Wild Wingate

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.

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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.

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Dog’s mercury.

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Great wood-rush.

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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.

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Wingate Wood – not wild but worth the walk.

A Murder in Reculver

Yesterday, I drove the A2 east under clear skies to the hamlet of Reculver, located on the flat coast not far from Margate and parked next to the pub beneath the remnant twin towers of the 12th century church.   Admiring its fearful symmetry and outstanding location, I reckoned this would never get planning permission today. The stark, stone edifice stood uncomfortably out of scale with its surroundings, rather like the cooling towers at nearby Richborough. Thankfully the latter, serving no useful purpose, have been blown up.

I wanted to work the beach further to the east around Plumpudding Island, so drove round and with luck found a place to park at a large farm, quiet in its winter sleep, with well-marked footpath to the coast adjacent the reed-fringed River Wantsum. I was searching for a small flock of snow buntings, which are regular on the sparsely vegetated shingle, and seen recently (going by the most useful ‘latest sightings’ page on the Kent Ornithological Society website).  I scanned the beach from the concrete coastal path with rare intent, but could only find a small flock of linnet feeding on the seeds of, I am not sure what, but elsewhere on the shingle I recognised leaves of plantain, yellow-horned poppy and sea kale.

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Linnet on the vegetated shingle.

The beach was busy with a murder of crows that were stationed near an outfall and, with a shiver, I thought the worst as to their food supply.  There were also a few oystercatcher, redshank and turnstone and as ever some idling gulls on the make.  A well fed herd of mute swans squatted in a puddled rape field inland and stonechat, pipits and blackbirds livened the hawthorns.

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A murder of crows.

As I walked inland to the car, I turned and spotted a barn owl working the sides of the railway.  I walked back and down a field edge by the line, intent on taking the world class photograph of owl dodging the Ramsgate Express but of course to no avail and, with light fading, left.  As I neared the farm, I watched the mute swans fly with surprising grace, low over the tree tops, to their roost and wondered what plans were being hatched at the kitchen table for their demise.

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Distant barn owl hunting the railway.

Raspberry Hill to Bedlams Bottom

On Thursday, I walked north-west from Swale railway station across the grazing marshes that fringe the Medway to the west of Sheppey.   I endured a wild arctic wind but under the brightest of blue skies. Keeping to the lee of flood banks helped.  I hoped to explore Ferry Marshes but had to contain myself to the footpath that ran across to Chetney and then back past neatly discarded Thames barges, now half sunk in the mud at Bedlams Bottom, and thence up to the mainland on Raspberry Hill Lane.

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Little egret.

I read that Bedlams Bottom was so-called since this was where escaping prisoners from the hulks on the Thames were left to die, floundering in the ooze; their decaying bodies colouring the mud to this day. Nearby Deadman’s Island was where the bodies of drowned escapers washed up, and Horrid Hill was where recaptured prisoners were hanged as a warning to others.   This coast has a grotesque history now captured in place names straight out of Treasure Island. And yet, just inland on the rich brick earth, is a pastoral landscape of orchards and other horticulture.  Raspberry Hill to Bedlams Bottom.

The flocks of shelduck, wigeon, pintail and dark-bellied Brent geese on the fleets flew when I was quarter of a mile distant. These were not like the flocks that idle in plain sight on nature reserves but I guessed were shot at by wildfowlers. Wintering wildfowl were a staple food for coastal villages when poverty in England was the norm but now this hunting is just a hobby. I put up a covey of partridge on the edge of a dyke and, as I did so, a peregrine jetted past me just above the water, and swung out after the scattering birds but in vain. He returned to the nearby pylons where the larger female was stationed and according to the gamekeeper, with whom I ‘talked birds’ later in the day, this may prove to be their nest site.

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Peregrine and pylon.

The ‘keeper talked proudly of up to 7o pairs of breeding lapwing on the pastures in Spring, and explained with evident frustration, that their eggs and young were plundered by black-headed gulls that nest in their thousands on nearby Burntwick Island.  He pointed out a huge flock of golden plover and gave me permission to stalk them with my camera, and to ignore the signs on the gate to ‘Keep Out’. As I did so, a flock of Brents flew in and seemed tame as they fed on the grass not far from me. A pair of Canada Geese flew at first sight and I guessed these may be less welcome.

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Dark-bellied Brent geese and golden plover.

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Wheeling golden plover.

I walked on to Lower Halstow past Funton Creek, finally a name with no reference to prisoner abuse.  Here a large flock of knot danced as one in front of me.  Birds in their simple beauty restore the soul in this land steeped in human cruelty.

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Knot flock over Funton Creek.

Against the Grain

North Kent is a land of low lying estuary and grazing marsh shouldered by rolling chalk downs riven by the Medway, M2 and M20.  The mud brown estuary boasts gleaming oil refineries, grey power stations and a necklace of old port towns, tied together by new housing estates, and all stitched by endless pylon lines. Inland are chalk quarries, cement factories and paper mills.   Towns have names like Gravesend and Snodland (did some ancient name-giver just have a really bad day when the North Kent file hit the desk?).  This then is not a part of tearoom England.  And yet there are gems of outrageous beauty to be found (as well as a fine pint of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale).  Try these two: one on the Medway coast close to, but hidden from, the exposed sweep of road bridge crossing the Swale to link Sheppey to the mainland, and the other deep in the chalk downs but over the hill from Rochester’s hollow-eyed castle.

