The London Countryway – Day 7

October 13, 1985: West Wycombe to Great Missenden

Mausoleum, West Wycombe

Mausoleum, West Wycombe

A good deal of time passed before I was able to resume my struggles with the LCW. Following a week in the Lakes in July I was troubled by gout for some weeks, and other events lead to a postponement of the quest. On this beautiful summer Sunday, the third day of a holiday weekend at ASL, Dorothy and I were joined by the Lees – and another new character now made his first appearance on the trail.

On the afternoon of Saturday, August 24, Dorothy, Janet, Bertie and I had taken the train to Wokingham to begin a day’s visit with our cousins, the Levy’s. We were picked up at the Wokingham train station shortly after 12:00 and took our seats in the back of the car. As we drove through Twyford Bernard and Doreen were beginning to explain our itinerary – which included a look at the Oxfordshire Way. But for some inexplicable reason Bertie, the happy veteran of so many of our rural outings, chose this moment to leap from my lap through the narrow space at the top of the side window. I ordered Doreen to stop the car but when I opened my door the grisly truth was evident. The dog had been struck by the rear wheels. As I picked him up blood streamed from his mouth. A resident invited us to take the dog into his yard. “He’s going to die now,” I told Dorothy. He breathed once or twice without opening his eyes and then he was still. We put him in a cardboard box and Doreen drove on to Maidenhead, where there was a veterinary surgery. I sobbed without pause for the ten minutes or so it took us to arrive. Bernard and Dorothy took the box inside, where the dog was pronounced dead. By an irony of fate the surgery in question was the same one, on Summerleaze Road, that had served as the backdrop for a major route finding puzzle in the middle of day five of the London Countryway. Where Bertie had once joyously charged across the field to me in May he ended his days in August.

Here his body was left for final disposal by the helpful staff and, shattered, we tried to get through the rest of the day. I cried uncontrollably, in the car, at meals, on the train. Dorothy and I moved like zombies for the next week and the following Sunday I called our breeder, Peter Newman, to inquire about another dog. To my great surprise he had a fourteen week-old pup ready to go. So on September 2nd little Toby, Bertie’s half brother, joined our family and, just shy of his fifth month, we decided to take him with us on this day’s walk. Bertie had been the same age in October, 1983 when he went on his first walk. The older dog had completed 290 miles in 27 days of walking, plus countless uncounted miles keeping his human flock in order. I would never forget his devotion and courage and, many years later, I still recall his exploits with fondness and the details of his death with pain.

I had planned to reverse the bus journey that had taken us from West Wycombe to a spot on Park Lane some months earlier, but I now decided to adopt a more cautious approach, especially as it was a Sunday and we had to meet up somewhere with the Lees. Therefore we met our friends at Marylebone Station at 8:30. Toby took the underground journey much more casually than his predecessor and we traveled without the squeaks of excitement that used to be a normal part of our progress. We left Marylebone at 8:40 and reached High Wycombe at 9:30. Here we had three methods of making our way back to West Wycombe – a foot journey of two and a half miles (rather dull road walking), a bus (requiring our transfer to the bus station, but I had not been able to rouse a response from this building after numerous telephone inquiries throughout the week), or cab.

Several of the latter were waiting outside the train station so, after loo stops, we piled in. I cannot describe the desperate feelings that passed through me as I held the struggling Schnauzer on my lap in the back seat. After an inexpensive ride we were able to unload outside the Swan Hotel shortly before 10:00. The day was lovely – a little haze in the distance, a few high clouds, but mostly radiant sunshine still giving a little warmth in early autumn.

We ascended a road (at whose side Toby completed his first rural doo-doo) and found a path that climbed steeply up to the top of the hill on which church and mausoleum stood. There were wonderful views back to our route of June 29 on this ascent. Toby was allowed to go free here but I re-hooked him for a circuit of the mausoleum and the churchyard. Visitors were placing flowers on graves of recent origin here. After we had circumnavigated the Dashwood property we left the shining gold tower behind us in order to head downhill on a bearing of 130 degrees. The path we were on soon began a descent on steps back to our original road and I had to call back an eager Toby, who had decided on this as the best method of progress. I knew we had to maintain a more easterly line and eventually, as the grassy hill ended, I found a track down to the north-south lane we were looking for. Chesterton had provided a map for this section, but either it was wrong or 130 degrees was too southerly a line. I suspect the latter.

We found our footpath and headed toward Flint Hall Farm, with the Lees lingering behind for a pull on the canteen. We climbed a stile to walk along the southern side of the fence we had been following. A boy from the farm was exercising a sheepdog in our field and this animal rushed up to give Toby a sniff. As we reached the A4010 I climbed a stile in order to receive the dog’s extendo-lead from Tosh – Toby having already scrambled beneath the bottom fence rung. But she let go before I had secured the green plastic handle and the dog ran forward in order to cross the busy highway on his own, the clattering handle and my despairing shouts each frightening him the more!

