The view from the hill – a walk to Wooburn

I feel Old old Wooburn more and more every day – the village where I grew up and where a recent family history binge showed roots running deep through the chalk and flint. The sense of it was almost overpowering as I crested the hill marked by Hard-to-Find Farm and approached Bloom Wood. ‘Always was a cold wood, Bloom Wood’, my Dad had said on the phone when I called him on the walk out across Wycombe Rye. And as I discussed my route he could only imagine it coming from the opposite direction – the way from Wooburn, despite the amount of times I reminded him I was approaching from the opposite direction.


Bloom was indeed a cold wood, dense and dark. I was fascinated as a kid by the stories of ‘devil worshippers’ dancing round fires seen from below on Sheepridge Lane. I can’t recall ever entering Bloom Wood. I liked the idea of stumbling upon a coven of Satanists, but it was no longer the 1970’s and too early at 7pm, midsummer. It was exactly where I wanted to be, pushed off the sofa in Leytonstone, out on the edge of East London, mid-afternoon watching Dr Who with the youngest teenager I saw myself on a hill at sunset and knew where the hill would be, more or less. This dappled wood was exactly where I wanted to be right now.

I dropped down the hill and emerged at the edge of the wood where the corn fields had been given over to pasture with a smattering of sheep. Below was Sheepridge Lane where my Nan had lived as a girl in a cottage behind the Crooked Billet earning some coins picking flints from the fields and providing the pub landlord with fresh stinging nettles with which the thrash his wife to ease her rheumatism. The footpath led out into the narrow lane that would have been Nan’s way home, the workers cottages now appeared to be knocked all into one and carrying a hefty price I imagine. The old man had instructed me to have a pint in the Billet garden looking across the lane to the fields rising on the far side, a garden where he told me he’d encountered what must have been one of the last traveling minstrels, an old fella who went from pub to pub singing for beer and a bite to eat kipping down in hedgerows and barns at night. By then, the 1960’s, these old travellers were an unwelcome feature of the countryside.

Wildflowers Chilterns

Flackwell Heath field near Sheepridge Lane

The pub was empty, the landlady the same as when my sister had worked behind the bar thirty years or more ago. I took my pint of Brakespears (brewed nearby in Henley) out into the garden and looked across at Noel’s fields. Red Kites, wing-spans wider than my outstretched arms, rode the thermals in great wide arcs and dove down on fresh roadkill.

The hill in my mind was just across the road, topped with a spinny above Pigeon House Farm. A legsore  winter sunset, I was walking back over those fields with my Dad, must have been four of five years old and I’d just raced to pick up a pigeon he’d shot. He hoisted me up on his shoulders, a drop of blood hung from the pigeon’s beak and I marvelled at the impossible beauty of the colour of the feathers around its throat. I passed the orchard the Old Man planted beside the lane and then rang him from the top of the hill, the view stretching out across Marlow to a wide bend in the River Thames. He remembered that day clearly, and told me a funny story about the burial of a beloved cow in the spinny behind me.

Flackwell Heath

I moved on through Flackwell Heath, echoes of teenage years bouncing off the pavement that followed me over the golf course and down to Wooburn. There was a beer festival in the garden of The Falcon, calling me, tempting me, but my way ahead was along the A40 in the dark, past the Highwaymen’s cave in Cut Throat Wood to the station at Beaconsfield and back to a sofa in Leytonstone.

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.

© 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.

 

Wycombe revisited – 100th Episode of the Walking Vlog series

I felt an undue amount of pressure when trying to choose where to go for the 100th Episode of my Walking Vlog series. When out walking from Theydon Bois to Chigwell Row for the 98th Episode I’d asked the YouTube viewers for suggestions and they’d really come up with the goods. But one particularly resonated, from talented author Scarlett Parker:
“The hundred dilemma got me thinking about ‘hundreds’, the geo-administrative divisions of yore. Not sure how you could rein in this concept for a manageable walk. There are the famous Chiltern Hundreds, which is your, erm, jurisdiction.”

This was perfect – the Chiltern Hundreds > The Desborough Hundred Psychogeographical Society that I formed with my sister Cathy for our Remapping High Wycombe project > the significant sites walk we devised to bring the project to its conclusion. There was added significance in that I started my YouTube channel for this project to host some of the video documentation.

Walking into town from Wycombe Station I ticked off the first of the significant sites/’nodules of energy’ – the Dial House, home to Charles I’s physician Dr Martin Lluelyn; the ancient lane of Crendon Street; the supposed ‘mark stone’ by the Guildhall, and Robert Adam’s market house which we used as the HQ of the DHPS and installation site for the event on 18th June 2005.

The temperature that day 13 years ago was hitting the high twenties and again the mercury was pushing upwards at 27 degrees. It’d be hard going in the hills. I’d mustered some walking partners back then to make it more of an event – an old friend Jerry White, who’d brought along a mate, my Dad, and Nick Papadimitriou who’d I’d recently met for the first time. Today I’d be reprising the experience alone.

I gathered my thoughts in the churchyard before pushing on up Castle Hill Mount, said by some of the old Wycombe antiquarians to be partly formed of the burial mound of a Saxon warrior. The route onwards into the Hughenden Valley takes me through the grounds of Wycombe Museum, past the house where poet & composer Ivor Gurney stayed, and along the path above Wycombe Cemetery.

Looking back down into the valley there’s a stretch of newbuilds that highlights one of the major changes in the town. Gone is the great engineering factory of Broom & Wade and also Harrison’s Stamp Factory, and a student accommodation colony has taken the place of the industrial heart of Wycombe. When I’d led Nick, Jerry and Mike through this section in 2005, this was what made them see Wycombe as a town with its own distinctive industrial heritage, not just another satellite commuter town. Now that it’s gone – what does this say about Wycombe today?

Hughenden Manor
The heat is taking its toll as I climb up the Hughenden Valley to admire the view from the terrace of Benjamin Disraeli’s grand mansion. I daren’t rest yet as I have to drop back down into the valley then climb again to the (Isaac) Disraeli monument on the edge of Tinker’s Wood. Beneath this monument is where I’d rested on previous variations of this walk and it’s where I take a moment to pause once again and consider the passing of the previous 13 years since I was here last.

The zig-zag streets of Downley offer yet more great views across the valley to the Iron Age Earthwork at Desborough Castle – my next point of interest. The outer banks are high and imposing, but thankfully the dense tree canopy offers respite from the sun. I imagine the Desborough Hundred Moot taking place within the sunken enclosure in the deep past, as envisioned by Annan Dickson in his 1935 book, Chiltern Footpaths.

Desborough Castle Wycombe

Back down in town it feels as if another kind of grand gathering is taking place upon the Rye. The grass is dotted with puddles of pink flesh soon to turn lobster red. Boaters splosh their oars in the Dyke. The open air pool where I learnt to swim is sadly closed for the rest of the day.

Cut Throat Wood Wooburn

Cut Throat Wood

From the Rye I follow the patron stream of the area – the Wye, or the Wyke – trundling quietly behind the Marsh and the Mead to Loudwater where my Mum grew up. By now I’m tired and just want to sit in a nice pub garden with a cold pint. I could drop down Watery Lane to the Falcon at Wooburn, near the field where I played as a kid. But that would be the end of the walk. No, I stick to my plan to climb one last hill (so I thought) up Whitehouse Lane and along Grassy Bank looking over to Cut Throat Wood – a place that so dominated childhood days walking with my Dad and many a wistful recollection of those happy days. It’s the perfect ending to this revisiting of memory grounds, that further pushes me on under the railway line and up into the quiet roads leading into Beaconsfield Old Town and the train back to Marylebone.

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.