Roaming in the wild west
PUBLISHED: 15:06 05 June 2016
© Tony Eveling / Alamy Stock Photo
Red kites, chilled rosé, black labradors and bluebells, oh, and stunning views - Sandra Deeble gets away from it all, exploring a swathe of rural west Herts
You know that feeling you have after you’ve had a weekend away? Limbs slightly achy (in a good way) from all the walking; tired (in a good way) from all the fresh air, and that sense of being refreshed after seeing new vistas and discovering new places? Well, I was absolutely delighted – and more than a little surprised – to enjoy a post-mini break glow without even leaving the county.
I knew Redbourn, Tring and Berkhamsted in the west of the county, but I didn’t know the bits in between. The Ashridge-Estate-meets-the-Chilterns area. First step? I spoke to Bert Richardson, founder and author of The Hertfordshire Way.
‘It’s a very beautiful area with innumerable footpaths,’ he explains. Describing himself as a ‘good Yorkshireman who lives in Hertfordshire’, he recommended legs 5, 6 and 7 from his book, but was generous enough to recommend the Chiltern Society’s website and also suggested I got hold of OS Explorer 181, something I found in the newsagents on Hitchin’s Sun Street.
Walking boots, map and a copy of The Hertfordshire Way, and I was ready to go. I made three separate trips to west Herts and the whole experience was delightful. The sweep of colours – eye-popping greens in between splashes of rapeseed yellow – and the rolling hills are uplifting. The walking is wonderful, and it’s perfect for cycling. Black labradors seem to be the doggy accessory of choice here, and there are red kites above and bluebells on the ground (be careful not to crush the bluebells; it led to recent problems at Dockey Wood).
See for miles
To get a sense of the area from high, the Bridgewater Monument at Moneybury Hill is a must. For people who work in the City, it can be either a blessing or a curse when you make it up the 170 steps to be able to see Canary Wharf from the top. The monument is opposite the National Trust visitor centre and the popular Brownlow Café, where the food – from jacket potatoes and sausages to afternoon teas and ice creams – is perfect fuel for walkers.
Another place for a grand view, although I admit not actually in the county, is the nearby Pitstone Windmill, also National Trust property and open only on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, 2-5.30pm. Similarly not in Herts yet still worth a visit is the unmissable Chiltern ridge of Ivinghoe Beacon, a roughly six-mile walk from the Ashridge Estate Brownlow Café if you’re feeling up for a walk.
It’s an easy walk from the Ashridge Estate visitor centre to the picture-perfect village of Aldbury, a place that over the years has featured as the quintessential English village in films and television programmes including Midsomer Murders and The Avengers. Visitors can head for the popular Greyhound Inn for a pint outside overlooking the pond and stocks, sometimes in the company of waiting horses. Another pub in the village is the Valiant Trooper which is more traditional and an equally good pit stop for those walking or cycling. There’s also a pretty village shop that sells local cards and information.
A hamlet rather than a village, Frithsden is known for its pub the Alford Arms. It’s currently closed following a fire, but the advice is to keep an eye on its Facebook page. The owners are hoping they will reopen in September. Everyone I spoke to raved about the food there.
Just a short walk up the hill from the pub is Frithsden Vineyard, owned by Natalie and Simon Tooley. They’ve brought this old vineyard back to life and recently opened the Winery Café. Afternoon tea on the requisite three-tier stand is on offer. I have to admit it was slightly hectic (due to unforeseen staff shortages) when I was there but I would return, perhaps to try one of the evening events. Paella is a favourite here (matched with wine of course) and there is a summer fete on the terrace on June 11. I sampled a thimbleful of rosé and it was delicious.
West of the hamlet bordering Ashridge Park is the woodland Frithsden Beeches. The trees here have gravitas, and have featured in articles about the importance of preserving ancient trees as well as starring in Harry Potter films, Sleepy Hollow and Jonathan Creek.
Folly’s Farm Home of Rest for Donkeys & Ponies
I didn’t manage to visit this equestrian sanctuary but I did speak to Sue Driver, who runs it. It is a sanctuary in more ways than one because Driver’s approach to health is natural and all the feed is organic. It’s off Nettleden Road in Frithsden and is open on Sundays, 2-4.30pm. Head over on the last Sunday in August for its open day.
Peace & quiet
I had one glorious moment while walking through bluebells from Frithsden Beeches to Frithsden Vineyard and I realised that all I could hear was… silence. I savoured the serenity, but then there was something: a radio in someone’s garden. It was the Man United v Leicester City match in full cry.
If you do want total peace, then I would recommend the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Great Gaddesden. Visitors are welcome, and can just turn up and have a walk around the place. I picked up a complimentary copy of its Peace is a Simple Step. For anyone interested in going there on a retreat, the website amaravati.org has all the details.
I didn’t stay the night, but I did visit the home of Nicky and Jon Bennett-Baggs, who run the Little Gaddesden B&B (complete with black labrador). On the edge of the Ashridge Estate, Little Gaddesden is an excellent base from which to explore the area. The couple are warm and friendly and can impart lots of information about the area. The house is beautifully designed and perfectly Farrow and Balled. Eco-credentials include impressive ground-source heating. Visitors can walk to the village pub, the Bridgewater Arms, in the evening.
Accommodation can also be found at the Greyhound Inn in Aldbury, with rooms in the pub and also the courtyard.
Beechwood Home Farm at Beechwood Park is another option. It has lots of history and is also not far from a pub that looked good when I visited, the Old Chequers at Gaddesden Row. Superfood salad is on the menu, complete with mandatory quinoa.
Walking and cycling routes: chilternsaonb.org/explore-enjoy/walks-rides.html
Friends of the Hertfordshire Way: fhw.org.uk
Icknield Way: icknieldwaypath.co.uk
Chiltern Society: chilternsociety.org.uk