A Spring Walk

West Wickham Travel Blog

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Looking south from the bottom of my garden
London, like some other major cities, has surrounding it a continuous band of open countryside known as the Green Belt, on which planning permission for new buildings is very difficult to obtain: the idea is to ensure that urban sprawl does not expand without limit, and any local politician wishing to commit political suicide has only to suggest building on the Green Belt. West Wickham (the town in Kent where I live - there's another of that name in Cambridgeshire) is right on the border, where the built-up suburbs end and open country begins.

More precisely, the bottom of my back garden is part of the legal boundary of the Green Belt. So if you walk out of my front garden and keep walking straight ahead northwards, then (assuming that you can walk through buildings like Desperate Dan) there is nothing but suburban housing, shops and commercial developments until after about 25 miles you emerge blinking into the sunlight somewhere round about Barnet.
You are here
But if you walk straight ahead southwards from my back garden, there is nothing but open country until you bump into Tunbridge Wells. As if to emphasise this borderline status, West Wickham is administratively in London but historically, geographically and postally in Kent; and although only eight miles from the center of London as the crow flies it is a lot further on the train, which follows a great loop around the Crystal Palace hills.

I am a natural suburbanite, and value nothing so much as proper pavements and street lighting. But sometimes in fine weather I am tempted to make a bucolic perambulation of that part of West Wickham that lies to the south, just outside my back door.
A drift of bluebells on the margin of the wood
The photographs offered here record just such a walk.

From the bottom of the garden a perilous crossing of a pitch and putt course (yes, I've collected about 100 balls from the garden and have them stowed away in the shed, and no, I've never actually been hit by one) brings you to Spring Park woods, now owned by the City of London for the public benefit. Here in the spring there is always a beautiful drift of bluebells, which of course you are not now allowed to pick, although as a child I used to bring home armfuls. Many of the trees blown down by the Great Gale of 1987 still lie where they fell, sometimes with a crater several feet deep where the roots were torn out of the ground; these craters are now filled with brambles, shrubs and saplings. One curious phenomenon occurs when the fallen tree still has some root connction with the soil, and continues to live: new branches grow vertically out of the horizontal tree trunk, and themselves take on all the character of young trees.
Ducks. On a pond.


However, I think that the Gale did a great deal of good, because it encouraged the City of London to manage the woodlands by traditional coppicing (cutting trees down to ground level every 10 or 15 years). This has made the woodland much more open and sunny, and so more attractive to wildlife and pleasanter to walk in. The City of London has also constructed a pond on the southern margin of the wood; it is artificial in the sense that it is lined with plastic sheeting, but it is fed by the winter springs that give the wood its name, and has been allowed to develop quite naturally. It is now home to many varieties of water-loving plants and animals, including yellow flags, water-lilies, bullrushes, ducks, and multi-coloured dragonflies which can often be seen zooming about my garden during the summer.
The field-path leading to the church


The woods are bordered on the south by Sparrow's Den playing fields, an acre or so of which is maintained as natural meadow. Crossing this brings you to the Addington Road, and on the other side are a farmer's fields through which a path leads to the parish church of St John the Baptist, known as The Church on the Hill because it is a church and is on a hill. In these fields the farmer grows cereal crops, rotated with rape, although what the cereal crops actually are I never know - as a suburbanite I really can't distinguish between corn, wheat, oats, barley and other tall wavy stuff. But watching the combine-harvester at work at harvest-time really gives the sense of being in the country! On the other hand, you also get a good view of a hideous modern red-brick complex used as a home for the elderly.
Tennysonian scene in the churchyard
If you ask "How in God's name did anyone get planning permission?", well, therein lies your answer: it was built by an order of nuns.

I love the approach to the church, and always imagine, without any basis in fact whatosoever, some eighteenth-century bride tripping across the field on her wedding-day, accompanied by bridesmaids scattering flowers in her path and helping her to negotiate the stiles. The path leads to the churchyard, where the north side, which traditionally was the resting place of suicides and other ne'er-do-wells, is open, sunny and cheerful, whereas the south side is overgrown, gloomy and melancholy: there is an ancient yew in the shade of which are old, discoloured, broken headstones keeling over at drunken angles, a scene which always brings to mind Tennyson's lines:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
   That name the under-lying dead,
   Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The pleasant north side of the churchyard


The field to the north of the churchyard is used for grazing horses, although it used to be used for cows which would occasionally escape onto the Addington Road, causing much consternation in motorists and much entertainment for residents. The church itself dates from about 1485, but there is a motley collection of later additions; it is mentioned, albeit only briefly, in Pevsner. I was Christened here when a few months old.

