When I was 8, my family moved from an urban part of South Yorkshire to an idyllic corner of West Yorkshire. We lived a stone’s throw from the River Wharfe, a few miles from Ilkley Moor, and within easy reach of the Yorkshire peaks. Every weekend would involve a walk somewhere or other, regardless of the weather. The heatwave of 1976 is burned into my memory alongside images of dry stone walls, green hills and paddling in the Wharfe; winters provided snow and ice, chapped fingers and the comfort of buttery crumpets back home in the warmth. Walking and exploring was part of the rhythm of those years. Yet it seemed that many of our friends’ families took the countryside for granted and rarely ventured out, perhaps because it was what they’d always known. It is so easy to overlook the familiar.
In a similar way, I’ve not fully appreciated a local beauty spot until recently: Ashridge: a 5,000 acre area with beech and oak woodlands, designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. You will have been to the main car park by the Bridgewater monument, had ice cream from the van and visited the Brownlow cafe. If you’ve been on a Sunday afternoon or Bank Holiday, you will have seen it full of cars, picnickers and bikes of all sizes: the deer long-since vanished into the nether reaches of the woods. You will have walked down the footpath so beloved of our children, noting the little bridge (beware of trolls lurking below) and the witch’s cottage. We spent many cheerfully muddy afternoons there when they were younger and, to be honest, that was about as much as I knew of Ashridge. I’d heard that the bluebells could be impressive but we were never there at the right time. I also knew there was a “Business School/Management College” in the middle of the woods but as I was not very interested in business or management, I didn’t explore further. I didn’t even investigate Ivinghoe Beacon, one of the area’s most prominent hills.
Over the past year, while training for the London to Brighton walk, I have spent a lot of time in peaceful solitude on Ashridge’s roads and footpaths, avoiding the busy hotspots of weekend afternoons. I’ve ventured up Ivinghoe Beacon a few times and have been rewarded with bluebells, cuckoos, woodpeckers, red kites, foxes, deer and – thanks to Google – a lot more historical knowledge of the area. For example, I discovered that the aforementioned Business and Management College was built on the site of a 13th Century monastery, where Queen Elizabeth the First lived as a child – and that the impressive spire of the College’s chapel is actually made of fibreglass to replace the original one, which was demolished for being structurally unsound.
A few weekends ago, Paul and I took our quest to explore Ashridge further by trying out a new (to us) walk: the 8-mile circuit from Tring station to Ivinghoe Beacon.
Tring station is actually quite a way out of Tring and is closer to the impossibly quaint village of Aldbury. Now, I have an American friend called Angie who just LOVES all things English, particularly the scenery that she sees on TV (mainly Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage). Angie, if you are reading this, you have to come to Aldbury one day. It is the quintessential chocolate-box village and if you don’t believe me, just type “Aldbury” into Google images.
From Aldbury, we followed helpful signs up through woods and past a Butterfly Nature Reserve. It was a muggy and murky July morning, the air so heavy with moisture that it felt like walking in a rainforest.
Before long, we reached a section of heath, covered with pink, purple and yellow wild flowers. There were hazy views across the Vale of Aylesbury to our left and towards the Beacon ahead.
It was around here that we saw skylarks whirring straight up out of the grass like little helicopters, pouring out a torrent of song as they hovered in the air. One of them posed obligingly on a post. I tried to take a photo but ended up with a lot of beautifully focused posts and horribly unfocused birds. Here is the best of about 5 attempts before the lark got tired of posing and flew off.
The path led us towards Ivinghoe Beacon, where we came across a sleepy and unenthusiastic group of teenagers collapsed in a weary heap while their significantly-more-enthusiastic teachers examined maps. Sighing at the indolence of youth, we made a particularly sprightly ascent of the Beacon before joining a path back to the woods which we hoped would lead us to the Bridgewater Monument and, more importantly, the cafe as it was definitely time for a cup of tea. It wasn’t long before we realised that the past was linking up with the present in pleasing symmetry as there was the witch’s cottage on the right and there was the little troll bridge beneath our feet. We’d ended up joining the one path we actually knew well and, as expected, it led straight to the Brownlow cafe. Toilets, tea and bacon sandwiches (yes, they actually had gluten free bread). Fantastic.
From there it should have been a simple matter of descending to Aldbury to get the train. Unfortunately we had lingered a bit too long in the cafe and as trains were only once an hour, we had to power-walk faster than I’ve ever power-walked to get there on time. It didn’t help that the sun had finally decided to put in an appearance. We made it with one minute to spare and ended up wedged on the most overcrowded train I’ve seen outside India: a hot and sticky end to a great walk.
If you’d like to experience all this for yourself, you can find full instructions here.