Chiltern Way Day 12 - Whipsnade to Sharpenhoe
I normally write this blog in the evening after I walk. During the last two summers of trekking, it was part of the rhythm of my day, to walk, then rest for a little while, and then write for two or three hours. It was a way of processing what I'd done, which was especially helpful when travelling on my own. It also meant that I could engage with the comments on the blog, which was also a really pleasing thing to do, feeling that what I was embarked on was being observed vicariously. However, fitting the walking and the writing into my normal life is much more difficult, with many social and work obligations pulling on me. Therefore it's taken almost a week to get the time to write up this part of the walk, and it's interesting to consider it now, without the feeling of tired legs and digesting new experiences. As the photos attest, I'm also in Devon as I'm writing this, so I'm a long way away from where I walked last Sunday. I'm very glad of the notes that I took during that day, and the photos which I also always take as an aide memoire, otherwise this would be a very short entry. That in itself makes me pleased that I write this blog, I'm glad that I have a record that persists, even as the immediate memories fade.
If I were to rely on memory alone, my record of Day 12 would be that it was my favourite so far of the Chiltern Way. It had beautiful weather and fantastic views. The day had started with me feeling delighted with humanity, as I had received in the post an anonymous letter that enclosed my drivers' licence. Whilst walking a couple of weeks ago it had fallen out of my rucksack. Or at least that's what I'd assumed, in that I had set off with in it in a pocket (just in case I needed to be identified, always looking on the bright side...), and when I returned I didn't have it any more. Somewhere on the footpath a kind person had found it, and had gone to the trouble of paying for a stamp and posting it back to me. That had raised my spirits enormously, but the prospect of Day 12 was also a bit lowering, as it would be the last day of walking for a while.
A few years ago I managed to tear my left hamstring (the other one to that which was injured last year, for those who follow my hamstring action) whilst running for a train. This was both painful and extremely frustrating. Just after it happened, we were celebrating my birthday, and took an outing to Whipsnade to have a very slow walk around the Tree Cathedral. It was brilliant to now feel so much fitter and energetic than I was when here in 2017. The Whipsnade Tree Cathedral was conceived by Edmund Kell Blyth as a way of paying tribute to the memory of three of his comrades who served alongside him in World War 1. He planted it in the 1930s with two friends, in the shape of a medieval cathedral, with different trees forming the different parts of the 'building'. Those trees are mature now, and it's a place of great beauty with a carpet of conkers. I enjoyed a short interlude there before properly starting the walk.
I overtook a trio of men, possibly brothers and a father, deep in an existential argument about life and its purpose, and on the other side of the path passed a concerning sign about radiation. And then moments later I emerged on to the Dunstable Downs. Today's walk involved little climbing, instead just taking advantage of the elevation gained on previous days. And this section really made the most of it, with wide open spaces in front of me, looking over the plain to Aylesbury and Leighton Buzzard.
There is a gliding centre at the base of the Downs, and the weather appeared perfect for the activity. The sturdy little planes were regularly hauling the elegant gliders up, and then releasing the cable before going down to launch the next one. The sky was so blue, and the sun was shining brightly but without much heat, as if it knew it was the end of summer and it had rather given up.
The grassland was full of people making the most of the day, and as I walked towards the beautifully designed Chiltern Gateway centre I saw an impressive piece of sculpture looking out over the view. Its ribbed surface and geometric design was really intriguing, and I was interested to know whether it was a monument or 'just' a piece of art. I saw an explanatory board nearby, and discovered that it is in fact part of the ventilation system for the building. How brilliant to make something functional a thing of beauty.
For once there weren't lots of red kites in the sky, I wondered maybe being as far east as Bedfordshire meant that they hadn't got this far. Instead there were flocks of crows, both in the sky and sitting on the many commemorative benches for people who had loved this wonderful place. It's hard not to stop and think about the lives of the families who'd lost someone. I was especially drawn to the bench for Johnny Amos, who'd been a Cockney taxi driver and a sound man for Herb Miller's Band. His fourth son Rick was commemorated below Johnny's name. Rick was the Motorbike Instructor's Instructor, and was described as 'the happy one'.
As a different sort of memorial bench, to the north of the Downs are five knolls that were used to entomb the dead 4000 years ago. Those Neolithic people certainly knew where to build a burial mound, it felt like the top of the world.
Although there was little ascent today, there was quite a lot of descent. The ground was mainly pretty good underfoot, but coming away from the knolls there was a steep section where the grass had worn away, leaving the chalky clay exposed. This was hard, and glass slippy, which I discovered when stepping confidently onto it in my less than grippy walking shoes. Not for the first time I was grateful for my poles, but they really did not much more than steer me as I had to break into a gallop to prevent myself from tumbling down the slope. I think I styled it out.
