Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Ever been somewhere on your doorstep that you’d heard about but not hitherto bothered with, then been blown away by it? So after several decades of never going there I headed the way of Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. I’d thought it was just a nondescript lake, a couple of bird hides and a few twitchery types in unfashionable knitwear dotted around. Instead, it was a veritable waterworld with one very large lake, four medium-sized ones, lots of bird hides, a large visitor centre, the River Darent, islands, ponds galore, reedbeds, loads of paths to explore and rich damp woodland of alder, birch and so on. I immediately saw lapwing, egret, pochard and curiously large number of long-tail tits. All in all, a more satisfying place to visit than Bough Beech, perhaps. When spring gets going it will be a real treat.

East Lake, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve

I shall return there; it’s a surprising place, rewilded after years of use as sand and gravel pits, and offers views of the Darent Valley from a perspective I hadn’t really seen before. There was a strange atmosphere though… the coronavirus suddenly felt as if it had got exponentially more serious on Saturday. I dropped by the local mega-Sainsbury’s on the way back; you could tell that the UK was trying to decide what kind of country it was – greedy and panicky, or stoic and rational. I think it’s still undecided.


Sunshine and showers

Sunshine and showers

After the watery dip into the Ashdown Forest in midweek it was back to terra-not-so firma today with a squelchy trip to Lullingstone. Up the steps we went, past the Roman Villa to vast flint and chalk fields where several buzzards glided. It’s strange how wild birds of prey congregate near Eagle Heights; I guess they just want to peep at their captive exotic cousins. Storm clouds were fragmenting to the east having a deposited another ocean on our blighted county.

The river was extremely high and the water meadows living up to their billing with Eynsford’s small herd of highland cattle looking a bit hacked off as they nuzzled soggy hay bales and pondered their liquid domain.

On the way home we popped in on Eynsford Castle, basically a bunch of Norman ruins. The place was built within 20 years of the Battle of Hastings on the site of a Saxon tower by William de Eynsford I (for it is he) but was vandalised and left derelict 300 years later after an ownership dispute. Such a shame, it enjoyed a beautiful setting close to the river and would have contributed significantly to English Heritage or the National Trust if it had been maintained. Such a lack of foresight some of these medieval people.

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Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Saturday was a pleasant winter’s day so we ventured once again to the eastern Darent Valley watching the sunset and hoping for an early evening owl. We were rewarded instead by wonderful and close views of three juvenile buzzards hanging motionless above Fackenden Down calling to each other plaintively.

I haven’t got the lenses to capture wildlife unless it’s less than two feet away. My lack of super-duper equipment was also brought home to me by the rise of a huge moon behind Dunstall Farm; my camera could only represent it as a small white disc. Still there’s a bit of atmosphere in the shot, seen below. For starters, I love the pines that surround the secluded farmhouse, an attractive and venerable building with a hint of Normandy about it.

Today of course (Sunday, 9 February) I imagine nobody in their right mind went walking what with Ciara wreaking havoc across the land. (There is a shorter version of the Fackenden Down walk that’s quite handy for short winter days here – you can start it at Shoreham Station and walk up the track almost opposite to join the walk or park at the layby in Rowdown Lane as marked. It’s 2.6 miles but good exercise because quite up and down.)


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Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

I’ve felt watching sunsets was a bit of a cliche ever since visiting a club on the Greek island of Ios 30 years ago.

Scorpions, as the place was called I think, offered the chance to be spellbound as our golden orb sank below the Aegean – accompanied by a tequila cocktail costing 100 drachma (40p). For some reason the occasion made no impression on me whatsoever and I found the applause of the assembled horde hilarious in my then youthful arrogance.

However, I did see a terrific sunset rather more recently in Cornwall when the sun seemed to dissolve on contact with the surface of the sea coating it with a blazing trail … most peculiar. Perhaps it’s an age thing – one is drawn to sunsets on realising there aren’t all that many left.

Anyway, we were atop Fackenden Down doing a truncated version of the walk on these pages on Sunday (a clear day for once) at about 4pm when sunset happened. It was quite fun and there were a few people around to see it (actually seeing the sun at all is pretty rare these days after all). I took some frankly quite boring photos of it which I will now share as well as some hopefully atmospheric woodland shots (one with staring sheep) in the gathering winter dusk.

