From blue to yellow

I declare bluebell time officially over. It is now the moment for hawthorn, yellow archangel, buttercups, pyramidal orchids and so on to take centre stage, along with flowering trees like horse chestnut. Very spectacular still and worth getting out for to enjoy. You might even like the fields of oil seed rape that are particularly in evidence on the Eynsford-Lullingstone area walks this year, and up around Romney St, but they’ll soon be harvested leaving really unattractive barren fields where the wind will probably take the topsoil. This often leaves chalk exposed – I’m no expert but it’s a worrying sight and no doubt not much good for wildlife. Near Eynsford there are several barren fields; how can that be economic? Any farmers out there, please enlighten me…

Oil seed rape in the Darent valley near Eynsford

I’ve been hit by a virus of late so not been out much; enjoying the reports of others though!

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Best bluebell walks in north-west Kent 2019

May 4: fading fast

Just last weekend the bluebells were superb at Ide Hill, Meenfield Wood and Downe Bank but, while the odd patch lingers on spectacularly, time is already running out on the bluebell season. They peaked for only a short period this year it seems. I won’t claim any inside knowledge of why – maybe the lack of rain until the last day or so. But they are definitely already in obvious decline. Oh well … till next year then.

Last bluebells, Downe

Last bluebells, Downe. May 4, 2019

April 18: beginning to peak

One of the most magical times of the year is when the woodland floor turns blue. From this weekend (April 19) onwards there should be a profusion of bluebells until the second week of May, so it will be worth heading for the woods. The best bluebell displays on the walks here are Ide Hill, One Tree Hill (walk 6 and 7), Polhill Bank/Meenfield Woods at Shoreham (walk 18), Hever, Petts Wood and Chislehurst, Westerham, Fackenden Down and Romney Street (19), and Downe (but only if you do the diversion down into the woods at Point 3 and continue to Berry’s Hill – marked on the map and the pdf). Eynsford/Lullingstone and Chiddingstone/Penshurst probably aren’t the best bluebell walks, although on the latter there are rich concentrations at one or two points.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Early bluebells at Meenfield Wood, near Shoreham, Kent. 2019, April 13. © Adam McCulloch

In many of the woods you’ll be walking with the pervasive aroma of wild garlic (which you can use to make pesto sauce etc) and alongside plenty of cheeky little wild flowers – primroses, wood anemone, common dog violet, arum, red campion, wood-sorrel (oxalis), yellow archangel and orchids (Downe Bank, Lullingstone up from the visitors’ centre, Bough Beech’s Bore Place meadows particularly good for the latter). A highlight not to be missed is the profusion of daffodils at Ightam Mote (One Tree Hill walks) where you should also see buzzards wheeling and soaring in the thermals and yellowy/greeny brimstone butterflies floating around clearings and copses. Emmett Garden’s tulip ‘plantation’ on the Ide Hill walk is also wonderful. Look out for migrant bird species arriving, particularly the following warblers: chiffchaffs newly arrived from southern Europe and north Africa can be heard in all the woodland on these walks, and it’s worth learning and listening for the song of blackcaps and common and lesser whitethroats. The latter two, which arrive from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa, migrate at night and are a favourite of the birdwatching fraternity.

That reminds me, the One Tree Hill routes are very good for butterflies – where the path goes through the lee of the Greensand Ridge amid boulders and rich vegetation the insect world gets particularly busy and peacocks, orange-tips and brimstones proliferate on a bright day. This coming weekend (April 20), forecast to be warm, should be a good time to see them.

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Easter Sunday silence

A very memorable walk on Easter Sunday. It was after 6pm when we set off for Downe, having waved friends off. We took the normal route, veering off at point 3 to see the bluebells. There was an extraordinary silence. No Heathrow or Gatwick aircraft in the stack and precious little activity at Biggin Hill; just one executive jet took off in the course of the hour.

For some reason there was no traffic at all, although the pubs in the village were reasonably busy. I don’t think I’ve ever walked in this corner of the world with so little background sound, just birdsong. On that subject we distinctly heard the call of stonechats at point 5-6 from nearby undergrowth (a sound like two stones being knocked together). This was odd because stonechats are usually a bird of heathland. Anyway, a lovely sunset added to the tranquil, timeless scene and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

A special stroll.

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The North Sea comes to the North Downs

South-east London’s first April weekend was a dullard; very disappointing at a time of year when colour is returning to parks, gardens and countryside. A breeze from the North Sea – not a particularly cold one – brought thick stratus, drizzly outbreaks and, on Saturday, a gloom that made it hard to distinguish 3pm from 7pm. Headlights were on, people hurried past, huddled, on the pavements. On the North Downs escarpment the cloud barely scraped over the hills and the drizzle intensified; but there was a snug softness in the air and sudden increases in brightness as the sun attempted to break through before being smothered by the North Sea murk once again.

Chevening church, Kent

Chevening church, St Botolph’s © Adam McCulloch

Chevening

Near Chevening, beneath the scarp, on a murky day in spring © Adam McCulloch

Sunday was marginally better, but the Spitfires and light aircraft of Biggin Hill were still well and truly grounded – so none of the flybys accompanied by the growl of piston aero engines you usually get in these parts. We did two walks at Knockholt Pound, taking in Chevening hamlet: one to the west that loops back on to the North Downs Way via Sundridge Hill; the other to the east, heading down by Star Hill Lane then swinging right past messy farmyards to Chevening’s ancient St Botolph’s Church. The first bluebells are out and other wildflowers punctuated the grey proceedings along with myriad ultra-busy birds. A bullfinch was spotted, a buzzard (always a buzzard or two at Chevening) and more pheasants than I’ve ever seen.

I may well add the combined walk to this site next week, but I’m not totally satisfied with it; some good views and points of interest but there’s one bit where there’s too many farm tracks and rubbish heaps and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to walk there. Also, the woods seem a bit too managed – logging, and probably something to do with all the pheasants.

Wakey wakey woodland

The countryside has truly woken up. I saw my first peacock butterfly of the year at Ide Hill on Sunday (the more observant among you will be wondering what took me so long I’m sure, they’ve been around for a couple of weeks now) although oddly I haven’t seen a brimstone yet. Maybe I’m just walking along, daydreaming, not really taking stuff in. Anyway, I have noticed the woods developing a healthy green sheen, patches of primroses, and even the odd impatient bluebell bursting into flower. In Scord’s Wood, below Emmetts Garden, I came across clusters of cardamine pratensis – cuckoo flower, a somewhat overlooked spring flower (it’s pretty but not vividly colourful). My camera ran out of juice though, so no pix.

Birdsong has gone up several notches, with chiff chaffs arriving from African and great tits getting particularly busy, blackbirds clearing their throats and robins getting very territorial about everything. Out running recently I surprised a couple of fieldfare picking out worms at Beckenham Cricket Club, no doubt soon to head east to their breeding grounds in continental Europe and further afield. They might have been mistle thrushes, when I come to think of it. Up close very beautiful.

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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.

Catkin

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.