The weather they said was bad, so I intended the circular nine miles to be more an exercise in finding the best route that finding wildlife. The first three miles along the Wealden Way, from Sole Street to Great Buckland, was done with hardly a full stop or backward glance; in any case Luddesdown was dowdy under its leaden sky and the paths were sticky on the chalk. I pondered why the footpaths, like Roman Roads, still ran dead straight through the fields of winter wheat and were not now diverted around the headland. In this century, they are only used by purposeless, portly ramblers replete with coats of many colours, and not a hurrying, hungry congregation; their only calling being to decipher earthly direction from the confusing array of colourful marks on fence posts.
From Great Buckland, I left the Wealden Way and walked up a steep path on the North Downs Way. I passed a small, old house in the woods that was being resurrected by builders cursing the narrow gauge of the entrance track and wide berth of the dumper truck. The weather was no longer grey but was warming with great lumps of blue and white-fringed cloud in the sky. I rested at the top in a clearing of sweet chestnut fringed with oak and beech, and checked the map. The next three miles ran north through extensive woodlands on the escarpment above the Medway. This was the interesting leg of the journey.
With the weather improving, I was now hoping to find some woodland birds; three good ones would be marsh tit, lesser-spotted woodpecker and the outrageous, outsized hawfinch. I clocked great spotted woodpecker as I sat. I had seen a distant green earlier feeding on the pasture slope, laughing at me as I slid and tripped across a long wheat field.
I walked on into Horseholders Wood and past a large timber lorry collecting cords of wood. I was pleased to see the woodland was being coppiced and thinned but there were few, if any, veteran trees. This wood was not really ancient and not at all wild. I could hear the toot of my train from over the hill. Nuthatch laughed, Jays scolded and a Buzzard circled and mewed. The sun lit the leafless trees and brought them to life.
Horseholders Wood – few veteran trees here.
I crossed into Wingate Wood and wondered whether it was named after the eccentric, God-fearing Chindit whose novel tactics put the wind up the Japanese and indirectly helped us hold the line at Kohima. I hoped so because these one-offs were deserving of such memorials. I heard the distinctive call of a marsh tit, accompanying blue and long-tailers, also a loud wren and chatter from a flock of finches above. No hawfinches sadly, and of course no peep from a lesser-spotted woodpecker, but the woods were finally alive. Orde was smiling.
I walked on and wandered from the path from time to time and checked the view from the escarpment. Little to be seen except freshly emerged and flowering dog’s mercury and thick strands of great wood-rush. I found the edge of an old chalk quarry above the Medway Valley and enjoyed the view and the sunshine in equal measure. A squad of Jackdaws tumbled down the slope in loud, merry voice; these perhaps nest in the fragile crevices on the cliff face. I sat and scanned but no kestrel or peregrine to be found on a promontory and giving away that this was their nesting site.
View of the Medway Valley from above an old chalk quarry in Wingate Wood.
I walked on and a pair of ravens mooched over with quiet calls; they might have a big nest of sticks on one of the many pylons or perhaps that small cliff face. The spurge laurel looked lifeless but perhaps that was the gathering gloom. I walked downhill and left the woods and then the last third back to Sole Street was painful. There was no more sun, my legs ached and the roadside copses were soiled with litter especially in the many unofficial parking bays. A farmer shot angrily at wood pigeons. I only picked up when I passed sodden orchards, full of fieldfares and redwings, and saw a couple of pruners working the endless lines of cold trees and quietly rejoiced in my schadenfreude. The village shop with its hot coffee machine was just round the corner.
Wingate Wood – not wild but worth the walk.