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The Chilterns' landscape landmark

PUBLISHED: 13:13 05 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:13 05 May 2015

The Pegsdon Hills chalk grasslands

The Pegsdon Hills chalk grasslands

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Claire Forrest of the Chilterns Conservation Board looks at how it has become increasingly important in an ever more mechanised world

Red kite reintroduction has been a huge successRed kite reintroduction has been a huge success

This is a landmark year for the Chilterns – it is 50 years since it was first designated one of the finest areas of countryside in the UK. In 1965, 800 square kilometres of Chilterns countryside, including some of the loveliest parts of Hertfordshire like the Ashridge Estate near Berkhamsted and the beautiful Gade Valley, were given permanent national protection as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). What has happened since and what has the status meant for the area?

50 years of change

The world was a rather different place in 1965 when Harold Wilson was prime minister and the average house price was £3,400. Far fewer people had cars, more people were employed in traditional rural industries like farming and forestry and families generally had less disposable income to spend on leisure time. In the past 50 years a rapidly changing world has put great pressures on the landscape of the Chilterns and inevitably the area has had to adapt and cope.

Like the rest of the country, the Chilterns has been affected by the huge growth in people’s mobility. One of the most striking and controversial impacts on the area was the construction of the M40 motorway from High Wycombe towards Oxford between 1967 and 1974. As it left the Chilterns, the motorway had to negotiate the steep chalk escarpment on the edge of the hills, right where the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve sits. Despite much local protest, a deep cutting was made through the chalk, splitting the reserve in two.

The Chilterns has also had to cope with a huge expansion in air traffic, which has meant more planes overhead and increased road traffic travelling to and from nearby airports. The figures for Luton Airport say it all. In 1965 it was used by 213,000 passengers. Now it has nearly 10 million passengers a year and plans are in place to increase that to 18 million.

These pressures have not put people off visiting the area, in fact quite the reverse. It has become extremely popular for walking, cycling and other leisure activities and now has 55 million leisure visits a year, more than many national parks. The development of attractions such as two National Trails – the Ridgeway and the Thames Path – which pass through the area, and new visitor centres like the Chilterns Gateway Centre at Dunstable Downs have been a big factor in the area’s popularity. It has one of the country’s best networks of footpaths and is the only AONB you can reach on the London Underground.

Another factor in its popularity is the high profile of the Chilterns in films and TV – it is a favourite among location managers looking for beautiful, unspoilt countryside and historic houses. The National Trust’s Ashridge Estate near Berkhamsted in particular has been seen by huge numbers of people around the world in films like The Dirty Dozen, Sleepy Hollow, Harry Potter, Maleficent and most recently Into the Woods. And the Chilterns also now has a reputation for (thankfully fictional) high body counts thanks to Midsomer Murders, which films all over the area including Rickmansworth, Aldbury and Tring. Wildlife in the Chilterns has undergone many of the same pressures and declines seen in the rest of the country over the past 50 years. But there have been some great achievements, the most spectacular of which has to be the successful reintroduction of red kites between 1989 and 1994. There are now more than 2,000 of these beautiful raptors spread far and wide across the area and the sight of them soaring overhead never fails to delight. 
The international importance of some of the Chilterns’ beech woods was recognised in 2005 when areas near Tring, High Wycombe, Wendover and Watlington were designated as Special Areas of Conservation by the European Union.

The future

Despite all the changes of the past 50 years, the Chilterns AONB is surviving and thriving. It is still a place of beautiful landscapes, where you can walk down a quiet footpath and escape the noise and bustle of the 21st century. It is appreciated and loved by millions, proved by the widespread angry reaction to proposals to build the HS2 rail line through the area, while the volunteer-run Chiltern Society, also founded in 1965, which works to conserve and promote the area, has more than 6,000 members and is one of the biggest groups of its kind in the country. The AONB is also one of only two in the country to have its own independent public body in the Chilterns Conservation Board. With all this support and stewardship, the Chilterns has a strong future.

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To find out more about the Chilterns AONB including information on walking and cycling routes and attractions, visit chilternsaonb.org

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