Walk #11: Northend to Bledlow Ridge (6.3 miles)
My latest ‘A Constant Ramble – Walking The Chiltern Way’ was unique. This is the first walk I have done in this series with a companion: 17-year-old Chesham Grammar School A-level art student Leah Davies. I had given a talk to students about a career in photography, which Leah attended, and she asked if she could come on work experience.
I am always keen to offer advice to aspiring creatives – without that opportunity being afforded to me, it would have been harder to forge a career in photography. I was a little concerned I would not have enough work to keep her entertained, but the week was shaping up nicely, with several portrait shoots lined up including one with former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
I knew Corbyn had links to Shropshire but didn’t know we started our careers on the same local newspaper, albeit 20 years apart! He was also my MP for a few years, although I had never met him before now.
By the time Friday came around, I was ready to be rejuvenated by a walk in the countryside. It was a sunny yet slightly chilly day due to a strong breeze. The dawn light was glorious and shone magnificently through the trees that had grown over a clay pit Leah had identified when researching the route.
We descended steeply through Blackmoor Wood towards the valley floor and arrived at one of the Getty family private residences: Wormsley Estate. This is famous for its walled garden and VIP experiences and is home to Garsington Opera Company, but what appealed to me were the surrounding grounds in a beautiful hidden valley.
We crossed a field where the sheep looked at us nonchalantly and barely moved as we walked by. This was their turf – evident by the wool that clung to the field’s boundary fence.
We climbed the far side hill via an old holloway that cut its way through the earth like a giant mythical serpent, and arrived at the village of Ibstone, 2 miles south of Stokenchurch. Its name, Anglo Saxon in origin, means ‘Hibba’s boundary stone’, referring to the boundary with Oxfordshire.
I have, from an early age, been fascinated by history and, since moving to the Chiltern Hills, have realised that much of the formation of England was contested and created, along this most beautiful of chalk escarpments. Over the past few months my wife and I have become hooked on the Netflix TV show ‘The Last Kingdom’, based on the best-selling novels by Bernard Cornwell. It dramatizes the crucial period in English history that led to the creation of England as one nation. The Chiltern Hills are located along the boundary where Wessex met Mercia and were the setting for many battles between the Danes and the Saxons. In my last blog post I referenced my discovery of the Danish Entrenchment atop Swyncombe Downs, watching this show has created excitement for future discoveries along The Chiltern Way.
No sooner had we walked through Ibstone village that we were again descending, and the path steered us into a clearing in the woods created to facilitate electricity pylons.
As soon as we reached the bottom of this hidden valley, we were climbing to the top of another ridge and the distant hum of the M40 motorway was increasing in volume.
Leah found an impressively large dead tree and we agreed this was a good spot for a pit stop. The day was definitely warmer now and I had shed the layers insulating me from the morning chill.
We looked back to admire the view and chart the course of the route we had trod. I sensed satisfaction as I looked as far as the horizon, knowing I had walked the land in between.
It wasn’t long until the motorway hum became a roar and we found ourselves staring at a road tunnelling underneath the M40. Until I moved to the Chiltern Hills, my only recognition of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was by driving through the Aston Rowant motorway cutting near Stokenchurch on my way to my parents’ house in the West Midlands. When one exits the cutting the whole of middle England suddenly reveals itself and always fills me with a sense of awe.
These experiences exemplify my reasons for walking The Chiltern Way: they allow me to develop my creative practice and document how we, as humans, use the land. The more I journey on tracks, paths, holloways and roads, the more fascinated by their complex contradictions I become. Roads shorten time needed to travel. This allows easy accessibility to different locations and, crucially, cultures and traditions that historically were very different and difficult to access. On the one hand this can breed harmony and understanding, but on the other, living a faster-paced life can increase the desire to seek instant gratification and endanger the value gained from patiently working to achieve a goal. Personally speaking, speed and instant gratification can induce impatience and frustration, something I battle with daily. By walking The Chiltern Way, or simply walking, I allow myself the time to download the rigours of 21st century life, process and find balance for a calmer state of physical and mental wellbeing.
We sat and ate lunch. Leah sketched, and I took photographs.
Once through the tunnel we arrived in the commuter village of Stokenchurch, which sits astride the A40 Oxford to London road. Historically, this was a good resting and changing place for horses. It was commonly used during the English Civil War by both Royalists and Parliamentarians and was the scene of several skirmishes in 1642 and 1643 when both sides arrived in the village at the same time.
The village’s main landmark is The Kings Hotel, so-called as King Charles II was reputed to have stayed there with a mistress in the 17th century. We stood on the opposite side of the road and, to my surprise, faced a ruined shell of a building caused by a serious fire in 2021. Whilst photographing the remaining structure I couldn’t help thinking it was representative of the fading relevance of communities that once thrived as thoroughfares: more evidence of how the efficiency of transportation and a faster-paced life has created an inevitable decline in the prosperity of places such as Stokenchurch, replaced by homogenized motorway service stations.
We continued along prominent ridges that boasted distant vistas and descended again into crop-rich fields lining valley floors. The up and down nature of the terrain reflected the feelings expressed here: the more I ramble, the more my mind tries to understand and accept the paths that our lives lead us on, the thoughts they inspire and the people they touch.
“As a child, I would sometimes sit by a harp, and I was intrigued by how the strings would play themselves: pluck one string and the others would shimmer to give off a tiny music. It seemed to me that my life was made of strings, if I touched one, the others, though separate, would make their sound. All those separate people were a part of my life, strings strung on the frame of Uhtred. And though they were separate, they affected each other, and together they would make the music of my life! But I am really Uhtred the Lonely. We are all lonely, and all seek a hand to hold in the darkness. It is not the harp, but the hand that plays it!”
Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom
Matt Writtle is a photographer based in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.