A Chiltern Traverse - narrative
Dunstable to Henley

The Chilterns are the nearest lovely country to London, and over the years we have made numerous visits, doing single day, circular walks. Jeremy had the idea of doing something more extended - a Traverse of the hills, which sounded appealing. Spreading it over four days would give us time to absorb more of the atmosphere. When planning it, going in October seemed attractive, as the trees would be beginning to turn. Jeremy mapped a route, and we knew that Chiltern pubs would provide the end-of-day indulgences that we like, after being out. And to get there: we began on a commuter bus to Dunstable - an amusing contrast to the country days we were anticipating.

DAY 1: Dunstable to Aldbury
As we left our B&B at 9am, we were greeted by a sunny day and a blue-sky; however it was chilly - yes, it was October. We walked up to the Square, with its clock standing proud in the bright light. Going westward on the A505, we reached the Icknield Way Trail, and the Five Knolls. Dunstable Downs looked gorgeous as we climbed them in the morning sun. Even taking the wrong path (as some of it was fenced off), it was not long before we were up at the viewpoint, with the elegant sweep of the Downs curving out in front of us, and the tilled fields below, soft brown and white, speckled with chalk and flint.

The Trail took us leftwards and to the Tree Cathedral. This was created after the First World War, in rememberance of dead friends. It was a lovely use of nature, the tall trunks suggestive of Cathedral pillars. The thoughtful lay-out, made in the 1930s, had grown into a beautiful, contemplative place. I found myself thinking about my brother, killed in another war. The setting was an acknowledgement of loss and made me recall my brother's life in an appreciative way, thanks to the touching atmosphere.

And then on to Whipsnade. We walked round the perimeter fence, hoping for a glimpse of animals. Among the trees in the distance, we thought we saw an elephant. Then, a bit nearer, a family of camels; after that, a great herd of gazelles. As we walked away, enjoying the fresh green growth in a field of winter wheat, three wild deer galloped away. Not bad!

Next - what a contrast - the finely manicured greens of a golf course; one grass patch had been mown to within an inch of its life. We passed a group of gents starting to play together; one offered the comment "not a bad day." How English is that? We wiggled down the path to Dagnall and stopped for an early lunch at the Red Lion.

A figure emerged on the hill behind as we continued along Hoy Hall Lane: a white lion, etched in the chalk of the Downs; the climb to Ivinghoe Beacon was not taxing. Along with the sharp wind, we were rewarded with more lovely views of the rolling hills, the flowing curves of the land, a chequer-board of green and brown fields - man and nature. Our geology book had told us of the layers of dead bugs that created the chalk: apparently it was laid down at the rate of two millimetres per century! The mind boggled to think how many centuries it took to create these hills, now sculpted by modern farming and other developments.

Ivinghoe Beacon is the northern end of the Ridgeway Path. Using its good signage, we followed this down to Aldbury, with its 12th century flint chuch, of effectively simple design. The sweet houses round the pond and the classic-English-village-look meant its frequently been used as a film location. The rain-less previous two months had left the pond almost dried out; however, from the pub window later, we saw a procession of nine ducks hopefully heading in that direction.

DAY 2: Aldbury to Cadsden
Despite a depressing weather forecast, we stepped out into another beautiful morning. Overnight rain had not been enough to revive the pond, but the village was looking pretty in the bright light. We went up a gentle hill to rejoin the Ridegway path and down again to Tring Station. Our friends Henry and Maryon were already there and we set off immediately on the Grand Union Canal, joined all the way to London, and well populated with barges of all kinds and colours - some were stacked up with logs for the winter, some had chaotic 'gardens' (tubs full of overgrown grasses and flowers) on the roof, some with families of cats. The trees and reflections in the water made it a lovely start to our walk. At Cow Roast lock, we turned westward on the Chiltern Way, wiggling through Lower Wood, to the straight Grims Ditch. The main pleasures of the morning were a sequence of woods: High Scrubs, Drayton Woods and, later, Lady Grove, all with a wonderful variety of trees. Grand beeches are a feature of the Chilterns and there were lots of statuesque, impressively tall collections of these. There were also lots of oaks, firs, holly and laurel bushes. Nature was ripe with autumnal production. We were admiring a bright red mushroom (fly agaric?) when Henry said "I've eaten some; very tasty!" OK - he was talking about blackberries. There were loads of beech nuts crunching underfoot, and plenty of acorns and shiny conkers too. I was surprised how many fields were sown with winter wheat. As ever, the curves of the landscape were beautiful and pleasure-giving.