Lower Halstow – quayside on the Medway with Church behind.

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Church of St Margaret of Antioch in Lower Halstow-  this section built with red tiles pinched from the nearby Roman villa.

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Luddesdown – the manor house dates back to Edward the Confessor.

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The passing storms create interesting light.  The first image was taken from the north in a patch of brilliant blue and the second from the south just before a bout of heavy rain.  The double rainbow appeared afterwards.

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Butcher’s Broom and Privet

Walking up the narrow lanes from Horton Kirby takes me past dark ivy-clad hedgerows topped by trails of clematis. These hedges house ancient woodland species such as holly, privet and spindle together with a spiky, evergreen shrub which once seen is not readily forgot – Butcher’s Broom.  It was, apparently, used to sweep the blood and guts off butchers’ floors.   Its alliterative name, distinctive form, historical hygiene role and medicinal value for thinning our blood gives this species a high botanical standing.  How does that compare to the dull sounding Privet, another plant of the local hedgerows but one easily overlooked with plain oval leaves, diminutive white flowers and black berries?  Its ordinariness and its ability to grow thick and fast has made it excel as a garden hedge; a monotone backdrop for colourful others.  Now of course I have to find Solomon’s Seal, a plant of deeply shaded chalk woodland and, like Butcher’s Broom, much prized in many gardens; and with such a name, it must do something spectacular?

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Narrow lane running through the chalk

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Long-tailed tit on Spindle

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Wild Privet

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Butcher’s Broom

Darenth Fox 2

The fox was back in the field at 1pm on another sunny, cold day and hunting the old pasture with deep concentration and sloping pose required to keep his nose to the ground. One leap, after a vole perhaps, was unsuccessful. He (possibly a she but with a long winter coat) looked very well and only looked up just yards from where I stood. A moment after the second photograph below was taken he was off, but not far and turned to see if I followed. When I did, he moved on through the thick thorn hedge to find somewhere away from my gaze and resume his pursuit. This land is National Trust property and foxes and the rest enjoy a safe haven.

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Higham and Cliffe Marshes

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Yesterday, I walked from Higham railway station to St Mary’s Church on the edge of the grazing marshes. The old church with its short spire and overgrown graveyard had the appearance of Magwitch’s hideaway but that apparently is nearby St James’ in Cooling.  I walked on under a grey sky across flooded fields.   Horses had churned the footpath through berry-laden hawthorns with a flooded chalk pit on the far side and noisy quarry beyond. Blackbirds, robins and occasional fieldfares scolded me and flew. These were all here for winter having travelled from the frozen East I think.  A small sparrowhawk flushed and flapped across the open fields, his cover blown. I found and frightened off plenty of other birds as I tramped to the Thames; greylag geese, ducks, solitary egrets, herons and snipe. Only little grebes dived with a ‘plop’ but the rest flew. At the river there were many teal on the water and fat cargo vessels, laden no doubt with cheap tin trays, tiptoed up and down in silence. I walked the path around the edge of Cliffe Fort; a squat fortification that once housed the latest military technology, such as torpedo racks, and now humiliated as a gravel store worked by men in tangerine safety suits and loud pop radio.

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The back half of the walk was under a sky that was giving up the fight to provide interesting light. I walked past more pools lined with thorn, hunting goldfinches and reed buntings on teasel and grasses with my camera.  Eying male tufted ducks on the dark water with wonderful tufts that kept a safe distance. This is now an RSPB reserve with well trod paths, loose dogs and their mostly dodged shit, and steel barriers to stop the dumping of stolen cars. The sun had shone only briefly, the air was ever cold but the walk was, I reflected, rich in entertainment apart from the last hour’s hunched march back to the station. My photography was typical ‘legger’ material, with many rear ends of frightened birds in the digital can. A solitary greenshank with colour rings on its legs was about the only bird that seemed unconcerned, perhaps because it has learned it is a safe place; the ringers know it has been here for many winters now. Accompanying redshanks dashed away with histrionic calls.  I need to try being an ‘arser’ for a change but only if I can get some warmer clothes and perhaps a small foldaway stool.

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Darenth Fox

I walked the footpath from home down to the River Darenth – cold, blue sky, low bright sun and frost lifting in the late morning.  Not much about until a dog fox (I think, since he appeared large) trotted the path in front of me.  He worked a wet pasture half-heartedly and only looked up when I closed the stile too sharply, and then disappeared into the woodland by the river.  Scolding magpies kept an eye. I carried on, stodged about close to the river and found little but on my return I found him curled in the field edge enjoying the sun.  With the river behind he only had to keep watch to the front; he seemed to know he was on safe ground.  I will look for him again.

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Snoozing fox on a warm day.