Chiltern Chain Walk – Walk 1

Today I walked the first section of the Chiltern Chain Walk, the long-distance path I have been devising over the last six months or so. The following is a rough (totally unchecked) draft of what will become my journal enmtry for the walk. Obviously it will look better with photographs!
Walk 1 25/04/08 – Dunstable Downs and Markyate (12.0 miles approximately)
Parked at the Chiltern Gateway Centre, Dunstable Downs.

At last! It felt good to be setting off on another long-distance path again – I’ve really enjoyed all the walks I’ve been doing in the Chilterns in recent months, but it’s nice to have the challenge and the target that a long-distance path gives me. It’s also nice to be writing a journal again after a gap of about seven months! As the Chiltern Gateway Centre is only five minutes drive from my home, I was able to start walking about 9.20am. I was glad to hear my friend the skylark singing as I laced up my boots in the car park – he’d also sung me off when I started the Chiltern Way here last Spring. That had been in a thick fog – today it was grey and almost overcast, but at least it was dry and I could see the views, although they weren’t as good as on a clear day.

The Chilterns Gateway Centre is situated at the highest point in Bedfordshire, 798 feet above sea level on Dunstable Downs. It cost £2.5 million pounds to build, and was officially opened by TV presenter Michaela Strachan on 23rd May 2007. It provides much improved facilities for visitors to the Downs, including a National Trust run café and a gift shop. Amongst other displays on its walls is the only one I know of for the Chiltern Way. The visitor centre is at the heart of the Chilterns Gateway Project “a flagship environmentally-led regeneration initiative steered by a partnership between Bedfordshire County Council and The National Trust”.

From the car park, I followed the path to the left of the Chilterns Gateway Centre and soon came to what looked like a modern sculpture made of rusting metal – in fact it is part of the environment-friendly heating and ventilation system for the visitor centre. The path went right here, along the top of Dunstable Downs. There were nice views along the Downs and out over the Vale of Aylesbury, but they were not at their best in the rather grey conditions. The path soon reached another car park (where the old visitor centre had stood).

Dunstable Downs are a steep section of the Chiltern escarpment, lying immediately southwest of Dunstable. The views from the top of the Downs extend for up to 40 miles on a clear day, over the Vale of Aylesbury and as far as Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. The London Gliding Club is based at the foot of the scrub covered slopes, so gliders are usually to be seen soaring overhead, often competing for air space with hang gliders and paragliders that launch from the top of the Downs. Kite flying is also a very popular activity here. The Downs are a very popular local attraction, and were voted one of the ‘Seven wonders of the East’ by viewers of the BBC’s regional Look East programme.

I went through the car park and carefully crossed the road, and set off down a track starting on the other side. Soon there was part of Dunstable Downs golf club beyond the hedge on my left. After passing a metal barrier, I soon turned right through some trees and after a few yards came to the path round Kensworth Quarry, which was visible as a huge white gash in the landscape immediately in front of me, ugly but impressive in its scale. I believe it is the largest chalk quarry in the country, and the chalk from here is pumped in solution to Rugby along a 56 mile pipeline. I turned right and followed the broad track with the quarry fence on my left – I soon saw some Coltsfoot growing to the right of the path.

After a few hundred yards I came to the drive to the quarry, where I turned right for 100-200 yards, then turned left. There was now a thin belt of trees on my left, and across the small field on my right the hedgeline marked the course of Isle of Wight lane, heading towards my home in Kensworth. After a while the path turned left through the tree belt, and on the far side turned right along the edge of a field, with some of the quarry workings visible over to my left. The field boundary on my right gradually curved left and descended into a valley (the one that runs along behind where I live in Kensworth). In the valley bottom, the right of way switched to the right of the field boundary and continued a short distance on a farm track, before becoming a path again as it bore right and passed through a small wood. It then turned left, initially going up a flight of steep steps as it climbed the steep far side of the valley, with the quarry still visible to my left – I saw some Cowslips growing here.

