Grafham Water, Huntingdonshire

It is a sweet, unexpected expanse in the sometimes forgotten western part of Huntingdonshire – Grafham Water. It is a lovely place to lose yourself in a walk, in the heart of a county which is astoundingly gorgeous in the summertime.

Covering 1,550 acres, this is a manmade reservoir dug to provide water for far-off towns. It is not Rutland Water, which is far better known, and no villages were drowned in its creation: it is a single shimmering expanse just west of Buckden, managed as a leisure lake for sailing and relaxation, and as a nature reserve.

A coupl of pleasant villages on the shoreline: Grafham on the north and Perry on the south, each with jetties.

All around the water are footpaths, which is makes for a single walk 9 miles long, so a pleasant afternoon’s walk, on which you will be accompanied by the lake water all the way. There is a visitor centre near Grafham, and cyclepaths running out form there, which are good for walking (if you listen out for speeding wheels). There are meadows and wooded stretches.

A variant form of the walk borrows a longer route, the Three Shires Way (which does indeed run through three shires: Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire). This provides a loop to the south towards the little River Kym and through the tiny village of Dillington before rejoining the west shore of Grafham Water.

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Ivinghoe Beacon

I had never climbed Ivinghoe Beacon until the other weekend, which was a noticeable gap in my Chiltern explorations. It is one of the highest hills in Buckinghamshire, and though beaten in altitude by Haddington Hill and Combe Hill to the west, the Beacon is bare at its summit and presents a wide vista to all sides, especially over the precipitous scarp dropping away to the Vale of Aylesbury and all the pretty villages dotted across it.

It was a busy summit too: lockdown or not, the top was full of families enjoying the glorious sunshine, as well they might. I later found there is a car park near the top, on the dip slope, which is cheating.

The village, Ivinghoe, is a pretty one, set around a village green, its spired parish church blessing it. From the village a number of paths lead out, to the hills or the vale, and we took a way to the hills.

The narrow, hedged path soon opens up into the wide, green, chalk landscape and ahead rises the ridge of the Chiltern escarpment; a wave of little summits one following the other from south to north. The hills follow up from the Ashridge Estate, on the county border, to the south, and like that estate they are owned by the National Trust (though unlike Ashridge the Trust has mercifully restrained from filling these clean hills with kiosks).

Climbing crabwise across the slope on a well-trodden path there is a view down into a deep, precipitous and thorn-filled dip, the Incombe Hole (out of which one visitor was climbing, up the steep slope of Steps Hill).

I said that the tops are bare, but that is not quite try – the gorse and wild roses close over the slopes and the path wind through.

Having climbed to the clear air, we came across a road, which only slightly spoils the feeling of remoteness. (Anyone thinking of driving it: that would be cheating.)

Past the interloper road, is the last haul to the summit of Ivinghoe Beacon. lofty, lone; and covered in families out for a walk.

The view from the summit is a wonderful one in the sunshine and clear air. To the south is a sweep of hills running away to the woods of the Ashridge Estate, but to the north and west the slopes drop away suddenly and laid out beneath are the villages of Buckinghamshire stretching away across the Vale, and in the distance the grand, neglected Mentmore Towers.

Our path from here was down the face of the scarp – not an easy path (and while I walked it standing up, not all the party managed to). From there we followed a path to Ivinghoe’s daughter village, Ivinghoe Aston, form which there is a long path, possibly an old track or droveway, back to Ivinghoe.

You shouldn’t visit Ivinghoe without having a look at the Pitstone Windmill too. Like the Beacon itself, it is a National Trust property, and it was closed but can be admired form the outside. Maybe windmills and the workings of their ingenious engineering are a thing for another day.

Lockdown walks

Keep walking – keep healthy. Walk locally perhaps, but then discover the little parts of your home you never knew were there.

Those who wanted to lock us in our homes concede that we may go out and walk or cycle – so go out, as if commanded.

I like to find the wilder ways, far from home or deep in the wooded hillsides, standing where I can look for a mile and seen not another soul. This is a different, stranger time we are in though. We are told to stay local. It makes little sense really – walking out of your door into a hugger-mugger street and a busy urban park is permitted, but driving for three hours to an empty landscape with no one to breathe on is deemed criminally dangerous Rules are not set up to be logical though. So here we are, walking locally.

That may be a challenge, but actually it can be a helpful application of ingenuity. There are, in every corner of the land, paths to be explored. At the edge of the country it may be easy to disappear into empty places for hours on end, as I have, but even in the city there are unexplored ways. I keep thinking of Edinburgh and the snickets tumbling through the town, and its urban hills, but in the heart of London too there are endless little paths and alleys such that in the narrow confines of the square mile of the City itself you can get thoroughly and delightfully lost, even before exploring the rooftop walkways. Every town has its secrets to find and find afresh.

I am not going to publish an internal walk for every town and village I know – you go and find them. Get a map, and see what you didn’t know, the patterns you did not see before, the back ways and paths that never seemed to join up when you worked them out in your head (it’s because the roads are not straight and not level that they meet and miss in unexpected ways). Find your local walks.

