Rural edgeland wander in the rain

My friend joked that he wondered what kind of Wycombe edgelands I’d be leading him round when we met at the station. ‘Let’s head down to Wooburn instead’, I reassured him, far more scenic for his enormous dog, and the woods above the village would give us some partial cover from the persistant rain.

Wooburn Green

We climbed up the bare field above the cricket pitch at Wooburn Park where I spent all my childhood summers and admired the view from the edge of Farm Wood.

shaggy parasol mushroom

Shaggy Parasol mushroom?

There were numerous deep hollows and steep banks throughout Farm Wood and Mill Wood. Some looked as if they could be bomb craters (although I don’t think Wooburn was bombed during the war) – another you could take for an earthwork. My friend and I settled on the idea that they must have been formed either by water running down the hill towards the river at the foot of the valley, or a legacy of the glacial flows that carved this out landscape.

Whitepit Lane Wooburn

Whitepit Lane Wooburn

My friend departed back at Wooburn Green and I sat and watched the rain from Perkys Coffee House on the Green. A cafe like this was unimaginable in Wooburn when I was a kid and also when I returned from Australia with my wife 20-odd years ago.

After the surprisingly good coffee and toasted sandwich had sunk in, I felt the pull back up out of the valley, ascending Whitepit Lane with its fine views over the village.

Whitepit Lane Wooburn

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The scrubby fields blocked with concrete sentinels started to adopt an edgeland feel that I began to see wherever I looked. The caravan park where my parents had lived in the 1950’s is still there in a chalk pit near the top of the hill (Dad said lumps of chalk would regularly fall upon the roof). The field looking towards Pig Wood was protected with a large metal gate. Shipping containers sprouted from the earth at the top of Juniper Lane.

Juniper Lane, Flackwell Heath

Juniper Lane, Flackwell Heath

My Dad told me the they used to call the bottom of Juniper Lane ‘Spicer’s Crossing’ after a fella who’d been killed on the railway line there and whose ghost haunted that part of the Lane.

I moved on along Boundary Road, the rain still lashing down.

Loudwater viaduct

M40 Viaduct at Loudwater

Passing beneath the viaduct carrying the M40 overhead was always a powerful experience as a kid. We used to climb up into its interior via a service hatch – like crawling through the air vents of a space station – a terrifying experience.

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The Railko factory appears to have been demolished and with it has gone the powerful odour of burnt plastic that it puffed out into the air. My Mum worked there at one point, making circuit boards I believe. A single strip-light illuminated the first floor office of a square industrial unit at the end of a cracked concrete drive. What goes on in these places? The company appears to have connections to Qatar.

The Wheatsheaf High Wycombe

The Wheatsheaf High Wycombe

This unassuming timber-framed building, formerly The Wheatsheaf pub, has recently discovered to have been built in 1399, making it the second oldest standing building in High Wycombe after the parish church. There are now plans to fully investigate the heritage of the site and unravel its history.

The Antelope Wycombe IMG_0367

I end my wander at The Antelope pub, itself a building with a good few years under its eves, with a pint of IPA from the Rebellion Brewery in Marlow. There’s only one other punter in the pub, an old fella eating from a take-away container. Music blares out over an empty dance-floor.

Chilterns Walk from Bulstrode Camp to Wooburn Green

The Queen and Albert pub in Wooburn Green wasn’t were I expected to end up when I boarded the 3.15pm train from from Marylebone to Gerrards Cross the week before Easter. Notre Dame was burning down on the TV on the pub wall, an event that had been unfolding whilst I’d been walking over the Chilterns unaware. It was good to hear the Bucks accent from the chatter between the friendly lady behind the bar and the two other punters. It was great to be back in the village where I grew up.

My intention that day had been simple – to take a look at the Iron Age earthwork at Bulstrode Camp, Gerrards Cross. I had a vague childhood memory of people talking about this ancient site but no clear memory of having visited. And with my interest in earthworks and burial mounds it seemed natural to seek out Bulstrode Camp, situated as it is just beyond the borders of Greater London.

