A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the Chilterns lies in a graceful curve through Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire to the north and west of the capital, an upland springboard from which you dive into the great plains of Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire. As far back as 1086AD, the Domesday Book noted the Chilterns as being the second most thickly wooded region of Britain, and as much of this upland country lies under ancient woodland that has not been cleared for housing development or agriculture, today nearly a quarter of the range is under trees. More than half the Chiltern woods are classified as ancient woodland, and those long centuries of shelter and stability, combined with the lime-rich soil, mean that the area is world-famous for bluebells in spring.
Particularly fabulous locations for bluebells include the Ashridge Estate woods above Berkhamsted, Wendover Woods and Cowleaze Wood. There are also carpets of bluebells in Adams Wood, between Frieth and Skirmett a few miles east of Christmas Common in the southern Chilterns, while the coppiced beech wood of Low Scrubs near Coombe Hill, just south of Wendover, is flooded with brilliant blue from April till late May.
But you scarcely need to be pointed towards specific bluebell woods in the Chilterns – just follow any footpath into any wood, and you’ll be unlucky if you don’t come upon one of those magical clearings where it seems as if a portion of cloudless sky has somehow slipped to earth and become anchored among the trees.
There are countless archaeological features to be discovered along the Chiltern woodland footpaths – ancient boundary banks and field walls, clay pits and ironworking camps, sawpits, horse ponds and cattle pens.
“The Chilterns were a hive of industrial activity for many centuries,” says John Morris of the Chilterns Woodlands Project, a charity that advises landowners on how to look after their woods. “Firewood for London, timber for making tools, charcoal for the iron industry and grazing for animals: that’s what made previous generations maintain these trees. If people hadn’t found them useful, the Chiltern woods and commons would have disappeared long ago.”
During the last century, however, the Chiltern woodlands began to decline through lack of use and maintenance. The trees, a valuable crop that has been carefully nurtured and expertly harvested for 1,000 years, went largely unmanaged and uncared for, as old wood-based crafts died out and gas, oil and electricity replaced wood burning as sources of heat. Clearings became overgrown and trees were neglected, so the numbers of woodland butterflies, birds and flowers began to decline through lack of sunlight. And there was widespread damage as uncontrolled roe and fallow deer and grey squirrels stripped off the tree bark, while the tiny muntjac deer, a species introduced about 100 years ago, developed an insatiable taste for wild orchids and bluebells.
Recent understanding of these problems has seen the trees of the Chilterns put at the forefront of conservation in the area. Old harvesting practices such as coppicing have been revived and wildlife-friendly clearings have been reopened. Today the Chiltern woodlands are tremendously popular with the walkers and wanderers who find them so beautiful, but they are also still productive sources of raw materials, and as such play a very important part in the local economy.
Woodturner and carver Adam King makes besom brooms in his workshop in High Wycombe. Besom making might seem a gentle rustic activity, but it is a very physically demanding profession. Adam bunches birch twigs together and cuts the bundle off level with his band saw. He then straddles his workbench and hauls binding wire tight around the twigs. “For ordinary working brooms it’s wire, but I’ll use withy or willow wands from the Somerset Levels and give it a fancy knot if the besom’s a special one for, say, for a hand-fasting ceremony, which is a Pagan wedding. I do quite a lot of besoms for those and make a lot for witches. Where else can they get a handmade besom?” Finally a hazel handle is forced down into the twig bundle by bashing it on a wooden block, and a peg of wood is driven in to secure the whole besom.
“I learnt besom making off my dad; he’s a wood turner too,” says Adam. “They’re not just outdated curiosities; besoms are incredibly useful, and that’s part of the satisfaction of making them.” Besoms will never make Adam a fortune, but he’s the picture of a contented man who has found his calling.
