Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.

I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.

I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.

We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.

Wet, wild and wonderful

Wet, wild and wonderful

I’m intrigued about how many of us look outside on a day like today – drab, cold, raining – and just think that curling up with a book or making a great meal or something would be a far better use of time than a walk. Who can blame those who decide such days are for doing stuff indoors? But judging by the views on this website there is a hardcore who come what may will not only brave the elements, they will relish them. I’m in this camp – although I do have a good book to read. Anyway, lovely autumn colour awaits those who make it out, all the more inspiring against the grey backdrop. Waterproof trousers and good boots will be handy though. Photos are from the Fackenden Down route last weekend on which the weather was actually fine as it turned out. Scroll through the photo gallery below right for autumn colour from all the walks.

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.