The town of Dunstable unsurprisingly nestles up to Dunstable Downs, with its inappropriately named suburb, California, being the first part that I walked past. A fascinating fact about Dunstable is that it is the biggest town in the south of England that doesn't have a station. The Chiltern Way doesn't run through the town. It's one of the things I'd do differently, if I were in charge of the Chiltern Society. I'd allow the Way to go through the towns, instead of having to make a diversion to see them. Instead, it runs on a green path called Tottenhoe Green Lanes, which skirts the edge of Dunstable. So I didn't find out why the town had been left excluded from the delights of British Rail.
The path was well used by dog walkers and people picking sloes, and there was an excellent carved bench towards the end which sat on the junction of various paths, allowing me to chat to people as I ate my sandwich. A Morrison's tuna and sweetcorn, if you're asking. TJ, an enthusiastic Labrador, thought it smelt excellent. It's a good job my reflexes are red hot, otherwise this would have been a much more tragic tale of a lost lunch.
A couple of sloe pickers explained the unusual lumps of concrete at the entrances to all the fields. It appears that a large number of Travellers came to this area last year, and occupied it for a number of weeks. The concrete is designed to prevent cars and caravans, but allows tractors to pass over it so that the farmers can continue to work the land.
As I approached the footbridge over the A5 I had the simultaneous joy of a laden apple tree over the path, thus supplementing my sandwich, and then the annoyance of a path rerouting sign. The Chiltern Society notified me of a lengthy diversion to go north of the main road instead of through the suburbs. Maybe it was due to the extensive building work that was going on on the edges of the town, maybe it was to give me more time in the fields instead of on road, but it certainly added about a mile. That's not a huge amount, but when it's on quite a long day, I definitely, and rather grumpily, notice it.
It wasn't an especially beautiful section, passing flytipping and very unfriendly signs on a farm making it very clear that walkers were most unwelcome. I eventually stopped for a drink at the side of a footpath which looked out onto the dual carriage way and beyond to a large building site which appeared to be constructing a satellite village to Dunstable or Luton. I thought wistfully of the lovely views earlier.
The Way goes through the village of Chalton. I love wandering through these quiet areas of habitation that I'd never walk through otherwise. It gives me the opportunity to imagine the lives of the people here, and wonder where they work, what they do, and also why would someone name their house 'minus three'. The pub at the edge of the village looked, from its roof, like it had seen a bit of life.
Finally the diversion put me back onto the route that I had planned for. I was now to cross the M1, and almost immediately afterwards the railway line (on which trains obviously wouldn't stop in Dunstable). The sound of the motorway was a continuous growl, I wasn't sorry to move away from this section.
I climbed up a less well marked section of the Way, past some picturesque ponds and through Upper Sundon, before finding a lovely field with a sunny view on which I chatted to my parents on the phone and drank the end of the tea in my thermos. This was more like it.
The Chiltern Way temporarily ran alongside the Bunyan Way at this point. This trail is a circular one of 86 miles that starts and finishes in Sundon Hills Country Park. It commemorates John Bunyan, who worked as a tinker, and would have walked many of the paths around this part of Bedfordshire. That was before he was in prison, of course, as he was incarcerated for his religious beliefs, and wrote 'A Pilgrim's Progress' from Bedford County Gaol. Before I started out from Lands End my dental hygienist floored me by nonchalantly describing my walk as a pilgrimage. This had made me thoughtful about the nature of pilgrimage, whether religious or otherwise, and I have considered it many times over the last year. Someone I greatly value referred to my walk as a way of walking towards myself, and I wonder whether this is indeed a form of pilgrimage. Whatever, I was really pleased to have a connection to John Bunyan here.
The country park just looked like a succession of fields to me, but the sun was shining and I had my wonderful Skipinnish 20th Anniversary Jigs in my ears, so my joy was unconfined. It's not really music that's suitable for Bedfordshire, and I have to be careful not to play my 'special' pieces of music too often, so that I don't dilute their intense effect, but I was walking in a beautiful place and was lucky enough to be strong and fit. How else could I celebrate it but with some crazy bagpipers and a rock band? Even having to negotiate a lake of abandoned slurry didn't dent my mood.
The final section was back in woodlands, the first really good trees of the day. With lovely symmetry with the morning, the beech nuts formed a crunchy carpet that my feet enjoyed as I made my way back to the car and the hour's journey home.
I have been delighted to be asked to give a talk on the trek next month, and so have been amassing some photographs and putting my thoughts into a semblance of order. Writing up some notes for it has brought the experience back, and so I suppose therefore that it was unsurprising that today's walk has reminded me of other days on the big walk. Poppies in a field, glancing similarities to other paths, or other fields, or how the light fell through trees in a way that they did in Scotland. Everything has felt connected. I can't wait till I get out on the Way again, and am delighted that the final four days that I have left are going to be done in one go. Even though it's a few weeks away, I've got another little adventure ahead of me.
Distance travelled: 14.5 miles
Total ascent: 927 feet
Calories burned: 1760
Video of the route