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Following the Mole Valley in the company of kingfishers to the North Downs

Leatherhead to Dorking, Surrey

The Mole on its journey through Norbury Park

The Mole on its journey through Norbury Park

Somewhere I’ve visited before, but not for some time, and well worth another visit, Box Hill is so easily accessible from London that a return couldn’t come too soon. This time, I began at Leatherhead and followed the course of the River Mole upstream as it forges a path between the chalk hills of the North Downs. Despite this being an area I have explored before, there was plenty of interest en route – fleeting glimpses of one of our most spectacular birds, a cornucopia of fungi, and plenty of history. Once again, I took in in one of the finest viewpoints on the North Downs – despite the limited visibility on a damp and misty late autumn day.

Start: Leatherhead Station TQ163568

Finish: Dorking Main Station TQ171504

Length: 8¾ miles/4 hours

How to get there: I travelled with Southern on services running to and from London Victoria, but both stations are also served by South West Trains services from London Waterloo

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Along the Darent Valley to a site of Roman domestic bliss

Sutton-at-Hone to Otford, Kent

The 'bridge' - probably a cattle screen - on the Darent at Farningham

The 'bridge' - probably a cattle screen - on the Darent at Farningham

I recently treated myself to annual membership of English Heritage which for the reasonable sum of £46 gives 12 months’ free access to over 400 of the country’s most fascinating historic sites (although when I signed up on a recent visit to Pevensey Castle, I took advantage of a 15-months-for-the-price-of-12 offer – which was just as well, as many of the most tantalising properties I found when leafing through the guide book seemed to shut for the winter just as I’d joined). Along with the grand honeypot sites such as Stonehenge, the site of the Battle of Hastings, Audley End House or Dover Castle, there are hundreds of lesser-known properties giving a fascinating insight into how Britons lived their daily lives, a visit to any of which brings history to life far more vividly than dull words on the pages of a history book. Lullingstone Roman Villa, in Kent, is one such site, its stunningly well-preserved remains giving a remarkable glimpse into Romano-British life over 3 centuries. Like many of English Heritage’s properties, Lullingstone is a little way from reliable public transport links, and for the car-less involves a walk from the nearest station. But what better reason could there be for heading out into the countryside on foot? Especially as the way to Lullingstone is along the very pleasant Darent Valley Path which follows the course of the Darent (or Darenth) River along a gap in the North Downs through beautiful landscape and picturesque villages.

Start: Farningham Road Station TQ556693

Finish: Eynsford Station TQ532593

Length: 9½ miles/6 hours (including 1½-2 hours to explore Lullingstone Roman Villa)

How to get there: Both stations are served regularly by trains to and from London Victoria: timetables can found on the Southeastern website.

Note: entrance to the Roman Villa costs £5.30 for adults & £3.50 for children (at the time of writing), but is free for English Heritage members. For more information go to the English Heritage website.

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Autumn in the Royal Parks

Richmond Park, south west London

Red deer stag

Red deer stag

My original plans for a walk in Kent on this day were abandoned due to massive disruption to train services after a fatality at Swanley, but rather than head home and waste a day of glorious autumnal sunshine, I decided to head back into London and then south west to Richmond Park. At this time of year, the Park has two very unique spectacles on offer: the vivid autumn colour of the Isabella Plantation, and the astonishing display of deer in rut when the stags and bucks vie for status and mates in an often violent fashion. I last visited Richmond Park back in May, but the Park changes with each season and, as I mentioned before, it is somewhere for which I have great affection, so a return visit could never come too soon.

Start: Petersham Gate TQ182732

Finish: Richmond Gate TQ184737

Length: 4¾ miles – allow plenty of time for deer-watching!

