Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.

I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.

I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.

We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.

The autumnal art of the Darent Valley

The autumnal art of the Darent Valley

What a superb walk on the Polhill route recently. Superb weather and the trees in their best autumn finery. The views across the Darent valley were at their very best with every little detail sharply visible: the church tower, the oasts, the route of the river … It was a view that would have inspired Samuel Palmer, the brilliant mystical romantic artist inspired by William Blake and Turner who roamed this locale with his equally arty mates ‘The Ancients’ in the late 1820s and early 30s. He was mainly based in a rundown cottage nicknamed Rat Abbey before joining his dad at the lovely Water House – still standing of course. Repros of his beautiful art can be seen in the Samuel Palmer pub. He fell in love with and married 19-year-old Hannah Linnell when in his early thirties while in Shoreham and went on a two-year honeymoon in Italy where his art developed further. But it’s his Shoreham works that seem to attract the most attention. Strangely, his surviving son Alfred (another son had tragically died at 19) in 1909 burned loads of his pieces after his death saying that they were a humiliation because no one could understand them, or something. Odd that.

Darent Valley view from above Shoreham
View across Darent Valley toward Fackenden Down on Shoreham circular and Polhill walks. iphone pic

It’s interesting to reflect when gazing across these lovely pastoral valley, and at Palmer’s beautiful paintings, that all was not well in the countryside in the 1830s. Mechanisation was putting farmhands out of work leading to disturbances and the destruction of agricultural equipment, incidents collectively known as the Swing Riots. In 1830 more than a thousand protesters were transported to Australia or imprisoned while 19 people in Kent were hung for their part in the fire-setting and destruction.

Incidentally, the Samuel Palmer pub, formerly Ye Olde George, received unexpected visitors on 15 September 1940 when two very shaken pilots from a shot down German bomber were taken there for a stiff drink by the Home Guard. For some reason I had thought the pub they were taken to was the now defunct Fox and Hounds in Romney St, but the very friendly Shoreham Aircraft Museum custodian, Geoff Nutkins, tells me it was almost certainly the George. Geoff himself is an excellent artist; although what the mystic Palmer would have made of his depictions of Spitfires and Hurricanes boggles the mind.

Scenery changes rapidly at this time of year as greens meld into yellows, browns, reds and golds. So many species of tree seem to go their own way, diverging increasingly in colour until they lose their leaves. Ash turns red, birch gold, chestnuts almost yellow.

View from Mariners Hill near Chartwell
Weald view from Mariners Hill on the Hosey walk, in early autumn

Other recent walks have included Hosey Hill, Petts Wood and Cudham. Autumn colours are really becoming apparent now – it really is a great time to get out into our local countryside. Petts Wood was wonderful on Monday 17 October; what a gem that area is for a walk within suburbia.

Petts Wood walk early autumn
Hawkwood Estate, Petts Wood in mid autumn. Birches along the Kyd Brook. iphone pic

The Westerham and Hosey walks are brilliant in autumn too, with huge views of the Kent Weald from Mariners Hill (near Chartwell) and a wealth of woodland, at times tangled and impenetrable and others spaced and stately.

Near Westerham early autumn
Tower Hill, behind the infant River Darent, in early autumn 2022, on the Hosey and Westerham walks

Conditions underfoot remain pretty dry considering we’re past October’s mid-point, as rain remains an unusual event. It also continues to be very mild, thankfully, considering the energy crisis and on several walks lately I’ve felt overdressed. My next sorties will hopefully be further south, to Hever – well overdue – and then the Ashdown Forest.

Gate in late afternoon in autumn
Gate in early autumn on Hosey walk
A sultry sortie to Fackenden Down

A sultry sortie to Fackenden Down

As an experiment I ventured out for the 5-mile Fackenden Down walk at 11.30am on Sunday to see just how unpleasant things could get while hiking in the hottest part of the day, with temperatures well over 30C. The answer was, not very unpleasant at all. I had a hat, plenty of water, and took it fairly slowly. The walk starts in cool beech woods but then, up on that eastern ridge of the Darent valley, a hesitant but welcome breeze from the south-east just about took the edge off the muggy swelt. I can honestly say I’ve felt much hotter just sitting around in the concrete dustbowl that is now south-east London; the fairly strenuous walk was not more taxing than normal, though I took the steps slowly.

  • View from Romney Street
  • Samuel Palmer pub
  • Kent walk
  • View across dry valley at Austin Spring
  • Parched grass, Dunstall Farm
  • View across the slope of Fackenden Down into the Darent Valley
  • Meadow Brown butterfly on scabious
  • Knapweed and wild carrot
  • Magpie Bottom in the August heat
  • steps in the woods
  • Thameslink train at Shoreham station

I accompanied part of my walk with Lyle Mays‘s bluesy but harmonically rich Lincoln Reviews on my headphones – the perfect tune for a drowsy, sultry day surrounded by beautiful, still countryside. Mays was an incredible pianist who performed in the Pat Metheny Group for many decades.

The walk was also accompanied aurally by the calls of buzzards and the rustlings of lizards and small mammals dashing off into the leaf litter by the side of the path ahead of me. As usual I did the walk in reverse so descended Fackenden Down rather than climb it. The bit along the side of the hill (Points 1 to 3 on the Google map) were alive with butterflies and bees enjoying the scabious and knapweed among other wildflowers. I capped the walk off with a visit to the new Samuel Palmer pub, which has replaced Ye Olde George opposite the church. What a superb renovation job has been done there and there were loads of staff to serve the many visitors. Quite the transformation, and it was great to see so many Palmer reproductions on the walls – it’s like an art gallery. But not fancying a pint or a soft drink I popped into the church, which was serving cream teas with a friendly welcome and a cool place to sit down. That might seem strange but that’s how I rolled on Sunday.

