Click here to catch up or watch again on this timely and relevant conversation with the Director of Catriona Riddell & Associates, covering the Planning Bill and what it might contain, what it means for Local Plans, and Green Belt protection.
The Guildford judgment referred to in the webinar can be found here
The UK government reaffirmed its commitment to the ‘net-zero by 2050’ emissions target within the Queen’s Speech on May 11. While to many, the net-zero by 2050 target does not go far enough, to achieve even this clearly requires action now. It certainly requires action by 2028. Especially in a borough where there is a local net-zero emissions target of 2030. Therefore, CPRE Kent was extremely disappointed by the decision by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to remove measures intended to reduce carbon emissions when approving the Quinn Estates proposal for 675 houses at Wises Lane, Sittingbourne – a development that had already sparked a ‘Cash for favours’ headline. This is even more disappointing when you consider that in doing so he has overridden the planning judgment of both Swale Borough Council and the Planning Inspectorate, both of whom had the benefit of actually hearing the evidence at the inquiry. This is compounded further by the fact the full net-zero carbon emissions measures were not even being sought until 2028 at the earliest. While the proposed development at Wise Lanes has a long and complicated background, the facts regarding the carbon emissions point are as follows:
Swale Borough Council took the position that if the Wises Lane development was to be approved, it wanted to see planning conditions imposed that reduced carbon emissions. This was to be on a tapered basis, culminating in a zero-carbon requirement on any new houses where details were to be agreed after 2028. This was deemed necessary to meet the Swale 2030 carbon-neutrality target locally and the national target of 2050.
Although the Planning Inspectorate allowed the appeal, it agreed the conditions setting the path to net-zero emission should be applied. Specifically, it reasoned: “The planning regime has a role to play and cannot leave climate change to other regimes to deal with, particularly when those regimes have not kept pace with the requirement to take urgent and material action. “The scale and urgency of the climate change emergency is such that it would constitute a material consideration of significant weight to support the imposition of conditions to mitigate the impact of the development.”
As this was a ‘called-in’ appeal, Mr Jenrick had the last say on the matter. In very simple terms, this meant he got to review the written evidence, including the planning inspector’s report and then issue a final decision on the matter.
While Mr Jenrick agreed with the planning inspector on most issues, he directed that the conditions setting the path to net-zero emission be removed. The stated reasoning was as follows: “Notwithstanding the high-level national commitment to carbon neutrality, and the significant weight attaching to tackling climate change, these conditions also go beyond current and emerging national policy. He therefore considers that the proposed conditions cannot be said to be either reasonable or necessary.”
While the ins and the outs of such a position in technical planning law could be debated, ultimately this was a matter of planning judgment on which the Secretary of State had a clear choice. He could have accepted Swale Borough Council’s and the planning inspector’s position and let the conditions stand. These might not have been perfect, though at least would have provided a hook within the decision which could have been amended in the future by way of a variation of condition application should national policy change. Or he could have accepted the applicant’s position that, as we cannot predict which policies might apply in the future, the only option is to do nothing now. By taking the latter position, he is likely to have handed the developer huge cost savings, though without reviewing the viability evidence up-front. This is on a scheme where a much lower than policy-compliant affordable-housing provision had been agreed. While the legal agreement does allow for this to be reviewed once 400 houses have been built, the need for affordable housing in Swale is now. There is, however, no option to review the net-zero-emission conditions. There were a number of seemingly positive climate and environment soundbites within the Queen’s Speech. However, the position taken by the Secretary of State at Wises Lane raises serious questions as to just how genuine the government is about tackling these issues and indeed where priorities actually lie. Saying is the easy part, it is the doing that matters!
Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech (Tuesday, May 11) confirmed the government’s intention to push on with radical reforms of England’s planning system over the next year. While no new substantive details were released regarding the reforms, the rhetoric accompanying the announcement was disheartening enough. The stated purpose of the Planning Bill is to “create a simpler, faster and more modern planning system to replace the current one that dates back to 1947”. This focus upon speed, and the notion a complicated planning system is the cause of a lack of housing building, was repeated throughout yesterday’s media release. Kent is already suffering the consequence of a planning system that prioritises how quickly and how many ‘units’ are granted above almost everything else. If a council is not meeting its centrally-set government housing targets, there is an automatic presumption further housing development will be permitted. This often trumps local concerns regarding the environment or whether there is sufficient infrastructure. Kent is also already suffering the consequence of an increasingly deregulated planning system, which often leads to new houses in wholly unsustainable locations. This includes ever-expanding permitted development rights for new residential use and other new light-touch routes to gaining permission such as the permission-in-principle route. While CPRE Kent agrees that more genuinely affordable houses in the right places are required, we absolutely reject the notion that it is a lack of speed or the complexity of the current planning system that is providing a barrier to housebuilding. With councils approving nine in 10 planning applications and research by the Local Government Association finding that over the last decade more than 1.1 million homes have been granted planning permission in England than have been built, the evidence simply does not support that argument. It is our view the government should focus on improving the current system, including using its powers to ensure developers actually build the permissions granted by councils rather than rewarding them with more permissions. We are becoming increasingly concerned the Planning Bill will prove to be a developer’s charter that diminishes the views and role of local communities, ultimately at the expense of Kent’s countryside.
During these strange times, please keep checking in here to catch up on updates from CPRE Kent planner Julie Davies as we all adjust to very different working days… stay safe and well, everyone
Monday, May 10
Pink Wellies. Will Walk: Will you be doing it this month? I walked with a friend at the weekend. We fancied a bit of bluebell therapy. And the freedom of leaving town and shaking off the role of Mum for a couple of hours. All good, you reckon? Investing in a bit of self-care on a sunny but blustery May morning – or were we being plain stupid? We talked about Julia James. Murdered when she was out walking her dog in countryside near her home. A fact made all the more poignant because she was killed 20 miles or so from where we live. And I’m pretty sure it was in the woods I stood looking at with a colleague, in preparation for submitting comments to the draft Dover Local Plan last month. I don’t know about you, but my mind is constantly assessing my safe zones. The mental map I have of my local area has grown over lockdown. Familiarity of much-walked routes has bred a confidence that the countryside near me is ‘mine’. My safe zone. The dog-walk you’ve done a million times. Walking to the next village to have a doorstep cuppa with a friend. But are the risks way more than the mishap of getting lost?
As our thoughts turn to warmer weather and longer, lighter evenings we’re being encouraged to get out walking by the British Heart Foundation with its campaign to make May the National Walking Month. That might mean walking to school, taking the stairs instead of the lift, taking a lunchtime stroll and exploring your local area. There are so many benefits of walking. It’s a fabulous (free) form of exercise. And it’s good for the environment – it can improve air quality as less road traffic means less pollution. As well as being good for your heart and health, it’s good for your mental well-being, too. Engaging your senses as you engage with and notice your surroundings. And don’t forget the Countryside Code. It’s recently been relaunched. A quick read will hopefully give you the confidence to get outdoors and into the countryside. RIP Julia James.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d be interested to hear your experiences of walking in the countryside – do you feel safe? Tell me in the comments.
Thursday, April 8
You can imagine the look on her face when I suggested a roving Easter-egg hunt. Our family is bigger than six (or two households), so meeting up for some Easter family fun just wasn’t going to happen. Name your fairy tale. I could have been the Pied Piper, Hansel and Gretel or even the paperchase boy from The Railway Children as I strode ahead leaving chocolate in my wake. In hindsight the only person having any fun was me. My daughter has a newly-fitted brace, so she couldn’t eat-as-she-found… Our route was a mix of old and new. I’m getting rather good at spotting walking options based on photos my friends post on Facebook.
We went through the building site at the end of our road, out into the fields, keeping the woods to our right. The oilseed rape is coming into flower – as is the white stitchwort and cow parsley. The new stretch of our walk took us through a farmyard and then out towards the marshes. We were lured into the mistake of following the group of walkers in front of us and missed our path off to the right, which meant we had to loop back along the lane. As it’s a dead end – and therefore very little traffic drives along it – we had the full width of this single-track route to ourselves. From here we walked part of last year’s Easter Sunday walk but in reverse. Determined to get some foraging done, I picked a couple of stems of the new season’s growth of Alexanders. It’s been consigned to a jam jar in the garden. Apparently, it was stinking the house out. Five days later, I still haven’t cooked with it, so it’ll be heading to the compost heap. As a way of imprinting memories with my family, I always ask what they enjoyed most about our walks. My husband said he generally felt sad about the state of the countryside – the fact the fields had no wildlife in them and we see and hear more birds in our garden than we do outdoors. Is it possible for farming and wildlife to co-exist? Something to ponder next time.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love to hear about the wildlife you’ve been spotting when you’re out about – share a photo in the comments.
Monday, March 29
She said she wouldn’t come, if it meant taking a map. It’s getting increasingly difficult to get my daughter out of the house. So I took a screenshot of the bit of the map we needed and she was eventually persuaded that we’d only be out for an hour. We got in the car and drove out of town. A small sentence with a huge impact. We haven’t driven anywhere since before Christmas (except to the supermarket, of course). As of this week we’re being asked to stay local. How far is local? I guess if you have to ask, you’re looking for an excuse not to be local. We parked in the church car park. After a year of walking, this has got to be one of my top tips. Look for a village school or church and park there. It’s practically impossible to feel you’re parked up safe on a country lane and if you go to a designated attraction/car park you’ll be jostling for space, as everyone else will be there, too. With ‘this route must be short’ on repeat, we walked a reverse route to one we’d walked before. Through parkland, along a short section of road – oh the joy of a rural pavement! – and then back into the woods. This was the real start of our walk (see parking problems above).
We played I-spy Spring: • Dumped bike • Violets • Wood anemone • Wild garlic • Primroses • Celandine
It was a bit like being on safari. Taking a photo of the first lion way out on the horizon and then holding out until you can see right into their eyes. This was the moment of the wood anemones. The wood was literally carpeted with them. And we heard a woodpecker. Despite her reluctance to walk, being out together is the only time our daughter talks to us freely. So while I wanted to take a moment to immerse myself in the sounds of nature – forest bathe – she spent the whole time chattering away! As with every single walk we’ve done over the year, we only bumped into a few people. There’s plenty of room in the countryside for everyone. You just need a map. As ever, I extended our walk a tiny bit. We passed a bird-scarer. I’ve never actually seen one before. It looked like a drainpipe attached to a huge red Calor Gas bottle. The intermittent bangs have made our dog even more nervous than usual. She had her tail down and only picked up her stride when she spotted our car as we looped back to the church. We all agreed our walk was too short. I have high hopes that now we can spread our wings a bit further afield we can increase our hours, step count and picnic opportunities.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love hear about the wild flowers you’ve been spotting when you’re out about – share a photo in the comments.
Thursday, March 25
We found a new path! After a year of lockdown walks, it was a pleasant surprise to discover somewhere new – if not on our doorstep, then within an easy round trip five-mile range. We bumped into a couple of birdwatchers on the way. They’d been out looking at yellowhammers. In the stubble, before you get to the wood. We found the stubble but didn’t see anything. My husband says you have to look with your ears instead. The blossom’s in flower. I think this is cherry plum – if you know, do let me know in the comments.
Our walk turned into a delightful nature trail. Albeit a bit muddy. It brought to mind Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. You know the one: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot…They took all the trees put ’em in a tree museum.” Joking aside, we spotted some interesting notices in the woods that were part of the Linking Environment And Farming campaign by leaf.org. Apparently, this is an organisation whose aim is to deliver more sustainable food and farming.
On previous walks we’ve walked deeper into the woods to look at the bluebells and orchids, but this time we skirted round them to the cowslip field (not yet in flower) and discovered a permissive footpath. Not only did this save us from completing our circular route on a very busy country lane (no pavements here) but it also gave us views out across the countryside we’d never seen before. And then it was back home. We walk past these new homes, which clearly delineate the point where the countryside and town meet.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love hear about the blossom you’ve been spotting when you’re out about – share a photo in the comments.
Wednesday, March 17
How safe do you feel walking in the countryside? Last week’s headlines got us talking. It’s not until you share the story of your normal that you realise it’s not quite so normal after all. It seems my husband and I have stark contrasts in our outdoor experiences. And I don’t think either of us has ever realised. Take for instance when we go out for a run together. I always suggest a countryside route. And until last week I haven’t ever spoken out loud my truth. I like to run in the countryside with my husband because I’ll never do it on my own. And given the choice why would you want to be confined to town when the whole world is on your doorstep? My husband was quite shocked when I told him. He has free choice. That’s his story and he believed it was mine. I’ve never previously acknowledged my hesitancy of being alone outdoors. I presumed everybody clasps their keys and mentally recalibrates their route at every turn. Just in case. It seems not. I have an unspoken fear of running alone. When I go walking, I always have the dog with me, or my daughter or my husband. That’s always seemed different. Is that difference safety? At the end of last year when my daughter and I were doing evening town walks I started the conversation about safe routes home. The alleyways she must never walk down alone. Walking confidently in well-lit streets and the fact that she could ring me at any time and I’d come out and collect her.
I live in a quiet market town. I always thought I wasn’t fearful. But hearing the stories of so many women sharing their experiences, I realise I am. But it’s my normal. Like the time at the end of last year when I took my daughter for a 3pm walk in the woods. Once we spotted the burnt-out car – I blogged about it at the time – I had a real fear. What was I doing walking ‘alone’ in the woods as the light was fading? And if something went wrong, it would be my fault. “Well, what did she expect walking there at twilight.” Why does the victim get the blame and no one hold the perpetrator to account? RIP Sarah Everard.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love hear how safe you feel walking in the countryside – let me know in the comments.
Monday, March 8(will walk: still) Last weekend. The start of our last week of home learning. There was something in the air. Silence. Do you ever get that weird sensation that you must be missing out on something because the world around you is so quiet? That happened to us last Saturday morning. If we weren’t in lockdown, it could have been 2019. The promise of early spring sunshine and a long-awaited trip to the beach. With the silence, it was as if I’d missed the memo. Where was everyone? I put the stillness down to atmospheric conditions. A sea fret dampening down sounds. The hint of a chill. A sense of foreboding calm. Anyway. The mist soon burned off. And it was a case of coats off and carry on walking.
We walked a reverse route from a couple of weeks ago. Walking down quiet lanes in the middle of the road, through chestnut coppice and then out on to the hilltop. You’ll often hear my husband say he’d wished he’d brought his binoculars with him when we walk (he never, ever, ever does, though). But it would have been handy. Without the green trees of summer, we spotted the Kent-peg-tile roof of a church in the distance and from there (about a centimetre along) sits a friends’ house out on the marsh. But I just couldn’t see it. It’s at this point I realised that while my phone is great for taking photos for this blog, you can’t get the same level of forensic detail that you can when you zoom in with your long lens. I gave up my DSLR years ago because lugging the kit around didn’t make for enjoyable outings. Chucked out to make room for the picnics. So. How are you feeling about the schools going back? Personally, I’m going to miss my daughter’s midweek company; three for lunch every day; and the joy of an unexpected non-live lesson, which has meant we’ve been able to spend lots of time together walking and talking.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love hear how you feel about going back to school – and whether you’re still going to be able to make time at the weekends for getting out into the countryside – let me know in the comments.
Tuesday, Tuesday 23
What has your countryside lockdown experience been like over Lockdown 1, 2 and 3? I’ve hung up my wellies this week and handed the blog over to Lisa Filmer from Coast & Country Rambles. We were introduced over on Facebook in the summer and went walking together back in the autumn (see my post from December 7, 2020). Born and bred in Kent, Lisa’s always loved our amazing countryside and is never happier than when she’s exploring its highways, byways, bridleways and footpaths. She champions her love of the Kent countryside by organising self-guided bespoke walking holidays in the Garden of England. Lisa lives in Stalisfield, high in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. She’s spoilt for choice on her daily walks and thanks her lucky stars to be ‘locked down’ in such a glorious setting, although (understandably) this winter’s incessant rainfall has been enough to test her positivity. Despite the weather, Lisa’s been out walking every day. Like me, she’s recently noticed that pretty much every footpath has turned into mud slurries, with roads not faring much better. As an expert in her field, I was curious to know what Lisa had noticed about her walking experience in the countryside across our three periods of lockdown. In her own words, this is Lisa’s lockdown story:
“While out walking recently (in the rain again), I began comparing this current lockdown to the first lockdown in spring 2020. Almost as soon as the first lockdown was instigated, the weather turned glorious. “Staying at home for me was as relaxing as a holiday. No dashing to and fro, no school run, no swimming lessons, no urgent errands to run. Just quality family time enjoying the great outdoors in glorious spring weather. Within a month I felt more chilled and relaxed than I had in years. “Obviously, this wasn’t the case for everyone and, having a four-year-old at home, I totally felt for families confined to homes in the town, with little or no outdoor space. Therefore it was no surprise to find more and more people beginning to appear in the countryside as lockdown restrictions eased and the good weather continued. “Our quiet country lanes became busy with cyclists and walkers, as did our footpaths, bridleways and byways. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the fact everyone wants to experience our lovely countryside, but unfortunately not everyone appreciated their surroundings, or was even prepared for the countryside, let alone ever having heard of the Countryside Code. “Farmers’ field entrances started to become blocked with parked cars, more and more litter appeared, footpath and field gates were left open, there were more reports of dogs worrying farm animals, people walking aimlessly across crops in fields and occasional fires being started in woodland, after disposable barbecue use. “Hence this wet winter lockdown has been a blessing to our green (if not waterlogged) and pleasant land. The number of cyclists and walkers I’ve seen while out on my daily walks has been few and far between, but the eerie quietness has attracted other visitors – again whose intentions for our countryside are questionable. “There has been an increase in flytipping. Disposable face-masks are strewn in hedgerows. There’s late-night burger-eating, beer-drinking joy-riders hurtling along the lanes. The wet weather hasn’t deterred the ‘bad guys’ (as my son likes to refer to them). “However, I suppose we should be grateful that a ‘short Covid-19’ version of the Countryside Code is now available online, so that when the spring weather does arrive visitors may well be better prepared. But until then, I’ll carry on enjoying my quiet slipping and sliding daily walks, collecting dropped litter from passers-by.”
What have you noticed about your walks in the countryside over the last year – if you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, leave a comment and let’s compare notes.
And if you’d like to guest post one week about your lockdown story, do get in touch.
Monday, February 15
Cold hands. Warm heart. The conditions were arctic on our Valentine’s Day walk at the weekend. The snow had frozen solid and the pavements in town were treacherous. We had to cross over to the sunny side of the street as we made our way out to the woods. We found a new path. Snowfall makes everything so black and white, which meant we were able to pick out paths we’d never noticed before. The cold bought back memories of our trip to Swedish Lapland a few years ago. In fact, I’m certain we were wearing the same outer gear. And what with walking on the ‘other’ side of the fishing lakes we were getting a different view of life. We cancelled our New Year return to Sweden – which has made the memories of our first holiday there all the sweeter. But perhaps being on holiday is a state of mind. Being open to new experiences and exploring new places. My family are fed up with me saying “It feels like we’re on holiday” every time the path opens up a new view.
We said hello to two other dog-walkers and a family of three, but other than that we had the place to ourselves. It’s so strange hearing about crowds at local hotspots when there’s so much of the countryside with no one else in it. Perhaps they haven’t found the freedom of a map (or an app) – which is such a shame. Or perhaps it’s the need to get out of the house and drive to freedom that sends others to the safety of somewhere with a car park. I found a heart-shaped icy puddle-topper. And stood on a snowy outcrop. As I write, yesterday evening’s rain has washed the snow away. It’s half-term and it’s raining…
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love to hear what you’re planning for half-term – let me know in the comments.
Friday, February 12
The minute school finished, we were out the door. Yes! We’ve had more snow. You wait three years and then you get decent snowfall three days running.
We were out for an hour and a half perfecting our snowball technique (too powdery), making snow angels, tramping where no one had been before and admiring this snowman and the sledging community that was speeding down the hill opposite the church. Such fun.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love to see your snow photos – are there any good sledging hills near you? Let me know in the comments.
Monday, February 8
The weather forecast has been telling me for three weeks to expect snow and it’s never come. Finally, with a weather warning in place maybe it would be our turn… I went to bed on Saturday full of excitement for the promised snow. It was like childhood Christmas Eves. I barely slept a wink, what with jumping out of bed every couple of hours to check. Howling winds and rain. That was it. And then at 8am Sunday it started. We had proper snow for about half an hour – when it seemed to fall in slow motion – and then icy rain. With the dog-walking hour approaching, we togged up to head out to the woods. On the way my daughter dropped her white phone and we spent the next 45 minutes quartering a 10-square-metre area of park. Not much of a walk – although it did get repeated three times that day. And no, we didn’t find it.
Gaps in home learning meant fun in the park with husband, daughter and dog, while I sat at the kitchen table working. I hooked up with my sister for a lunchtime walk and we did what I’m now calling the Christmas Day loop. Both of us had imagined we’d be wading through snow drifts. We had our walking boots on and Sis had her Nordic walking poles with her. And the snow? It was a bit disappointing. We’d had more in town. We spotted some sledging family groups – oh the joy of the sound of squeaking snow and laughter! By way of an update, the burnt-out Range Rover has been removed and I stepped in a puddle, right up to my middle. I would have been better off in wellies.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook or Twitter, I’d love see your snow photos – I bet there’s a fair chance you had more than us. Let me know in the comments.
Thursday, February 5
She wasn’t to be convinced. My daughter had a pyjama day – which I think probably included her quick solo dog-walk in the afternoon. My husband wasn’t keen on a big walk. Time was of the essence. He had to be home an hour and a half from now. That’s the thing about my family: the rest of them always want to hurry home (for what?), while I like exploring the great outdoors. I set the pace. I was absolutely convinced we could go down a lane we’d never been down before and be back in time for… me to make lunch. We crossed the railway line, which was a first for my husband at this particular crossing point. Which almost meant he’d never seen the new allotments at the end of our road. Without the ‘my legs hurt’ dawdling, we walked on at pace. I might have told a little white lie about us being a third of the way round at one point – but there was no turning back by then. We crossed a field with the ‘shouty’ signs that have been there for years. And then went over the road through the farmyard with its brand-new footpath signs. Imagine doing a walk so often that you can spot these 10cm changes…
The sheep were back on the hilltop. Then we looped back through the chestnut coppice. We varied the last bit home by walking up the sunken lane opposite. I’d finally remembered to check the map before we left to see where it led. Except for a belt of conifers, we would have been able to see the sea. Such a strange planting choice in the middle of the countryside – but I guess it would have been planted as a windbreak. We got our bearings from the sound of the motorway and then looped back via the churchyard and home.
We saw another family group carving a path across the last field and spotted a flock of goldfinches. Which reminded my husband that he wanted to do the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (so there was a reason for getting home fast). We made it back in time. Ninety minutes and 9,000 steps – which is about 4.5 miles.
