Looking sharp

Looking sharp

Kent walks near London scrub up well on crisp late winter days like … today! Here are views of the One Tree Hill walks and the Downe walk from recent sunny days.

A wintry reminder

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)

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

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 Woods 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

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.

Ide and seek on the greensand

Ide and seek on the greensand

With Saturday a washout it was a real pleasure on Sunday to find time for the Ide Hill route (a three-hour round trip from SE London). For some reason I often take this Greensand Ridge walk while my chosen football team is playing so it’s rarely the relaxing stroll it ought to be. Fortunately, after initial tension, the goals came in a rush so by the halfway point all was well and I could enjoy the subdued January colours, stillness of the woods and occasional bird calls. A huge buzzard glided away from us soon after leaving Scord’s wood leaving a cacophony of jackdaw and carrion crow calls its wake. There were few other birds evident though, a few robins, wrens and a dunnock the only compensation for the finches I was hoping for. The tiny cricket pitch at point 5 seemed even more titchy with no one on it. We caught the sun as it slipped out of the blue sky into a solid-looking bank of cloud draped across the western horizon as far as the eye could see. This gave us a strangely false sunset, and an early dusk at odds with the sky overhead. But those weald views – fantastic as ever. A pint in the cosy Cock Inn was a perfect way to conclude proceedings. Oh, happy new year by the way.

My moment in the sun

My moment in the sun

I hope everyone who dips into this website had a decent Christmas.

Yesterday (Boxing Day) there was a strange interlude on the Downe walk: a shard of blue sky suddenly appeared ahead, to the north. This was a most welcome sight given I’d accepted the walk would be a uniformly grey and dank trudge. It was also completely out of context with what has been a remarkably gloomy couple of months.

I hadn’t realised that a similar clear gap had developed behind me to the south west. Suddenly, without warning, the landscape was bathed in an utterly spellbinding glow. This reminder that the sun also rises in the UK lingered on for 45 minutes or so as curtains of impenetrable low cloud with rain began to threaten from the London direction. It was pure magic while it lasted.

The final field on the walk (pictured below) was laughably squelchy – definitely wellies only. The mud on all the walks is fairly horrendous at the moment. I was concerned to see the Polhill Bank/Pluto walk being viewed a lot on this site over the past 24 hours. The steep escarpment slope will be absolutely treacherous at the moment. The Fackenden route would be best avoided for the same reason. The best bets for lower mud levels are Knole and Lullingstone (although the woods will be a quagmire). One thing about mud though: I reckon you get more fitness benefits from trying to squelch your way round the walks, necessitating extra and lighter steps. (Best not to take dogs to Knole because of deer; they must be kept on lead at all times.)

Field in winter at Downe
The final (horrendously muddy) field during Boxing Day 2021’s half hour sunny interlude. This was once a lovely wildflower meadow with hawthorn trees, alive with bees and home to yellowhammers and bullfinches. But all biodiversity was ripped out around 2014.
‘What is this place?’

‘What is this place?’

A spectacular winter’s day on Sunday. A pale blue polar sky, completely still, with saturated colours in the unfettered low sun. Knole was spectacular, the west-facing Tudor mansion ablaze in the late afternoon.

Despite the various woes affecting travel and holidays there were still visitors from abroad there, which was good to see – a reminder of better times.

“What is this place called?” I heard one man with an Italian accent ask an National Trust volunteer while gazing around the outer courtyard.

It seemed an odd question given that visiting Knole would involve taking a unique route leading to … well, Knole.

“Knole House,” the volunteer intoned with slow, exaggerated clarity, clearly pleased to be asked.

“So, who lived here?” he enquired, gazing at the enormous structure in wonder, perhaps hoping to hear “King Henry the Eighth” or “Queen Elizabeth the First”.

“The Sackville-Wests,” came the reply, delivered in an awed tone deemed suitable for heralding (minor) aristocracy.

“Ah”, said the man, nodding as if he were an old acquaintance of Vita’s, but betraying a false reverence that screamed: “Never heard of ’em”.

