Yesterday a friend and I got on a train near home in South London and got off in Tring, Hertfordshire. Through the urban sprawl of Wembley to the rural badlands of the commuter belt. We were on our way to walk this walk.
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is a national trail of 87 miles from Ivinghoe beacon to Avebury in Wiltshire. This is an old, old route, used for thousands of years, a tiny ripple of safer, higher, drier ground to traverse the flatlands of the mid-south, and that feeling of an ancient wayfare is palpable as soon as you step foot on it.
We were headed for the beacon, first through old woodland to Pitstone hill along a sticky chalk footpath, accompanied by the odd flotilla of noisy mountain bikers passing through now and again. Aside from that, it was quiet, and we had alot of catching up to do.
I was walking with Mark Aitken
, an independent film maker and writer who also works like me, for some of his freelance life, in 'informal education'. Mark has traveled all over, including walking the Camino de Santiago and some crazy legs cycling in Laos and Cambodia. His most recent film is about the legacy of fear in South Africa after Apartheid and is excellent, strongly recommend you watch the trailer here
The beacon is slightly separated from the rest of the ridgeway and isn't the highest point, it just sticks out a bit. The hills are very gentle and rolling, and the weather hadn't promised much initially but was very kind and springlike. To get to the beacon we climbed up a little and through another muddy woodland.
Arcing around to a little lane, and finally up to the top, to join a small throng of enthusiasts flying gliders with remarkable skill in the thermals on the top. A subculture of fanatical model builders, dogs out for a stroll with families, and walkers in full winter getup looking slightly overdressed.
It was a friendly place, and we enjoyed our lunch, watching the zooming and banking, and didn't mind the company at all. Us menfolk are funny, the amount of energy we put into our hobbies - we probably never grow up completely. There was even a Lancaster bomber there, and an action man in a cockpit.
We walked along a little to Gallows Hill which had a presence and then down to an interchange. I was very taken with this place, it felt so loaded, and we stayed there for a while whilst I fooled around with the new camera and soaked up the ambiance.
Junctions, so important to us all, a roundabout isn't an archetype but a crossroads most definitely is. How many people have used this pathway to ascend the ridge and walk down to Avebury and beyond to the Dorset coast? How many others have ended their journey here, and what were their stories? You could almost hear the creak of the gibbet in the wind.
From there we crossed a field and then swung left to join the Icknield way
, which is how the Ridgeway linked Wiltshire to Norfolk way back when. The light started to dip below the trees, this was ancient mossy pasture land, before another wooded section. Here, the surroundings started to declare more recent evidence of human intervention, fences, barricades, first phase forestry commission conifers in lines...drone land.
Mark can talk for England and was happy to let me route find, but it was interesting walking with someone I hadn't before, it opened me to other reasons for putting one foot in front of the other, aside from just my own. He is interested in how people use the land and how that shaped our walk, being the natural anthropologist he is, where I often focus on abstract things, like the light or the shapes of tree branches, being naturally less sociable and a bit of a dreamer.
We reached a farm after a little climb along some fencing, then headed right to cross another small road and take a path counter to the main ridgepath, avoiding the tarmac and the crowds from Ashridge park, a very popular family jaunt a bit further south. The light was spectacular, we could feel spring just round the corner, we talked about friends and plans, having exhausted our gripes and put the world to rights earlier in the day!
We sauntered past some deer lounging around, through a sun blessed valley and up to the Bridgewater monument, which I had been to before but didn't realise until we were upon it. Bridgewater
is 'the father of inland navigation' having designed and built the first true Canal
between Runcorn and Worsley.
Its a busy spot this, so we didn't loiter, instead we headed south to meet a path towards Aldbury, only stopping for more pictures and for Mark to size up a tree - he's not the hugging type, but he definitely had an affinity for one! We overshot a bit, nattering away, and so circled back to meet a road embankment and look for a pint. This part of the world is blessed with very fine breweries and we enjoyed a lovely local ale in The Valiant Trooper
Aldbury felt a little typical of the many hamlets surrounding London: chocolate box picturesque, but with all the work happening in the greedy, magnetised vortex of the metropolis, these places often stagnate, devoid of a breathing, working culture - and what there is, frozen for posterity - 'for our own good', no doubt. Its possible these places never recovered after the killing fields of WW1. Nowadays, families relocate because its quiet and feels 'safe', then struggle to feel part of a community that may not have existed for 4 generations. But what do I know, the people of Aldbury love it I'm sure, and I'm just a tourist.
Then we walked in the dusk, out to the junction with the ridgeway again, to catch our train.