His bird count was:
• House Sparrow: 11
• Magpie: 2
• Collared Dove: 2
• Goldfinch: 6
• Greenfinch: 1
• Great Tit: 2
• Blackbird: 2
• Robin: 1
• Woodpigeon: 2
• Blue Tit: 2
• Wren: 1
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about the birds you’ve been noticing on your walks – let me know in the comments.
Thursday, January 28
First we were bogged down in mud – but rewarded with amazing skies. And then it was icy puddles but no snow. Sometimes my daughter holds my hand. But never in town in case she’s spotted. The handholding this weekend wasn’t so much about companionship, more about trying not to slip over. I mistakenly thought she was being helpful as she suggested which parts of the braided footpath I should follow. Then I realised she was picking out the deepest bits of mud. The outstretched hand wasn’t being offered so much in support, as for unbalancing me. I hung on: “If I’m going over, so are you.” On Sunday we woke up to frost. After the gloom of rainy days, I was quite excited. And more so because the forecast for late morning was for possible snow showers. The teen was convinced – without too much persuading – to come out on a family walk. The promise of frozen mud, rather than muddy mud, won her over.
And of course when the mud’s frozen so are the puddles. Reminiscent of pooh-sticks in the summer, my husband and daughter started skimming stones across the frozen puddles and then smashing the ice. And the fun wasn’t just confined to the two of them. Crunching your way through ice has got to be the winter equivalent of kicking autumn leaves. If you haven’t been able to get out for a while, take a look at this 60-second video as I make my way through the icy tractor ruts of the field that leads up to the woods. Talking about tactor ruts, we went through a field we first visited in April last year. At that time we couldn’t find the footpath because it was hidden beneath the crops. It’s obvious now where the path lies because it leads directly from the road to the line of trees in the distance – and since the spring days of last year has been compacted by many pairs of feet. What then were the group pictured below doing walking 10 metres away in the stubble (and newly-sprouting green tips)? I’ll leave you to ponder that.
We passed horses and runners and a cyclist before looping back into town. We walked along a footpath that has to be the ugliest around. It zigzags through a transport depot and was such an unlikely place to bump into my sister and brother-in-law. They were on the way up to the marshes for a spot of birdwatching.
As we said our goodbyes, it started snowing. I say snow, but it was more a case of frozen rain. I’ve got my fingers crossed for next weekend, though…
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear how you’re coping with the winter weather. Are you managing to get out for a walk? Let me know in the comments.
Wednesday, January 20
We had a full house at the weekend. I bet that’s got you looking up the Tier 5 lockdown guidance, hasn’t it?! You can rest easy. We haven’t broken any rules. The milestone reached this weekend was that we’ve now all had a lockdown birthday. My husband isn’t really one for birthdays – or the general gloom of January – so you can imagine how his birthday went down… When asked what he’d like to do to celebrate, his reply was short and sweet: pub lunch. We did our best to enliven the day, but it was wet and miserable – and with no sign of the promised snow. After a week of what seems like solid rain, the monotony of life is even getting to our dog. She was startled by crop-scarers last week and hasn’t been the same since. At every opportunity she turns to look up mournfully, as if asking “Please can we go home now?”
Sunday was a much brighter day and once the teenager was bribed we set out. Normally, I’m the one striding ahead, but for some reason I was left with the lead, tagging along after two little figures in the distance. Slow solitary walking does have its benefits. I rather enjoyed the view that had been opened up across a new housing estate being built on the edge of town. Looking at life from a different vantage point. Our route was quite busy – we must have said hello to 20 other walkers and a family of five who were riding bikes with their terrier scampering along bedside them. We didn’t follow the footpath across the field as it was too muddy, so we kept to the lanes and then up to the creek. We managed 7.5 kiolmetres in two hours. The dog picked up a little bit as we looped through the woods at the end – I guess she knew that by that point we were only 15 minutes from home. And then we hit rubbish strewn in the hedgerows as we got closer to town. One of my gifts to my husband was a litter-picker – I shall report back on our finds another time…
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear how you’re coping with the dark, rainy days of winter. Are you managing to get out for a walk – let me know in the comments.
Thursday, January 14
We did it! We walked in daylight. Just. The last period of the school day was PE. So we got moving. Secretly I think my daughter needed this as much as I did. Scarred by the long walks of summer, she needs assurances re. length and time. I guessed at an hour. Quite reasonably (based on our summer walks) she equated that to at least 90 minutes in real time. As it happened, we were bang on the money. Out and back in an hour. We walked quite quickly, covering 7,500 steps. I’m constantly being told that measuring our walks in steps isn’t very scientific. She wants cold hard facts. I estimate this equates to 5km/3 miles. It seems my school report is going to say “must try harder” under maths/PE. Now we’re in Tier 5 and have to ‘Stay Home’, we’re back to our walks of Lockdown 1.0. I don’t like following the same path all the time. So, while the direction is similar, the route isn’t. We take the previously unfollowed path. And this time it led to… a burnt-out Range Rover! Now I love a bit of fictional crime and am quite the armchair detective. We tried to work out what had happened. Fresh glass on the ground, tossed beer can in the back. What we couldn’t work out was whether the fire had taken place in situ, or whether the car had been towed off the woodland track (it leads to an area that’s been recently coppiced). We quite liked this theory – especially as the surrounding trees were barely singed – but it was muddy and there was no evidence of towing or tyre tracks… The crime unsolved, we continued.
There are rumours of a ghost in this part of the woods. The light was fading. I didn’t mention it. If you’re interested, why not check out the story of Diana’s Walk? We looped around the fishing lakes and then across a muddy field back to the end of our road. The sunlight was fabulous. Burnt skies one way and sparkling blue the other.
And then the hard edge of town and new homes being built.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear how you’re coping with Lockdown 3.0. Are you managing to get out for a walk? Let me know in the comments.
Friday, January 8, 2021(vampire days… really!)
The vampire walks. I haven’t seen daylight in days. Lockdown 3.0 means home learning. The live-lesson programming mimics the school day – so it can’t be concertinaed into a morning’s work – and the afternoons of Lockdown 1.0 when we tramped in the countryside are a distant memory. We started our evening walks during the Christmas holidays. Factoring in the need for teenage lie-ins and festive fun, my daughter and I got into the habit of walking after tea – initially to tour the Christmas lights, which have been amazing this year. In need of a boost of Vitamin D, I suggested we walk earlier in the afternoon instead. I was met with a resounding no. Quite clever, really. The later we set out, the less likely we are to head out into the countryside, and therefore our walks are shorter. Who, after all, wants to be walking the streets at night? Actually, I don’t mind walking at night. We choose our route sensibly. It’s quiet and feels quite secretive – we ‘backstory’ the people we see in the distance, wondering why they’re not holed up indoors. Evening walks are also a phone-free zone. There’s a freedom in being untethered. And, of course, it’s pointless taking photos in the dark. It’s getting to the stage, though, where I have a yearning for the countryside. Perhaps I’ll get there by stealth if we set off 15 minutes earlier each evening.
And our Christmas Day walk? We kept it local and walked to the woods. It was bright and sunny. We took blankets and settled down with cups of hot chocolate. Memories made to keep us stocked up during the dark days of January.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear how you’re coping with the shorter days and whether you’re still walking in the countryside – let me know in the comments.
Monday, December 21 (Tier 4)
One solitary photograph. That’s all I managed. It’s been a week, though – so perhaps I should chalk up going out for a Sunday walk as a win. My daughter didn’t go back to school after her year group’s two-week isolation. School’s closed until the new year. We sent off for a home testing kit under the schools/community testing programme – she’s still awaiting her result, so walking with us wasn’t an option. A mobile testing unit has been set up in town. My husband and I called in (as part of the wider school community). Surprised to get our results back in 24 hours. Negative. PM’s press conference on Saturday afternoon. Phoned my dad at 5pm to say we wouldn’t be able to visit between Christmas and New Year after all. Tears. Tiers. Whichever way you care to spell it. Mood lifted by the Strictly Come Dancing final. Usually, we feel bereft at the end of the series, wondering what family Saturday-night TV will keep us entertained for the next few months. Not this time, though. We decided it was too wet underfoot to do a country walk on Sunday. We hopped (not literally) from green space to green space in town instead. Reasons to be cheerful.~ For the first time all year I didn’t do the double: making lunch and dinner. I productively used my time watching a Hallmark Christmas movie and then we moved on to Shadowlands. The bumper Christmas-edition review in the Radio Times said we’d cry. We did. Call the Midwife on iPlayer – we’re nearly at the end of series 7. And then I bounced on the bed with my daughter as we danced to One Direction. The big question is will they get back together again.
I’m still planning our Christmas and Boxing Day walks – if you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear your recommendations. Let me know in the comments.
Sunday, December 13
Have you hung a Christmas wreath on your front door yet?
I made mine this weekend using materials I’d foraged on recent walks.
Now, before we get started there are few things you need to know about foraging:
Take only what you need – no selling on
Don’t destroy any wildlife habitats
And don’t cut from protected sites.
Personally, I never cut berries branches from the wild. I find the they fall off on the way home; ping off when you’re making your door wreath – or they get trodden into the carpet if your wreath gets knocked as you walk in the door.
But, if you decide to, avoid anything below knee level (thinking wee-ing dogs); let the birds have the berries at the top of the bushes and pick what you need from the middle section.
For my wreath this year I cut a handful of berried ivy and leylandii conifer from my garden. I was also lucky enough to find some neatly cut yew – it must have been overhanging the footpath on my walk back from town, and was tucked back into the bush (you need to have your foraging eyes well and truly focused). I even spotted a discarded Christmas tree branch at the beach, when we walked along the coast yesterday afternoon.
Mostly though, at this time of the year I plan a few walks in the woods. The best time to go is after a storm, you’ll find all sorts of ‘treasure’ gets blown down under your feet. I pick up stems as I go. It’s a bit of a faff carrying them, but at least that way you don’t have to worry about retracing your steps to find that perfect piece of pine again …
As the Queen of Wreath-making I’m on speed dial with my gardening friends. This year I’ve been offered trimmings from olive and cedar trees and a bag of Turkish Filberts (fancy cobnuts).
If you’re reading this post on Facebook I’d love to hear what your favourite walk for foraging for greenery is – let me know in the comments.
Monday, December 7(will walk, all by ourselves)
Self-isolating. Not me fortunately, but there’s been a case of coronavirus in my daughter’s year group at school, so she’s home for two weeks. And has the perfect reason not to go out for our weekend family walk. My husband and I went out for a walk together. It was great. We hit the countryside straight from our front door. Not strictly true, but we didn’t drive to our start point. With neither tracker nor map, I can only report that we walked 7,500 of (my) steps. I reckon that’s four miles. It’s amazing how far you can get in an hour and a half. And with no moaning… It reminded me of a walk I did a couple of weeks ago with Lisa from Coast and Country Rambles – we were introduced via Facebook over the summer. It was sheer luxury. Spending time with another adult and relying on someone else to tell me which path to take. We walked from Lisa’s home up country lanes and across fields. As we stood aside for the occasional car, she waved – not only in acknowledgement but in recognition of far-flung neighbours. Lisa was a font of local knowledge, pointing out isolated houses and churches and had tales of people who have lived and married locally. I recognised some of the route we took as we’d been this way ourselves in the summer. Lisa was curious to see whether the footpath near some recent building work was still walkable. I was able to tell her it was – although the marker sign had seemingly been stashed out of sight behind the new barn.
As a true country girl, Lisa was able to fill in gaps in my knowledge about crops and the wide maize margins that are left to provide cover for the pheasants during the shooting season. We also compared notes about our experience of reporting footpath issues to the county council. We both had similar experiences of (trying to) walk in the Divan Woods. At the end of my walk with Lisa we had a cuppa in her summer house – with the doors open. And yesterday with my husband our post-walk activities were to (a) watch the snooker and (b) decorate the Christmas tree. I’ll let you decide who did what.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite walking holiday destinations – let me know in the comments.
Thursday, December 3 (Cold War)
Dank. The weekend was shrouded in mist. Saturday night would have been our annual Christmas lights switching-on ceremony (and night market) in town. All cancelled because of coronavirus. Instead, the town lights were switched on without fanfare the night before and there was an alternative community switch-on of our lights at home – with a countdown via local radio. We timed our evening dog-walk to coincide with the festivities – it was just like the early days of lockdown with our Thursday-night doorstep clap for the NHS (and other essential workers). With Christmas in mind, our big walk of the week involved scouting out another potential Christmas-morning route. We drove 15 minutes out of town to some new woods. As I understand, it they were planted in 2005 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. We’ve walked here before. My daughter was so small that the uphill route to the lookout point was a bit of a struggle. So we parked at the top and walked down.
Although the cloud was low and there was drizzle in the air, the beauty of this area really stood out. It’s definitely somewhere we’ll come back to – probably with a map – to explore the denser areas of woodland. Of all the walks we’ve done this year, this was one of the busiest (Chilham and the Stour Valley Walk being the other). We did the obligatory pose at the look-out point and went up and around through young trees and mud-clagged routes. We stopped for a while at the Cold War bunker working out what was where – and got chatting to a man who’d worked at a similar bunker at Manston airport. He said they hadn’t been designed very well as you had to climb out of the bunker to replace the paper on the plotter on the outside of the hatch! We’re living in troubled times. But what was it like during the Cold War? As a child I never got a sense that my parents were worried about nuclear destruction. The reality of the situation has never really resonated with me, even though in most of the council buildings I’ve worked in we referred to ‘the bunker’ on a weekly basis when retrieving files from storage or asking for IT advice. A subject for my next telephone call with my parents.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear what woodland walks you’d recommend – let me know in the comments.
Monday, November 23
I caved. November is making us all feel a bit glum. I agreed with the suggestion that we leave the map at home and go for a stroll rather than a full-on country walk. We drove to the woods. Oh, the joy of a designated car park – which was chock-a-block. I knew it would be, because our early start never materialised. My only stipulation for strolling was that we took a path never before trodden (by us). I was vaguely hoping we’d come across one of the Artists in the Woods pieces that we saw with friends during our 2019 bluebell walk, but we couldn’t find it. I say we, but no one other than me knew we were looking for it. I thought it might make a good Christmas – or Boxing Day – destination. We used to walk up to Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs with my parents’ walking group every Boxing Day. Everyone took their Christmas leftovers and shared a picnic. We always walked really close to my dad because he had an endless supply of Quality Street in his pockets! The ground was a bit claggy and as we were off the main drag we hardly saw anyone. I was on the search for acorns, but the squirrels had beaten us to it. We avoided the last wide drag back to the car park and followed another path back to the car. We spotted deer droppings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a deer in the wild – not counting the grounds at Knole Park and the holiday park we stayed on a couple of summers ago. And I guess with a teen and dog in toe it’s never going to happen. The short walk didn’t stop the ‘my legs hurt’ complaint – but now I can say “Have you done the exercises the physio gave you?” She hadn’t.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear whether you’ve seen deer scampering through the woods – let me know in the comments.
Wednesday, November 18: (wet. wet. wet)
The rain and the wind woke me up at 3.30am. And I couldn’t get back to sleep. On rainy dog-walking days we all take a step back and the last person standing gets handed the lead. The longer lockdown lasts, the more I realise that getting outside isn’t a chore but a well-being necessity. Even on rainy days. So I found myself volunteering to walk out with my husband and the dog. We didn’t go out out (into the countryside).
This was a walk around town from green space to green space and then home for a cuppa and a Christmas film. Being out as a twosome meant we could discuss Christmas presents and our plans for a family-free celebration – normally we’re a party of (up to) 17, so scaling back to just the three of us is going to be very strange. The leaves are yellow. And the cars drive too fast in the new 20mph zone in town. We felt like we were being picked off as targets for a puddle-soaking competition.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite rainy-day walks – let me know in the comments.
Monday, November 9
The first weekend of lockdown 2.0. I hadn’t been out of the house for 48 hours. The weather was good. Better than good, actually. It was warm with blue skies and sunshine. I gave my family three woods to choose from. The one at the end of the road; the one a couple of miles out of town; and the one a 15-minute drive away. They’re creatures of habit. They chose the easy option… and made the mistake of thinking I meant the country park. They went that way and I stuck with Plan A. The last time I went for a full-on walk on my own was just before Mother’s Day. Oh the joy of freedom! I stopped as many times as I liked to look. Enjoy. And take photos. My walk was a really easy route. Turn left out of our front door and then keep walking along our road until you reach the countryside. Ten minutes. Tops.
Having walked this way so much in the first lockdown, it feels like I’m tramping the grounds of my own estate. Noticing the changes in the crops, pinpointing distant landmarks, knowing which landscape fold holds the railway line. I was vaguely searching for a branch to bring home in lieu of a vase of flowers. I found the perfect one, which looked to be a casualty of this year’s chestnut coppicing. Oak with its leaves still intact. I carried it home Christmas tree-style – to the obvious amusement of a gentleman walking his bike along the pavement. We smiled. He almost said something, and didn’t. I keep noticing old men in the street who have a passing resemblance to my dad. And my heart leaps. My parents made a shock move to a care home a year ago and have been ‘imprisoned’ ever since. How’s lockdown treating you? I haven’t seen my mum and dad since February half-term. Trying to talk to them is like fitting around the schedule of a new-born. It’s always a clash of mealtimes and bed by 6.30pm. Ringing them is getting harder and harder. Not for the want of speaking to them. But for the tears afterwards. I saw a magpie. One for sorrow.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite autumn walks – let me know in the comments.
Saturday, October 31: Halloween
Halloween played a trick on us! Half-term had been bit of a wash-out. But we managed walks along the prom at Ramsgate; to a local graveyard overlooking the creek; through woods with friends; and finally the big one. I’d been planning our weekend walk for a while. Trying to work out where to park, how to make a linear walk circular and waiting for good weather. We left home in glorious sunshine. Car park No 1 was full. I knew it would be, so we drove further down the lane to car park No 2. It seems this new find to me is a not-so-well-kept local secret. Instead we drove on and parked in a layby. There were stunning views of our walk.
Parked on a ridge we were buffeted by the wind as we got out of the car. We walked down the road to join our first footpath. This was a no-little-used country lane but a shortcut between two A roads, so traffic was fast-moving. We were heading towards a farm we’ve been craning our heads to admire from the A road on the other ridge ever since we’ve lived in the area. The glimpsed views turned out to be more charming than the real thing. We said our hellos as we walked through the farm. The owner wished us an enjoyable walk and waved us off with a “Hope you manage to miss the rain”. Ahhh…
We hadn’t checked the forecast. We walked up the valley side and followed the edge of the field to avoid a short section of the main road and then dropped down to a tree-sheltered path. It was like walking in times past. Isolated cottages with interesting window details. An oast house without its roundel, a traditional farm complex, a vicarage and a country church. That was our walk in a nutshell. It started raining. Persistently. I was aiming for the café in the farm shop halfway round. But I was overruled. We retraced our steps, I’m sure each of us wishing we had some proper wet-weather gear on. We avoided the last section of road back to the car by looping through the woods. It gave us some shelter from the rain and was rather pretty. So desperate were we to get into the dry that my husband waived his strict rule of no muddy boots in the car and we drove home. We were wet through to our underwear. Note to self: Check the weather forecast – and invest in a proper raincoat.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite autumn walks – let me know in the comments.
Monday, October 19: Sci-fi movie
It seems like this is the first proper family walk we’ve done together in ages. Rain stopped play one week and there were dance exams the next. I’ve solved the problem of where to park when you’re doing a planned footpath walk: find a school and park there. The country lane we parked in had an informal layby to one side. It was perfect. We walked down past the school and through a gap between a chocolate-box thatched cottage and an allotment. And then the path disappeared. The really well-defined path off to the right wasn’t marked on the map. We followed it. This was a rather bizarre walk. First because no one complained. It was much shorter than normal. And second because I had no idea (exactly) where we were. We followed pathways that weren’t marked on the map and never really found the definitive routes we were after. I couldn’t work out whether the landowner was making the area open to all, or was trying to discourage walkers by not putting up any signage.
The woods at the beginning (and end) of our walk were lovely. We scuffed through fallen leaves, found a swing and went fungus-spotting. One was purple! We stopped to explore – and work out where we were – and then meandered back. Determined to get back on track, we didn’t retrace our steps and eventually found not footpath signs but gates warning ‘bull in field’. The main man watched with interest as we crossed the stile (carrying the dog). We circled around ‘the big house’ and were amazed by the views. From the top of the hill we could see for miles: industrial buildings laid out along the banks of the Swale and Thames – with views to Grain power station. It felt quite weird as all our views in our walks since the spring have been of the countryside – not commerce.
The big house had planted trees beyond its ha-ha, masking the view. We were wowed by it and spent a while trying to work out what it was we could see. It was like walking into a sci-fi movie with an alien encampment on the horizon. Determined to flick back on to the route I’d drawn up, we followed a beaten path. And ended up in the bull field again. This is definitely going to be a case of spreading the map out at home to work out exactly where we’ve been… actually, I’ve now done that and still can’t work out where the paths should have been on the ground. I think we’ll do a wooded walk next week, too. Got any suggestions?
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite woodland walks – let me know in the comments.
Monday, October 12: Not mush-room
I’ve finally cracked it! The reason everyone only ever seems to go to a ‘designated attraction’ in the countryside is because that’s the only way you can guarantee being able to park your car. And for that reason there wasn’t much room in the car park when we combined a teenage drop-off with a dog-walk in the woods. Instead of taking the obvious route to the lookout at the top of the woods we walked the other way. It was quite nice to get out on our own. There was no background grumbling. And we even walked an extra loop to ensure we’d done our steps for the day. It was the perfect autumn day: blue skies and sunshine + a pair of gloves. It made a change after the recent rain we’ve been having. We collected sweet chestnuts. Whether they’ll ever get roasted remains to be seen. And then went fungus-spotting. Apparently, we’ve got an identification book at home. I doubt we’ll ever find out their names, though. Instead, we marvelled at Mother Nature.
A few years ago, we went on an organised mushroom-foraging walk and talk in a community woodland near home. It was fascinating. But there was so much to learn that the info immediately pinged out of my brain as soon as we got home. Being the cautious type, I never pick or eat mushrooms from the wild – which includes throwing away mushrooms gifted by a friend. She said they were field mushrooms picked from her garden, but I wasn’t convinced…
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d be interested to hear the names of the mushrooms we spotted, if you know – tell me in the comments.
Monday, September 28
It might as well have been November. Our last family walk in September was wet, windy and dank. Our usual drive and walk was replaced by a quick circuit round our local country park. We walk from home, taking meandering paths through interconnecting housing estates, cross the bypass and then we’re in the woods.
