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.

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Continuing the theme of overlooked walks at Kent Walks Near London, the Polhill Pluto route yesterday proved the perfect choice on a bright, breezy summer’s day. There were plentiful orchids in the Andrews Wood-Meenfield Wood gap and fantastic ox-eye daisies, scabious and poppies in the fields below Polhill. It’s a great walk to do if you are a fan of the yellowhammer – the colourful, chirpy bunting (we’re talking about a bird by the way!) that adorns hedgerows in these parts and is particularly common for some reason between Shoreham and Otford. It’s repetitive and unworldy song is one of my favourites – it’s commonly described as sounding like ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ because of its rhythms but to me it’s simply the sound of summer. Listen out for it on the Darent Valley floor; around Sepham Farm it’s nearly always heard, and sometimes present in the lower parts of the Fackenden and Eastern Valleys route (such as around the Percy Pilcher memorial). The Pluto route (so called because you pass the final ‘planet’ on the Otford solar system scale model) can be combined with the Shoreham circular and even the Fackenden, Otford and Eastern Valley routes for a walk of up to 11 miles or so as all these routes intersect, or almost intersect, at various points. For some reason, I only think of this stroll as a summer walk – not entirely rationally, but it just feels right on a warm day.

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.)

Shoreham, Kent – a perfect village for a stroll

Nine of the walks on this site involve the Shoreham neighbourhood, in the Darent Valley. This is good, because Shoreham is a decent little place with its four fine pubs, vineyard, Battle of Britain museum, river walk and houses from down the centuries. And it has a station, served by trains from London Blackfriars (sometimes Victoria too) via Peckham Rye and Bromley South, and Sevenoaks. Otford down the road is alright too. My walks use the valley rims, east and west; the valley floor along the river and the ‘dry’ valleys (geographical feature – not a reference to any shortage of pubs!) that flank the main one. The Darent river itself rises south of Westerham, on the shallow slope of the Greensand ridge and its early stretches can be seen on walks 15 and 21. Try not to drive through the village itself. On the east side of the village there’s a car park by the station and a huge layby almost opposite the station. On the west side there’s a free car park at Filston Lane. Best of all though, arrive by train if possible. There’s only one (tiny) shop in the place, so don’t expect to do your shopping there.

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It’s a great village to stroll around, explore the ancient church and paths that skirt the northern side, around the back of the vineyard. Full details can be found on each Shoreham walk page. The Darent Valley path itself, which the walks here take in stretches of, is 19 miles long, starts by Sevenoaks station and ends at Dartford, as the river enters the Thames. So that’ll take awhile.

The sublime nine Shoreham walks

Shoreham station is most convenient for the eastern walks but it’s only a half-mile walk down Station Rd to connect with the western valley ones, too. Each of the walks can be adapted into something much longer by joining them together. 

September. A glorious month for walking

There’s still a couple of months before mud sets in, and with fine weather, hedgerows fully laden with berries and insects, trees still in full leaf and birdlife on the move, this is a great time to hit the paths. And I daresay some will prefer the mild temperatures we’re having now, compared with the scorchio stuff that enveloped us in July.

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Quieter Shoreham walks

For anyone who’s enjoyed the Shoreham Circular walk really should give the Shoreham Circular Mk2 a go. It goes along the ridge on the eastern side of the valley before dropping down and eventually joining the Mk1 route by the Darenth golf course. It’s a lovely quiet stroll starting in ancient woods (slow worms, buzzards, woodpeckers), ascending to the top of the hill eventually with great views and wild chalk meadows which teem with butterflies. It all ends by the George pub…

It’s pretty decent for public transport too… Shoreham station is opposite the start of the walk and can be reached by direct train from Blackfriars on the Catford loop line via Nunhead etc (check first, the Thameslink network is chaotic – there’s also the option of a train to Sevenoaks on the London Bridge-Orpington line, then changing). Give it a go this weekend, all is set fair.

If you fancy something longer, ending up in the same place, then the mysterious eastern valleys walk from Shoreham station or the Romney St/Otford/Shoreham circle (from Otford station) will fit the bill.

Shoreham circular mk2 – with improved directions!

We did a superb new walk in late April. Sounds funny to say considering I’ve done Shoreham to death, but we came across yet another variation on the Shoreham (Kent) circular. This time climbing up on to the eastern rim of the valley and walking towards Otford then back down into the valley, popping out by the Olde George. Brimstone butterflies aplenty, buzzards soaring… idyllic. An excellent train walk… no car/bus needed. Full instructions here and PDF (initial errors now corrected!).

Brimstone butterfly

Not the best for bluebells (some in Dunstall woods though) but a super walk.

UPDATE: Apologies to those who tried this walk out then realised some of my PDF instructions were missing half way through! I had unwittingly and absent-mindedly positioned the map over some of the text without realising it. Also, I had referred to Mill Lane wrongly… in fact there is only one Mill Lane and that is at the northern end of the village. But there is a Mill Cottage in the vicinity! Thanks to the walker who pointed these errors out to me…

Soft light on a December walk in Kent

There’s no doubt about it. Winter walks aren’t always particularly uplifting. Views are subdued and less vibrant. The oranges and reds of autumn have gone, to be replaced by toned-down browns and greens. There’s mud, damp and murkiness that can make you want to flee the country. But the sky picks its moments to remedy everything; pink and orange sunsets, swathes of deep azure; the rush towards dusk bathing ancient Kent rural scenes in yellow and grey light. There are times when you feel that our little pokey-out county is in tune with the timeless far north; Iceland, Norway, Lapland… maybe the Vikings who settled here felt most at home on these dark cold days. Am I being pretentious? Stop me if I am. I’ll stop then.

Here are some pictures from early afternoon on December 16, 2017, on the high-level Meenfield woods walk, to the west of Shoreham and the little valley separating Meenfield and Andrews woods (an extension to walks 2 and 8).

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Suddenly it’s autumn in the Darent Valley

Two weeks ago I did the Shoreham circular in 25C heat. Now, dodging showers amid sudden switches in temperature I’ve ventured out on the Shoreham-Eynsford walk ( 3), the Eynsford-Lullingstone (walk 12) and to the eastern valleys of Shoreham (walk 14).

It’s often the case that the sky can make landscape photography easy; with the weather we are having this mid-September, the clarity of air and development of interesting cloudscapes transmit atmosphere and steal the scene with drama. Enjoy this slideshow…

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