We paused for lunch at the Old Swan Inn in Swan Bottom. After that we saw a red kite, circling over a field, clearly looking for its own lunch. Later we saw a group of three of them, again, on the hunt. Continuing on the Chiltern Way, we passed the rather neglected Durham Farm and then the posh Mayortorne Manor, with a very grand house and equally grand, old trees. They had a beautiful flock of dark brown sheep, with horns. A hare scampered away from us, across the field. All around here, there are lots of horses, already in 'coats'. We'd had a couple of hours rain before lunch, but the afternoon was cloudy and dry. There were a few attractive villages, especially round Little Hampden. After a few more open fields, we came down to Cadsden, through Ninn Wood and Pulpit Hill Nature Reserve, with some of the finest of the local beech woods.

DAY 3: Cadsden to Ibstone
The skies were clearing as we left the pub; a moderatly steep climb took us to the top of Whiteleaf Hill and the splendid view below the scarp. Both cloud and sun came and went, but for a few moments we saw the vague outlines of Didcot Power Station, 20 miles to the west. A farmer was ploughing his field just below us, turning over the deep brown earth and highlighting the undulations of the hill. We chatted to a Ridgeway Volunteer, who mentioned that unfamiliar horses could take a nip at you - we'd been being careful anyway. Following the Ridgeway trail was easy, thanks to a long sequence of built steps to the bottom. There were loads of blackberries, rosehips, slows and elderberries - fruitful, abundant nature. The trees were generally still green, some showing a bit of autumnal colour. However, the paths and slopes were carpeted with fallen, golden leaves, giving the ground underfoot had a glorious glow.

Today had a bit of road walking, including the Wycombe Road; then we went west again on the Icknield Way, past Callow Down Farm, into Rout's Green, with lunch at The Boot Pub. In the afternoon, we were on familiar ground, as I had had a kissing gate put in by the Chiltern Society, being partial to that tradition. More attractive beech woods brought us to near the A40, by Beacon's Bottom; a group of cows came to investigate us and the gate. Going on through East Wood, Henry spotted a deer staring at us through the trees, and then it cantered away. We saw numerous pheasants and heard their crockling; there were several spent cartridges on the ground, showing they had survived the autumn shoot.

Contrasting with our gentle ambling mode, I was quite shocked how loud and fast the traffic was as we crossed the M40. It receeded as we descended steeply through Penley Wood, which had more lovely trees, including a particularly beautiful dark green larch. The woods here had staggering numbers of small mushrooms growing around the tree roots, dead and alive. Henry was clearly tempted by them, but didn't know enough to risk gathering any. Our final climb through Hartmoor Wood brought us up to Ibstone Common and the Fox Country Inn, our resting place.

DAY 4: Ibstone to Henley
The all-important outlook: rain was predicted. And rain set in. As we departed Henry said "I like this weather". Well, it certainly made a contrast to the brighter days. It meant hoods up and heads down. It also gave the colours a different quality: they were all intensified by the water and there were so many different greens in the trees. We were in a specially delightful part of the Chilterns - the copper-coloured carpet underfoot, the misty views, the glorious trees: these seemed particularly beautiful, with their tall trunks, elegant branches spreading across the clearings, and the flowing sweep of hills and valleys all round. Since the weather was generally restricting the views, we took lower routes, passing through Turville Heath, down Drovers Lane to Southend, and skirting Gussets Wood.

The final descent through the lower hills to the river was through an impressive estate; initially Great Wood was to our right, and then we came out into more open meadow land. The rain or drizzle was present throughout the three hour walk to the Thames. We met it at Greenlands Dairy Farm, and there were several dedicated crews of rowers practicing despite the damp circumstances. The swans seemed pleased to see them all scull away. Walking into Henley along the river bank was a satifying way to finish our walk; I'm frequently taken aback, re-encoutering humanity after being with the great outdoors. But here we were nearly back in civilisation, yet still in touch with nature.

Walking in October had its pluses and minuses - we were a bit wet to finish, but the colours had been a great pleasure. These hills have a wonderful variety, with balcony paths, hollow ways, green tunnels, fertile fields, and everything in its productive autumn phase. We'd seen England's green and pleasant lands; or, as Keats said, mists and mellow fruitfulness. Henry said how he enjoyed the changing light, coming into the open after being in the woods. Maryon loved the crunching sounds of walking on nuts and described long distance walking as an adventure. Yes, our excursion had given us many pleasures and rewards.

© Diana Ambache 2013