At the top of the hill, I went through a metal kissing-gate and turned right. It was quite muddy along here, as I passed another small wood on my right. Beyond the wood, I had to fork very slightly right, to keep to the right of a young plantation. Looking to my right, I could see a long way across the valley to a row of houses in Kensworth on the opposite hillside (one of which is the home of that trepid Chiltern explorer, yours truly!). The path followed the fence enclosing the plantation as it curved to the left. There then followed a very muddy section of path between bushes, where I saw a couple of Jays fly off ahead of me. As I struggled to pick a path through the mud, I consoled myself with the thought that this would be one of the worst sections for mud on the entire Chiltern Chain Walk. I soon came to a junction where the quarry path went left, but I continued ahead on a track, with a small wooded area now on my left.

Here I had a very unusual wildlife sighting – a black squirrel! My parents have lived in Kensworth since the early 1950’s and say that there have always been black squirrels around. I’ve seen them numerous times in our garden, but have never seen one anywhere else. They are not true ‘Black Squirrels’ which you can see in some parts of Europe, but a variation on the normal Grey Squirrels. I didn’t have the chance to get a photo of this one, but I was lucky enough to get some nice shots of one in our garden about a month ago.

The track soon emerged into a small meadow, where I turned right and followed the path through the grass to a stile that took me into the churchyard of Kensworth church. I passed the twelfth-century church on my left to reach the gate, where I turned left along a lane. The church stands amongst a few houses and a couple of farms in Church End, the original nucleus of the village of Kensworth. Strictly speaking, the main body of the village (which I’d be coming to shortly) is Kensworth Common – it is so named on the OS map, but I’ve never heard anyone call it that.

As I passed through Church End, I noticed an old mounting block to the right of the lane (to help people mount and dismount from horses). I soon came to a crossroads, where I turned right. The lane soon turned right, and after another short distance turned left – at this point (with the old vicarage on my right) I left it, and continued on ahead on a footpath. This descended quite steeply through a field of young corn, down into the same valley I’d crossed earlier. The path continued between hedges up the other side of the valley – there was the first Lesser Celandine I’d seen today at the start of this part of the path, and further along I saw Bluebells and spotted a Blackbird in the field beyond the hedge on my right. Near the top of the hill the path joined a gravel drive that soon took me to the main road through Kensworth. Strictly speaking, this main part of the village is Kensworth Common – it is so named on the OS map, but I’ve never heard anyone call it that.

I turned left, immediately passing the Old Red Lion pub on my left, and then the recreation ground on the right. There has always been a line of impressive Horse Chestnut trees along the edge of the recreation ground, but sadly about half of them have had to be felled recently on safety grounds – the parish council have planted some native woodland tree saplings to replace them. Further on I passed the village primary school (which I attended in the 1960’s!). A short distance further, I turned right on a footpath that crossed a paddock – I was delighted to see Swallows here, the first I’ve seen this year. The horses in the paddock ignored me, as they did in the next larger paddock where the indistinct path went half-left before turning right to reach the far hedge. Here it turned left alongside the hedge, to reach a kissing-gate in the corner.

The path continued as a clear thin line through a large field of young corn, with a junction of two valleys at Kensworth Lynch over to my left. I passed to the left of a small copse in the middle of this huge field, where I had to detour round a fallen beech tree. There were nice views northwards along the larger of the two valleys, through which the A5 headed towards Dunstable. Eventually I reached the far side of the field, where the path went through the hedgerow and across the corner of the next field – this contained oil-seed rape which was starting to turn yellow, and I saw a yellowhammer fly off as I passed by. The path next bore slightly right, alongside a hedge on the left, running parallel to the A5 in the valley bottom to my left. The valley is that of the river Ver (from which St Albans, about 10 miles away, got its Roman name of Verulamiu), though it only really flows here in the winter months and then is not much more than a ditch. I saw my first Greater Stitchwort of day here. At a gap in the hedge I could see across the valley to Markyate Cell.

Markyate Cell is the site of a Benedictine Priory founded in 1145, although the present house is nineteenth century. An earlier house on the site was the home of Lady Katherine Ferrers, the celebrated ‘highwaywoman’ – the classic film ‘The Wicked Lady’ starring Margaret Lockwood was based (very loosely) upon her life.

