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
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.
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)
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 Wood’s 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
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.
Soft sunshine bathes the Darent Valley
Again we returned to Meenfield Woods and Shoreham to do the Polhill loop at the weekend. There was some lovely light in late afternoon on Saturday. Surprisingly there were few birds around given the migrations taking place. Clearly the route does not intersect particularly with the flightpaths of redwings, fieldfares and various other birds heading into the UK from the continent, although a red kite glided above us as we turned the corner to enter the ‘jungle zone’ beneath Polhill itself in the lower part of Pilots Wood. I’d like those redwings to know there are more than a few hawthorn bushes on Polhill with nice juicy scarlet berries right now. What are they waiting for? Maybe the frost, which makes certain berries more appealing to les oiseaux. Dark cloud combined with a lilac sky and soft sunlight to show off the autumnal Darent Valley at its best. My photography doesn’t quite capture it, but I tried.
No time to dieback
As I write it’s pitch black outside and teeming with rain. After another year of somewhat unusual weather it’s quite reassuring to hunker down to the sounds and sights of North Atlantic storms swinging past. KWNL paths will be getting a lot muddier though, so it’s time for that wellies purchase. On the Polhill Bank/Shoreham and Fackenden Down routes recently I became really aware of the extent of ash dieback, a disease caused by the arrival (about 30 years ago) of a fungus that species of ash in Asia live happily with. Ash trees here have evolved no defences, however, and it is killing them by the thousand. The Woodland Trust estimates that 80% of our ashes – one of our most beautiful trees – will be destroyed. It’s sad to see the bare dead branches and the spots of dye marking the ailing trees facing the chop.
But among happier sights are the profusion of berries and fruits now dotting the hedgerows with scarlet, orange, purple and orange. Hawthorn, black bryony (don’t eat that one), spindle, sloes, crab apples, damsons, guelder rose, rowan berries and rose hips … they’re all knocking around on these walks, especially in the hedgerows on the Underiver/One Tree Hill strolls and at Fackenden Down. I’m trying to get better at identifying them but I’m not a natural forager or jam-maker; I’m happy to leave the berries to the winter migrants – redwings, fieldfare, waxwings and the like. If anyone could identify the berries pictured in the slideshow below at Polhill please tell me at email@example.com. I’m thinking hawthorn but I’m not sure.
A suburban woody world
Petts Wood is brilliant for 2-3 mile walks combined with a cafe or restaurant visit to the town itself. The superb National Trust-maintained woodland has a multitude of paths, plenty of birdlife, some atmospheric heathery glades and a field with a nice view. There are little streams, a wonderful variety of trees from chestnut groves to scots pine, tulip trees, yew, holly and stout oaks, and lots of mud I’m afraid. I strongly advise travelling there by train if possible especially at the moment because the west side of town is gridlocked having been hit by petrol queues and major roadworks. It’s only a few minutes on the train out of Bromley South, on the Victoria-Orpington line; or 15 minutes from Hither Green/Lewisham on the Charing X-Sevenoaks route. The woods are a 10-minute walk to the north of the station, as is Jubilee Country Park. I’ve created a GPX map (revealing where you are on the route in real time) that ties in many of the more interesting parts of Petts Wood and its neighbour Hawkwood (see bottom of post for OS and All Trails versions).
Oh yes, by the way, there’s a major running event in the woods on Sunday October 10 so best avoid then.
Click here for Ordnance Survey GPX map to follow
Click here for All Trails GPX map with waypoints added.
Also, try this site’s Chislehurst Station to Petts Wood Station walk (3.5 miles)
Find a walk that suits you
To help you find suitable walks here’s a rather rough-looking interactive Google map. Just click on the lines and blobs to get more information about that walk. You can use the menu at the top of the page to print off pdfs and to look at more detailed directions. Each walk description has a GPX map attached so you can follow your progress in real time – if you have signal. Failing that please use an Ordnance Survey map to check the route (OS Explorer 147 has them all).
Best walks for travelling without a car are those in the Darent Valley – the ones starting from Shoreham, Eynsford and Otford/Kemsing stations. Knole Park can also be reached from Sevenoaks station.
The walks around Shoreham, Downe, Cudham, Otford and Knockholt are on North Downs chalk fairly close to or on the escarpment itself. They have a different character to the more wooded southerly routes around Ide Hill, Westerham, One Tree Hill and Sevenoaks, which are on the Greensand Ridge.
Further south are the Hever and Chiddingstone walks, which are in the Low Weald of Kent… a different flavour again with fewer steep slopes.
Many of the walks overlap with each other such as Westerham and Hosey Common, One Tree Hill and Underriver – leading to severe spaghettification on the map displayed here.
Creatures of the sun
In a largely cloudy wet summer in these parts the sightings of butterflies are all the more precious. As an ‘ectotherm’ these insects need warmth to fly for any duration. So on cooler days they need to open their wings to sunlight and heat their bodies to about 29C before take off. Slopes with wildflowers on them facing the sun are particularly great places to see them.
Populations of these absurdly beautiful creatures are falling the world over because of climate swings and pesticide use – another reminder that apart from robins, goldfinches, magpies, deer and rats, etc, it’s quite hard to write about many facets of the natural world without doom and gloom encroaching, but that’s the reality. Take the small tortoiseshell butterfly: its numbers have declined because its larvae need to feed on wet leaves (mainly of nettle), so the increasing tendency toward drought has really hit its population over the past 40 years or so. The large tortoiseshell meanwhile has nearly completely vanished. Having said that, other species, such as silver washed fritillary, are said to be expanding if anything.
However, Kent walks near London are graced at the moment by a variety of lovely species: on the chalk North Downs you’ll see silver washed fritillaries, the small but smart brown argus (actually classed as a blue), dark green fritillaries (if you’re very lucky), gatekeepers, marbled whites and meadow browns, plus many of the common names such as the incredible migratory painted lady, red admiral, brimstone, tortoiseshell large and small and a host of others. Chalk hill blue, the common blue and the adonis blue (very rare) are particular favourites. It might just be me but I tend to see more orange tips, peacocks, commas, brimstones and large whites on the Greensand Ridge walks around Sevenoaks, but I’m not being scientific here – they are widespread.
To see wonderful butterflies you might not have leave your garden or park as we all know – now the prolific south-east London buddleia is in flower, the migratory red admirals are often seen a-flutter in the suburban streets. Small species, like skippers, I don’t know much about. But I often see gem-like butterflies on the walks – I’d need to be with an expert to identify them.
It’s hard to photograph butterflies because they are rather skittish unless in the mood for a bit of showing off, or just super drunk on nectar (is that possible?) but I have managed to take a few shots over the past couple of years, which I’ve compiled in this montage above (the chalk hill blue centre right was taken by a friend though).