How to get there: I took the train to Richmond (from London Waterloo or Clapham Junction, with South West Trains), but could also have caught the District Line or Overground. Then, from the bus stop just outside the station entrance, I jumped on a 65 bus towards Kingston, alighting at The Dysart Arms; the 371 runs along the same route. The bus stop is adjacent to Petersham Gate, a pedestrian-only entrance into the Park. At the end of the walk, as it was a pleasant evening, I strolled from Richmond Gate down Richmond Hill back into the town centre, but if you’ve walked far enough the 371 stops just outside Richmond Gate. Alternatively, turning left and walking down Star and Garter Hill takes you to the Dysart Arms bus stop to pick up the 65.

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An historian writes

Southwards along the Royal Military Canal towards Cliff End

Southwards along the Royal Military Canal towards Cliff End

While writing this post about a recent trip to Rye and the Pett Level, I discovered that the 28 mile Royal Military Canal was constructed at a cost to the public purse of £234,310 which at the time – the early 19th century – was a huge amount of money. The more I read about the Canal, the more it became clear that parallels can be drawn between the construction of the Canal – which was beset by difficulties and overran in terms of both time and money, and was, by its completion, effectively obsolete as the threat of Napoleonic invasion had dwindled – and many construction projects today, proving that the ‘white elephant’ is no modern phenomenon.

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A walk chock full of history across flat marshland and rolling cliffs

Rye to Hastings, East Sussex

Strand Gate, Winchelsea

Strand Gate, Winchelsea

This was quite a strenuous walk: over 15 miles, deceptively easy-going at first across the flatlands of Rye Harbour and the Pett Level, followed by steep climbs up over sandstone cliffs and down into deep wooded gullies. But it was well worth the effort, visiting two charming towns steeped in history, and some glorious coastal countryside rich in wildlife. Including the now-obligatory visit to two wonderful churches, I also managed to pay my respects to a comedy legend, and followed the line of an obsolete defence against Napoleonic forces. All along the route I found evidence of a coastline in constant flux and at repeated risk of invasion.

Halfway to Rye on the train, I realised I’d forgotten my camera. So the pictures in this post, taken with my phone, are a little bit blurry and indistinct, but should give an idea of the landscape encountered on this walk. Think of them as an Impressionist revival.

Start: Rye Station TQ918205

Finish: Hastings Station TQ814096

Length: 15¼ miles/8 hours

How to get there: Rye is on the Marshlink Line between Ashford and Hastings – I went from St Pancras on Southeastern’s High Speed service to Ashford International, then changed onto Southern’s service across the marshes that clings to the coast towards Brighton; Ashford can also be reached by regular (cheaper) Southeastern services from Charing Cross or Victoria. The return from Hastings is either by Southeastern back to Charing Cross via Tonbridge, or by Southern back to Victoria via Lewes

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In which I traverse open heathland and majestic woodland in the New Forest and nearly disappear in a bog

Ashurst to Lymington, Hampshire

Ancient hornbeams on Park Pale

Ancient hornbeams on Park Pale

I’ve enjoyed walks from Ashurst (Kent) before, but this time I head to its Hampshire namesake for a walk that encompassed the best the New Forest has to offer. One of Britain’s more recently established National Parks (created in 2005), the New Forest covers over 200 square miles of what to modern urban eyes may appear wild and untamed countryside. But in fact the landscape here has been shaped by thousands of years of history of human occupation and activity. The areas of heather-clad open heathland result from clearance of trees from the Bronze Age onwards, while the character of the woodlands is intrinsically linked to their use by man in a process of planting, harvesting and management for timber and a variety of other products which continues today.

The name ‘New Forest’ originates from its enclosure by the conquering Norman King William I for hunting deer – indeed, the word ‘forest‘ in English was originally a legal term to describe an area of land set aside for hunting by nobility – in which poaching of the King’s deer was punishable in a number of gruesome ways including blinding or having the hands cut off. The restrictions on the use of the Forest by local people, and the harsh rule of William Rufus (William the Conqueror’s son and heir) led to huge resentment, which has been suggested as one of many possible motives for William’s death: in a still-unsolved mediaeval ‘whodunnit’, William may have been murdered by a ‘stray’ arrow fired by Walter Tyrell who somewhat suspiciously immediately fled to France.

