Walking ancient trackways – over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon

Ridgeway Path sign

This is a bit bonkers I know, but I’m sat here watching a Jason Segel movie on Netflix called Jeff, Who Lives at Home about a guy who keeps looking for signs telling him what he should do with his life. He goes out to the hardware store and helps an old lady onto the bus and for a brief moment you see the street sign behind him – Ridgeway. I instantly see it as a sign, a reminder that I need to write this blog about the walk I did in late September last year along the Ridgeway from Tring, over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. I was going to do this before I started watching the movie but got stuck on how to start – I must have know a film about a guy who lives in his Mum’s basement would give me inspiration.

The walk was inspired by seeing a photo of the footpath running over Pitstone Hill – a white way carved out of the grass covered chalk ridge with the lowlands far below. It called out to me sat in my box room in East London, summer in final decline, the last chance for a venturing out in the long days before winter drew in.

Ridgeway sign post
One late September Friday after dropping the kids at school I boarded the train at Euston bound for Tring, soon sliding through Wembley, then Harrow and Bushey under a clear blue sky – perfect walking weather.

I’m carrying too much stuff in my battered old backpack, which is a bit too heavy. I’m packing 3 cameras and 2 jackets somehow. The 3 cameras I can just about justify, the extra jacket has me flummoxed.  But by the time I’ve turned up the track onto the Ridgeway my mind is clear for the way ahead.

I first planned to walk the Ridgeway while I was backpacking in the mid-90’s, catching the bug after jungle trekking in South East Asia. My Dad had talked about it throughout my childhood in South Bucks with the Ridgeway passing no more than a few miles from our home. But somehow we never got round to it, children arrived, and as the old man advances into his 80’s the talk has diminished. But just seeing the first sign for the Ridgeway sparks something inside.

Aldbury Nowers
The Ridgeway forms part of an ancient long distance path thousands of years old, the oldest prehistoric track in the country running between Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. I walked a mere fragment of its 87 miles, but sitting here now 7 months later every footstep lingers in the mind.

I passed over Grim’s Ditch, a 20-mile long Iron Age earthwork, at the bottom of a steep wood where I also searched for the tumuli marked on the Ordnance Survey map – spotting two mounds in the undergrowth that reminded me of a tumulus I’d seen in the Upper Lea Valley.

As the path continues through Aldbury Nowers you get that sense of the travelers that have passed this way over millennia. Today most of my fellow walkers appear to be retirees out with their dogs for a morning stroll, vigorously healthy pensioners wearing performance sportswear. It’s a beautiful hot day, the burning out of summer; the two jackets seem even more of a folly than they did on the train.

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

The path breaks out through the trees presenting the vista I’d seen in the photo that had brought me out here – the curving white track running along the edge of Pitstone Hill – it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it’d be. Earthworks had been identified on Pitstone Hill within what is believed to be a prehistoric “Citadel” cris-crossed with trackways, boundary ditches with some features identified as possibly being Neolithic. Other finds indicate the site was in use through the Bronze and Iron Age into the Roman period

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway
I rummage around in a deep hollow formed by a pre-Roman flint mine, where chalk and flint still litter the grass. It is a majestic spot looking out over the valley floor towards Aylesbury. I probably linger too long gazing at flints and admiring the view, checking archaeological notes and attempting to walk around the perimeter of the ‘Citadel’.

Incombe Hole the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon rises majestically in the near distance – the Ridgeway snaking along a green spine.  It leads me around the edge of Incombe Hole – a deep sided hollow way, possibly a prehistoric boundary marker or ‘linear earthwork’. Breathtaking views stretch out in all directions. I rest on the side of Steps Hill and shoot a timelapse of Beacon Hill and the southeast facing tumulus before my final ascent.

Ivinghoe Beacon summit
It’s an odd sensation to summit Ivinghoe Beacon at the midpoint of a relatively short walk rather than the conclusion of an 86-mile yomp from Wiltshire. As people arrive at the stone plaque at the top of the hill I try to ascertain whether they’re completing a Ridgeway thru-hike but don’t observe any obvious signs of celebration. I vow to come back here to start a walk along the entire Ridgeway, fulfill the plan I made those 20-odd years ago.

Ivinghoe Beacon view

It was difficult to wrench myself away from the stunning views spreading out in all directions from Ivinghoe Beacon. A tangible sense of ancient history is present – it’s said to contain remains of one of the oldest Iron Age Hillforts in Britain with burial mounds dotted around the summit, the surrounding landscape is ridiculously rich in prehistoric sites. I munched on a Marks and Spencer sandwich I’d bought in Euston Station trying to process it all.

