Sweet meadows

Sweet meadows

The word ‘meadow’ is synonymous with summer and June and July are the very best months to enjoy them. There are so many brilliant summer meadows on these walks now alive with oxeye daisies, orchids, vetch, poppies, buttercups, and lush grasses rippling in the breeze. They are alive with butterflies and other insects while swallows swoop above them forming brief gaggles before separating to make single passes. High above, buzzards are often seen soaring while spectacular red kites – now much common in Kent than at any time in the modern era – float into view closer to the ground. Of course there are issues, swallow and martin numbers are much lower than back in the day and there ought to be more butterflies and bees. Still, meadows are hubs for wildlife and we are lucky the North Downs, Weald and Greensand Ridge areas possess so many.

Meadow bordering Scord wood on the Ide Hill walk, June 2021. Sheep have munched this one a fair bit, and that in the lead photo, but there are still plenty of wildflowers and bees
Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Joining up the Shoreham walks for an epic

Windy, cold, grey, damp. Yep, this May is a shocker. We needed the rain yada yada (or yabba yabba, take your pick). I won’t go on leisure cycles in this kind of weather, but walking is still a possibility if the wind drops. I know, it’s hard to believe I’m talking like this – it’s May in south east England! My walking activities do mean I have some accurate memories of weather and there were a couple of days not dissimilar to this last May. But only a couple. Anyway, for once I had time last weekend to devise an epic by joining up group of routes. Some old friends were joining me from west London; so we wanted to stretch our legs and truly earn that pint at the end. So we took on the Shoreham eastern valleys walk joined it up with a section of the Fackenden Down route then slipped into Shoreham circular mk2 before segueing smoothly into half of Shoreham mk1, taking in the Meenfield wood bluebells.

Meenfield wood bluebells

On the map it looked to be 8.5 to 9 miles but we reckoned it was about 11.5 miles with our inability to walk straight and a diversion to see the Percy Pilcher memorial. Back in the village the choice was between the Crown, the King’s Head or the Mount Vineyard for the aprés. We settled on the vineyard for its proximity to the station, though both the pubs were passed with regret. In the manner of a walk in the Highlands or west Wales we encountered a number of different weather conditions – beginning with a colourful combination of shades of grey at different levels punctuated by shards of blue sky and varying degrees of sun.

Percy Pilcher memorial

What with the multitude of greens and yellow tones in the woods and fields the effect was dazzling at times. But as we left Magpie Bottom a period of nimbo stratus with heavy rain fell upon us and we emerged at the top of Fackenden Down with that great view shrouded in mist and ragged low cloud. But by the time we’d left the hillside after sheltering we were in bright sunshine and what felt like a 10C rise in temperature. Finally, at the vineyard, we caught the edge of a thunderstorm somewhere around London bringing further rain. In the sunny bits buzzards soared, yellowhammers posed on the tops of hedgerows – with blackcaps, robins and whitethroats chirping away within – and Spitfires from Biggin Hill growled overhead. All part of the Kent wonderland.

Reverse the route

Reverse the route

Doing the walks in reverse is almost as good as trying a new walk. Of course, you have to be familiar with the route the ‘right way round’ first because having to read instructions from the bottom up isn’t easy and would suck the joy from the experience. The Fackenden Down stroll (pictured above in May last year – spot the difference in conditions!), soon to be coming into its own what with orchids and various other wildflowers such as sainfoin, changes character considerably when walked clockwise; although you’ll have to look over your shoulder for that distant view of London from Romney Street the wonderful vista taking in the head of the Darent Valley and North Downs escarpment awaits you once you hit the down itself. I’ve taken to doing Hever the ‘wrong way round’ too. But some of the others it wouldn’t occur to me to try, which is a bit odd. Nonetheless, it’s a great way of breathing new life into familiar routes and the cause of some aimless fun banter in my family as to which way round walks should be done.

Hawthorn is now coming into flower, as pictured on the Downe walk

Bit of a parish notice here, but one worth mentioning: when parking for walks in the countryside, make sure there’s nothing of any value visible in the car. Recently there have been reports of car break-ins around Shoreham and I know Toy’s Hill car park has been the site of a few smashed car windows.

My KWNL bird list has come on a bit lately – a wheatear spotted at Emmett Gardens and a pair of whitethroats on the Polhill/Pluto walk among the highlights plus a brambling and tree creepers on the Ide Hill walk. But still no kingfisher or house/sand martin. It’s a distinctly non-birder’s list… just birds I come across while walking, usually without binoculars – real twitchers see these species before breakfast most days.

Check out Dave’s bird page for more on spring birds to look out for

A popular stroll

A popular stroll

The original Shoreham circular walk has been overall the most popular hike at KWNL since I started the site in 2015. I walked it this weekend for the first time in many months but found it very quiet! But its popularity is no accident. Obviously the village itself is a major draw (but please park away from it and try not to drive through it if not arriving by train), but with the River Darent and its side streams, great little gardens, hillsides and views, the route is all in all a real winner with not a dull moment. It was nice to see the Mount Vineyard and The Crown pub open again. I guess the George will be back with us in the summer. I took the detour from Mill Lane around the vineyard and behind the churchyard, a stretch of path I really love. Meenfield Wood bluebells on the ridge above the village were beginning to show nicely.

Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

Bluebells on Kent walks: where is the cobalt carpet?

OK, for those going out this weekend expecting swathes of bluebells, you may be disappointed. They are late this year – particularly at One Tree Hill and Ide Hill, but not far off full bloom in Meenfield Wood. Probably a few too many cold nights of late has set them back. Next weekend will definitely be better. But there are other flowers to enjoy. Cuckooflower clumps are great at this time of year and, like red campion, wood anenomes and celandine, get better the more you notice them. Primroses form eyecatching patches too, and soon cowslips will adorn the grassy slopes of the North Downs (with orchids and marjoram/oregano to follow). These all brightened up my walk from One Tree Hill to Ightham Mote then back up the hidden valley with the little stream yesterday (pictured below). Below are some recommendations of good places to see bluebells.

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If you’re staying local, Beckenham Place Park has some good patches (or will have), although get ready to exercise emergency social distancing manoeuvres as oblivious joggers jag around, their ears full of choons. Oxleas Woods off Shooters Hill is another good local spot and I daresay Sydenham Hill Woods too. After that I think we’re talking Petts Wood and the adjoining Hawkwood and Little Heath Wood and Selsdon Wood south-west of Croydon. Of course, there are brilliant bluebells at Downe, Meenfield Wood, Ide Hill, One Tree Hill, Hosey Common and in woods east of Shoreham on this website’s walks, and the cobalt carpet reigns supreme in woods near Westerham and around Hever and Edenbridge.

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Bluebells, Scords wood, Ide Hill walk, April 2017

Anyway, here are some bluebell factoids gleaned from an excellent article with far more detail called Bloomageddon: seven clever ways bluebells win the woodland turf war at The Conversation website.

  • They are uniquely adapted to suited the multispecies ancient woodlands of the UK
  • Low temperatures trigger their growth (but might delay their blooming if in April). Bluebell seeds germinate when the temperature drops below 10°C.
  • Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight into fructose allowing them to photosynthesise at low temperatures.
  • They are supreme competitors with other plants, allowing them to carpet woodland floors. But they get help in the form of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic fungi.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world.

But please be careful never to tread on any; it takes bluebells years to recover from foot damage. Digging them up – surely no one visiting this site would consider such a thing – is illegal, and please don’t let dogs trample them either – keep them on the lead.

Meenfield Wood bluebells

Meenfield Wood bluebells, near Shoreham, Kent

Into the cold woods

Into the cold woods

It’s nearly bluebell time, probably a week to 10 days before that magical woodland period. The cold dry windy weather has certainly slowed down things. A quick afternoon walk on the Ide Hill route today revealed just a few primroses, with even the azaleas of Emmett’s Garden (pay if you want to wander the gardens off the public footpath) looking pretty discouraged. The view off over the Weald appeared grey and blurred – not the usual colourful Garden of England tapestry. I’ve been asked by a couple of people to mention that in view of recent reports of ‘bluebell thieves’ in Norfolk, it’s illegal to dig up wildflowers. As well as causing lasting damage to the environment, the transported flowers are unlikely to thrive in gardens because they are adapted to a different, long-established habitat and conditions. Trampling the flowers is pretty damaging too… I’d certainly hope people will stay to the main paths and keep dogs on the lead when going through areas where there area loads of wildflowers. Anyway, things were still pretty bleak out there from the flower point of view on today’s walk … we had to look quite hard to find violets, dead-nettle, alkinet and wood anenomes even. But birdlife has really picked up; our walk revealed treecreepers and nuthatches, and a possible brambling – all firsts for me this year – plus an enormous buzzard swooping low over pheasants. Scord’s Wood was as superb as ever – a verdant ancient woodland with loads of moss and lichen, coppiced trees with flitting birds and mysterious rustles.

From bedraggled to bedazzled – hello spring

From bedraggled to bedazzled – hello spring

Milder weather again now, little rain and presumably less mud. But bear in mind temperatures are set to veer wildly next week from mild to cold day by day. I haven’t been out on any of the walks for a few weeks now – possibly my longest period of absence for five years. I’m looking forward to seeing the first spring wildflowers, the daffodils at Ightham (pictured below), and in about three weeks the seas of wild garlic and bluebells in woodland on all the walks. First of all there’s blackthorn blossom to enjoy, primroses, wood anenome and violets, among others.

It’s amazing how rapidly the landscape transforms itself from its rather bedraggled and dreary state (it seems like that to me this year anyway) in early March to the rich promise of early April. It somehow surprises me every year. And from 12 April it will be possible to visit pub gardens after the walks – this seems like crazy talk. I hope there are still some pubs to go back to. There are one or two that may struggle to open up at all. It’s a grim old business, a global pandemic. My spring walks this year will be punctuated by regular halts to listen to birdsong and try to pick out various species. It wasn’t so long ago that I added wren to my aural recognition list… laughable that it took so long considering just how distinct and loud the call of that diminutive bird is. For some reason the walk I’m most looking forward to getting to this spring is the Chiddingstone loop especially if the Castle Inn’s garden is open. 

