Creatures of the sun

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.

From top left clockwise: peacock in Downe feeding on marjoram; female silver washed fritillary; gatekeeper in Polhill; red admiral in Catford; marbled white in Downe; comma near Shoreham; male silver washed fritillary in Downe; chalk hill blue – photo by Steve Hart –Fackenden Down

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).

Not a butterfly but the very smart looking cinnabar moth, pictured at Romney Street while on the eastern valleys stroll
Superb North Downs railway walk

Superb North Downs railway walk

It’s good to avoid using the car when possible – the traffic at the moment heading out of town seems pretty bad – so I’m hoping that when I add new routes there are viable public transport options.

That’s certainly the case with the 6.5 mile Otford Station to Kemsing station route, which is mostly on the North Downs Way on the crest of the chalk escarpment. It’s easy to navigate, being well signed all the way from Otford, then descends the downs at the St Clere estate, Heaverham. (Read full directions here.)

At Heaverham hamlet you emerge close to the super Chequers Inn. There’s still a good mile walk to the eccentrically positioned Kemsing station though on some quite indistinct footpaths through pastures. You have to cross over the M26 on a bridge (making navigation a bit easier) then cross the railway line 200 metres west of Kemsing station at a foot crossing hidden in woods (making navigation a bit more difficult!).

Now, here’s the twist; trains back to SE London from Kemsing are infrequent (usually once an hour, with an easy short change at Bromley South) but they are fast. So timing the inevitable beverage at the Chequers can be tricky. If you overcook it, then it’s a 15-minute walk straight down Watery Lane (no pavement so frankly dangerous) to the station. But allow 30 minutes at least for the far more attractive footpath route. If in doubt, just stay for another drink and take your time.

  • Wheat above Heaverham
  • St Clere estate house
  • Meadow on North Downs escarpment
  • North Downs Way near Kemsing

Thanks to Steve for getting me out to walk much of this route recently (and telling me about the friendly pub), and thanks to Will for agreeing to join me on a chaotic romp through the molehills and long grass of the last mile as I attempted to ‘pioneer a route’ on vague footpaths to Kemsing station in a doomed attempt to catch the 17.50.

Find directions for the walk here. In the meantime, if you are confident enough to give it a go without a description, here’s a GPX map, but I’d recommend taking an OS Map. I haven’t been able to embed a Google map for the walk thanks to WordPress’s new restrictive new rules. I’ll do a PDF soon.

For that last awkward bit, cross the M26 by a footbridge (easy to find) then head across a grassy, lumpy field aiming for a stile leading into woods close to the railway line. Immediately after climbing over the wonky stile you will see the foot crossing over the railway lines themselves. Cross then turn left along lovely Honeypot Lane to walk 200 metres to Kemsing station, which is opposite (wait for it) the Chaucer industrial estate.

All of a flutter

All of a flutter

Sultry summer evenings are very much my thing. There’s been a promise of a storm in south-east London for some time without one materialising. We’ve even heard them from time to time, thunder rumbling around, sudden winds forming as if a tornado were nearby and, beyond London, huge puddles and mud show where the downpours have already struck. On Saturday the humidity is on the up, the atmosphere is murky, lofty cloud peaks emerge from the haze and you walk only 50 metres before the first drops of sweat form. I love it. I don’t love the idea of floods and unnaturally damaging weather of course – what happened in Germany is truly horrific – but I’ve always been up for a lightning display. Going off at a tangent here but talking of the growing likelihood of floods because of the climate crisis, I look around at the number of front gardens that have been paved over with inadequate drainage and I worry about what may be around the corner.

The Downe walk today, which occasionally feels a bit mundane, was a joy. Wildflowers spangled the grassy meadows, a song thrush serenaded walkers from a hedgerow and charms of goldfinches passed wittering in transit from field to woods. Spitfires growled through the moist air, seemingly busier than ever whisking people on joyride flights across the now customary airliner-free skies of Kent. Wild marjoram (basically the same as oregano) was flowering along with ragwort, knapweed, vetch, hawksbeard, the odd orchid and trefoil. Butterflies were having a fine old day: the pick of the bunch being peacocks and silver washed fritillaries among the marbled whites and meadow browns.