In the old days we’d stop for an al fresco cuppa at the interpretation centre. But no more. I reckon the dog can do this walk in her sleep. It’s not for me. I’d prefer to be out exploring new paths and views. It was 26C last week. The weekend saw overnight temperatures drop to a record low for September. Autumn has arrived. We swooshed through fallen leaves and ticked acorns, sweet chestnuts and conkers off our nature-spotting list. The last leg of our route took us across a field and then back to the end of our road. The more we walk this section, the more ingrained it becomes. In the distance I can see the railway line and the break in trees either side of the main road, the wood where we saw the last of the bluebells and the memory of the swaying field of barley just beyond. Next week I’ve got my fingers crossed for a no-drizzle day. I’ve already got a walk lined up, with optional loop of course.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear whether you’re still getting out to enjoy the countryside – or has the change in weather put you off?
Monday, September 21
The problem with going for a walk in the countryside is that, unless you live in the countryside, you need to get there. And if travelling by car, you need to find a safe parking place. For this reason, I marked a spot on the map we drove past several weeks ago. It was the perfect place. And someone else agreed with me – although they’d decided to mark the spot not with on X on their map but by dumping a fridge.
We made use of the lanes again and used them in lieu of footpaths to make our circular loop. We walked through woodland and into open countryside. Not quite as pretty as you might imagine, with acres and acres (literally) of barren stubbly fields, bereft of wildlife.
We compared notes with a fellow walker we met at a stile. She told us about a faulty gate she needed to loop around and I showed her on the map where the footpath she was heading for wasn’t marked on the ground.
I’ve talked about incomplete signage on my blog before. Imagine how off-putting it must be if you’re a countryside walking novice. You really do need to rely on your map-reading skills and be bold enough to carve out a path where you know it should be. For the first missing section we skirted around the edge of the field and then tantalisingly spotted a footpath marker pointing back in the direction we should have walked. But there was no physical delineation on the ground. Now I think about it, this was the second section of path that wasn’t marked. But the first was an easy tramp in a straight line from A to B with a marker post to aim for.
The next section of missing footpath should have been the fourth junction making up a tiny crossroad of lanes. There was no sign at either end of the path and no previously trodden route. We just boldly strode where seemingly no (wo)man had been before, keeping to the left of a small woodland and aiming directly for the white house in the distance. We always rate our walks on the drive home. This one got a ‘good in parts’ award. The first half an hour was good and the other 90 minutes certainly not a route we would choose to do again.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite woodland walks – let me know in the comments.
And in case you’re wondering: I’ve reported the fridge and one of the three failing footpaths – someone else had already reported the other two.
Monday, September 14
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Every time we go for a family walk my daughter complains that her right knee hurts. What would you do: cajole and continue? Or cut short your walk? We agreed a compromise of cutting out the extra loop I’d planned and that I’d make an appointment for her to see the GP. I can’t work out whether this really is a long-term problem – or whether it’s just a get-out clause. We travelled west for our family walk at the weekend. An area on our map that is uncharted territory. It felt a bit weird driving 15 minutes in ‘the other’ direction. We passed two pelotons of cyclists kitted out in Lycra and crawled along behind a horse box.
This walk had all the ingredients for a great day out:
• Blue skies and sunshine (tick)
• Village church (tick)
• Narrow country lanes (tick)
• Orchards full of apples (tick)
• Pub lunch at the end (tick)
We’re getting quite adept at following a mix of footpaths and lanes to make circular walks. We take the chance that the lanes are so under-used we won’t be met with screeching brakes at every bend. A couple of the lanes were so narrow, pot-holed and uneven that I wouldn’t have fancied driving down them. While general traffic may have been put off, it hadn’t stopped the flytippers. We spotted four piles of rubbish – one of which was neatly piled on top of a hedge. I mean… if you’ve taken the time and care to do that, why wouldn’t you take your rubbish to an authorised tip?
We came across some stunning houses, right in the middle of nowhere. And were chased down one lane by a couple of boxer dogs who flew through a hedge at us. That was quite a surprise! The owner was profuse with her apologies – having thought the boundary to her paddock was secure. My ever-ready picnic lunch was shunned and while I was taking in the views in the orchard at the end of our walk my husband was on the phone booking lunch at the local pub.
We chatted to the farm manager for a while. He told us that the Gala apples in the crates shown at the end of this video were on their way to Sainsburys and Lidl. I didn’t scrump any. I’m not sure my husband can say the same…
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite orchard walks – let me know in the comments.
Monday, September 7
I’ve worked for CPRE Kent for two-and-a-half years. For the first two years my goal was to do a lunchtime walk up to the windmill on Charing Hill – but I ended up sticking to the low-level routes. And of course for the last six months I’ve been walking in and around my home town. Walking uphill, against the clock, never really appealed. But after inking in our Stalisfield walk last week, there was a blank space hovering over Charing Windmill, just waiting to be filled. While in theory only 18 minutes from home, we got caught in two road closures and then I had that nagging feeling that there wouldn’t be anywhere safe to park up on the downs. So we took the slip road off Charing Hill in to the village and parked up. It was a perfect autumn day. Blue skies and sunshine but not too hot.
We last walked along part of the Pilgrims’ Way back in May. It was lovely to be back. The views to the south are amazing. We eventually ran out of footpath – one of the perils of doing a circular route on a long-distance track – and cut up into the hills. We’re getting quite confident doing this. The lanes are narrow and lightly trafficked, so we feel safe.
As complaints were low-level I added in an extra loop through an area of woodland and bizarrely – as it felt like we were miles and miles from home – we bumped into a lady I recognised from one of the market stalls in town. Right on top of the downs the fields had been ploughed (and the footpaths obliterated), so some degree of map-reading skill was needed. As luck would have it, there were a couple of walkers on the horizon coming our way, so we walked towards them.
We picnicked and sunbathed in a grassy field and then stopped off at The Bowl Inn for refreshments. On high days and holidays we sometimes go here for lunch from work. In my excitement to ‘get back to the office’ we followed the wrong lane, which was momentarily confusing, as the expected footpath never materialised. That error cancelled out the loop I added before lunch – and meant we ended up walking uphill to the windmill, rather than passing it on our way back down to the village.
I felt the views compensated for the mix-up. Other members of my party didn’t. I reckon we had 30-mile views: to the power station at Dungeness and the windfarm on Romney Marsh. I picked blackberries. I had to freeze them when we got home as we’d run out of flour, so that crumble/pie will have to wait.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite walks with a view – let me know in the comments.
Friday, September 4
Our last family walk before it’s back to school. It’s been 20 weeks. I’m a little bit sad. I find this time of year really melancholy. The long hot days of summer are over. The next landmark is Christmas. Things get back to normal. And the sense of freedom: suffocated. I spent most of my academic career racked with nerves. It takes every ounce of fortitude to encourage my daughter to embrace the new school year. While that back-to-school feeling has never really left me, I do love autumn. We went to Stalisfield for our last family walk of the holidays. We parked at The Plough, did a mid-length circular walk and marvelled at the hedgerows and the game. I’m not sure that partridges and pheasants can be described as wildlife when they’re bred to be shot – and such an easy target as they don’t seem to have the sense to move. Can you name these hedgerow finds? Such luscious berries – although of course some of them are poisonous.
The fields are barren again and footpaths hard to track. Broad beans have caught our attention this year – we think they’re grown as animal feed and then ploughed back into the fields as nitrogen fixers. You might know better? And then to the pub. Careful planning on my part – but it slowly dawns on my husband that I’ll stand him a lunchtime pint. He’s torn, though. Drinking in a marquee is really not his thing. He likes the hustle and bustle of shoulder-to-shoulder conversation. For my part I like the personal service: being shown to your table and then waited on.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, how about naming my hedgerow finds?
We spotted: • Partridges • Pheasants • Old man’s beard • Berries • And a pint!
Thursday, September 3
My friend Anja has kindly agreed to share her experiences of parenting during lockdown and how – with Scouts, ballet and tap being cancelled – she’s discovered a whole new world on her doorstep. As the summer holidays come to an end and a new school year starts, Anja is making plans to spend more time outdoors.
Here’s an extract from her lockdown diary: “How did we not now this existed on our doorstep? “Since lockdown started we had gotten ourselves into a little routine staying home, staying safe and going for a walk once a week. This usually ended up being at the weekend – because our week was filled by home schooling. “The problem was – where to go… “I set myself a challenge to find places we a) had not visited before and b) were away from the crowds. “After a quick search on the internet a few options popped up, one of which was only a short drive away: West Blean and Thornden Woods. The promise of some wood art to entertain my five-year-old caught my eye. “This little gem did not disappoint. “However, the car park was closed. I wasn’t sure whether this was because of coronavirus or not, as we’d spotted another woodland area around the corner which was much busier and its car park was open. “We parked alongside others outside the gate and followed the track around the woods. There were a few cars but we only met a couple of people on our way around, but mostly we were by ourselves.
“The tree trail was well signposted and the wood carvings, wooden wind chimes, giant ants’ nests, birch picture frame and bird call recording did not disappoint. “Every corner provided plenty of selfie opportunities for my 13-year-old and the little one enjoyed spotting the wood carvings – as well as carrying a log around! There were endless boards explaining the varying tree types.
“I have not walked through impressive woods like these for a while and they reminded me of my home in Germany. The trees were very tall and towering right in the sky gently waving in the wind and if you stop for a minute you might even spot a squirrel. “The perfect place to forget the troubles of the world whilst escaping the sun and enjoy a little bit of forest bathing.”
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite woodland walks.
Thursday, August 13
How are the summer holidays treating you so far? Fed up or raring to go? I put a call out on Facebook a couple of weeks ago asking for recommendations for countryside-based activities – favourite walks, streams to paddle in and cafés for takeaway teas. The secret side of Kent. So many great ideas came flooding in, so I thought I’d turn them into a blog post. That way we can tick them off together. So here they are – in no particular order (please check individual websites before travelling as no responsibility can be taken for inaccurate reporting):
Visit East Kent Railway at Shepherdswell. Café and grounds are open Tuesday-Friday. Trains on miniature railway run at weekends. Enjoy a walk in The Knees woodland – apparently there are Second World War tank-traps to spot. Check for details as to when mainline trains run
Walk through Leeds Castle. Park at Leeds church and take the footpath through the churchyard towards the castle (which takes you to the ‘other’ side of the lake) – use the Kent Public Rights of Way map to confirm your route (free)
Walk through Howletts Wildlife Park – park at Bekesbourne train station and take the public footpath through the zoo (free)
Picnic at Grove Ferry and walk along the river (free) or hire a canoe
Walk from St Peter & St Paul Church, Boughton-Under-Blean – go through graveyard and head south over the railway line; keep turning right and you’ll be back where you started. Beautiful all the way (free)
Plan a coastal walk from The Warren to Sandgate/Hythe
Have a cuppa at the Cliffe Top Café at Capel-le-Ferne on the Old Dover Road – follow the path down the cliff for a walk. Park on the road and not in the café car park – it gets locked when the café closes! CT18 7HT
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to know whether you’ve got anything else to add to this list. Let me know in the comments.
Friday, August 7
I went on a country walk and I spotted: apples in an orchard. Apples – and a thatched barn. Apples, a barn – and a chicken. Apples, a barn, a chicken – and wild damsons.
Apples, a barn, a chicken, damsons – and an ELEPHANT! Yes.
We did the walk on the public footpath through Howletts Wild Animal Park. To be honest, you really can’t see much from the narrow, fenced path – but it was quite exciting! As well as elephants we also saw strawberries and pears – but stopped short of a glass of cider from Woolton Farm. We’ll go back another day for that.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear your favourite ‘secret’ paths – where would you recommend I walk next?
Wednesday, August 5
We went for a late-afternoon walk to miss the heat of the day. But it was still hot. We parked in a lane outside a rural church and prayed the car wouldn’t get hit. It was only as we drove home that we spotted a car park 100 metres down the road… I love churches and graveyards – there’s always some shade and a bench, which provides a handy stopping-off point on longer walks. After a spring of not finding clearly marked paths through crops, we’d reached the other end of the farming year in just a matter of months. Harvest had destroyed any visual way-markers as we stomped uphill through stubble – which is surprisingly difficult.
We saw the elevated Canterbury railway line in front of us. I’d imagined we’d be walking through a tunnel underneath. But instead, we went up steps and looked both ways. Despite there always being a clear view in both directions, I find crossing railway lines nerve-racking. We survived.
It was then down the steps the other side. In the midst of coronavirus I’m carefully opening gates with my elbows. Hence I was reluctant to put my hand on the banister to steady myself. And wobbled downwards – it’s not a great combo: no hands and varifocals. In all seriousness, though, we rarely see anyone else walking, so picking up the virus from these communally touched surfaces is unlikely – and I always have a small bottle of hand sanitiser with me. The next part of our walk was on a narrow lane. The type that is so little used that there are weeds growing up through the tarmac in the middle of the road.
After that it was vineyard city all the way back. I’ve noticed so many recently-planted vineyards since we’ve been walking regularly. Why do you think this is? We also spotted plums in the hedgerow – tantalisingly just out of reach – and then it was back to the church with its neighbouring oast house. Beautiful Kent, in the glow of the evening sunshine.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to know why there are so many newly-planted vineyards in Kent. Is it in response to climate change, or government subsidy?
Sunday, August 2
Our starting point on Sunday was the parking area we spotted last week. We took the byway into the woods and, after stepping aside for an off-road motorbike, realised it was open to vehicular traffic from April to October. That explained the bright red signs nailed to the trees on one side of the path.
As the weather had been so hot, I’d been asked for a woodland walk. And I delivered. Lush green ferns, soaring tree trunks and snatched views out to the countryside beyond. As we walked up the first hill a group of men stood to one side for us. They were weighed down with camping equipment. At the next clearing we walked through a gentlemen’s tea party. These cyclists (from Whitstable and London) had knocked off for elevensies – which they were brewing afresh on a gas burner.
The byway took us right to the top of the downs. On the way we passed some fabulous historic homes and a piggery. After the beautiful views – rather incongruously – the first thing we saw was a lorry graveyard!
We had Perry Wood behind us and King’s Wood in front. We stopped for lunch at the first bit of grassy shade we found and picnicked, rather bizarrely, under a CCTV camera and then looped back.
The call of home carried us much faster on the way back to the car. It was downhill to the main road. We crossed and diverted through a beautiful farmstead and then back into the woods – just in time to see a slow worm wriggle off.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your Sunday walks – let’s compare notes.
Sunbathing peacock butterfly
Wednesday, July 29
Is the summer over? We did one of those walks where you go through a tunnel of trees aiming for the circle of light at the end.
As we got closer, we spotted smoke drifting on the breeze. Smoke? Actually, it turned out to be dust thrown up by a combine harvester.
We stopped for a while as we puzzled out which bit of machinery did what and carried on down the lane. Our route took us across the same field. We were right in the thick of things. The discarded straw was still lying in neat lines. Where it crossed the footpath, it made hurdles. Much filming of our dog was done to get the perfect shot of her flying through the air…
We’d got so distracted by taking photos that we didn’t notice the combine doing one last circle of the field as it headed back to the grain truck. The race was on! It was coming straight for us!
After that excitement we slowed the pace of the rest of our walk – we sat by the river and chatted. We’ve worked out this is a great way of clocking up our outdoor hours. When we get home we can fudge the answer to ‘How far did you walk?’ by replying with hours spent out. This talking time is a great opportunity to ponder vital questions of the day. Harvest. Does that mean summer’s over?
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear when you first spotted that the harvest was under way. Is it earlier this year – or are you just noticing more because you’re getting out more?
Sunday, July 26: Just another Sunday
This is how our Sundays go. The same thing happens every. single. week.
What time are we leaving? (husband)
How long will the walk take? (daughter)
I forgot to start my pedometer (husband)
When are we having lunch? (daughter)
I forgot the dog’s water bowl (husband)
I don’t like what’s in this sandwich (daughter)
I should have brought my binoculars (husband)
Why can’t we do a short walk? (both)
And a new one – will you drive home? I fancy a pint (husband)*
That said, we had a lovely family walk at the weekend. I’m so determined to ink in every spare space of our map that we went back to Chilham. I know. For the third weekend in a row. We parked in the village car park at the bottom of the hill and walked through the square, passed the primary school and on to the North Downs Way – which for this section is actually a road. There are signs as you come out of the village warning drivers of pedestrians in the road. We courteously stood aside – some of the drivers acknowledged us. This was another ‘busy’ walk. I didn’t need to read the map. We followed the people in front of us. To my daughter’s disgust we came across a parking area about a mile down the lane. Her goal is always to get home as fast as possible. She hasn’t yet learnt the art of being in the now and enjoying the moment…
As I’m the map-reader, I didn’t let on that I changed our route partway round. Complaints were low-level, so I added in an extra loop. We ended up at the back of Godmersham Park – which has associations with Jane Austen. The footpath skirted round the grounds and took us to a picture-postcard-perfect Poohsticks bridge.
There were sheep on the water meadows. Standard trees and black railing fences. As I look at the map now, I can see that the wooded area off to the side is called Temple Hill. We spotted the temple as we walked along the lane. We had lunch at lunchtime. Luckily we came across a lone picnic bench with a glorious view of the rolling downs.
I’d like to say we paddled in the ford on the way back. But we didn’t. I did drive home, though*. We took a counter-intuitive route home as I wanted to check out a potential route for next weekend. I was so intent on watching an oncoming car on the single-track lane we were on that I failed to spot the kestrel sitting in the road. My husband yelped. The kestrel flew off and the other car reversed.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear what you’ve been discovering about your local area during the pandemic.
Owl nesting boxes
Sunday, July 19
We went back. There were literally – well, relatively speaking – crowds of people. Determined not to be beaten by last week’s footpath closure, I remembered a track off to the right and wondered whether we could use it to loop round and continue the walk we’d originally planned. In short, the answer was no. So, we retraced our steps and went north instead. Of all the walks during quarantine so far, this was the first time we’d seen so many family groups doing a ‘set’ walk. We were with two other groups as we waited for the barrier to lift at the level crossing and then saw another four families. Most had guide books with them and were obviously intent on ticking off this part of the Stour Valley Walk. While I’ve been bemoaning hidden and apparently missing paths, we came across a new footpath alongside a fishing lake that wasn’t marked on our map. And we discovered a new word: ‘swims’ – demarked areas for anglers. The views across the lake were spectacular, although we only got glimpses through the heavily guarded perimeter fence. We crossed back over the railway line, over the A28 and then into the countryside. I’ve been noticing lots of walnut trees lately and took a straw poll. Sadly, it seems there are no takers for pickled walnuts in our family – I quite fancied doing a bit of foraging and making…
Our next hurdle was a metal stile with foot plates set really far apart. The five-bar gate alongside had an ominous sign: Bull in field. We rounded the corner and lo and behold there was a bull in the field, in fact a whole herd of cattle. We strode purposefully on and then wavered. And then pushed on again. Once we were within five metres, the bull trotted off and to the relief of us all we made it unscathed to the other side of the field.
Our next section of path (part of the North Downs Way) took us along a single-track country lane. We saw shorn sheep under laden apple trees and mistletoe. And, on the birding front, house martins (back at the mill) and a pair of spotted flycatchers. We also spotted a better class of hedgerow rubbish – from M&S. We ate our picnic in the graveyard at Chilham and in one of those bizarre coincidences started watching an old BBC adaptation of Emma last night – it was great fun spotting the parsonage, the pub (where my husband stopped for a pint while my daughter and I walked down the hill to get the car) and Shelley’s tea rooms – where Tamsin Greig’s character lived (I think).
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear whether you prefer planning your own walks or following a prescribed trail.
Thursday, July 16
The plan was to do a circular walk in the bottom right-hand corner of our map. We parked up eight miles from home and crossed the rural level crossing and hit the cool of the wooded countryside straight away. A rather pleasing dank feeling. We crossed the river and saw a beautiful shiplapped mill and then stopped.
The sign in front of us said:
BRIDLEWAY AHEAD CLOSED STRICTLY NO PUBLIC ACCESS
And then in smaller type: DUE TO COVID-19 GUIDANCE 2M DISTANCING CANNOT BE FOLLOWED. THIS WILL REOPEN WHEN [redaction and then a hand-written note] WORKS ARE COMPLETED
All a bit odd. We turned left instead and did a linear walk. Passed fields of wheat and countryside cottages and then out on to a lane. We then came across a similarly worded sign and had to retrace our steps. Going back the same way meant I could take photos of the mill and ferns (which I think are Asplenium scolopendrium).
I posted a photo on Facebook bemoaning our curtailed walk and almost immediately a friend identified exactly where we’d been. How weird is that. I googled Stour Valley Walk. It seems to be promoted by Explore Kent as a long-distance path through east Kent. Not much good, though, when you can’t actually walk along it. I’ve been in touch with Explore Kent and the public rights of way office at the county council to ask about the closure, maintenance works(?) and alternative routes, but I haven’t, to date, had a response.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook and live in the Chilham area, perhaps you could let me know what’s happening with this section of path.
Tuesday, July 14
I say blackberry: you say September? When I was a child, blackberry-picking was something we did with my dad. In hindsight it was probably as much to give my mum some respite – I’m one of five – as it was about the blackberries. We used to take my older sisters’ hockey sticks to pull down the high branches. I always thought this was something we did in late summer.
These days I make a mental note to pick my blackberries on August Bank Holiday Monday. But I might have to bring that date forward this year. We’ve just eaten ripe, sweet, juicy blackberries and we’re not even halfway through July. And in other news… I put my purse in my backpack for the first time in four months and we had a takeaway cuppa at a new café next to the creek.
And my daughter survived her solo (+ friends) dog-walking expedition to our local country park. They’re planning an excursion to the beach next. And it looks like the wheat is almost ready to harvest.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear your favourite blackberry recipes. Are you a jam-maker, or is blackberry-and-apple pie more your thing?
Monday, July 13
Would you rather (a) walk along the busy A252 or (b) down a quiet single-track country lane? We couldn’t find the footpath we wanted on Sunday morning, so we had a hair-raising section of the main road to walk before we got back on track. There’s a lot to be said about walking somewhere unfamiliar. It means you have to engage with your surroundings and really notice your landmarks. But stepping out of your comfort zone can make you feel uncomfortable. In this weekend’s adventure we parked on the northern edge of one of the well-known local bluebell woods. The one everyone was asking about on Facebook in the early days of lockdown.
The footpath took us down a lane and then down the private drive to a house at the very edge of the woods. There was an amazing bespoke footpath sign. There was absolutely no danger of us accidentally walking through the private garden of this place. The woods were glorious. And in hindsight I’d have preferred staying here and doing a spot of forest-bathing. Listening to the sounds and watching the light. As soon as we were in the woods the path took us out again and into a field of broad beans. This is where our problems started. Were we chatting so much that we missed the path (it should have been straight in front of us)? Had it been diverted (no, I checked on the KCC public rights of way map when we got home)? Or had the farmer just forgotten to mark it out?
We walked to the right, following a path that had been beaten into the long grass and crossed our fingers. I had the map. So I knew what was coming. We had to walk about 100 metres facing the oncoming traffic on the A252. Quite nerve-racking with a child and dog in tow. Most drivers saw us in plenty of time and indicated they were giving us a wide berth, while others just seemed to drive straight at us! It took the shine off our walk a bit.
