Kensworth-Ivinghoe Beacon

Yesterday (Saturday 10th January 2009) I repeated another of my long local walks, from Kensworth to Ivinghoe Beacon and back. I will eventually put this on my web site, using this blog entry as the basic text.

There were quite extraordinary weather conditions. There had been 1-2 inches of snow about five days earlier, and as the temperatures since had rarely risen above freezing there were still remnants of snow on the ground. It had been particularly cold overnight, and so there was a severe and very attractive hoar frost covering everything. Sunny intervals had been predicted but they failed to materialise – the skies remained pale grey and overcast, and it was also misty or even foggy at times. The combination of the gloom and the beautiful hoar frost was very photogenic, and I took 222 photos during the course of the walk – many of them look as if they were taken in black-and-white!

I had difficulty getting my boots out of my car, where I’d left them – it was so cold the tailgate was almost frozen and it took several strong pulls before I could get it open. The laces on my boots were quite stiff, almost frozen, and I had a bit of trouble tying them up.  Eventually I managed to set off at about 9.45am. Almost straight away I spotted some Redwings on ‘the Common’, a small piece of rough grass and trees between the fork of the Whipsnade Road and the northern part of  Common Road.

I followed the Whipsnade Road for a few hundred yards, then turned left by an ornate metal farm gate and crossed a very large pasture (the sheep that had been here on Wednesday were now gone, as was the electric fence that had surrounded them). I passed an old Dutch barn and continued along an overgrown farm track beside a small meadow. Here I noticed a single set of footprints in the snow heading in the opposite direction – the tracks I’d made on my walk on Wednesday. As on that day, I spotted two male Bullfinches as I reached the end of the path, opposite Shortgrove Manor farm.

I turned right down Dovehouse Lane. There was less snow here than there had been on Wednesday, but instead there was a lot of ice on the road. I had to take great care with my footing, as I would throughout most of today’s walk – the footpaths, as well as lanes and drives, were iced over in places. At the end of the lane, I went right for a few yards along Buckwood Lane, then took the footpath on the opposite side. This ran alongside the garden boundaries of part of Holywell on my right, with a hedge initially on my left. Where the hedge ended I continued on past a ploughed field, soon reaching a wood. I went past the junction where a path goes left (through the wood and across a huge field to reach Byslips Road- a route I use on many of my walks), and soon after passed the end of a residential street on my right.

The wood on my left and the gardens on my right both ended at the same point, and the path continued between wire fences (though there was little wire left in the left-hand fence, just the wooden posts). The field to my left was ploughed, while the one to the right was rough grass. So far I’d been wearing my waterproof gloves over my fingerless woollen mittens, but I now took the right glove off as I can’t press the shutter on my camera with it on, and I’d grown tired of taking it on and off – I probably then looked stranger than usual with my mismatched glove and mitten! I reached a small wood, the path continuing on just inside it’s right edge, with a paddock just yards away. The path ended by a few properties on the Studham-Holywell road. I went left for less than a 100 yards, and took a footpath on the opposite side of the road.

This path followed a right-hand hedge through more ploughed fields, initially rising gently then descending slightly. In a gap in the hedge I had a view of Studham Church over to my right, surrounded by frost-laden trees. I came to a path crossroads, where I went over a stile and continued ahead, now following a wire fence on my right  separating two odd grassy fields that contained several small groups of young trees enclosed by fencing. I then reached a minor road through Studham, which I followed to the right – it almost immediately turned left (at the junction with the lane to the church). It left the houses behind as it descended into a shallow valley. Here, where several paths meet, I took a path going half-right across a ploughed field, rising gently across the opposite side of the shallow valley to reach Common Road, Studham.

I then took the bridleway opposite, initially along a gravel drive where I passed a Cockerel and several hens. The bridleway carried on alongside a mature hedge on my left in a large arable field. It then passed through the left end of a narrow wood – it is usually very muddy here, so I was grateful for the frozen earth today. Beyond the wood was another mature hedge, and a young plantation beyond a wire fence on my right. After a short while, the bridleway switched to the left of the hedge, and followed it steeply down into the Gade Valley. In the misty and gloomy conditions I could only just see the top of the opposite hillside, and Great Gaddesden was completely hidden from view somewhere along the valley to my left.

