West

As well as the main trail as far as Icknield Beacon, this page includes the extension path to Chinnor. The extension is all bridleway, and it strives hard to take a different line to the Ridgeway and Chiltern Way through the same country, but it still manages one or two coups de vue.

13 January 2007: Great Chesterford to Royston, 13 miles

Great Chesterford manages to keep some prettiness despite having its own commuter station and an M11 junction round the corner. We managed to choose a week in which the footbridge over the motorway was closed, necessitating a two mile diversion through Ickleton and a long trudge up Coploe hill in the drizzle. From Strethall church we were off road again, past a shooting party at Free Wood, shot raining down, before a succession of distinct little villages: Elmdon, Chrishall and Heydon, where we ate at the King William IV. The pub had a strong reputation for food, but to our mind it was trading on its three successes as Vegetarian Pub of the Year. As the comedian Al Murray put it, all that should follow ‘gastro’ is ‘enteritis’.

Leaving Heydon, there is a lovely little valley running northwards, and scenically that’s it for long miles into Royston. We’d been this way before, on the Harcamlow Way, and it’s not got better since. Still, the drizzle stopped in the afternoon. In near dark, we entered Royston; here, the Roman Watling Street intersected with the original Icknield Way, so it’s a point of great significance on the path.

24 February 2007: Royston to Baldock, 13 miles

Must own up to a little cheating here. Readers might have noticed that we like a pub lunch, yet any inns beyond Therfield had long gone. With Dave not favouring a hedgeside sandwich this time, we diverted south to the Moon and Stars at Rushden (and was pretty good too). In practice, today was an Icknield start and finish, with the Hertfordshire Way in between, and a pub diversion in the middle. Of course, the original Icknield Way on this stretch is now the A505, not a stretch an iron age merchant might recognise.

Our diversion didn’t make for a bad day though, even though rather overcast with rain coming in to Rushden. Therfield Heath nearly manages to feel wild (the IWP avoids the golf course), and Therfield village is a pretty place. However we had to miss out Wallington, where George Orwell lived and married, for the pub diversion. Clothall’s church and manor house give a view more typical two hundred years ago than now; after Clothall, the open chalk lands return, but thankfully not in as dull a fashion as at the end of the previous day. Finally, Baldock is an old coaching inn on the Great North Road, and hasn’t had its atmosphere completely suppressed by the advent of commuterville.

8 September 2007: Baldock to Streatley, 14 miles

Half a year later … ! Letchworth was the original ‘garden city’ but maybe we don’t see its best side, other perhaps than the magnificent Spirella building. Eventually open fields return, and Ickleford is reached through pretty water meadows. Lunch was at the Motte & Bailey in the interesting village of Pirton, and it set us up nicely for classic stretch of the path, up and over Telegraph Hill. It’s the first taste of the Chilterns, and not a moment too soon.

Suddenly there are deep little coombes (like the Pegsdon Hills), small entrancing woods and hills with proper edges to them. We cut off through access land to the hillfort atop one such, Deacon Hill, a few hundred yards off route and an excellent viewpoint, all the more remarkable for having had nothing like it since Norfolk. Below Galley Hill, where the Chiltern Way is joined (I walked it in 2003-05, and it will be added to the site in due course), it’s decision time for the IWP walker: stick close to the prehistoric way through urban Luton and Dunstable, or divert to the north. We diverted north.

6 October 2007: Streatley to Whipsnade, 15 miles

My elder son Matthew joined us for this stage, which starts along the Chiltern escarpment of Sundon Hills, the promontory of Sharpenhoe Clappers jutting out north. A traverse over the MI takes you to Toddington, better known for its motorway services, but still home to several pubs and a broad green – a far better place for the motorist in the know. It’s also a major stop on the Greensand Ridge Walk. Our pub though was the beautiful little Plough at Wingfield. North of Houghton Regis, it’s back on the Chiltern Way, with the magnificent hillfort of Maiden Bower the highlight of a stretch that includes too much dull plodding round the edge of Houghton Regis and Dunstable. Catch Maiden Bower while you can: off-road bikers and housing developers are two types of vandal having a pop at it. Finally, though, it’s onto the open Dunstable Downs before the final cut south to Whipsnade.

