Chiddingstone larks and a pint of Larkins

Chiddingstone larks and a pint of Larkins

Not a bad bank holiday weekend for weather, if not anything special. Partly because I had a craving for Larkins bitter I took a walk with friends at Chiddingstone yesterday. We were determined to ‘spot birds’, but decided that we lacked the necessary expertise in song identification to really distinguish the various warbler-type things merrily burbling away in the undergrowth. We had an ID app for birdsong but after it had decided that the tell-tale call of a chiff-chaff was actually a collared dove we gave up on it.

However, with the good old eyeball we saw a treecreeper, a nuthatch, two yellowhammers, two skylarks, three or four buzzards and a possible blackcap, but perhaps bullfinch (a very fleeting view and unable to recognise song). There were fewer than 10 swallows seen and no swifts or martins; this despite huge wild watermeadows down by the River Eden near Penshurst. It became cloudy as we walked with a hint of drizzle so butterflies were nowhere to be seen. Still, a lovely walk and the Larkins at the Castle Inn didn’t disappoint.

It was great to meet someone using a downloaded pdf of the Chiddingstone walk en route; if you’re reading this, I hope you managed the whole walk and enjoyed it.

The previous day, spurned by my boys who are usually up for a walk, I looked for a new route east of Ide Hill, ie turning left at the Octavia Hill seat rather than right towards Scord’s wood. It proved a pleasant woody walk with One Tree Hill resonances and plenty of paths to take. A couple of lovely views of Bough Beech reservoir opened up (pictured) from Stubbs Wood (an SSSI, like Scord’s), which apparently is ancient woodland. At Hanging Bank there’s a quiet car park with an informative nature noticeboard. As ever at this time of year, the wildflowers (and some cultivated ones) were wonderful.

The previous week we walked at Petts Wood. What a great job the National Trust has done in this superb woodland, heather clearings with raised pathways, superb pines and oaks and a multitude of well-maintained paths; it really is one of the best woods in London. The memorial to William Willett, of summer time fame, is pictured in the gallery below.

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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!

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.

Dungeness dallying

Not that near London…

That weird peninsula in ultra south-east Kent has a particular allure for many. Strange but wonderful light, mystical buildings from down the ages – all clashing; the delightful miniature railway that goes for miles, a lovely pub and interesting flora and fauna – particularly birdlife.

Fishermen often land cod, plaice, bass and mackerel off the shingle close to the power station and twitchers delight in the migrant species that drop by. Historic structures abound and very trendy modern architecture peppers the shoreline among the fishing hulks, converted old railway wagons, coast guard and lifeboat buildings, nuclear power station and two-and-a-bit lighthouses. Local residents probably get a bit hacked off at the sightseers trampling noisily in the shingle around their homes (especially whoever lives in Derek Jarman’s old gaff these days) but that’s the price of living in a nice place.

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Well, ‘nice’ isn’t really the right word. It’s ‘different’, not nice.

We went hoping for some sun but got little last Thursday. We were really taken by the fish’n’chips at The Britannia pub though, and the cool nautical decor (best pub loos ever). The Brexit Phonebox installation was quite striking too. I forgot my binoculars so relied only on mk1 eyeball to spot marsh harrier, a curlew, a hobby (I think) and a few wheatears. Probably wouldn’t have helped much anyway; my binox are rubbish. We popped in at the RSPB reserve later where there was a plethora of digging bees; an apparently rare sub species (More on Dungeness at North Downs and Beyond.)

One thing, if driving down (not the only way; you could get a train/bus/Dymchurch Railway combination from London) I’d avoid the M20… because of well publicised reasons (too depressing/boring to go into here), but also the lorry-up-your-arse thing. Instead, leave early take a leisurely and really scenic drive down the A21, turn off to Hawkhurst, Northiam then past Rye and Camber.

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