A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A late winter walk in the Ashdown Forest

A rare day off afforded me (us, actually) to venture somewhere during an afternoon when it didn’t rain continuously. We settled on the Ashdown Forest, an hour’s drive from my corner of south-east London, in East Sussex between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead. A perusal of the visitor centre’s maps online led us to choose Walk 11, Chelwood Gate, in the south-west of the Forest.

The area has got the lot: interesting geology, flora and fauna, views, history and literature, being the landscape for Winnie the Pooh’s capers with many recognisable spots. These include Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, Galleons Lap, the Heffalump trap, for example, all of which can be identified.

The walk was beautifully laid out in printable format, with lots of informative text. But it was very difficult to follow; a “narrow path” beside a ditch was actually a wide path that went through a huge puddle – that sort of thing, but we made it around thanks to careful map analysis. In fact, with a compass, a sense of direction and an Ordnance Survey sheet you can pretty much make it up as you go; there are many paths to choose from and the Forest’s inner Pale is open for exploration in a similar way to Knole Park, for example.

What was immediately apparent was just how much rain has fallen this winter; everywhere there were overflowing ponds, gushing streams, seas of mud. You’d think it was Scotland at times. But in fact the Forest, being easily the highest point of the Weald between the North and South Downs does attract far more rainfall than the lower surrounding areas and really does pep up the local rivers, eventually flowing into the Eden and Medway. The high heath and the Pale melds into wooded valley mires where the pines give way to alder and birch, and planks serve as bridges over vigorous streams, alongside some very old looking stone bridges.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

I love how the Forest has its own vocabulary: there are ghylls, hatches, laps … And the names of the car parks are evocative too: Friends, King’s Standing, Roman Road, Goat, and of course Piglets and Pooh.

After we finished with Chelwood Gate (where medieval hero John of Gaunt used to enter for hunting and a home to Howard Macmillan, who once entertained JFK here) we drove a few miles east past Nutley and up onto the highest part of the Forest, to Gills Lap (Galleons Lap in Winnie the Pooh). Up there the views extend over bright yellow gorse for mile after mile in all directions. We walked down to the memorial to AA Milne and EH Shepherd. I felt quite moved, those stories have a real character and a sense of an innocent time that has been lost.

Our final port of call was the 15th-century Anchor Inn in the small village of Hartfield, a cosy labyrinth of a pub that serves two of the finest ales in all England: Harvey’s and Larkins. As we arrived at dusk a barn owl glided across the road in front of us. Then it was back to the smoke to plonk in front of the telly to watch Chelsea beat Liverpool … who would have credited that?

Getting there on public transport: Train to East Grinstead from East Croydon then the 261 or 270 bus seems to be the best option. At East Grinstead the brilliant Bluebell Railway takes day trippers by steam train down to Sheffield Park, south of the Forest. At the moment a landslip caused by rain means trains can’t reach East Grinstead, but there is a bus service from Lingfield. Boring though… so best wait ’til services are restored, hopefully in spring.
Getting there by car: Drive via Keston, Biggin Hill, Westerham, Edenbridge, Cowden and Hartfield on the rather pleasant B2026.

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Tale of two orbs: a quiet evening awaiting Ciara

Saturday was a pleasant winter’s day so we ventured once again to the eastern Darent Valley watching the sunset and hoping for an early evening owl. We were rewarded instead by wonderful and close views of three juvenile buzzards hanging motionless above Fackenden Down calling to each other plaintively.

I haven’t got the lenses to capture wildlife unless it’s less than two feet away. My lack of super-duper equipment was also brought home to me by the rise of a huge moon behind Dunstall Farm; my camera could only represent it as a small white disc. Still there’s a bit of atmosphere in the shot, seen below. For starters, I love the pines that surround the secluded farmhouse, an attractive and venerable building with a hint of Normandy about it.

Today of course (Sunday, 9 February) I imagine nobody in their right mind went walking what with Ciara wreaking havoc across the land. (There is a shorter version of the Fackenden Down walk that’s quite handy for short winter days here – you can start it at Shoreham Station and walk up the track almost opposite to join the walk or park at the layby in Rowdown Lane as marked. It’s 2.6 miles but good exercise because quite up and down.)

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

Sunset from above the Darent Valley in the North Downs

I’ve felt watching sunsets was a bit of a cliche ever since visiting a club on the Greek island of Ios 30 years ago.

Scorpions, as the place was called I think, offered the chance to be spellbound as our golden orb sank below the Aegean – accompanied by a tequila cocktail costing 100 drachma (40p). For some reason the occasion made no impression on me whatsoever and I found the applause of the assembled horde hilarious in my then youthful arrogance.

However, I did see a terrific sunset rather more recently in Cornwall when the sun seemed to dissolve on contact with the surface of the sea coating it with a blazing trail … most peculiar. Perhaps it’s an age thing – one is drawn to sunsets on realising there aren’t all that many left.