7 October 2007: Whipsnade to Pitstone Hill, 7 miles

My younger son Adrian joined us for this short stage, as a prelimary to our Hadrian’s Wall excursion. Skirting the famous zoo, we soon made Dagnall, which has a dedicated real ale pub the Golden Rule – so dedicated that it has no food though, silly people. We lunched instead (with Dave’s wife Rachel, who was in charge of transport this weekend) at the Red Lion, which doesn’t do real ale because the Golden Rule does! It’s a nice climb from here back to the escarpment and the final push on chalk to Ivinghoe Beacon. The Beacon is a splendid viewpoint, and Dave met Rachel here; Adrian and I wanted a bit more though, so the two of us continued on the extension path to the Ashridge Estate car park below Pitstone Hill, from where Dave and Rachel kindly drove us back to Tring station.

23 January 2009: Pitstone Hill to Wendover, 12 miles

I’d always intended to walk back up to the extension path from Tring station by the Ridgeway, but perhaps not intended such a long gap. But no matter. On a wet morning, I took the national trail through the nature reserve of Aldbury Nowers, home to half of all England’s butterfly species. The view north here is spoilt alas by the incredibly insensitive siting of an ugly business park not far below the scarp, but this is good chalk downland, especially the rise over Pitstone Hill itself. After a road stretch, the extension climbs into a wooded stretch above Aldbury, without entering the bijou heart of this village. A plethora of routes and intermittent IWPE waymarking make it easy to go astray, and I took the Chiltern Way route to the Grand Union Canal lock at Cow Roast, partly in error and partly to save faffing about wondering which path was which.

On the Chiltern Way some years ago, I had taken a lunch stop at the Cow Roast pub, but the Greyhound in Wigginton was better placed this time. It was far better, and an excellent example of a well-run, unpretentious local with good and well-priced food and beer. The path then leads over tableland, with the bonus of a red kite circling the woods above Tring Park, to the dell of The Crong, which has a sudden, dramatic view back to Icknield Beacon; surely one of the best views in the Chilterns. A magnificent sunken green lane leads down to The Hale, with a quiet road stretch leading to Wendover and its station.

View from the Crong

View from the Crong

13 March 2009: Wendover to Bledlow Cross and on to Chinnor, 12 miles

The archetypal walk of two halves. Superb morning, lacklustre afternoon. Quite why Princes Risborough was not chosen for the finish, I do not know; presumably good historical reasons. That’s not to say it’s a great start, along a field edge with the Wendover by-pass for company, but you soon head uphill to Dunsmore, steeply downhill to a typical Chiltern dene, then up again to Little Hampden. The Rising Sun pub here was an absolute gem. The landlord came out and we had a chat, offering me an early drink, but I was getting over a dental infection and the antibiotics said ‘no’. More up-and-down follows, skirting around some deeply-indented wooded hangings, before a brief rise brings you to the wonderful high open space of Whiteleaf Hill. This was used as a burial place 5,000 years ago, and a local school child had written a superbly evocative poem celebrating the space for the display board.

Coming back to valley level, the Explorer map, which places the Red Lion on the wrong side of the wrong road, plus helpful cyclists, thoroughly confused me, so I ended up entering Princes Risborough alongside the A road through Monks Risborough. My alcohol-free state meant that I avoided my usual pub and instead lunched in the Top Wok; what a depressing place. Leaving Princes Risborough, the Explorer map shows the IWPE and the Ridgeway both hugging roads, but one taking an inordinate detour; alas, the IWPE hereabouts is immaculately signposted, and I obediently took the official long way round. There’s then a long mile on a minor but busy road before a cindered track heads with promise uphill. The promise at last of an interesting windy bit (ie a bit that winds, not a bit with wind), where the Ridgeway rejoins, was dashed with a subsidence warning, forcing yet another detour. Ah well. It was still not far to the presumed end of the IWPE in the hamlet of Hempton Wainhill, below the chalk figure of Bledlow Cross in the woods above. From there, it was a simple walk across fields and over the preserved Icknield line railway into the thriving village of Chinnor and my bus home.

Back to the eastern section

Map

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Elmdon

Elmdon

Therfield Heath

Therfield Heath

Baldock

Baldock

Letchworth Garden City

Spirella building, Letchworth Garden City

Pegsdon Hills

Pegsdon Hills

Plough Inn, Wingfield

Plough Inn, Wingfield

Dunstable Downs

Dunstable Downs

nearing Ivinghoe Beacon

Dave and me nearing Ivinghoe Beacon

Cow Roast lock

Cow Roast lock

Landlord of the Rising Sun

Landlord of the Rising Sun, Little Hampden

View from Whiteleaf Hill

View from Whiteleaf Hill