Walk of the Month: Who needs New England, when we've got the Chilterns
This is just the time for a spot of domestic leaf-peeping, says Mark Rowe
Sunday 07 October 2007
Autumn colour is one of Britain's greatest and most unsung delights. You may see it more dramatically in New England, but it is no less glorious in the UK.
One of the most serene of places to drink in this experience is the Ashridge Estate, 27 miles north of London and straddling the Chilterns as it crosses the border between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The area is best known for the Bridgewater Monument and Ivinghoe Beacon, which offers truly striking views.
This is an area not only of fantastic woodlands but also of commons, steep, chalky grasslands and rolling countryside, which make up the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Most of this land is open to the public, and is owned and managed by the National Trust.
Ashridge has almost 5,000 acres, so you can revisit it many times without retracing the same paths. Look upwards and you may spot red kites, part of a successful reintroduction project. Elsewhere, you can hope to see buzzards, goldcrests, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, fallow and muntjac deer (at this time of year you may catch a deer rut) and, possibly, badgers and dormice if you're lucky. Autumn is a good time for fungi: look for the large "chicken of the woods" fungus that grows on trees and the fly agaric toadstool – red with white spots – on birch trees.
This walk, starting at Tring station (though the National Trust visitor centre by the Bridgewater monument, two miles along this route, is a good starting point if you come by car), follows the old drovers' paths. This network of ancient green lanes was used for hundreds of years to move livestock – the process of "droving" – from the villages of Aldbury, Ivinghoe and Pitstone to their common lands.
From Tring station, turn right and follow Station Road. After the road junction, turn left over a cattle grid, signposted for the Ridgeway, up a paved road, keeping ahead over the grass to a metal gate and a crossroads of paths.Go straight ahead, signposted Aldbury. After 800 yards, turn right, again signposted for Aldbury. Far up to your left, you'll see the Bridgewater Monument. The path drops down along the side of racing stables and on to Station Road where you turn left to reach the centre of Aldbury, a pleasant place to linger.
Head up the hill, along Toms Hill Road, and then take the bridleway that forks left, signposted to the National Trust Visitor Centre. It's a steady climb under a delightful canopy of trees, leading to an open common with the National Trust teahouse on your right and the Bridgewater Monument, dedicated to the third Duke of Bridgewater. Take the waymarked Ashridge boundary trail on the right and follow this path as it winds through the woodland. After a mile, the woods open up with fine views across the vale to Aldbury church. You pass through a gate by Clipperdown Cottage and, 800 yards further on, take the left-hand fork downhill, waymarked as the boundary trail. Cross over a stile, and the Vale of Aylesbury opens up ahead.
The path joins a fence before turning sharp left to join the prehistoric Ridgeway, thought to be Britain's oldest road. If you keep going for 80 miles or so, you'll end up at the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire.
Follow the Ridgeway National Trail's black acorn fingerposts, crossing a road to pass through a car park and up a small hill. Looking back you can just spot Ivinghoe Beacon perched up high. Look out to your right for an ancient ditch with steep sides, a sunken track known as a hollow-way. Full of hawthorn, it is a wildlife haven.
Keep ahead along a grassy flank of track up Pitstone Hill, following the white acorn signs to pick up Grim's Ditch, thought to be an Iron Age earthwork. Pass through a gate to enter Aldbury Nowers, a wildlife reserve and SSSI managed by the local wildlife trust. The path is sheltered by overhanging trees, and the woodland is dense and captivating. Keep ahead, following the white acorn and Ridgeway signs. Eventually, you'll pick up the crossroads you encountered at the start of the walk, where you turn right, following the signpost for Tring station.
OS MAP: Explorer 181, Chiltern Hills North.
Distance: Six miles.
Time: Three hours.
The walk is best accessed from Tring, which is served by Silverlink Trains (08705 125240; silverlink-trains.com). For more information about Ashridge, contact the National Trust (nationaltrust.org).
Further browsing This walk can be downloaded from the website of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (chilternsaonb.org)
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