I tried to get him to “sit” as we sped south on the sidewalk, fearing at every step that he would rush into the traffic again. Eventually I got him to chase me in the opposite direction and in this fashion I was able to secure the battered handle of the lead. My three companions had not crossed the highway, mesmerized by the scene – which was also bringing chuckles to the residents of parked cars come to attend some sort of local fete. My mood was antithetical to mirth as I reached a stile needed for entry into a large, safe ploughed field. It took some time for my heart to stop pounding. By this time we had picked our way among the dirt clods to a tunnel beneath a railway bridge. Here, with a wire fence on the left, we ascended the second of many hills today.

As we began our descent on the other side I searched in vain for any sign of a path climbing the field ahead of us. The fact that there was none in evidence may have been explained by the presence of a huge tractor, one that was ploughing furrows across our line as we watched. I will sometimes strike off across virgin soil when I am sure of the line of a public right of way, but not when I have to contest the space with moving machinery. When we reached the bottom of our hill a muddy cross track led down to the tarmaced Cookshall Farm road and, as we had to reach this road eventually, I decided it would be easier to make its acquaintance earlier than planned. Toby disappeared somewhere on this muddy lane and we had to call him several times before he rushed up to the crossroads from behind us. How we managed to pass him I do not know.

We walked up the hill to the farm as other walkers were heading downhill. Toby was on lead for this stretch because of cars and two noisy motorcyclists who passed us several times in the next few minutes. We were greeted by waves from the residents at the farm as we proceeded northeastwards to a junction with a northerly track. Here the girls insisted on a snack break so we discovered an almost dry patch and ate some of our sandwiches. I passed around a can of beer.

Much guesswork was needed to plot a steady course through Naphill Common. An easy solution would have been to have followed the lane behind Naphill’s backyards, but I preferred the sylvan silences of a series of tracks and trails (muddy at first) as we proceeded northwards on a bearing of 340 degrees. I feel I went too far to the west at some point – a National Trust sign indicating an approach to unwanted Bradenham was my clue  – so I decided to head straight east along a series of tracks. Fortunately I had stumbled on the correct route to the Naphill Road and we were soon in suburbia. At a street corner I guessed that we had to turn to the right and, after a few steps, I was rewarded with the sight of the Black Lion pub at the end of a little cul-de-sac. The others never knew how lost we had been.

It was about 12:15. In the large garden outside the pub I selected a picnic table. Toby tied himself in knots around its legs while the girls went inside to order lager and crisps. Dorothy had a glass of white wine. A toddler came teetering over to inspect the puppy. He was very gentle with her; even his theft of a chip from her clenched fist was discreet. I had been planning to see if we couldn’t make it to a second pub located, according to the OS map, in Bryant’s Bottom, some two miles away. This would have been a better objective on some day other than early closing Sunday, but we set out with high hopes shortly after 12:30. An army of bicyclists was descending on the Black Lion as we left.

We continued south on the Naphill Road for a short distance, then climbed over a stile and continued eastward. Another large ploughed field presented itself, but a tractor swipe, indicating the right of way, had been provided here. After a left fork we entered a nice wood, from whose summit we obtained views of the hamlet of Upper North Dene. Conservatively I aimed directly for the road on our left as we cleared the woods, but a diagonal descent across the grass directly toward the village would have given immediate access to the stile needed to escape onto the tarmac.

We turned left at a T-junction and right up a steep trod at the edge of a field. I was really panting when I reached the stile into the woods near the top. There were several Sunday strollers and their dogs about up here and Toby was having a wonderful time visiting everybody. We came out onto a tarmac lane through Piggott’s Wood. Here we turned left onto the ridge top, passing a nearby music camp from which there emerged the lovely sounds of an unseen choir.

Houses appeared at the end of the lane and a variety of confusing signs. One pointed down hill to the right but this seemed, at the time, too early for a descent. I wish, in hindsight, we had taken it. Perhaps we would have decided that this was the exit we were looking for had it not been for a local resident – who interpreted our hesitation as an invitation for advice. “Looking for the footpath?” she inquired, assuring us that we were to continue on the left-hand side of the pink house at the end of the lane, using stiles in the fences of her own yard. This we did, obediently proceeding in a northwesterly direction instead of the required northeast. I was becoming increasingly cross, for this detour would certainly cost us any chance of making it to a second pub; it would also add about a mile to our total distance on this day.

We came out at last in a field adjacent to the Spring Coppice Farm road. Here we paused to give Toby a drink of water. Of course I had the OS map with me and our position was confirmed when we passed the Spring Coppice Cottage. A footpath down to Bryant’s Bottom was indicated on the map and I located this. But when we reached Bryant’s Bottom Road I had no way of knowing precisely where we stood in relationship to Chesterton’s directions. And I couldn’t see any pub. A bus stop at the bottom of the path we were following was, perhaps, not the one mentioned in his text as a guidepost. We trudged south on the road, though perhaps not far enough, looking for the “enclosed path” that was to be our continuation to the east. Eventually I returned to the original bus stop and we began climbing our next hill. A large group of walkers was making a descent here, but I knew we had to work our way farther south, near the large electricity pylons mentioned in the text. The others demanded a rest and sat down in a heap on the hot hillside.