I too felt slightly disappointed at the answer, despite knowing what it would be.

Tiny lanes, dry feet

Tiny lanes, dry feet

The mud on these walks is still in the mild-moderate category. Wellies useful but not essential… mostly. But if things get really boggy, which they are bound to do by midwinter, it’s easily possible to devise routes that take in tiny wandering lanes rather than swampy paths – of which there are more than few in these parts. Many such lanes were once paths… others service dispersed houses around villages and become footpaths or bridlepaths. It would be difficult to devise a proper circular walk of decent length using only these trackways – although I intend to give it a shot over the coming months. Two such lanes which intersect with a walk at KWNL are at Underriver. Take a look at the map; you’ll see two lanes roughly north to south acting as shortcut links between points 4, 5 and 8. These are lovely to explore, especially at the moment with the unfurling of the autumn wardrobe. They also intersect with footpaths so you can devise your own bespoke routes. With bird expert Dave I walked them yesterday, stopping often to admire berries and views, and to scan for les oiseaux. We didn’t see a lot (bird numbers have been in decline for years): a few siskins, a gorgeous flock of bullfinches flitting the hedgerows, and newly arrived redwings in threes and fours was about it. Oh, and a fantastic female kestrel which eyed us from a small scarlet tree close to the (excellent) White Rock Inn. We managed about 3.5 miles, half on tarmac, before resuming the Underriver route at point 4, but doing it anticlockwise. A pint of Harvey’s at the aforementioned pub in the autumnal twilight was a splendid bookend to a most satisfactory KWNL afternoon.

Trains, buses, walks around Keston and Whitstable

Trains, buses, walks around Keston and Whitstable

I’m trying to add more train/bus walks to the KWNL site; the traffic in SE London is a factor, as is the need to reduce car use and pollution. Then there’s the fact that lots of keen strollers don’t have cars anyway. I’ve got two new routes up my sleeve using public transport to access, but I haven’t quite got them finalised yet. One is Herne Bay to Whitstable (5 miles) which hardly needs a map… you just follow the coast path. Both stations are on the Ramsgate line from Bromley South. It’s quite expensive (£26 return) of course being a British train but definitely worth it. But I want to see if I can continue the walk to Faversham (doubling the length), which is also on the same line, using decent paths. I know you can but I haven’t done it yet. Also it means stretching the ‘Near London’ remit of this website somewhat, though the fastish train makes the trip fairly short in relation to distance and you arrive without feeling worn out by having to drive.

Closer to home would be a walk from Hayes station, the terminus of the London Bridge line via Catford Bridge, to Keston Ponds and then Downe (about 6 miles). From Hayes station you traverse Hayes Common, an attractive area of woods and heath to reach Keston. Behind the village is another woods from where you reach Keston Ponds. Looking at the OS map there is a ribbon of ponds from Keston and Hayes to Bromley Common. These are fed by springs and the Ravensbourne river, which rises at Keston Common.

Keston Common heathland

Beyond the two main ponds is an important area of heath then, after crossing the A233 you head through woodland to the Wilberforce Oak, where in May 1787 William Wilberforce talked with prime minister William Pitt the Younger (who lived at adjacent Holwood House, the Chequers of its time), about abolishing the slave trade. The spot is marked with a stone bench plonked there in 1862 and now behind the Holwood perimeter fence and a sign. There’s a dead oak still standing but that isn’t the Wilberforce oak. There are also bits of old oak lying about… maybe some of that is from the original. But there’s a nice healthy young oak anyway, planted about 30 years ago. There are also echoes of Roman and prehistoric settlements around this spot.

From here it’s pretty easy to walk all the way to Downe; cross the somewhat hairy Shire Lane, walk past the Holwood Farm Shop then take the footpath on the right which joins up with the Downe circular walk to bring you into the village from where you can get the 146 bus back to Hayes/Bromley South/Bromley North. One further appalling fact about the slave trade that only recently came to light: the descendants of slave owners in the UK were paid compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ from 1835 to, wait for it, 2015. Hard to believe isn’t it?

Soft sunshine bathes the Darent Valley

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.