Saturday 23rd May 2009, 9 miles, 5 hours 50 minutes
We set off from Little Hampden Common two weeks short of a year since we arrived there! The bluebells were nearly over and the ferns were starting to unravel. Bracken is a form of fern, but I don’t know whether what is found in bluebell woods is bracken: as there are 20,000 ferns and only about ten brackens, I probably should know!
We very soon faced our first decision which demanded that Dick consult the book, this first few miles of the path being quite poorly signposted. Having chosen the right hand path, we walked out of the woodland shade and into the bright sunshine of the first of the many wheat fields we’d walk past or through. The flora in the hedges alongside this field was coming into its full beauty – various umbellifers, speedwell and buttercups amongst others. At the bottom of the valley we were around 160m amsl (metres above mean sea level) – we were not aware that we faced a steep climb a little over 400 metres long (through some very welcome woodland shade) to 215m amsl.
As we entered Hampdenleaf Wood we passed a small area in which the geological strata were exposed. I wish I could remember what the layers are likely to have been: the dark band is soil, obviously, and the whitest band looks like chalk, although it is full of pebbles. The dark areas above and below the white band are the bits which really confuse me. Clay with flints below the soil, maybe, but below the ‘chalk’…?
There were patches of bright sunlight in the dappled woodland and what might be wood millet was growing at the woodland edges. We planned this walk several weeks ago and were incredibly lucky that the weather was perfect, warm and dry: it got cooler after lunch (or maybe that was because we sat down for a while) and the sun vanished for a while, but it was warm again by the time we finished walking. Many of the springs which dot the Chilterns were in full spate this day, their crystal clear waters flowing down some of the valley-bottom roads, but the paths and fields were mostly dry. There was only one place (near the bluebells) that was damp enough to need a detour although we had to skirt many a fallen tree as the walk progressed, many of which had obviously been down for quite some time.
‘Near the top’ (wonderfully comforting words to find the in the book at that point!) of our first climb we faced a choice and, in the absence of a sign, made the wrong one. But what a wonderful mistake to make: we walked for a couple of hundred metres alongside a species-rich meadow ready for hay making. Clover, buttercups, many varieties of grass and other plants I didn’t have time to spot produced a bright carpet alongside us.
About halfway down this meadow, we began to realise that we might have made the wrong choice. Michael decided that this was banana break time and sat down while I admired the huge quantities of may in the hedges, as well as the view east over Cobblers Hill Lane. Having decided on the route, retracing our steps was a joy in such a fabulous field and we were soon on the right path which offered a view north towards Wendover with what I think must be Boddington Hill rising to 250m amsl on the right. The dark spots in the sky are, sadly, dirt on the Nikon’s CCD and not UFOs. And yes, I did intend to focus on the ivy rather than the view! (In truth, the more conventional ‘view’ photo was fairly dull.)
Passing through the hamlet of Cobblers Hill (which simply involved crossing the road) we entered Cockshoots Wood and started on a gently but consistently downhill journey. It took us along one of the many sunken tracks which are found throughout the Chiltern beech woods before spitting us out just above a point where the railway (Marylebone to Aylesbury) travels through a deep cutting, keeping it out of sight and sound of Mayortorne Manor. Dick told me that it is illegal to photograph a train in this country now as part of the anti-terror legislation: is it possible that the driver wasn’t saying ‘hello’ but ‘stop doing that’ when he waved at us?
Just as we entered the estate attached to the Manor, which had once been home to a domestic and agricultural school started by Isabel Fry of the famous Quaker family, we spotted a huge heap of something alongside the cutting. Was it simply a spoil heap, or did it hide some sort of building? Glors thought she saw a cannon sticking out of the side: in a variation of ‘Spot the ball’ competitions, use your skill and judgement to place an X where the door might be. We made a very minor mistake in the route at this point which meant we had to walk alongside the road for a few yards more than necessary, but it scarcely mattered.