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Winter dusk in the Kent downs

Winter dusk in the Kent downs

I followed my own advice and stuck to Knole and Lullingstone over the Christmas break, with the family. Christmas Day was a real beaut as were the past two days. When it’s clear, it’s fine to walk until 5pm, after sunset; you’ll be rewarded with vibrant sky colours, maybe drifting mist and even the silent flight of an owl. The next few days look fairly dull but the walks on here have great atmosphere in all conditions. Here are some pictures of Knole and Lullingstone from the past few days.

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Christmas and New Year’s walk choices

Christmas and New Year’s walk choices

Family walks are a fab tradition at this time of year. They often entail waiting for Grandpa to catch up and the kids to finish in the playground, dogs rolling in something unmentionable, and departing so late (because everyone’s trying to find suitable footwear) you arrive at the walk in time for dusk. No, of course, they are much more fun than that. But given all the rain and resultant mud it would be best not to go out in your festive season finery this week. A flask with some hot chocolate and perhaps a wee dram aren’t a bad idea either.

These are the walks I reckon are best for families this Christmas. My choice has been limited by all the rain – I’d love to recommend the Fackenden Down and One Tree Hill routes but the footpaths on the thin chalky soil of Fackenden could be treacherous and easily damaged, and One Tree Hill is a winter a mudbath for reasons not entirely clear to me. Anyway those walks have more strenuous sections not entirely appropriate or the ‘whole’ family. So my top five are:

1 Shoreham Circular (good pubs in Shoreham, not too muddy, one steep hill)
2 Lullingstone (visitors’ centre cafe, pubs in Eynsford, not too muddy; also can park at golf club or visitors’ centre for DIY walks – my route is just one of many variations)
3 Knole Park (best for lack of mud, cafe closed Christmas Day, shuttle available from Sevenoaks station Sunday 29th and 5th Jan) 
4 Downe short and long (a bit muddy in places but relatively good, one steepish hill stretch on the long version, two pubs in Downe) 
5 Otford and Shoreham (pubs in Otford and Shoreham; easy to make a good train walk with stations in both villages).

Another recommendation if you don’t want to travel out so far is Beckenham Place Park with its lovely new cafe, playgrounds, woodland, lake and gardens; it’s easy on the train too with three stations (Beckenham Junction, Beckenham Hill and Ravensbourne) on the doorstep. A little further out is Petts Wood (a bit muddier but beautiful woods), also easy by train (my route starts at Chislehurst station and finishes at Petts Wood station.

Of course it won’t be snowing but the picture above shows Knole in Sevenoaks on a particularly atmospheric winter’s day.

Lullingstone – winter walking wonderland

Lullingstone – winter walking wonderland

The walks through Lullingstone country park (nos 3 and 12) take in superb chalk grassland, rewilded areas of scrub, wonderful beech woodland and long views of the Darent Valley. Walkers don’t truly need to follow the prescribed routes; you can take off in whatever direction you fancy, just don’t walk straight across a golf fairway if there are golfers visible. If you have time it’s great to wander in Beechen Wood, a site of special scientific interest, with 500-year-old oaks, hornbeams, towering beeches and ash.

The park is great for winter walks, not being quite as muddy as some of the routes on this site (One Tree Hill you have been warned) and dusk brings excellent sunset views. There’s adventure playground stuff dotted around too, if you have kids you want to bring. Buzzards and kestrels are usually seen at all times of the year and field birds such as yellowhammer, corn bunting and skylark are often spotted despite the decline in their numbers. And it’s easy to get there to on public transport: it’s just 20 minutes’ walk from Eynsford station with its trains to south-east London (Peckham Rye/Catford line). Throw in the terrific Roman Villa and Lullingstone Castle you have a great day out.

Here are some winter pix over the years, two from yesterday and a passing rain squall.

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Knockholt Pound on woods

I tried to find a new walk today and decided that the Chevening area round the corner from the Darent Valley looked good. It’s got a lovely old church, a secluded 17th-century grand mansion used by the government for dignitaries (are there any still?) and the North Downs chalk escarpment. The house was probably designed by Inigo Jones (trendy name you’ve got to say).

It’s an area I often cycle around out of winter, using the Pilgrims’ Way road at the foot of the scarp and climbing steeply on the likes of Sundridge and Brasted hills. A lovely area in summer.