Our spirits were lifted in the next field of broad beans we saw, though. There was a patch of thistles and it was absolutely covered in butterflies – peacocks and large whites. I tried to take some photos, but they didn’t come out very well. I don’t know about you, but when we’re walking it sometimes feels like you’re a pioneer. Walking paths that haven’t been trodden in ages. We went through a field of golden barley with a central (sprayed) section of green. Foot traffic had been so light that it didn’t have the parting-of-the-oceans feel of other paths. And then we got to the other side of the field. We couldn’t work out whether the path went this side, or the other side of the hedge. Ten metres in, I spotted a stile on the other side, so we retraced our steps. There were four stiles on this short stretch of path, each one slightly more decrepit than the last. We ate lunch in a graveyard. I love country churches. There’s always a bench and often a water bowl for the dog.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your experience of reporting footpaths issues to KCC – how long did it take for them to be resolved?
Large white butterflies (that’s their name: large white)
Tuesday July 7: Cherry-picking
Freeeeeeeedom! For the last 100+ days my daughter and I have been out walking together. On Tuesday she decided she wasn’t going to come with me. My husband had arranged to meet a dog-walking pal for his first pub pint since March, so I was on my own. I’m not sure whether pre-lockdown I would have walked solo. But being out in the countryside has become a part of my daily routine. It did feel a bit weird, though. No one’s hand to hold and no chatter. And on the plus side – I set the pace (fast) and I could enjoy a socially distanced meet-up with a friend in the next village (let’s call her Georgia). Georgia had some inside knowledge about cherries that needed picking before they rotted on the tree and/or the birds got them, so, as an added bonus, we had cherry crumble for tea.
It took me half an hour to walk cross-country to the next village. After all these weeks of exercise I thought my pace might be record-breaking, but no. Apparently, the average walking speed is 3-4 miles per hour. So, the two miles I walked in half an hour was bang on average. How disappointing! If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I’ve been having some issues with understanding the ways of the countryside in terms of access and map- reading. This week I came across this webinar hosted by The Ramblers as part of Volunteers’ Week – it answered a lot of my footpath questions (on my computer the sound went a bit wobbly at the 20-minute mark). And today? My daughter is organising a socially distanced walk with two school friends and our dog. This means I’ll miss out on another post-lunch chat – and watch her take her first steps towards becoming more independent…
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your experience of letting your children go walking on their own – I’m in need of reassurance…
Monday, July 6: Welcome to the countryside
We parked the car and heard gunshots: welcome to the countryside. No sooner had we parked up when out of nowhere – and cross-country – came a blue Land Rover, bumping over the field and then on to the lane. We headed off down the bridleway on what turned out to be a glorious walk. Walking in local but unfamiliar countryside really is like being on holiday – you’re never sure what’s going to be round the next corner, but you have the comfort of knowing that the kettle will be on in a matter of minutes. Our walk took us along a narrow tree-enclosed path. Just as it opened up into a clearing, we spotted oregano (also known as wild marjoram) and a purple pyramidal orchid.
We walked through the woods and out on to a single-track, hedge-lined lane – catching the tail-end of the blue flowers on a crop of linseed.
What with the gunshots earlier, we then passed paddocks and cottages with CCTV signs. Are we being deceived by the innocence of the beauty of the countryside, or is it really a hotbed of crime? This is the first walk we’ve done in ages with dog-gates on the stiles. Usually we have to do a complicated manoeuvre of climbing, lifting, transferring weight and setting down. We also came across the most spectacular three-rung stile – from this high point we spotted the sea.
We looped back into the woods and alongside a field of rye grass. To one side the margins had been left to go wild – we saw so much wildlife in this one stretch: butterflies (white and brown), bladder campion and beautiful oaks (which I’m told are host to hundreds of insect species).
Our dog began to get nervous again as we headed back to the car. With every gunshot we heard came a round of barking. Rural crime? Crop scarers? Or the start of the pheasant-shooting season? I checked online when I got home. The pheasant-shooting season hasn’t started yet. It runs from October to February.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, let me know what you think was being shot at.
And a lone female pheasant running through the grass
Sunday July 5: Fields of Purple
I’ve still got the scars from last Sunday’s walk. This week we walked in open, rolling countryside. Our starting point was a hamlet a few minutes’ drive from home. We’ve walked this valley before. It’s such a wide, open space. Our plan was to fill in some of the gaps from the neighbouring walk we did along the permissive footpath on the nearby estate. Eventually we’ll have the whole of our map filled up with highlighted loops.
Seeing as we’d only been this way a week or so back, it was amazing to see how much the landscape had changed. There were huge fields of purple (viper’s bugloss). If you squinted, you could imagine being in a field of lavender.
We had a pit-stop on the village green for drinks and snacks. We had cherries with us. We’d bought them direct from a local orchard on the way to the beach yesterday. My daughter and I love having cherry-stone-spitting competitions. We’re both useless!
I think after all these weeks of our family walk on Sundays we’ve finally cracked the balance of exploring new places, challenging ourselves to walk further and keeping the moaning to a minimum. On the way back to the car we spotted a large family group having a picnic under the trees on the valley side. I haven’t seen my parents since February half-term. Have you met up with your extended family yet?
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment – I’d love to hear about what family outings you’re planning over the summer holidays. Perhaps we could compare notes.
Sunday, June 28
We saw a hare. We went for a proper walk on Sunday. Our Father’s Day-lite version last week was just a little bit too dull. Next week, though, we’ll definitely be taking the safe option. We got caught up in brambles this week and still have the tingling feeling to prove it. After breakfast I stuck my finger on the map, aiming for somewhere without any inked-in routes. I landed on our charity bluebell walk – a favourite event pre-coronavirus – but which had been cancelled last year because of lack of volunteers to marshal the route,
To mix things up a bit I did vary the route. We overshot one path because I was filming this video in a field of barley and didn’t notice the side path dog-legging off. Watching the wind chasing through the barley was mesmerizing.
This was when we saw a hare – it was sitting right in the middle of the footpath as we doubled back. It was one of those paths that had been weed-killered in place. A clean, distinct straight line. And then we headed into the woods. It was like being swallowed up into darkness. The path disappeared. We were committed now. I spent the next half-hour chopping back brambles and nettles. The dog was carried. On the map the route was straight, but the vaguely beaten track meandered. We made it to a tiny clearing with an oak in the middle and eventually reached the other side.
Never have we been so pleased to see a cottage with a bridleway alongside. We were back in civilisation. I rewarded the team by missing out the add-on loop.
What an adventure. As I type, our walk hasn’t yet reached such a heady romantic classification. Even I was getting a bit concerned at one point… Another merry tale of walking in the countryside. If it was up to you, what would you do about footpaths?
Let them grow over – you don’t want people walking across your land
Get a team of path-beaters in – access (and signage) is vital
Give more importance to wildlife and nesting birds?
There’s never a single answer that will suit everyone. Much like everything in life. But imagine how off-putting our walk would’ve been if it was the first time you’d taken your family out for a country walk. Not very welcoming.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear your point of view. What’s more important to you – being able to walk safely, letting nature run wild, or keeping people off your land?
Friday, June 26: Permissive footpaths
Do you ever get the feeling that walking routes in the countryside are one great big SECRET? I ask because that’s the impression I get. We re-walked the first bit of our Operation Poppy walk I told you about. But this time we looped round the other way and followed a permissive footpath. More about that later. Love it or hate it, Facebook is a great source of local information. The saga of our local poppy field was played out across a number of community groups I belong to. Suggestions were made that, instead of driving, the poppies could be enjoyed from local footpaths instead. A great idea until you look at a map. There aren’t any public footpaths in the area.
My OS map doesn’t have a key on it – I think it must have been on the cardboard cover that fell off yonks ago, so I resorted to Google. Footpaths are marked as short green dashed lines, and bridleways as longer green dashes. So far so good. The black dotted and fine solid lines that cross the poppy field are “path” and “other road, track or drive” – but are you allowed to walk on them?
And that brings me back to permissive paths. There’s a symbol for that, too. An orange dashed line. We walked a permissive path not because it was marked on the map but because we’d seen a sign pinned to a tree on our failed Operation Poppy walk. The OS map I downloaded didn’t help. I’m using the free version – which doesn’t show any map symbols!
This got me thinking. Do you get the impression that walking routes in the countryside are just one big secret? Do you have to have lived in the area for years before you’re let in on it? Or perhaps my map-reading skills (and legal knowledge) aren’t up to scratch – or should I pay for the premium version of the OS app?
If you’re reading this post on Facebook and you understand what the path symbols on a map actually mean, I’d love to hear from you.
Sunday, June 14: Instagram-tastic
Success! We went back to get an eyeful of poppies. Is your Facebook and Instagram feed full of poppies? I was so pleased we stayed close to home for our Sunday-morning dog walk. It wasn’t the prettiest of routes. We had the option of walking past the dump – or following the bridleway next to the M2. And then we invoked the Countryside Code… Last week I was a tiny bit disappointed with the poppies we saw. They were at the fringes of the field. Growing sparsely without the red stripe impact. But this time. Well, just look at these photos. And this short video.
Sunday morning. A sunny June day. We had company. This is the first time in three months that we’ve seen more than a handful of people at once. There must have been at least a dozen people enjoying the poppies with us. A friend told me she thought there had been a photo of this field in one of the national papers. That explained the attraction. It looked to me as there were Instagrammers in the field: flowing dresses and straw hats, hair being brushed and flying in the breeze, babies and matching outfits.
And then the cars. If you live locally you’ll have spotted these poppies from the A251. As we crossed the road to continue our circular route home there were cars parked haphazardly everywhere – and in the passing bays of the lane opposite. It seems that enjoying the countryside always has its downsides. Whether it’s dog poo, rubbish or inconsiderate parking. Instead of complaining, perhaps now is the time to challenge our negativity. If more people enjoy being outdoors, more people will become aware of the fact that the countryside is a living, breathing, vibrant place that we collectively need to care about. And the Instagrammers I saw? Well, perhaps they’ll come back to the area when things are back to normal and help kick-start the rural economy by staying in a B&B, eating in a country pub, shopping locally and exploring our network of public footpaths.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment. What annoys you most about people visiting the Kent countryside – and how could you turn your views on their head for the benefit of the all?
Wednesday, June 10
Slowed up by a set of panniers. We got the bikes out again. It’s quite a task. Our garage isn’t actually a garage. It pretends it is, with a fancy set of side-hung doors, but it’s a converted storage area with a very small area set aside for the lawnmower and our bikes. Biking for us only really works when the three of us do it together. I lead the way, my husband brings up the rear and our daughter is sandwiched in the middle. She doesn’t like being out as a twosome – she worries about getting knocked off and likes the fact that Dad is providing some protection at the rear end. Part of the National Cycle Network route runs through town and on out to the coast. Our plan was to cycle part of this route, to build confidence.
Cycling involves a totally different set of considerations from being a car-driver. Instead of taking the most direct route from A to B, I’m constantly recalibrating the route to avoid traffic pinch points. Sometimes for our personal safety we cycle on surfaced footpaths in town, blatantly ignoring the no-cycling signs. We are responsible cyclists, though, and slow, stop and avoid pedestrians. What would you do when the place you live has a network of off-road routes that you’re not actually permitted to use? Of course, I know the obvious answer, but sometimes there are shades of grey and – in a world of coronavirus – more cycling (and less car-borne traffic) has surely got to be a good thing…
We were able to build up speed on the cycle path out in the countryside and, as we did, my bike started to make a horrible grating sound and eventually my wheels stopped turning. The corner of my picnic-perfect panniers kept getting caught in the spokes of my wheels (I think the crush factor when storing our bikes is responsible). It was a right pain as I had to stop every few minutes to release my back wheel.
On the plus side, though, it meant I got a good look at the hedgerows – I’ve spied foraging locations for rose hips, blackberries and sloes later in the year.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment and share your thoughts on your experience of cycling in the area. Do you feel safe?
Tuesday, June 9: Poppies
It’ll be lovely, I said. And then it turned into a bit of an ordeal. Operation Poppy didn’t quite go to plan. The problem with spotting poppies along an A-road as you drive past is that you can’t accurately plot them on a map when you get home. So, my idea of parking at the village church and doing a poppy walk from there didn’t quite work out. The poppies were always tantalisingly just over the next ridge. Our walk was beautiful. We walked alongside the church into a field of wheat with a really wide margin of oxeye daisies and turned left at the second set of footpath crossroads. We were surrounded by gently rolling countryside with mounded hills off in the distance.
We walked through fields of broad beans and peas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crop of peas before. The plants were knee height with white ‘sweet pea’ flowers. We then walked down a track and passed an old orchard of tall cherry trees. There were sheep being loaded (or unloaded) from a trailer.
On all our walks the ground has been really hard beneath our feet. It’s so compacted it’s hard to imagine the young seeds pushing through the earth.
The next part of our walk took us down a bridleway. There were patches of the most fabulous wild flowers. More oxeye daisies, the small (fake) chamomile daisy, actual borage and the soft blue/purple/mauve of Echium plantagineum – also known as purple viper’s-bugloss – which is used in the cosmetics industry.
It was a short-lead walk back along the main road to the car. You need to be a confident walker to walk along these particular pavements as traffic at 40-50mph travels so fast. At one point we stepped back into the verge as we could hear an HGV approaching from behind – he did cross the centre line of the road to give us a wide berth, though.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment. Have you spotted poppy fields near you? I’d love to hear about them.
(Fake) chamomile daisy
Monday, June 8: Lost
It RAINED at the weekend. Do you remember the last time it rained? It was before March 23. Fortunately we timed our walk just right and we were well into flopping with a cuppa before the sky turned ominously dark. Our family walk involved another car journey. Fifteen minutes south of the A2. I’m becoming an ace Facebook detective and tracked down a very rough description of where our nearest bright red poppy field is. It was a dramatic sight, but we didn’t stop. That one’s in the memory bank for another walk. We parked in a tiny village that is renowned locally for its summer fete. Everyone (but me) had decided that this would be a one-and-a-half-hour walk. So I set the pace. I have no idea how long the walks I plan are – they’re roughly the same size when I ink them in on the map – and take about three hours (with a picnic stop).
We were probably only five miles from where we were last Sunday, but the landscape was so different. The soil looked fertile, as opposed to being more flint than earth. And the hedgerows were intact. They included hawthorn, field maple and dog rose. And there were wide uncropped margins to the fields. Shall I let you into a secret? We got a little bit lost at one point. Wholly my responsibility because I was the one with the map. We were supposed to walk directly through a small wood, but the path disappeared immediately. We followed the most beaten path, which took us longways instead.
We weren’t actually lost. I knew exactly where we were. We just weren’t on the path. The pylons were plotted and the contours were doing their thing. We reached civilisation a while later. Our lunch stop was in a broad-bean field with amazing views out to distant hills. We followed the road back into the village rather than sweeping round on the footpaths. Apparently, we’d exhausted the collective family walking time – and we couldn’t quite decide which way the path went around someone’s house. Even with a map, it’s quite intimidating trying to follow a path that cuts across someone’s garden (and isn’t clearly marked on the ground). We’ve experienced several missing paths in recent weeks and it’s suddenly dawned on me that perhaps some of the designated footpaths have been diverted. I downloaded the Ordnance Survey app when we got home. It didn’t show a footpath through the woods we got lost in. I plotted our route. It was seven miles.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment telling me how good your map-reading skills are. When was the last time you got lost?
Today we spotted:
Free-range chickens (and escapees)
Wednesday, June 3: Pilgrims on the Pilgrims’ Way
We met pilgrims on the Pilgrims’ Way! I’m always on the look-out for photos I can take that don’t just show beautiful country scenes but have people in them actively enjoying the countryside. My family are getting fed up with me asking them to stop and pose.
One of the joys of lockdown has been seeing more people than normal exploring the outdoors: family groups biking, couples with maps. Imagine my delight when I saw a couple with bikes taking in the view on the Pilgrims’ Way. Sneaky photo time, I thought. Then their matching bikes caught my eye.
We gave a cheery hello and then I thought this isn’t a matchy-matchy cagoule situation, these bikes have been hired. It turns out that this couple had come down from London for the day and arranged to pick up their hire bikes from Hollingbourne train station.
We’ve always ruled out distant bike rides because we can’t get three bikes in/on our car. It looks like we’ve been missing a trick. I often talk about how we should holiday in Kent. No one else in my family is convinced. But wouldn’t hiring bikes make a great day out? This is something I’m definitely adding to my wish-list. As we walked away, my husband said I should have asked what lockdown was like in London. A missed opportunity.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, do leave a comment – can you recommend any bike routes in Kent?
Tuesday, June 2: Beetle bank
My husband stuck a finger on the map and that decided where we’d do our family walk. I’m not keen to go out in the car, but he feels the need to escape. We drove 20 minutes to the other side of the Kent Downs. I think he had his eyes open when he made his random selection. One of the hardest things to do when you drive out for a country walk is to find somewhere to safely park your car. We drove up and then back down the street before deciding which bit of lane was the widest and straightest. I was pleasantly surprised when, a couple of hours later, we hadn’t been pranged and there was no note from an angry resident pushed under the wipers.
We walked across rickety bridges over drainage ditches and through fields of rape, wheat, beans and brassicas. And then came across a beetle bank. We were a bit confused by this. The bank followed the route of some telegraph poles and looked for all the world as if there had originally been a hedge between them – that had since been removed – with the bank marking the old field boundary. Perhaps we were doing the farmer a disservice – but wouldn’t retaining the hedge have had a greater wildlife benefit?
From our high point on the downs we scrambled down the scarp slope to the Pilgrims’ Way through a paddock of sheep. The views were breathtaking. We sat down under the shade of some trees in front of a pretty cottage and ate birthday cake and then started our loop back to the car.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, perhaps you can shed some light on the beetle bank we came across.
Amazing views out towards the High Weald
Monday, June 1
My walking companion turned 13 at the weekend. Imagine that. A milestone birthday during lockdown. We went out the evening before for one last walk as a 12-year-old. After the heat of the day it was lovely to get out while it was still warm without it being overbearing. And the light was beautiful. We did my daughter’s favourite route but couldn’t decide which direction to walk it. We let the dog decide when we got to the end of our road.
Obviously, there wasn’t going to be a party this year, so the chosen treat was a picnic lunch at the beach. There was hardly anyone around when we went to the coast in the evening last week – but I must admit I was slightly nervous about a daytime visit. Fortunately, our bit of sea is not a tourist hot-spot. We always take pot luck with the tide. It was so far out, it looked like you could practically walk to Sheppey!
We found a patch of less gritty shingle and lay down on blankets listening to the breeze and the chatter of the family in the next set of groynes. Selfies may have been taken. It felt like we were on holiday.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment – has there been a lockdown birthday in your family? How did you make it special?
Wednesday, May 27: M2 and fruit
We redeemed ourselves with a long walk today. And we ventured out on paths across the other side of town. It was quite an adventure. Instead of walking straight along the A2 to the farm shop we meandered through the park and up over the railway line. We battled stinging nettles and then discovered the reason the path was so overgrown was that everyone else takes a short-cut through the farm shop car park!
The roar of the motorway is starting to build up, giving a seemingly hard urban edge to the countryside we were walking through. This was emphasised by the graffiti on the motorway bridge. Amid the apparently ‘barren’ fields we noticed pockets of wildness. Wheat and oats growing in the margins – presumably runaways from last year’s crop – with wild grasses and what looked like chamomile. We passed neat fields of blackcurrants laid out in lines, almost as if they should be an on allotment. And then large-scale strawberry production on table-top trays in polytunnels.
Quite an industrial walk for us – particularly as most of it was on concrete-paved farm tracks – with the M2 as our ever-present companion.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment – have you eaten your first Kent strawberry of the year?
Tuesday May 26
It’s half-term. Our routine has gone adrift. And it’s too hot to walk at lunchtime. And then we find other things to do. Much to my husband’s disgust the daily walk with my daughter and dog amounted to little more than a quick half-hour around the block. We’ve developed a conspiracy theory. We’re both convinced that our allotted period of exercise isn’t so much for our general well-being; he likes to have the house to himself for a while! We threw caution to the wind and did our mini town walk in reverse. There’s a cricket pitch near us in the middle of a housing estate. A quiet secret of open space. It was lovely to see socially distanced meet-ups (bring your own deckchair) – a park being put to good use. Short walk it may have been. But I had an ulterior motive. The elderflower is, well, flowering and I wanted to go down to the local stream where stocks are plentiful. Usually I don’t get around to making elderflower cordial until July – when I struggle to find the blossom because it’s started to set into the fruit. The path next to the stream is a well-trodden route for us. It’s a car-free easy-access option that takes us from practically outside our front door, right into town. With more time to ‘be’, this year I’m ahead of the elderflower game – although two friends have already made batches. I love elderflower cordial. I especially like the fact I’m in the moment, embracing the season.
The recipe I use is a heady concoction of sugar, with more sugar. I might try reducing the quantities, though, as I need to make a birthday cake later in the week.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, please do leave a comment and tell me if you make elderflower cordial – perhaps we could swap recipe notes?
Today we spotted:
An interesting moth on our hall ceiling
Sparrows nesting in a really exposed nest-box next to our patio
Sunday May 24
It feels like we’ve been on holiday – we drove five miles from home and explored footpaths we’d never been on before. We have clearly defined responsibilities at home. Mine is to plan our walks, provide the picnic and carry the rucksack. It’s pink. My husband refuses to wear it. We decided to try somewhere new for our walk and parked in one of the villages that I sometimes drive through to get to our office in Charing. I’d already marked out our route in highlighter pen, making a loose circle – with two sets of opt-out points. No one complained, so I didn’t tell them about the shortcuts. Part of the reason we headed this way was because my husband doesn’t like marsh/coastal walks in hot weather – he prefers these locations in the gloom of winter. So it was woodland and rolling countryside for us.
The start of our walk was the busiest I’d seen so far. Having parked up, we saw 10 other people in quick succession. This soon thinned out.
We passed hedgerows for dormice. Shocked ourselves in the woods – I had my head down reading the map while a gentleman stood aside for us. I hadn’t noticed him and jumped. My husband claimed he was having a ‘ladies backwards’. This is a walking joke that stems from outings with my parents’ rambling club in Yorkshire. We spotted bluebell country for next year. And great vantage points to take in the view. Where we live it’s reasonably flat, so being in the Kent Downs was a real change of scene.
The footpaths through the cropped fields were really well marked. I can’t say the same for the horse paddocks the paths went through. We got the distinct impression we weren’t welcome – from the taped-off enclosures and the invitation to follow the diverted footpath markers (there weren’t any) and the missing footpath signs from the lane that went through someone’s yard to the electric fences we had to unhook (and rehook) that barred our way through two sets of kissing gates.
