I had trouble getting motivated for this one this week – Super wife and I were still up printing maps and having baths until about midnight the night before; I was still sore from the weights sessions and smaller evening walks during the week and the call of London Irish’s St Patricks Day game the next day was overwhelming. But dodging this week’s long walk simply wasn’t an option – I’ve only got about another 14 weekends before I leave to really press on with my fitness and foot conditioning, and I promised Super Wife that next weekend I would stay at home as it is Mothers Day. So having collapsed into my bed around midnight I was up again to the sound of my mobile phone alarm at 4:15am. Having talcum powdered the living hell out of my already blistered feet and smeared the obligatory copious amount of Vaseline on the inner thighs – which I can’t stand to do – and having sunk about a pint of water and devoured a bowl of porridge – I was off into the chilly darkness of the early morning, an ambling silhouette against the streetlights as I waved goodbye to Super Wife, who was clearly desperate to get back to sleep before our tiny dictator awoke in the nursery the next room over.
Armed with maps of a different route, a camera and a phone in one coat pocket, together with a large bottle of water in the other; and wearing two t-shirts, a jumper, a coat and a beanie hat against the frosty morning elements, I walked down Luton Road, past the new Market Cross pub, over the road before the new Duck Bridge, up Station Road and onto the footpath that runs along the bottom of Blows Downs.
Why new maps and a different route? Well, I had someone ask me the other day whether the walks posted on the blog are the only walks I do; of course they’re not – but there would be very little interest in this blog if I just wrote about doing the same walks over and over again, or kept describing my trundles up and down the busway footpath. So what I try to do is to make the longer weekend walks more interesting by deliberately plotting my route in new directions and through new villages. There is obviously a bit of repetition because I’m largely starting and finishing in the same place – but hopefully these posts aren’t becoming too repetitive!
As I walked along the base of Blows Downs in the direction of Half Moon Lane, I realised that I could hear two males voices chattering away and as I got closer to the big park to my right at Downs Road I could see tufts of white cigarette smoke rising from two silhouettes, who at 5:15am were sat on the boundary fence of the park. As I got closer it was apparent that these two dapper lads were still in the Italian designer shoes and sharp shirts from the previous night on the town – less walk of shame and more the night that never ends I thought as I silently past them on the footpath with only a few trees between us.
The moon shone brightly through the clouds and so the path was easy to follow, and despite the heavy rain for an hour or so the night before, the ground was largely firm and the going good. I followed the path as far as Downside Lower School on Oakwood Avenue, which was the first school I ever went to, albeit for only a year. I strolled through Downside with not another soul around and only a few lights on in the houses and flats as I past them, no movement anywhere, down Graham Road to Southwood Road and past the block of flats that I lived in until I was six - although it looks as though they've been done up a bit since then!
From there it was up to the A5, the new hotel and the construction site for the expansion of Downside, before turning up Beech Road, past the houses of Lowther Road and up the pathless winding tarmac to the edge of Kensworth Quarry.
The quarry was completely unknown to me until a few weeks ago. That level of obliviousness now seemed ridiculous as I realised that I have driven along the road I was walking down now many times before and this behemoth crater torn into the landscape was so obviously visible through the thin tree-line!
I followed the track down to the junction at the edge of Church End and then up Spratts Lane to the footpath across the fields towards Common Road. Having walked about 4 and a bit miles, I thought that this was as good a time as any to tweet the fact that I was out and about – I was mindful of the fact that it was a Saturday morning and that anyone kind enough to actually be following this walk on Twitter or Facebook might not actually be too pleased by their mobile phone notification sounding off too early! In terms of the walking itself, truth be told, I had only just really woken up, the aches had only just worked themselves out at this point and I was actually starting to feel quite fresh.
I emerged onto Common Road in Kensworth, crossing immediately over the road and onto a footpath that ran down a rather pretty driveway then dove into some trees to the right at a point where the signage made you very aware that you were no longer welcome on the said driveway and that you better shift your arse onto the tiny dirt track along the fence line at the back of the estate houses or else! The path was actually very pretty in the golden glow of the morning light until I had to start to hurdle the debris that is so often found close to the back fences of housing estates – the broken fridge – the smashed up interior door – the rusty bike frame – the small pile of ash surrounded by beer cans and lads mags – this morning I was definitely on the scenic route.
