[singlepic id=349 w=320 h=240 float=centre] I love the idea that I can go for a walk somewhere lovely and take photographs, and regard it as work: doing something you love as your occupation is definitely the way to go! But it has been nearly a month since my last North Downs expedition and blog, and the reason for the gap is mostly bad weather: it’s been a soggy, cold May. Even on nice days, the wind tends to come from the north, so rather than beginning to feel like summer is coming, it just gets a little less cold as the weeks pass by.

I’ve been watching the countryside near my home in Buckinghamshire, and the difficult conditions continue. There are few wildflowers out, except for loads of dandelions and daisies; although the cowslips are having a very good year. The bluebells are out at last, a month late, as are stitchworts and red campions in the verges and hedgerows. There are very few butterflies, which like warm sun and can’t abide the rain: small numbers of brimstones, whites, a few orange tips and peacock butterflies. I’ve seen just a two blue butterflies where there should be many, as there simply isn’t the warmth and food for them. Birds are late in nesting as well, and feeding chicks won’t be easy with the low number of insects.

[singlepic id=350 w=150 h=200 float=right] Amazingly, after a dismal week, the May Bank Holiday weekend was sunny for us down south, so I set Sunday aside to go walking. This late, slow spring holds one benefit for me, and that is that the April weather and flowers are extended over a longer period of time, giving me more chances to get great images. I just pray (along with 70 million other Brit residents) that we get a real summer to follow or, like last year, we’ll still be waiting for it to turn up as the snow starts like last year.

For this excursion, I decided to move further east again, to the Reigate area. Reigate is busy country town that has merged with Redhill since WW2, so is quite a larger conurbation, so I decided to leave the town till later and concentrate on the woods and hills. At this point, the M25 motorway runs along the North Downs ridge, looping around Banstead Heath with a large interchange just north of Reigate town. Lindsey did a university history dissertation on the area and has maps from the nineteenth century which show Reigate as a tidy settlement, thoroughly discrete from Redhill and the huge suburbs of Sutton and Cheam as mere villages. There is no road whatsoever running across the Downs, just commons and woods and farms. It is salutary that in a single century, we have turned the rural North Downs landscape into the densely populated outskirts of a metropolis plagued by traffic jams. Of course, the World population was under a billion, whereas it is seven billion and rising now: will we have any countryside left in 50 years?

My exploration started at the National Trust car park at Mogador, which is at the edge of a wood carpeted with bluebells. The name sounds Iberian rather than British, and it is the historic Portuguese name for a town in Western Morocco, but is also a Surrey hamlet with a few houses, farms and a pub at the southern end of Banstead Heath. Approaching the pub on this sunny Bank Holiday Sunday the World and his dogs had come out to celebrate the sunshine: the place was heaving, not only with people but with dogs, and not only with dogs, but with brown pointers! There were dozens of them, all sleek and thoroughbred doing doggy things. The photo shows one of these underneath a cautionary sign, along with a terrier.
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I drank a pint of bitter to the accompaniment of thoroughbred barking, then set off into the woods. These are not the magnificent mature beech woods of the Chilterns, but are younger and slightly scrubby; however the bluebells carpet the ground and are as lovely. I came across a couple of speckled wood butterflies, which were my first this year and nice to see.
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Houses dot the land here, and there is short row of larger dwellings on the crest of the escarpment, similar to those on Pewley Down in Guildford (see previous blog), so it looks like ribbon building of villas on hilltops was quite common before planning laws were tightened up. The last house has erected a sex-foot fence for about 400 metres along the footpath (which is within the North Downs and Pilgrim’s Way long distance routes), effectively blocking the view. The landowners have one of the loveliest views in the south of England, which they seem to want to keep for themselves even when the path does not overlook the house, thereby continuing the selfish attitudes that put the house there originally. I took a few photos over the fence.
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As I walked on, grumbling to myself, I thought about how extraordinary our UK footpaths network is: it is a fantastic asset and utility, secured through a fight with land-owners through the centuries that continues to this day. There are few, if any, countries in the World that allow their citizens to wander as you can in the densely populated United Kingdom, and many’s the time I have, legally, passed right through someone’s garden or back door because I am on an official footpath. This is, of course, a nuisance for the owners but, as Madonna and others have discovered, you purchase the property along with the right of way and have to live with it. If our hills were all covered in houses and access was not allowed on all private property, England would be a much less pleasant place to live in: it is hugely important and valuable.
So, perhaps I shouldn’t moan about someone erecting a high fence to protect their garden from view, but it does seem a little mean.

When you can see the view, Box Hill lies to the west and south of it Leith Hill, which is the highest point in these hills at 294 metres. To the south is the wield of Surrey and Sussex with the South Downs in the distance, with aeroplanes taking off from Gatwick Airport. Closer at hand, farms and small settlements dot the landscape between swathes of forest who’s spring foliage glistens in all shades of green under the bright sunshine. I am collecting quite a lot of lovely images of views from this scarp so will have plenty to choose from for my book: probably too many! It’s rather like taking photographs when walking in the mountains as the scenery is so magnificent, it deserves a picture, but when you get home, you have dozens of images that look rather the same.
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I continued west along the top of the scarp for a couple of miles, through a mixture of woodland and steep grassy heath, where the lack of butterflies was a disappointment, but the scenery was varied and lovely. The woods include patches of yew who’s dark foliage casts deep shadows and their twisted reddish trunks have a sort of underworld atmosphere, especially as nothing will grow beneath them. I then turned south, steeply downhill and down a rutted lane in order to get a view back to the escarpment, a diversion that turned out to be well worthwhile as I got a really good feel for the structure of the land hereabouts.
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I have a new marketing idea: I had business cards printed with the Chiltern Landscapes cover on the front, and my website and email address on the back and I give these out to people I encounter who look like they might be interested. I’m finding that people seem quite intrigued, and I hope that it will at least build a market for the book in advance, and possibly result in a lot of people reading these blogs. Any feedback is welcome to doug@doug-kennedy.com.

As I reached the outskirts of Reigate, I turned left and climbed 100 metres straight up to the top of the scarp again, where lots of people were enjoying the sunny panorama, grateful no doubt for a weekend respite from the cold and rain.

I am now planning to do a four-day walk in late June on the North Downs Way from Rochester in Kent and camp overnight so that I can get images taken at different times of day, as so far these expeditions have taken place on sunny afternoons. It will also get me into unexpected places and little settlements that have stories to add richness to the publication. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and look out for the next blog.

  1. Dear Doug

    Liked reading this very much – very interesting. Loved your freudian slip below – conjured up lovely associations of sheep with dark coats.

    “The woods include patches of EWE who’s dark foliage casts deep shadows and their twisted reddish trunks have a sort of underworld atmosphere, especially as nothing will grow beneath them. ”

    Good to hear about your view of the countryside

    All the best


  2. Hello. Thanks for your comments. My twitter tag is @DougskiK, but I don’t use it a lot currently – keep meaning to, but there’s so much….

    I’m doing another research trip tomorrow, Aug 6th and will be writing episode 6.

    Best wishes,

    Doug Kennedy