A WALK ON KESTON COMMON




Keston Common occupies a shallow valley with the river Ravensbourne running from its source at Caeser’s Well northward to Padmall Wood eventually to enter the Thames at Deptford. The slopes each side of the valley supply water for other springs and boggy areas.


From the most southerly point where Westerham Road and Heathfield Road meet to the northern boundary along Croydon Road is three quarters of a mile (1300 metres).  You can take a circular walk by choosing different paths each side of the valley.  For walkers, the easiest route, mainly downhill, starts at the junction of Heathfield Road/Westerham Road and progresses through the ponds and woods to end at Croydon Road.

Along any one of the many paths through this delightful piece of countryside you will find human and natural history in plenty.  Most of the land around was long ago enclosed, taken into cultivation and then built on in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries so the existence of the Common at all is something of a miracle!   An explanation can be found in the nature of the soils of the area.

The higher slopes are largely composed of water-worn pebbles and thin sandy soils known to geologists as the Blackheath Beds.  Anyone attempting to maintain a garden on this soil will know why the local farmers learned quickly that the harvests gained were outweighed by the costs in time and money.  Even in the British climate,  the soils dry out so quickly that only specially adapted plants survive, some of which are now rare in south east England.
 

The lower ground has soils resting on or composed entirely of heavy clay which remains wet all year round and is even more difficult to cultivate. Alongside these soils are areas of peat built up over centuries because the vegetation decays very slowly.  These wet peat bogs add a third habitat for the growth of specialist plants supporting a different range of insect and animal life.



The Dry Heath




Just below the Heathfield Road car park are two public buildings on land within the boundary of the Common, the old Parish Elementary School and the Village Hall.  The school was built in 1855 on land given by the Farnaby-Lennard family and remained in use until the new school opened at the end of Lakes Road.  The village hall was opened in 1927 and continues to be a centre for many community activities and private functions.  Each building is an example of the architectural styles widely adopted at the time of building. 


Cross the road from Heathfield Road car park to the junction of Heathfield with Westerham Road and you quickly enter the dry heath with patches of gorse, broom, heather, grasses and flowering plants all adapted to life in dry, nutrient-poor soils.  The path beneath your feet will consist almost entirely of rounded pebbles deposited in shallow seas some 60 million years ago to form the Blackheath Beds.  European gorse imported from Spain was planted widely over the Common in the nineteenth century because of its use as fuel and fodder.  Boys were engaged to collect fresh gorse then beat it to soften the spines.  It was then fed to horses and cattle so the chemical in it would be released to help keep the animals free of worms.  Common land was an important part of the village economy in many ways, not only gorse for fodder but also for fuel, heather for brooms, turves for fuel, building and even roofing. The grazing of animals only ceased on Keston Common in the 1930s. 

Extract from Darwin ’s papers now held at Cambridge university library ( CUL:DAR 64.1:51):

 

On Keston Common north of the path across from Holwood wicket is a high bit of land covered with heath, the ground amongst the heath being quite covered with lichen; I walked carefully over this place and pulled up the heath and looked among the roots, saw no trace of earthworms. The Holwood path divides the lower part of the Common into two regions, the south being chiefly gorse and fern with grass and having worm castings, the north being pure heath and lichen region. 


Much of his investigation into earthworms was conducted across Keston and Hayes Commons.  His studies were published in 1881 in the book, ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.’ If you are interested it can be read on line at www.darwinonline.org.uk


There are numerous pieces of evidence to show human activity in this area.  Running east to west across the main pathways is an iron age embankment where stone age flint tools have been found. 

The path alongside Westerham Road (right hand side of the Common when facing Keston) passes through a deep cutting which is thought to be the remains of a gravel pit possibly used to supply material for constructing the Westerham Road during eighteenth century.


At the end of the path and the gravel cutting is Westerham Road car park below which via steps down a steep bank is Caeser’s Well and the first of three ponds.  As is true for many such names, the likelihood of Julius Caeser using the water from the spring is doubtful!   However this area is rich in Roman remains and at Warbank, just 200 metres to the south,  is the site of a Roman farmstead complex.   This developed into a major villa with a cemetery and mausoleum (50 AD – 350 AD) so there is every chance some Romans would have used the clear waters of the well as the Stone and Iron age people before them.   The Anglo-Saxons who followed also occupied the site.
 
There are written records to show that the spring hidden in the woodland was used for bathing and picnics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:


From the ‘European Magazine’ 1792‘The springhead has long been converted into a most useful coldbath, a dressing house is on the brink of it, it is ornamental with beautiful trees and from a romantic situation forms a most pleasing scene.’ 


Victorian microscopists were informed in Unwin’s Half Holiday Guide  (1882)  that the well was a site of interesting freshwater algae.



The Ponds




There are four ponds in all. The top two are divided from the third by Fishponds Road the fourth is further down the stream and is currently being restored (see News page).

 
The top three ponds were built between 1823 and 1827 by John Ward, a wealthy London merchant, to provide a reservoir for supplying water to Holwood, the house once the residence of William Pitt the Younger. An hydraulic pump was built to push the water uphill from the ponds to the house and the remains of this building can be seen behind Lakes Cottage at the corner of  the Westerham and Fishponds roads.  Decimus Burton was employed to build the  impressive new house which continues to be occupied.  The two top ponds are built on what is shown on Halsted’s eighteenth century map as small gravel pits.   These ponds have proved attractive to visitors and sportsmen since being completed.


The Keston Swimming Club met here regularly including on New Year’s Day in the years before the First World War.  We assume the ponds were not frozen over because ice skating on them regularly attracted huge crowds.