That path came out onto Dovehouse Lane, which passes Shortgrove Manor Farm, where I inadvertently managed to scare an entire flock of sheep that had been right next to the fence of a field to high heaven, causing them to retreat several metres back at pace, by unconsciously reciting the words to Gangsters Paradise by Coolio featuring L.V. at volume between swigs of water. Why Coolio so early on a Saturday morning? We’ll never know.
I crossed Buckwood Lane and climbed the footpath that runs along the back of the gardens of the large and impressive houses of Holywell, yet another hidden gem of a village hidden amongst the countryside, or certainly not seen often by those who live 5 miles down the road without a car. The sun was starting to shine quite brightly by this time bringing out all the glorious colours of spring and although I knew it was still quite chilly, because I was shifting along at quite a pace, wrapped in various layers of clothing, I actually started to feel quite warm. So off came the beanie hat despite the fact that I knew that half my hair was standing straight up in the air like the hobo version of Mr Majeika!
From there it was across more fields, along the edge of some woodland, over Dunstable Road, through yet more fields past the outskirts of Studham and then onto Church Road near Manor Farm.
I followed Valley Road downhill until I reached the edge of a field at the bottom with a waymark post pointing diagonally across it. As I had trundled down the tarmac I noticed a man out washing his car who had paused to watch me thunder past, the sound of boots thwacking against the road. He nodded, said good morning and gave me a strange smirk, at which point I realised I had been doing it again... this time the Oasis classic Live Forever – volume – moderate. Slightly embarrassed, and not a little red, I said good morning and continued on... with haste.
The footpath diagonally across this field was not in fact a footpath, it was a bridleway, and as I am fast discovering, I am not the biggest fan of bridleways. Littered with stones and rock and extremely uneven, they play havoc with my bruised and blistered feet. Not for the squeamish but I can tell you that even with a pair of thick soled boots on, if you tread on a bit of brick or stone with any force, it will cause your blister to pop dramatically causing you not a small amount of pain and a painful mile or so thereafter.
The weather was glorious – sunny and warm – and having followed the bridleway I was led towards Ravensdell Wood, before descending steeply downhill through Milebarn and the Hemel Hempstead Road.
Once over the road the path took me up a sustained steep uphill along a tractor track until I reached some lovely old houses on my left at Hudnall. This was the first point on the walk where I had been completely overheated and out of breath, and I’m not too proud to admit that I had to momentarily pause to catch my breath before making it up to the brow of the hill.
I guzzled down a fair bit of water before plodding on towards an isolated old tree at the edge of a planted field which the path turned west across. At first the path wasn’t at all evident but once I had past the tree itself you could see the compressed earth of the path in the bright sunshine now beating down fiercely at my back.
The path took me into Little Gaddesen, past a beautiful church standing alone out in the middle of these fields.
Strangely, the stiles and waymark posts of the footpath took me across a little lane leading to the church and then into what I would have sworn was someone’s garden, but what transpired to be some quaint little paddock that wrapped around in an L-shape behind the back of a row of cottage each with its own small garden.
The route was then marshalled through some private paddocks along an impressively well maintained grass path until I materialised onto the Nettelden Road beside a pub, where I could have easily missed the continuation of the path entirely unless I had not nosily wandered across to the rear of its car park where the routes waymark post was rediscovered, with a huge sigh of relief.
I told myself off for singing another Niamh favourite to myself, “A Long Hard Road,” taken from that timeless classic, My Little Pony – The Quest of the Princess Ponies... that girl is turning me into a nut case! I followed the path across the Ringshall Drive path and up through the woodlands until I reached Ashridge Golf Club’s clubhouse. It’s a beautiful place, with stunning greens and fairways and an impressive clubhouse. I did, however, speed up considerably as I got myself from one side to the other, as a growing sense of being a target for some guffawing ex-public schoolboy descended upon me; pausing only to look back, now safely on the other side, to take this picture.
I carried on, turning west along the Hertfordshire Way until I reached New Road, crossing over to walk up the long gravel drive towards the Bridgewater Monument in the heart of the Ashridge Estate.
