(The blue line on the map indicates the path on Downe Bank where the best bluebells can be seen on this walk in late April. Continue on the blue line path to make a longer circular walk taking in Berry’s Hill; add 1.5 miles – now covered on Walk 20)
Wildflower meadows, hedgerows, the chance of seeing second world war Spitfires, beech trees and old, flint and wooden houses and a beautiful church. Two pubs with decent food. An easy short walk, good with children that passes Charles Darwin’s Down House and gardens. Forty minutes’ drive from East Dulwich, bus 146 from Bromley or Hayes. Covered on Ordnance Survey Explorer 147 map. Easy to extend the walk by following the blue route on the map. If you want to try a longer Downe walk (4 miles) try Walk 20 on this site, or if you have time for another walk, try the Knockholt, Hosey Common or Polhill routes – each within five miles.
Distance from SE London: 30 min drive from Sydenham, approx 45 min from Bromley North on 146 bus
GPX map here (for real-time location check). which you can download (snap barcode) or view on phone (press the bottom-most icon on left of screen to get real-time location).
The walk (40mins-1hr/2.6 miles)
Point 1-2 (about 500m): Take the path right just east of Christmas Tree farm on Cudham Rd, passing over a stile (don’t inadvertantly take the second path signed to Cudham). Walk past Christmas Tree farm paddocks then head diagonally across meadow to right. Ignore paths signed to Downe House then head diagonally left across the next field towards a farm.
Point 2-3 (480m): Ignore another sign pointing to Down House and pass through a metal gate. Look for Stable Cottage sign and walk past it; see ‘footpath’ sign pointing right (south) with a row of cypress trees on your right. Join this path past Downe Court farmhouse crossing over surfaced driveway and passing monkey puzzle tree (follow the yellow marker ahead) and follow edge of field sharp left then right. Arrive at path junction with signposts.
Point 3-4 (450m): Turn right (west) across middle of field heading towards country lane (Luxted Rd) through gap in the hedgerow. At Point 3.5 on my map cross road and enter lovely meadow adjacent to Downe House. Pass between small trees in centre of meadow and reach north-western corner of field where there’s an entrance into the garden of Downe House.
Point 4-5 (180m): Pass the entrance to Darwin’s garden, then pass through a metal gate (crossing the great man’s ‘sandwalk’) and a wooden gate into another lovely meadow. Cross this field on the path diagonally to the left. Watch out for deer at dusk and owls. The path increasing heads downhill then reaches a hedgerow, goes over a stile, then down steps to a junction with a north-south path and signpost.
Point 5-6 (280m): At this junction turn right (north) and follow the path through light woods to a country lane (West Hill).
Point 6-7 (850m): Cross the lane and continue on the path heading north. Very soon it turns sharply left downhill (west) (ignore metal gate and path on the right) before continuing north and after a few hundred metres emerging in a field with golf club house in valley to left. Continue through two fields admiring beech trees and hawthorn borders.
Point 7-8 (350m): Cross the final field (the third and largest) and enter woods ahead. Watch for a right turn ahead where you will find an opening by a broken down stile into another field to return to the village. (There are two paths that enter these woods, it doesn’t matter which you use but if you choose the lower one then you will have to turn right, doubling back on yourself before just before emerging from the woods; if on the upper one, turn right and enter the field on your right.)
Point 8-9 (650m): Head east on the usually clear path across this field which is muddy in winter, sometimes cereal in summer, sometimes fallow. Aim for far right corner (south-eastern corner) where the path narrows to a kind of alley with holly around and barbed wire fence on left and emerges on to the road into Downe by a bus stop. This field used to be a lovely rewilded meadow, but sadly no longer. What a shame. At road, turn right to go to the Queen’s Head or tea shop.
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More comprehensive route guide:
Get off the bus by the church of St Mary the Virgin (13th century; look out for the graves of Darwin’s family) and walk east past the George and Dragon pub on Cudham Rd. The walk starts with the marked footpath heading south off Cudham Rd just past the cute Christmas Tree Farm. This footpath is signposted to Biggin Hill and Luxted, and is by a brick wall – do not take the footpath signposted to Cudham a bit further on (another fine walk but not now!) (Point 1). Follow the path, with the enclosures of the farm on your right. There is a driveway on your left (ignore it). Stop and admire the donkeys if you will, then, just after the final enclosure, follow the path to the right, diagonally across a field of grasses to a clump of trees where you’ll see Downe House a few hundred metres in front of you.
The path now takes you diagonally left towards a farmhouse (Point 2) – ignore the marked footpath off to the right towards Downe House. At the farmhouse, ignore another footpath sign pointing back towards Downe House and continue past the Stable Cottage sign towards the house, skirting it and taking the path that heads south (right) just in front of it (another slightly hidden ‘footpath’ sign guides you) and go past a monkey puzzle tree while walking over a surfaced drive.
Continue around the edge of a field to the left (east) then sharp right (south). At Point 3 take another sharp right (heading west towards Downe House) at the intersection of footpaths (if you were to go left here, you’d soon enter a fantastic bluebell wood, best seen in May of course). Cross the road (Point 3.5) and enter the meadow (brilliant with daisies and buttercups from May to July) bordering Darwin’s house and garden, with small cricket pitch on your left. Continue, through a lovely little arch of small trees in the middle of the field.
