Monday 13 June 2022
Joe Stewart recounts an ever-changing springtime walk in the northern Chilterns.
We met on the hot tarmac outside Tring station, which sits amongst fields away from the small town it serves. Our destination wasn’t London, Milton Keynes, Birmingham or Crewe, but the surrounding hills, which rise here from the ‘Tring Gap’ as it splits the Chilterns escarpment in two. We’d come for a walk - part of the Chilterns Walking Festival, and the perfect opportunity to explore this part of Hertfordshire and the Chilterns AONB on a blue-sky May day.
Our 20-strong group was a mix of genders, ages, and backgrounds, with a range of walking experience from first-timers to long distance hikers. Several were members of Stag Walkers - a Ramblers group aimed at 20s and 30s in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and south Cambridgeshire - including our walk leader, Alastair Melville, who’d plotted us a 7-mile route. Register taken, briefing complete, and names shared, it was time to lace up our boots, slap on our sun cream, and get walking.
Heading north, we followed a bridleway between hedges and soon reached Aldbury Nowers, a nature reserve managed by Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust. This Site of Special Scientific Interest treated us to steep chalk grassland slopes carpeted in spring flowers and some ancient history courtesy of Grim’s Ditch, an Iron Age earthwork subtly moulding the land. We joined the Ridgeway National Trail, Britain’s oldest road, and left the trees for Pitstone Hill.
We stopped where the path levelled out to take in the panorama. It was, as one walker put it, ‘a genuinely 360* view. You don’t see many of those!’ To the north, we looked out for miles across the Vale of Aylesbury; to the west, we traced the Chiltern escarpment as it marched towards Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire; and to the south and east we scanned the deep beechwoods of the Ashridge Estate, our next destination.
To get there, we continued along the Ridgeway as it stayed high above Pitstone Quarry, descended to Stocks Road - the meaning of which we would discover later - and climbed steeply along a field edge to enter the woods. We caught our breath, rehydrated and snacked, and pressed on as trail bikers whizzed past on fat tyres.
We followed a wide path between the towering beeches and ancient oaks of Ashridge Forest, thinking of mediaeval hunts until the unexpected sight of a secluded log cabin straight out of Appalachia. Our perspective shifted again as we exited the woods directly underneath the towering column of the Bridgewater monument. The edifice is dedicated to Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who pioneered canal construction and laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution in the process. We were to follow Britain’s most important canal later on.
The National Trust visitor centre at Ashridge offered an opportunity for a break and an ice cream under the shade of the trees amongst picnickers and other walking groups. Once we'd regrouped we headed south along a sunken path, soon emerging under the eaves of a building hard-up against the track. This marked our entrance into the village of Aldbury - our planned lunch stop.
The village proved to be hugely characterful, with cottages in the local vernacular of black timber, red tile, and warm brick; white picket fences; and an oval pond, overlooked by church, pub, and Aldbury Village Store. The sandwiches came out as we lounged on the grass and debated the merits of a pint. On the edge of the green stood stocks and the remnants of a whipping post - survivals from the Middle Ages last used for their gruesome purpose in 1835, to punish public drunkenness. We sensibly decided against a drink and hurried on our way.
We left Aldbury to the southwest, walking along field edges with beautiful views back to the hills and Ashridge. After a brief section of careful road-walking, during which we re-crossed the West Coast Main Line, we took a sharp right to join none other than the Grand Union Canal. Mallards hurried past bright canal boats trailed by rafts of new ducklings. We shared in their giddy energy as we paced the final mile back to Tring station.
We completed our walk almost to the minute of Alastair’s estimated end time, said our goodbyes, and promised to attend 2023's festival for more sociable walking in the beautiful Chilterns. Perhaps we’ll be brave enough to risk an ale next time.
All photos by Alastair Maceachern, Stag Walkers