This spring, what better place to start than one of the most thrilling things you can do in the British countryside: walk among bluebells.
Some time in the next few weeks – usually around mid-April – the first bright bluebells will unfurl in our woodlands, creating one of the great spring spectacles.
The star of this particular feature is a sprawling woodland in the Chiltern Hills, where I wandered for a day last spring; but before I get to that, let’s spend a moment mulling over bluebells, their place in our hearts and what we can do to show them a little love back.
One of the pleasures of bluebells is their individual beauty: graceful, arching stems bearing delicate bells of deep colour. But when those single splashes of blue multiply to form dreamy pools of thousands of plants, fresh pleasures await. The colour and scent intensify and there is a delicious, extravagant sense of abundance after the barren winter months.
This, of couse, is no secret. Every spring, people in their hoardes venture out to explore our bluebell woods and naturally the newspapers have cottoned on, with headlines on Britain’s Best Bluebell Woods a spring staple. The effect is to publicise particular woodlands; people travel from far and wide to explore them, when equally lovely woodlands get ignored.
But what’s wrong with that? It seems an innocent kind of pleasure: people pose for photographs among the bluebells, and wander the narrow paths that often crisscross the woods.
The answer is that while their apparent abundance makes bluebells seem invincible, they’re not, as Lawrence Trowbridge knows only too well. Lawrence is lead ranger at the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate, one of the most famous places in Britain for bluebell woods, and the place we are walking today.
Ashridge lies just 15 miles northwest of the London suburbs, so attracts plenty of
visitors. Fortunately, with 5,000 acres of woodland, commonland, meadows and chalk grassland, the estatecan soak up plenty of people without feeling crowded. The only snag is that many of the spring visitors head to one or two small patches of woodland on the estate that are famous for bluebells.
Killing me softly
These well-known bluebell woods at Ashridge still look sensational – but Lawrence says they are showing signs of wear and tear. The problem is that, in their eagerness to enjoy the bluebells, some visitors end up trampling on them. The ground soon becomes so compacted that the bluebells can’t flourish. They are now receding into the woodland; and the bare earth paths that run through them, often made by visitors posing for pictures, are getting ever wider. Lawrence is so concerned that he asked me not to name Ashridge’s most celebrated bluebell wood – a roadside beech plantation – lest we encourage yet more visitors.
Image by Jason Ingram
Mind your feet!
Don’t get the idea that you are not welcome at Ashridge in bluebell season: far from it. For there’s an easy way round the problem.
First and most importantly, if you love bluebells and want to preserve them, Lawrence asks us all to try and keep clear of them. Where bluebells are growing, stick to official trails, and try to walk single file wherever the plants fringe a narrow pathway.
Second, he says, avoid the honeypots and seek out bluebells growing in more peaceful parts of the estate. Luminous stretches of bluebells lie scattered all over Ashridge. Go exploring and you could find your own secret bluebell wood, with
no one around. The airy birch wood on Pitstone Common, just to the north of the Ashridge visitor centre, for example, is often quieter
Lawrence’s final word on the subject is a challenge – but an intriguing one. Rather than fixate on bluebells – wonderful as they are – he urges us to open our eyes to the many other wildflowers that bloom at the same time. They may not grow in such spectacular drifts, but they have their own more subtle beauty.
So with that in mind, you can follow one of the many walks through Ashridge – or my route below – or simply follow your nose and the gentle scent of bluebells on a spring breeze.
Out in the Open
One of the great virtues of a walk at Ashridge is that not only do you get to explore the woodlands, but there are also open grasslands and fantastic rolling views.
My walk starts in the woods, near the visitor centre in the heart of the estate, at the Bridgewater Monument (A). This granite tower is a tribute to pioneering canal builder Francis Egerton, who owned the estate until he died in 1803.
From the monument, a track heads north through mixed woodland along the edge of the chalk escarpment that shapes the Chiltern Hills. It’s peaceful and green; occasional breaks in the thick stands of ash, hazel and beech reveal a green valley quartered by hedgerows, rising to the wooded ridge of Aldbury Nowers, opposite. On the woodland margin next to us glow sweet woodruff, bugle, splashes of wild garlic and, of course, drifts of bluebells.
The path emerges from woodland on to the shapely chalk hillside above the idyllic valley of Incombe Hole (B).
Half a mile further on lies Ivinghoe Beacon (C), the hilltop with views over gently rolling farmland and the scattered villages and towns of Aylesbury Vale. I’m told red kites can be seen overhead, while skylarks sing their spring song; but by now the rain was pelting down and they had obviously found something more sensible to do.
Our path leads southeastwards along the Icknield Way path (D), through farmland and woodland margins. The highlights included a thick carpet of bluebells (E) on the steep slope up to Ward’s Hurst Farm; and a herd of fallow deer – common and semi-tame at Ashridge – queuing to hop into Ringshall coppice.
If I’m honest, the long trudge down a straight and sopping woodland ride through Sallow Copse (F) was not much fun in the now teeming rain; but all seemed more than worthwhile after hot tea and homemade cake in the tearoom.
• Ashridge Estate, Moneybury Hill, Ringshall, Near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire HP4 1LX. 01442 851227, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ashridge-estate/