In later years, the local people were granted commoners’ rights – of pasture (grazing of animals), of pannage or mast (the feeding of pigs on fallen acorns in the autumn), estovers (the collection of firewood), of turbary (the digging of peat for fuel), and of marl (the digging of clay to improve land). Formalised in the 16th century and still administered by the Verderers today, these rights, particularly grazing and pannage, have subtly moulded the landscape character of the New Forest by interrupting ecological progressions and preventing natural regeneration. In fact, the woodland character of some parts of the Forest – grazed by animals leading to open wood pasture – has been suggested as an example of how the ancient European ‘Wildwood’ may have appeared before human intervention, according to Frans Vera’s hypothesis: not the dense dark impenetrable tangle of trees and undergrowth of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, but rather a more open landscape of mature trees in a matrix of grassy glades grazed by deer, bison and aurochs.

Pine plantation, Parkhill Inclosure

Pine plantation, Parkhill Inclosure

Although still largely in the ownership of the Crown, royal hunting ceased long ago, and today, the area is known for being ‘forest’ in the modern sense: acres and acres of trees, plantations of native broadleaves and non-native conifers. Many of the ‘Inclosures’ date from the 17th century onwards when substantial numbers of oaks were planted for ship building, enabled by an Enclosure Act passed by William III in 1698. Despite the loss of 4000 oaks in the Great Storm of 1703, a survey of 1707 identified 12,476 trees suitable for shipbuilding – although this was a tenth of the number identified a century earlier. Each ship required a huge amount of timber: the construction of Agamemnon, built in the 1770s at a cost of £38,303 15s 4d, and later captained by Nelson, apparently required over 3000 oaks, and she was a relatively small ship.

From the First World War onwards, the demand for timber resulted in the planting of fast growing non-native conifers – Sitka spruce and Douglas fir amongst others. Harvesting and extraction of such timber continues today, but, recognising the diminished conservation value of such habitat, the Forestry Commission is working on restoring native woodland by replanting broadleaves.

Today, the New Forest is patchwork of hugely valuable habitats, home to a vast range of wildlife (including all six species of native reptile), and well deserving of its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Ramsar site and EU Special Area of Conservation. It is also hugely popular for recreation, with many honeypot sites that attract thousands of visitors every year. But even so, as I found on this walk, get away from the main roads and the sense of isolation and wilderness is wonderful.

Start: Ashurst (New Forest) Station SU333101

Finish: Lymington Pier Station SZ332954

Length: 12 miles/6 hours

How to get there: Ashurst can be reached directly from London Waterloo on South West Trains services to Bournemouth and Weymouth via Southampton. The return journey back to Waterloo from Lymington Pier requires a change at Brockenhurst, from where one can also catch a Cross Country train to Birmingham and beyond.

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Belligerent bulls, Second World War artefacts, wonderful woodlands, an awesome ancient yew, all under changeable skies in the Surrey countryside

Oxted to Lingfield, Surrey

The Crowhurst Yew

The Crowhurst Yew

This part of southern England is perhaps not high on the list of most people’s walking hotspots. But it’s pleasant walking country, gently rolling and bordered to the north by the dramatic North Downs escarpment. It is typically rural English landscape, of mixed agriculture and ancient woodlands, crossed by streams and divided by hedgerows, retaining links to hundreds of years of history, if you look for them, and relatively unspoilt despite the proximity to London and the threat of urbanisation that this brings. Unlike Flatford which I visited recently, there are few real honeypot sites, few brown-signed tourist attractions, which is part of the charm: you have to explore and discover it for yourself.

Start: Oxted Station TQ393528

Finish: Lingfield Station TQ393438

Length: 12 miles/6 hours

How to get there: both stations are on the East Grinstead branch. Southern services from London Bridge and Victoria take less than an hour.

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