Chiltern Way Day 16 - Redbourn to Hemel Hempstead
After my unsatisfactory breakfast yesterday, I vowed to do better today. The best reviewed restaurant in St Albans is The Hatch, and it goes in for breakfast big style. I was the first into the building as it opened, and was very pleased with their sweetcorn fritters, halloumi, avocado and egg concoction. Definitely a better start than Sunday's. And that was good, as today was a tough one and I needed all the calories.
I was keen to get going, and eventually my taxi picked me up from my comfortable, if rather unfriendly, hotel and dropped me back at Redbourn museum. The driver was a bit baffled at my enterprise I think, but waved me off cheerfully. Today the country has been battered by Storm Debi, and the forecast was one that I looked at carefully before setting off. I am happy walking in most weathers, but I am cautious if there are life threatening elements such as lightning or strong winds. It was expected that for where I was the wind would be up to 45 miles an hour for much of the time that I'd be out. That's pretty blowy, but I reckoned it wouldn't be too dangerous.
Opposite the museum there is Redbourn Common, formerly known as The Heath. It's just over 40 acres, with semi-natural grassland, a wildflower meadow and an avenue of lime trees. Originally it was common land, which meant that villagers could cut peat from the turf, hang out their washing and graze their animals. Now it's more recreational, with a cricket ground and a marked out mile route to give the residents a chance to stretch their legs. The first thing I saw as I crossed the common with the wind blustering, was a fallen branch across the footpath. Not enormous, but it would have given me quite the bump.
The wind was filling my eyes with tears, sometimes blinding me as if I was wearing goggles that had filled with water. The ground was wet and muddy, and very slippy underfoot, so if I were to wipe my eyes that meant that I was forgoing the use of my poles, one hazard replaced by another. It was a momentary distraction to come out onto the slip road that crossed over the M1.
The first village today was Flamstead. St Leonard's Church dominates, and unusually for churches on the Chiltern Way, it was open. It offered many attractions, such as a quiet place out of the weather, a toilet (a walker never turns one of those down), some beautiful medieval wall paintings, and a Samaritans information poster. I've not often seen them in churches, and it made me very pleased that the church community acknowledge the role that the Samaritans has that can fill a gap that maybe religion can't. I was lucky to be able to go into the church, as in 2017 it was threatened with closure due to death watch beetle and a failing roof. A huge fundraising project was launched, and now the church is saved, and transformed into the extremely welcoming building that I enjoyed.
Out again onto the fields, with the mud splashing over my legs, the wind gusting so strongly that it almost blew me over, and my hair reacting with its normal abandon. It was completely exhilarating. The path was ahead of me, the weather was on my face, and today was the last day.
I'd chosen 'Always and Forever' by Rose Tremain to listen to over this long weekend as it is shortish, and therefore it was likely that I'd complete it before I got home. The story was (as always with her writing) completely engaging and thought provoking. I was caught up by the phrase one of the characters used: 'Put something significant in your life.... You have to search and find'. I considered this off and on for the rest of the day.
I hurried through the copses that the path ventured through to minimise the chances of the trees falling on me. Because the wind was still really fierce. It made walking harder, taking my breath away, and making the hills feel more of an obstacle. Yet this woodland also made me appreciate that I was turning back to home, they felt domestic and familiar. And fortunately still mainly upright.
Passing Gaddesdon Row School at lunchtime I was greeted enthusiastically by the little ones in the playground. Moments after I passed them, the wind dropped, and was replaced by a heavy rain squall. I imagined the chaos of getting lots of infants off the playground in a hurry, and didn't envy the teachers starting the beginning of afternoon school with soggy children all wired with the wind and the weather.
Having thought it would be a passing shower, the rain instead appeared to be settling in. I reckoned this could coincide nicely with lunchtime. I passed the Golden Parsonage, which is part of the Gaddesden Estate. A lovely looking house, and researching it later, I discovered an excellent website telling the story of the Halsey family, who've lived on the estate since the dissolution of the monasteries. This house is not their largest dwelling. I was very drawn to the current family photo, tweed agogo, and even wearing the types of knickerbocker that might have been worn by the navvies from yesterday's blog. However glorious the house, it didn't look like the sort of place where the occupants would offer me shelter. But a young oak tree in the grounds appeared to be more welcoming.
