In the grip of the beast: snow in north-west Kent

Little gets the south-east England as excited as the prospect of a bit of snow. It is fairly unusual, particularly in the London suburbs, so the ‘Beast from the East’ has real novelty value. The hills of the North Downs regularly get a lot more snow than the local London boroughs, however, so if you fancy a good old crunching snow walk, with scenes reminiscent of a winter’s day in Finland, hot foot it out to the walks on this website – even if your part of the metropolis has drawn a blank. Below are pictures from previous years, but I reckon this period will see much deeper snow – until a thaw sets in at the weekend.

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Right now the heavy snow showers seem to be slanting across the area north-east to south-west in a line. They are making landfall between the Isle of Sheppey and Margate and dumping the white stuff on Canterbury, Ashford, Maidstone and Sevenoaks. Places further north and west, like Bromley and Lewisham are not seeing anything like as much. Late on Thursday a different weather system will swing up from the south and may deposit several inches of wetter snow across the western parts of Kent particularly, including London.

Not being able to get out and photograph it all is a bit frustrating for me but the best hills for sledging are on the Shoreham circular and Romney St walks. One Tree Hill and Ightam Mote have thick snow but getting a car out there might be a problem. Knole Park should be easy to reach though and would be great.

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Exotic trees and crazy mud

Emmetts Garden (on the Ide Hill walk) is showing off its rare tree species at the moment, with orbs hanging off branches and baskets draped with national flags. Inside each basket is the name of the tree and its origin. Surprisingly good fun going from one to the other trying to work out what it is. I’d never heard of a castor oil tree (China) before but the Japanese cedar was my favourite.

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Meanwhile, mud is a sticking point on the walks, as you’d expect in February. One Tree Hill and around is awful, Hever too. But Ide Hill is not too bad – even the bit where you meet the Toys Hill red route is passable. Elsewhere, Lullingstone/Eynsford is generally OK, Shoreham circular too. Downe and Knole Park are bankers for lack of mud in huge quantities, but Petts Wood has plenty of squelchy areas. All are fine with decent boots – it’s just that you should be mentally prepared for a bit of slippin’ and slidin’, and going to the pub afterwards means taking boots off or bringing spare shoes.

Snow flurries, mud and cloudscapes on the Greensand Ridge

The mud is horrific but worth slopping through for the wonderful scenes on the One Tree Hill/Ightam Mote walk – a steep wooded escarpment with beech trees growing out of it at extraordinary angles, huge Weald views over to the Ashdown Forest and the beautifully situated Mote house itself, in its secret little cleft in the hill line. With dramatic skies, clear air, flurries of snow, the ridge routes around One Tree Hill and Wilmot Hill left us in awe yesterday.

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Let it snow and let peregrines unexpectedly appear

Some of this winter’s coldest weather has breezed in from the north east. It’s brought snow flurries, few of which have penetrated as far west as London but have deposited a few centimetres on the Greensand Ridge south of Sevenoaks, and along the North Downs towards Maidstone.

I was rather taken by the scene yesterday morning at 9am while cycling from my home in Lower Sydenham to the railway station. As I crossed Perry Hill in bright sunshine, flakes of snow suddenly intensified into a bit of a mini-blizzard, seemingly out of a blue sky. I looked around and saw it was being blown in from a dark cloud to the north. Just at that moment I heard the ‘cawing’ of a crow and saw to my astonishment a peregrine falcon clutching a small bird in its talons wheel away to the south, beating its wings rapidly, as two irate crows followed in lukewarm pursuit. An unusual thing to see in Sydenham, while it snowed – from a blue sky.

Anyway, proof that snow still happens south of London is provided by Ightam Mote’s Twitter feed. (Walk to Ightam Mote from One Tree Hill.)

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Fancy a mud-free January walk? Then, Knole Park, Kent, is the one

Well, almost; the forest (pictured below) in the far east of the park has a bit. But yes, Knole today was a joy. Glorious sunshine, brisk breeze – a special wintry atmosphere and little gooey saturated soil. Many of the walks on this site are now besieged by mud – One Tree Hill could be the worst. There has been a lot of rain in the past two weeks so good wellies essential for now – apart from Knole. My Knole walk is here.

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Hoo peninsula walk at Cliffe, north Kent

A lovely piece by Carol Donaldson in the Guardian at the Christmas weekend drew my attention to this area just east of Gravesend. It’s only an hour’s drive from, say, Brockley (potentially less if you can get to the A2 more quickly than I did today) and 40 minutes by train from Lewisham (direct to Higham on the Gillingham route). You can walk direct (about 2.5 miles from Higham station) to the marshes RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools or get the 133 bus. The walk I did starts at Cliffe village on the little chalk ridge above the marshes, right by 13th-century St Helen’s Church and heads west, reaching the sea wall before returning through lagoons to Cliffe. The churchyard could be where Pip came across Magwitch in Great Expectations (it might be that the children’s graves at nearby Cooling is where this was imagined) and Charles Dickens’ daughter was married nearby at St Mary’s, Lower Higham. More recently, the marshes served as paddy fields in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s Vietnam movie made in the late 1980s.

The beauty of the area is that you can just walk off into the marshes and make for the sea wall – there’s lots of interesting historical features including a beached boat. Otherwise there’s big skies, a lot of birds (the plaintive calls of waders accompany you throughout), ships gliding on the river beyond the wall, timeless atmosphere … I’ll add details of the route I took soon, as well as the Westerham-Chartwell route. Yet another place near London that takes you to another time seemingly hundreds of miles away. Some pix…

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Soft light on a December walk in Kent

There’s no doubt about it. Winter walks aren’t always particularly uplifting. Views are subdued and less vibrant. The oranges and reds of autumn have gone, to be replaced by toned-down browns and greens. There’s mud, damp and murkiness that can make you want to flee the country. But the sky picks its moments to remedy everything; pink and orange sunsets, swathes of deep azure; the rush towards dusk bathing ancient Kent rural scenes in yellow and grey light. There are times when you feel that our little pokey-out county is in tune with the timeless far north; Iceland, Norway, Lapland… maybe the Vikings who settled here felt most at home on these dark cold days. Am I being pretentious? Stop me if I am. I’ll stop then.

Here are some pictures from early afternoon on December 16, 2017, on the high-level Meenfield woods walk, to the west of Shoreham and the little valley separating Meenfield and Andrews woods (an extension to walks 2 and 8).

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