The Cudham chalk paths route is a superb saunter through meadows, valleys and woods; its lack of grandiose views doesn’t detract at all. There’ll be plenty of bluebell vistas though from this weekend onwards, but the other day wood anemone and celandine were still the stars, waiting to be eclipsed by the vast swathes of dark green shoots just waiting to burst into glorious dark blue flower. Gamboling lambs, buzzards and the growl of the occasional Spitfire overhead, heading back to Biggin Hill, provided additional entertainment. On entering the wonderful New Year’s Wood, on the second half of the stroll, I was delighted to see the normally muddy path (actually a bridlepath) had been surfaced with mulch and stone – I don’t know the name of that kind of surface – adding to the pleasure of this lovely walk. Great!
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.
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.
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.
May 4: fading fast (Read 2020 bluebell piece here)
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.
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.
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.
It’s that astonishing time of year when woods turn blue. I think from Easter to early May the bluebells will be great – there are some patches already in full bloom. The best of my walks for bluebells are Ide Hill and One Tree Hill (see below). Read 2020 bluebell piece here
Here are the best places on my walks:
- Shoreham circular: take the high path through Meenfield woods, the one that goes along the top of the hill. It’s marked on my digital map with a blue line. It just means continuing to the top of the hill after point 7 and turning right (north) at the top rather than two-thirds of the way up. The parallel paths meet later, by Shacklands Rd. There are not many bluebells on the regular route, so as I say, take the high Meenfield woods path.
- Ide Hill: the best walk for continuous bluebells. There are great bluebells straightaway once you enter the Ide Hill NT woods behind the church, and even better in Scords wood just below Emmetts Garden. (Picture.) Amazing bluebells at Emmetts of course, but it’s best to pay the fee (or at least buy some cake!) if you linger in the gardens.
- One Tree Hill walks: Good bluebells throughout these NT woods and also at the top of Wilmots Hill (on the ‘figure of eight‘ walk). Some lovely pockets of mixed bluebells and wild garlic (picture) off to the side of the path as you near Ightam Mote too (including a kind of garlic ‘jungle’ at one point). Some in the woodland between Shipbourne and Underriver too.
- Downe: like the Shoreham circular you just have to make a small diversion to get the best bluebells, which are to be found in the hillside woods between Downe and Cudham (picture). Just turn left instead of right at point 3 and walk down to the woods. The hillside is called Downe Bank – a favourite place of study for Charles Darwin and John Lubbock (these great scientists’ names still make infuse this area with greatness and give it a special atmosphere). There aren’t many bluebells to be seen without the diversion.
- There are good stretches of the blue stuff on the Hever walk, but perhaps less so on the Chiddingstone walk except in the woods above the river Eden (picture) on the return leg of the walk. There are excellent areas of the flowers on the Chislehurst/Petts Wood walk in the lower part of the wood, amid the chestnut groves just east of point 7 close to the railway tracks, stretching north towards the central fields. Knole Park is not great for bluebells compared with the other walks – but then One Tree Hill is just round the corner to sate your blues. However, back to Shoreham, the two Romney St/Shoreham eastern valley walks (5 and 14) have fantastic patches of bluebells in most of the woods the paths pass through.
Walkers on the Shoreham Circular route will see very few bluebells unless they make a slight detour, extending the walk slightly by continuing up the hill at point 7 (instead of taking the path on the right) then turning right at the top and walking to point 9 along the lovely straight bridlepath through Meenfield Wood. Here, on either side of the track, the bluebells right now are magical, the spacing of the trees and lack of leaves allowing exactly the right light conditions for them I suppose. The photos above don’t do them justice whatsoever. The blue line on the map below shows the detour. There are also great bluebells near Shoreham on the Otford Circular walk between points 5 and 6, and the copses between points 8 and 9. For the Downe Circular, to add bluebells, turn left at Point 3 instead of right and walk for a couple of minutes into the woods at Downe Bank (also pictured above), then just retrace your steps. You won’t have to deviate from the route to find endless blue vistas on the Ide Hill Circular, however: there are wonderful displays on Ide Hill itself and in Scord woods and Emmetts Gardens, all en route.
(Read 2020 bluebells post here.) A lot of wild flowers are a bit confused at the moment. A warm winter without any prolonged cold snaps led to a bit of a false start in February. But since then the weather has struggled for sunshine and real warmth so blooms such as magnolia haven’t hit their stride. I’ve seen individual bluebells flowering since early February but now we are on the cusp of the great transformation of the woods. At Downe Bank last week things seemed particularly advanced though the bluebells won’t be at their best I reckon until the final weekend of April. Here’s a reminder of the best walks for bluebells on this site.
1 Ide Hill-Toy’s Hill circular walk via Emmett’s Gardens.
Here, bluebells are everywhere. Especially brilliant in Ide Hill NT woods and on the south-facing slope of Emmetts Gardens in Scord Woods.
You can easily extend the walk into the woods above Shoreham (Meenfield wood and Pilot wood) to the west, as far as Andrews wood on the other side of the boggy little valley for great bluebell vistas. Lots of paths bring you back to Shoreham via Meenfield wood.
At Point 3, instead of turning right towards Downe House, turn left on the path that heads down into woods (in to the valley between Downe and Cudham – an area called Downe Bank, which also contains some orchid varieties). The bluebells here are amazing. In fact every little copse around Downe, Biggin Hill and Cudham has spectacular seas of blue.
Both of the One Tree Hill walks passing Ightam Mote on this site will shortly have great bluebell displays, along with wild garlic.
5 Closer to London
Closer to London, the National Trust woodland at Petts Wood/Hawkwood has some great swathes of blue. Enter the wood from the entrance under the railway line at the intersection of Towncourt Crescent and Birchwood Road and take the second path on the left and you’ll soon be in the realm of the bluebells (in Edlmann Memorial wood) after passing through a grove of sweet chestnut trees. I’m sure there will be some bluebells in Sydenham woods and Beckenham Place Park too but a bit more patchy.
(Read latest bluebell piece for 2020, here) The bluebells, as I write on April 26, are in full swing. They generally love moist, even swampy ground in sun-dappled woodland (so coppiced trees are very good) and south-facing slopes where the drainage isn’t great. The best places for walking amid bluebells – of the walks on this website – are:
1 Ide Hill-Toy’s Hill circular walk via Emmett’s Gardens. Here, bluebells are everywhere. Especially brilliant on the south-facing slope of Emmett’s Gardens.
2 Shoreham circular – extend the walk into the woods above Shoreham to the west, as far as Andrews Wood for great bluebell vistas.
3 Downe circular – at Point 3, instead of turning right towards Downe House, turn left on the path that heads down into woods (in to the valley between Downe and Cudham – an area called Downe Bank, which also contains some orchid varieties). The bluebells here are amazing. In fact every little copse around Downe, Biggin Hill and Cudham has spectacular seas of blue.
Other superb displays can be seen at One Tree Hill (1km south east of Knole Park), near Sevenoaks. Then, and closest to SE London, there is Petts Wood/Hawkwood. For the latter, enter the wood from the entrance under the railway line at the intersection of Towncourt Crescent and Birchwood Road and take the second path on the left and you’ll soon be in the realm of the bluebells (in Edlmann Memorial wood) after passing through a grove of chestnuts.