I guessing these routes aren’t particularly well used and perhaps the designated public rights of way are considered a bit of a nuisance.
If you own land with a footpath running through it, I’d love to hear your point of view – if you’re reading this post on Facebook, leave me a comment.
Friday, May 22
I’ve just looked at the kitchen calendar and discovered that I haven’t been out in the car since Mother’s Day on Sunday, March 22. That’s over eight weeks ago! With restrictions on our movements eased a little, we went to the beach midweek, on the hottest day of the year so far. I’m not very good in the sun, so I was happy to stay home during the day, away from the sun-lovers. In fact, if we do go to the beach, we tend to head off at teatime – when all the day-trippers are starting to go home. We packed a picnic and drove off. Our closest beach is about 15 minutes away and as we rounded the corner to our usual parking spot, I did a double-take: there were cars everywhere! Fortunately, this was only an indication of the limited amount of parking locally, and not a statement about how busy the beach was. As usual, there was (at least) one groyne-defined section of beach per family.
The tide was out. And the sea was still. And it was still baking hot. I’d bought my book with me and was prepared to linger until sunset, but I was outvoted. Fired up by all this adventure, my daughter and I went out on our bikes for our next session of daily exercise. Big mistake. While we’ve got into a routine of lunchtime walks, apparently cycling is a step too far. The complaints were numerous.
As I’ve got plans for sunrise and sunset bike rides to all our local too-far-to-walk spots, my aim is to start off with short frequent rides. We haven’t really cycled since we got our dog five years ago. And it’s with huge thanks to my brother-in-law that exploring on two wheels has been made possible. He serviced my daughter’s bike after a rather dramatic puncture incident during a practice ride a couple days ago. Perhaps that’s what’s putting her off travelling further afield!
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, do leave a comment and tell me whether you’re travelling further afield to enjoy being in the great outdoors. I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to.
Tuesday, May 19 (Claire’s story)
Over the last few weeks I’ve been chatting to local mums on the community pages of Facebook asking them about their experiences of exploring the countryside with their children during lockdown in what, for some, has been a first-time experience. In today’s post, Claire tells me how she’s been enjoying exploring with her four-year-old looking for signs of spring as they’ve gone about working on a school homework project together. Claire reminisced about her own childhood and how she enjoyed camping trips in the countryside and playing in her parents’ large garden. She’s comfortable being in nature. Claire explains how she and her daughter have been stopping more often than they otherwise might have done to look at things. They’ve been documenting their walks by taking photos and have been trying to find out the names of butterflies and plants. This is where your smartphone comes in handy: Claire uses apps like Plant Finder (and the ‘picture this’ plant identifier) to help fill the gaps in her knowledge. As a side note, I’ve started using Google Lens, which I’ve discovered is part of my phone’s in-built software, so I don’t need to take up storage space by downloading an app. Claire told me she’s really been enjoying learning with her daughter. They’ve done a flower dissection at home and been learning about pollen. Together they’ve found that understanding more about nature means they look more closely at what they see on their walks – which includes stopping to look at the flowers they spot to see if there’s pollen on the flowers and bees.
And they haven’t just limited themselves to studying flowers – they’ve been exploring shells on the beach and looking at the living things in the tide pools. As Claire says: “It’s been interesting to learn about British countryside flora and fauna. We’re also working on bird song!”
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, leave a comment and tell me what you’ve spotted on your walks. Are you keeping a journal like Claire and her daughter and using apps to find out more about the natural world?
Sunday, May 17
One of our routes out into the countryside is to walk to the end of our road and cross the bypass. Every time we walk this way, I see one of the many building sites around town – and I’m reminded that my sloe and blackberry picking grounds have been displaced.
While I’ve been mildly inconvenienced, I have been enjoying scouting around for new foraging sites. Not all change is bad, though. Today the footpath we couldn’t find (Thursday, April 9) has now been clearly marked – and an additional area cleared on the top edge of the field. This means there’s now a ‘pavement’ on the field edge, which makes negotiating the bends on this particular single-track lane much easier. It wasn’t cars we needed to be mindful of, but quiet cyclists – we were walking on a section of the National Sustrans Route 1 between Dover and Gravesend.
When we’re about one mile in, the moaning starts. Can we stop for lunch now, are we halfway round yet? Of course, I lie. My daughter is starting to piece together her mental map of the local geography – and then groans when she realises that home is some way off. No one else is interested in putting in a few minutes’ work before we leave the house, so I’m left to be the route-planner and map-reader. More fool them, I say. I do build some short-cuts into my routes if the complaints ratchet up a level; most of our walk was a shortened route so we walked along quiet lanes rather than footpaths. We stopped for a picnic lunch outside a Grade II*-listed building. The field in front has been mown and has a lovely view down to the local church. As with all good walks, the second half was a little shorter – and included sashaying through a field of wheat (on the footpath, of course).
My walks are proving to be a great way of taking exercise and exploring my local area and have given me the opportunity to spend time chatting with my daughter. All of which is rather apt as May has been designated National Walking Month by Living Streets (the UK charity for everyday walking).
I’d love to hear about your walking stories. If you’re reading this post on Facebook, leave a comment and let’s compare notes #Try20.
Red admiral butterfly
Friday, May 15
Has your house ever been cleaner and your garden tidier? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been deep-cleaning our house, room by room – although, with only one left to do, I’ve run out of steam. While I’m indoors, the garden is my husband’s domain. He often likens mowing the lawn to having a quick hoover around: it really does perk up the garden. On the subject of mowing the lawn, did you know it’s No Mow May this month?
As we have a wildlife garden, I asked my husband whether he was going to embrace No Mow May and he gave me an empathic “No!”. Actually, this was echoed by a gardening friend of mine who said something along the lines of needing a combine harvester in June. My husband did go on to explain himself, saying that our town garden is too rich in nutrients and that wildflowers thrive better on poor soils. He suggested a compromise of leaving a small pocket unmown, or mowing a path through some longer grass to balance the needs of nature and give an air of estate management. Do you remember several years ago when prairie planting was a big thing at the Chelsea Flower Show? At the time we really embraced this idea and turned our front garden into meadow. We thought it was amazing: our neighbours weren’t quite as impressed. We eventually lawned it over and I remember looking at Google Street View afterwards and agreeing that to the untrained eye it did look a mess! You can be wildlife-friendly without being unkempt and this is what the team at Plantlife is encouraging us to do this month – much like the nation’s haircuts, now’s the time to adopt a less rigorous mowing regime and say goodbye to your close-mown striped lawn for a while. You don’t need to go full-on meadow – you could raise your mower blades and cut slightly longer than usual.
I’ve noticed some spectacular urban verges on my town walks during lockdown – some of them put areas of the countryside to shame. Have you noticed garden boundaries in the countryside that are over-manicured, with tightly clipped grass right up to the road edge? The local environment is often made worse for wildlife, with a profusion of non-native species – we’ve seen conifer hedges, photinia and laurel in the most rural of settings. This upsets my husband so much that he now refuses to spend his leisure time walking in areas where the countryside, nature and wildlife doesn’t seem to be understood by local property owners.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear whether you’re going to embrace #NoMowMay – how many plant species have you got in your lawn?
Thursday, May 14
What would you prefer: a couple of hours at a soft-play centre, or to be out in the countryside – or does that set off your allergies? One thing that working from home has taught me is that my experience of life isn’t necessarily the same as yours. It’s second nature to me to put on my wellies, grab a map and go for a walk. But what if the prospect of a muddy walk fills you with dread as you try to wash and dry your toddler’s clothes in a small flat – or being outside sets off your allergies? I’ve been chatting to some local residents on Facebook, asking them about their experiences of getting out into the countryside – particularly if it’s a new activity they’re sharing with their young children. One mum told me “We weren’t very good at going for walks before lockdown – in fact we simply didn’t do it – but lockdown has kind of made it a necessity. With a two-year-old who enjoys entertainment at soft-play and the park, we’ve found the woods to be a really lovely place for him to burn off energy and really enjoy himself, when he’s clearly felt very cooped up in our small flat.”
As we chatted, I asked whether choosing the woods would become part of their family’s new normal. She wasn’t sure but did say “I wonder if our mentalities will change as we are more ‘scared’ of the indoors and the higher probability of the virus being spread indoors than outdoors. But equally soft-play was a lot less effort, to just rock up and go. You don’t have to find the wellies or take a change of clothes in case you all get covered in mud!” Another subject cropped up while we were talking and that was allergies. Rapeseed is in full bloom at the moment. It had never crossed my mind that suffering with allergies could put whole swathes of the countryside out of reach to you. Another local resident chipped in at this point to say she’s vulnerable to rapeseed pollen and a tree pollen. “I mostly avoid areas where rapeseed is being grown while in flower – antihistamines don’t seem to help too much and it can flare up my asthma, making me more vulnerable to attacks. When I lived more rurally, I’d have to dry my clothes in the tumble-dryer so they didn’t get pollen blown on to them while on the line. “It doesn’t stop me getting out, but it does change where I’m going to walk – as soon as I notice a particular field has been planted with rape I’ll find different footpaths to amble down for the year until it’s run to seed. I’m particularly aware of it this year because of Covid-19 and because early symptoms of an asthma attack in me are wheezing and coughing. I’m worried about coughing in public and causing a panic.
“In winter I’m always pretty safe, mostly it’s keeping an eye out for when the yellow flowers are gone and I can walk the same old footpaths again.” Huge thanks to the ladies I spoke to in helping me write this post – it’s given me a great insight into your experience of the countryside. If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your experiences of being out in nature – are you put off by muddy walks and having to plan around allergies?
Wednesday, May 13
It was long walk yesterday. We’ve come to think of these walks as scouting opportunities for when we go out as a family on Sunday for our picnic walk. It didn’t disappoint – my daughter and I are getting strong enough to walk further afield and exploring lanes we’ve never been down before. Anyway, it’s Wednesday. This is the day we both try to get out of walking the dog. I have an exercise class first thing on Zoom, and my daughter has back- to-back ballet and tap classes in the afternoon. We’re too tired to walk the dog. We do always eventually go out for a quick spin around the block around teatime. But for the moment, the furthest I’m walking is to the bottom of the garden. Did you know it’s the wild garlic season? The smell of it always reminds me of visiting my parents when they lived in North Yorkshire. It’s quite pungent. There’s garlic in the woods near our office in Charing, but aside from that I’m not sure where else I’ve seen it in Kent. We have, however, got a huge patch of it in our garden.
This year is the first time I’ve ever done anything with it. I’m quite happy picking elderflowers for cordial and blackberries for jam, but I find there’s something a bit too ‘intense’ about picking something green and putting it in your mouth. Perhaps deep down I think I’m about to eat something unpalatable? With more time on my hands, I have been picking our garlic. We’ve had it on pizza, in pasta sauce and with mushrooms on toast. My go-to book for advice on Wild Food tells me that wild garlic (also known as ramsons) is a native bulb found in damp woods and lanes – the young leaves can be used in salads. On the same page is a recipe for Alexanders sauce – this is the plant that looks like Angelica – but eating it for lunch might be a step too far for me, though…
Hopefully it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be eating anything from the wild that you cannot identify with 100 per cent confidence. Plants may be poisonous if eaten. If you’re reading this on Facebook, I’d love to know whether you go foraging for wild garlic and what you use it for – tell me about it in the comments and let’s compare notes.
Tuesday, May 12
I’ve been seeing lots of posts in Facebook residents’ groups I belong to berating dog-owners and poo-bag etiquette and asking about walking routes out and about near here. It got me thinking. Why do some of us seem to know the local walking routes but others don’t? If there can be any positives to be gained from staying home and only making essential journeys (and exercising), it is that my fellow residents are really starting to enjoy having easy access to the countryside. One day last week I put out a call on Facebook asking local people if they’d be willing to share their experiences of accessing the countryside during lockdown. Today’s post features the experience of Helen, one half of a couple usually out at work full-time. Helen told me how she’d been enjoying walks out to the sea wall, commenting that while we’re in lockdown Mother Nature isn’t. She has been amazed at the cacophony of noises, from the frogs (we heard those on Easter Sunday), the cows and the cuckoos. Helen went on to say that although she’d lived in town for 13 years she was only now discovering new walks in the neighbourhood. When I asked why it had taken so long to discover the local area, Helen said that staying at home and taking a daily walk had made her re-evaluate what she could do for a better life balance. With her husband she’s now feeling excited about future retirement, and then thought why not live for the moment and embrace what we have now. The upshot is that Helen is going to be making more time for walking and enjoying the natural world around her, as of now.
Helen went on to explain that her walks had made her think about something her mum had said recently. Her parents retired to France 15 years ago. Apparently, Helen’s mum’s biggest regret was that they didn’t explore enough of what was around them while they were both relatively fit and able to do so. Helen says that her walks have borne credence to this – she’s now walking an average of six to seven miles most days. After all, why wait when you can be in the here and now? Interestingly, Helen says that she and her husband have needed these walks for their emotional well-being. They’ve been able to work off anxiety, anger, upset and stress. After a walk they find themselves floating back to their house, relishing the fact they live in a beautiful area and are so lucky. I love the message in Helen’s note. If not now, then when?
I’ll leave the last word to Helen as she says her wish “after this awful period is that we stick to all our resolutions and remind ourselves what is important rather than losing ourselves in routines that do not offer us the right life balance”.
If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your experiences on walking in your local area – especially if you’re new to it. Keep on walking, Helen!
Monday, May 11
We spotted buzzards on our family walk yesterday. Two from a hill near the start of our walk and another five from a hill further round. We took my husband on the route we’d walked last week. The bluebells had started to fade after the heat of the VE Day 75 bank holiday weekend. I was so glad we’d seen them in full bloom. Instead of walking down the hill through the field of wheat, we went straight on. Even when you’ve got a map, sometimes it’s difficult picking out the right path in the undergrowth, but after a couple of false starts we found it in the end. We came out into a set-aside field. It was full of teasel and what looked like dried-out ragwort. Both are great species for nature. We’ll have to come back to see whether we can spot cinnabar moths on the ragwort in the summer and goldfinches feeding on the teasel seeds in the autumn.
We also spotted the prettiest stile on all our walks so far. It was part-hidden by red and white campion. It was such a shame that this native planting didn’t influence the choice of hedging right next to it. I mean, who chooses to plant a leylandii hedge in the countryside – and why? We had a picnic lunch on the footpath through an orchard we’d visited several times in the last few weeks. The blossom had gone and the apples had set. It feels a bit like ‘our’ orchard: the more we walk through it, the more we notice and enjoy it.
On the subject of ‘noticing’, this is a topic that has come up with one of the ladies from my running club. She told me she’d noticed how much more intense the scent of the apple blossom and bluebells had been this year. We weren’t really sure whether this was brought on by a very wet February and super-hot April, or because there was more time for us to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Have you noticed? I’d love to hear whether you think the apple blossom perfume has been better this year. If you’re reading this post on Facebook, leave a comment and let’s compare notes.
Red and white campion
Thursday, May 7
I don’t know about you, but I’m squeezing every ounce of enjoyment out of the bluebells before they disappear for another year. Word on the street – well, in my WhatsApp group of eight local mum friends – is that the bluebells just out of town are exceptional this year. And yes, they were well worth the visit. The problem when you want to visit a specific place is that you have to get there. And bearing in mind this has to be achieved in reasonable time and walking distance during the daily walks with my daughter, decisions needed to be made. This wouldn’t be a three-part ramble of getting there, visiting the bluebells and going home. We’d need to dive straight in with getting to the bluebells as fast as we could. For us, this meant walking along the A2, rather than taking the more pleasant route cross-country. However, with the traffic significantly lighter than normal, we weren’t buffeted by the back-draught of HGVs and we managed to cross without having to wait ages. The walk we did was absolutely delightful. It was a route I hadn’t taken in about 15 years. I’m hoping to go back again for our family Sunday walk – but my husband would like to travel further afield and literally see pastures new.
Because the wood had been coppiced, the impact of the bluebells was all the more intense. The colour wasn’t diluted by intermittent tree trunks. An amazing sight.
On the way home we walked downhill on a footpath through a field of wheat. It was more mature than other wheat we’d seen locally. And then to my shock my daughter suggested we loop back (out of our way) because she wanted to see which crop was growing in the field next to the church, so she could compare the two – they were broad beans. We’re both finding that, although we’re generally fit and active, our stamina has increased and a mile detour gave us way more pleasure than pain. If you’re reading this post on Facebook, I’d love to hear about your favourite bluebell walks. Tell me about them in the comments.
Wednesday, May 5
Yesterday was a short walk. Without my phone. A ploy by my daughter to speed things up, so I would’t take photos and we’d get back home faster… so she could play on her phone. It’s May and the hawthorn blossom is out. I mentioned a while back that my husband recalls his father eating new hawthorn growth as a child. On this theme I noticed on Instagram that local herbalist Mandy Rickard had been foraging for hawthorn to use as a tea and a tincture.
On a side note I should mention that Mandy runs herbalist classes at Belmont House & Gardens – if you are a member of CPRE Kent you get a two-for-one ticket price concession to the gardens at Belmont (although no reductions apply at the events Mandy runs). Mandy has kindly agreed to share her knowledge with me. However, please do note the disclaimer at the end of this post. Once the hawthorn (or May blossom) comes into flower, Mandy harvests just enough as she needs for her herbal practice from her garden and nearby wild spaces. Some is dried for tea and the rest is made into a tincture (medicinal liquid). Mandy says that hawthorn is her go-to herb for circulation and the heart. She regards it as “a powerful medicine that protects and strengthens the blood vessels throughout the heart and circulation. Its gentleness lends it to a more emotional level, too, where I use it for the ‘heartbroken’”. You’ll recognise hawthorn in hedgerows near you by the shower of tiny white flowers – my daughter and I love ‘pinging’ them as we pass, creating a shower of confetti. Mandy describes how the smell of the blossom is reminiscent of fish or rotten meat, which attracts pollinating insects. Mandy says she is “truly grateful to enjoy the abundance of beautiful blossom throughout the Kent countryside on this useful, albeit thorny, bush!” Be like Mandy and forage for just what you need – and if you want to stay youthful strew a few blossoms along your garden path. Disclaimer: the contents of this post should not used as a substitute for medical advice. Mandy Rickard works with patients, taking a full case history and medications into account before prescribing a blend of herbs. For more advice you can contact Mandy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, May 3: cowslips and Roman snails
It feels like I’m the last among my friends to discover the two fields of cowslips in the next village. We saw fields of yellow last week and thought is was rapeseed flowers that had gone over. But no. We had two options for Operation Cowslip. The first was to take the long route and follow the public footpaths for as long as possible, while the second was to just hit the road and keep on walking. We decided on the second. The only problem being that eventually we ran out of pavement. Even though the traffic is much lighter now we’re all staying at home, it is quite unnerving facing oncoming cars when there’s no path and you’re walking on the road itself. The utter shock on some of the drivers’ faces once they’d spotted us has hopefully reminded them that just because there’s no speed limit you don’t need to drive at 60mph at every opportunity. As a pedestrian you really do need to read the road. Listening and looking out for traffic and deciding when to cross over in order that you can safely see around the bends in the road. As well as coping with the cars, we also did our social-distancing dance as we passed fellow walkers, runners and cyclists.
The cowslips didn’t disappoint. I’m curious to know what the management regime is for maintaining a field with such a healthy yellow glow – why wasn’t it overrun with weeds? Do you know? As I was map-reading, I tricked the rest of the gang into going home the long way round. I’m glad I did as we spotted a lone Roman snail.
Did you know that these snails are protected under the Wildlife and Country Act 1981 (it’s also known as the edible snail)? As such, I’ll be recording my find on the Kent & Medway Biological Records Centre website. The KMBRC encourages recording in the community as an enjoyable, educational pastime that can be done from your kitchen window. Information supplied by professionals and amateurs alike enables the centre to collate and disseminate information about wildlife species and habitats in Kent to inform decision-making, education and research.
Early purple orchid
Thursday, April 30: what a load of rubbish
Is your bit of the countryside being overwhelmed by members of your community getting out of town for their daily walk? I’ve noticed more people than we’d normally see but certainly not a vast increase. What I do see gives me a warm glow. Families spending time together – walking, cycling, chatting. Taking in their surroundings. The more time I spend out and about, the more I’m starting to notice about my surroundings. And what I’m seeing is a load of rubbish. That’s right, litter strewn around in the undergrowth.
While I’m sure some of it must be stray, fly-away rubbish, I’m becoming more convinced that most of it is being purposely discarded. Imagine the scene. You decide to go for an evening stroll and take a couple of beers with you. You drink said beers as you watch the sunset. And then you toss your cans over your shoulder as you head home. I just don’t get this attitude: the idea that it’s someone else’s job to clear up after you. Where’s your civic pride? Or your concern for the impact on wildlife?
Here’s a problem you might want to get your home-schoolers to work on. What is the weight and volume of a full beer can, compared with the weight and (crushed) volume of one that’s empty? If you’ve gone to the trouble of carrying your tinnies with you, why can’t you take them home afterwards – when they’re much lighter and small enough to fit in your pocket? As a national charity, CPRE has been campaigning for a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans. The scheme requires us to pay a small deposit on the drinks containers we buy, which is repaid when we return them to machines in shops and supermarkets. This campaign is backed by evidence gathered on a yearly basis by CPRE – including CPRE Kent – through organised Green Clean litter picks. The rubbish found is sorted by size and type and the results used to lobby for the urgent need for a deposit return system that includes drinks cans, plastic and glass bottles, cartons and pouches. So, with our friends at Keep Britain Tidy, I’d like to say love where you live and take your litter home with you.
Nine beer cans
Six plastic drinks bottles
Fifteen empty crisp bags
Monday, April 27
We had a great feeling of breaking free today: we crossed over the motorway and headed south. It’s strange how having your movements restricted makes tiny things more pleasurable. We took a B-road out of town and stopped on the motorway bridge. I can remember waving to traffic as a child (and doing the same with my daughter), but there wasn’t anyone to wave to today…
Today’s walk was all about road walking: we didn’t use a single public footpath, but we still got our countryside fix. It got me thinking about the lady who had posted in one of the community groups I belong to on Facebook. She said she was getting fed up with taking her daily walk along the A2. In reply, another lady suggested that she head out towards the farm shop on the A2 and walked some of the footpaths there for a change. I wonder whether Lady No.1 was being fastidious in sticking to the lockdown rules or whether she just had no knowledge of the huge network of paths in the local area that she could use and still keep to the social- distancing protocol. Perhaps it’s my inner geography geek coming out in me, but don’t people have maps – whether real or on apps? Or perhaps she felt she needed ‘permission’ to walk into the countryside. As a side note I should say that where I live the A2 marks the southern boundary of the town. For the most part, if you cross the road, you’re in the countryside.
Anyway, back to my walk. Our return journey meant going down a single-track lane – it feels so like a public footpath that the sound of a very occasional car coming up behind you is quite a shock. Eventually this road widens out as it goes back over the motorway. This part of our walk always makes me smile. For 20 metres or so either side of the motorway bridge the narrow lane widens to accommodate two-way traffic, with proper pavements (and kerbstones) at the side. Why?
