Walk #8: Skirmett to Maidensgrove Common (6.5 miles)
“… and the coldest place recorded last night was Benson in Oxfordshire with a low of -8ºC.” stated the Radio 4 presenter.
“That’s 8 miles from here!”
A chill passed through my already chilled bones. It was dark, I needed all of the brightness of my cars’ headlights to navigate the icy, unlit, twisting country lanes that were guiding me to the end point of my day’s walk at Maidensgrove Common.
As usual, I had arranged for a taxi to meet me at the end of my walk and drive me to the start of the latest leg of ‘A Constant Ramble’, and once again, I had miscalculated my departure to coincide with sunrise. According to the Met Office App, sunrise in Skirmett was 07:49hrs, my taxi was collecting me at 07:00 hrs which meant I would begin walking at 07:15 hrs. This made me slightly nervous, it was -6ºC on my car thermometer and, despite wearing thermals, many layers of walking clothing and two pairs of walking socks, it was bloody freezing, dark and the start of a walk was through woods at the top of a steep rise.
Turning away from The Frog Inn pub in Skirmett, I fought the urge to walk quickly to warm up and crept gingerly across the frost encrusted fields to await the dawn. I reached Adam’s Wood and need not have worried; the glow of the sun rising towards the horizon illuminated the cloudless sky to offer sufficient light to be able to see without fear of injury.
I’d only been walking a few minutes when I came across the most impressive man-made den I have yet seen on this adventure. It reminded me of a lodge in a medieval period TV drama, the two tree stump chairs and tree stump table in the middle confirmed the dedication of its creator.
By now I was on the crown of a ridge encircled by woods overlooking the village of Fingest. Steam rose as the sun sort the overnight frost which clung grimly to the shadows; my toes were numb and rapid stamping wasn’t bring them back to life.
No sooner was I up, then, like the Grand Old Duke of York, I was back down again approaching the road through the village. The sun was now climbing above the ridge; it was going to be a beautiful day.
I walked along the pavement-less road, passed by the church and turned 90º to the right into an alley behind houses clearly signposted as The Chiltern Way. The path skirted the shoulder of the steep Turville Hill, famous for The Cobstone Windmill from the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, and brought me shortly to the village of Turville, famous for many films and TV shows over the years, but most notably the setting of the BBC comedy ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ starring Dawn French, and more recently the fictional village of Bletcham in ‘Killing Eve’. I was in the Chiltern Hills version of Hollywood, and with house prices in the village five times that of the national average, you’d have to be a movie star to live here.
I wasn’t an avid watcher of ‘The Vicar of Dibley’, but was aware of the scene where the vicar is walking with her love interest and jumps into a puddle only to vanish out of sight! As I walked through the village, I kept my eyes peeled for any dodgy looking potholes, but it was clear to see why the BBC choose it for the show, it is a picture postcard of rural English life complete with flint cottages and Tudor beams that tell the story of its history dating back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 796 where it was known as Thyrefeld (dry field).
The sun was dominating the day, the frost had melted and so had my feet, and like the sun, the calm euphoria that accompanies me on these rambles began taking hold. Recently, a friend of mine informed me that he had returned to attending Quaker meetings. He described the experience of one of content contemplation and clarity; a zen-like state that one can lose oneself in. He went on to describe how he was reading the autobiography of British writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah. In it he describes all living things as having their own frequency and, how we as humans, struggle to tune into our own. As I listened, I had an epiphany; this is why I enjoy walking alone so much! My walks facilitate me tuning into my happy frequency. When I arrive in my happy place, I have clarity of thought from the noise of modern living – it is here I feel my most creative.
These rambles are not only a physical journey of discovery but a discovery of my own philosophy towards life. They allow me the time and space to download and process clarity of thought: it’s meditative. Just as my friend sits in a room with like-minded individuals, I tramp through the Chiltern Hills breathing in nature. As a result, I feel a responsibility to protect the thing that induces such sensations. My photographs allow me to document the way I see humans impact the land, be it for good or ill.
I neared Stonor Park, famous for its ancient breed of deer, it seemed like the perfect place for lunch. I only had an hour until the walks’ end, so I settled into the hollow of large, sun facing tree and tucked into my packed lunch and admired the beauty of the Stonor Valley under the watchful gaze of the resident fallow deer.
I gazed across the vista and noticed how trees bereft of leaves in the winter, punctuate the landscape more clearly to me than in summer; like twisted antennae communicating across the sky. I reached for my camera and flicked through the images to evaluate my day; trees had subconsciously dominated my thought process. Maybe they are the antennae that help me tune into my frequency in the outdoors?
Matt Writtle is a photographer based in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.