(The blue line on the map indicates the path to where the best bluebells can be seen on this walk in late April)
Darwin’s garden and house, wild flower meadows, hedgerows, the chance of seeing Battle of Britain aircraft, beech trees and old, flint and wooden houses and a beautiful church. Nice cake/tea shop and two pubs with decent food. An easy walk, no steep inclines. Great to combine with a visit to Downe House, where Darwin wrote Origin of the Species. His study is kept in the condition in which he worked in it. Thirty minutes’ drive from East Dulwich. Covered on Ordnance Survey Explorer 147 map.
Download a pdf and print out this walk here – or use this page and map on your smartphone
The walk (40mins-1hr/2.6 miles)
Get off the bus by the church of St Mary the Virgin (13th century; look out for the graves of Darwin’s family) and walk east past the George and Dragon pub on Cudham Rd. The walk starts with the marked footpath (signposted to Biggin Hill and Luxted, by a brick wall – do not take the footpath signposted to Cudham a bit further on, another fine walk but not now!) a few metres east of the very cute Christmas Tree Farm (which has donkeys, llamas and a wonky house), on the road heading towards Cudham (Point 1). Follow the path, with the enclosures of the farm on your right. There is a driveway on your left (ignore it). Stop and admire the donkeys if you will, then, just after the final enclosure, follow the path to the right, diagonally across a field of grasses to a clump of trees.
The path now takes you diagonally left towards a farmhouse (Point 2). Watch out for the footpath sign, skirt the house and continue round the edge of a field then (Point 3) take a sharp right (to head west) at the intersection of footpaths (if you were to go left here, you’d soon enter a fantastic bluebell wood, best seen in May of course). Cross the road (Point 3.5) and enter the meadow (brilliant with daisies and buttercups from May to July) bordering Darwin’s house and garden, with small cricket pitch on your left (the boundary is within range of a decent forward defensive).
The path meets the western corner of Darwin’s garden (Point 4) – you can have a quick peek, but you’ll have to pay if you linger – then head across the great man’s ‘sandwalk’ and diagonally left across another field with a great view of a wooded valley. This is my favourite part of the walk as you look over unbroken treetops to the western horizon for what seems like miles. At dusk, watch out for wild deer at this point. Superb sunset vistas also. Don’t let the occasional waft of kerosene jet fuel from the airfield detract from the timeless vibe of this part of the walk! The path descends slightly into the valley then joins another path (Point 5), this time running north to south. So, turn right here (heading north) and just keep on going through the woods. Biggin Hill airfield is just beyond the trees on the other side of the valley. There is a quiet golf course on the floor of the valley (West Kent Golf Club). After a few minutes you will cross a lane (Point 6) and continue on the footpath heading north.
The extensive woodland is that mentioned by Geoffrey Wellum in his astonishing book First Light, covering his time at RAF Biggin Hill as a 19-year-old Spitfire pilot. The airfield played a key role in the Battle of Britain and throughout the second world war and today is used by leisure flights and some executive jets. In recent years a few Spitfires, a Hurricane or two and assorted vintage aircraft have been based there and are often flown. One of the Spitfires, a second world war veteran that shot down a Luftwaffe fighter, was converted into a two-seater after the war and now takes passengers up – it’s about £2,750. Occasional airshows at Biggin Hill feature the Red Arrows and extremely noisy jet fighters. You might find this thrilling; you might not.
Soon the path breaks into the open and you’ll see superb beech trees on your right (amid the occasional old bomb crater from one of many Luftwaffe attacks on the air base in August-September 1940). You’ll cross three fields (the last field, pictured above, is Point 7) on this path before entering a copse and, after about 30 metres, turning 90-degrees right to go over a stile (Point 8) and head east across a wheat/corn field back until the path become narrow with a hedge on the right and you emerge back on to the village road. Look out for the Queen’s Head on the left (Point 9). Until late March 2015 this field was a beautiful wild pasture with flowers and hawthorn trees. The tenant farmers have planted a cereal crop in there and it looks lovely as I write in June but a bit barren at other times of the year. Also they have a nasty habit of ploughing it up and obliterating the footpath from time to time – if so, walk around the edge. Have a look at the wonderful old church (Point 10).
Village amenities: There’s a great little cake and tea shop, much used by weekend cyclists, on the left by the Rajdoot curry house just before the Queens Head. How exciting that the Queen’s Head and the George and Dragon made the news on March 22, 2015, when jolly protestors dressed as breastfeeding babies ambushed the UKIP leader Nigel Farage and rather spoiled his family’s Sunday lunch. No doubt loads of Sunday lycra-clad cyclists got some great snaps of the occasion. What would Darwin have made of it all? Click the links for differing views of the protest, firstly from a Guardian journalist who travelled with the protestors and then the riposte from the Queen’s Head landlord. The Queen’s Head serves delicious ales from Westerham Brewery incidentally.
How to get to Downe by public transport: 146 bus from Bromley (20 mins’ duration), or train to Orpington and then R8 bus (15 mins, no Sunday service). You can also get the train to Hayes (on the New Cross/Lewisham/Ladywell/Catford Bridge/Lower Sydenham line) and pick up the 146, or get a cab, or cycle. Hayes is the nearest railway station to Downe.