The London Countryway – Day 9

May 24, 1986: Ashley Green to Kings Langley

Harold, Tosh, Dorothy and Toby at the Apostles Pool, near Chipperfield

Harold, Tosh, Dorothy and Toby at the Apostles Pool, near Chipperfield

Day nine of the London Countryway began with a Euston rendezvous at 8:45. Harold had already bought return tickets for Berkhamstead – getting a group rate for our party of five – two Lees, two Linicks, and little Toby – six days past his first birthday and eager to try his second day as a walker. In the many months since that October day, when he had finished up the last two miles in my knapsack, he had matured considerably. But he had also suffered a severe bout of parvo virus in early April, losing considerable weight during eight days of hospitalization. We were thus quite curious to see how well he would do on our eight and a half mile jaunt from Ashley Green to Kings Langley. He did extremely well.

We took the 8:55 train, with Dorothy and Tosh rattling off school gossip non-stop. We left our train at a little after 9:30, used the Berkhamsted platform loos, and, disdaining any thought of a bus, sought the assistance of a taxi company that maintained an office outside the station. Pearl Ransome, who would be our driver, came out to open up the trunk of an estate wagon. We waited for her to put a piece of plastic down, then we put our bags and our dog onto this surface and piled into the seats. Toby quite liked being in his own compartment and looked out the back window as we sped south on the Chesham Road to Ashley Green. The girls never stropped gossiping. Pearl let us off at the bus shelter – we had run up only £2.30 on the meter.

After we unloaded Tosh went  across the street to use the village shop while I arranged my maps, boots, camera, and dog lead. Munching a custard pie, Tosh rejoined us and we were off. Toby, unleashed at last, gamboled about us delightedly.

Route finding today was complicated by the many changes in man-made features, particularly in fences and stiles, that must have taken place since Chesterton has last had a look at the terrain. I had studied the route closely on the OS map and I used my compass frequently today. Thus I was able to proceed with reasonable confidence at a number of spots where the clues provided by the guidebook had disappeared. We proceeded downhill in an easterly direction following fences and hedges and found a division of the tracks, as predicted – but our right-hand route was not accompanied by fences as advertised. I knew what direction was required by Chesterton (130 degrees) and so we took the fork anyway and were rewarded after a few steps with the sight of a path descending to a large electricity pylon, as advertised.

Views were extensive and quite wonderful, with the accent on vivid yellow fields of rape among the country greens. At the pylon I found a stile into the next field. Toby had to be warned not to worry the corpse of a dead rabbit – he had missed a live cousin of this bunny dancing down the hill just a few minutes before. Because there were cows in the field we put the dog on lead for the ascent of a green pathless slope. “Chesterton says this is the only ascent of the day,” I offered in encouragement. This was not accepted by the others, nor was it true, as it turned out. The utility of the compass was quite clear on this stretch for a bearing of 100 degrees was the clue needed to put us in line for a stile into a woodland at the top of the hill.

We were on the bend of a muddy farm road that brought us opposite the tennis courts of the farm itself. An assortment of dogs was penned unto the farmyard and they did not appreciate Toby’s freedom. He taunted them with this as he responded to their furious barking from the safe side of their fence. I tried to hustle him off the premises and into a field, where we kept our line forward though open country on a well-worn path. Sun and cloud alternated in a bright, breezy day that made walking a delight.

We turned a corner and headed south through open fields, crossing a road and entering a track bordered by a field of rape in glorious yellow flower. Fortunately there was a do-it-yourself footpath along the edge of this field for the track was an oozing quagmire. It disappeared into a small wood and I attempted to find its continuation while Toby went crazy at the sight of several teenage girls on horseback. Eventually he convinced himself that the sudden surge of speed, as these animals set off to jump some home-made barriers, was down to his raucous barking. The girls took this performance good-naturedly, but we had trouble collecting him for our escape from the woods.

