Let’s say goodbye to local councils and authoritarian universities, judicial reviews and government acronyms. It’s spring, finally, in east Kent, after a long, cold, dry winter. And when the sun comes out over this bright green land no-one hereabouts needs to put together the argument for why we care about this place. It’s out there, all around us, in the burgeoning green fields, the leaping herds of stupid new-born lambs, the woodland flowers rising from the waking ground and the rebirth of the countryside everywhere. Including, of course, the verdant fields that Imperial will put to concrete if it gets its way.
Even locals forget how special this is after a while. We live here and see it every year. At least for the moment. If you’re a visitor to this site, though, do bear this in mind. Nothing is as good as the real thing. Wye is just 90 minutes from Charing Cross or Victoria by train. You can walk to some very good accommodation at the New Flying Horse. Then some more healthy exercise will take you into the countryside you see here. Come on the first or third Saturday of each month and you will see the fantastic farmers’ market. If you want to have a special meal out, think of heading off up over the downs to the Timber Batts, a country pub now under French management and one of the finest restaurants in the whole of Kent. If you need more information, just ask here…
In fact, if enough of you wanted it, we might be able to organise some kind of weekend of facts, outdoor pursuits, market visits and introductions. Tell us if a few of you would like to make a date.
This is pretty much what summer looks like in this part of east Kent — all these photos come from the English Nature site here. Wye lies at the foot of the North Downs, which comprises (don’t take me to task on this one) ancient chalk grass land that has been farmed for centuries and steep woodland ‘coombes’. You will find views like this, from the Downs across to the plain in which Ashford lies, running down to Romney Marsh, everywhere. It’s hard to believe London is just seventy miles or so away, and out there in the distance lies the bustle of the M20. To quote English Nature, ‘as well as grassland the reserve encompasses areas of scrub, woodland and over 3.5 km of hedgerows; these habitats support around 50 breeding bird species including nightingale, hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker and kestrel. Reptiles found here include adder, grass snake, slow worm and common lizard.’
This is another view from one of the best-known local landmarks, the Devil’s Kneading Trough, found at the summit of the hill that leads up from behind Wye. It’s a stiff twenty to thirty minute walk, with views that are breathtaking. On a clear day you can see all the way to the English Channel, with the distinctive outline of the Dungeness Power Station on the horizon, and further to the west the Fairlight cliffs that lead on to Hastings. It’s great sledging country when the winter snows come too.
The Kneading Trough is part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) area. It is to geologists what Stairway to Heaven is to heavy metal fans being ‘a dry, steep-sided valley formed by peri-glacial action near the end of the last ice age’. To the rest of us it’s a gorgeous headland overlooking, and surrounded by, gorgeous Kent countryside. Imperial has made noises about being able to keep its bulldozers away from the SSI, though whether the delicate environment of these places can actually be protected by making sure Bob the Builder puts down his tools six inches from the border is another matter. Imperial is a very clever college, of course. Rumour has it there’s an airborne pig somewhere in its development labs too.
Now here’s a small secret. You can see more of it by clicking on the two little thumbnails above. We have orchids. I’ll probably get into trouble for telling you this, but they are here, in reasonable numbers, heavily protected, and their exact whereabouts kept discreetly in local heads, rather than bandied about in pubs. To be honest though, anyone with half a brain can work out where to find them from the existing nature publications. They’re only little things, and sometimes you can come across a whole set of them, as in the orchid bank in the picture above left. The other flower is, I am reliably informed, an early spider orchid. It won’t be long before these little beauties start stick out their heads I imagine. To quote from English Nature again, ‘the site’s chalk grassland is notable for the range of orchids it supports, 21 species having been recorded at the site including lady orchid, fly orchid and the rare late and early spider orchid and man orchid’.
And finally, a tree. There is plenty of woodland around here, much of it pretty ancient. But most of the area affected by the Wye Park plan is resolutely green. So a solitary silver birch is a rarity. I have a couple in my field out back there, and I can tell you another local secret. At the end of September mine come up with a crop of British porcini mushrooms — not quite the incredibly expensive boletus or ceps you’ll find on the continent, but very close, and incredibly delicious too, if you can get there before the bugs. If you have the time to spare over the weekend, the forecast looks good. It might be a great time to get to know Wye, and begin to understand why so many people feel so strongly about the plans to bring in the bulldozers.
Many thanks to English Nature for the lovely pictures. If a serious naturalist would like to expand on my ham-fisted amateur explanations here, we’d be delighted to carry a more detailed and scientific explanation of what makes this an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.