I’d made no clear plan for the route back to Tring and as was only mid-afternoon, plot a mazy loop through surrounding woodland. The evenings will soon draw in dragging wind and rain with them and memories of these glorious last rays of summer will be rekindled to keep me warm.
Ivinghoe Beacon and Gallows Hill

The Icknield Way crosses the Ridgeway just below Ivinghoe Beacon and continues the ancient trackway all the way to the coast – the simple wooden signposts an open invitation to adventure. I follow a path along a ridge over the tumulus on Gallows Hill then loop back across farmland to the Coombe.
Mid-afternoon I rest beside the footpath on the side of a steep hill reflecting on what has been a classic walk that although the original purpose has been fulfilled I’m keen not to end just yet. Checking the OS map I spot another tumulus in woodland on Moneybury Hill so decide to push on.

IMG_0870

Entering the wood after crossing a field of stubble I clamber up a high bank which sharply falls away into a deep-sided ditch. Rising on the far side appears a mound in the trees. The ditch has the clear look of a human intervention, like the outer-rim of a defensive earthwork, boundary marker, or holloway. I continue along a narrow path that runs along the high outer ridge of the ditch and find a shard of flint shaped like an axe-head or hand-axe. A tall tree has fallen across the ditch. It’s a dramatic prehistoric landscape hidden away on the edge of this large tract of woodland. It is a majestic find in the last light of summer.

Moneybury Hill Ashridge
At the far end of the path there is a small plaque confirming the ditch’s prehistoric origins, explaining that it was carved out over time by herded animals led this way to feed on grasses and acorns.

There is another, smaller burial mound near the carpark of the Bridgewater Monument – a towering granite column standing on a York Stone base raised in 1832 in memory of the Duke of Bridgewater who had lived at Ashridge.

flint axe moneybury hill

After taking refreshment in the café I make my way down wooded paths to the Valiant Trooper in the village of Aldbury. Supping a pint of Chiltern Brewery Bitter in the beer garden I reflect that I have been royally rewarded by the walking gods for pushing those last 2 hours. I check the flint axe is still in the front pocket of my bag before drinking up and making my way over a damp stubble field back to Tring Station.

 

Lippitt’s Hill, Fernhills, Hangman’s Hill and Jacob Epstein at Loughton

The Friday after the Westminster Terrorist attack and flags are flying at half-mast over the public buildings at Woodford. I head down over the golf course to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge and pop into The View Visitor Centre where I buy a postcard of a painting by Jacob Epstein. The lady at the counter tells me that she thinks that it shows ‘The Lost Pond’ (the painting is untitled) – Epstein lived at Baldwin’s Hill, Loughton and often painted the forest. She has matched the image on her morning dog walks along the Loughton Brook. She shows me roughly where the Lost Pond is on the map covering the floor although it isn’t marked. ‘I’ll try and head back that way later’, I tell her, although I’m bound in the opposite direction – out through Bury Wood towards Fernhills.

Before I’d found myself lost in the forest in the dark the previous weekend I’d been tempted to follow the Cuckoo Brook north. Checking the map in the pub afterwards I saw how it would have led me to an area just outside the forest I’d never visited so today that was where I headed.

Epping Forest view

The views from Fernhills were as fine as I’d hoped for – stretching out over Waltham Abbey and to the Epping Uplands. The footpaths of the Greenwich Meridian Trail towards Mott Street also offered majestic views of the Lea Valley and led me to witness the curious anomaly of Hangman’s Hill. A mini reversed towards me from Pynest Green Lane and the young driver wound down the window, ‘Do you the story about this area?’, she asked. ‘No, but I bet you do’, I replied. ‘Apparently if you release your breaks your car is pulled uphill’, she told me, ‘this was a place where people were hung and they were dragged up here to the gallows’. She then released the handbrake and the car appeared to slowly roll back up the hill. As we stood there a couple of lads pulled alongside in their car and the same thing happened.

As I walked off I saw them both repeatedly returning to the same spot and surrender their vehicles to paranormal forces not wanting to mention that on foot you could see that there was a slight camber in the road that actually sloped away downhill.

Turning back across High Beach I decided to find the location of Jacob Epstein’s painting but had forgotten the directions the lady had given me to the ‘Lost Pond’. Arriving at Baldwin’s Hill Pond I matched it to the postcard and found a good enough likeness to declare in the video above that this was spot Epstein had painted. Subsequently it has been pointed out that the ‘Lost Pond’ is elsewhere, near the Loughton Brook. The hunt for the location of Epstein’s painting goes on.