Do it quickly too – the lockdown will be over before we know it.

Quiet, worshipful exercise

In the Easter holiday, the centrepoint of the Christian calendar, we are amidst the great glories of spring, of the earth reborn. This is an odd Easter though, bundled at home, and we never thought that here we would see the Government locking churches at Easter, but this is a strange time.

We can still go out though, to exercise. I have seen more folk out on the footpaths than ever before, as well they might, and to greet the spring. The lockdown is all about health, so be healthy and strengthen yourself. If within the rules you can, go and walk the old paths to greet the new birth springing all around you in the fields and woodlands.

It is hard to write a long narrative of familiar walks when we are kept close to home, though I am fortunate to be in a place with countless walks which open out into the open fields, and on these I am exercising every day, as we are encouraged to do, filling my lungs with fresh air, and this, while eating healthily, is the best medicine of all.

Stay safe, stop the bug from spreading if you can, and keep healthy.

Have a glorious, a holy and blessed Easter.

More to Gloucestershire than charms the eye

In Gloucestershire I have had some of my most enchanting walks, partly so because of the natural beauties and partly because the company I had.

I think of Gloucestershire for the Cotswolds, whose hills and combes are the essence of gentle walking country, and the honey-coloured villages, In which even the humblest cottage is of the distinctive stone hewn from these hills.

Is there more to the county though?  It is really in three quite distinctive parts – the Cotswolds, the Severn Vale and beyond it the Forest of Dean, as far as the River Wye and the bounds of Monmouthshire.  That is a lot to sample.

There are endless walking routes about the Cotswolds, and some lovely ones within the Forest of Dean. There is one walking route uniting the three parts of the county- the Gloucester Way.

The Gloucester Way stretches the whole width of the county, from the Wye at Chepstow out through the forest, to the Severn and to Gloucester itself.  Then it heads to the most celebrated Cotswold town, Stowe on the Wold, which is close to the Oxfordshire border, before cutting back to Tewkesbury, at the Worcestershire border.

At 100 miles, the route is something of a challenge, but as a way to explore Gloucestershire, it is amongst the best.

There should be more room for Gloucestershire walks, so I will endeavour to provide them, as I come to them.

Freeland: a celebration

Freeland is an Oxfordshire village, in the green middle of the county, the star and finish of a celebration walk of 17½  miles.

The walk takes in some pretty, hidden villages, a canal built for industry but now serving leisure, broad farmland, and the mighty estate of Blenheim Palace. It takes in at one point part of Shakespeare’s Way, reminding us of where we are in the middle of the British imagination.

The path through the estate runs to the north end of one of the great lakes of the park, and round the Column of Victory, celebrating the feats of arms achieved by the Duke of Marlborough, and on through some of the finest of the grounds.

Even at the end of January, or the dawn of a new age, there is no better way to wash the old air out of your lungs than with a vigorous walk n some of the loveliest countryside.

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Wellies along the Colne: London Colney and Colney Hatch

Just before New Year we headed out for another family welly walk, starting in an unfamiliar place by a familiar river: a six mile walk along the upper course of the River Colne, from London Colney, south-west of St Albans.

London Colney has the heart of a pretty village round a green by the little river, if you ignore the overwhelming grey modern development brought by the motorway junction.  Or destination eastwards was Colney Hatch.

We started for convenience in the main car park in London Colney, threading through alleys to avoid the main road before we needed it, and thence down to the village’s interesting bridge over the River Colne:  a fine, elegant, brick-built bridge with seven arches, and all this for a river little bigger than a brook, though it spreads into a wide pool above the bridge.

The path follows the river upstream, eastward, and very soon comes upon a children’s petting farm (which even in the after-Christmas frost was open with eager, short customers.  Beyond the farm you depart from the riverside to a series of fishing lakes, created from old gravel pits, whose banks are being reclaimed by nature.

Beyond here the path suddenly comes upon and crosses over a quarry conveyer belt, serving Tyttenhanger Quarry.

Approaching Colney Heath, there is a model railway centre created by the North London Society of Model Engineers. Not much to say as it was closed when I passed and nothing could be seen.

Instead of taking the path through the common on the south side of the river, we went to see the village which was after all the interim destination, Colney Hatch.  Through the edge of the village and along the north edge of the common, we had lunch before the return leg.

The river must be crossed, and here there is a ford: wellies were needed in the cold water.

The conveyor belt

This is the return leg. Again, it is possible to follow a path west and south-west to Tyttenhanger Farm, but the route chosen here follows through the common close to the road, and along field-edges until the farm’s entrance track, when the route heads north-east a short way, not to the farm, but the path turns off again, once again to encounter the long conveyor belt.

Here there are little woods and the river again; scrubby riverside land, until it reaches the petting farm again.

Under the A1081, it is soon back to London Colney and to the bridge.

