Dick & Gloria & Lesley & Michael's
Chiltern Way Walk

Chiltern Way, Wiggington to Dunstable Downs, Saturday 17th October 2009, 10 miles

How lucky were we to choose such a beautiful day? We laid our plans several weeks in advance, so it really was just good luck which led to our second and final walk of 2009 taking place in glorious sunshine amidst fabulously-coloured autumn leaves.

A very odd railway bridge protected the several Virgin trains which passed underneath from our gaze (and camera): at this point I am contractually obliged to remind you that other train services are available and the value of your ticket can go down as well as up. (Okay, I admit to a little hysteria concerning this write-up: it is a little over four weeks since the walk and I have been b-i-z-z-y since then. Whilst I can remember the walk, see it on the map, read it in the book and look at the photos I took, there is still an air of ‘what will I forget to mention?’ desperation as I start to type...)

That bridge led us to cross a ploughed field towards a farm: this was the first of many such fields but, luckily, none of them were boot-claggingly wet and muddy. Norcott Court Farm nestles at the bottom of a steep field: naturally, with a choice of straight up or a more gentle diagonal route, we chose the 1 in 5 ascent directly ahead of us. Well okay: I may be exaggerating a bit, but it was steep!

Our climb was eased by our smiles: we had just passed a flock (herd?) of the loveliest alpacas (?) we’ve ever seen. Soft, fluffy, multi-coloured and a bit odd, they came to the fence to see who we were and what we wanted. Bless!

The hedges were weeping under the weight of fruits this year – a good sign for the birds which depend on ‘nature’s bounty’ to keep them going through the winter – as we made our way between a small flock of sheep and a train. The latter disturbed a flock of seagulls which had been feasting on the grub (geddit?) disturbed by recent ploughing.

And then we entered some woodland which lasted for several miles: we only strayed to cross a golf course and enter a pub. Nice. Well, the pub was nice – more of the golf course shortly.

At Tom’s Hill we walked through a farm where industrial units have been created, including one leased to Pow Wow the water people. In a field alongside the path was a horse paying its personal tribute to Jordan (sorry - Katie Price) with a delightful pink blanket. The grand entrance to Tom’s Hill House just past the farm appeared before we entered dense woodland again. Various photo opportunities presented themselves as we walked, so I grabbed them all!

The woodland was playing host to many highly-visible deer, some of them stags ready for the rut with their huge antlers. Apparently in some parts of Britain there has been a distinct absence of rutting this year: I’m not saying a word other that that they looked ready for it in Ashridge woods…

And we were ready for a banana break, but not a photo: it took some doing to get this one right, as you can see. After being too far away, I missed everything except feet then took a photo before I got into the frame. I was in the next shot but one member of the party was left off the photo, and then I missed everyone’s heads off again before finally – sorry, finally! – getting four entire people in the one frame, albeit a bit wonkily.

We finally got going again through the woodland and, after a bit of a detour (it simply wouldn’t be the Chiltern Way without a bit of a detour), we found ourselves scrambling over a fence to cross a field. Another deer stood under a tree here, waiting for passing females (female deer, luckily). We climbed through barbed wire to rejoin the path and Glors volunteered to check that the sign 100 yards to our left was telling us to go this way. As she approached a couple with three dogs, the nastiest brute amongst them growled at and approached her (the nastiest dog, that is). It was a scary moment but she was very brave to distract the snarling slavering beast from the rest of her team and we are grateful for sacrificing the sweat of her brow.

These were very beautiful woods, part of the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate: almost level, very colourful and richly autumn-scented. One tree caught Glors’ eye - it was completely hollow underneath, although perfectly healthy and sound, and a tree which looked like it had two pairs of lips caught my eye.

As we approached Ashridge’s golf course we passed a small bonfire whose heat was very welcome: there had been general agreement that it was unlikely to rain, but we had failed to agree on how warm/cool it was going to be, as you can tell from the very mixed clothing in the photos. We stood around the bonfire for a few minutes, inhaling the incomparably comforting smell of wood smoke. That smell always takes me straight back to Kentwell Hall and the bake house where I helped to bake fabulous Tudor bread: if you enjoyed eating charcoal it was fabulous to eat, but the bakehouse always smelt amazing whatever it tasted like and it was a wonderful place to ‘work’.

Crossing golf courses has two effects on me simultaneously: firstly, I feel a sense of anger at the pointlessness of the activity, at the sheer waste of water and the inevitable poisoning of the land with fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and so on needed just so a few people can spoil a good walk, as Mark Twain put it. Secondly, I feel a sense of anarchy: I love to think how much it must upset the benighted souls who have paid through the nose for the privilege of playing this stupid game in these beautiful settings (they always are beautiful, if you take away the artificial sand pits and manicured greens) just to watch me walking across it!

In most respects, this golf course was no different to the several others which feature on the Chiltern Way in that it was artificially green and lush, but it did have the wonderful sight of deer running across it.

Just before setting foot on those hallowed greens (Hah! Did I mention my dislike of golf?), we crossed the marvellous avenue which runs between the Bridgewater Monument (National Trust) and the house simply called Ashridge (now a management college). The avenue is wide and open, and it’s about 1.5 miles from the monument to the house. The monument is 108 feet tall with 170 steps, and I have never been inside it. Ashridge’s current building (only the most recent in a long series) was designed in the gothic revival style by architect James Wyatt and built between 1808 and 1825: the gardens were designed by Humphry Repton. Interestingly, the house is set at an angle to the avenue so it doesn’t look straight down it: the monument was built after the house and maybe there was nowhere else to put it, but that’s unlikely as the Bridgewater family owned everything in sight at that time.