The path meets the western corner of Darwin’s garden (Point 4) – you can have a quick peek, but you’ll have to pay if you linger – then head across the great man’s ‘sandwalk’ and diagonally left across another field with a great view of a wooded valley. This is my favourite part of the walk as you look over unbroken treetops to the western horizon for what seems like miles. At dusk, watch out for wild deer at this point. Superb sunset vistas also. Don’t let the occasional waft of kerosene jet fuel from the airfield detract from the timeless vibe of this part of the walk! The path descends slightly into the valley then joins another path (Point 5), this time running north to south. So, turn right here (heading north) and just keep on going through the woods. Biggin Hill airfield is just beyond the trees on the other side of the valley. There is a quiet golf course on the floor of the valley (West Kent Golf Club). After a few minutes you will cross a lane (Point 6) and continue on the footpath heading north. The path suddenly turns left (west) just as it reaches a field beyond the fence and descends sharply for a few metres before bending back right and continuing for a couple of hundred metres through more mature woods to the first of the wildlife-rich hillside fields.
So, now we’ve reached the first of the three hillside fields. You’ll see superb beech trees on your right (amid the occasional old bomb crater from one of many Luftwaffe attacks on the air base in August-September 1940) and the large golf club house across the valley to the left. Look out for deer, especially at dusk. You’ll cross the three fields (the last field, pictured above, is Point 7) on this path before entering woodland and, after about 80 metres, turning 90-degrees right to enter a field (there used to be a stile here but it disappeared in 2017!) (Point 8) and head east across this wheat/corn field aiming for the south-east corner (right-hand corner) until the path becomes narrow with a hedge on the right and you emerge back on to the village road. Until late March 2015 this field was a beautiful wild pasture with flowers and hawthorn trees. The tenant farmers have planted a cereal crop in there – lovely in June but muddy and annoying in winter. Also they have a nasty habit of ploughing it up and obliterating the footpath from time to time. On reaching the road (by a bus stop) turn right and look out for the Queen’s Head (Point 9) just before returning to the church and the village bus stop (Point 10).
Biggin Hill Airport
The extensive woodland on the east side of the airfield, which this walk skirts, is that mentioned by the late Geoffrey Wellum in his astonishing book First Light, covering his time at RAF Biggin Hill as a 19-year-old Spitfire pilot. I cannot recommend this book enough… it’s not a tale of derring-do heroics but a very real record of an uncertain young man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. During the Battle of Britain the airfield was badly damaged by bombing after a burst of intense low and high level raids at the end of August 1940 – not as many lives were lost here as at Detling near Maidstone but there were still over 40 military and civilian fatalities.
The airfield, whose history began with radio experiments before the First World War, played a key role in the Battle of Britain and until 1944 while home to an incredibly international wing of squadrons including legendary French pilots such as Rene Mouchotte and Pierre Closterman, New Zealander Al Deere and South African Sailor Malan. The stories surrounding this place are the stuff of legend and yet there is little to be seen that tells the stories of heroism and disaster concentrated in these few acres. The Aircraft Museum in Shoreham might be a good place to visit to get a feel for what happened here.
After the war, squadrons of Gloster Meteor jet fighters and Hawker Hunters were based there until it was decided (in the mid-1950s) that the area was too built up and not suitable for fast jets – a decision made after a couple of fatal crashes in the vicinity.
Today the airport is used by flying clubs and executive jets. In recent years a few Spitfires, a Hurricane or two and assorted vintage aircraft have been based there and are often flown. One of the Spitfires, a second world war veteran that shot down a Luftwaffe fighter, was converted into a two-seater after the war and now takes passengers up – it’s about £2,750. The airfield has been a famous airshow venue ever since the 1920s – it is the site of the Red Arrows’ first display in the 1960s, and the first base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (1950s). This tradition continues with often yearly airshows featuring the Red Arrows and extremely noisy jet fighters. You might find this thrilling; you might not.
Pubs and cafe/deli
The Rajdoot curry house just before the Queens Head is decent. The Queen’s Head and the George and Dragon made the news on March 22, 2015 – ancient history now of course – when protestors ambushed then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage and rather spoiled his family’s Sunday lunch. What would Darwin have made of it all? Click the links for differing views of the protest, firstly from a Guardian journalist who travelled with the protestors and then the riposte from the Queen’s Head landlord. The Queen’s Head serves delicious ales from Westerham Brewery incidentally and if the cider called Rosie’s Pig is on, you’re in for a treat. The Holwood Farm Shop a popular pitstop for cyclists with its pleasant courtyard and good coffee is on New Rd Hill by the junction with Shire Lane just north of Downe.
146 bus from Bromley (20 mins’ duration), or train to Orpington and then R8 bus (15 mins, no Sunday service). You can also get the train to Hayes (on the New Cross/Lewisham/Ladywell/Catford Bridge/Lower Sydenham line) and pick up the 146, or get a cab, or cycle. Hayes is the nearest railway station to Downe.