From the churchyard the path leads through the much-admired and much-restored 15th century lych-gate to the somewhat less salubrious Coney Hall Recreation Ground, where there is a stone marking the zero meridian; so you are saved a journey to Greenwich if you want a goofy picture of yourself with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the western.
Looking west into the late afternoon sun
Other than that, there isn't much to say about Coney Hall Rec. Then it is only a short walk to the other end of Sparrow's Den, which is crossed - several feet under the soil - by the old London to Lewes Roman road. It is said - and I've convinced myself that I've seen this - that in times of drought the line of the road can still be made out: the grass roots, in their search for water, penetrate right down to the rubble of the old road, and the higher concentration of calcium from the limestone gives the grass itself a slighty different hue.

It is here, also, that years ago I saw frantic efforts being made to recover someone who had been buried alive. The local archeological society was undertaking a dig, and had constructed a pit about thirteen feet deep, but failed to shore it up properly.
The parish church and lychgate
Someone was working at the bottom when it caved in, and unfortunately the rescuers were unable to get him out in time. They have a cruel dilemma: if they dig too fast, they risk decapitating the victim, whereas if they dig too slowly and carefully, the victim suffocates. In this case they were too slow. It was an awful warning to archeologists, and now if I see anyone working in a pit I have to check that the sides are properly shored up!

Crossing Sparrow's Den brought me once again to the pitch and putt course, and the problem of how best to avoid the dogs that always seem to congregate there. Finally it's back home to a nice cup of tea, and a great sense of relief that I'd spent two whole hours in the countryside without coming to harm!
YantiSoeparno says:
Hey John, you are lucky, living in a beautiful area like this ;-)
Posted on: Apr 23, 2009
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Looking south from the bottom of m…
Looking south from the bottom of …
You are here
You are here
A drift of bluebells on the margin…
A drift of bluebells on the margi…
Ducks. On a pond.
Ducks. On a pond.
The field-path leading to the chur…
The field-path leading to the chu…
Tennysonian scene in the churchyard
Tennysonian scene in the churchyard
The pleasant north side of the chu…
The pleasant north side of the ch…
Looking west into the late afterno…
Looking west into the late aftern…
The parish church and lychgate
The parish church and lychgate
Where I live
Where I live
The pitch and putt course, looking…
The pitch and putt course, lookin…
Sparrows Den sports field, lookin…
Sparrow's Den sports field, looki…
An area of the wood that has recen…
An area of the wood that has rece…
Trees lie where they fell during t…
Trees lie where they fell during …
Woodland flower 1: probably White …
Woodland flower 1: probably White…
This tree trunk, lying on a steep …
This tree trunk, lying on a steep…
Woodland flower 2: probably German…
Woodland flower 2: probably Germa…
Yellow flags
Yellow flags
Looking across Sparrows Den to th…
Looking across Sparrow's Den to t…
Buttercups in Sparrows Den: this …
Buttercups in Sparrow's Den: this…
What the nuns managed to get away …
What the nuns managed to get away…
Bird singing like mad on a very de…
Bird singing like mad on a very d…
Some of the buildings of Layhams …
Some of the buildings of Layham's…
View north from the fields: my hou…
View north from the fields: my ho…
Renovated stile on the approach to…
Renovated stile on the approach t…
Looking back to the west from the …
Looking back to the west from the…
I think this is a variety of forge…
I think this is a variety of forg…
The field to the north of the chur…
The field to the north of the chu…
A do-it-yourself effort
A do-it-yourself effort
Looking south from the churchyard
Looking south from the churchyard
The much-restored lychgate
The much-restored lychgate
The prime meridian in Coney Hall R…
The prime meridian in Coney Hall …
Uh oh, dogs: that means a detour
Uh oh, dogs: that means a detour
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West Wickham
photo by: londonstudent