The London Countryway – Day 8

April 27, 1986: Great Missenden to Berkhamsted

Harold on Potter Row

Harold on Potter Row

Six and a half months later Harold and I met at Marylebone Station for day eight of the London Countryway. We walked alone because Tosh had the flu, Dorothy was campaigning for the Alliance, and Toby had not yet recovered from parvo virus. A very harsh winter had wiped out any chance of walking since October. Now I was not altogether unhappy to be a member of so small a party – for the day’s march had to conclude with two miles of road walking, always irksome for pedestrians and quite dangerous for the dog.

Harold and I approached the ticket booth to purchase singles for our morning train to Great Missenden. “No trains there today,” was the reply, “You have to try Baker Street.” Naturally I had requested time and station information from BR the day before and I was thus nonplussed and little resentful: the chap I had talked to had seemed knowledgeable, if overly chatty –”You’re driving between Great Missenden and Berkhamsted?” he asked when I had requested return times from the latter station. “As a matter of fact, I plan to walk.” “Hope the weather improves,” he had concluded grimly.

Of course it was only a few minutes walk to Baker Street and we were in plenty of time for the 9:06 train to Amersham. After 45 minutes, retracing a route taken by many of my students on their way back to Metroland, we arrived at the end of the line and found the Great Missenden train waiting on an adjacent platform. We visited the gents and went over to a newsagent for some sweets. We were soon arrived in Great Missenden itself and retracing our steps back to the A413, only a little bit past 10:00.

We noticed that the corner with the A4128 was in a little better shape than last time – when construction was underway. We turned north and at a large traffic sign opposite our last October path we turned eastward for the day’s trod. Having gotten lost eight times in eight miles last time I was naturally apprehensive about the continuation today. I had completed a thorough study of Chesterton’s text and the OS map and I was encouraged by the fact that our guidebook itself had route maps covering much of today’s territory. I cannot say why these were thought necessary today (and not last time or on other occasions) but another complex day of route finding was now underway.

The terrain, in spite of at least five ascents to ridge tops, was not particularly arduous. We never saw the promised sun and I would say we were ten degrees (F) short of the predicted 60′s and it remained grey and overcast throughout the day – dry but rather chilly. The countryside was quite pleasant, but very unspectacular, particularly so because none of the trees were in leaf and few were even in blossom and most of the flowers on display were in the cultivated beds of the stockbroker belt.

We left the A413 to begin a gentle ascent of a farm track – some electricity wires serving as our beacon ahead. We climbed a stile to continue on our track and kept our direction, aided by hints on the OS map. Certainly Chesterton’s promise that we would encounter a kissing gate in the top right hand corner of our field kept us going, for we were soon out of track. Sure enough we found the creaky iron gate in a sea of mud, squeezed through it and proceeded on level ground on an enclosed path that soon passed a house of some character on the left. Its dogs saw us off as we reached a small drive dominated by the cries of distant peacocks. “How would you like to have them for your neighbors?” I asked Harold.

I posed that gentleman in front of an antique house on the ridge top road and took a photograph. From the northeast, our line of march, another noise now intruded – the throbbing of a tractor. As we searched out our path I had visions of another ploughed field to cross, path missing, and the right of way contested by the desecrator – but we never actually caught sight of the beast.

We walked north on the road looking for a white house but it had turned pink with the passing years. At any rate it was clear from a footpath sign that we were to go behind it and begin a northeasterly progress across a series of fields, aided by stiles. Signs of a true path were evident here but things were a little more ambiguous in the last field, where we had to find a stile (“not the one on the left”) in a “far corner” – farthest from what I always want to know. I was using my compass as an aid to navigation here and we chose the correct stile, turning left to follow a hedge. Chesterton says to keep left of it but it was somehow on our right. Sure enough we were soon joined by a parallel path on the western edge of the woods that we were skirting – but it was a kind of sunken lane full of puddles. It wasn’t until we had reached the top of a hill that were we able to hop a low wire which finally put the hedge on our left. The path now reached a dirt track running past Field End Grange. We met a horsewoman here who complained about the wet footing. Actually we were rather grateful that things weren’t more mucky underfoot.

Following Chesterton’s own maps we descended via a field path to a deep track, rounded a corner, hopped a stile and headed east into a woods. This was a quite lovely stretch that ended at Ballinger Bottom. The horsewoman was here too, but she wished she were not – for just as we arrived a car backfired and startled her steed.

We crossed the road and continued east on a lane for a short distance, then forward on a very muddy track into more woods. I paused to take a picture of some shaggy grey cattle in the field below us but for some reason my film would not advance and my shutter wouldn’t close and I had to give up on photography for the day. It was with some vexation that I continued on, descending a little hill to a footpath sign mounted on a pole – which was lying flat of the ground! It was clear that we were to continue east, followed by another plodding rider behind us and two Americans on horseback coming toward us.

