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A North Downs Way Diary
Catching the early morning light the sparkling rain drops hanging from the budding twigs were creating a natural decoration, making our first walk in December seem quite magical.
Festive lights have been decorating the streets of many local towns since the middle of November and now as we enter December the market stalls are starting to fill out with lots of local produce ready for the holiday blow out and of course, trees, Christmas is on it's way.
The decorated tree is, like many things we now associate with a traditional Christmas - over eating and drinking - a recent tradition in the UK, heavily influenced and popularised by the Victorians.
In 1846 a print appeared in the Illustrated London News showing Victoria and Albert, the Posh and Becks of their day, standing in the lounge around a decorated tree and everyone wanted one! Contrary to popular opinion though they were not the first to bring a whole tree indoors, George III and the Georgian monarchs did the same many years earlier but they lacked a decent publicist and could never shake off their German connection thereby making them and anything they did instantly unpopular.
The tree itself is a throw back to times when the spirits of spring and summer were believed to be taking shelter in the evergreen branches, to make sure they survived winter people would bring garlands of evergreen inside and it wasn't just chucked out with the rubbish a few weeks later when the needles had fallen off, greenery would remain displayed until early February when it would be taken outside to allow the spirits of nature to return to the land and the dead branches used to bolster supplies of firewood. Recycling medieval style.
As 50% of the 10 mile section we monitor is along forest trails and much of the rest passes by the edge or close to woodland we see plenty of ivy and holly and it is surprising how many different varieties there are. We also come across a lot of trees, many with their own individual character and we are starting to recognise where we are along the trail from the shape of a familiar tree. Unfortunately neither of us are knowledgeable enough to recognise all of the species yet so it was useful to find the Nature Detective section of the Woodland Trust website which has plenty of information sheets mainly aimed at youngsters.
Life in the forest at the moment is anything but dead, the spirits are not only living in the evergreen holly and ivy. Hazel, alder and birch catkins are now hanging from branches and young buds are beginning to form on most trees.
Blackberries are bursting into flower, it doesn't seem like there has really been a gap between the end of one life cycle and another.
Summer seemed to merge into Autumn which in turn squelched into Winter and if the weather continues like it is at the moment we are heading for very wet one..
As we had walked along the central part of the 10 mile section we monitor last week, leaving just a few miles at each end of the path to check before the end of the year, we decided to head west to Gatton Park and then walk the 8 miles along the North Downs Way to the 'missing signpost', the location of another significant tree, an old beech that had marked the point where two paths split, before heading back to Gatton, a nice 16 mile walk - still some way short of the Long Distance Walkers 50 km.
This section of the trail passes through the old part of Merstham with it's little cottages and medieval church before taking advantage of a pedestrian bridge to cross the M25, the white doves that roost in the dovecote behind the Old Forge were taking advantage of the sun, sitting on the lighting gantries above the busy motorway, an odd sight, the bird of peace above the chaotic motorway!
We then continued on under the M20 before approaching the western end of our 10 mile section near Godstone vineyard, the vines that had been full of grapes ripening in the late summer sun just a few months ago are now bare, thankfully you can still get one of the by-products in a bottle from the shop!
The only person we met in the morning greeted us with a cheery ' hope you are not walking far today?' Why, we wondered? What did he know? Had there been a bad weather forecast warning issued while we were out on the trail or was he just referring to the mud? Of which there was a plentiful supply.
A woodpecker flew past and perched on a nearby post blending so well into the background that it was almost impossible to spot, two deer startled and bolted into the shade of a wood before we really had the chance to notice them and a high pitch squawk made us look up to the sky where (according to Kev) not just one but three parakeets were flying off into the distance. The snail crawling up a tree was going significantly slower.
The day had started misty and chilly but soon warmed up and Kev was back in his shorts. The lush green countryside is one of the visible signs of the warm wet autumn, leaves are still on many trees - in some ways it is a little worrying - it hasn't been cold enough yet to send many plants into their dormant state and will those that are already starting to bud and flower suffer because the insects needed to pollinate are not around?
