With some of the most picturesque countryside in England, yet only a short hop from London, the Chiltern Hills are just waiting to be explored. The glorious views from high ridges, ancient woodlands brimming with wildlife and downs alive with wildflowers and butterflies make the Chilterns and the communities within them English to the core. The vast network of well-established paths provide wonderful walking country with history and nature keeping you company at every step. If you are planning to get away from it all in the Chilterns, this collection of 40 moderate walks is your perfect guide.
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The Chilterns are widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest landscapes, famous for rolling chalk hills, rich grassland, beechwoods, picturesque villages and winding lanes. For the walker, it is close to heaven with a seemingly endless network of public footpaths, some of which have been in use for thousands of years. They lead through fields and woods, into villages and over farmland, past ancient hamlets and stately homes, up steep hillsides, or down to the valley floor. Depending on the season, your day will be filled with golden beech trees, red kites, bluebells and butterflies. Brick and flint houses line the roadsides, thatched cottages and Norman churches lie around the corner – all close to London, yet far from the crowds. What’s more, this being an affluent corner of England you are never too far from a characterful pub or a tearoom to reward yourself for a route well followed. A walk in the Chilterns? Go on. You’ll love it.
The Chilterns are easier to describe than to define. While the boundaries might be up for discussion, their appeal is not: the Chilterns are recognised as one of the UK’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), beginning in the south at Goring-on-Thames and running northeast for 80km through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire and into Bedfordshire. They are most clearly defined along the northwestern edge by the steep chalk escarpment, roughly bounded by the M4 motorway in the south, the M1 in the north and the M25 to the east, where they slope down into the Thames Basin. London is close – indeed Chesham and Amersham are stops on the London Underground’s Metropolitan Line. The Saxons, who incidentally gave the area its name (Chilt is the Anglo-Saxon term for ‘Chalk’), regarded the hills as godforsaken and a place where ‘no-one in their right minds would want to settle’. These days, there is no shortage of people who would like to live in the hills, although relatively few can afford to do so. The rich and famous enjoy riverside properties at Goring-on-Thames, or convert venerable farmsteads into desirable residences. Major towns have grown around the fringes, such as Dunstable, Luton, High Wycombe and Hemel Hempstead.
In spite of the pressures of modern development and urban expansion, the Chilterns remain predominantly rural, with farmland still covering around 60 percent of the landscape, and more than 20 percent given over to woodland. The chalk rock, a pure white limestone, has shaped the history as well as formed the hills. Stone Age people lived in the Chilterns, hunting and gathering, making good use of the plentiful flint for tools. When they began to settle, trees were cleared for crops, and the grassy downland, for which the Chilterns are known today, began to appear. The Romans built roads and villas, the Saxons established villages and field systems, and the Normans created churches which have survived for a thousand years. Many of the farms and hamlets are mentioned in the Domesday Book. The Magna Carta was signed in Dunstable and, in the Civil War, Royalist troops were rallied in a hostelry which still welcomes guests to this day. Walkers in the Chilterns will see Iron Age hillforts, Bronze Age burial mounds, medieval deer parks, 18th-century saw pits, 19th-century windmills and trenches from the First World War. The history – ancient and modern – reflects the layers of toil and habitation which have shaped the landscape and made the Chilterns quite different, and utterly enthralling.
Walking in the Chilterns
Three cheers for the Chiltern Society! Its staff and volunteers do a marvellous job of looking after the Rights of Way. They negotiate with landowners, erect signposts, clear nettles, reinforce banking, paint waymarkers – everything possible to help us enjoy the countryside without conflicting with those who live and work in it. There is a vigorous programme of stile replacement in progress which means you are more likely to pass through a kissing gate these days than climb a stile.
Almost invariably footpaths are clearly signposted, and many are waymarked, either by arrows on posts or painted in white on the bark of trees. It is important to keep to the established routes and not to stray onto private land. Always respect signs which keep you on the proper route, even though some might be bluntly worded.
People have been walking the lanes and paths of the Chiltern Hills for thousands of years. The Icknield Way, which runs along the Chiltern escarpment, is said to be the oldest road in Britain, although the exact course changed according to the season and conditions. Even in Saxon times, the travellers and drovers switched routes when wet weather and the heavy clay soil combined to make the path muddy and impassable. In that respect little has changed. Chiltern paths can be very muddy, especially when they are shared with horses and cyclists. Even in the height of summer, you will find tracks churned by hooves and wheels. It is often possible to find a way round the worst sections, but sometimes there is no alternative but to tackle the mud head on. On flat ground this is merely inconvenient, but on slopes it can be tricky and even dangerous. Some walks include very steep inclines and rarely are they completely flat, so good walking boots or shoes are essential.
In spite of the mud warnings, water is generally rather absent from the Chiltern countryside. Outside the villages, ponds are quite unusual and most of the valleys are dry, without a river or stream flowing along the bottom. Some of the routes are demanding and, in hot weather, dehydration is always a danger. Do carry drinking water with you. Be wary of walking in short trousers – nettles grow faster than the volunteers can beat them back. The usual rules apply to gates – leave them as you find them – and to dogs – keep them under control and away from livestock and always clean up after them. The paths and byways of the Chilterns are refreshingly litter free so make sure you take your litter home with you. Finally, always make sure that someone knows your intended route and what time you are expected back.
Wildlife and nature
Wherever you go in the Chiltern countryside, it’s pretty much guaranteed that if you look to the skies you’ll see a red kite. Driven to extinction by the late 19th century, they were re-introduced at the end of the 20th century and this has been so successful that red kites from the Chilterns have been used to rebuild colonies in other parts of the country.
They float over countryside brimming with life and colour. The grassland is a varied palette of wildflowers in spring and summer. Butterflies thrive in the chalk downs with equally colourful names like the Orange Tip, the Chalk Hill Blue and the Purple Hairstreak.
The woods, lime green in spring and golden in the autumn, are filled with birdsong. Young trees reach for the sky alongside pollarded oak, coppiced beech and ancient chestnut. Muntjac and fallow deer can often be spotted grazing beneath the canopy. The area boasts many nature reserves, often run by local groups and all worth a visit if you pass.
As most of the major towns in the Chilterns have train stations and many of the villages are served by buses, it is theoretically possible to travel to many of the walks in this guide using public transport, although it does take a bit of planning. There is no denying that it is a lot easier by car. Parking suggestions are given for each walk, some of which involve a modest daily charge, although this volume tries to steer you towards free parking where it is available. If you have to park at the roadside, take care not to block access or passing places. Some car parks have height restricting barriers, usually set at around 1.8m.
Using this guide
All of the walks in this guide end where they begin (although one requires a short hop on the London Underground), so you won’t have to worry about how to get back to your car. Each walk is prefaced with information to help plan your outing. The duration is based on the length of time it took the authors to walk the route, averaging about 3.5km per hour. It does not allow for stopping to enjoy the view, lingering over a picnic or exploring the various attractions and sights along the way, so make sure you build in plenty of time for these activities.
Postcodes, which are included to guide you towards the start of each walk, are approximate only and get you as near as SatNav technology can manage to the start. Sketch maps are for information rather than navigation. In England, Rights of Way are shown on Ordnance Survey maps and it is a good idea to carry the relevant OS map during the walk. Any compass directions are approximate, and all lefts and rights are given according to the direction of travel.