View Dave’s winter birds of the North Downs 2021 page

A lull after Lullingstone

A lull after Lullingstone

It’s time to batten down the hatches again. For some of us, the need to walk in in the open and find a bit of solitude is strong; others can adapt perfectly well to spending the whole day indoors. Personally I’m glad the football is still on! Let’s stay safe in all circumstances but not judge each other too much, unless someone is really busting the spirit of the rules. We know the situation in hospitals is dire and to add to the crisis by carelessness or selfishness would be terrible. Anyway, it’s horrendously muddy out there. I think we can let the paths, meadows and woods recover from our feet for a bit. Those walks will still be there once that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel starts turning into a dazzling orb in the spring. My last proper country walk was at Lullingstone Country Park (pictured) over Christmas where I walked the whole circumference of about five miles. Highlights included a panoramic view of the Darent Valley from the lonely plane tree a mile south-west of the Roman Villa, the amazingly tall and straight beech trees in Beechen Wood and a beautiful goldcrest, Britain’s second smallest bird, that had unusually come down to ground level to feed amid bracken and ignored me even as I stood just a few feet away. I reckon they’ve been doing a lot more of that in recent days as frost and ice has coated trees in the North Downs. I’ll describe my ‘new’ Lullingstone route in the next few weeks.

Crisp and clear

Crisp and clear

Despite all the rain and mud, winter was at it’s best on Christmas Day. Today (27 December) looks good too. Things get a bit cloudier – and colder – from tomorrow. Maybe enough ground will freeze up to take the edge off the mud. Keep a look out for birds – we saw sparrowhawks and a tawny owl hunting on Christmas Day at Lullingstone – and enjoy the fantastic light effects created by the afternoon sun as it illuminates the stark trees. Another bird you’ll be sure to hear is the high-pitched calls of goldcrests particularly in pines and cypress. It’s quite hard to see them though, because they are tiny and stay high up generally. Watch out for small flocks of redwings on the search for berries. But generally speaking I haven’t seen a lot of birds this winter on my walks.

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