A week later a tornado hits London and we experience our first frost, not very heavy but we had a few crispy leaves underfoot and in the shade the ground had a very light frosty covering.
Sadly not cold enough to harden the ground and once the sun had taken the thin layer of ice away we were up to our ankles again in mud. Another indication that the weather is affecting the local habitat, Gorse which normally starts to flower in February was already in bloom.
Kev had devised a short 14 mile circular walk using a combination of local footpaths and the North Downs Way, including the small section we still had to check, so we headed east not quite sure of what we would find. Generally paths away from the main North Downs Way can be difficult to follow, blocked or overgrown. A full description of the walk will be posted shortly on our 'Day Walks' section.
We parked at Cudham and set off, with map in hand heading out into the unknown on 'Kev' s Kentish Cobble'. It was so good to be navigating a route once again rather than blindly following established waymarked routes. As we followed paths south, through open farmland, towards the North Downs we were amazed by the scenery, a series of little valleys, and eventually following an old track to meet the North Downs at a spot where we had passed many times before and wondered 'where does that track go to?' Well now we know.
Then following the North Downs Way we headed towards Knockholt Pound and Otford recalling our walk along the downs last March when the woods were full of snowdrops, even with the mild weather there will still be a few months before we see these again but we did come across plenty of wildlife, the fox below was doing it's best to keep absolutely still and bend into the grasses, a deer shot of into the distance and Kev kept saying 'if only I had a new camera with zoom lenses for Christmas!' (He wishes!!!!! - his "old" camera is less than 12 months old.............., so no chance!!!)
Parts of the North Downs are so scenic that it is so easy to forget that the centre of London is only 20 miles away, such a short distance in some ways but when you are standing in a green field looking towards the towers of Docklands it is like being in a completely different world.
After sitting in the sun at Knockholt Pound we left the North Downs Way heading north on Kev's Kentish Cobble and a few hours later after some minor mishaps such as getting lost, stumbling over a top secret MOD base and finding one of the muddiest paths ever, we arrived back in Cudham determined to investigate more paths in the area and fine tune the walk so that we have a choice of long and short alternatives for the future.
And what about the Parakeet Patrol?
You have to take our word for it but the spots in the picture are the legendary Parakeets, 4 of them flew past, honest! (At least according to Kev, Lizzie was not so convinced).
Just a few days before Christmas the country was gripped by fog causing severe disruption to airports and roads, the shortest day of the year seemed even darker with no sign of the sun breaking through the thick fog, not ideal weather to be out walking.
As we have wandered along the North Downs over the past few months we have always felt as though there was something missing - a dog. Now we wouldn't condone giving pets for Christmas but feeling that we were maybe missing out in some small way decided that it was time to have our own little canine friend to accompany us on all our walks. So here is Barney, not certain of the breed but he seems happy enough to be out in the countryside and even has his own little scarf for the times when it gets a bit chilly.
There is nothing like getting out and having a little walk to blow away the cobwebs after Christmas. Unusually for once everything seemed very quite, very little wildlife, the trees finally completely bare - the countryside seemed to be settling down at last for a late winter snooze - or at least a little rest.
New Year's Eve, the grey skies, wind and slight drizzle was certainly a marked difference to the weather we had enjoyed throughout spring, summer and well into late Autumn but not enough to deter us from one final walk to see the year out.
This is a time for looking back and reflecting on the previous year, thankful that we are lucky enough to be able to get out and enjoy the countryside and also a time for looking ahead.
The early signs of spring are showing: green tips of snowdrop bulbs are starting to force their way through the ground, primroses pushing their way through the fallen decaying leaves on the forest floor. One of the greatest seasons in the life cycle of our countryside is just a few months away and everything is about to burst into life once again. And to top it all off we amazingly saw a red squirrel - our first ever - hopefully a sign that despite all of the dramatic changes the countryside is undergoing one of our native species is making a comeback..