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My route started at the end of Chevening Lane, Knockholt Pound, where I parked up. I followed the path down the slope through woods toward Chevening, then swung a right across farm/park land with great views of the mansion. Eventually you enter more woods and emerge on Sundridge Hill by a house with the most extraordinary number of bird feeders. With tits and finches all a flutter around me I strode up the hill on the narrow lane then took the North Downs Way back to Chevening Lane with more woods to the south, blocking the view. All in all about 3.5 miles.

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It was boring. And muddy.

I passed very few people; there was an angry woman shouting at her dog. The woods seemed lifeless and over-managed. The agricultural land was dull. I saw a buzzard. Great. And some violets flowering. I was pleased with the views of Chevening House, but then I remembered Boris Johnson stayed there sometimes when he was (a useless) foreign secretary. And that was it.

I’ll need to add something, a diversion of some sort, before I can include it on this site. I’ll think of something. But all the paths around Knockholt are a bit stop start. It’s a better area for cycling perhaps.

Catkins and baubles decorate early March

You can now see bluebells growing strongly on these walks and wood anenomes are about to flower; primroses too. But, other than early fruit tree blossoms, much of the colour in the countryside at the moment is provided by catkins. Sometimes they make up a golden sheen in the undergrowth – really rather alluring. Most catkins you can see in north west Kent and the burbs are on hazel, alder, goat willow, silver birch and pedunculate oaks, but walnut, hop hornbeam (not many in UK) and white poplar trees all develop them too.

Alder catkins

Alder catkins in Pilot’s Wood, Shoreham

Essentially they are flowers without petals that distribute pollen. They help the female flowers to be pollinated after the pollen from the male flowers is taken by the wind. Once the seeds have developed the wind disperses them so they don’t growing right beneath their parent. Willow uses insects for pollination rather than wind. Here’s Countryfile’s guide to how to ID them, and here’s the Woodland Trust’s. I suddenly started noticing them on the Ide Hill walk that I did last Sunday in wind and rain. Took them for granted before. A bit unobservant that.

Another lovely little thing to see at this time of the year are the ‘baubles’, dainty balls, hanging off London plane trees. Mostly you’ll see them closer to and in the city but there are plenty in the suburbs. Funny tree the London plane… a hybrid of sycamore and oriental plane, they didn’t exist before the 16th century. Here’s a guide to them, by the excellent Londonist.


Hazel catkins © Wikimedia Commons

On a completely unrelated subject, what a magnificent band Steely Dan are. SE London legend Danny Baker’s a huge fan and I’m hoping he was at the Wembley Arena gig last week for their show. Here’s my review at Jazzwise and a better one by ex-Melody Maker chief reviewer Chris Welch.

Ah, the warming winds of … February?

What a strange, beautiful day. Golden light flooding in from a cloudless sky and a startling clarity in the warm air produced scenes as colourful as anything I’ve seen in an English winter. February? We toiled up the steps ascending the steep hillside of Dunstall Wood amid hectic birdsong; the trees were silent only two weeks ago. I half expected humming birds to zip by and howler monkeys to playfully crash through the canopy.

Dunstall Wood steps

Dunstall Wood steps – quite a climb on a warm day

At Austin Spring (this was, again, the Fackenden walk) a huge flock of finches rose from the unkempt fringe and flitted into that row of oaks that strides through the fields there. Without binoculars I couldn’t be sure of all the species but among them were goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches and siskins. There must have been 100-plus; quite a surprise.

On Walk 19, steps up White Hill; Dunstall Farm, Austin Spring

Austin Spring – trees full of finches that had been feeding below

Later, in the twilight at White Hill, a tawny owl flew past us – my younger son saw it first as a silhouette on the path ahead of us, and I’m ashamed to say my first reaction was to think ‘pigeon’.

No butterflies though, not a single brimstone, the first to fly most years. You’d think on such a warm day they’d be present. All in all an excellent way to exorcise an away defeat at Burnley.

Dunstall farm house

18th-century Grade-II listed Dunstall Farm House – an attractive building, with a hint of Normandy

Fackenden Down above Otford Mount

Fackenden Down dusk: end of an amazingly mild February day, looking south-west towards Brasted