On such a beautiful sunny day, the first proper one of the year, we thought we'd head off to Charles Darwin's house in Downe, Kent. It's a very short run, just off junction 4 of the M25.
It is our 'Survival of the Fittest' walk from the red Adventure Walks for Families book. Chapter 19. It's been a while since we've walked it and my youngest has been studying Evolution and Darwin at school so the timing is good.
This is such a great walk because it has a good centre to it: Darwin's house.
Not only is Down House a grand and glorious house, it is a natural history treasure trove of stuffed birds, shell and bone collections, insects and butterflies. Charles Darwin's study is set out just as it would have been; the shelves are lined with books; the dining room is laid for supper; the wooden stair slide his children used us propped up in the playroom; and it has a great tearoom.
This is the meadow just below Darwin's house. It was in this chalky meadow that Darwin set up the first ever scientific study of plant diversity, studying the wild flowers through the seasons. Later in the summer, this meadow is even more beautiful as the grass is long and full of wild flowers.
This is the wooden door into the gardens of Darwin's
house. The path through the woods takes to you this secret back entrance. It is just next to the Sandwalk, where Darwin famously walked daily, before lunch and in the afternoon, noting the wildlife around him through the seasons.
In the immaculately laid out gardens are the greenhouses where Darwin conducted his plant experiments.
Darwin was close to his children and his love of nature was infectious to them. They would often stride out across the downs together with a picnic and set about collecting moths and butterflies or monitor bees in the meadows.
Darwin studied the wild orchids in the nearby woods. The best time to see them flower is between May and July. Some of them were out today.
We rounded the walk off with a pub lunch at The Old Jail, the drinking hangout of the Battle of Britain pilots during the war. Perfect.
With the fresh Spring sunshine beginning to peek through the cold skies, the weekends are ripe for getting out of the house for a good walk. We wrote Adventure Walks for Families in and around London a few years ago in the search for easy walks with a story led twist, designed to get even the most reluctant walker out of the house. As Londoners, we wanted our children to grow up having learnt how to play in the woods: we wanted them to get muddy, run wild, climb trees and hills, learn the names of wild flowers, trees and birds. Taking them out to the country is a good place to start.
We are always discovering new places to go, but some of our favourites are worth telling you about here. Each of these walks is within an hour or so of London, depending on which part of the city you come from. All are obviously accessible from any direction for anyone in the South of England. They are, despite our best efforts, mostly accessible by car rather than public transport. Those with longer legs could in many cases take the train, but with toddlers and upwards in tow, we found that the mile to and from the station could kill the enthusiasm for any walk and it is far better to start where the walk begins. Equally, piling tired and happy children into a car is more agreeable at the end of a long day... with apologies to train users.
Winnie the Pooh and the Enchanted Forest
Just south of the M25 is the Ashdown Forest and Winnie the Pooh country. A.A Milne lived near here at Cotchford Farn in Hartfield. He wrote the famous bear stories for his son. The real Christopher Robin would once buy sweets at a shop called Pooh Corner in Hartfield, where you can buy all Pooh related souvenirs.
The original pooh sticks bridge is on a well trodden tourist trail close by, but we recommend getting deeper into the woods for a more authentic and adventurous exploration of a landscape that leaps straight out of the pages of the book and E H Shepard's drawings. From the M25, take the A22 to Nutley. Turn left towards Crowborough and up into the open heathland of Ashdown Forest. Park at the car park at Friend's Clump, on your left. Stride out in a circular walk from the clump of trees ahead of you. There is a waterfall to discover and plenty of spots for a picnic of honey sandwiches. Rumour has it that some wallabies escaped from a local zoo and once roamed the forest. Perhaps a sighting of Kanga is possible after all?
Wind in the Willows
With a good wind, it is less than an hour to Henley on Thames, and some of the most idyllic and quintessentially English stretches of the river. Like Mole, your children will become "intoxicated with the sparkle, the ripple, the scent, the sounds and the sunlight of it all". Pack a picnic of your most delicious meats and cakes and a copy of the book and drive like Toad (perhaps best not..!) to the village of Remenham, off the A4130 just outside Henley, to start the walk.
Park by the church and head up the hill on the right, then follow the footpath signs across the fields to the left. A welcome stop is the charming Flower Pot pub, with cold drinks and hot meals. Head on down towards the river and then follow the river towpath round to the left, up stream towards Henley. Not long after passing Temple Island, come off the path through a kissing gate to Remenham and the starting point.
Survival of the Fittest: Charles Darwin at Down House
Perfect for any scientist or budding naturalist, the house where Charles Darwin evolved his scientific theory of the Origin of Species is just a short hop from London, close to Biggin Hill off the A21 in the village of Downe. Down House is stuffed with the curiosities of his shell, feather and bone collections and the gardens have multiple greenhouses where plants were experimentally grown. The famous Sandwalk where Darwin would spend his afternoons digesting his lunch and cogitating his theories as he walked, runs out of the back of the garden above the downs. His children would be sent out to help him gather moths, insects and flowers as well as to observe the behaviour of bumble bees on the clover.
Footpaths meander through the fields and woods of Kent. Start the walk at the willow tree in Downe, close to the Baptist Church on the Luxted Road. Look for the footpath sign to Cudham and follow the paths through the fields and around Downe Court Farm and into a wood. You will need a map or our book to wiggle your way through, but you are essentially heading for the dark green painted door to Down House at the edge of the woods for a more exciting entrance. Leave the way you came and follow the footpaths back to the car. Make sure you check opening times of Down House in Winter as it closes on weekdays from November.
For more detailed descriptions of the walks mentioned in this blog, look at Adventure Walks for Families in and around London by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis (published by Frances Lincoln)