I have (been) driven past Wendover Dean (so-called because it once belonged to the Dean of Wendover, apparently) since I was a small girl when we’d drive through Amersham on our way to visit my grandfather in Blackheath – yes, we drove through London! – but I hadn’t previously been up the road. I hadn’t been missing much, and the farmer spraying his crop with something unpleasantly smelly didn’t help me feel like returning very quickly! As we walked through the messy yard of Durham Farm at the end of the lane, we were squawked at by two Guinea Fowl as we stood puzzling about the location of the stile. When we found it, after crossing a field full of dandelions, we puzzled some more: which way should we go across this field of spring wheat with no visible track to guide us? The map indicated that we should go sort of half-left across the field towards the north, as did a painted arrow on a piece of wood lying on the ground, so we set off across this virgin crop, trying to keep in single file to minimise the damage done by our feet
We emerged onto Kings Lane, at about 210m amsl, near a cottage I have often hankered after for its spectacular view across the valley and tremendous peace, despite the nearness of ‘civilisation’. We had now reached a plateau– not my word (I was struggling to remember my own name by now!) but Dick’s excellent choice – which continued almost the whole way to the end of the walk. We crossed a field along what was probably an old hedge line, passing a lightning-damaged tree (Michael later said he thought it was an ash) before spotting a tree trunk which looked like a good site for lunch. Michael and Glors checked the next field to make sure there was nothing better lurking (as is so often the case) and, finding nothing even remotely like a full set of garden furniture just around the corner, we sat down on the tree trunk to eat.
As we ate, a tenacious caterpillar managed to make its way from one piece of grass to another. Neither Michael nor I have been able to identify what species of butterfly or moth this will later become: do you know? Please tell us! Lunch over, we all inspected the next field – Glors and Michael were right: this was no place to eat lunch. It was a derelict collection of boarded-up buildings which had once formed Kingsgate Farm. The mood of desolation and decay wasn’t helped once we emerged from the shade of a hedge into the car park of the pub called The Gate at The Lee. I recently spotted a planning application in the ‘local’ paper to convert it to a house and it appears to have closed before a decision has been reached. My sister told me a little while ago that over 30 pubs a week are closing in Britain. The Gate has been a pub forever (well, probably for 200 years), it has a huge car park and a fantastic location: if an idyllic country pub like The Gate can’t survive (without becoming a gastro-pub), the character of the English countryside is in danger of changing forever. The building has appeared in several episodes on Midsomer Murders, apparently, so maybe there is hope for it yet… (The slightly odd colouration of this photo is down to the first of at least two mystery and completely unintentional knob-twiddlings which resulted in the camera’s setting changing from auto to one of the priority settings. I played in Photoshop to correct it a bit, but it still looks like 1950s photo, somehow…)
After crossing the quiet road we crossed a couple of fields, in one of which we spotted a Small Copper butterfly, before emerging onto another road right beside The Old Swan pub at Swan Bottom (or is it at Kingswood?) This pub is thriving, having undergone that process of reinvention which appears to be vital if country pubs are to remain open. The footpath broadened out into a small field containing two horses: bearing in mind Michael’s low opinion of equines, I was surprised to see him reciprocate the beast’s approach to him. According to Michael, stranger danger has nothing on the coarseness of horsiness… but this one didn’t bite or spit or commit any of the other sins Michael seems to have attached to them!
The plateau let us down, so to speak, as we briefly went down through one huge bean field then up through another. Both fields were very stony indeed, but the bean plants didn’t seem to mind too much. At around 198m amsl we walked a few yards along Arrewig Lane, off which Erriwig Farm can be found. No typos there, just a bit of classic English spelling. Like many people, I have always thought that the name (however it is spelled) means ‘earwig’ and I was surprised to discover (from Nick Moon’s excellent guide to the walk he ‘designed’) that it probably comes from the Saxon for ‘arable’: Arrewig Lane is the lane which leads to the arable fields.
Halfway across the next field was a pond large enough to feature on the OS map. The Haynes were looking through the trees surrounding the pond as Michael and I approached: there were two ducks on the water, allegedly. I didn’t see the ducks, just as you wouldn’t be able to see the Haynes and Michael in the photos I took across the pond: the colour cast on this photo was quite uncorrectable.
After crossing an area of woodland known as Lady Grove we walked for some distance along a wide green lane. The surface was studded with bricks and Dick pointed out that they were there because the lane was very close to Dundridge Manor, home of the Matthews family. They own the brick works at Bellingdon, less than a mile away. Dundridge Manor is surrounded by a moat, possibly dating from the twelfth century, which the current owner has restored as a security measure to protect his valuable collection of vintage cars (according to Dick). Dick also pointed out the brand new drawbridge which Mr Matthews (who Dick knows well from his days as a driver for East’s Builders Merchants) installed to complete the security measures.