In the meantime I’ve stumbled across some BBC4 walks in Yorkshire that I’ve quite enjoyed – a couple of which I remember doing as a teenager on family holidays. The presenter, Shanaz Gulzar, is affable and doesn’t go on too much and if she starts to get pretentious, she soon thinks better of it. It’s all quite low key and accompanied by superb drone photography. Have a look on the iPlayer.

One of Shanaz’s walks crosses the Strid, a stretch of the River Wharfe that used to strike fear into a great uncle of mine, a local, who used to tell us stories of terrible events in those parts involving drownings and floods. He was extremely old at that point and had suffered the fate of being captured very early in – wait for it – the first world war. In fact as a very young man, perhaps still a teenager, he might have been living in Ypres as a civilian when the Kaiser’s army invaded. He was apparently given some very grisly work details and it was said he never quite recovered from his experiences. Nevertheless, here he was in the mid-1970s telling us kids about the Strid and the perils of trying to cross it. Good old Clifford. Slightly scary but a tremendous character.

A return to winter – and mud

A return to winter – and mud

To those of you hardy souls thinking of venturing out to local countryside for a break from the local park tomorrow, I’m sad to report the mud is back with a vengeance. I claimed in my newsletter that it was drying up rapidly, but the heavy rain and low temperatures over the past few days have put the situation into reverse unfortunately. I ventured out on to the Downe route yesterday and found it extremely slippery with the corner of the final field before reentering the village impassable without wellies. Then the hail started…

While I’m here, thanks to everyone who has donated to the website. A sizeable proportion of donations will now be winging its way to the Kent Wildlife Trust and to Project Seagrass, which restores marine environments to help capture carbon and improve biodiversity.

(Pictured: Hail storms in winter from the Greensand Ridge near Sevenoaks, 2018)

Matters of degree

Matters of degree

Snowtime is no more. Now sub tropical air is drifting up from the south with the giddy heights of 14C being likely in our neck of the woods. Walks last weekend and the previous week were some of the coldest I can remember. Superb, I thought! But we’re in that time of year where anything is possible, particularly given the effects of the climate crisis. We could have balmy days or freezing days in the month ahead.

Looking at all the mud I’m beginning to wonder if it might not be an idea from next month to have some grass seed or wildflower seed at the ready to scatter on the edges of paths when on a walk, or around stiles and gates where huge swathes of mud have appeared. There might be some good reasons why not but I can’t think of them.

As it’s Friday night I’m going to suggest a piece of music to enjoy while making dinner. It is Earth Wind & Fire’s version of The Beatles’ Gotta Get You Into My Life. Very uplifting. Next song on my playlist was Gill Scott-Heron’s The Bottle.

Pictured above is Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in early March, which I first visited this time last year.

Snowtime

Snowtime

It’s nailed on they say. Bound to happen. Everything is in place. The polar vortex is distorted. Sudden stratospheric temperature change has occurred. Low pressure and a front moving in from the north. The North Sea is suitably cold. Tottenham Hotspur keep losing (an extremely unpleasant winter development in my view). But – after a load of rain forecast on Saturday afternoon – it’s going to snow from the early hours of Sunday on and off for a couple of days or more. From 3am on Sunday the temperature won’t get above 0C until sometime on Thursday, which is sobering. Many of us don’t plan on staying sober, however. The rain will turn to snow well before dawn and the daytime will see us having fun in parks, woods and countryside. A little bit of Norway coming to Kent and south-east London.

Snow done properly, Rochers de Naye, Montreux, only by rack and pinion train. A FANTASTIC place.

But – hate to be a killjoy – there’s a pandemic and we mustn’t let our guard down. The usual scenes of sledging and snowball, snowman abandon may be missing. I don’t know how dangerous or not playing in the snow and ice really is but hospitals are certainly not the place to be right now, and they certainly don’t need A&E full of sheepish snow berks. Whatever we do, social distancing must be observed and I reckon masks worn when out, with hand gel at the ready. The best idea is to stay local and enjoy the unaccustomed spectacle stoically and cautiously. Keep the bird feeder as full as you can and enjoy nature close to home. Hey, there’s the Six Nations to watch and the usual football (thank God). Normally I’d suggest places to go sledging but I don’t feel I can do that this year, sadly. I can recommend a flask of hot chocolate and a dash of rum, however.

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I do wish I’d invested in a pair of skis sometime ago, when my limbs felt more flexible. I’ve never been skiing, but love watching it – it’s just incredibly spectacular and sort of romantic. It’s probably not for me as I recently found I’m extremely uncomfortable on chairlifts; a summer trip to the Pyrenees a few years ago having alerted me to this. It’s also a good thing I don’t ski because I can’t even go jogging without falling arse over tit and spraining my ankle. I’m OK now, though, thanks for asking.