Although I was feeling pretty unwell on this cold, foggy Saturday morning I had the urge to go out and get at least 10 miles of walking under my belt. Luckily for me, my wife Lorna was very supportive and bleary eyed at about 6am, with baby Niamh strapped safely in the back, set out in the car towards the Ashridge Estate in Hertfordshire.
Having been dropped off at the bottom of the avenue that leads up to the Bridgewater Monument and having waved off the wife and baby, I trudged up the gravel track and was surprised to learn that it was nearly half a mile long. At the monument I turned right down the woodland path into Buckinghamshire, past Pitstone Common and up Moneybury Hill.It’s a funny thing you know...
I believe that if you live very near to somewhere, you tend to have a cursory general knowledge of it. You recognise the routes. You reminisce about summers of your childhood looking out for deer, having spontaneous picnics or attempting to fly kites. You know the name of the places in general terms.
But... if you grew up in Dunstable, or Luton, or any of the surrounding small towns or villages... that tends to be the limit of your knowledge... tourists with their guide books tell you things that you never knew or never bothered to find out... or at least that is true for me.
The Ashridge Estate is situated in the Chiltern Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is located about two miles (3 km) north of Berkhamsted and twenty miles (32 km) northwest of London. Although largely situated in Hertfordshire, part of the estate’s land stretches into Buckinghamshire and it is close to the Bedfordshire border. It comprises of 20 square kilometres (5,000 acres) of beautiful and mature woodlands (known as Ashridge Forest), together with commons and chalk downland which supports a rich variety of wildlife. It also offers a good choice of way marked walks through outstanding country.
On this particular foggy January morning I strolled along the woodland path past Duncombe Farm and around Clipper Down, a gentle hill at 249m (817ft), until having crossed a large area of open field I reached the Ridgeway National Trail. A sharp right turn, past a herd of particularly noisy cows, and I was heading up Steps Hill. Ordinarily this stretch is not too strenuous, but the path was awash with mud and it felt like I was taking two to three times the amount of steps I would normally take, all the time tensing the old inner thigh muscles in an attempt to avoid my boots from splaying and being launched into an involuntary box splits!
A bit further along the Ridgeway trail crosses a road and heads up towards the summit of Ivinghoe Beacon. For those of you who aren’t from these ‘ere parts, Ivinghoe Beacon is a prominent hill and landmark in the Chiltern Hills, standing 233 m (757 ft) tall. It also acts as the convergence point of the Icknield Way to the east, and the Ridgeway long-distance path to the west.
As I was about to follow the Icknield Way Footpath Trail eastwards from the base of the beacon, I didn’t really need to go up it... but I was there and it isn’t too taxing so I thought it would be churlish not to. Once up there the wind was picking up some serious pace and due to the fog you actually couldn’t see very much at all; not even the Five Knolls of the Dunstable Downs which are usually easy to spot in most weathers. So having chugged a fair bit of water it was back down the beacon and left towards “the Icknield Way Trail – Walkers Path.” It was at this point I spotted by brother in law, Kevin, braving the elements, heading towards the Ivinghoe Beacon Car Park, three cocker spaniels circling his feet. I took the opportunity to pause for a chin wag before leaving him to corral the exuberant canines into the back of his car.
From the bottom of Ivinghoe Beacon, I followed the Icknield Way Trail across some fields and through some gloomy woodland, where it was clear that the deer had been stripping the bark off the lower parts of the trees with their antlers. Eventually I came to some wooden steps inserted into the mud bank leading up to a farm. These were surprisingly steep and started to take the wind out of me. I had to pause about three times on the way up which led me to feel quite miserable... until two runners, who were clearly ultra-fit in their spandex space age running clobber, came running through the woodland behind me.
The lady, who was leading the way, made it about three quarters of the way up the steps at a canter before pausing to wait for the bloke. He had the good sense to stop running by about the second or third step and started to trudge up the ascent at a reasonably steady rate.
“You couldn’t carry me up could you?” he joked as he passed me. “I can hardly carry myself!” I wheezily replied.
Having conquered this minor obstacle, I downed a fair amount of water, and then took a fairly sharp left at the farm, downhill through what appeared to be a paddock of some kind, towards Dagnall with Ward’s Coombe to my left.
I emerged onto my first bit of road walking southeast across the roundabout in the centre of Dagnall, until I reached the school where the footpath began again, then onwards uphill next to Dagnall Wood before entering into Bedfordshire by striking out across the fairways of Whipsnade Park Golf Club (which I confess I did not know existed despite having lived in this area pretty much my whole life!).
My route followed the Icknield Way Walkers Trail around the fence line of Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, which unsurprisingly considering the weather, looked pretty desolate of human activity; but I did get a funny stare as I trundled by from what I can only guess was some sort of Asian Antelope.
The trail emerges at Whipsnade itself and it’s only a short ramble across a piece of common, crossing a surprisingly busy road, before you reach Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. I took the opportunity at this point to have a rest on one of the benches.
Whilst I was chilling out silently in this clearing I overheard four adults and a child walking through the Tree Cathedral. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as the adults took a turn at singing a couple of line each from the rap at the start of Fresh Prince of Bel Air to the thoroughly amused youngster whilst they happily rambled through the otherwise serene Cathedral of Trees.
Then I was up again and off in the general direction of Dell Farm, the school trip centre of many a Dunstablian youth, and along the footpath towards Bison Hill. The path at this point was not really a path at all... water as far as the eye could see, mixed with sloppy, glue-like mud that would sooner have your boot off than let you cross it. Having left my kayak at home, and having had frankly quite enough of the gymnastics of trying to avoid the puddles earlier, I just waded through like a man possessed. There was probably a cooked breakfast waiting for me at the in-laws house – that’s some pretty strong motivation right there!
The walk from Bison Hill towards the “Chilterns Gateway Visitor Centre” (which I still stubbornly refer to as “the hut” despite the fact that it no longer exists and was technically on a site a little further along) was equally slippy slidey (technical term).
I was actually quite relieved when I reached the new-ish trail path that now runs from the centre to the Five Knolls, as I was able to stop concentrating on my balance and start enjoying the views all around me. The fog had lifted and, although some serious rain was clearly on the way, the views were spectacular.
From the Five Knolls I looked back towards Ivinghoe Beacon prominently sticking out from the horizon and felt reasonably satisfied with this first training walk after a couple of months of being laid up.
I then ambled down the path from the top of the downs that leads to Dunstable, before chirpily strolling towards the in-laws house. When I arrived Lorna, Niamhy and Maxine were already at the window to greet me with water, sweet tea and a very tasty breakfast – a perfect Saturday morning.
According to MapmyHike the mornings training walk was about 14.5 miles and I was walking for about 4.5-5 hours in total. According to Mapometer drawing the route onto their map it is about 12.5 miles. Either way, I was quite happy with how it went after a short period of inactivity.
Onwards and upwards!
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