Monday, 9 February 2015

Ivinghoe Beacon

In the latest in an occasional series of weekend escapes from the Smoke, my friend Steve and I headed out to Tring in Hertfordshire to walk to the terminus of the Chiltern Ridgeway trail at Ivinghoe Beacon. A lung-tingling clamber through dormant woodlands on an ancient sunken trackway scored deep into the hillside, yawning off an early start, feeling the sharper cold of the country outside the urban bubble.

This 5,000 year old route follows the Chiltern ridge from Wiltshire, a dry ripple of high ground, and perhaps a safer place to travel than down in the forested plain. Below the bare tops of the chalk downs, the Vale of Aylesbury disappears into the haze. Nowadays it's nearly treeless, pocked with chalk pits, housing, and warehouses, carved up by roads, gateway to the industrial Midlands, the white noise of traffic hanging over it like a pall. It's an effort to see into the past but up here amongst the tumuli you can sense an older, earthier world, and see why this place mattered. Ivinghoe Beacon, out on a limb at the end of the ridge, is a commanding viewpoint. It's a fascinating place for Steve, a geologist with a keenness for archaeology.

I've passed through this landscape at high speed so many times by train. It's nice to step off, slow down, and get to know it better. Do stay on the path though.

The hilltops are kept close-cropped by sheep, and there are small and stocky Belted Galloway cattle too. This bald landscape is supposedly a conservation area, but it's not clear what's being conserved. There seems, to my ignorant eyes, to be little diversity here and little habitat. Left alone the hills would quickly become wild and untidy with scrub. Maybe that's what's being conserved - a comforting and familiar landscape.

We double back from Ivinghoe Beacon and into the woods of the Ashridge Estate. Looking back to the chalk downs we see five fallow deer racing across the hillside through the unperturbed sheep.

Under the trees frost and even some snow remains and it gets icy at times under foot. The sun is always low, dazzling as it only can at this time of year. There are many people out walking in the woods now, old and young, children and toddlers. It warms up somewhat as we walk; spring is slowly gathering its strength in the tree trunks and beneath the leaf litter.

We emerge from the woods at the Bridgewater monument. Downhill is Aldbury village, a pretty place choked with daytrippers' cars. We drop in for pints and crisps at The Greyhound - it's actually sunny and sheltered enough to sit outside (coats on though!) then weave our way on muddy trails back over to Tring station and a fast train back into London.

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