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

May 29th 2010 – a day of diversions, both on and off road...

Seven and a half months after we last walked we set off to walk around Dunstable in the most northerly leg of this walk. I must admit that I wasn’t looking forward to it very much – walking around Dunstable and Luton didn’t sound like it had much going for it and the forecast was for rain from 10 am to 4 pm, roughly the hours during which we would be walking.

How wrong can one person be? Oh no, not the weather forecaster – he or she was spot on! It started to rain when we met at the end for the usual two-car shuffle and it stopped as we got back to the car and the end of the walk, but more of the rain later. No, the person who was wrong was little ol’ me – it was a lovely walk!

Insert pic of May blossom ‘Cast ne’er a clout till May be out’, they say, and whether ‘May’ refers to the end of the month we were in or the hedgerow shrub by than name, it was definitely out. In fact, the May (as in blossom) was looking spectacularly good, especially the pink-tinged varieties. But the suggestion that we should keep our clothes on was good advice to follow on this cold, windy and wet day!

As we left the visitors’ centre on Dunstable Downs the wind was almost biting and we were all glad of our wind- and water-proof clothing. Actually that wasn’t ‘all’ of us – Dick didn’t have waterproof trousers and his jacket turned out not to be waterproof. He really felt the cold as we walked across the top of the Down nearest to the town and kept his hands up his sleeves to protect them, as did the rest of us.

Emerging at the crossroads where the Downs road meets the road from Tring, we used a brand new crossing which had high press buttons for horse riders to use and illuminated horse symbols as well as pedestrian and cyclist lights. We very quickly found ourselves on a green lane which skirted the north western edge of Dunstable: paved and fairly wide, this path took us all the way round to the village of Sewell.

At one point the path turns 90 degrees right and we paused for a banana – for once it was my idea, not Michael’s, but everyone else joined in. As we munched, sitting on a fallen and burned tree trunk, I casually observed that the wheat field in front of us would almost certainly be covered in houses in five years’ time as part of the solution to the south east’s major housing shortage problem. Imagine my surprise (cliché copyright everyone) when, spotting a planning notice very close to the Iron Age hill fort near the path, I discovered that there is already an application in for 650 dwellings to be erected in that very field. Whilst it seems a shame to build on any greenfield site, at least this is adjacent to existing development and there is a clear boundary to the potential for further spread.

Insert pic of pink and white flowers That boundary was the excellent flat path on which we were walking: I mention ‘flat’ because Dick had promised that this section was level throughout. Mind you, he then joked that, after this section, it would be downhill all the way back to Hemel – north to south, you see, downhill: geddit? We shortly found ourselves walking alongside an old railway track then crossing underneath it. At this point I took my first photo of the day: as the forecast was for a very wet day, I decided against taking the Minolta slr and carried only my little Nikon. As a result, I have very few photos and most of them are, like this one, a bit odd. The oddness is the result of taking photos through a plastic bag to avoid the rain!

The short tunnel under the disused railway line emerged in the village of Sewell. What a pretty place! It had a Victorian post box, honeysuckle-covered round-topped brick wall, converted barns, old farmhouses and many more treasures, including lots of horses and four-wheel drive vehicles. I can smell the horses just thinking about it: Sewell was entirely drenched in rain but very lovely.

Insert pic of honeysuckle We left the quiet lane which is Sewell High Street and walked down a ‘proper’ footpath for the first time during this leg of the walk. The tall, healthy plants (definitely not weeds – those are plants in the wrong place and this was exactly the right place for cow parsley and long grass) were soaking wet and brushed against Dick’s jeans, sharing their watery load most generously. Gloria was wearing her new boots and new waterproofs, bought for a forthcoming trip to the Lake District and a climb up Scafell Pike – go Glors go – and the gear was most effective.

Insert pic of post box And then we emerged into a field alongside one of Bedfordshire’s smelly ditches – there are a great many such ditches in the county and Hertfordshire’s cleaner ones will be very welcome on the next leg. I can’t explain why they smell but there wasn’t much water in most of them (despite the downpours) and what there was looked ‘foul’ in the engineering sense of the word.

The trouble with fields is that they contain soil and wet soil (did I mention the rain?) sticks to boots. So we walked past a newly-emerging crop of maize which was interspersed with mare’s tails, one of my favourite ‘weeds’, and past a ditch whose saving grace was the wonderful elephant grass growing in it as our boots got caked in mud and very heavy.

Insert pics of mares tail and elephant grass A steep climb up a set of carefully-constructed steps took us up to the A5: the steps were carefully-constructed to produce the maximum impact on tired legs and there were about 20 of them in a single flight, although it felt like 200 in an endless flight. At the top there was nowhere to stand before crossing the road, and the only safe mid-road island refuge was about twenty yards in the wrong direction. So we took our lives in our hands and dashed across, leaving a train of muddy footprints in our wake. A short walk up the other side of the busy road led us to a shorter downhill flight of steps before we dived between two houses and entered fields again.