Woodbury Hollow Loughton

Emerging from the forest I was greeted by the expansive views right across London from Woodbury Hollow, apparently reaching as far as Crystal Palace and Croydon.

 

On 2nd May I’ll be in conversation with Will Ashon at the Wanstead Tap about his new book Strange Labyrinth – Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest

Lost in Epping Forest in the Dark

“The spirit of devotion for the woods, which breathes through the simple expression of the poet [John Clare], is akin to “that hereditary spell of forests”, which Robert Louis Stevenson describes as acting “on the mind of man who still remembers and salutes the ancient refuge of his race.”

From the opening pages of London’s Forest by P.J.S Perceval published in 1909 which follows on from a quote by John Clare. He continues:

“Such a refuge once was London. Indeed she makes her first claim on history as a mere stockade in the woods – the Llyndin of the ancient Britons. Her wood and fen and heath, with the sweet country which once surrounded her, have disappeared, while a part only of the Essex Forest remains to recall the once great forest of the East Saxon Kingdom, which once had Lundentune for its port and ecclesiastical centre.”

To me Epping Forest is still a place of refuge, a haven from the pressures of urban life, a step through time. I headed out on Saturday, departing the tube at Woodford, then turning down Whitehall Lane by Bancroft’s School. Perceval writes how Bancroft’s was once the site of a poor-house. Its annual fees of £16,323 are more in the tradition of the mansion belonging to the Earl of Essex that had previously occupied the same land. The Earl wanting to be close to his supposed love Queen Elizabeth I when she used the hunting lodge on Chingford Plain.

Warren Pond Epping Forest

My wander took me past the Warren Pond and Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge. I reflected that this is often where my forest walks end, in the bar of the Premier Inn next door but today I wanted to walk on into sunset. I crossed Chingford Plain and took a path beside the road for a short distance before turning into the rump of the trees past bushcraft shelters dotted amongst the undergrowth.

bushcraft shelter epping forest

The light started to give out as I crossed the Cuckoo Brook so I consulted my map to pick a route towards an exit and a way home. I decided to walk East towards Loughton, a simple case of staying on the path I was on till I hit the road by The Warren.

I got caught up in the reverie of being alone in the woods while people bustled around going home from the shops, pubs filled up, and streets were abuzz with activity. Then I came upon a narrow lane in the darkness and looked for the way across to head down towards Loughton but the far side was blocked by hedgerows and fences. I followed the lane what I thought was south till finally becoming slightly concerned that I was going in the wrong direction. My map reading isn’t the best but surely I couldn’t have gone wrong on a straight path. I checked my compass then the map on my phone – both indicated that I was heading north towards High Beach, placing me between Springfield Farm and the Field Study Centre. Impossible I thought, how could that be?

Epping Forest Chingford Map

I decided to follow my nose and turned away from the road back into the now pitch black forest and walked for 15 minutes or so using instinct, enjoying the quiet of the night trees. Something splashed in a pool beside the path then was gone into the undergrowth. A pair of green eyes looked out at me from a clump of holly. I started to feel like an intruder – the animals that avoid human contact during daylight could reasonably expect to have the forest to themselves at night but here I was clomping along the gravel path disturbing their nocturnal activities. I stood still for a moment hoping to sense some wildlife moving around in the trees – but there was just silence. Beautiful silence.

I checked my phone once more and it indicated that I was heading North East. I put this down to lack of GPS coverage in the forest and returned to my cheap old-school compass. It too told me that I was walking in a northeastern direction. I decided to head South for Chingford, and hopefully pick up paths familiar enough to be recognised in the dark. My concern now wasn’t spending a few hours walking in circles in the forest at night (actually very pleasant) but finding myself having to make my way along dark country roads to a station at the mercy of speeding cars not anticipating a stray walker.

I still couldn’t make out any familiar features in the gloom but simply kept following the compass needle south enjoying the quiet of the evening. It made me think it would be nice to spend an entire night wandering the forest if you could manage to avoid the doggers, cottagers, and deep ditches (if people stuck to having woodland sex in the ditches that would help to avoid all hazards in one go).

Soon I recognised the section of path leading down from the Long Hills towards Magpie Hill and Connaught Water. The sign for the Cuckoo Trail marked the route that I assumed I’d taken an hour previously, highlighting just how far off trail I’d been. The trees parted and the sky opened up over Chingford Plain.

Settled with a pint of IPA and packet of Prawn Cocktail crisps in the Premier Inn next to the Hunting Lodge I studied my OS Map trying to work out how I’d managed to get my location so wrong. It boiled down to one simple error – that when I’d crossed the Cuckoo Brook and checked my map in the poor light I’d assumed I was on a different path – one that ran east – west, when in fact I was beyond Woodman’s Glade heading north through Bury Wood across Ludgate Plain towards Lippitts Hill. The loudness of the helicopters from the Police heliport should have been a clue.