The chalk North Downs are brilliant for wildflowers and butterflies, so walks such as Fackenden, Knockholt Pound, Shoreham, Downe and Polhill/Pluto are perfect for colour right now.

Sunday update: Another muggy day with storms nearby and another North Downs stroll with a route from Kemsing, courtesy of a good friend, Steve of Sydenham. Bird man Dave, of Tonbridge, was in line to join us but decided that the potential for lightning and thunder made it a risky undertaking. As it happened, the worst storm of the day had already passed once we arrived in Kemsing, and from then on the cloudbursts diverted to the north towards London – causing major flooding in parts, and south towards the High Weald. There were superb views, more Spitfires, and a fine pub at Heaverham – the Chequers. The wonderful meadow of Kemsing Down was a highlight – with plenty of marjoram, thyme, scabious and St John’s wort among the grasses. It’s not a walk we have on this site as yet but I’ll certainly try to conjure something similar – Kemsing station is nearby and could be a good starting point.

View from escarpment to the south from near Kemsing Down
Weald and wings in the heat

Weald and wings in the heat

The planned long sultry walk at Oldbury failed to materialise on Sunday – like a mirage it shimmered but gradually receded from view as the unaccustomed warmth altered rhythms and weakened resolve. A midday family cycle from Tonbridge to Penshurst Place along the River Medway formed Saturday’s low weald excursion, coupled with a wander around the Tudor mansion’s sumptuous gardens. It was a gloriously warm day but not as energy-sapping as what was to come. On Sunday morning I did a bit of gardening at home in SE London – Penshurst’s vivid borders had inspired me to cut back some of the long grass and weeds to show off what flowers were growing in our sun-bleached south-facing front garden. But as the temperature roared past 30C by 11am it all felt like too much hard work; by noon I withdrew to a book and a cold drink, reflecting on how physical gardening actually is. I also pondered how sad it was that the once common municipal open air pool has largely disappeared from London apart from busy lidos at Tooting, Charlton and Brockwell Park. Nearby, the River Pool near Bellingham Play Park had become a paddling pool – I just hope its clean enough for that.

House martin. Photo by Av Thomas Landgren/Creative Commons

At Penshurst Place I saw more house martins than I’d seen anywhere this year; I’d seen some in the distance at Chartwell from the Westerham/Hosey walk a few weeks previously and a few on the Thames west of London. Among their merry throng, swallows and swifts also proliferated. Finches – green and gold – called and flitted from fruit trees and up at the house itself a very keen spotted flycatcher darted out from its vantage point on top of a wall to catch flying insects with elegant and accurate pirouetting manoeuvres. What an amazing bird that is; it seems so improbable that they make their way here every year from southern Africa to breed. What a journey for a small perhaps nondescript looking bird. At least the martins, swallows and swifts make their epic journey each year in huge clumps and look capable of incredible feats of airmanship, staying airborne for weeks on end. Birds like that perky flycatcher and its musical warbler fellow travellers look incapable of such a trip, but thankfully they make it every year. They clearly feel at home in the manicured grounds of Penshurst.

I’ve also seen notable birds also at Emmetts Garden, around Darwin’s garden at Downe, Hever and Chartwell, despite the heavy footfall. That seems counterintuitive. My guess is that despite the constant pruning and tidying, these birds find more nesting places in the medieval buildings than in neighbouring areas. They are also drawn by these historic plots’ long-established water features. Then there are the old fruit trees that are maintained out of respect for tradition. Certainly Penshurst does a good job of keeping some of its superb garden quite wild with an orchard and unkempt grasses. Its lovely ancient brick walls must also attract a lot of insects. Neighbouring farms may also use pesticides and over-trim hedges.

