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?
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.
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.
“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.
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’.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”