Walk of the Month: The Chilterns
Mark Rowe visits the Chilterns for a hiker's view of the countryside under threat from the proposed route of HS2
Sunday 07 August 2011
It's been a busy, and very political, few months in the countryside. As if plans to sell off England's woodlands and cull its badgers were not enough, the proposal for the high-speed rail link, known as HS2, was outlined. Once again, all merry hell has broken out, this time among communities along the route.
We can all envy France and Germany their high-speed rail networks, while China has also recently got in on the act. But what about the countryside, the woodlands, the nature reserves, and the footpaths that the route will go through? In its desire for HS2 to achieve speeds of 250mph, the Government has proposed a direct route from London to Birmingham and Staffordshire that goes more or less arrow-straight through the Chilterns. As a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Chilterns have some formidable defenders who won't let HS2 proceed without a fight.
This walk takes in some of the features that appear to be threatened by HS2 (at least on the blueprint), striking out from Wendover along the edge of the Chilterns. It takes in some of the loveliest views and the ancient enigmatic Ridgeway, along with Coombe Hill, the highest point of the Chilterns.
"This route was suggested by Keith Hoffmeister of the Chiltern Society, which, along with groups such as the Ramblers Association, is heavily involved in the opposition to HS2 in its present form. "We knew we'd get the Nimby argument thrown at us," says Mr Hoffmeister. "Then the Government said it was all about 21st-century rail travel, so we were labelled Luddites. When we saw the planned route we all thought 'oh crikey', it's going through an area I love. When you're standing in some of the ancient woodlands that are going to be felled, you feel quite upset."
Having left Wendover Station and crossed the busy A413 via a bridge we found ourselves in a sweeping field, with views of Wendover Woods. That's the thing about the countryside: you can dismiss roads and towns in an instant. But this field is set to become a building site; a slip road for HS2 traffic is planned to bisect it. Soon the path rose gently to reach Coxgrove Wood. Back to the north-east is Halton House, a former residence of the Rothschilds and one of seven grand designs they had built across the Vale of Aylesbury. The wood is a delight, soft paths underfoot, beech trees and handsome iron gates that enigmatically don't appear to lead – or bar – the way to anything.
Soon we were in Dunsmore, a small village where inquisitive ducks waddled across the lane to greet us. It became apparent why opposition to HS2 in its current form is so strident: apart from the Ridgeway, much of this walk is on local paths, little used by visitors but popular with local people. They may be worried about property prices but they are also genuinely concerned for the impact on their rural backyard.
Heading pretty much due west, we picked up the Ridgeway to pass Chequers, the PM's official country residence. CCTV cameras abound but the route through the grounds is entirely legal. The Chiltern Society is pointedly walking around Chequers daily to reinforce opposition to HS2.
Having skirted Maple Wood and contoured around Beacon Hill, with more delightful views, our route went through the village of Ellesborough and made for Coombe Hill. The hike up the hill is something of a jolt and a reminder that the Chilterns do have escarpments worthy of the name. From the top, you can pick out the route you've just walked. The monument here is to the local fallen men from the Boer War, and is a good place to pause and gauge for yourself what all the fuss with HS2 is about.
The trains will emerge from a cutting below Wendover Woods to the north east and sweep in front of you, whizzing west of Aylesbury along a raised embankment because the Vale of Aylesbury is a floodplain. What that means in terms of disruption and where the soil will eventually go is anyone's guess; and you'll either find such features an imposition or feel that they add an unlikely kind of beauty to the landscape.
Start-finish: Wendover Station
Map: Explorer 181 Chiltern Hills North
Distance: 13km (8 miles)
Time: 3-4 hours
From the station, turn right across a bridge, then left, following footpath pylons. Cross a stile and head half-right across a field. Turn right along a lane and first left. Go through a metal gate, downhill and cross a stile to go half-right to Coxgrove Wood. Follow the main path. After a yellow arrow on a tree trunk, take the right-hand path, later picking up a blue waymarker to Dunsmore. Turn right at the crossroads then left over a stile and take a right-hand fork to Cobnut Farm. Continue through Godmerhill Wood to pass Chequers. Follow the path to Maple Wood. Bear right to a gate and follow right along the edge of the field, later contouring around Beacon Hill. In Ellesborough, turn right and right again. After 300m go left. At the road, turn right, walk 100m and cross the road, following a footpath sign. At the fork in the woods, bear slightly left following a National Trust sign up a steep hill. Near the brow, bear left to Coombe Hill. From the monument, follow the grassy track to a gate, cross a ditch and pick up the Ridgeway back to Wendover.
How to get there
Wendover is served by Chiltern Railways from London Marylebone station and Aylesbury (08456 005 165; chilternrailways.co.uk).
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