Chiltern Way Day 1 - Hemel Hempstead to Chalfont St Giles
It's coming up for four weeks since I finished the LEJOG walk, and I've had many people ask me what I'm going to do next. I think the likelihood is that my next through walk will be in Wales, probably Offa's Dyke. But my commitments at home and with work mean that I won't be able to do that until next year at some point. I've been walking every day since returning, trying to do at least one or two longer walks a week so that I don't lose the habit and the fitness that I've been enjoying so much. But after a while, even though I'm lucky enough to live in a lovely place, the same walks become monotonous. So I thought that I would look for something that would keep me going, sparking my interest and scratching the itch to keep walking, but that wouldn't involve being away for long chunks of time. I live in the Chilterns, so the Chiltern Way seemed the obvious walk to do. This will be an expedition over at least three months, done whenever I have the time to venture out for a day or two, but I'm hoping to have completed it by Christmas. I also debated whether I would write a blog about it, as it's maybe not as exciting a trip as LEJOG. But I enjoy writing, and I enjoy having a record of the big walks that I've done, so for me alone, I'll record this trip. If others enjoy reading about my part of the country then I'll be delighted.
The Chiltern Way is a circular walk that is described by the Chiltern Society as a 177 mile perambulation of the AONB, highlighting the best features of this historic landscape. As well as the main loop, there are other additional circuits and extensions, but my plan is to do the original route, which will make it probably closer to 125 miles. It is maintained by the Chiltern Society, and was created as its Milennium project, based on an earlier unofficial route, the Chiltern Hundred. The Chiltern Hills are a chalk escarpment in the UK, and according to Wikipedia they cover 660 square miles across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. They are my stomping ground.
The official start of the walk is in Hemel Hempstead, although of course as a circular route it could be started anywhere. But that's where it says, so that's where I started. David kindly drove me to the Hemel station, which is the distinctly unglamorous starting point. It felt so good to be out on a walk again, following my OS route, not being quite sure of where I was going. I helped some very worried tourists try to negotiate a British Rail station on a strike day, and then set off under the station bridge before following the first of many very clear signposts today.
This is deeply familiar walking, through gentle farmland, along the ends of suburban gardens with wooden barns, red brick and flint houses and cottages interspersing the landscape. It was hard not to negatively contrast it with the drama of Northern Scotland. But I decided that it would be interesting to try to look at what I know well through new eyes, as if I were going on an adventure into the unknown.
If I needed another indicator that I was in the Chilterns it was the proliferation of red kites. Following an extremely successful reintroduction programme in 1990 in Christmas Common, Oxfordshire, the kites are a very common sight near us. There are regularly pairs nesting in trees in our garden, and their call is as common a sound near us as that of the squirrels, the magpies or the glis glis in the hedge. But even with their familiarity, I stopped to watch a group of eight soaring over a field that had just been mowed. They are utterly beautiful birds.
As well as kite country, this is horse country. I walked past and through more fields with horses in today than I did in the whole of the Scottish walk. Although signs invited me to desist from feeding them, other than that they were happily out for walkers to engage with. A handsome pair joined me whilst I made use of an excellent bench to crack out the thermos and a sandwich. For those that followed the trials of me endeavouring to get any sort of packed lunch that wasn't a cheese sandwich during my Caledonian leg, you'll be disappointed to hear that when able to construct my own sandwich sadly all that was in the fridge was cheese. I did mix it up a bit by adding an elderly tomato. I clearly need to go shopping.
The walk was straightforward, clearly well walked and regularly signposted. It went across the fields to Bovingdon, and then wandered through woods and on narrow lanes past the very pleasingly named Hogpits Bottom. This is a well populated part of the UK, yet much of the route felt peaceful, if not deserted. And the phone signal was remarkably poor, considerably worse than at any point in Scotland.
The path led past Flaunden and Sarratt, but not venturing into either village, enjoying some more extended views and then finally dropping down into the Chess Valley, to cross the little river Chess. The Chess is a chalk stream, rising from the groundwater held in the chalk of the Chilterns. According to the WWF (not the wrestling one...) there are only about 200 chalk streams in the world, and most of them are in the southern half of England. They are really precious places. During the Victorian era the rivers were used widely to grow watercress, as the chalk filtered water is an ideal medium. A farm survives in Sarratt.