So perhaps the heritage gardens, despite their topiary and cultivated blooms, may actually be wildlife oases doing their bit for biodiversity alongside the rewilding projects. Maybe.

I haven’t described it yet but there’s an excellent walk between Tonbridge and Penshurst Place, on a separate path mainly to the bicycles. It would be easy to join with the Chiddingstone route. I must investigate further; there are some beautiful stretches.

Microclimates and wild meadows

Microclimates and wild meadows

The Darent Valley and its surrounding valleys near Otford, Romney Street and Austin Lodge to the east and Andrew’s Wood to the west seem to me to trap heat and moisture. Even on dull summer days the area feels more humid and sticky than the London suburbs for example. I love it. The area feels ‘different’ and somewhat mystical. It’s certainly very verdant and with rewilding projects, such as at Magpie Bottom, several SSSIs and Kent Wildlife Trust reserves, it’s worth having to change your shirt for. Just take a flask of water. Even on a mostly dull day like last Sunday, you might get a fleeting pool of sunshine to enjoy and the sight of cloud shadows racing across the rippling wildflower rich meadows towards you. (Dogowners are advised to keep their animals on the the lead though…. there’s apparently a threat of adder strikes on dogs in the area and occasionally livestock. Cases of dog theft have occurred too.)

Orchids in the mist

Orchids in the mist

Two walks around Shoreham at the weekend in subtly different conditions. On Saturday we went looking for orchids on the eastern valleys route. It was a mostly cloudy day but with good visibility. Towering cumulus held the promise of a storm in the evening – well, one did materialise even yielding a funnel cloud in a near-tornado touchdown in east London – and the humidity was something else, even in these chalk upland valleys which trap heat and moisture.

For Sunday, the cloud was almost at ground level, quite unusual for June I thought, again threatening heavy rain, which eventually arrived after dark. We kept our walk brief, venturing to Polhill from Andrew’s Wood but not heading down to ‘Pluto’ on the valley floor, instead hiking the hillside above Filston Lane, moving slowly, looking for flowers and birds (no luck there!). The chalk slopes were festooned with natural colour, the delicate pink of fragrant orchids, raspberry ripple of common spotted and rich pink/mauve of pyramidal orchids. Trefoil, ox-eye daisies, poppies, scabious, lucerne, foxgloves and others I don’t know the names of completed the scene.

Pyramidal orchid on Polhill Bank, managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust

There are bee orchids and more on these walks but I managed to miss them. Marbled white butterflies, commas and common blues were in abundance, plus a beautiful cinnabar moth, despite the lack of sun. It felt so rare to stroll on the flowering hillside in such dull conditions. Down at Headcorn, near Maidstone, the airshow had been cancelled through lack of visibility and nothing flew from Biggin Hill apart from one executive jet which made a beeline for the sunshine above the murk. Still no airliners.

I was taken by the private nature reserve sign on the footpath into the hillside from Shoreham station… “keep dogs on the lead, adder strikes common” grabbed the attention.

Well here’s hoping the weather clears up a bit. I’m no expert but the orchids already looked to be on the wane just about, but there’s plenty more in the way of wildflowers yet to come on these thin chalk soils. Marjoram, thyme, wild carrot, more scabious, rosebay willow etc are all yet to explode into colour.

I should mention that Polhill is looked after very well by the Kent Wildlife Trust as is some of the land close to the Eastern Valley route, notably Fackenden Down. Apparently both sites support common lizards and adders (hence the warning sign), dark green fritillary butterflies, willow warblers and man orchids. I never see any of these species but it’s great to know they are present.

I liked the gloomy atmosphere. For a bit. But this is going on for far too long now. Still, there’s the football to enjoy.

Top picture is the hillside opposite Romney Street, east of Shoreham. Below (in order of appearance): White Hill nature reserve sign; Magpie Bottom seen from Austin Spring; fragrant orchid White Hill; common spotted orchid White Hill; cinnabar moth near Austin Lodge hamlet; common spotted orchid Romney Street; fragrant orchid Polhill. All photographs by AMcC

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.