Adam roams the Garden of England

A MAJOR problem with exploring unfamiliar territory is knowing where to find the most rewarding rambles.

Where does that footpath lead? How can you discover the best views, magical country lanes or historic villages? How do you find just the right spot for bluebells, butterflies, berries or birdsong, depending on the season?

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Letts Green near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

That’s where journalist and musician Adam McCulloch can help take the guesswork out of a day trip to Kent.

Over the past few years, his Kent Walks Near London website has been building up a library of favourite rambles around the Garden of England, and it now boasts handy downloadable guides to more than two dozen walks, all between 2.5 and six miles long.

From wintry rambles on the North Downs Way to sunny afternoons looking out over the Weald, this is a delightful introduction to some of the county’s strikingly different landscapes.

PERFECT DAY: a winter sunset near Dunstall Farm PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Born in the Petts Wood area of south-east London, Adam spent his childhood gallivanting around the nearby countryside in pursuit of his family’s two English springer spaniels – and, now 58, he’s been enjoying the great outdoors ever since.

You might recognise the byline from the travel pages of The Guardian, but although Adam freelances for a variety of publications writing about everything from farming to finance, his walks website is more of a labour of love, incorporating an occasional blog and slide shows of some of the sights and sounds encountered en route.

He recalls: “I started to write up the routes and add them to the website in 2015. I’d been meaning to do it for several years before that, though. I was working at a large publishing house and a lot of my colleagues were from other parts of the country and some were from abroad. When discussing what people did at weekends I began to realise that a lot of people didn’t really know much about this part of the world and how easy it was to get out here from south London.

WINTRY OUTLOOK: mist over the Darent Valley PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“I was also thinking of university students and tourists who were curious about countryside close to London. I know that when I visit cities abroad I’m never just satisfied with museums, coffee shops, galleries and bars…I want at least one afternoon outside in the countryside.

“I feel strangely happy when I bump into foreign visitors in obscure corners of the North Downs enjoying a walk having ventured out on the train.”

A keen cyclist and golfer, his rambles are focused on that part of Kent south and east of Petts Wood, down to Westerham, Hever and Chiddingstone and out to Shoreham and Otford, with another batch south-east of Sevenoaks.

The walks encompass a range of attractions, from castles, churches, hillforts and manor houses to atmospheric oast houses and monuments, rolling lavender fields or far-flung views over the downs.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: The Mill at Shoreham PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

There are helpful tips about public transport too, along with whether buggies will cope with the route or if dogs need to be kept on leads.

“The good news is that there are beautiful fields, woods and villages to walk in just 30 minutes out of town by car or train,” he says.

Lockdown has encouraged people to stay local and walk more and he has seen a sharp rise in the number of people using the website this year.

“It’s kind of gratifying to think people have found it to be a useful outlet at this disturbing time. Sometimes out on the walks I come across people using one of my routes, either with a pdf print-out or on their phones. It’s always quite a laugh once they realise they’re talking to the ‘author’.”

DISTANT PROSPECT: St Mary’s Church at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“One thing that I always knew to be the case and there’s no getting round is that describing walks accurately can be difficult – people look at trails and hedgerows differently. An instruction that seems simple to me, ‘Turn right just before a stand of trees’ for example, is actually really open to misinterpretation.

“My partner certainly thought so when she did one route with me yesterday… she really helped me improve my description. I’ve learnt to really try to nail down directions and be as accurate as possible – I think it’s working, no-one’s had a moan recently!”

Away from the footpath and keyboard, Adam is also a saxophonist and composer in the jazz, funk and soul genres who has been playing semi-pro since the mid-1980s and organises bands for weddings and other events from private house parties to festivals.

ICY BLAST: deer in the thaw at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

But he’s never happier than out on a walk – either alone or in company – and finding his interest piqued by an unusual wildflower, bird or insect.

“I love a social walk even more than a solitary one,” he admits – at the same time modestly confessing that the fascination with trying to recognise unfamiliar flowers in the hedgerows might just be compensation for him being a “pretty useless” gardener.

Birds have become an interest too, with expert local birder ‘Dave’ obligingly helping to identify bird calls and explain the connection between various species and different habitats and terrain.

IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST: St Peter’s Church at Hever PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

Adam has always paid a lot of attention to what’s happening in the sky, too. “Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to work out what was likely to happen to the weather from reading cloud formations,” he says.

“I haven’t lost this childlike fascination with weather. The sky in the UK is ever-changing, constantly offers up clues and is often as beautiful as the countryside. It’s the greatest art gallery of them all; maybe Turner would have agreed.”

