First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
As soon as we walked out of Tring station, the Chilterns beckoned us on and upward – the humpbacked green downland of Aldbury Nowers looking down on the railway, studded with beechwoods and lined with ancient earthworks and trackways.
It’s not until you’re up there with your boots in the crumbly white clay of the 5,000-year-old Ridgeway that you properly appreciate the wildlife treasures of these chalk grassland slopes. The wild marjoram and thyme, the harebells and rockroses that carpet the steep grassy banks from spring onwards are carefully nurtured by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), not least for the sake of the butterflies that are drawn to such delicate and increasingly uncommon plants – marbled whites and small blues, grizzled and dingy skippers (rather more beautiful than their names suggest), the brown argus and the green hairstreak with its strikingly leaf-green underwings.
We followed the Ridgeway as it undulated north along the hillsides in company with the old Saxon earthwork of Grim’s Ditch. Gaps between the trees gave a far prospect north and west over the green wooded plains of outer Buckinghamshire to a dip of distant blue hills that might have been the north-easternmost Cotswolds. Deep in the trees wrens chattered in full flow, and a black-and-white great spotted woodpecker cocked his red-capped head as he prepared to give a beech crown a good hammering.
High on Pitstone Hill we left the Ridgeway for a bridleway that tipped back down into the valley. Here the navvies dug deep to carve out great cuttings for the railway and the Grand Union Canal. Well-tended paths led us through horse pastures to the flooded chalk quarry of College Lake.
This very family-friendly and well-run nature reserve is looked after by BBOWT. Dawn chorus strolls, workshops, bird-watching, kids’ activities, guided walks – you’ll find them all here. We walked a long circuit of the lake, looking for nesting redshank and lapwing, while birdwatchers passed tantalising news of a visiting osprey that might be in the vicinity.
We saw neither hide nor hair of the osprey. That didn’t matter – not with the sun deciding to put in an afternoon appearance. We walked slowly back to Tring in the depths of the cutting beside the motionless, olive-green waters of the Grand Union Canal.
Start: Tring station, Herts, HP23 5QR (OS ref SP 951122)
Getting there: Rail to Tring; bus service 387 (Aldbury-Tring).
Road – Tring station is 1 mile east of Tring on Aldbury road.
Walk (7½ miles, easy underfoot, OS Explorer 181): Cross road; right; 100m beyond right bend, left (953124, ‘Ridgeway’/RW) up driveway. In 50m, ahead, to turn left along RW. In 600m fork right (951129, ‘RW footpath’, yellow arrows/YA, acorn waymarks). In ¾ mile, left at kissing gate (950139, ‘Bridleway’) down to road (945137). Left for 250m; right (946134, fingerpost) past Park Hill and Marshcroft farms to Grand Union Canal (939129). Right (YA) on path along east bank of canal, then past Bulbourne Farm (938135). At railway, left to B488 (938140). Left for 250m; right into College Lake Nature Reserve (935139). Walk Reserve Trail circuit. Back at Visitor Centre, right along path parallel to B488. In 250m (934137), right along road. Cross canal bridge; left along towpath for 1¼ miles to road at 2nd bridge (948121); left to Tring station.
Lunch: Badger Café, College Lake Visitor Centre
Accommodation: Pendley Manor, Cow Lane, Tring HP23 5QY (01442-891891, pendley-manor.co.uk)
College Lake Visitor Centre: (01442-826774, bbowt.org.uk) – open 9.30 – 5.00