Bluebells in north-west Kent: where’s best?

Bluebells in north-west Kent: where’s best?

It’s that time of year when the cobalt carpet spreads its magic in many of the woods covered in the KWNL area. Bluebells are now fully out on the North Downs chalk hills walks such as the Cudham stroll (in New Year’s Wood particularly), and Meenfield Woods on the various Shoreham circular and Polhill routes. Further south the Greensand Ridge walks at Underriver, One Tree Hill, Ide Hill (perhaps the best bluebells), Oldbury and Hosey Common are awash with blue. Closest to south-east London, Beckenham Place Park, High Elms and Petts Wood-Hawkwood Estate (in the lower, damper parts) has several swathes too. The Downe walk mk1 doesn’t have a lot of bluebell action en route but a quick diversion down to Downe Bank (the west side of the Cudham valley) from point 3 or at the start of the walk should see you in the magical blue realm. Following the Downe Mk2 walk will be kind of blue too, particularly at Downe Bank and Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw woods. I’m sure there are loads on the Hever walk too but I’ve never been on that stroll at this time of year so can’t vouch for them. The Chiddingstone route doesn’t have many bluebells I can confirm, not that this detracts from the superb stroll. (Pictured below: bluebells at New Year Wood on Cudham walk; Meenfield wood, Shoreham circular/Polhill routes; Ide Hill route)

  • New Year's Wood: early bluebells
  • New Year's Wood bluebells 2022
  • Bluebells on the Ide Hill walk, April 25, 2015
  • Bluebells, Emmetts/Scords wood, 2017
  • bluebells Meenfield wood
  • bluebells

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 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.

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.

Knole Park’s wild side (3.5 mile walk)

Knole Park is great for an autumn walk. Fantastic beeches and oaks, with the odd yew and pine plantations, make for a colourful spectacle. Encounters with deer, interesting birdlife such as green woodpeckers, redstarts, and weird fungi and so on, add to the interest. Oh, and a great National Trust maintained tudor mansion (Knole House). A lot of the park counts as rare lowland dry acid grassland, if you’re in to topographic categories.
My walk takes in the more remote-feeling eastern side of the park, starting in woodland on the park’s southern perimeter. I’m afraid that’s not the most convenient place to start the walk if you’re travelling to Sevenoaks on the train, but you can still do the walk by starting closer to the station at the park gate behind the leisure centre (half a mile walk from the station) – and then joining the route by Knole House (ie point 4 to 5 when you see the map – click link below).

Read about the route here
Download and print off a pdf of the walk

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Places on these Kent walks where you might go the wrong way

Hidden valley path on way to Ightam Mote

Hidden valley path on way to Ightam Mote

I don’t think there’s too many places on these walks where you can get lost but it’s very easy when writing instructions to mislead inadvertently. The word ‘track’, for example, does not mean the same thing for everyone; ‘pass a large pine tree’ won’t be too clear to someone who doesn’t think it is a large pine tree. And it’s very easy to miss out stiles and kissing gates in the instructions as I have done quite a lot. Then there are farmers who plough up paths (that’s happened at Shipbourne and Downe in the past). Here are the points where people have contacted me to ask for clarification (I’ve altered the instructions in all cases but it may not be enough…)

1 Downe walk: some people have gone wrong at the very start by missing the path just next to Christmas Tree Farm and setting off to Cudham on the footpath a few metres further on. My fault, because I didn’t mention initially that the correct path is slightly hidden by vegetation whereas the Cudham one is clearly visible.

2 One Tree Hill walks: the woods to the rear of the hill, if walking from OTH to Wilmot’s Hill on the way to Ightam, are easy to get lost in. You have to keep your bearings in relation to a couple of houses and an orchard. I’ve tried to make it easy but it’s quite hard to describe (I’ve gone wrong myself in there). However, once you hit the country lane you’ll be able to pick up the Wilmot’s Hill path OK.

3 Ide Hill: Near the beginning, people have told me my instructions are unclear and they almost set off on the Greensand Way to the east, towards Sevenoaks. The answer is to walk down the hill, ignoring all detail I’ve stated, then turn right when you hit another path, thus keeping Ide Hill village (at the top of the hill) to your right. Then you cross the valley towards Scord Wood and Emmett’s Garden with Ide Hill at your back. Not my fault that one, I feel.

4 Hever. Ah. Luckily for me perhaps, not the most popular of these walks, though I love it personally. There are four points where you can go wrong. I’ve covered them all in the instruction but, hey, you’ve got enough to read. First, turning right at the ‘second house’. This path angles off the lane in front of a house called ‘Bothy Cottage’, at the entrance to the house’s drive. Secondly, immediately on leaving the sandstone outcrop at Hill Hoath, turn right and go through a kissing gate next to a long strip of meadow (some walkers have been known to go straight on – fine if you want to go all the way to Penshurst). Third, in Stock Wood, ignore the major-looking path off to the right and narrow one angling left – keep on the centre path even though it doesn’t look very ‘major’. Fourth, turning off Uckfield Road it’s quite easy to miss the footpath, though it does have a sign. The kissing gate is a bit buried in hedge.

There are bound to be other spots that left walkers in a quandary… please let me know in the comments section, or by email, so I can update my instructions accordingly.