The bridleway continued on the far side of the road that runs through the valley, now following a hedgerow on the left. For several hundred yards it rose very slightly, only steepening when a hedgerow came in from the right. I looked along the far side of this hedgerow, and in the far corner of this ploughed field I saw about half a dozen Fallow Deer on the edge of a wood. I struggled slowly up the hill, passing some garden fences on my left near the top – these houses were in the small village of Hudnall.

At the top of the hill, I came to a junction, where five paths met. I went half-right, soon passing a solitary tree as I followed tractor tracks across an immense and flat ploughed field. It surprised me how long it took to get across this field, it must have been at least a third of a mile across. Eventually I reached a metal kissing-gate, covered in thick and spiky frost, and continued across two empty sheep pastures. I could see Little Gaddesden church over to my right – the church and all the trees around me looked most attractive in the wonderful hoar frost.

I crossed the drive to the church, and followed a short path through a small L-shaped meadow. The path continued past a few gardens and then between the fences of paddocks to reach the minor road running through Little Gaddesden. I crossed over and went through the car park of the Bridgewater Arms, the village pub. As I followed the path from the car park, I saw a few Long-tailed Tits. The path descended gently to a private drive, where I turned right – at this point I left the route of the Chiltern Way, which I’d been following since just beyond Studham. I don’t normally take photos of individual houses as I think it’s an invasion of privacy, but I was sorely tempted as I followed the drive. To my left was a magnificent house, surrounded by impressive trees, a beautiful winter scene just crying out to be photographed. I consoled myself with the thought that there would be plenty more ice-laden trees in Ashridge, which I was now nearing. Beyond the large house, the drive ended and I continued on a path through a small wood, then along the right-edge of a small area of rough grass to reach a minor road in Ringshall.

I crossed over and went a short distance to the left. Beyond the last house on this side of the road, the magnificent woods of Ashridge began. I turned right, facing away from the road, but almost immediately forked half-left along a bridleway through the trees. I went over a few minor path junctions until I reached a major junction where another, broader, bridleway crossed over – I turned right along it, disappointed that I could see a couple of dog-walkers about 200 yards ahead of me, which meant my chances of seeing any wildlife here were much reduced. In fact I soon passed close to a large parking area on my right, and passed several other dog-walkers in the next few hundred yards – the cold and frosty conditions obviously weren’t a deterrent on this Saturday morning.

The bridleway continued for a long distance through the trees. The surface was badly churned by horses, the mud now frozen solid, and I had to pick a path along either edge. All the trees, including beech, oak and silver birch, were magnificent in their thick white coating of ice. The bridleway gradually narrowed, as it drew closer to the road between Ringshall and Ivinghoe Beacon which ran to my right. Eventually the bridleway turned left, and I continued ahead on a footpath through the trees, now only yards from the road. I passed a junction where a path went right, to the entrance to Ward’s Hurst farm, somewhere I pass through on many of my walks (it was only later that I remembered that this walk is one of them!).

The path then curved round to the left, descending slightly to reach the main track between the Bridgewater Monument and Ivinghoe Beacon. I turned right along the track – again there were a couple of people just ahead of me, so I stopped to let them get ahead as I didn’t want to include them in my photos. I followed the track past the kennels at Clipper Down – the drive beyond the kennels was very icy and this was one of the numerous sections of today’s walk where I had to take care with my footing. I passed a junction where a left fork goes downhill to meet the Ridgeway at the foot of Steps Hill. I continued on the track, meeting several walkers, two cyclists and a jogger coming the other way.

Just beyond a cattle grid, where I entered the Ivinghoe Hills nature reserve (still part of the National Trust’s Ashridge estate), I took another path forking left. I was now out of the tall trees of Ashridge and entering an area of scrubby bushes. I soon reached the top of Steps Hill – there are two parallel paths to Ivinghoe Beacon from here, and I chose the left-hand one (which is the route the Ridgeway takes). I went over a stile and turned sharply right, crossing over the top of the hill. Visibility was very limited here, and I could only just see the Ridgeway path descending in the opposite direction. I could also only just see down into the steep valley of Incombe Hole, and across the top of the end of that valley to the steep slope beyond. Incredibly, in these gloomy conditions there were two people standing on the top of the hill with Paragliders! One seemed to be having a bit of difficulty controlling his, and I had to take a detour from the path to get round him (I wouldn’t normally leave this path, as there are warning signs here about the dangers of unidentified metal objects left over from military training during World War II).