The path continued alongside the hedge, and on through some playing fields and then a short alleyway to reach a residential street in Markyate. I turned left, then went right on a paved path, continuing more or less straight on over a couple of minor road junctions and then downhill to reach a junction with Buckwood Road (this heads towards Whipsnade and later becomes Buckwood Lane, though known locally as Bucket Lane). I turned right here, by the large Baptist Chapel, and followed the road through a fairly modern residential area. Beyond the last house on the left, I turned left along a footpath, soon coming to a junction where I turned half-right. The path climbed gently across the slope of the hillside, following a hedge on my left. To my right were pleasant views over several rolling hills and valleys, with a surprising amount of woodland in view. Eventually I reached the field corner, where I went through a kissing-gate and continued beside another hedgerow, with a farm visible across the meadow on my right.

The path ended at Roe End lane, Roe End being a small hamlet within the parish of Markyate, consisting of two farms and a few cottages. I turned right, immediately passing a house on my left which has an odd foreign sign on its gate (I think it’s the Italian for ‘Beware of the Dog’, but I’m probably completely wrong). After a few hundred yards, the surfaced lane ended (a bridleway continued ahead) and I turned left along a gravel track. This descended into a slight valley and rose gently up the other side beside another wood. Beyond the end of the wood I noticed a couple of Guinea Fowl – I’d seen a larger group of them nearby the last time I came this way.

When I reached a track crossroads I turned right (the Hertfordshire Way goes left here, I’d been following it most of the way from Markyate). I passed a few cottages – some penned in dogs barked loudly as they always do when I go by here – and then passed a farm and a duck pond in a small enclosure on my right. The track then veered slightly right as it entered a wood, soon passing what looks to be a fairly new pond on the left. After about a quarter of a mile, the track went slightly left, but the right of way continued straight ahead through another section of the wood, now on a narrow path rather than surfaced track. I spotted my first ever Wood Sorrel along here, and there was some type of Violet growing here too. I got a nice photo of a Peacock butterfly here as well, I’d already seen them in several other places.

The path emerged on the far side of the wood, where I turned right for a short way and went through a hedge gap to reach a corner of Studham Common. I turned left along the top of the common (making a mental note to return here in a month or so’s time, as it is a good place for orchids). It was nice looking over the grassy section of common towards the village of Studham. I crossed a road and continued along the top of a second grassy section of the common – I managed to photograph a few rooks that were on the grass a little way ahead of me. Over a second road, the common was a mixture of trees and bushes, and the path turned slightly left and descended a very small valley. It reached a more open area of grass where it ended at a bridleway. Here I went left, leaving the common as I passed some cottages and the village school on my right.

The path continued along a right-hand hedge to reach Valley Road, where I turned right. I saw some Garlic Mustard by the road-side as I went uphill into a corner of Studham. At the top of the small rise I turned left, and followed a lane (where I saw the first Wood Anemones of the day) a short distance to its termination at the village church. I went through the churchyard, passing left of the church, to an old gate in the far left corner. Beyond that, I turned left and went over a stile into a meadow, with a farm over to my left. I followed the right-hand fence through the meadow, passing a couple of mature trees, to another stile on the edge of a wood. I turned right on a bridleway just inside the edge of the wood (when I first walked this path 20 years ago it was almost impassably muddy, but it has since been very well re-engineered with good drainage).

I heard and saw a small mammal just to my left as I followed the bridlway – it stopped still in a position where it was largely hidden from me, but I think it might have been a bank vole similar to the one I’ve been seeing in my garden recently. There was a good selection of wildflowers here too, the Bluebells, Lesser Celandine and Greater Stitchwort that I’d already seen frequently on this walk. The bridleway soon left the wood, and followed a hedgerow through two fields of young corn. Over to my left I could see part of Whipsnade Zoo, and after passing through a small wood the path ran alongside the metal zoo fence. Here I could see many Chinese Water Deer in one of the Zoo’s paddocks, but curiously there were no Wallabies about today. I passed some more Coltsfoot along here.