After passing a sewage farm (whose sprinkler system I mistook for heavy rain – I had my hood up at the time) we walked along a very straight path: on our right was a quarry which is marked as disused on the OS map and in the book of the walk. The path led from open fields into a section between hedges: this was very damp underfoot in places and was beautifully overgrown with cow parsley and the like – very photogenic.

Insert pic of Dick and cow parsley And shortly thereafter we made a mistake which made poor Dick even wetter – we followed a very clearly marked path on which herbicide had been sprayed. This path came to a junction where two paths went ahead, one half left and the other straight ahead: we chose (on my suggestion, having inspected the guide post closely) to take an unmarked path alongside the fence.

Insert best pic of horses After passing the Little and Large of the horse world (just about visible through the mist in this photo), the path passed very close to a kennels where dogs greeted us very noisily as we trudged through knee-high wet grass. It was clearly not the path but it was very close to the road, so we pressed on. Eventually we found our way out and onto a concrete road (and nearly got run over by a Range Rover whilst emerging) which was clearly in Bidwell. But whereabouts in Bidwell? We knew that we were heading for a pub (funny how one always ‘knows’ that!) but where was it? We looked at the map, and tried to look for clues but to no avail. And that we spotted a local person – we knew they were local because they went into the only house we could see on the opposite side of the road – so I sprinted up there and knocked on the door. The man who answered was clearly relieved when I explained that I only wanted help finding the pub, and I was hugely relieved to be told that it was 500 yards further on in the direction I had just sprinted.

Insert pic of team catching up in Bidwell And so begins the tale of the Old Red Lion – what an evocative name, redolent of beams and open fires and delicious hot coffee and excellent food. That impression is almost half right: there were beams and open fireplaces, but the coffee was spoiled by ‘plastic’ half cream and there were no chips available. I repeat that astonishing feature – no chips. The reason was simple – the pub has a carvery which operates every day offering your first plateful of food and as many top-ups of vegetables, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding as you can manage for £3.95 (more on Sundays). Chips and carvery are incompatible – walking and chips are completely perfect together. So we opted for the soup of the day, vegetable fortunately, which came with sliced white bread and was an almost unbelievably bad combination! Hey ho (as I say far too often).

Dick was soaked to the skin when he sat down: we three had removed all our wet weather gear before entering the pub, and I discovered that my boots should have been sprayed with waterproofing more recently than was the case – my feet were soaked! (It’s my own fault, and I don’t deserve your sympathy (which should be directed to Dick) but it’s nice to hear your sharp intake of breath in support of my feet: thank you!) He steamed gently while we ate and chatted in the slightly hysterical manner which usually hits us when we find a pub en route – it’s the relief of sitting down, I guess. A large birthday party group joined us in the snug and came and went to the carvery – it did look good and there was a veggie option, according to the menu. I decided to take our lunchtime photo and put the camera on a window sill: sadly – no, make that amusingly! – one of the celebratory group got in the way the first time. Sadly – keep that one – the second photo was very dark. Glors is next to invisible in both versions.

Insert two pics of team in pub But when we went outside to put our wet weather gear back on and get back into our stride, I got a lovely photo of her. Glors had declined a bowl of soup on the very sensible grounds that she had sandwiches: so did we, but we fancied chips – as they were out of the question (hah!) we had to have something… You can see how cute the pub looks: in truth, the building was good and every member of the staff was pleasant, but the ambience and the food let it down very badly. A pub with no chips – hah!

Insert pic of Glors with sarnie Back to the walk: we crossed the road and walked up towards the edge of a housing estate. This involved crossing a field: the soil was damp on the surface (did I tell you that it was raining?) but bone dry just a few grains down and it clung to our boots which the long wet grass by the kennels had cleaned till they shone, so much so that we kept them on in the pub (thankfully – I hate putting wet boots back on).

Insert pic of team walking alongside hedge with cow parsley and houses in distance And then we made another error – instead of walking down the near side of a large field, we walked around the three other long edges. Luckily it was a nice field (some of them had such extraordinary amounts of rubbish in them, even ploughed into the soil) and we were walking alongside lovely hedges so nobody minded too much. After walking through a lovely meadow we found ourselves on a mowed green lane beside a field. As we approached Grove Farm we passed these beautifully dressed horses: don’t they look great?