But it proved once again, that even what starts out as a simple walk in the woods can turn into a minor adventure as long as you manage to get lost.

 

Ramble on the edge of Essex and London

It is my ambition to explore every inch of the Ordnance Survey Explorer 174 Map of Epping Forest & Lee Valley – Hertford & Harlow. That may not sound particularly ambitious but as I often end up following familiar tracks through Epping Forest or along the valley floor it seems to become ever more elusive.

So at the weekend I set off to fill in one small section – from Debden Station, over the M11 and around Theydon Mead to the village of Abridge, and from there over fields, across Gravel Lane and on to Grange Hill Station on the Central Line Loop. It was a walk that also linked the two eastern branches of the Central Line.

A large part of the walk is covered in Pathfinder’s Rambles in Essex published by British Railways in 1950, something I only discovered when I recognised a field near Chigwell and remembered I’d been there when recording an episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography for Resonance fm. The route we followed was described in Pathfinder’s earlier publication Afoot Round London.

It was uplifting to finally welcome Spring, arms t-shirt bare for the first time outside in months and months. I’d set out this way with my son just a few weeks ago under heavy skies and plodding through mud ankle-deep. Instead of crossing the M11, we worked our way around the Debden Estate and up the hill to Theydon Bois, filling in a few more grids of the map.

Heading down over sunset fields into Grange Hill with woodsmoke tightly hugging the ground it almost felt as if I’d ventured far out of London rather than simply traversed farmland spanning the space between tube stations. A phalanx of oak trees crest a ridge guiding the way to the cemetery path and out onto road as the daylight receded. I can tell already that it’s going to be a great summer of walking.

 

Railway Walk Odyssey with World War 2 Bomb Gospel Oak to Perivale

To celebrate the re-opening of the Barking to Gospel Oak line (albeit with the original two carriage trains that were running on the line before its temporary closure last year for conversion to 4 carriage trains) I decided to hop on a train at Leyton Midland Road Station to Gospel Oak. The plan from there was to walk a section of the railway from Hampstead Heath to Willesden Junction that we somehow missed from the London Overground film I made with Iain Sinclair.

The nightwalk I filmed with Iain and Andrew Kotting ended for me at Hampstead Heath, having walked up from Haggerston. Iain and Andrew continued round the 33-mile circuit through the night finishing at 10 the next morning. The station is closed today. A 500lb World War Two German bomb had been discovered on a building site near the tracks and had closed the line from Camden Road to Willesden Junction.

Billy Fury Way Finchley

Between Hampstead Heath and Finchley Road and Frognal Stations the Overground runs through a tunnel bored through the heart of the hill. I pass the site of the great composer Edward Elgar’s house and at Finchley Road progress along Billy Fury Way – although unlike Elgar, the 1950’s Rock’n’Roller seems to have a tenuous connection to the area, from what I can find it amounts to occasionally recording at the nearby Decca Studios.

WW2 Bomb Brondesbury Willesden Lane

People mill around at West Hampstead and Brondesbury Stations, trying to plot alternative transport routes with the line still closed. Then at Willesden Lane and Winchester Avenue I come to the police tape closing off the road. The bomb is about 100 yards away beneath a crane of a building site. Everybody has been evacuated from a large area spanning from Brondesbury to Queens Park. Several schools have been closed. There are a group of around 5 or 6 people speaking to the solitary policeman asking when they might be able to go back to their homes. One old man stands stock still on the wrong side of the tape telling the police officer that he doesn’t have anywhere else to go and no family or friends to call. A lady from the Council arrives shortly and takes him off to a refuge Brent Council have set up for residents from the evacuated area. Cars pull up to the road block then turn round and head back down Willesden Lane. It is a surreal scene.

Willesden Junction

I move on through Paddington Old Cemetery and Queens Park, past Kensal Rise Station and arrive tired at Willesden Junction where the London Overground filming resumed with a walk around the area in the company of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit.

P1040823

I could end the walk here, neatly filling in a gap of my Overground circuit a year too late but can feel an extra couple of miles in my feet. I head up Harlesden High Street and then turn west into the Park Royal Industrial Estate – the largest in London. Picking up the A40, a pang of childhood nostalgia that is associated with this road wells up. I grew up within its acoustic footprint some 20+ miles away in Buckinghamshire and this western edge of London was our idea of the big city.

