Exploring the northern end of the Chiltern Hills

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It was a long but worthwhile walk in the Chiltern Hills

Looking north to the Dunstable Downs

The Chiltern Hills form a chalk escarpment to the north-west of London, stretching for 46 miles much of the Chilterns are designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I have walked along the south-western part of the Chilterns when I did the Ridgeway Trail last year from Goring to Ivinghoe Beacon.

On this walk I decided to explore the Northern end from Ivinghoe Beacon to the Dunstable Downs. It was a long walk but I enjoyed walking across the land as Autumn was taking hold of the countryside, and there were some areas that certainly deserved the label of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Ivinghoe Beacon

Ivinghoe Beacon gently nudges itself into the Vale of Aylesbury. Lifting its head above the flat land’s of the vale it gives extensive views to the north and is a great place to sit and muse on a fine day. It is a fitting place to end or start the Ridgeway Trail, on the day of my walk I met a chap who was just beginning his trail adventure. I wished him a great journey as fond memories of my walk washed across my mind.

The flavour of Ivinghoe beacons prehistoric past still lingers on the top of the promontory. In the morning mistiness of the day I found it easy to identify with our ancestors as I stood overlooking the vale. There once was an Iron Age fort on the top, and it was not hard to Imagine standing behind a wooden stockade overlooking the Vale which would have been covered in trees in those wilder times.

Last time I was here it was the end of a journey, this time it was the beginning.

The Icknield Way

Ivinghoe Beacon is also the start of the Icknield Way this 110 mile trail claims to be the oldest road in Britain finishing at Knettishall Heath near Thetford. Not that I was intending to walk all that way on this day, but it would take me to the Dunstable Downs which was my destination at the far northern end of the Chilterns.

It was a very colourful walk through the Autumnal landscape and at times the marks of this ancient roadway were very obvious. Not only were the colours of Autumn around me but also the sounds, a Red Kite crying in the sky and deer bellowing in the woods. I loved the sights and sounds around me of change. Nature was preparing for its winter slumber.

The trail passes behind Whipsnade Zoo offering a sneaky peak into its grounds. I just caught a glimpse of an elephant in the distance near some sheds, it looked weirdly out-of-place. Much closer though were a herd of deer, I think they were reindeer but I am not sure. They hung around posing for me which was very satisfying and I had a far better sight of them than the car I saw driving through the grounds – they had paid for the privilege where mine was free!

Dunstable Downs

The downs lie to the south-west of Dunstable. This lengthy chalk escarpment also offers magnificent views across the Vale of Aylesbury and is a very popular place for visitors. The downs stretch for a few miles and their long airy walks made a change from the more enclosed woodland that had accompanied much of my walk since Ivinghoe  Beacon.

Half way along the top of the downs The Chiltern Gateway Centre sits prominently on a high point, its large windows in the cafe enable you to admire the view while having a coffee and a bite to eat. It was just the right place for me to take a break and get something to eat and drink. The food they serve is quite simple but good and I recommend their sausage rolls.

I sat there for about half an hour listening to the hustle and bustle of the busy centre and watching the much more peaceful scenery outside, it was a good place to rest for a bit and revitalise myself for the next leg of my journey.

Heading South

My next destination was Berkhamsted Common. To get there I had to create my own route. Initially this took me along country lanes which fortunately were not busy until I passed through the village of Kensworth, then I turned south-west aiming for the Hertfordshire Way another long distance path that I used for a few miles.

It was pleasant afternoon walking the hedgerows with their autumn fruits and the trees were starting to carpet the ground with their fallen leaves, I even came across the odd toadstool. A mellow Autumnal feel slowly stole over me as breathed in the seasons decoration.

Eventually I reached the attractive villages of Great Gaddersden and Nettleden that sit just below the southern end of Berkhamsted Common.

Berkhamsted Common

Berkhamsted Common is famous for a particular struggle between the landed gentry and the common people. In 1866 Lord Brownlow fenced off most of the common thus privatising it. Another local man Augustus Smith brought 120 men from London one night who pulled down three miles of the fencing opening it up again for the locals. When the matter went to court Augustus Smith won and the common has stayed ‘common’ to today.

The common is mainly covered in a diverse woodland and is an ideal place for walks, my walk was through about three miles of this woodland. When I reached the common the sun was setting, for the first half of my forestry walk the combination of the red sunlight and the browns and yellows of autumn leaves made a rich tapestry of deep colours that adorned my path. I enjoyed it very much and as darkness claimed the woods the mystery and magic of my surroundings just made the walk even better.

The woods are quite dense so when the night had fully claimed its own I had to use my head torch. Thankfully I always carry it with me not because of situations like this but in case I discover something I want to explore like a cave. Whatever the reason for always carrying my torch may be I was very glad I had it with me this time.

The final miles

Eventually I came to the road that went down the hill to the village of Aldbury. Another attractive village with a pub who’s warm lights shone out into the darkness very invitingly. However it was getting pretty late and by the light of the moon I pressed on along a country road walled with high hedges on either side.

Orion shone overhead in front of me, the moon lit my path. It was a mystical finish to the days walk and although my legs were beginning to ache I revelled in the last part of my walk.

It had been worth it, the Chilterns certainly have a lot to offer any walker whatever their length of walk may be – it does not have to be as long as mine!

 


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I just love walking, have done since my first precarious steps in nappies. Being outdoors is definitely better than in, whatever the weather.