Wild mustard (white flowers)
and another white flower that is a daintier version of the white campion – I’m really going to have to get an app to help me with my plant identification…
Sunday, April 26
Sunday is our designated family walk day. We usually cover about three miles every other day of the week, but I like to plan a longer route when we’re all together. The last time we did this particular walk must have been over 10 years ago. I think it may originally have been one I’d plotted out from a local guided walks series. I’ve taken to drawing over our Ordnance Survey map, documenting our travels. It also makes it easier if you’re not sure where you’re going – to immediately find which bit of the countryside you’re actually in – so you’re not having to constantly unfold and refold your map while remembering you’re vaguely south of wood X. I don’t, however, deface books: I do have standards! I had imagined that the orchards would be in blossom and we could have our own mini Hanami festival, but the first orchard we walked through was already at the leaf stage. We had more success in the second. A couple of years ago we went to Hanami at Brogdale – if you’re missing your blossom fix, take a look at this short video. We then headed into the woods. The bluebells weren’t quite as spectacular as we’d seen closer to home, but we were rewarded with the spectacular sight of the early purple orchid. The leaves are tinged with dark purple blotches. My post-walk research tells me they have a wonderful scent that’s not dissimilar to lily of the valley, tinged with blackcurrant – I wish now I’d got closer to the ground and had a good sniff, instead of just taking a photo.
Part of our route home took us down the road I sometimes use as an alternative route back from work. It was lovely to take in the views without being boxed up in my car. As my husband was with us, he regaled us with his knowledge of birdsong and how his dad used to chew fresh hawthorn growth, which is said to taste of bread and cheese. While I couldn’t detect any notes of a picnic lunch, Rogers Phillips’s book Wild Food backs this up, saying that young hawthorn leaves were traditionally eaten by children on their way to school. Perhaps if lockdown continues, I’ll explore more about eating for free in the countryside. [Disclaimer: don’t touch, cut or eat unless you are crystal-clear what you are looking at.]
Early purple orchids
… and possibly a distant view of a field of cowslips
Thursday, April 23: looking for water
I really wanted to see some water today. However, my companion decided that going out to the creek was a walk too far – so we settled on the fishing lakes. We’re getting quite speedy with our walks. Our post-lunch routine is set and I don’t have to do the pre-prep countdown routine I was doing in the early weeks of lockdown. However, I’m not quite sure that the keenness to get out has anything to do with being out in the countryside – it’s more the thought of getting home faster to start the bedroom makeover. We’re dedicating an hour each afternoon to learning the skills of Polyfilla and paint brushes. We visit the fishing lakes a lot. It’s my husband’s go-to dog walk. To change things up a bit we’ve been doing other routes. Consequently, it was rather nice to visit somewhere we’d not been for a month. Instead of sticking to the main route, we meandered through narrower paths – getting a different aspect on the (very) familiar. Much to my daughter’s disgust I’m keeping up with my cheery ‘hellos’. I’ve even taken to doing a double hello to prompt a response sometimes… We were given the task of checking up on some ransoms (wild garlic) but couldn’t find the spot where it was planted. We did see lots of litter, though, but that’ll be a post for another day…
I love the reflections cast on the water. I’ve been banned from stopping to take photos but managed to sneak in a couple anyway. Don’t tell.
Wednesday, April22 Clear skies by day and night. Last night I ran out in the garden and looked up into the night sky. It was a lovely clear night with plenty of stars. I seemed to have missed Starlink, again. And for those not in the know, Starlink is a satellite constellation that is being constructed by American company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk. The firm has recently been sending satellites up into Earth’s orbit in batches of 60 – with the aim of improving global internet coverage (as reported in inews.co.uk). Another batch is scheduled to be launched on April 22 (tonight). See more here Fingers crossed, it won’t be cloudy tonight and I’ll get a good view. Have you noticed how clear, blue and cloudless the sky’s been recently? We seem to be having endless sunny days. A sharp contrast to when it rained and rained and rained in February and we thought it would never stop.
I’ve been wondering whether we’re having unusually blue-sky days because there’s less pollution from air and roadborne traffic, or is it just a normal run of anticyclonic weather? Or is it that I’ve got more time to ponder the world around me? I’m all questions today… On the subject of clear skies, CPRE regularly updates research on the sky at night. After all, starry skies are one of the most magical sights the countryside can offer. It’s a sad fact that light pollution not only limits our views of these skies but also disrupts wildlife’s natural patterns. Through our national office we run an annual star count – the most recent took place back in February. The aim is for you to help us to see where light pollution is a problem and where the darkest skies are. We use this evidence to advocate for better-controlled lighting, and we offer advice about what we can all do to reduce local light pollution. You can learn more about CPRE’s star count here So tonight, turn off your outside lights and join me as I look up to the sky and see whether I can spot the chain of satellites travelling overhead.
Monday, April 20 Are you getting more exercise with your daily walk than you ever did before? I’m pretty sure we are. My daughter and I go out every day – whereas pre-coronavirus I only exercised in set blocks, at classes I’d paid for, as well as doing a family walk on a Sunday. Last week we went out to the woods to check up on the bluebells. As we revisit our now-favourite walking spots, we’re noticing – almost day by day – what changes are happening in nature. Two weeks ago there was only the smallest hint of the approaching bluebell season and now the woods are awash. This got me thinking. Usually we make a visit to the woods just as the bluebell seasons ends. I start spotting bluebells on my drive to work and add it to my ongoing list of things to do. Almost making it a chore that needs to be ticked off: the need to squeeze in an appointment with the blue, before it fades away for another year.
For the last few years we’ve met up with friends at a local charity fundraising bluebell walk. And sometimes we go to a local beauty spot. Are your appointments with nature at set times? At a specific attractions? Somewhere you’ve paid money to go? Newsflash: enjoying the countryside is a free activity. You don’t have to be part of an organised tour. The fact that we, as a community, have become isolated from the countryside really struck me when I was scrolling through Facebook at the weekend. Someone was asking for recommendations for bluebell woods to visit. There were all sorts of suggestions, with the most popular being a ‘designated’ site. There was much discussion about ‘the rules’ and whether a 20-minute drive for some exercise was acceptable. The irony is that for a 20-minute walk we can see bluebells practically on our doorstep – as presumably can most of the rest of the families in town. I quite often say to my husband that we should go on holiday in Kent. To discover the places around us that are too much for a day trip. In a small way, we’re starting to do this now: making the most of social distancing, by exploring with new eyes, sights that familiarity has made us overlook.
Today we spotted:
Thursday, April 16
Lots of my walks recently seem to have featured views to the Isle of Sheppey. Today’s was no different. We walked out to Harty Ferry.
As my husband was with us, he helped us identify the birds on the Oare Marshes reserve, which is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. Over the years the names have become familiar to me, but I’m not very good at the actual spotting and identifying.
I can spot a seagull, though. Actually, almost 25 years of marriage has taught me not to refer to seagulls as seagulls – you should be more specific. As in: black-headed gull, herring gull and so on.
Today we saw lots of black and white birds, including little egrets and avocets.
On the way home we saw these little blue flowers. I can never remember what they’re called. My husband insists it’s borage. It isn’t. And by the magic of the internet I can reveal it’s called green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens).
And the reason we walked to Harty Ferry? That’s easy – we went to visit the recently-repaired spring head. My daughter took this photo of me – only when I’d filled my cup did I see the sign (I’m hiding it) that said not to drink the water as it hadn’t yet been tested. It’s been a few days now… and I’m feeling OK.
Little egrets and avocets
Easter Sunday, April 12
Our goal for Easter Sunday was to find a field of vivid rapeseed flowers. As there wasn’t much complaining – and I was doing the map-reading – we took a detour.
By some strange coincidence we walked up a lane and took the footpath off to the right. We could see the Isle of Sheppey ahead and then we saw a three-metre-tall crucifix planted in the field. Apparently, it first appeared 15 years ago and can be seen in the distance from the west door of St Peter’s Church.
I’m getting pretty skilful at deflecting the “What time will be home?” questions and diverting attention to enjoying the views around us. It’s quite weird seeing Sheppey in the distance. It looks as if it’s attached to the mainland as you can’t see The Swale until you’re really close to it.
As we walked the long, hot path to the shore we saw and heard skylarks and the most incredibly noisy marsh frogs. What a sound: they sounded like ducks quacking! We also saw a grass snake in the same waterway with its distinctive yellow and black collar.
was much cooler on the coast and we were buffeted by a welcome breeze.
We did find our yellow field. It was under a line of buzzing pylons and looked really dramatic against the sky. Walking under these electric lines always reminds me of the children’s sci-fi TV series The Changes.
Peacock butterflies (six)
Marsh frogs (hundreds)
Thursday, April 9
Yesterday we did a town walk. We couldn’t really be bothered getting out into countryside, even though the countryside is probably closer than town. Sometimes it just seems too far.
Over time we’ve settled on leaving the house at 2pm. Today we mapped out our route first and took a loop out into ‘unknown’ territory. We got to the heady heights of 30 metres above sea level and were rewarded with views out across to Sheppey and a pleasant breeze.
We’d committed the route to memory and knew that the only bit of path we weren’t familiar with was in a dead straight line across a field from road to road. But when we got there, the path wasn’t marked. We chose the most worn of the tractor furrows and hoped for the best.
At this point we were about 20 minutes into our walk. Suffice to say, 12 minutes before a doggy bag was needed. If you’re a fellow dog-walker, what do you do with your full bags when there isn’t a bin in sight?
Answer: let it dangle from your hand for the next 20 minutes, put it in your pocket or stash it in your backpack. It’s not a difficult decision: bag it, bin it.
Why then did we come across so much dog poo on the footpaths, and carefully knotted bags left hanging in the undergrowth or neatly piled up? Spoiler alert: there’s no magic poo bag fairy. It’s your dog – your dirt – take it home and dispose of it.
If you need it, you’ll find some dog-fouling advice from our friends at the Blue Cross for Pets charity here and it’s worth remembering that “even if you walk in areas with no legal requirement to pick up poo, it’s important to get into the routine for doing so. It might seem like not much harm has been done, but canine faeces contain parasites that, if not cleaned up, can spread to grass and, if eaten, can cause blindness in people and pregnant cattle to abort their young”.
Peacock butterflies (eight)
Small white butterfly
Lots more bluebells
One family group walking their dog
A couple with a pair of rather fine Standard Poodles
Tuesday, April 7
It wasn’t quite the way I’d planned to spend my birthday. Instead of wandering around Monet’s garden at Giverny, we were in the Garden of England. As a family we’ve got into the habit of taking our exercise separately – much as I love them, being together 24/7 isn’t good for our family dynamic. But today was an exception.
Snacks packed, we walked to the end of our road and out to the woods. My daughter and dog were shuttle-running up and down the path between us. My husband was up ahead (for the secret birthday talks) and I was lagging behind, taking photos. The woods are a riot of colour at the moment: neon-yellow lesser celandines, glow-in-the-dark-white wood anemones and the hazy beginnings of the bluebells.
We stopped for a picnic next to the fishing lakes and, thanks to our resident wildlife expert, we were able to identify more of the sights and sounds around us than usual – so although we couldn’t see them we identified a green woodpecker, a chiffchaff and blue tits.
We also spotted:
Two pairs of tufted ducks
Great crested grebe
Monday, April 6
What glorious weather we had at the weekend. It’s so hard to believe we’re in the middle of a global pandemic when – to misquote Robert Browning – oh, to be in England now that April’s here.
Beautiful as the countryside is – especially on a spring day – there do seem to be a lot of my fellow walkers taking the social-distancing rules a bit too literally. They’ re carving out new paths across the fields.
isn’t just one long-grassed park: it’s the industrial engine that keeps us fed.
Don’t forget to
follow the Countryside Code: respect – protect – enjoy. Stick to the marked
footpaths and don’t take shortcuts through the farmers’ crops.
Respect other people:
consider the local community and other people enjoying the outdoors
leave gates and property as you find them and follow paths unless wider access is available
Protect the natural environment:
leave no trace of your visit and take your litter home
I was abandoned by my walking companion midway between our front door and the postbox at the end of our road. It’s not quite the same walking on your own.
I went up and over the railway line just as a train was coming. I love the noise they make. When I first moved into town my house backed on to the railway line and I found the sound really comforting. It was 1994. I was 26, single and a home-owner and had just paid £47,500 for a Victorian mid-terraced property. My dad lent me the deposit (which I paid back with interest every month).
Next stop was the A2. I hardly had to look both ways to make sure it was safe to cross. Once over, I’m in the countryside – where two new housing estates are being built. I rather enjoyed discovering a new footpath that’s been put in by the developer. It’s inset from the edge of the road and screened with native-hedge-planting.
From there it was over farmland. I stopped to wave hello to one of the teaching assistants at my daughter’s old primary school and then looped back home.
The countryside south of town is undulating. It was quite bizarre looking off into the distance and seeing people out and about a couple of fields away. I probably saw about 30 people over the course of my one-hour walk – loads more than usual. It’s good to see more of the community getting outdoors to enjoy being in the countryside.
This was very much a stop-and-sniff dog walk. Because I had no one to talk to, I could just stand and listen to my surroundings. I heard birdsong, buzzing bees, the flapping of a bird’s wings and the crunchy footsteps of another walker coming towards me. No planes. And no traffic. In fact, I didn’t have to jump into the hedge at the sound of oncoming vehicles at all today.
Bank of lesser celandine, primroses and blue wood anemones
Small flock of starlings
Small flock of corvids – rooks or jackdaws, I’m not sure which
Two family groups of cyclists, plus five more
More walkers than yesterday
Thursday, April 2
It’s the first day of the school holidays today. I was pleasantly surprised when my daughter asked what time we were going out for our walk. She wanted to paint her nails and had to allow sufficient drying time. She’s written out a schedule for the holidays. It seems that every day will be exactly the same as the other – with each activity punctuated by a “go on phone” session.
Pre Covid-19 I’d always have an emergency £10 note in my pocket. But these days no money’s needed as there’s nowhere open for a sneaky cuppa and a slice of cake. It’s strange that the new normal is to reach for phone and keys only, without the usual “keys, wallet, phone” mantra every time we leave the house.
We skirted round the edge of town, out in the direction of the supermarket and then on to the bypass. We crossed what normally would have been a busy junction and headed out along the track alongside the creek – and then on to a walkers-only footpath – having been accompanied if not by traffic then by surfaced roads the rest of the way.
The tide was out, so the creek was all mud and marooned boats, and on the other side flat open marshland.
To the annoyance of my daughter, I’ve started making a real point of waving at strangers and saying hello. We may all be socially distancing – but that doesn’t mean we have to be unconnected with the world around us. And what, I always say, if we were the only people to have spoken to that lady all day?
The prettiest bit of our walk was the part of the footpath where the blossom on the overhanging trees made a tunnel. I’m making a mental of note of where to pick my sloes in the autumn…
looped back home down a country lane, which has been widened at the end to
allow regulation vehicular access to a new housing development.
Apple (and other) blossom
Dead nettles – red and white
Two butterflies – cabbage white and peacock
A quartering harrier
Monday, March 30
Not unsurprisingly, working at home has turned my world upside down. My office is my kitchen table. I have a great view of the garden – and the kettle is always on the boil.
Despite all the awful news about the coronavirus, I have lots of things to be grateful for – not least my lunchtime walks with my daughter (age 12) and the dog. It’s our first-week anniversary today.
We’re lucky in that we live in a small market town in Kent. The town centre is a 10-minute walk away and we’re out in the countryside within five minutes.
Taking our portion of exercise each day is becoming a welcome part of our daily routine.
I’m trying to encourage said daughter to look at an Ordnance
Survey map with me so we can plan a different path each time we go out. We’re
highlighting our routes with marker pen – building up a picture, tracking our
Naturally, as with any child, she starts off hating the thought of coming out with me. But I’m all for making memories – so I’m hoping she’ll look back on her year of CV2020 as the one of maps, rucksacks, snacks, walks and the joy of being out in the open countryside. It’s also a really good opportunity to talk as we walk side by side.
Today’s walk took us across the not-so-busy A2 and out through the old orchards thatare now used as horse paddocks and then onto a compacted routed scarred diagonally across a planted field. Countryside it may have been, but there was absolutely no sign of wildlife on the farmed land.
We looped back home – following a short section of path along the M2 – and then followed the lane back into town, passing two new housing estates under construction on the way.
Gardens cover more land in this country than do nature reserves, so their potential value for wildlife is obvious. Vicky Ellis shows how we can provide a home for our flora and fauna while keeping everything in the garden lovely.
Considering wildlife while gardening does not necessarily mean only wild lawns and stinging nettles. It is possible to grow flowers, vegetables and wildlife and have a lovely garden, too. The area that gardens occupy in the UK adds up to an area larger than all our nature reserves combined. This drums home how important our gardens are to nature and what they could potentially contribute to our biodiversity, especially when considering that our gardens were probably once part of our countryside. Even window boxes and balconies can play an important role in our environment and, in turn, our health and well-being. Two of the most damaging things we can do in our gardens is lay down plastic turf or concrete. Plastic turf, or artificial grass, is effectively just that, plastic, and as it breaks down, so the micro-particles of plastic are absorbed into the ground below. Plastic turf is the single worst option, not just from an environmental stance but also hygiene and waste, with no biodiversity benefits at all – it is a threat to the habitat of birds, bees, butterflies and other critters and creates landfill that will never break down. The Guardian reported on a study in 2011 that revealed almost 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres or 12 square miles) of green gardens had been lost in eight years, equivalent to two Hyde Parks per year, to artificial grass, decking and concreting. Concrete is impermeable, causing run-off when it rains, and provides little or no shelter to invertebrates. Even the best-kept lawns have bees that burrow and worms, crane fly larvae and other grubs living beneath the surface. All these help the lawn maintain its structure and ability to absorb nutrients. A lawn is a living, breathing thing, providing habitat, shelter and food for all sorts of wildlife. Cover it up and you create a dead zone. So how to maximise your space for biodiversity? The more diverse habitats you can fit in, the better. Habitats cater for different species of flora and fauna depending on where your garden is (coastal, woodland and so on) and the soil type, such as clay, sandy or loamy. To avoid getting bogged down in detail, we will stick to the basics that would fit most garden types. The first step is to retrain your mind to accept that nature is not naturally neat and tidy with straight edges; it is unpredictable, surprising and changeable. Once you have accepted these three things, you can relax and enjoy your garden so much more as you won’t fret about a weed or two in the flowerbed (a weed is simply a plant growing in the wrong place – if you accept wildflowers, there are no such thing as weeds), or the fact that your lawn is more than an inch high!
Wood piles One of the easiest features to add to any garden is a wood pile. Rotting wood provides food, shelter and nesting sites for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles. Try to find a sheltered, quiet area in a corner for your log pile and use different types of wood of varying sizes. You can place them stacked on top or randomly clustered together as long as it creates a pile of some sort and, if possible, half-bury the bottom logs. The wood at the bottom should remain damp, even during dry spells; this really aids pupae, molluscs and nematodes. As the logs rot, they provide homes for an array of fungi.
Rock piles As with logs, rocks provide shelter and basking areas for reptiles. The bottom rocks should remain damp and a pile will provide a sculptural focus for your garden. Try not to place them anywhere hot and exposed. Over time they can become covered in moss, which provides a micro-habitat for invertebrates, holding in moisture. To make your rock pile look even more attractive and colourful, plant with alpines and other plants to create a rock garden, or just wait and see what grows naturally. Maybe keep a diary of what appears.
Ponds Water will not just enhance the look of a garden, it will substantially increase biodiversity. You do not need to build a huge pond, a small upturned bin lid or indeed any large receptacle capable of holding water will suffice. It is important to incorporate an escape route for small mammals that might fall into your pond, so put in a ramp; it is best to grade the pond from very shallow at the margins, gradually deepening to the centre. Putting shingle around the shallower edges helps provide shelter and hiding places for aquatic insects and nymphs and gives an opportunity for birds to bathe. Some substrate at the bottom of the pond provides shelter and hiding places for aquatic insects that prefer deeper water. Plant a few reeds round the edges if there’s room as these allow nymphs to come out of the water to morph, while if possible place your pond so it is half in shade and half in the sun. Resist adding fish as they will feed on invertebrates and aquatic insects or the eggs of amphibians. Unless it is huge, fish do more harm than good in a wildlife pond. Once you have created your pond, aquatic insects such as diving beetles, water boatmen and water skaters will make use of it almost immediately. They seem to parachute in out of nowhere. Around the margins you can put water-loving native plants such as water mint, arrowhead, water forget-me-nots, marsh marigold and yellow flag iris and place rocks and other water features to enhance the natural look. To help oxygenate the water, plant hornwort, spiked water milfoil and water soldiers.
Lawns Lawns do not have to comprise simply grass – you can have a moss lawn, chamomile or clover. Allowing your lawn to grow up in patches encourages grasshoppers, crickets, moths, butterflies and damselflies. Why not allow the grass to grow and then mow paths through the long grass? Take part in ‘No Mow May’ and see what spring flowers you have lurking within your lawn that you never knew were there – there may even be a hidden orchid or two. Having a lawn encompassing an array of native plants such as dandelion, scarlet pimpernel, bird’s-foot trefoil and daisies can look so pretty if allowed to flourish and the pollinators will love it! You will witness more bees, hoverflies and flower beetles and your lawn will come alive with all the activity. It is still important to have mown areas to allow birds to find grubs and seeds.
Height Varying height in a garden can be attractive to an array of flora and fauna. We have covered the lower-down areas of your garden with log and stone piles and a pond, now we’re going to consider the flowerbeds, pots, shrubs and trees.
Flowerbeds In your flowerbed, place small plants at the front, working up to larger plants at the back, using pollinator-friendly plants with a mixture of perennials and annuals such as lavender, cornflowers, alliums, foxgloves, cosmos, sunflowers, hollyhocks, lupins and fennel. You can dot the odd vegetable to harvest among your flowering plants. Avoid ornamental double-headed flowers as bees find it difficult to reach the centre of the flower. If you are feeling adventurous, buy a wildflower seed mix and see what grows. Here you can throw caution to the wind and really cram in the flowers. Think about flowering seasons and try to place plants that flower at different times to extend the flowering season for as long as possible from spring through to autumn.
Pots If you have no room for a flowerbed or prefer pots, you can still grow all the plants already mentioned. Dwarf fruit trees flowering in March and May help provide bees with their first food and then give you a tasty harvest come autumn. The same goes for window boxes and hanging baskets – all these plants can be grown in the tiniest garden or balcony and all help our pollinators.