To help me overcome my chagrin over the camera I sucked on a segment of Almond Yorkie. This was also needed as energy for a steep but short ascent of the path on our left now followed. At the top we rounded the corner of a wire fence and used a path up to the village of Chartridge. On this stretch we were accompanied by the sounds of a fierce athletic contest, football as it turned out, taking place on the village field. We turned right at the village hall’s reading room and followed some locals into the Bell pub. It was 12:00 precisely.

We each ordered a pint of lager – but Harold soon complained that this was too much for him. To wash the beer down we bought crisps, scampi fries, and peanuts. The Bell was full of local families, the teenagers in the back room with space invader machines, the toddlers cooing over some bunny rabbits brought into the pub for their amusement. We left at 12:40.

We turned off at the Baptist chapel, descending to another valley bottom along an enclosed path. Then it was a steep uphill track in the stubble – without much sign of the electric fence mentioned by Chesterton. The next ridgetop was occupied by Asheridge village. Here I made a brief detour to the left to check on the status of the Blue Ball pub. The guidebook had indicated that the pub was closed but we found the joint jumping, quite literally, for kids were having a wonderful time on a backyard trampoline while their parents supped ale. We weren’t at all thirsty so we resumed our march. It took us a while to penetrate the mysteries of Widmore Farm, for the route actually enters the farmyard and snakes around through farm buildings before heading downhill through a wood. Shortly after a turn-off to the right we found a dry patch next to the path and had our lunch. Harold took two aspirins. “Most people come to the country to escape their headaches,” he said, “I always seem to get them.” I often get them too – eye strain having a lot to do with it; in my case this is often compounded by sudden changes in focus: close ups of the guide book and the OS map on the one hand and distant vistas on the other. This was long before I began to wear trifocals.

Harold was also making his throat-clearing allergic noises as we headed uphill (no stile, just a gap in the hedge). Here we followed a hedge – with a little more bend in it than Chesterton had allowed – to reach a road at Bellingdon. We turned right, crossed the road and followed a path to a cottage (why is it that every detached house in the country is a “cottage”?).

We were soon following a hedge into a wood. Here Chesterton suggests an unofficial short cut, but signs clearly warned walkers not to trespass – so we decided to respect this. We followed the bridle track to our right – it was quite muddy – and after 300 meters we turned off downhill, our way guided by the last of a series of useful signs erected by the Chartridge Parish Council. At the bottom we followed a field edge east for 400 meters but it was a little difficult to link up with the unofficial short cut directions. We had reached a wire fence but I missed seeing a stile in it. I knew we had to get into the next field but while I was looking for a way into this space a local gentleman and his dog appeared and the chap told us to follow the right side of the fence uphill.

I argued that this was not correct but he seemed insistent and because he had forgotten his glasses there was no way I could show him Chesterton’s map. Finally he cleared off and, as Harold had found the missing stile, we entered the field on the left of the fence and while Harold waited in a corner I found a thin trod among the bushes, leading to the top. Harold joined me as I reached our next stile, fifty meters from the right hand corner as advertised. We now crossed another ridge and descended along a disappearing path that gave way to groin-punishing paddock rails in a yard at a road junction.

We had a brief rest at the bottom and proceeded between fences up our last hill: why two substantial fences when one would do? We entered our last wood and followed diversion signs along the edge of a field at the top. Then it was left along a track past a giant greenhouse complex. Here we kept to the tarmac a bit too long – the turn-off being almost immediately after the bend in the track, not after 150 meters, I would say. Also, we found no footpath crossing at right angles and the two stiles we were looking for were not in evidence. We were also looking for two oak trees and only one was in evidence. Eventually we climbed a fence opposite the lone oak and the rest of the route suddenly came true – with a few more quick switches of path and track and a few more stiles bringing us out on the Ashley Green road. We entered this village at about 3:20 and had a rest (and a snack) at the bus shelter.

I made a note of the bus times for the next outing on the LCW and peeked around the corner to spot the continuation of the route. There was no bus service for several hours  – this being a Sunday – and so we began our two miles walk north into Berkhamsted. It wasn’t too bad – there was verge most of the way and the countryside was pleasant, but I was getting quite footsore as we reached Berkhamsted’s playing fields and pavement again.

We descended to the A41 and crossed it, surprised to be among suburban shop windows. We crossed the canal and I located the bus stop that could be used for a return to Ashley Green next time. We were about fifteen minutes early for the 4:48 train but it was about 20 minutes late. We spent most of the time sprawled on the tarmaced platform next to a safety fence, resting from our nine-mile trek. Two days later I got the first twinges of gout in my right toe – in spite of all the medication I have been taking – and limped around for a week. None of this could have been predicted from that late Sunday afternoon when we arrived back at Euston and disappeared contentedly into the underground.

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

Day 9: Ashley Green to Kings Langley