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New Year’s Day welly walk in Stokenchurch

A Happy New Year to all.  Today the family enjoyed a gloriously muddy walk in the Chilterns to greet the new year and see if we approve of it.

It was a welly walk, as so often and just five and a half miles across fields and woods and valleys on the intertangled border of Oxfordshire with Buckinghamshire, beginning at Stokenchurch, in Oxfordshire.

Stokenchurch is a pretty place to start, at the village’s wide, scattered village green, and soon you escape the village, turning north into fields which were almost deserted.

The path climbed up and down, reaching the Buckinghamshire border invisibly at the edge of Crowell Wood at another fold in the land, before a short climb up to a lane. More woods followed, to Town End, one of the hamlets which makes up Radnage.

Radnage is a scattered place – not a village as such, it appears, but a collection of hamlets.  The path leads to one of these, ‘Town End’, though with no town in sight.  (At the south end of the parish, not on this walk, is a hamlet called ‘The City’. That might have to come into another walk some time.)  The parish church is not on the planned route either, but wander down the hill a little into Town End and it is across the fields, and worth a visit.  We had a picnic lunch at Radnage.

The return journey is on part of the Chiltern Way, over the fields to Grange Farm, where the lane marks the county border again so it is back into Oxfordshire. Then up and over the hill again – very muddy in winter, with many warnings to keep dogs away from sheep – but we had no dog with us, and saw no sheep – there was a llama though, and two great, black, hairy pigs rooting with delight on their snouts in the mire they had made.

All too soon it was back to Stokenchurch. A lovely day, and yes – we approve of the new year.

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High Force

High Force is a spectacular waterfall on the upper course of the River Tees, which forms the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.  It is also a popular place to visit, and there are a number of walks in and above Teesdale around the waterfall.

The main family route starts at Bowlees, on the Durham bank.  From here, you cross the road and a field into the wood edging the river, and to a swaying footbridge high above the gorge of the Tees – there are warning signs against having more that one cross the bridge at once, but whether that depend on how overweight they are is not a detail it explains.  Here you cross to the Yorkshire side of the river and start walking upstream.

Soon you reach Low Force, where the Tees tumbles in a complex of steps. The path here, along the Yorkshire bank of the Tees, is part of the Pennine Way: the Way comes up the dale from Middleton and past the waterfalls to get to the watershed ridge of Pennines.  This is a gentle walk still, and will stop short of the high fells.

In time you come to a private bridge across the river in to the Raby Estate.  For the moment, carry on past it.  The path then climbs above the dale past wilder heath, and eventually a sound of roaring thunder becomes distinct, and soon the path reveals a vantage at the top of High Force (which is a good place for  picnic). The power of the water is clear by its edge. You can see that were any poor beast to tumble into the water it would be churned and crushed mercilessly against and between rocks repeatedly and would be pulp before it were hurled far below down the fall. Its adds a grim remembrance to an otherwise lovely scene. Keep children away from the edge!

From the vantage at the top, the main route retraces your steps down to the estate bridge. Across, back to the County Durham bank, and through the meadow.  The path leads back up through the wooded fringe to the road to the High Force Hotel: buy tickets for the waterfall, then back across the road through a gate and down through the woods.

Daniel Defoe wrote “The Force is an august scene; the noblest cascade I ever beheld; description is beggared in the subject”. As we stood admiring, there was something like a small earthquake – the rocks trembled and several visitors in different parts started and commented on it. A Victorian writer wrote that “the concussion of the waters produces a sensible tremor in the earth for some distance; and the noise of the fall is heard for many miles round the country”.

Climbing from High Force back to the hotel, there is a path up over the hill, to a farm with the name “Dirt Pit”, and from there up and over and down again to Bowlees.

Other, wider routes are traceable around Teesdale, past the waterfalls or above them.

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Maps and books

  • Ordnance Survey Landranger series (1:50 000):
  • Ordnance Survey Explorer series (1:25 000), irksomely, on the border of two maps:

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The Border Abbeys Way

The Border Abbeys Way is a secret delight. I have been enchanted by the parts I have walked, and one day intend to walk it all. It winds through the Middle Shires, visiting three counties in a circular walk of 65 miles, between the abbeys which give it a name.

The Border Abbeys Way is a secret delight I have long been enchanted by the sections I have visited, and one day intend to walk the whole way in one.  It is  lovely way to explore the prettiest aspects of some of the prettiest shires in the land. It winds through the Middle Shires, primarily in Roxburghshire, but visiting three counties in a circular walk of 65 miles.

The theme of the way is in its name: in the Twelfth Century, King David I built a series of monasteries, in his southern borderlands – they were unlike anything Scotland had seen before: they were modern, of the European pattern that was now established across England, and the great estates the King gave them made the abbeys wealthy. In later ages they became the soaring, Gothic wonders whose denuded bones now stand in the towns to which they gave birth.

Through three shires, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Berwickshire, by the Teviot and the Tweed and the lands between, this is a ring of delights.

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