Bulstrode Camp map © OpenStreetMap contributors  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 https://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright

© OpenStreetMap contributors Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 https://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright

Bulstrode Camp is the largest hillfort in Buckinghamshire, spanning over 26 acres (other notable Bucks hillforts include – Whelpley Hill, Ivinghoe Beacon, West Wycombe, Bolebec’s Castle). A ‘plateau camp’, it sits atop a steep escarpment and is today encircled by a private housing estate. Dog walkers perambulate the perimeter as if repelled from the interior by a magic spell. I strode straight across in a bisecting line – better to take in the scale of the earthwork from its interior. It’s a powerful site, even more imposing in this age of bits and bytes.

Hedgerley Bucks

With the site surveyed and recorded on camera I still had around 3 hours of daylight left so headed out over the fields of Bulstrode Park to Hedgerley Village where the parish church sits high on a hill surrounded by a bluebell wood. At this point the temptation to strike off for Wooburn was too great.

The lowering sun sliced shafts of light through the pine trunks in Egypt Woods as the pheasants gave out their evening call. My Dad would have had a field day and we briefly spoke on the phone discussing the best route to Wooburn (he thought I was way off course).

My chosen path took me over Littleworth Common and now the journey took on the feel of a return to a childhood home as Wooburn Common (the land of the ‘fuzz hoppers’ as my Nan would call them) showed itself nearby on the map.

Egypt Woods

I arrived beneath the Radio Tower at the top of Farm Wood at the hour of sunset. This tower loomed over my childhood as a mysterious structure poking out of the dark wood above Wooburn Park where I spent all my summers with my Dad as he played for Wooburn Narkovians Cricket Club. I had only been this close twice before (at night with the Scouts and with my kids about 10 years ago).

From the edge of the wood, in the last light, I looked down across Wooburn, the river valley carved out by a glacial flow that deposited a rock that still sits idly on the Green by the bus stop. The River Wye gently trundles along its floor. I stood there as day slid into night before making my way across the park to the pub.

 

The Tropic of Ruislip

UXBRIDGE fishing lake

This was a walk that I think will be with me for a while. The flood of memory that washed over me on the Grand Union towpath the other side of Ickenham/Ruislip heading up towards Denham. I let go of something. Walks have their own logic free of external reality. Out there nothing else matters. It’s on hold, paused, the world stops. The canal water shimmering like scales on the underside of the railway bridge. The deer plunging into the water then swimming elegantly in search of the right spot, in no hurry, despite the people watching from the towpath. The barges brought to mind The Tropic of Ruislip. I stopped for a pint by the canal. The heat was getting to me. The long road onwards felt like the exit from London and indeed it was as I saw South Bucks District Council on the road signs at Denham. Is this the most westerly point in London (vying with Uxbridge for that honour)? It certainly feels like it.

Denham
There’s a warmth to the Denham housing estates perched right there on the edge of London, looking in more than out. Woods benignly crest the hilltop. The threat posed by HS2 rears its head in Tilehouse Lane as it did on the closed section of road near the River Pinn where work has already begun. A light aircraft swoops down over the treetops to land at the aerodrome, but otherwise all is quiet.

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The turning onto the South Bucks Way appears beside a wide open vista stretching north towards Chorleywood, undulating umber earth, ridges of the Chilterns in the distance. It’s only at the bottom of the field where the South Bucks Way branches away from Old Shire Lane that it becomes apparent that the rolling fields I’ve been swooning over will soon be consumed by HS2. Progress comes at a price it seems.

Through a well-engineered tunnel beneath the M25 and I’m moving towards settlements once again. Through the trees the sounds and movement of the Scout Camp at meal-time, cooks shouting out to each other, children being formed into orderly lines. I traverse that final field of tall furry thistles that brings me to the top of a private housing estate.

