(The blue line on the map indicates the path to where the best bluebells can be seen on this walk in late April)
Darwin’s garden and house, wild flower meadows, hedgerows, the chance of seeing Battle of Britain aircraft, beech trees and old, flint and wooden houses and a beautiful church. Nice cake/tea shop and two pubs with decent food. An easy walk, no steep inclines. Great to combine with a visit to Downe House, where Darwin wrote the seminal Origin of the Species. His study is kept in the condition in which he worked in it. Forty minutes’ drive from East Dulwich, 30 from Lower Sydenham. Covered on Ordnance Survey Explorer 147 map.
Download a pdf and print out this walk here – or use this page and map on your smartphone
The walk (40mins-1hr/2.6 miles)
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 towards the house, skirting it but 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 walking over a stretch piece of tarmac. 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 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 extraordinary book enough… it’s not a tale of derring-do heroics but a very true record of an uncertain young man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The airfield played a key role in the Battle of Britain and later in the conflict when it was home to an incredibly international wing of squadrons including legendary French pilots such as Mouchotte and Closterman, New Zealander Al Deere and South African Sailor Malan. 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 several 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.
There’s a great little cake and tea shop, much used by weekend cyclists, on the left by the Rajdoot curry house just before the Queens Head. How exciting that the Queen’s Head and the George and Dragon made the news on March 22, 2015, when jolly protestors dressed as breastfeeding babies ambushed the UKIP leader Nigel Farage and rather spoiled his family’s Sunday lunch. No doubt loads of Sunday lycra-clad cyclists got some great snaps of the occasion. 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.
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.