WEATHER WATCH: the sky comes to life as storm clouds gather PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

History still comes alive here too, from following in the footsteps of Chaucer’s pilgrims whiling away the journey to Canterbury with their tales, to visiting Churchill’s home at Chartwell or the Roman villa at Lullingstone.

As Adam says: “These places are still magical, especially now I’ve understood how they chime with some fairly momentous history. Take the unassuming North Downs village of Downe (just 20 minutes’ drive from Bromley), for example.

“Here, a short walk will take you through Charles Darwin’s garden and, 20 minutes later, to the perimeter of an airfield crucial to the UK’s survival in the Battle of Britain, where Spitfires can still be heard and seen.

HISTORY LESSON: Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“And just down the road are the remains of an oak tree – the Wilberforce Oak – under which in 1787 Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce discussed ending the slave trade.”

There you have it, then: medieval pilgrims, old flint churches, soaring birds of prey, big skies, long views and a chance to come face to face with history – what more could you ask for from a quick trip round the M25?

With almost 30 routes described, Adam relies on other walkers to let him know when something has changed.

“The worst ‘change’ I’ve come across was when a beautiful rewilded meadow on my Downe walk was flattened by a farmer all of a sudden with all wildlife utterly eradicated. It had become a wonderful place full of wildflowers, grasses and hawthorn with healthy numbers of yellowhammers, mammals and insects.

KENT SKYLINE: oast houses at Chiddingstone PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“But I guess the land changed hands and suddenly there was a winter crop of something in there, right up to the edge of the woods, and the path became a muddy mess.

“To balance that, a golf course that walkers had to cross on the Fackenden Down and Valleys East of Shoreham routes was closed down a few years back and has rewilded beautifully, a magical chalk downs landscape full of life.

“Those are probably the two walks I do most often – the train stops right where the path starts in Shoreham (Kent, not the West Sussex one!) and so 40 minutes after leaving Peckham you are in a remote-feeling natural wonderland of beech, yew, birdsong and searing timeless views.

ESCAPE FROM THE CITY: a stag at Knole PICTURE: Adam McCulloch

“That’s what the site’s all about,” he says. “To take you out of yourself and your neighbourhood and plonk you somewhere very different, yet very accessible.”

Adam’s website welcomes donations from those who find his downloadable guides useful. You can follow him on Twitter @kentwalkslondon.

Autumn adventures on the water

THE trees are changing colour, the nights are drawing in – what better time of year to take a relaxing break away from the crowds and explore Britain’s beautiful waterways?

That’s the message from the Canal and River Trust this autumn, especially for those struggling to recharge their batteries amid the stresses of coronavirus lockdowns.

For a self-catering staycation with a difference away from busy tourist areas, canal boat holidays offer a great opportunity to get back to what matters: spending time with family or friends, enjoying the natural world and being as lazy or as active as you like, walking, cycling, fishing or even canoeing if the fancy takes you.

The canals and rivers are beautiful at this time of year and offer plenty of scope to explore, with hire boat companies dotted around the country who have been working hard to make boats safe in line with the latest government guidance.

Research shows that people can feel happier and healthier by the water, which makes a canal boat the ideal option for a relaxing short-break escape.

You can plan your journey based around how you and your family or friends want to spend your days. If you love visiting attractions and eating out, go for a route that passes through a major city like Birmingham or Manchester. But if you prefer peaceful surroundings and spotting wildlife, there’s a huge choice of rural waterways.

Your skill level and confidence in driving the boat may also play a part in your route decision. If you’re new to boating, you may want to avoid areas with lots of locks. However, if you have energetic children, then locks will help to keep them entertained.

The trust looks after 2,000 miles of waterways and its website contains a host of ideas and resources for anyone new to boating – including free guides to fun local days out and comprehensive advice for beginners and where to find boat hire companies.

As well as offering the prospect of a more tranquil pace of life – and a greener holiday than jetting off to sunnier climes – boating holidays offer a chance for families to spend time together and discover some intriguing insights into Britains architectural history.

For those with a head for heights, the scary-looking Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales has been recognised with World Heritage Site status and is one of the most impressive engineering feats on the canal network (and one of seven wonders singled out by the trust for special mention). You can walk across or save your legs and go by boat.

To choose a location, you might look for a place that you’ve previously fallen in love with or an area that you have always wanted to explore. 

The trust has plenty of advice for first-timers and advice about circular routes or “cruising rings” which vary in length and could take anything from two days to three weeks without the need to retrace your steps or worry about the return journey.

You can also check out social media posts and capture the excitement of your own boating adventure when you get home by tagging #CanalMemories on Twitter and mentioning @CanalRiverTrust.

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.

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And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.

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Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.

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In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.

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A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.

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For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.

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In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.

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Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.

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