The path entered a small wood, not the grand trees of Ashridge but more a thicket of blackthorn and similar shrubs. It then descended slightly by a fence, then turned right at a kissing gate. I was now in an area of Chalk Downland, the grass here being speckled with wildflowers in the summer months. Now everything was white, against the grey background of the sky and fog. The scattered bushes all had a thick covering of hoar frost. I followed the path as it gradually descended to reach the road at a hairpin bend.

I crossed over, and went half-left up the first of two subsidiary ‘bumps’ that come before Ivinghoe Beacon itself. At the top I turned right, heading gently down and towards the smaller of the two ‘bumps’. I saw another Redwing here, and after going over the almost imperceptible second ‘bump’ I saw a pair of Goldfinches, their bright colours really standing out in the monochrome setting. I then steadily plodded up the steep but short slope to reach the top of Ivinghoe Beacon. On a clear day you can see for forty miles – today visibility was down to less than half a mile.

I usually turn and retrace my steps for a short distance here, but today I set off along the narrow ridge towards Gallows Hill. But I soon turned sharply right, following a path beside a fence on my left, gradually descending around the flank of the Beacon. This path too was icy, and I felt my feet slip here at one point but fortunately I maintained my balance. I passed to the left of the two ‘bumps’, and then turned left along a path following a fence on my right – this was the start of the Icknield Way long-distance path, which I’d now be following for several miles until I reached Whipsnade. On the right of the fence, the rough grass sloped steeply uphill towards the car park for the Beacon. I was surprised at how many walkers were about – I counted a total of 19 that were in view as I followed the path by the fence, including a group of seven that passed me coming the other way. I heard the distinctive sound of a Raven here, though it was too far away in the gloom for me to see it.

After a while, I went through a gate in the fence, and followed a path towards a wood. Just before going through a gate at the entrance to the wood, I sat on a log to eat my lunch and have some coffee. I was worried that I might lose heat and get too cold while I was stopped, but the coffee helped me keep warm and I was fine. A few snow flakes fell, but just for a few seconds – this had already happened a few times, and did so again just after I set off again. I followed a path through the wood, and soon spotted a male Muntjac Deer amongst the trees to my right (I managed to get a fairly poor photo of him). After a few hundred yards, the deciduous trees gave way to the slightly spooky coniferous section of the wood, but I was soon through that and back into more natural woodland.

The path forked left at a track junction, and started up a steep flight of wooden steps with a hand railing – these were put in a couple of years ago, as part of some general improvements that were made to this part of the Icknield Way (a lot of new signposts were put in at the same time). The steep mud and chalk slope that was here prior to that was probably a bit dangerous when wet, I could well imagine someone skidding or slipping over and injuring themselves. At the top of the steps, somewhat out of breath, I followed the edge of a pasture and went through a gate to reach Ward’s Hurst farm (I mentioned it earlier).

I turned left and immediately left the farmyard through another gate. I followed a fence on my left between two sheep pastures – a long line of sheep were processing through an open gateway, heading over to my right. They stopped to let me pass by, then continued on their way. I was now following an embankment on my left, where some magnificent beech trees grew, as the path gradually descended. There was usually a good view ahead of the Gade Valley and Dagnall, but today there was just a blank greyness. The hoar frost on the trees and grass continued to make for good photos though.

I passed a few more sheep, and beyond the end of the very long pasture the path went round the corner of an arable field to reach the drive to Hog Hall. I turned right and carefully followed the drive steadily downhill. It was very icy in places, and I often had to resort to walking on the verges either side. After half a mile or so, I reached the road that runs through the Gade Valley again, on the edge of Dagnall. This walk passes through the three counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, which all meet at a point just outside this village.