That’s also true of Steve Roberts, owner of Hengrove Wood, 65 acres of mature beech, oak and larch alongside the Ridgeway National Trail by Steve’s house in the hamlet of Chivery, near Wendover. Steve not only loves Hengrove Wood with a passion, he nurtures it too, clearing undergrowth and planting ash, oak and cherry. “I’m trying to create as much diversity as possible,” he explains. “I create little openings and keep planting to demonstrate that it makes sense to look after these woods. They were always central to the local economy and I want to continue that tradition. Every time I run the timber through the sawmill and see the pattern of the wood, I know
I still love it,” he says.
Visitors flock to the Chilterns in spring to view the bluebell woods, but the blue carpets of flowers are by no means the only springtime attraction in the area. Red kites, reintroduced in the 1990s and now thriving, soar over the hills, while young roe, fallow and muntjac deer trot with their mothers. The woods are full of birdsong as blackcaps, wrens and other nesting birds mark out their territory and attract mates. And the hedge roots and mossy banks are thick with primroses, violets and the yellow stars of celandines.
There is an excellent selection of walks to enjoy all these sights and sounds of the natural world in spring. The Chilterns AONB website details a huge variety of walks, ranging from family-friendly rambles of a couple of miles to whole-day hikes such as the circuit around Radnage and Piddington near West Wycombe in the heart of red kite country – a great way to enjoy prolonged sightings of these big, impressive birds of prey at their spring courtship as they zoom and bank close together.
One of the benefits of the Chilterns’ proximity to London is that the region is very well provided with railway stations, and the AONB website recommends several walks from stations, from a 6-mile drovers’ walk that starts at Tring station and heads through the Ashridge Woods to a stroll along the beautiful River Chess valley from Chesham tube station.
For keen walkers with more than just a stroll in mind, the Chilterns offer several superb long-distance paths, including the 190-mile Chiltern Way that circles the whole region and passes through some notable bluebell woods, and also the wonderful Ridgeway National Trail.
The Ridgeway follows one of the oldest routes in Britain, skirting the outer margins of the Chilterns, winding across hillsides of chalk grassland thick with orchids, and giving amazing views over 20 or 30 miles of country as it runs northeast to its termination on Ivinghoe Beacon on the Buckinghamshire/Hertfordshire border. From here you can walk on along the Icknield Way long-distance path, exploring the northeastern outliers of the Chilterns such as the ship-like promontory of Sharpenhoe Clappers and the grassland slopes of Barton and Pegsdon Hills nature reserves. Coming down from the heights, the bluebell woods and the springtime cycles of nature, you’ll find a scatter of charming red-brick and flint market towns and picture-book villages at the feet of the hills.
Wendover is a handsome old market town where shoppers rub shoulders with local farmers and strolling townsfolk mingle with walkers on the Ridgeway, which passes through the centre of the town. Beaconsfield is another old settlement with an appealing town centre of wide streets, where the Bekonscot Model Village is a guaranteed winner with children of all ages – a comforting 1930s vision of the Chilterns complete with exquisite model houses, cricket on the green and a miniature railway. Of the dozens of delightful Chiltern villages, Aldbury, with its duck pond and lovely houses in the north, and Hambleden’s estate village perfection in the south, are two of the most photogenic.
With abundant footpaths and a rich mixture of wildlife, towns and villages full of charm, a sense of solitude in the wide spaces of the hills, and – of course – those celebrated bluebells, the Chilterns are one of the classic springtime weekending and walking destinations. “These are unique woods and beautiful hills,” says John Morris of the Chiltern Woodlands Project. “You only have to come and find out for yourself.”
Wendover, Bucks HP22 6DU
Tel: 01296 622266
The 16th-century Red Lion is traditional in appearance but offers contemporary facilities. A beautiful old carved wooden staircase ascends to the bedrooms, and there are more stylish rooms across the inn yard. This is a very friendly and welcoming place for a snack
Jordans, Bucks HP9 2SN
Tel: 0845 371 9523
Taplow, Berkshire SL6 0JF
Tel: 01628 668561
This hotel offers luxury on the banks of the River Thames at the southern edge of the Chilterns. Stroll where Winston Churchill strolled and dine where kings and queens have dined, or explore the stunning parkland.
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