Things were now heating up. Looking around at the attire of the few dog walkers around me I could tell that it was still technically a bit cold, but I was definitely getting pretty warm. I had promised myself that at 8:30am, at the Bridgewater Monument, having done about 10 miles, I would stop, eat a banana, refill my water bottle from the reserve in my pack and have a rest.
The problem was I had found a bit of rhythm. My feet were no longer hurting, my legs were no longer sore, I wasn’t particularly thirsty and I was keen to get to Pitstone Hill.
So I didn’t in fact stop, I carried on straight past the monument and onto the track behind it heading in the general direction of Stocks Road.
The right path as it turned out took a bit of finding but having located it, there was steep downhill to the edge of the woods, then across an open field and through a stile turning right onto Stocks Road itself.
Turning north up Stocks Road, you pass yet another Golf Club and then a few very grand houses on your left. I have no idea who lives in them, but one in particular is a proper mansion set in a fair bit of land, grand and impressive, and must have some history to it – yet another local landmark I had been entirely unaware of.
The footpath then breaks from the road along a stretch of grassed path lined by a few trees before striking out diagonally across some ploughed fields in the direction of the Ridgeway Path running along the ridge from Pitstone Hill.
When I say the path runs through some ploughed fields, it clearly does. There are way marks and laminated signs urging you to stay on the path and not venture onto the private land... which is fair enough. However... the path itself has been completely ploughed up together with the field, making it recognisable as a path only because of the slight colour deferential in the soil and the impressions of a few boots that had braved the path before you, thus making it “ankle break heaven” out there.
I reached the brow of Pitstone Hill in reasonably good nick and having taken a couple of sips of water – but still not stopping for a break – I set off in the direction of a path that should have taken me to the Upper Icknield Way Road at its junction with Vicarage Road.
The only problem was... there didn’t appear to be any such path. Sure... I found a style, but clearly the other side was impassable due to the amount of fallen trees, bushes and mounds of earth that were evident literally feet from the gate. I walked as far southwest as a small water filled quarry, but it was clear from the map that this was too far and so I retraced my steps, following a track of sorts along the fence line which barred me from continuing north.
I staggered up and down the hill side, ducking thorns and brambles, snagging myself on barbed wire, until fully satisfied that there was no such path accessible from Pitstone Hill I began to traipse back up it towards Stocks Road which I knew would eventually lead to me to Ivinghoe. The language I was using would have made a soldier blush and I did suffer a sudden pang of paranoia that there might be a little old lady walking a Westie just out of view being caused great offence. Luckily for me there was a farmer in a field, just the other side of that frickin’ fence, driving his Land Rover around a flock of sheep, in an attempt to herd them into the far opposite corner. As such the sheep were causing an almighty din which would have more than drowned out any blue language in which I had been partaking... and which in fact gave me the confidence to indulge in a good deal more.
Funnily enough, when I was almost at the gate out onto Stocks Road I spotted a footpath, not marked on the map and yet officially waymarked, that ran alongside Stocks Road before joining onto Church Road leading into Ivinghoe. Unfortunately that stretch of road has no footpath and a barely traversable verge until you are almost at the church coming into the village, so I had to walk towards oncoming traffic, as per the old highway code, as vehicles whipped by in excess of the speed limit inches from my elbow.
As you get to the pavement, if you look out across the field to your left you can see Pitstone Windmill, a cracking example of an early form of windmill and one of the oldest in Britain, standing in the north east corner of a large field near the parish boundary of Ivinghoe and Pitstone in Buckinghamshire. Perhaps it’s because I’m a massive Jonathan Creek fan, but I fancy myself living in a converted windmill. I couldn’t imagine a more pleasant or interesting place to set up home.
Ivinghoe itself is stunning. It has a large church that dates from 1220, but was set on fire in 1234 in an act of spite against the local Bishop. The church was rebuilt in 1241 and still stands today.
For a village Ivinghoe has an unusual feature: a town hall, rather than a village hall. The village has some fine examples of Tudor architecture, particularly around the village green and a fantastic restaurant, The Kings Head, famed for its signature dish, Aylesbury Duck, where Super Wife and I celebrated ten years together and our wedding anniversary.