I sheltered under the tree, wrapped up in my waterproofs and nestled up to its trunk like a little animal, amongst the acorns and the fallen leaves, the feathers of a long dead bird and various fungi. I ate my cheese sandwich (of course - it's the last day!), drank my tea and watched the rain in the relative dry. And I considered how much I love these outdoor meals. By the time I'd finished eating the sun had come out again, so I thanked my tree for its service and moved on.
It was good to not be rained on any more, but because of the wet the ground was even harder going, squelchy and slippery. My trousers had been soaked with mud earlier, and now my waterproof trousers were sealing that moisture in. I looked bedraggled and filthy.
In that state I almost stumbled upon Gaddesden Place, the main house of the Halsey family. The Chiltern Way guidebook describes it as a Palladian mansion, built in the eighteenth century. It's extremely imposing, with a spectacular view. Maybe because my foot was beginning to hurt again, maybe because the weather was a bit exhausting, but at this point I started to make navigational errors, ending up at one point almost on the front lawn of the house. Fortunately I wasn't chased away for looking too grubby, there were just some sheep that looked disappointed in me.
My wobbly map reading continued at the bottom of the next hill, near Potten End, over a series of waterlogged areas on the edge of the river Gade. This is another distinctive chalk stream, and had what appeared to be wild watercress growing. The stream had overflowed, and I repeatedly went the wrong way, thus plunging my feet into the water over the tops of my boots. I've had this happen before when I'm in company and therefore distracted, or if I'm very tired. But it also could have been that I wasn't keen for the walk to be over, and I was unconsciously delaying the finish.
Eventually I followed a dog walker out of my slough of confusion, and headed up the final hill and into a little copse. The wind had started up again, and it was making my hair whip my face, whilst adding leaves and little twigs into the mix as extra exfoliation. It was exhausting but strangely uplifting. It felt really good that this last day was going out with a bang instead of a wet whimper.
My excellent book finished, I took normal refuge in my music for the last hour or so. In this final section I deliberately chose to listen to songs that were important to me on the big walk, and enjoyed the eclectic nature of my playlist, from Stormzy to Peter Maxwell Davies, The Beths to Parsonsfield, Pastor T.L. Barrett to The King's Singers. I sang along with these treasured songs, and thought about the ending of this walk. There are so many differences between this and the end of LEJoG at John O'Groats. Coming into Hemel Hempstead there were grey skies, rotting leaves, mud, teenagers larking about on a kids' playground, a nondescript housing estate. All very different to the clear blue skies, the openness and emptiness of the end of the country. But there were similarities too. I was feeling satisfaction, I was feeling weather beaten and fit, and mainly I was wondering what was going to come next. This walk has kept me together since returning from Scotland. I had been on an uneven keel when I got home, missing my adventure desperately, and feeling a lack of purpose. Deciding to walk this local long distance path has been a tonic. Even if I've not had the time to get out, I've known that it was there to do in a week, or two, or four. Now there isn't anything fixed in the diary, so I need to work out what comes next as the winter weather descends.
Under the Hemel railway bridge I enjoyed unexpectedly good street art and then the incongrous sight of sheep grazing on the common next to heavy traffic. I had saved my finale music for this last meander around the railway line, so I arrived at the railway line to exultant Skipinnish.
But this was not like the summer, there is no finish post for the Chiltern Way. Because it is a circular route, I could carry on walking it forever.
Instead there was an anticlimactic crossing of the station, eventually leading to me having to persuade the rail official to let me through the ticket barrier. I said ‘I’ve not come in on a train, I've been walking.’ He looked at my filthy trousers and nodded agreement. And he let me out of the station for me to find David sitting in the car waiting for me.
Distance travelled: 11.8 miles
Total ascent: 1147 feet
Calories burned: 1577
Total distance walked: 198 miles (including all the bits where I got lost!)
Video of the walk