An autumn walk with a ranger at Toys Hill
Toys Hill in North Kent is a National Trust microcosm of nature, history and heritage. An autumn walk with area ranger Chris Heels leaves writer Laura Marsh feeling on top of the Weald.
Distracted by the chocolate-box hamlet of Toys Hills, I almost miss the unassuming car park north of the crossroads. Above, tawny leaves migrate to the woodland floor. Beyond, a golden tapestry of scrub, bush and grasses unfolds.
It’s hard to imagine the M25 is less than five miles away. And easy to imagine why the landscape so inspired local resident and Trust co-founder Octavia Hill.
I meet my guide, area ranger Chris Heels, who leads me across the clearing and into the wild woods. We’re doing the 10km Octavia Hill centenary trail west. “There are shorter walks” Chris says, “but this gives a true taste of Wealden wonderland.”
Just a few hundred yards in and I can see the woodland is dotted with grass clearings, each offering a tantalising glimpse of spectacular views beyond. “We created this grassland area to improve biodiversity” says Chris. “Quite a few snakes live here – but they’ll be starting to hibernate now” he adds, seeing my face.
By sticking to the path, Chris says, the grassland naturally flourishes and wildlife will follow. No need to tell me twice. We move hastily on.
More evidence of careful conservation comes into view. “We do a lot of felling work in autumn” he says. “It’s a chance to restore historic viewpoints – including those lost in the 1987 Great Storm - and recycle wood for fencing and posts.”
Chris takes a detour to a covered well. A handy bench overlooks a stunning panorama of Kentish countryside. It’s an artist’s autumn palette of red, yellow, orange and gold.
We press on in the shadow of greatness towards Chartwell, home of Sir Winston Churchill. “The path rises above early autumn fog for wonderful views” Chris adds. The alpacas of Chartwell Farm no doubt agree.
In Octavia's footsteps
Skirting past Chartwell, we come to Crockham Hill. I note the village pub and a plaque to Octavia Hill on the green. Chris takes me into the grounds of Holy Trinity church, where Octavia’s grave lies beneath a protective yew tree.
“She chose to be buried here over Westminster Abbey” says Chris. A window in the church contrasts the grime of urban life with the countryside idyll Octavia chose as her final resting place.
We begin to climb up Mariners Hill. The winding steps are worth the effort in the crisp autumn air, and we reach the highest point of our walk.
“This is my favourite viewpoint” admits Chris, allowing himself a moment’s reflection on a bench dedicated to one of Octavia's five sisters, Harriot Yorke. More autumn splendour stretches out beyond.
Restoring what was lost
The walk loops back through the woodland towards Chartwell. Crunchy leaves cushion our footsteps. “We leave the foliage” Chris explains, “so as not to interfere with the woodland’s natural processes.”
He shows me two new viewpoints along Mapleton Road. “We’ve opened these up recently” says Chris. “They’re based loosely on those that existed before the Great Storm”.
Thirty years have passed, but the storm’s shadow lingers. “Around 98% of the trees were lost” says Chris. “There are only about half a dozen still here from the time.”
Extensive replanting followed, but with most of the trees the same age the lack of diversity isn’t so good for wildlife.
“Right now we’re coppicing, to encourage trees to re-grow. Look out for new habitat piles, great for invertebrates like stage beetles.”
Furry friends are not forgotten either. “Our dormouse boxes are mostly empty by now” Chris says. “I’ll be checking them to make sure they’re ready for spring.”