This proved to be along the margin of the copse – again in a southerly direction. I knew this only from my compass ­– the bright horizon offered no clue at all. Harold was astonished to hear we were heading south – “I thought it was west,” he admitted. We made another right angle turn and reached Moors Farm. Here we were required to turn east on a glutinous track that soon had our boots caked in mud. After a while I pushed my head through the bushes on our left and found a field edge that permitted some escape. We returned to the track only as it reached the B4505. Here we hooked the dog, dodging the traffic to enter a car park on the south side. We threaded our way through an appalling dump and faced yet another tree-shrouded muddy ribbon. This too we escaped by walking the field edge on the left. After a while there were plaintive calls for rest and snacks – so we crossed the track and I found a site on the south side of the trees, sheltered from the wind but likely to attract any available sun. Here also I changed maps in my waterproof plastic sleeve – having walked off the edge of sheet 165 and onto Sheet 166.

After our rest we completed the track to Pudds Cross and continued onto Shantock Hall Lane. Public footpath signs beckoned us to the right but I knew we were looking for a left turn just before a house called Beechcroft. Sure enough another sign directed us along an enclosed path, with accompanying cries of distress from an adorable small dog inside the fence on our right. We walked along the edge of a woodland and through a quarry to continue on another enclosed path on the outskirts of Bovingdon Green. When we hit tarmac we turned right and followed the right hand edge of the green in the direction of the umbrellas of the Royal Oak.

Toby was not happy with the sound of the lawnmower – which was manicuring the southern end of the green, but he did not seem particularly bothered by the pub dogs who came out to investigate the strangers. This event proved discomfiting to an elderly village chatterbox who harangued us at length on the vices of the pub’s Alsatian. She was off to report his appearance in our midst when the publican emerged and called his dogs in. We finished our lager in peace. Tosh ate a jacket potato and we all used the loo. I was eager to get some of Toby’s lunchtime Chappie off my hands.

I tried to figure out where our line continued at this interesting corner where three roads met at acute angles but I failed the first time and we all walked by our turn-off the second. I had missed a footpath sign in someone’s yard – it put us over a stile next to a bridle path and we headed off in a northeasterly direction. Unfortunately the precise order of stiles, fences, and hedges no longer seemed to correspond to Chesterton’s description. I persevered, following the same general line of march and once I crossed a field opposite a stile to see if I could see the promised continuation heading off at 166 degrees. I had no luck.

Dorothy, sitting on the stile while I did my reconnoitering, looked up as I returned and said, “I’ve never known us to be irretrievably lost before.” I assured her that I doubted very much that the situation was irretrievable. Then I hopped the stile and had a look round the next field, leaving the rest behind a second time. “Have you got your whistle?” Tosh asked. I did, but it was hardly necessary for I found our exit diagonally across the field in which we were now located, and I could simply wave the group forward with my Tigers cap. But they weren’t paying any attention – so I had to gave them a desultory bleat as well. This at least brought an enthusiastic Schnauzer. I had lofted him over the escape stile before the rest of the party arrived. I was anxious to get going before he spotted some cows.

I checked the line of the track stretching before us at the required 166 degrees. We then followed it in a southeasterly direction. It narrowed to a thin trod in a field and crossed over this space and then up along the field edge. I was quite pleased to see it heading directly for Hollow Hedge Lane, a tarmaced road that continued in the same direction into woodland. There seemed to be no traffic about at all so l let Toby run free but as we neared the front yard of Hollow Hedge itself half a dozen dogs, or so it seemed, set up a howl and Toby answered in kind. A bull terrier banged open the wooden garden gate and the whole menagerie rushed forward with the bull terrier rounding on poor Toby quite savagely. Amidst snapping jaws I leaned forward and snatched my warrior from the fray, leaving the rest of the walking party dazzled by my speed. Toby squirmed about in my arms for the next hundred yards but finally I put him down. The canine chorus continued to register disapproval over our visit as we searched for a path where the lane bends suddenly to the south. Harold rejected the first proffered path on the grounds that the lane was only bending slightly – and he was right.

We were greeted by a wide forest track and a Shooting Restricted sign (dogs on lead) which allowed us to leave the road behind in favor of a nice woodland stroll. There was some slight ambiguity about how to leave the woods – Chesterton talks about a left fork when in fact one has to turn to the right, but we were encouraged by the sight of a Lhasa Apso and an Old English Sheep Dog (neither on lead) walking with their mistress from the opposite direction. When we emerged from the woods we sat down to have another snack – with a delightful view of Belsize below. Another woman came by with a friendly blonde Labrador.