Today, Ivinghoe Green was to be the perfect spot for my first break – originally scheduled for the Bridgewater Monument 4 miles earlier. I parked myself on a park bench and tucked into a banana and a seed 9 bar, whilst replenishing the now empty bottle of water I carry in my coat pocket with the two litre bottle that I carry in my pack. It was only at this point that I realised Super Wife had snuck an additional bottle of water into my pack – surprisingly I hadn’t noticed the additional weight. At this point I had walked about 14 miles.
I set off again, but unfortunately in the wrong direction! I was on the outskirts of Ford End just outside of Ivinghoe when I realised I was heading northwest rather than north east, so I had to turn around and walk back up Station Road and then Ladysmith Road, turning northeast at The Rose and Crown in Ivinghoe, a traditional English village pub established in 1690.
From there I trekked almost two miles up a bridleway to the hamlet of Ivinghoe Aston, passing as I did so yet another golf club in the process. I had little else to look at as I approached the road crossing the bridleway by the village sign but the stony surface of the bridleway, the hedges either side, and the road itself on the horizon.
During the whole walk towards that road not a single vehicle went by... until I actually reached it to cross. Sods law, I then had to stop for what seemed an age to let a stream of vehicles pass in either direction.
Having crossed that road the bridleway continued, not a pleasant white chalk path as you might expect in the Chilterns, but a sort of gravel track, but in the distance, with the storm clouds rolling by over head, you could see a fantastic church set against the sky on the top of a hill on the horizon.
About a quarter mile further along I came to a small footbridge over a brook or stream, where I noticed a carved stone cross set upon a mound of earth at the side of the path. I have never walked this way before so I had no idea it existed.
It was understated but quite beautiful, so I took a picture of it whilst I had a sip of water and waited patiently for two riders to take their horses under the canopy of the tree line running along the stream and across the little bridge.
Setting off again it was further along the bridleway, but now with St Mary’s Church getting ever nearer. This striking church is located on an isolated chalk hillock with a churchyard that covers the slopes at the top of the hillock surrounded by stone walls, sitting high above the surrounding landscape.
St Mary's is a noble landmark in the Vale of Aylesbury with its massive 14th-century limestone tower reaching up towards the sky. I was very impressed. So much so, that looking at the church completely took my mind off the newly forming blisters on the balls of my feet.
Alas, the blissful ignorance was not to continue as the minute I emerged onto the pavements of the residential streets of Edlesborough the pain in my feet came searing back to the forefront of my mind. I’m not saying Edlesborough isn’t lovely, but if you’ve seen one standard paved street you’ve seen them all – diverting they are not.
That said, a handful of Ibuprofen later and I was off on my way again, I even started whistling as I plodded ever onwards, past the Green where there were a couple of pitches being used for the kids football league matches. Rows of parents stood along the side lines roaring words of “encouragement” at these kids – some more constructive than others - and the sound of child and adult voices carried across the common and for quite a way thereafter. I got some funny looks from two gents in a transit van when I stopped to take a picture of the village sign post. I then realised that it was quite close to the kids play area and the mind boggles to think what they might have thought I was up to! Alternatively, they may just have been confused by the sight of a bearded bloke, looking rather hot and flustered, with mud up to his knees and his hair standing straight up at the back of his head. Either way, the sun had got his hat on and I was beginning to rue the decision to double up on those t-shirts. Looking at the people watching football, decked out in coats, hats, gloves and stamping their feet, I suspected that the temperature might in fact be a damn sight cooler than my internal thermostat was letting on.
Almost seamlessly, I found myself in Eaton Bray, still walking on the same pavement and along the same road. I came to a triangular green as I entered the village and turned left up the High Street, before turning right up School Lane.
At the end of School Lane I could hear another children’s football match going on behind the school buildings there, which I could hear for quite some time as I set off across the field path towards Castle Hill Road in Totternhoe.
The views from these open fields were stunning. The contrasting colours of the dark brown ploughed fields, the rich greens of the Dunstable Downs, the bright blue sky behind a flurry of white and grey clouds – I paused to take a picture (and in truth to down a fair bit of water and inhale a flax 9 bar!)
