Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Ridgeway: Ivinghoe Beacon and the Ashridge Estate

Saturday 6th May 2017

I was keen to return to the Chiltern Hills after my first visit at the end of April last year and I wasted no time to have another look for the bluebells for which the Chilterns are famed. A week later I caught a train to Tring station which is actually on the Ridgeway National trail so I was immediately heading in an easterly direction and up a track into lovely woodland that is part of the Aldbury Nowers Nature Reserve. The weather was not great for this walk, but at least it wasn’t raining, though it was cold, windy and with very dull, overcast skies. This kind of conditions make for poor photography but the cooler temperatures do make for more comfortable walking as I strode along the clear lanes with distinctive, white, chalky surfaces underfoot and through lush green woodland with a spattering of bluebells. Coming out of the wood I climbed up and over Pitstone Hill where cowslips abundantly decorated the grassland as I made my way towards the striking Incombe Hole. Climbing to the top of this great bay cut into Steps Hill I continued along the trail into the Ivinghoe Hills until finally reaching the starting point of the Ridgeway at the top of Ivinghoe Beacon.

Cowslips littered the area and were more appealing to the eye than the extensive views north which were shrouded in mist. Having reached the end of the Ridgeway I was now left to make my own route for much of the rest of the walk until I could return to the point where I had left the trail the week before. To start I followed the ridge as it slowly descends before circling back below the ridge to reach the road eventually coming off to follow a track south into the Ashridge Estate. This National Trust property is famed for its bluebells so I was rather disappointed to not see any in great numbers and those that I saw were in amongst other flowers such as stitchworts. I followed the track along the edge of the ridge and up to the tall monument to the Duke of Bridgewater that stands at the centre of the estate, but there were far too many people in that area so I quickly passed through and continued along the track. After a while I noticed that there were a few more bluebells to my left at the top of the ridge so coming off the escarpment-edge track and I entered an astonishing area where a vast carpet of bluebells covered the woodland floor as far as I could see.

I have never seen such an enormous array of bluebells before and the smell coming off them was almost overpowering. It was an amazing sight and just I kept taking pictures of the mesmerising sight in awe of the spectacle. Eventually I tore myself away and resumed my southward course on the edge of the escarpment keen to keep up my pace as I was beginning to worry that I’d set myself a punishing schedule. Coming down from the ridge out of the Ashridge Estate I followed the Icknield Way Trail across the valley until I reached Wigginton Bottom where I switched allegiance to the Chiltern Way passing through the thick woodland field boundaries where bluebells were growing in abundant numbers and made for a pleasant walk despite my brisk pace. I had set myself the target of reaching the Ridgeway by two o’clock and achieved it with just a minute or two to spare joining the Ridgeway at the point where the trail crosses the steep road coming up from The Hale, and could now finally ease back on the brisk pace that I had been maintaining.

Immediately I was greeted with banks of bluebells and stitchworts as I made my way down to the deeply cut ancient lane where I had left the Ridgeway just seven days before. Now turning right I headed back uphill along the trail and after crossing two roads entered Northill Wood where bluebells abounded in great profusion with the great displays continuing as I made my way along the trail into Pavis Wood looking great despite the dull weather. My disappointment in the Chiltern Hills the week before had been more than compensated and I continued to be spellbound and thrilled by more bluebells and stitchworts in Tring Park. Bluebells seem to be most abundant at the top of hills so as I slowly made my way down the hills along the avenues of Tring Park the bluebells began to fade away. Cow parsley now lined the paths as I made my way down into the valley and back to the railway station.

Much of this walk had been undertaken at a brisk pace as I hurriedly made my way between the end of the Ridgeway and the point where I had left it the week before. I don’t think it really spoilt the walk though it would have been nice to have taken it at a more leisurely pace. I often seem to do this to myself and I wonder what it would be like to be able to explore a little of the surroundings where I’m walking rather than having to keep up a rapid rate of knots covering as much ground as possible in the shortest time. Despite the dull weather I saw some tremendous displays of bluebells on this walk that covered the hillsides in awe-inspiring displays that guaranteed that I would want to return to the Chiltern Hills in subsequent years to once again see these fabulous flowers in glorious array. I also wanted to continue my trek along the Ridgeway Trail as I was enjoying the walk. It is different to the paths that I usually walk with reassuringly dry surfaces underfoot thanks to the well-drained chalky ground, and I love a good, dry path.