The very best thing about this golf course (and quite possibly the very best thing which can be said about any golf course anywhere in the world) is Old Park Lodge, an eccentric house which stands in the middle. I have been unable to find out anything about this lovely house which looks, to my eye, to be Victorian Gothic or maybe Edwardian.

After the golf course, another long woodland session ended in a pub, the Bridgewater Arms: did I mention that it was a Duke of Bridgewater who built Ashridge? This pub looked very posh and we didn’t feel inclined to take off our boots and sit our muddy legs down inside, so we sat in the garden. The table had a brolly which we erected to keep the slight wind off rather than as protection from rain or sun…

A drink and a few chips later and we were all set for the next leg. This took us through a field past a tiny round Thelwell pony who was determined to keep up his (or her) roundness. In the distance was Little Gaddesden church which stands in ‘splendid isolation’ some distance from the village: it is fairly clear from the pot sherds in the surrounding fields (and subsequent study of aerial photos) that the centre of the village has moved at some time, possibly post-plague. Does that sound knowledgeable? It just goes fer t’show ye...

Anyway, there were some nicely raddled ewes in the fields surrounding the church (that’s more like my level!) We soon dropped into a valley: on the other side of the road at the bottom was a beautifully-coloured plantation. Even the brambles were beautiful. Somewhere near Studham we passed a house which would probably have been amazingly lovely, had we been able to see it all: as it was, we could only imagine the grandeur below the hilltop...

Just after passing a herd of lovely mixed cows, we walked round the back fence of Whipsnade Zoo from which vantage point we could see the Whipsnade and Umfolozi Railway steaming around the grounds. Now renamed the Jumbo Express, this private steam line opened in 1970, only a few years before I first visited the zoo with Michael on a very hot day in August 1973. This was almost our first date and, although I can’t tell you whether we did so that day, I’m fairly certain that we went on the train with Mat a few years later. That 1973 day was so hot that Michael’s copy of the Radha Krishna album he’d left on the back seat became warped. (It was still playable, you’ll be glad to hear. You are glad, aren’t you? It was jolly pretty, if a little pretentious, with golden gods on the front cover and earnest words from George Harrison inside. Those were the days…)

After a short stretch of woodland, we emerged onto a metalled path. (In case you’re wondering, like I was, here’s what Wikipedia says about ‘metalling’: The word metal is derived from the Latin metallum, which means both "mine" and "quarry", hence the roadbuilding terminology.) This took us up a gentle slope until we eventually came to the church of St Mary Magdelene beside the green in Whipsnade. It’s a shame it had recently needed to be locked all the time following the theft of the safe, because it sounds delightful: according to the parish website, it is built of brick with a 16th century tower, a nave (1719) designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and an apse which was added in 1860. The pulpit and altar rail are Jacobean. One day we’ll go back and have a look inside. I am genuinely surprised to discover how old it is – perhaps the Victorians tarted it up as well as adding an apse?

The path then led through one of the National Trust’s more eccentric possessions, the tree cathedral at Whipsnade. (Who would have thought that one small village (population 457 according to 2001 census) could offer so much?) 9.5 acres of trees, planted to represent a – you’ve guessed it – cathedral. According to Wikipedia (I don’t live my life by it, but it’s handy at times like this!), the Tree Cathedral was planted by a Mr Edmond K. Blyth as an act of "Faith, hope and reconciliation" in response to his memories of World War I. As a cadet at Sandhurst in 1916 Blyth had made close friends called Arthur Bailey, John Bennett and Francis Holland who were all killed prior to the end of the war. In 1930 he paid a visit to Liverpool Cathedral, which was then under construction. Blyth wrote "As we drove south through the Cotswold hills on our way home ... I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees." Work began in 1932 and continued in stages. The site became overgrown during World War II, but development recommenced after the end of the war. The first religious service at the site was held in 1953.

Wow. That’s some faith, let alone the acts of hope and reconciliation. It’s a beautiful sight, which Michael and I visited with a black-haired Mat wearing a long black coat painted with fish (he was 15 at the time) (just for something to do) and I found it very moving. That’s a weird thing: I really enjoy visiting churches (even virtual ones, like this) and almost always find the bricks and mortar moving whilst signally failing to identify, even for a second, with the force which drove people to create the building.

Onwards, and level walking. We followed the signs ‘religiously’ (for want of a better word! I refuse to write ‘sla*ishly’ and what I mean is unquestioningly – that sums up religion for me!) and turned off the road to follow a hedge. The path took us round the edge of a field and spat us back out onto the road, slap bang in the midst of a group of Muslim teenage girls from London on a sponsored walk. They were a fantastically mixed group, with hijabs and headscarves as well as one burkah. Good on them for walking for charity: me, I’d walk for curry, or beer, or a good view but I guess a good cause would motivate me too, like it did in 2002 when Glors and I walked the 60 miles around Milton Keynes to raise money for the MND Association.

And then the end was in sight: the new visitors’ centre, the Chiltern Gateway Centre, on Dunstable Downs, overlooking the gliding club and the Vale of Aylesbury (northern end) and overflown by planes en route for Luton. It’s a beautiful building which was (thanks Wikipedia) designed by Architype, an architectural practice nationally respected for its expertise in social and environmental architecture. The building was funded by a wide range of bodies, including the National Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. That’s where my non-winning Lottery money went then: okay, it’s a good outcome! On a clear day you can see four miles. Or should that be …

The best outcome was the cup of tea and cream and jam-filled scone we had there: marvellous! I’d had a nasty cold for a few days before this walk and I used not wanting to pass on my germs as an excuse for not cooking that night: Dick thought he’d never heard such a daft excuse. What do you think? Germs or a takeaway curry? Exactly!