I did a little scouting before calling over to the others to follow me. Vision was impaired and passage made more difficult by hawthorn bushes that tore at us as we scrambled through. I had scratches on my hands for two weeks. We cleared these impediments as we neared the top of the hill, but it was still not clear where we should go – two lines of electricity wires offering us an invitation. In the event we followed the wrong line of poles and ended up in someone’s front yard. He advised us of a short cut to Dennerhill Farm, which we reached on tarmac. It was only after we turned left at this manurial colossus and I found the line of descent into the next valley that I knew I was (at least temporarily) back on route. We had been floundering about for an hour.

At the head of our line of descent Dennerhill Farm had provided a giant muck pile in place of a stile. This we waded through on our way past a cabbage patch going to seed, a wild hedgerow on our right. We had to climb into this foliage as we neared the end so that we could come out at the stile at the bottom. Nettles choked this path and poor Toby was quite disconcerted. Dorothy picked him up and carried him the last few yards to the road. We escaped the vines, crossed tarmac, and began climbing a grassy field beneath a wood. A family with a tiny toddler in blue wellies was coming down and, once again, Toby was on his best behavior with this little walker.

We entered the wood, also full of trippers and their dogs, and followed a path in a northeasterly direction. At the midpoint we were joined by two slinky shorthaired Dachshunds, Rupert and Wellington, who bounced with determination though the grass. Toby was fascinated and ran circles around them, but our party stopped for a rest as we shared another beer. I ate my second sandwich and some other goodies here. Children were petting a white horse as we re-entered civilization on the outskirts of Prestwood and for some reason the little baby in blue wellies was here too.

There now followed some very specific instructions from Chesterton on how to negotiate the streets of Prestwood. These proved to be very trustworthy, although the advertised cottages were no longer yellow. We had just begun to follow the black and white posts on the Prestwood Farm track when Toby, who had been slowing down, came to a weary halt. This had happened to Bertie too on his first walk but we had been very near the end then and here there were at least two miles to go. I decided to attempt a strategy that had utterly failed in young Bertie’s case – to put the puppy in my knapsack. Dorothy took my lunch bag and the dog was inserted. He offered no objection and accepted his role as papoose with no complaint. His little head looked out with interest on the scene unfolding behind us and he made no effort to escape or change position. Throughout the rest of the walk he accepted the ups and downs, the stiles and gates, with complete docility.

Posts lead us into a wood but we again went off route because Chesterton had advised us to seek a “slightly downhill” route that I should have described as steeply downhill. We wandered off to the right on an easier line but I found a way for us to return to the original route. We dropped down to an enclosed path and out, briefly, onto another road. This we crossed against speeding traffic before continuing on the Coney Hill track, turning off in front of a bungalow. Neither Tosh nor Harold could see how to get around a paddock that, in fact, had two open gates in it. We now followed the edges of fields for some distance before finding a stile around a hedge corner. Model airplanes were circling overhead in the last of the afternoon sun.

We passed under a railway bridge (though not half-right, more half -left) and reached another road near the Black Horse pub. There was no stile immediately beyond this, though we did find the football pitch mentioned in the text. There seemed to be no exit from this field directly into the next one, and we spent quite a bit of precious time searching for one – our chances of making the 5:27 train rapidly disappearing as I got gloomier in my frustration. Dorothy found an abandoned red, yellow and blue rubber ball, which she appropriated for the tired pup. Tosh now lead a charge over the fence behind one of the goals, not an easy action for me to duplicate with my canine passenger. As I put all my weight on my right foot stepping onto the lowest rung of a rickety gate I could feel the sudden strain.

We crossed the last field and, using a radio mast as our guide, reached the A413. I wanted Tosh and Harold to rush ahead by themselves to the Great Missenden train station – but they loyally remained behind as we inched our way around the construction works at the roundabout and entered the town.

Some lounging teenagers advised us on how to reach the station. It was 5:25. Dorothy plucked the dog out of the knapsack and let him walk the length of the platform. When the train came we rode only to Amersham, where we entered the London underground system. We had about a fifty-minute ride on the Metropolitan line, ending up at Baker Street. The Lees had parked in Dorset Square nearby, and gave us a ride home. What an unusual day, off route at least eight times, with Chesterton’s eight miles for the day stretching to our ten. Still, it was with some satisfaction that I could look back on my day in darkest Buckinghamshire.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 8: Great Missenden to Berkhamsted

Day walks from London:

If you are looking for additional London-based walking opportunities you may want to have a look at our experiences on the following routes:

A Chilterns Hundred

The Chiltern Way

The Green London Way

The Greensand Way

The London Countryway

The London Outer Orbital Path

The North Downs Way

The Ridgeway Path

The Saxon Shore Way

The South Downs Way

The Thames Path

The Vanguard Way

The Wealdway