Insert best pic of horses in blankets Insert pic of team heading towards pylon along mowed track But we then managed to make another navigation error and we walked back up parallel to our earlier path, back into Houghton Regis. We marched through a housing estate, firmly believing ourselves to be in Chalton until we emerged onto a road which looked familiar… I thought I knew where we were, and suggested that we walk one way towards a pub – Glors hadn’t spotted us leaving and got a bit left behind (for which my apologies are in order). I saw a bus stop on the other side of the road and figured that, in the modern way these things are done, it probably said where it was located – I remember when bus stops just said ‘bus stop’ but things change (luckily). It said ‘Sundon Road’ but not which settlement this was. As I was thinking about the problem, a bus approached. Without our indicating the need for it to stop, it did so which gave me the opportunity to ask, for the second time in one day, where we were! The driver said just two words, but both of them made my heart sink: he said ‘Houghton Regis’…

We knew from its name that the road would lead to Sundon (one of the villages on the walk) so we followed it: thankfully we spotted a field path as there was no pavement alongside the road. This path could only lead to Chalton or Sundon, so we followed it. After a while it went uphill a little and there was Chalton – we were back on track: hooray! It was a moment worth celebrating so we finished the last of the sandwiches and bananas we were carrying before pressing on.

Insert pics of team at Chalton, front and rear views In Sundon the path was enclosed by builders’ fences around a site whose development had been halted: it should have been completed in six months from October 2009. At the foot of the field was a lovely cottage, ripe for redevelopment, which looked very different at the front and the back. The half-timbered, rendered and white painted street-facing face was cute and cottage-y but the brick-faced back looked much more recent. They were a delightful contrast to one another.

Call me cynical if you like (okay, that’s enough shouting out at the back…) but I wonder whether there might soon be a mysterious fire at The Willows. It is listed and the website www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk says this about it: C17. Timber-framed with whitewashed brick nogging to first floor, whitewashed brick ground floor. Two storeys. Thatched roof. Modern casements and Yorkshire casements. South and west elevations rebuilt mid-C19 in red brick with yellow brick cambered relieving arches to windows. http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-36119-the-willows-chalton

Insert pic of cottage After crossing a small road we walked through a children’s play area complete with safe rubberised flooring around the metal things: what a contrast (again) is permitted, with metal to bag your fairly vulnerable head on but rubber to protect your hardish knees. I guess children fall over more often than they bang their heads?

Insert pic of team passing clear sign That pic of the team leaving the play area reminds me to comment on the signage: you’ll have noticed that we’ve been lost a time or two on this leg. That was not down to navigation error but to extremely poor signage (at crucial times) which was compounded by the maps in the book being a bit short on detail at times. And hoods and rain don’t help either – one tends to keep going without stopping to look at the map until one if certain that one is lost. (Blimey, there are an awful lot of ones wandering around Bedfordshire this weekend…)

Insert Glors in wooded path Leaving Chalton meant walking through a very tidy playing field hard up against a slightly elevated section of the M1 – you couldn’t avoid the noise of the traffic. The footpath went over the road so we had more climbing to do and then we had to climb the many, many steps of a bridge over the railway, a different track to the one we had crossed just outside the Cow Roast at the start of the last leg. And now the end was in sight, or it would have been had it not been raining. We were heading through Upper Sundon for the Sundon Hills Country Park and the Haynes’ car but first – ah yes, but first.

Insert M&D in woodland. After the chaps had stopped for a chat, we made our way up yet another hill for a final view of Dunstable from above.

Insert Dunstable in the distance. The ‘ah yes’ moment was when we found ourselves on the edge (for which read top) of a disused quarry which we had to cross. More of those especially-constructed steps led down and then, inevitably, up again to the far edge where a tiny ledge allowed us to look back and admire what was an amazing view and worth the effort.

Insert view across quarry with pylon After a short section of field-crossing track (when it had stopped raining, briefly), Insert M&D walking alongside on double path we got a bit lost again, and again it was my fault: I spotted the only Chiltern Way sign, but it was for the bridleway version of the route which, naturally, differs from the footpath. However, it was worth the slight diversion for the view. However, as Glors pointed out, the view from the proper path was even better as it was even higher.

Insert view – either pic would do Despite the weather, this was a lovely walk and I stand corrected about Dunstable – the surrounding countryside is beautiful! Insert lovely view with walkers Dick and Glors really enjoyed putting on their dry shoes at their car, and we had the same pleasure back at the Downs car park. And, despite having their grand daughter to stay, they entertained us royally and we had a lovely evening. We were all asleep by midnight: that’s unusual for us and shows what hard work it is walking in the rain with mud clinging to your boots, weighing your legs down as you walk. Three days later my shins were still very painful, but that’s because I don’t walk enough between times.

Leg eleven next, then two more and it’s all done. We were horrified to discover that it has taken us four years to do this much and we have promised ourselves that we will finish the walk before the Olympics … in 2020!