Shrubs and trees Flowering shrubs such as buddleia, lilac, choisya and manuka encourage butterflies and bees. If dense enough, you might even get a wren nesting in the shrub. Trees provide nesting areas for birds and, if fruit or nut trees, the blossom provides food for pollinators in spring and the fruit food for birds and small mammals in autumn. Try to think about how useful the tree or shrub is when choosing, rather than its ornamental qualities. Often you will find that any shrub or tree that flowers has highly attractive qualities. If you have a large garden, think linear when placing your trees and shrubs to help create feeding corridors for bats.
Wild areas Being bold and allowing your garden to grow wild in parts if you have room can be so beneficial for insects, especially caterpillars. A few stinging nettles, brambles and thistles, for instance, are sought after by some species. The peacock butterfly will lay its eggs on stinging nettles, while bumble bees and cabbage whites will enjoy the thistles. To prevent these plants from taking over, you will need to manage them through the year, but the benefits a wild area provides in a wildlife garden are well worth the effort. Be aware that some wildflowers are notifiable, such as spear thistle and ragwort. However, there are ornamental thistles on the market that can be as equally beneficial, while one or two carefully managed specimens of ragwort, an important food plant for the cinnabar moth, placed safely away from any cattle or horses, will do no harm if as soon as it’s finished flowering and before it turns to seed, are topped immediately and disposed of carefully by either burning or landfill. Note that ragwort is still toxic to animals even when cut.
Compost heaps Compost does not just supply regular natural earth and food for plants, it also provides a habitat for wildlife. Slugs and snails are nature’s recyclers and a source of food for birds such as thrushes, frogs, toads, hedgehogs and ground beetles. Worms love a compost heap and help turn your waste into soil. Snakes seek out the warmth of a heap and may even lay their eggs there, so be careful when turning your heap over – avoid using a sharp garden fork.
Wildlife at night Nocturnal pollinators such as moths benefit from night-scented blooming plants such as honeysuckle, jasmin, tuberose, japonica and evening primrose. These insects in turn are valuable prey for bats.
Other enhancements There are lots you can add to your garden such as insect hotels, bee homes, nesting boxes, bat boxes, a toad house, a bird bath, a watering hole for hedgehogs and feeding stations for birds and mammals. It’s best not to feed birds during the nesting season; the parents should be foraging for a balanced diet, otherwise they will just choose what’s on offer from you, which may not be the best option for growing chicks. Try to place any bird-feeder up in trees or tall bushes; this helps protect visiting birds from aerial predators and gives them a chance to escape. A tree or bush is also a more natural place for them to feed. You could make your own bug hotel using stacked crates with moss, logs, clay pots, sticks and hollow tubes stuffed in the gaps between. It won’t take long before the residents move in.
CPRE Kent has an array of wildlife-friendly enhancements for your garden for sale, so why not email the office for more information at email@example.com?
CPRE planner Richard Thompson asks whether a welcome policy aspiration risks becoming just another developer-led tick-box exercise
Ask the public whether the above house is well designed and they are most likely to say yes, it is. Ask the same question to an architect, they are much more likely to dislike iti. So who is right? What criteria should be applied in making this assessment? Are we just considering how the individual house looks, or how it relates to other houses? Could this design be considered locally distinctive in Kent? If not, why not and what is locally distinctive? Does what looks good in the centre of a town work equally well in the suburbs? If not, where should that line be drawn? These are all questions that communities, local authorities and anyone else involved in the development industry will be grappling with over the coming months should proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework come to fruition. Specifically, the proposed changes being consulted upon state that “development that is not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance on designii. To inform this, “all local planning authorities should prepare design guides or codes consistent with the principles set out in the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code and which reflect local character and design preferences. These provide a local framework for creating beautiful and distinctive places with a consistent and high-quality standard of design”iii. A proposed National Model Design Code is also being consulted on alongside the NPPF. Importantly, “all guides and codes should be based on effective community engagement and reflect local aspirations for the development of their area”. On the face of it, such proposals are welcome and it is heartening to see recognition of the role effective community engagement will have in this policy’s success. It is this engagement, and the local knowledge that comes with this, that will be key to grappling with the complexity posed by questions such as those above. It is therefore extremely disappointing that there are no detailed guidance or proposals among the consultation documents as to how effective community engagement will work in practice. Fundamental to this will be ensuring proper resource is provided to councils and local communities so they can effectively participate in the process. Without such resource, it will fall to those promoting sites and their consultants to demonstrate how they are creating “beautiful and distinctive places with a consistent and high-quality standard of design”. If this is not properly resourced, an otherwise welcome aspiration risks becoming just another developer-led tick-box exercise, with the planning consultancy industry being handed yet another revenue stream.
The proposed KenEx tram service could cut congestion significantly (pic KenEx, Thames Gateway Tramlink)
With the prospect of the Lower Thames Crossing between Kent and Essex threatening swathes of countryside on both sides of the river, Alex Hills, chairman of Dartford and Gravesham CPRE, says we should be demanding a better transport system
Since the 1950s, successive governments have pursued a transport policy that has had the car as the main form of transport on the basis that building new roads reduces congestion.
This policy has proved to have no basis in fact, with the truth being that building new roads increases congestion and proves more environmentally damaging than suggested while failing to provide the claimed economic benefits.
Other countries did not need the CPRE report The end of the road: Challenging the Road Building Consensus to tell them that an integrated green transport system is needed.
Locally, we have seen the Dartford tunnel built, which would apparently end congestion, then another tunnel and then a bridge – and now a new, very damaging, crossing that would increase both congestion and air pollution in the area.
CPRE is not anti-car – far from it – but to have a sustainable green transport system that does not destroy people’s health there needs to be more investment in other forms of transport.
Gravesend is a hostile environment for cyclists, with existing cycle routes like the ones on the Wrotham and Rochester roads being dangerous for them.
In the town centre, cyclists are banned while in other places there are signs saying ‘Responsible cyclists welcome’.
The bus service in our rural areas is appalling, while train services are struggling to cope with demand.
Green travel plans are not just about infrastructure – they are also about ensuring that trains, trams and buses connect properly so people do not have excessively long waits. They are also about ensuring our transport systems are more disabled- and senior citizen-friendly.
There is some good work being done in this area, with cycling plans being developed for Dartford town centre, Stone Parish Council developing its own cycling plan and Ebbsfleet garden city working extremely hard to develop a green travel plan, while the proposed KenEx tram line would help tackle congestion in the area, reducing traffic at the Dartford crossings by 10 per cent.
Even with other walking and cycling projects, all these projects comprise just a small amount of what is needed.
Rural areas cannot be accessed by non-road transport. For example, there is no pedestrian or cycle path between Istead Rise and Meopham. The goal for district councils, the county council and the government should be to make the car the transport option of last resort.
To get people to use public transport, it needs to be reliable, affordable and able to reach destinations in reasonable time.
Currently, it takes two hours to get from Gravesend to Maidstone by bus and 25 minutes by car – given the choice, no one is going to choose the bus.
To get more journeys completed by walking and cycling, these options need to be made safer, with separate walking and cycling paths away from roads.
It is time we demanded a better transport system.
The proposed Lower Thames Crossing will add further strain to Gravesham’s environment
With the prospect of the Lower Thames Crossing between Kent and Essex threatening swathes of countryside on both sides of the river, Alex Hills, chairman of Gravesham CPRE, offers his view on government roads policy while also asking if we’re all doing our bit to tackle air pollution
By continuing to build poorly planned new roads, the government is assisting a deadly force that slaughters 40,000 to 50,000 people a year. This serial killer preys on everyone, especially the young and old – and it is air pollution.
The World Health Organisation is calling for drastic action. It is estimated that up to one-third of asthma-related hospital admissions are caused by air pollution.
This year has seen many new studies on other harmful effects, including damage to unborn children, brain damage and even obesity.
The physical cost to the nation runs into many millions of pounds, aside from the mental suffering, which cannot be priced.
Yet, despite this, the government continues to plan schemes such as the Lower Thames Crossing between Gravesham in Kent and Thurrock in Essex, knowing it will not remove the problems of congestion at Dartford.
The new crossing will increase traffic congestion on both sides of the river and on all north-south routes through Kent, resulting in many more deaths through increased air pollution.
There has been much talk about zero-emission electric cars, but there is no such thing as zero-emission.
Electric cars produce pollution through their tyres, the manufacture and disposal of components (especially the battery, which uses rare metals that are open-cast-mined), building the infrastructure required to support them and the production of the electricity to charge the batteries.
We, of course, are part of the problem and also part of the solution.
Government could do so much more – solar panels on industrial buildings, heat-pump installations in new housing estates and improved building standards including better insulation.
There urgently needs to be a sustainable green transport plan.
There are small things we can all do:
Ensure our vehicles are well maintained
Make one less car journey per week
Use energy-efficient products
Walk or cycle to school, work or shops
There is no one simple solution to our air quality crisis, but are you at least playing your own small part?
The world of energy production is changing rapidly
Fresh from a UK Power Networks roadshow, David Knight, chairman of neighbouring CPRE Essex, offers his thoughts on how our energy needs are being tackled
Early this month I visited a roadshow hosted by UK Power Networks.
This organisation owns and maintain electricity cables and lines across London, the South East and the East of England, “making sure your lights stay on”.
The meeting was well attended and had a good spectrum of guests from local authorities, business and groups representing vulnerable people.
While a private company, UK Power Networks is regulated by government organisation Ofgem and has strict performance targets imposed upon it.
These include customer minutes lost, customer interruptions caused by loss of power, distribution cost by customers and customer satisfaction. It was pleasing to see all the targets showed improving trends but, as it pointed out, UK Power Networks wants to do better.
Using modern technology, we as an audience were able to vote on the importance of various issues and see instantly the results on-screen.
Here I summarise the events discussed:
Data: its use and protection With climate change upon us, together with new decarbonised, decentralised and digitised energy systems, there will be a need to gather data that will help predict the effects of extreme occurrences in a bid to ensure that power failures can be dealt with in an efficient and timely manner.
Smart-metering systems will play an essential part in this. They are not just a means of monitoring electricity usage but also an instrument that alerts the supplier when local supply cuts have occurred, helping it understand the demands on the network.
Further, the public are offered the chance to feed power back into the network via solar panels (and in future the power stored in our electric car batteries), helping regulate voltage swings.
Smart meters have been an issue as it would appear the first generation was less than perfect, with issues over communication and different IT suppliers, meaning consumers sometimes had to change their smart boxes when changing electricity suppliers. However, the latest generation has supposedly corrected this problem.
UK Power Networks was aware of concerns about data protection and asked a range of questions on which we could vote.
My position was that information from smart meters need not be intrusive into individual households’ means, but more a way for UK Power Networks to provide them the most economical products to suit their needs… a bit like the ‘white meters’ of old.
World of energy It was made clear that we are and will become more responsible for the production and use of energy in the future.
For instance, we will need to charge our electric cars, sell our surplus electricity back to the National Grid or to others and store energy via battery packs.
Regarding supplies for cars, at present there are two types of charging sources:
Low current, long charging time
High-current fast chargers
The former effectively involves plugging your car into the domestic supply system every home has, while the latter requires connection from the National Grid via a substation.
There are apparently plans in motion to put a network of these National Grid appliances down the ‘spine’ of the UK.
My view is that all new homes should include a connection to its own domestic supply but with easy access to a fast-charging system. The building industry should bear the cost of this.
Helping customers in vulnerable circumstances It was good to be informed that UK Power Networks was working in partnership to help customers in vulnerable circumstances.
Using the Priority Services Register (PSR), which already has 1.6 million homes on its data base, it not only targets these groups in the event of power cuts but has provided energy advice and practical measures to more than 300,000 customers to address the underlying causes of fuel poverty.
Nevertheless, with ever-increasing energy costs, more clearly needs to be done.
In conclusion, this was an informative and worthwhile event. The world must move away from fossil-fuel production and, with the sensible and controlled use of modern technology, we can all help this cause and in doing so reduce our costs.
We must, though, bear in mind that information technology, while the norm for younger generations, is more difficult to grasp for other sections of society.
We are, we are told, leaving the EU. Good or bad news for our natural heritage?
We might all be a little weary of the B word, but the future for our natural heritage once this country has departed the EU is a matter of concern for Graham Warren, chairman of the CPRE Kent environment committee
The natural environment barely got a mention in the pre-Brexit referendum barrage of half-truths and ‘alternative facts’ and would, even now, struggle to make the top 10 of the government’s shopping list.
It is difficult to evaluate clear environmental gains and losses in isolation from agriculture and other aspects of land use and our natural heritage will perhaps prove especially vulnerable – ‘up for sale’ as it were – in the late-stage trade-offs in the Brexit negotiations.
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, sees our proposed departure from the EU as an opportunity to treat agriculture and the environment as paired objectives.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is paying landowners £3 billion a year based on farmed acreage, would be replaced with schemes for farmers who enhance the natural environment by planting woodland, establishing wildlife habitat, increasing biodiversity, improving water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows.
This vision was revealed in Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan, launched in January with a pledge to eliminate waste, create new safeguards for wildlife, connect more children with nature, improve air and water quality and curb the scourge of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
The agenda for this ‘green future’ includes:
Extension of the five-pence plastic-bag charge to small retailers, with restricted dependence on single-use plastics and inclusion of plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.
Creation of 500,000 hectares of new habitat for endangered species and support for farmers in turning fields into meadows and replenishing depleted soils.
Provision of £5.7 million to establish a ‘northern forest’.
Increased investment in overseas aid to combat poaching and illegal trade in wildlife and to extend marine protection areas.
A new environmental watchdog to hold government to account for environmental standards and set out an approach to agriculture and fisheries management.
Promotion of a net environmental-gain principle, locally and nationally, enabling housing development “without increasing the overall burden on developers”.
Creation of green corridors linking otherwise isolated habitats.
The plan embodies the principle of ‘natural capital’, founded on:
A better understanding of the benefits from nature.
Recognition of the environmental assets of clean air and water, wholesome food and opportunities for recreation.
A commitment to interact with our natural environment as an essential element in sustaining the economy.
The plan sits alongside the programme for implementing the Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions and control climate change.
There will also be a review of the national planning and building regulations to ensure the planning system delivers improved flood resilience and sustainable drainage systems and makes provision for new developments to deliver a ‘biodiversity net-gain’, aiming at the least environmentally damaging locations.
An outline of a 25-year environment plan put forward by Defra in September 2015 envisaged an investment of £3 billion from the CAP to enhance the countryside with a programme focused on Green Belts, Areas of Outstanding Beauty, National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
However, this will no longer be available post-Brexit.
Other investments totalling £20m were also identified but will be UK-funded and incorporated in the 25 Year Plan announced this year.
Have these been fully costed and what are the chances of this ambitious programme surviving Brexit, given that our departure would evidently incur severance penalties and possibly trigger a recession?
Further, our national debt has increased over the last 10 years from £560bn to £1,760bn (36 per cent to 85 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a rate unprecedented in peacetime) and is expected to increase.
This is bad timing for a government facing a general election with an electorate preoccupied with the immediate outcome of Brexit and the prospect of a radical reordering of our national priorities to accommodate the strictures of a sinking economy (and there seems little remaining doubt that it will indeed shrink).
In any event, we can expect a new look for the ‘top 10’ agenda, possibly:
National Health Service and welfare
The Brexit Bill (estimated at £50bn-100bn)
Defence (a 50 per cent increase to 3 per cent of GDP)
Immigration control and border security
National transport infrastructure
Servicing national debt
The environment may begin to look like a luxury we can no longer afford. There is already talk of the ‘zombie list’, a review of the 800-1,000 items of environmental legislation inherited from Brussels for incorporation in UK law; many of these could face ‘reform’ by statutory instruments.
In January last year, MPs warned government that environmental protection must not be weakened after Brexit, while the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) chaired by Mary Creagh called on government to introduce an Environmental Protection Act under the Article 50 negotiation and warned of the risks to our countryside, farming and wildlife currently protected under EU law.
There is also a wider global perspective of environmental issues with a direct bearing on our post-Brexit strategy.
Many of the, mainly tropical, countries that export foodstuffs to the UK face increasing levels of water demand for irrigation due to the impact of climate change and over-abstraction, evidenced by depleted river flows and falling groundwater levels.
It is estimated that by 2025 1.8 billion people (20-25 per cent of the world’s population) will be living in water-scarce regions.
There are clear implications for the availability and cost of produce we import from some of these regions and we may need to plan on increasing the proportion of home-grown produce beyond the 40-50 per cent level.
We seem to have the makings of an ideological ‘set-to’ between the need to increase the proportion of productive farmland and the counter-argument, advanced by Mr Gove, for appropriating areas for wildlife.
The latter has obvious attractions, but the penalty could be reduced food security, increased costs and a corresponding increase in the tariff bill.
To put this in context, this country’s net contribution to the EU budget has been estimated as costing the UK taxpayer an average of some £160 a year; this figure includes environmental protection. Compare that with the current level of national debt interest payments per person of more than £200.
As to what all this could mean for Kent, it would seem reasonable to plan on the assumption that any environmental outcome of national significance arising from Brexit and severance from the Single Market and Customs Union will also apply locally… in some cases, such as traffic disruption, air pollution, immigration and the disproportionate loss of greenfield acreage, to a relatively high degree.
We’ve been made aware someone is using the firstname.lastname@example.org address to send scam emails to people whose data was compromised in the Yahoo security breach. Be assured that we took immediate steps to stop this but it seems some ‘ghost’ messages might still be bouncing. If you have a yahoo email address and receive a spoof email seemingly from us, be sure not to click on any links. Contact the office if you are concerned (01233 714540).
David Mairs, CPRE Kent campaigns and PR manager, shares his thoughts from this month’s Autumn Conference held in Birmingham. The views are his alone, while this piece is not intended as a detailed report of events – rather, the impressions he gained from a long but ultimately positive day
Could it be that a year had passed since my first Autumn Conference? Of course it could – a year that had essentially been my first at CPRE Kent in the role of campaigns and PR manager.
An early alarm call and before I knew it, still a little blurry-eyed, I was admiring the interior of St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, before wending my way to The Studio, the nearby venue that has hosted this annual event since, well, at least last year.
Breakfast pastries were wolfed back with an enthusiasm bordering on recklessness and then it was time to listen to Su Sayer, national chair, open proceedings with the message that this was a day of listening and learning, agreeing priorities and working together… One CPRE loud and clear.
We were shown a video on the organisation’s recent Green Clean campaign, which helped demonstrate how the forthcoming deposit return system would work.
There had been 23 litter-picks across the country, with 120 volunteers signed up as a result. And, if you needed any more convincing, one member had reportedly declared their litter-pick “the best day with CPRE I’ve ever had”. Lessons for us all there, perhaps, and maybe for the character involved.
Today, however, was largely about the Purpose Project, or, to put it another way, Realising Our Purpose: to 2026 and Beyond, or yet another, developing CPRE until 2026 with the view to “realising our potential”.
Chief executive Crispin Truman offered a gentle apology for the time the review had taken – and it would be carrying on for a few months yet – but the project had, we were assured, “reached a new watershed”.
Excitingly, by the end of next year, it would be “all systems go”.
After 92 years, why were we digging so deep for a new direction? Well, not making changes when they were needed was a bigger risk than making them.
A driving force of the Purpose Project was to better explain how joining CPRE could help people make a difference.
It would also help the organisation position itself. As a recent example, we had been quoted on the subject of affordable housing in a Daily Mail article.
We would try to bring planning back to where it was and to what people needed, for example “rural-proofing” policy so local people on housing lists were not forgotten.
Local examples of our work included supporting the creation of Green Belts in Norfolk and Hampshire, along with work was being done in Lancashire and Devon schools showing youngsters why their countryside was important.
With regard to the CPRE communications machine, we were promised a lively year ahead, with a new website set to make its long-awaited introduction… although this was dependent on the Purpose Project. And then there was the intranet, another work in progress.
Three groups have been leading work on the Purpose Project: a trustees subcommittee, a network group and a staff group.
Elvira Meucci-Lyons, director of fundraising and supporter services, and colleague Caroline Jenkins then told us how the Purpose Project had come about: essentially, we all needed more support and resources.
With a loyal but ageing membership, the organisation had peaked 40 years ago and endured a sure but steady decline since.
Recent research had identified issues:
We struggle to explain what we do and why it’s so important
We don’t offer ways to get involved
Not everyone realises CPRE is a charity
We are perceived as old-fashioned and negative
“We can’t be beaten” on heritage and credibility and punch above our weight, but there is low general awareness of the organisation
Support may be short-term and issue-specific… communities would ‘use us’ but there would be little in the way of building relationships
We should clarify that we want to help shape the future rather than simply protect history
We need a positive campaign (similar to Green Clean) to balance the ‘protect’ side of what we do
Enough of the issues, how would we move forward?
We all have different ideas, needs, priorities and challenges
There had been eight months of consultation and research
Clarify the purpose – an internal manifesto… the ‘why’
We don’t offer ways to get involved
There is a need for a consistent way to summarise why we do what we do, why it is important and why people should care. It was suggested that the phrase ‘Positive progress for the countryside’ would capture our purpose
It was now time for John Croxen, chair of the London branch, to offer some thoughts. We had the conclusions from the consultation, he said, and the prospect of a mission statement, but how would it work in London? No idea, he conceded, but it would have to work in some way.
Another gentleman took the mic and asked how we should become more open. We were perceived as middle-class, staid and keen to say no – we needed to become more engaged and inclusive, something emphasised by the fact that only 3 per cent of the population recognised CPRE.
Debra McConnell from Lancashire branch offered well-received stories of how CPRE had been active ‘on the ground’ in the North West, although there was the disturbing tale of Rimrose Valley in Sefton, through which Highways England had elected to drive a dual carriageway.
Moving to happier matters, it was stressed that CPRE was a strong initial brand, while “the age thing” doesn’t need to be viewed as a negative as people of, for want of a better term, an older generation are often very generous.
Anyway, the next steps involve this month’s creative work on our strapline, logo, look and feel being presented to the three groups; consultation and external testing; selection and refinement of a chosen route; and, in January 2019, the creation of a brand toolkit and guidelines. There will be a phased implementation through the year.
A burst of Q&A included such snippets as an Instagram best-photograph competition having proved popular in Hertfordshire; Elvira stating that digital would feature strongly in what we did; and Peter Collins telling us that Oxfordshire branch was “a little bit unhappy” with how the consultation had worked, while the strategy should be developed before the purpose was identified. He also questioned whether CPRE needed a strapline.
To the latter participant, Crispin responded that it was a chicken-and-egg situation, with purpose coming before strategy – “enhance before protect” – while there had been a huge effort on consultation and, if people felt they hadn’t been heard, they could keep “feeding in”. He also felt a strapline was indeed needed.
Another speaker from the floor urged we remember people in the cities, otherwise it might appear were only for those who lived in the countryside. Someone else took it further, saying that until we captured the towns we could forget the countryside – as it was in the towns that decisions were made.
The last session before lunch entailed Part I of the strategic review (scene setting).