I then came to what I can only describe as the most poxy little footbridge I have ever seen with sort of iron stiles at either end, which was too narrow to comfortably clamber over without worrying about your muddy boots slipping on the metal bar and crashing your face into the concrete posts. It wasn’t a massive problem for me in the end but anyone with any mobility issues whatsoever would be in serious trouble.
I walked up the footpath past a residential caravan park in the heart of Totternhoe and as I did an older gentleman came out to tend his small garden. I wished him a good morning and he bellowed across the paddock to me “It’s a wee bit nippy today like!” in a thick Geordie accent, at least it sounded Geordie to me. I hollered back over to him, my brow dripping with sweat, “It depends on how many miles you’ve just walked mate!” to which we both laughed, and I trundled on up to the road.
Once at the road, I could see the Cross Keys pub to my left and Castle Hill Road leading down to Church End on my right.
I pottered down the road to my right until I reached the track leading up to the Scout Hut on my left. Climbing that track through the picnic area and car park at its end, I was soon up the wooden dirt steps that lead to the bottom of Half Mile Hill.
Half Mile Hill, is a hill that on one side over looks Totternhoe Quarry. It’s not particularly steep but it sits quite high up on the landscape and provides stunning views of the surrounding countryside from its top.
If you’re not too keen on cliff edges then I would advise you to stay firmly away from the purely cosmetic wire fence that acts as the only barrier between you and a chalk face down to the fields below.
Now I say it’s not too steep, but if you’ve already walked 20 miles by this point, it still a sustained climb enough to leave you gasping for some water by the top, especially on a hot day – which is what this afternoon was shaping up to be.
Some kids, no older than 12 years old I should think came scampering over the top of the hill and down the other side towards me as I trudged on upwards towards the top. I could tell that one of the lads was looking at me thinking “Crumbs! That bloke is out of shape!” (because, of course, this 21st century lad’s inner monologue would be that of one of the Famous Five). I had to catch myself from blurting out “You’d bloody look like this as well pal, if you had just done 20 miles!” – damn my inner monologue... always causing trouble!
From there, it was down the other side of the hill, turning north up to the dirt and gravel track that leads eastwards to the end of the area officially sanctioned the end of the Totternhoe Knolls and the beginning of the area of the Green Lanes.
It had been my intention to exit the Green Lanes at the point where a path appears to the left taking the walker down to the corner of Brewers Hill Road and Drovers Way in Dunstable, but I decided that I hadn’t really walked quite far enough today.
Despite an aggravating blister on the ball of my right foot I rambled on up the Lanes until I came to their end at the junction with West Street.
From there I turned left down West Street at a slow amble and then left again onto Drovers Way. It was about 12:45. The traffic was picking up, people were milling about; other than football playing kids and their parents and supporters, this was the first sign of a Saturday level of activity that I had come across since I set out at 5am.
I text my mum as I got to Pascomb Road to “slap on the kettle” – she had been looking after Niamh while I walked and Super Wife worked over in Luton – and a few minutes later there I was, walking up the garden path.
At this point I had walked about 22 (and a bit) miles. I was tired but not shattered. My feet hurt and were blistered but not unmanageably so. The one thing I definitely was... I was hot.
Problem solved by pouring the other 2 litres of water that remained in my backpack over the noggin!
(Whilst pulling a face like a gorilla Super Wife just pointed out!)
I had arrived at my mum’s at about 12:50 and had done 22 miles by that time, which stands me in good stead for the big walk itself. Had this been a day on that walk, I would have done my required mileage by 1pm, leaving about 9 hours of summer sunshine to rest, recuperate and relax before the next day or to add a few extra miles after a good four hour rest.
I rested at my mum’s for a bit, drank a couple of cups of sweet tea and shared another banana with Niamh and then packed everything up into the buggy and strolled into Dunstable with mum. We stopped for a cup of coffee in Amici in the town centre, then I walked mum to the bus stop outside Asda, before pushing Niamh home via the White Lion Retail Park and Luton Road.
By the time we got home it was about 4 o’clock and I had racked up 24 (and a bit) training miles – not bad considering I didn’t even want to get out of bed this morning!
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