Another distinctive and well loved aspect of the Chilterns for me is the woodland. Often heavily populated with beech, their vibrant green in the spring is one of the joys of living round here. Even though there's a slight tinge of autumn in the air, the sunlight was giving the trees a recollection of their leafy vigour of earlier in the year. I was grateful to Frederick Ward, who planted one of the woods, and to the inspired committee who put a Great War memorial bench in one of the leafy avenues. It was becoming easier to be glad of what I have on my doorstep, instead of yearning for the far north.
As I approached the edge of Chenies, I passed a cricket match in full and enthusiastic flight, and then heard talking to the side of the footpath whilst admiring some greenhouses. I realised that I was approaching a familiar garden centre from an unfamiliar angle. Things that have seemed ordinary were seeming more intriguing, I was able to look at them anew.
I stopped in Carpenter's Wood for a cup of tea and a chat with a father and daughter who were collecting blackberries, and then with a woman calling her horses to her across the field. It was such a pastoral scene, suddenly arrested by the sight of the Metropolitan Line train going over the railway bridge to the side of us. We are so near London here, and yet so lucky to have a real sense of the countryside too.
It became more suburban after this, walking along the edge of Chorleywood, with its very large houses and their extensive gardens. In the sunshine I could hear children making the most of the last weekend of freedom before term starts again next week. And with every step I was getting closer to home. I walked along Old Shire Lane, along which we used to drive regularly to meet friends when the girls were babies. And then out into the parkland surrounding Newlands Park estate. This place has had many iterations. It was a country house for many decades, then became a refuge for suffragettes. After the war It was a teacher training college, becoming part of the Bucks College of Higher Education, and then eventually Bucks New University. During this time, David and I used to go to the Manor House every week for orchestra rehearsals. We left the orchestra, and the building was eventually closed down. Presumably unconnected. It is now being turned into housing, though the excellent open air museum in the grounds still stands. Walking alongside it, the Chiltern Way gave me a chance to admire what wonderful scenery the building is sitting in.
And then, by stark contrast, the scar of the HS2 was apparent. Last summer I spent a lot of time dodging the HS2 footpath and road closures, and being saddened by the farmland and buildings that were lost to this infrastructure development. The Chilterns haven't escaped, despite some fierce protests to try to save ancient woodland at the beginning of the project. Some of it was diverted underground, but much. like the crane and what looked like battlements is very sadly obvious.
Chalfont St Giles is one of the nearest villages to ours. If you search IMDB for TV and film that has been shot here, the list ranges from Midsomer Murders to Downton Abbey, from Dad's Army to Canterbury Tales. These paint an accurate picture of the archetypal nature of the old village green with its little red brick high street. More surprisingly, 'Saucy! - Secrets of the British Sex Comedy' also chose C St G as a suitable filming venue.
Although lovely, it's normally quite a gentle place, with people chatting at the greengrocers and the butcher, or feeding the ducks on the pond. Not today, as it was the day of the village show, which involves dog displays, horticultural entries, a ferris wheel and apparently a very enthusiastic singer. I decided not to attend this year, as I was thirsty and tired, so I said hello to some cows that looked as if they'd been blow dried and called for my lift to take me home.
It's been an interesting day. My legs are more tired than they would have been a month ago, and my new boots still feel hard and a bit unforgiving. I was walking with a day bag that I actually find less comfortable than my bigger rucksack, as it sits higher up and therefore not using my hips as much for the weight. But I have enjoyed myself. It's been a difficult week this week, and being out walking again has really helped get my balance back. I've enjoyed approaching familiar places from an oblique angle, and look forward to doing a bit more tomorrow with my lovely sister in law Magda. Even if I'm not able to do much more than a day or so every couple of weeks, knowing its there for me is really helpful, whilst I start to plan the bigger adventure for next year.
Distance travelled - 14 miles
Total ascent - 891 feet
Calories burned - 1927