Anyway, we were atop Fackenden Down doing a truncated version of the walk on these pages on Sunday (a clear day for once) at about 4pm when sunset happened. It was quite fun and there were a few people around to see it (actually seeing the sun at all is pretty rare these days after all). I took some frankly quite boring photos of it which I will now share as well as some hopefully atmospheric woodland shots (one with staring sheep) in the gathering winter dusk.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Winter dusk in the Kent downs

Winter dusk in the Kent downs

I followed my own advice and stuck to Knole and Lullingstone over the Christmas break, with the family. Christmas Day was a real beaut as were the past two days. When it’s clear, it’s fine to walk until 5pm, after sunset; you’ll be rewarded with vibrant sky colours, maybe drifting mist and even the silent flight of an owl. The next few days look fairly dull but the walks on here have great atmosphere in all conditions. Here are some pictures of Knole and Lullingstone from the past few days.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A pleasant walk at Clare, south-west Suffolk

A pleasant walk at Clare, south-west Suffolk

The Guardian Travel website and newspaper recently asked me to contribute to its ’10 of the best winter walks’ article, which was published on Saturday. I duly obliged but since Kent was already covered decided to head north to the Essex/Suffolk border, and a seven-mile circular walk between Clare and Cavendish taking in part of the River Stour long distance footpath. Both villages are lovely and the countryside quietly alluring. You can read my description here. Clare is two hours’ drive from south east London; sadly there is no train option, thanks to Beeching. There are other great walks in the area too, at this excellent website put together by local rambing enthusiast Derek.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Christmas and New Year’s walk choices

Christmas and New Year’s walk choices

Family walks are a fab tradition at this time of year. They often entail waiting for Grandpa to catch up and the kids to finish in the playground, dogs rolling in something unmentionable, and departing so late (because everyone’s trying to find suitable footwear) you arrive at the walk in time for dusk. No, of course, they are much more fun than that. But given all the rain and resultant mud it would be best not to go out in your festive season finery this week. A flask with some hot chocolate and perhaps a wee dram aren’t a bad idea either.

These are the walks I reckon are best for families this Christmas. My choice has been limited by all the rain – I’d love to recommend the Fackenden Down and One Tree Hill routes but the footpaths on the thin chalky soil of Fackenden could be treacherous and easily damaged, and One Tree Hill is a winter a mudbath for reasons not entirely clear to me. Anyway those walks have more strenuous sections not entirely appropriate or the ‘whole’ family. So my top five are:

1 Shoreham Circular (good pubs in Shoreham, not too muddy, one steep hill)
2 Lullingstone (visitors’ centre cafe, pubs in Eynsford, not too muddy; also can park at golf club or visitors’ centre for DIY walks – my route is just one of many variations)
3 Knole Park (best for lack of mud, cafe closed Christmas Day, shuttle available from Sevenoaks station Sunday 29th and 5th Jan) 
4 Downe short and long (a bit muddy in places but relatively good, one steepish hill stretch on the long version, two pubs in Downe) 
5 Otford and Shoreham (pubs in Otford and Shoreham; easy to make a good train walk with stations in both villages).

Another recommendation if you don’t want to travel out so far is Beckenham Place Park with its lovely new cafe, playgrounds, woodland, lake and gardens; it’s easy on the train too with three stations (Beckenham Junction, Beckenham Hill and Ravensbourne) on the doorstep. A little further out is Petts Wood (a bit muddier but beautiful woods), also easy by train (my route starts at Chislehurst station and finishes at Petts Wood station.

Of course it won’t be snowing but the picture above shows Knole in Sevenoaks on a particularly atmospheric winter’s day.

Lullingstone – winter walking wonderland

Lullingstone – winter walking wonderland

The walks through Lullingstone country park (nos 3 and 12) take in superb chalk grassland, rewilded areas of scrub, wonderful beech woodland and long views of the Darent Valley. Walkers don’t truly need to follow the prescribed routes; you can take off in whatever direction you fancy, just don’t walk straight across a golf fairway if there are golfers visible. If you have time it’s great to wander in Beechen Wood, a site of special scientific interest, with 500-year-old oaks, hornbeams, towering beeches and ash.

The park is great for winter walks, not being quite as muddy as some of the routes on this site (One Tree Hill you have been warned) and dusk brings excellent sunset views. There’s adventure playground stuff dotted around too, if you have kids you want to bring. Buzzards and kestrels are usually seen at all times of the year and field birds such as yellowhammer, corn bunting and skylark are often spotted despite the decline in their numbers. And it’s easy to get there to on public transport: it’s just 20 minutes’ walk from Eynsford station with its trains to south-east London (Peckham Rye/Catford line). Throw in the terrific Roman Villa and Lullingstone Castle you have a great day out.

Here are some winter pix over the years, two from yesterday and a passing rain squall.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.