I turned right along the road, into Dagnall. I went straight on at a roundabout, passing the rather unusual church on my right. I turned left immediately beyond the village school, following a path between paddocks on my left and a small field on my right. Ahead of me was a steep slope, part of the Chiltern escarpment, where there was one of the very large open paddocks of Whipsnade Zoo. When I reached the end of the path at a lane, I saw an emu beyond the zoo fence opposite me.

I followed the lane for a few yards to the right, then took a path that rose at a steady gradient up the hillside. There was a sheep pasture to my left, surrounded on two sides by the tall zoo fence, and a wooded area to my right. Further up the slope, I had a garden hedge on my left and I crossed the drive to an isolated house. At the top of the hill, I emerged onto Whipsnade Golf course, with the club house just to my right – there were a surprising number of cars in the car park. The path crossed in front of a couple tees – amazingly, a couple of youngsters were just teeing off from the second of them. I thought the course would have been closed in the frosty conditions.

The path continue through a line of trees between two fairways. A tall marker post indicated a path junction, where I turned left and followed the path across five or six fairways – a number of footprints showed that many people had used these path in recent days. Three other youngsters were out playing – they had just reached the temporary winter green on the last fairway I crossed.

The path then continued for a long distance beside the tall zoo fence, with a mature hedgerow to my right. The fence and hedge were both covered in thick frost, and as the hedge overhung the path it seemed to form a white tunnel. I passed another huge zoo paddock where various type of deer were kept, and further on I spotted some Musk Oxen. I also managed to photograph a Wallaby and a Chinese Water Deer as I continued on along the zoo fence.

By a triangular bit of woodland I came to a T-junction where I took the path going left, almost immediately back alongside the zoo fence again. There were probably a hundred or more Chinese Water Deer in this section of the zoo (which is well away from any visitors) with a few Wallabies mixed in. The path took me to the old lane between Holywell and Whipsnade, which I followed to the left. Again it was icy in places and I had to take care. After quarter of a mile or so, I turned right on a path beside a hedgerow, passing some tall ice-laden trees as the path rose slightly. I went through a gate in the field corner and immediately went left through an open gate. I was now in a small meadow, following a hedge on my right – it was curious to see large round bales of hay with a smattering of snow and ice on top.

The path continued through the churchyard of Whipsnade Church, where I passed two yew trees near the entrance. I then turned right, crossing a section of the huge village green (an irregularly shaped area of rough grass that goes over one small hillside, down the other and up another small rise, with the residences of this msall village dotted around its edges). I headed downhill to reach the minor road (the Whipsnade Road again) by the Old Hunter’s Lodge restaurant, and continued beside the road to the crossroads at Whipsnade Heath.

I crossed over, and made my way through the small car park and small picnic area to pick up the short path through the woods that comprise the greater part of Whipsnade Heath.  Beyond the wood, the path runs beside a large field, between a wire fence and a hedge on the right. It then goes through a kissing gate, and crosses a field of rough grass. As I neared the gate on the far side, I met two people walking a dog – it was one of our near neighbours, and her daughter whom I’d not seen since she was a girl thirty years or more ago. After a brief but pleasant chat, I had the simple task of following Common Road downhill for about quarter of a mile, getting home about 3.45pm.

Despite the freezing conditions all day (I’d not seen any evidence of the snow or ice thawing, save beside the Whipsnade road where it had been gritted), my lovely Paramo gear had kept me nicely warm , and I felt neither cold nor particularly tired when I finished the walk. It had been a really great day out – I really enjoy walking in wintry conditions, it’s far preferable to walking when it’s wet and muddy.

I have walked this route many times now, and have always enjoyed it – I’ve not yet tried it in the opposite anti-clockwise direction, but suspect it wouldn’t be quite so good that way round. It’s a pleasantly up-and-down route, with a nice combination of woodland walks and field paths, plus the lovely chalk downland around Steps Hill and Ivinghoe Beacon. But it was the bizarre weather conditions that made this walk so special – the remnants of snow on the ground,  the spectacular frost coating the trees, bushes, fences,  gates and everything else, the grey skies and fog, all these factors combined to make for some eery yet beautiful scenes. This is a walk that I will certainly remember for a long time, and I will treasure many of the photos that I took.

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