A short stretch of road walking led us to The White Lion at Buckland Common, also at 198m amsl, where a beer fest was taking place. This being a bank holiday weekend, the participants were obviously being encouraged to make the most of what was on offer without needing to be driven home – a tented village, which we spotted as we left, had sprung up next to the car park. The pub, which features a very fine windvane, offers food but the menu was removed from the bar as Michael approached, suggesting that there were more deserving stomachs than his, folks whose need for a bowl of chips was greater than his. Or perhaps the landlady overheard his ‘that’ll be four glasses of water and a pint of chips’ as we approached the door?
Leaving the pub, we crossed Bottom Road and an ancient irregularly-shaped meadow before walking along a short stretch of Little Twye Road. Considering that it is a dead end, ‘Road’ is a very grand title, and there is nowhere called ‘Twye’, big or little, anywhere nearby: whence cometh the name? A quite-easy-to-miss sign pointed us off the road into a field by way of a sponsored gate: an engraved wooden plate told us the name of the chap in whose memory it had been erected as well as giving us a few words about him. After the next gate, we felt we almost new this ‘gentle’ man, as the words described him, although we wouldn’t even have known his name had we been walking in the opposite direction where there were no such plates. And yes, I have forgotten it!
We soon entered Drayton Wood and enjoyed the change of scene before walking across another field of winter wheat where I turned round to take a photo of the chaps behind me. It makes a change to see faces rather than rucksacks! As we left an isolated part of Drayton Wood just north of Shire Lane, I spotted an ideal photo opportunity and we then crossed a wheat field as we approached Shrubbs Wood. Here we followed Grim’s Ditch (or Dyke) as we headed for the Chesham Road near Wigginton. This section of the walk is very well sign posted as well as being very straight.
Walking along the bare soil of Grim’s Ditch Glors was seized by the desire for a small snack, so we had a Maynards’ moment. We were initially promised fruit gums and when they turned out to be wine gums they were equally welcome, but there were no black ones for some reason. As we crossed a lane into yet more Grim’s Dyke, Glors asked where we were. Dick replied that we were between Cholesbury and Hastoe: that wasn’t enough for Glors, who commented that ‘it Hastoe be somewhere!’
As Grim’s Dyke flattened out and we left the woodland behind us, Glors took this photo of me: if I look a little puzzled, it’s because I’m trying to help her take the photo, and if Michael’s body language is puzzling, it’s because he had just been told not to make bunny ears behind my head!
We then walked past another enigmatic feature (remember the mound?), a length of gorse hedge (or was it broom? They are closely related plants.) Crossing the road, we went down an overgrown path to the part of Wigginton Bottom called Clayhill. Heading north towards Lower Wood, we walked along a path which became a wide field before returning to a narrow path: the field boundaries in this area must be very ancient indeed and they are much more interesting that the straight lines of the 1800s-enclosure-map drawn field boundaries to the west of the Chesham Road.
I looked back as I entered Lower Wood at the end of the group (as usual – the photographer holds herself up even more than everyone else!) and saw this lovely bit of what my nephew always called ‘tree cover’ – I love views which hold the promise of something else around the corner, like the patch of light in this photo or a path which wanders out of the frame…
Lower Wood sloped down with a clear broad path running through it and an excellent (and very welcome) sign telling us we were nearly at (or, at least, approaching) our destination. The penultimate field we crossed contained a very patient horse who stood still, displaying his ‘tattoo’, as we passed and laughed at the size of his feet. The last field was bounded in front of us by an elevated section of the still relatively new Berkhamsted by-pass where it crosses Tinkers Bridge. Compensating for the noise of the traffic, just-open elder and clear moon daisies were bright and very welcome sights.
Having crossed the road (safely, underneath the carriageway), we made another wrong choice and walked into a dead-end alongside the path we should have chosen. The correct path looked entirely wrong because it started out as the driveway to a house called Tinker’s Lodge. This by-way was a very good stretch of path on which to end our walk, level and easy. It took us to Cow Roast (from cow’s rest, a place where drovers could spend time with their beasts between market and home) past an astonishing variety and supply of playing fields for such a small community. The name ‘Cow Roast’ only ever meant ‘car sales’ to me until this walk – now I know it has a pub and a few houses as well. It also has a handy layby where the Haynes’ car was waiting for us, having made some friends during the day (despite Dicks’ anxiety about the amount of room Glors had left for a lorry to park).
The Haynes invited us to supper than night and we were all tucked up in our own beds and fast asleep by 23:00 after a lovely day. We had planned to do another leg of the walk soon but it looks like being a month or so before we can fulfil our desire. Hey ho!