Whipsnade Zoo is owned by the Zoological Society of London and was opened to the public in 1931, the world’s first open zoological park. It covers almost 600 acres of chalk down land on the northern edge of the Chilterns. There are over 6,000 animals at the zoo, including many endangered species. Unlike some zoos, most of the animals are kept within sizeable enclosures, while others (such as wallabies, Muntjac deer and peacocks) are allowed to roam freely around the zoo. Several animals are part of international breeding programs, helping to ensure the survival of endangered species.

At the end of the path, I turned left along a former lane between Holywell and Whipsnade. Perhaps it was the time of year, but it didn’t seem quite as overgrown as the last time I walked here. I saw several birds here – Chaffinches flew ahead of me along the old lane, and further on I saw a Blackbird and a Robin. In the large ploughed field to my left was a mixed flock of Jackdaws and Rooks, and I heard the distinctive call of a Lapwing (I heard it two or three times before I finally spotted it). I turned right onto a footpath along the end of the ploughed field (the hedge here had recently been relaid, and there was a sign advertising the compny that had done it), and beyond the field corner I turned left through a meadow to reach Whipsnade church. As I took a photograph, a Green Woodpecker flew across in front of me. I followed the path round to the left of the church, and went through the gate onto the large irregular green, around which the dwellings of Whipsnade are scattered. I turned left across part of the green, then turned right and crossed the road. I followed a short drive to reach the entrance to the Tree Cathedral.

Whipsnade Tree Cathedral is a 9.5 acre garden planted with trees in the shape of a Cathedral, with grassy avenues representing the nave, chancel, trancepts, etc. It was created by Edmund Kell Byth as an act of ‘Faith, Hope and Reconciliation’ in remembrance of two of his friends, Arthur Bailey and John Bennett, who were killed in World War I. Work started in 1932 and continued in stages, the first religious service being held in 1953. In 1960 it was donated to the National Trust. Religious services continue to be held occasionally, by several different denominations. There are three houses in Whipsnade named after Blyth and his two friends.

I had a quick look around the Tree Cathedral. It was now well after 1pm and I’d hoped to have my lunch here. You are only supposed to have picnics in a section called the Dew Pond (well, you wouldn’t eat in a real Cathedral, would you?) but when I got there, someone was doing some strange sort of meditation or something (or just sunbathing on a slight bank with their feet above their head!) and I didn’t want to intrude on them. So I carried on, my route taking a footpath along the left edge of the Tree Cathedral (where I saw some more Wood Anemones). I then followed the left edge of a pasture, going gently downhill. There was Jersey cow and some rare breed sheep here, and in the small enclosures to my left were some unusual pigs and hens and ponies.

At the bottom of the hill I went through a kissing gate and then between some wooden barriers to join a bridleway, which I followed to the right. The bridleway ran between hedges, where again there were a good selection of wildflowers. In particular there was a nice mixed clump of Wood Anemones and Lesser Celandine. The bridleway ended near the small car park on Bison Hill. The Chiltern Chain Walk goes right here, but I first stopped to sit on a fallen tree here to eat my lunch, admiring the view towards Ivinghoe Beacon. There was more Coltsfoot here, some nice Violets and several Cowslips.

I then just had ¾ of a mile left. The path followed a hedge or fence line at the top of a huge pasture, with the steep slope of the Downs to my left. There were good views along the Downs and out over the Vale of Aylesbury, but they were not as good as they could be because of the almost overcast conditions. There were a few gliders (the London Gliding Club is at the foot of the downs), but I didn’t see any kites or paragliders. The path passed a wood on the right, then made for the far corner of the pasture. It was then just a few hundred yards further, back to the Chiltern Gateway Centre.

It’s difficult for me to evaluate this walk, as all of it was on my local patch, using paths that I’m very familiar with. I certainly enjoyed it today, especially as I saw a good selection of birds and wildflowers. How interesting it would be to someone who hadn’t walked here before, I’m not sure. But I think they’d have to enjoy the views from Dunstable Downs, the Zoo and Tree Cathedral offered something a bit unusual, and the route passed three interesting old churches. The walk was reasonably undulating, with a mixture of fields and woods, and I think it serves as a reasonably gentle introduction to the Chilterns. But certainly the best bits are yet to come!

Comments are closed.