Hoover Building Perivale

The Hoover Building is getting another make-over, from a Tesco megastore to luxury flats. The light fades to black. Tail lights on the incessant thrum of passing cars sparkle like Christmas lights. Time to head up to Perivale station and head home.

Northern Heights – Highbury to Hornsey

Highbury Fields – one of my favourite places in London, yeah I know, I have a lot of favourite places in London. It was here that Londoners sought refuge during the Great Fire of 1666 and watched the city below burn down. It still feels like a place of retreat from the madness of Highbury Corner and Holloway Road.

Passing the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower I stop to admire Aubert Court, a fine modernist block of flats designed by E C P Monson, who also built Islington Town Hall and numerous other public buildings and social housing across London from around 1895 – 1940. The flats occupy land that was once home to Highbury College of Dissenters, opened in 1825. Alexander Aubert, who gives his name to Aubert Court and Aubert Road was a wealthy stockbroker who owned a mansion and grounds in Highbury and most notably built an enormous observatory on one wing of Highbury House.

Highbury Clocktower

It is odd now to be able to wander around the perimeter of the old Arsenal pitch at Highbury – now Highbury Stadium Square, diminished by conversion to flats built into the stands, hard to recall being in here with 40,000 chanting fans.

I move on through Gillespie Road Nature Reserve and across Finsbury Park, feeling fatigued and wondering where to head next. The high ground of the Northern Heights draws me on towards Hornsey and to the corner shop made famous by the great ZomCom Shaun of the Dead. When I came here for one of the chapters in my book This Other London, I studied the scene in the film where Shaun wakes up on the day of the Zombie outbreak and, heavily hungover, walks across to the shop for a can of Diet Coke and a Cornetto. I then attempted to recreate single tracking shot with my point and shoot camera.

I stopped shooting my weekly YouTube video at this point and wander onto Crouch End Broadway where I pick up a History of Highbury pamphlet I first bought 20 years ago and lost, a book on Prehistoric England, and a copy of the Tales of King Arthur that I used to read in my Primary School Library.

 

Epic Lea Valley Hike from Leytonstone to Hertford

7.30am and the dog has pissed in my boot. I discover this as I slide my foot into my great new walking boots to head out on a slightly crazed quest to walk from Leytonstone to Hertford or at least as far up the Lea Valley as my legs will carry me in a day.

Hoe Street Bakers Arms Walthamstow
It’s a cold and misty pre-Christmas dawn as I slope past Leyton Midland Road Station – the Barking to Gospel Oak line on hiatus while its platforms are lengthened and the line electrified.

An hour later at the end of Chingford Road, Walthamstow my legs are getting sore which doesn’t bode well for the long walk ahead. I need to pace myself, let the natural rhythm of the plod take over. Clear my mind.

Walthamstow Stadium
The road into Sewardstone is cloaked in thick mist. I pass an abandoned row of breeze block sheds apparently used for selling fireworks. I cross the border out of London into Essex – an uncanny quarter of the Borough of Waltham Forest, London in the country.

Sewardstone
Turning off Sewardstone Road down misty Mill Lane I get my second wind. I figure I’ll need to have a third and fourth wind to reach Ware or Hertford. Crossing the rough ground beside the reservoirs I am stalked by horses – three friendly creatures who follow me for around 200 yards before returning to their grazing spot in the bushes.

Reaching Waltham Abbey at midday I can’t face the extra mile round trip into town for lunch so pop into MaccyD’s for a Big Mac Meal and recuperation although I keep my stop to a strict 30 minutes before returning to the Lea footpath.

Sewardstone

Beyond Waltham Abbey and the Outer London Defence Ring the path is clear of people. The mist rises off the Lea reminding me of the dense fog of the Po Valley.

2.15pm and stop for tea and Kit Kat by the river at Broxbourne. 2.30pm back on the move.

St. Margaret's Wood

St. Margaret’s Wood

Onto the New River Path at Broxbourne up to Great Amwell past pumping stations and through St. Margaret’s wood and into the dark of winter evening. The plan the night before had been to walk the entire 28-miles of the New River Path from Islington to Hertford. But answering the alarm call at 6.30am on 5 hours sleep the thought of an hours travel to start a walk I probably wouldn’t finish wasn’t enough to shift me from under the duvet. However starting the walk from home was far more appealing.

Great Eastern Tavern Hertford

Finish at 5.30pm at the Great Eastern Tavern near Hertford East Station – a lovely cosy old pub with friendly staff and a good pint of McMullen’s ale. The feet are humming but that’s to be expected of a walk of around 23-miles. Christmas Carols are playing on the jukebox ‘Simply having a wonderful Christmas time’. A second pint to make sure the ale reaches all ten toes before hopping the train into Stratford.