Bob Empson (a strategist, as luck would have it) posed the rhetorical ‘Why strategy?’. To which he gave the answers:
Setting goals and directions ensures we have more impact
Establishment of a long-term strategy means we’re sustainable
We work in a range of environments, so we must be flexible to change
Shared agenda for the national network
Bob said the resulting strategy document should be short and concise – about 10 pages – and something that could be widely used. The process would unfold thus:
Planning, mobilisation and launch (the launch being today)
Initial consultation and analysis
‘Consultation green paper’ and directive
Refine and approve strategy (March-June)
Communicate and operationalise
We heard from strategic champions – Jill Gettrup of Avonside and Kent’s very own Hilary Newport – who repeated the message that the day was about speaking to delegates, ensuring the network got a say. There would be four or five workshops in February, while so far there had been engagement with the CPRE board, staff and managers, Purpose Project research and consultation and external environment and SWOT analyses.
Lunch was as splendid as it was last year, with the curry Jamaican rather than Indian (there was also a fine Chinese dish), while the break also gave time to look at and share posters brought along by delegates to highlight successes, failures and lessons from the past year.
But there was no time to waste and it was soon back to business and, in particular, part II of the strategic review and our input into it.
Suggested issues to be addressed included:
Beauty, tranquility and health and social value of the countryside
Importance of agriculture and horticulture
What is land use and its value?
Young people should be targeted as potential members
Beauty, tranquility and health and social value of the countryside
Image promotion so more people know about CPRE
Political side of things – we’re a campaigning group
How big does CPRE want to be?
Need to use new technologies such as JustGiving
How do we increase income on a sustainable basis?
Countryside is important no matter where you live
Emerging themes, meanwhile, were to:
Connect people and the countryside
Promote thriving rural communities
Empower our people and network
Grow our organisation
Observations from the floor (human variety) included that recent documents had made no “no mention of villages” and there was an absence of the word ‘planning’.
Crispin replied that if planning was not there, it was accidental as this was an important tool in the kit. The theme was taken up by Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy, who agreed that planning was indeed the most important tool in the kit but not the only one – we needed more political support.
One of the most important aspects of the Autumn Conference is the opportunity to hear about CPRE work across the country, and Lucy Hawthorne, head of campaigns, led a session highlighting five case studies.
Kia Trainor, Sussex director, was up first and related the impressive efforts of her branch in joining forces with other groups in the formation of SCATE (South Coast Alliance for Transport and the Environment) in the wake of plans for A27 “improvements” that could prove horribly environmentally damaging.
She told how funding had been secured (£10,000 from Lush, for example) as the group produced a weighty analysis of the road scheme, the publication A New Direction and a highly impressive YouTube film that caused quite a stir across the room.
Kristina Kenworthy (a name familiar to CPRE Kent after her efforts in the Farthingloe Supreme Court victory) detailed battles fought by CPRE Surrey in partnership with others before Gloucestershire’s Patricia Broadfoot stressed the importance of getting members involved (more than 100 had been at the branch AGM) and joining the debate on the future of their county; as part of this, her branch had put together the campaign There Is a Better Way.
Andrew Fane from Suffolk told the enviable tale of how the leader of the county council had been so impressed with a branch presentation that he had secured £340,000 from central government towards updating the county’s design guide.
Finally in this session, Richard Cowan, regional chair for the North East, a region with relatively few CPRE members, related how a journalist had been employed as social-media consultant. The move had delivered results, but had it raised membership? No, it hadn’t. Ho hum.
It was time for a review of the day… and indeed of the past year.
Better land use had been one of the principle themes to emerge from recent discussions, while we needed to identify better who are CPRE’s beneficiaries.
We had to support the more marginalised in our countryside, otherwise we were failing in our charitable role… an interesting point, I thought.
Elvira said CPRE was a large network with a holistic remit.
Being involved with CPRE sometimes feel an uphill struggle as we battle a seemingly remorseless onslaught of development, especially in this corner of the land, so it was uplifting to hear so many positive stories from across England (incidentally, we had been joined by colleagues from Scotland and Wales).
And if you want evidence of the level the CPRE message can reach, we were told that ‘land value capture’ – a term coined by our organisation – had been “all over” the recent Tory Party conference.
Talking of which, with reference to PM Theresa May’s Dancing Queen moment, we were encouraged to instead focus on another Abba favourite: Money Money Money. Yes, CPRE, like anyone else, needs it.
CPRE Kent’s chair Christine Drury wrapped things up before the drinks reception. “We’ve had the sort of discussion we just would not have had five or six years ago,” she said.
Christine’s Kent role comes to an end soon, so it was timely for her to share her one CPRE ambition: “to get Gladman out of the scene”. An ambition shared widely, surely (other land agents are available).
Otherwise, her final message was: “Keep on fighting, keep on promoting, keep enhancing the countryside.”
As for me, I took back to Kent a range of ideas sparked by the activities of colleagues – some of whom were present, some of whom I have never met – who are nothing but an inspiration.
And the Purpose Project? Sure, it is necessary. CPRE needs to adapt, even change. Not many would argue with that.
In truth, though, some of what I had heard at this year’s Autumn Conference I had heard 12 months ago. I don’t doubt that a lot of work has gone into developing a strategy for how we embrace the challenges ahead, but it’s time to crack on.
I hope the timetable will be stuck to and the substantial consultations of recent months will help mould this great organisation into something that is still relevant, respected and strong a hundred years from now.
Campaigner Sally Alexander in the countryside she dreads could be destroyed by a lorry park
David Mairs, CPRE Kent Campaigns and PR Manager, joins a group of worried residents as they gather in the rain (yes, really!) to air their fears that a stretch of countryside south of Lenham could be selected by Highways England as the site for a lorry park
It’s perhaps only when you travel the seemingly endless narrow, windy lanes towards Pope’s Hall at Sandway that you appreciate quite what could be lost should nightmare visions of a vast lorry park in the area transform into reality.
Of course, the beauty of the countryside and the spirit-lifting views that stretch in any direction you care to look is not news to most of the 60 or so people who turned out to listen to and, maybe more importantly, speak to local MP Helen Whately about the darkest of clouds that has suddenly blighted their world.
Blight. The word has more resonance here than in most parts of the country. Beautiful it unquestionably is, but intrusion from huge infrastructure schemes is nothing new in this landscape of fields, parks, copses and woods that tumbles down south of Lenham.
Sally Alexander, who helped organise the meeting at Pope’s Hall, talks despairingly about the arrival of both the nearby high-speed rail link and the M20: “My husband says he can’t go through it all again.”
It’s a sentiment doubtless shared by many of those present, while there’s also a common feeling that communication from Highways England, the government agency carrying out the requisite ecological surveys throughout the M20 corridor as well as reportedly along the A2/M2, has been woeful.
CPRE Kent’s Richard Knox-Johnston struck a well-received tenor when he blasted it as “appalling”. People’s properties would be blighted until a decision was made on the siting of any lorry park.
For that matter, when would a decision be made? Highways England should adhere to a strict timeline, said Mr Knox-Johnston.
Mrs Whately, speaking from beneath the gazebo she shared with a few fortunate others, said she agreed with him, as well as with the view that this wasn’t solely a Kent problem.
It was a national issue and should be dealt with nationally, even if the county had to expect something less than beautiful coming its way.
Perhaps more than anything, that was the point people wanted Mrs Whately to take back to government. How much, and for how long, should Kent keep picking up the national tab?
Further, everyone needed to understand quite was in the offing. No longer were we pondering solely the options for a solution to Operation Stack, be they on-road, off-road, short-term, long-term, single-park, multiple-park, here, there or anywhere.
No, now we were looking at tackling ‘fly-parking’, whereby truckers stop in any number of places that aren’t acceptable for anyone and leave all manner of mess, as well as a possible Customs-clearance site, depending on the outcome of, yes, sorry, Brexit.
“We’re looking at a huge security operation on top of everything else,” said one gentleman.
“If we don’t agree free movement of goods, we will need to have customs facilities,” added Mrs Whately.
Continuation of a customs union with Europe might ease some potential problems related to a lorry park, wherever it was built, but with up to 6,000 lorries held back during times of restricted Channel crossing and a regular shortfall of 700-800 parking spaces no one should be in any doubt that a 24/7 operation was likely.
If there were occasional mutterings akin to conspiracy theory, we were also offered the opinion that Highways England could have saved itself a lot of time, and taxpayers’ money, by ruling out this particular site.
It included Grade 1 and Grade 2 agricultural land, we were told, while it was not adjacent to the motorway, meaning access to it would be prohibitively problematic, not to say expensive.
Had Highways England not done its homework?
These were early days, as both Mrs Whately and county councillor Shellina Prendergast were keen to stress to all, but we were hearing the wholly understandable concerns of worried people.
Mrs Whately pointed out that Highways England “had hit” a judicial review after announcing plans for a lorry park, at Stanford, near Folkestone, in December 2015. This time it couldn’t leave anything to chance and had to cover every option.
While it is hard to imagine anyone welcoming such a massive development as a neighbour, it is likewise difficult to argue that a solution to the congestion witnessed in the county in recent years isn’t needed.
Expansion of Ashford International Truckstop near junction 10 of the M20 has just been approved, and that can only be a good thing. How much more Kent will need to surrender remains to be seen, but for this writer at least it would be a tragedy to see the gentle pastures and tree-lined lanes around Sandway and Boughton Malherbe he visited last week lost to the tarmac and fumes forever.
CPRE Kent’s Supreme Court victory over the Farthingloe Valley should have a positive impact for branches and supporters across the country
Now the dust has settled after a crazily busy time for everyone at CPRE Kent, capped by last week’s victory over Farthingloe Valley in the Supreme Court, communications and PR manager David Mairs shares his thoughts after a day in Birmingham at the CPRE Autumn Conference. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of CPRE Kent…
Less than six weeks after joining CPRE Kent as communications and PR manager at the end of September, I was hurtling (well, trundling) out of Euston towards Birmingham New Street station and, ultimately, the CPRE Autumn Conference.
A delayed train had at least afforded the opportunity to meet fellow CPRE travellers from Sussex and London and of course our own county chairwoman, Christine Drury.
A fascinating day lay ahead, certainly, but a dodgy ticket turnstile at New Street meant I was suddenly on my own and looking for The Studio in Cannon Street single-handed.
Not so easy, given that more than three decades had elapsed since my last visit to England’s second city, but, no matter, I was soon wolfing back canapes before selecting a table in place for the first presentation of the day.
This came from Crispin Truman, CPRE’s new chief executive, who was giving his first impressions of our organisation.
He got under way by presenting “CPRE Town” – a model town that might, if you peered very hard, look just a little like Richmond in North Yorkshire.
Either way, the idea was to show how our towns could be:
Offering new affordable housing
Surrounded by beautiful, and accessible, countryside
Building on brownfield land where possible
Consideration of the town’s historic centre (avoiding the ‘doughnut effect’ of a sugary ring with an empty centre)
Strong local transport
Green space within town
Church and/or mixed-use community space
Idealistic maybe, but what’s wrong with that? Further, aren’t all of these principles desirable and something that all local authorities should be trying to achieve?
Crispin told how he found CPRE to be a positive organisation and he had been unable to find any nimbys – rather, he had discovered positive people who were simply struggling with current government policies.
He spoke of the democratic deficit, where planning policy was being undermined and bypassed, and the unfortunate adversarial approach to housing and roads now evident.
As for the future, Crispin felt we needed to give clearer, simpler messages with more focus. We should be clear in communicating what we do.
And there’s clearly a willing audience, the chief executive pointing out that one of young people’s main concerns is loss of nature.
Other issues he covered were the fact that members wanted more connection between national office and local branches; the concept that CPRE was about solutions as much as about problems; and the need to develop new initiatives and strengthen community fund-raising.
Crispin was impressed and excited by CPRE’s access to government, but we couldn’t do all that we wished on our own – there needed to be collaboration, both internally and with other organisations.
Aside from the need to work better together, one of the lasting questions we were left with by the chief executive was how could we broaden our appeal. This was a theme that was to run throughout the day.
Next up on the podium was Elvira Meucci-Lyons, CPRE director of fundraising and supporter services, who updated us on the membership review and developments with corporate fundraising and legacies.
She stated the ambition of the organisation, which was to broaden its appeal as, if we are to achieve our mission, we require more help. We need greater volume, value and frequency of support from broader audiences than we currently attract, Elvira told us.
And how to do it?… Tell our story better and offer a more relevant experience to the audience we wish to attract.
After Elvira’s presentation came what for me was one of the most interesting and valuable parts of the day: a look at the charity landscape.
Given by a lady whose name I missed from the GOOD Agency, which has worked with such big hitters as the National Trust and RSPB, the analysis painted a bleak picture for organisations such as ours.
The number of donors is dropping (7 per cent in five years); voluntary giving is slowing (a 25 per cent decline in six years); and less than 7 per cent of charity giving goes to environmental causes. As if all that were not enough, the cost of recruiting donors has gone up.
We learnt that most giving is sporadic and occasional, while fewer than half of people aged under 35 give regularly but 79 per cent of over-65s donate on a frequent basis.
We were urged to rewrite the rules of engagement, whatever that meant, and see things from the perspective of supporters, who needed to know why we do what we do.
Finally, CPRE’s position should be moving from that of gamekeeper to facilitator, while Oxfam was given as an example of an organisation that had thought about how to give people of all ages a role.
A workshop followed in which we were asked why does CPRE exist and what is its purpose. Everyone seemed pretty much on the same page with this one, while the idea was mooted of CPRE possibly being “a distress purchase”. You can look that one up…
The final morning session, A Strategy for One CPRE led by branch and regional development manager Antonia White, focused on national office, the regions and the branches “being strong together, working constructively and effectively to common objectives to have the best possible impact for the countryside and the public”.
Four aims were set out:
Branches and regions being strong on their own
Branches and regions being strong together
Branches and regions supporting national office effectively
National office supporting branches and regions effectively
National office being strong on its own
This was one of the more interactive sessions, with a range of contributions from the floor, while one of the more positive facts to be shared was that CPRE intranet was on its way. We await…
There was also a set of commitments given by national office:
Menu of training (essentially more training, especially in relation to campaigns)
Fundraising support to branches
Addressing planning need through more focus to region plans
Planning support work
Policy-Campaigns annual cycle
Consolidate and update volunteer documents and toolkits
Next up was lunch… and what a splendid treat that proved to be! I plumped for the curry option, as ever, and it was a delight… possibly the best food I have had at such an event.
The only negative was that my time to savour it was limited as I had to head to a lunchtime workshop (such devotion to the cause!).
This related to CPRE’s planned new website and was, for some of us anyway, a tad disappointing with little in the way of new ideas or proposals to get us thinking; we already had a strong idea of what we wanted to do – what we needed was more guidance in helping us deliver it.
It was soon, and perhaps predictably, established that we sought to increase footfall to our national website and encourage visitors to return more frequently. E-newsletters were cited as an obvious way of driving people to the site.
Some of those present felt the current website looked old-fashioned, while others highlighted how in future it could be used to supply information to interested parties, especially in planning matters.
Suggestions as to what the new CPRE site could include, meanwhile, included a Twitter feed down the side of the home page, a simple user guide, objection-letter templates, an archive of old documents, campaign information, case studies, volunteering opportunities, a range of national content with greater local relevance, multimedia content such as videos and live streaming from events. More than one person also expressed the desire for an easier CMS (content management system).
It was all getting a bit techy for me as I concurred wholeheartedly with those who asked for greater IT support in such areas as analytics. Time to move on…
to Tess Kingham (a Kent resident, by the way), who gave us her thoughts having spent time running CPRE campaign training sessions over the past year or so.
Our power potential was enormous but not fully exploited, she said, while also noting that MPs’ fear of CPRE did not equate to the number of people we had on the ground.
She had perceived our strength in planning but also our weakness in social media and having broader campaign strategy PR. Perhaps we should set up a skills audit, she suggested.
Other observations included the requirement for a tailored campaign pack for more integrated operating; a pressing need for more volunteers; a lack of training provision (although there are lots of opportunities to share skills); and the importance of writing letters to the printed media and the sharing of success stories and personal tales rather than constant planning minutiae.
More off the cuff, perhaps, Tess told us we should make sure our research facts and figures were credible and accurate, which probably didn’t need saying; that booklets such as Warwickshire in Crisis were useful tools to send to the decision-makers; and that some local authorities would pay the postage for CPRE deliveries (really! … apparently).
Referring to the training days themselves, Tess had found one-day sessions in campaign training “a bit tight”, saying training should be either generic or bespoke and not mixed, while there was possibly a productive paradox in that reactive work dominated our agenda but it was of course keystone to what we did.
A lady sat next to me thought a review of training sessions that the majority of us hadn’t even attended was not a good use of time. I got what she was saying, and this section could have fallen flat, but thankfully Tess’s more general observations on CPRE were illuminating and valuable.
After this, there was a slight shuffle of the set agenda as CPRE director of campaigns and policy Tom Fyans and campaigns manager Lucy Hawthorne led a review of how we were tackling the issues that concern us:
More political:for example citing the concept of developer v community interest. As a more specific case, the narrative should be set as affordable housing, not the Green Belt. Essentially, “If you think building on the Green Belt will bring down house prices, you’re wrong”.
Also, more media, more interest, more relevance.
More proactive: witness our efforts in relation to NPPF reforms, the Housing White Paper and the Green Belt, among others. Policy is analysis, it’s not influence, said someone, and it was a statement that drew a general murmur of agreement across the room, as did the idea that we should be more positive in how we framed our message.
More integrated: cases included, again, the Housing White Paper, Green Belt Under Siege and the Oxford-Cambridge Working Group.
We were informed of CPRE’s new principles for 2018:
More human (there are heroes and there are villains!)
The last point related to what we, as people, are doing. It’s not just the technical stuff.
All was not sweetness and light, however, as a lady from Oxfordshire declared her ire that national office had not given more notice to the branches of its forthcoming AONB report, which, we had just been told, had been seven months in the making.
Tom accepted the criticism and, if you couldn’t speak out here, then where could you? We were among friends, after all.
Other speakers from the floor, meanwhile, said that – given all the talk of a homes crisis – there was more per capita housing than ever before; farmland, especially with planning permission for development, was the fastest-growing asset in the country; and CPRE branches were subject to a postcode lottery with a big disparity in funding.
And CPRE in 2018? Key priorities included influencing the NPPF, with a consultation expected to be released early in the year; a campaign on rural affordable housing; a submission on the Raynsford Review of Planning; and the government’s 25-year plan for the environment.
And so it was time to review the day. Going back to where we began it all, chief executive Crispin noted the desire among many present to change CPRE’s image, while he had also taken on board our weakness in areas of fundraising.
Of course we couldn’t let things pass without mention of Brexit and the changes it would bring our rural communities, especially in relation to farming. CPRE, urged a speaker from the floor, should be involved throughout this period of great change.
And with the ever-present wish to accentuate the positive, I’ll echo the words of the one who ventured that CPRE planning skills were unparalleled and we could share them with so many others. Hear, hear!
And Hear, hear! to the newly introduced drinks reception, a chance to drink a little, eat a little and talk a little.
Sadly, the chance to then hit the bright lights of Birmingham was not afforded me as David Morrish, the new chairman of CPRE Thanet committee (a post I once held) and a native Brummie, had a family engagement in town and so I was left to head for New Street and home on my lonesome.
It had been a long day, so what were my thoughts upon being immersed in the world of national CPRE?
As ever with such things, some parts of the event were better than others and I got the idea that not everyone had engaged with the speakers or indeed subjects as much as they might.
This wasn’t helped by the layout – during workshops, for example, it was sometimes very difficult to hear people on your own table above the noise from those on other tables.
There was a little too much metropolitan ‘blue-sky’ speak for my liking, but then I’m a Thanet boy and there are few places where English is spoken more earthily.
For all that, it was without question a worthwhile venture, perhaps most of all because you got to meet people from CPRE branches across the country. In truth, this will always be the strength of such events – it is encouraging and emboldening to know that others are as involved and as passionate about the countryside as you are your colleagues are.
It was also apparent that CPRE Kent’s financial position is viewed with some envy. Be under no illusion, your stout yeoman (me!) was on hand to clarify that we weren’t able to simply “to wheel out the barristers” as and when, as someone put it, but I did realise that some branches even in affluent areas you might expect to be core CPRE territory have next to no resource.
Again, it was important to highlight that victories for CPRE Kent in such cases as Farthingloe have national resonance, with all branches benefiting as important legal principles are established.
I had some empathy with the gentleman from Warwickshire who said CPRE needed to be “more combative, less nice” in response to a government that, he believed, had been “working behind our backs” in the way it had foisted housing numbers upon so many of us.
“Be terribly blunt, be terribly open – we’ll get more members,” he said.
Yep, I’ll go with that.
It was evident that many of those present wanted more training in such areas as campaigning and IT, as well as greater support on the “planning frontline”. Again, it’s hard to argue.
And finally? Yes, you can breathe a collective “Phew!”…
CPRE is very much alive and kicking. A cliché, I know, but these are times of extraordinary change and we all need to be able to meet the range of challenges ahead.
I saw that our organisation has people – young and older alike – with a fantastic range of abilities and the passion to fight for what they believe. We have to adapt, certainly, and many of us need to broaden or enhance our skills set, but collectively there’s no one better equipped to fight for the countryside we love.
Shorne: a village close to the planned route of the Lower Thames Crossing
CPRE Gravesham chairman Alex Hills lifts his head from a busy workload and shares his thoughts
There have now been two meetings of the Gravesham and Dartford Cycling Forum since its formation and it is making good progress on achieving CPRE aims.
I landed the job of chairman by default, which I was not keen on initially, but it has enabled me to help promote the benefits of commuter cycling, access different cycling groups’ knowledge, help make cyclists’ voices heard and develop useful contacts.
There is now a move to form an umbrella group for cycling forums to tackle wider issues such as access to train travel.
I would urge all CPRE branches to engage with their local cycling forum if they have one. If there is no cycling forum, help set one up as it will be worth the effort.
The tram project is making progress – the battle is now on to find the funding.
Highways England (HE) has now dropped any pretence of the planned Lower Thames Crossing being anything other than a Green Belt grab for growth, with all mention of reducing congestion at Dartford being dropped.
Some improvements have been made to the design – but I think HE had always intended to do these anyway.
The LTC and Gravesham Borough Council (GBC) plans to build 2,000 houses in the Green Belt are very much linked due to the need for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).
My view is that the growth it is said will be created by the crossing should be included in the Highways England Strategic Environmental Assessment, but I would like further advice before pushing the point.
The council announced plans to consult on building 2,000 houses in the Green Belt to accommodate a lack of houses being built by developers and a massive increase in migration from abroad. Both points are totally wrong.
The umbrella action group Gravesham Rural Residents Group, of which CPRE is a member, has been partially reactivated. After a social media and letter-writing campaign by the group, the cabinet papers on the Green Belt review were withdrawn.
A long list of questions has been sent to the council… we await response.