I’m truly drained by the heat when I flop on a bench with a box of chips and bottle of Fanta at the bottom of Chalfont St. Peter High Street at quarter past six. I study the map for the onward route. I’m too tired to tackle the next section of the South Bucks Way to Amersham. But to head for the nearest station just over a mile away at Gerrards Cross would feel like a defeat. I split the difference and make for Seer Green.

Over Goldhill Common where I passed around 5 years ago on a similar excursion at the same time of day. I buy a Fab ice lolly in the newsagent as a tribute to this memory.

GREAT LEGS WOOD
A long straight path runs behind the back gardens at the edge of the village and into woods where the light barely breaks through. Pylon strung power lines buzz and crackle loudly over tall fronds of fern in a clearing before Great Legs Woods. This is now that recognisable uplifting sense of the walk’s end, not quite knowing how far there is to go but understanding the destination. The pain in the knees and hips adds to a sense of euphoria as I stop in the middle of a broad field of golden swaying grasses. There is never anyone around, the world is elsewhere – unloading the shopping from Waitrose, scrubbed up for a night out, sitting down in front of the telly. Anywhere but in a field somewhere beyond the town and the city.


A bridge crosses the Chiltern Line and now I seek the path of least resistance opting for the avenue that tops that railway cutting. I have 20 minutes before the hourly train departs and find that extra burst of speed to transport me through the last corner of woodland and along the lane to Seer Green Station – essentially an unstaffed shed beside the tracks. The platform is as peaceful as the woodland I’ve just left, the clicking of the dot matrix display board echoing down the line. There’s a moment to reflect on the journey, to feel it in my legs and coating my skin, before the turbo train eases to a stop and carries me back into London.

Chilterns Walk from Princes Risborough to West Wycombe

Rarely have I gone to track down a view glimpsed from a train, but in July I headed back out from Marylebone to Princes Risborough bound for a wooded ridge that fizzed past the train window on a journey to Birmingham in April. I’d quickly screenshot the map on my phone showing that the hill was rising above Hempton Wainhill near Chinnor and vowed to return.

Lodge Hill Princes Risborough

Lodge Hill

It was a walk that delivered with almost every step, picking up the Ridgeway just south of Princes Risborough and following it past the tumuli on Lodge Hill. There I met a young man walking the length of the Ridgeway and I plugged him for tips for when I eventually set out on my 25 year old plan to walk this ancient path. The Ridgeway is ridiculously rich with prehistoric sites – I passed five Bronze Age tumuli in the space of a couple of miles around Bledlow Wood. The sense of walking into the past is profound on the Ridgeway and here it intersects with the equally (if not more) ancient Icknield Way.

The Ridgeway near Chinnor

The westward views from Chinnor Hill were stunning and here I walked off my OS Map 181 onto a much smaller scale older map I bought on ebay years ago. The previous owner evidently shared my interest in prehistoric sites and had circled all of them on the map.

The Ridgeway

Walking along a chalk ridge path through Radnage flicking tall wallflowers childhood Chilterns memories flooded back in a rush of images and feelings, a mashup of out-of-sync recollections – driving round lanes with my Dad listening to John Peel, coming home from backpacking wondering what to do next, racing our Jack Russell to the pigeon Dad had shot from the sky, sunsets over the M40 towards these hills from further down the valley at Wooburn Moor.

St. Mary's Church Radnage

A chance encounter with a lady in a lane led me across her field to St. Mary Radnage with its restored 13th Century wall paintings. A beautiful, mystical spot to stop and reflect.

West Wycombe

I’d run out of food and water by the time I ascended West Wycombe Hill and the famous Golden Ball and Hell Fire Caves. I was shown around Dashwood’s Church as they closed up after a cake sale and told how it was a collage of architectures Sir Frances Dashwood had seen on his Grand Tour in 1763 including the now destroyed temples of Palmyra.

West Wycombe Church

I took refuge in the haunted George and Dragon on West Wycombe High Street dining on beer and crisps before slogging along the A40 into Wycombe. Before hitting the town centre, I stopped off to pay homage to the sacred River Wye as it flows gently through Mill End Rec near where my Mum went to school all those many years ago.

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.

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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.