The fact that we were on our way down to a valley bottom should have prepared me for the inevitable complaint that we were now going to have to ascend a bridle track running along the southern end of Chipperfield Common. Chesterton suggests that such a track is likely to be muddy, and it was, but he also recommends a parallel route somewhat inside the woods – one that allows the walker to keep an eye on the houses on the woodland perimeter. This I proceeded to do – choosing dry paths parallel to the bridle path and using my compass to maintain the 110 degrees bearing. I was more successful in keeping my eye on these houses than I had been on Naphill Common on Toby’s first day as a walker – and at the end of our march we reached the Apostles Pool. A family was netting small specimens of aquatic life from the murky waters of this pond. The bench from which I was to orient my departure was missing and the most heavily used path on the east side now lead us in too southerly a direction. After a short while on it I crashed into the woods on a more northerly bearing and headed for the sound of traffic. I had the good luck to come out of the woods on the Chipperfield Road directly opposite the Top Common access road – our next objective.

Our route now headed in a northeasterly direction along paths and tracks, though once again the man-made features had undergone some alteration since Chesterton had last had a look. The others paused almost at the start of this stretch to take off some clothes – for it was now getting quite warm. This meant that I had to negotiate several stiles with the dog, unassisted in these endeavors by any human companion, but followed closely by two horses who wanted to have a look at the little dog from their paddock on the left and by several yipping dogs who descended the hillside on my right. Finally we were free to follow a hedgerow down to another valley bottom and up the hillside opposite. Near the top there was a crossing coming from the north and here we paused for another rest. It was quite lovely on the hilltop – it was nearly 4:00 and there seemed to be no way of making the 4:08, but plenty of time to reach the 5:15 from Kings Langley.

As we continued our northeast line after our rest I searched in vain for Langley Lodge off to out right but I saw the farm buildings only when I climbed a small bank to have a quiet pee – having sent the others over the next stile ahead. We now had some tall pines as landmarks on the next hillcrest. The last of the field paths brought us up to this spot and from it we could see Kings Langley below us.

We descended the hillside along a roadbed that looked as if it were waiting for further improvements. A dairy at the bottom presented the menace of two streams of runny ordure oozing over the track. Toby missed neither. He had to be hooked as we came near the A41. The gardens of bungalows on the highway were in lavish display – blues, violets, yellows combining in some crazy harmony.

A turn to the right and a cautious crossing brought us to a path to the station – well, that is what was advertised. I tried to get Toby to run through some tall grass in the vain hope that this might have some effect on the muck on his feet. Geese barked in reproach. The path petered out after a few houses and we were faced with a view of the Grand Union Canal but the lock’s footways seemed to lead only to the keeper’s house. Boats from the south were queuing up for the next turn in the lock. I went a little upstream and tried to lower the dog’s paws into the water. This did not seem to very effective either. We ascended the steep bank of the road bridge and crossed halfway, fascinated by the activity of the boaters, who were working together to raise the level of the water in the lock. We amused ourselves in this fashion for about fifteen minutes, then continued onward to Kings Langley’s main road, turning right for the train station.

We had about a fifteen-minute wait on platform 4, augmented by some additional BR delay. “The next local service to Euston will be in about sixteen minutes late” – so the loudspeaker squawked. Once aboard it was not easy to disguise Toby’s fruity odor. Harold gingerly removed the dog from his lap and deposited him in the lap of his mistress. A vicar, reading a newspaper with the headline, “Bill Edrich Dies After Heavy Lunch,” got up and moved to the next compartment after sniffing reproachfully at the dog. At Euston Toby also suffered from a runny doo doo – which I tried to clean off with a McDonald’s straw still filled with strawberry shake. He was now such a mess that Dorothy and I agreed to stand up on our return journey by tube – lest he be tempted to soil any of LRT’s seat covers by jumping into our laps. It was Turkish takeout and puppy bath time at home.

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

Day 10: Kings Langley to St. Albans