Friday, 13 April 2018

The Ridgeway: Wendover Woods

Saturday 29th April 2017

All my walks seem to be either to the north or west of where I live, so bearing this in mind I have been looking south to see if there are any walks there that may be interesting. However, it has to be said that the best walking in Britain is not in the south but in the north, or west, in Wales, the Lake District or in Scotland as these are the only places in Britain that contain mountains. Eventually my eye turned towards the Ridgeway National Trail that runs through the Chiltern Hills and the North Wessex Downs not far from London, so I headed there on the May Day Bank Holiday weekend last year when the bluebells that are renowned in the Chiltern Hills should be in bloom. I drove down the M1 motorway and across to the town of Wendover where I parked and set off along a walk that I had found on the chilternsaonb.org website titled “Views of the Vale Walks”. These walks are based around the Ridgeway and it was immediately taking me along the trail out of the town on a lovely path that was lined with cow parsley following a stream uphill. Even though it was overcast with a lingering chill from a recent cold-snap it was still great to be outdoors walking through the great British countryside.

The trail was soon climbing towards the Wendover Woods and upon entering the woods left the clear track to take a narrower path up through the woodland past gorgeous wild flowers and it wasn’t long before the eagerly awaited bluebells began to appear. As I climbed higher and higher the bluebells grew thicker and more numerous constantly thrilling me even though without the sun shining they were not being seen at their best. I had been afraid that the bluebells would not be out yet but I was relieved to see many of them in bloom although many were still in bud so I thought I would still have several weeks yet of bluebell watching to go. However, with hindsight I now know that wasn’t the case as very hot weather followed this walk sending most of the bluebells to seed very quickly and shortening the season considerably. The very special sight of bluebells covering an English wood is notoriously short-lived and must be enjoyed whenever it can be done. I was rather disappointed with the display in the Wendover Woods which was rather sparse of bluebells especially after all that I had heard about the magnificent bluebell displays in the Chiltern Hills.

Other wild flowers compensated for the reduced bluebells with wood anemones particularly enthusing until eventually I descended into a deeply sunken green lane that looks ancient. The route of the Ridgeway Trail is based on old trackways including the Ridgeway itself, which at five thousand years is possibly the oldest road in Britain, if not in Europe. This old road that I had reached is the Icknield Way, which extends from the Ridgeway all the way to the Norfolk coast, and must be almost as old. It was spooky standing on a track that has been used by people for thousands of years and seen the traffic of everybody from the ancient Celts and Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and modern long-distance walkers. At this point the Ridgeway Trail turns right, but I turned left for forty metres before turning right to climb uphill. The directions at this point were very confusing and seemed to be leading me round in circles. In the end I struck my own route and found my way onto the “marked horse track” that I should have been on and this took me all the way to the main car park for Wendover Woods.

There were no bluebells in this area so I quickly passed through and turned towards the south following the directions that took me along the edge of the escarpment looking out over the Vale of Aylesbury. The clear track took me around the remains of Boddington Hill Fort and slowly descending past some lovely gardens, one full of cowslips, eventually brought me back to Wendover. After passing through the town I started the second walk on the leaflet that I had been using taking a path south past some lovely forget-me-nots, across a couple of fields and up a lane. I got really confused with the directions at this point and got completely lost. I’ve noticed that the directions on the almost identical leaflet from the nationaltrail.co.uk website are different and possibly better, and might not have led me astray. I stayed on this path for a kilometre gradually gaining height through woodland until I reached a clear track with bluebells on the other side. Turning right I followed this track past a large enclosure and into what I now know is the National Trust woodland of Coombe Hill. Bluebells were now appearing in sparse clumps, but these did little to reassure me as I was literally wandering aimlessly.

I had forgotten to take a map with me and all I had was the helpless leaflet, so I had no idea where I was or where I should be going. I knew I was heading in a north-westerly direction and I trusted that if I continued on that heading I would eventually reach the Ridgeway on the edge of the escarpment. It was an interesting feeling knowing that I didn’t have a map and blindly following a path, but I was not worried and eventually I did come out of the woodland and back into civilisation. A sign proclaimed that I was in the Coombe Hill National Trust property, which was actually a bit of a surprise as it was Coombe Hill that I was supposed to have been heading for so despite feeling completely lost I had actually not gone too far off path. Coming out onto the edge of the escarpment I found extensive views over the valley and sitting at the top of the hill a tall monument to the men of Buckinghamshire lost in the Boer War. This is Coombe Hill, one of the highest points in the Chiltern Hills. I was now back on the Ridgeway so turning around I headed along the trail and back into Wendover. Wildflowers accompanied me through the chalk grasslands with cowslips, proving irresistible prompting me to take some pictures.

On my first walk in the Chilterns my interested had been wetted. I had never done any walking in this area before and I was now keen to come back, and even with an idea of walking the whole length of the Ridgeway National Trail. It had stayed overcast all day but it had warmed up enough to enable me to enjoy this day. I had come to look at bluebells but I had not been too impressed as I have seen better displays in Leicestershire. It was the escarpment on the northern edge of the Chiltern Hills that had most captured my interest and promised to draw me back to this fabulous area.