Today the two top ponds are popular with fishermen who catch a variety of coarse fish some of considerable size.  Carp (over 20lbs),  pike (up to 17lbs),  tench, roach, bream, chub and rudd are the most common fish caught.  There are also freshwater crayfish and prawns.


 It is likely that Darwin collected mud samples from these ponds in which to germinate plants when in a series of experiments he investigated the seeds the mud contained.

In his most famous book  ‘On The Origin of Species’  (1859) he wrote;


‘I do not believe that botanists are aware of how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments but here will give only the most striking case.  I took in February three tablespoons of mud from three different points beneath the water on the edge of a little pond.  The mud when dry weighed 6.75 ounces: I kept it covered up in my study for six months pulling up and counting each plant as it grew: the plants were of many kinds and were 537 in number and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup. Considering these facts I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds to vast distances and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great.’



Keston Bog




This lovely glade is found in a sheltered valley behind the present Keston Primary School and Heathfield Road . A number of springs release groundwater to feed the peat-filled bog.  It is a useful place to recognise some of the complex changes to the bog over the last 150 years since Darwin described many of the plants to be found here.  Longer periods of dry weather have reduced the water supply and also heavier tree growth following the ending of grazing in the 1930’s now draws  more water out of the ground.

 

A new hazard is the run-off from roads which adds a range of manmade chemicals to the water. Constant dumping of rubbish on the Common and in the ponds adds yet another factor in human interaction with nature.  Following the First World War landowners were encouraged to plant trees and it was at this time many of the fast-growing conifers you see on the slopes above the bog and on other parts of the Common were planted.  It is thought that these factors have played a crucial part in the loss of many original plants including the sundew.

 

Charles Darwin collected sundew from the bog for experiments to provide evidence in support of his discovery that some plants digest animals. This work is written up in his book of 1875, ‘Insectivorous Plants’. He first noticed how insects became stuck to the leaves of sundew. This led him to investigate how the plant trapped and then digested the insects.  His major source of sundew was Keston Bog where he stated it was abundant.
 

In his ‘Life and Letters’ (1887), Darwin ’s son wrote that his father ‘would ask for a horse and cart to send to Keston for Drosera’ (sundew). A number of people recorded meeting Darwin on his horse riding over the Common when collecting specimens for his experiments.  He even gave lectures on the sundew to the Working Men’s Club which met in the Iron Room at the Keston Mark.  It is not surprising The Friends have adopted the sundew as their logo and are working to return the bog to something close to its natural condition as in Darwin ’s day.  



Ravensbourne Meadows

 



As the population increased and demand for food grew, fields were cut out of the woodland traditionally known as assarting.  In this area the clearings formed wet meadows which provided new grass beyond the normal growing season.  The course of Lakes Road and the path into the Common is an old established cartway.  Having entered the Common and passed over the stream,  the cartway crossed the meadows and climbed the slope to exit at Ravensbourne House and Lodge on Westerham Road, home to the Bonham-Carter family who used the fourth pond, with its island, as a boating lake.
 

They were friends of the Darwin family and Elinor Bonham-Carter, in letters to Darwin, describes the facial and bodily expressions of her baby nieces and nephews and her dog.  Such correspondence might well have contributed to another of his books ‘The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals’ (1872).   

A number of ditches and banks is to be found here.  The most ancient of these mark the line between the meadows and common land and may be identified by the veteran trees that still mark the boundary. These will have huge girths and show evidence of pollarding in the past.  To enhance the gardens around their home, Victorian owners introduced many exotic plants from around the world, rhododendron from the Himalayas, bamboo from South East Asia and conifers from North America amongst others, all of which still thrive here.  Pieces of concrete and artificial sluices along the stream are another reminder of the time when much of this area was a private garden. There is a sheep wash recorded as being in use in the nineteenth century but at which point on the stream is now unknown.


  
Padmall Wood




Probably the most secluded and quietest part of the Common  is a semi- natural woodland with ancient boundaries where coppicing of sweet chestnut has been practised for centuries.  Current management undertaken by Bromley Borough Parks Department continues this practice.
 

 

As you walk, you will notice sections of woodland of different ages each having been cut at sometime in the last thirty/forty years. Once the tree has been cut almost to the ground, the “stump” or stool will sprout many vigorous young shoots which grow rapidly on the established root system.  The young trees can be cut at various ages and sizes depending on the use to which the wood is put such as palings, hurdles, posts, fuel and charcoal amongst others.  This rotational cutting provided constant and renewable supplies of woodland products and a source of income for the local community. There is another major benefit resulting from this woodland management, which  produces a range of different habitats to support a variety of plants, insects, amphibians and birds.


There is reference to a watermill (Pad mylle) standing here in a document of 1257;   a charcoal hearth was found during the historic landscape assessment made 2005/6.   If you choose the path to the right of the stream when facing Croydon Road,  part of the route will involve walking on old railway sleepers raising you above the wet woodland floor.  Having passed over a little bridge look, for a water-filled crater on your left.  This hollow is the result of a Second World War bomb.
 

Keston, being close to London and Biggin Hill Airfield,  did suffer a number of  bombing incidents between 1939 and 1945.  On 24th July 1944 most of Lakes Road was damaged and part was destroyed beyond repair which is why today you will see a row of post-war terraced houses built to replace the original Victorian cottages in the midst of the older property.  

Having arrived at the Croydon Road entrance to the Common you can now return to Heathfield Road car park by choosing the pathways to the right (west) of the stream when looking south ie towards  Biggin Hill.  You will tread a different path and enjoy a new perspective of the Common and pass the famous Bog.  Alternatively you can walk up Commonside and Heathfield Road possibly with a stop for refreshment on the way! 


Do take time to observe and enjoy this very special piece of countryside which is situated just 14 miles from central London .