First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Twenty four hours of solid rain over Bedfordshire had given way to a misty, moisty, mizzling day; not exactly raining, but the damp cold air pearled face and hands with gossamer-fine moisture. The thatched eaves of Old Warden’s cottages dripped, the village road rippled with runnels of water.
In Warden Wood I turned aside over a carpet of birch leaves as soft and yellow as butter, to find Queen Anne’s Summerhouse in its lonely clearing among the pines. It’s doubtful if the queen even knew of this bold brick folly’s existence, but Sir Samuel Ongley thought it wouldn’t hurt to honour his royal liege on the grand estate he’d bought in the 1690s with his East Indian Company profits.
A long green bridleway led north among beet fields, wet and whispering in the misty wind. Pheasant poults went scuttling ahead, then crouched motionless, camouflaged in a ditch. It was their mother who gave way to panic, exploding away right under my boots in a whirr of wings.
I passed the long hangers at Old Warden’s airfield where the wonderful old stringbags of the Shuttleworth Collection are housed. These historic aircraft and motor cars are not preserved as museum exhibits, but are restored to active life in the air and on the ground, living entities once more.
Deep in Home Wood beyond Ickwell Green, a Permissive Path looped round a remarkable monument – a complex of medieval fishponds squeezed inside a warren bank, providing fish and rabbits for the lord of Northill Manor. Bending and curving in and out of one another like a Chinese puzzle, these half-filled ditches, scattered with gold leaves, gave off a powerful atmosphere of mystery among the coppiced hazels along their banks.
Big open fields surrounded the handsome square brick house at Highlands Farm. Lapwings and starlings picked over the winter wheat fields, and a brown hare streaked for cover.
Coming back into Old Warden, the tower of St Lawrence’s Church floated disembodied above the mist. I turned into the church and stood amazed at the riot of fantastic wood carving that embellishes the dark interior – snakes, angels, swags of flowers, and a very tender depiction of the disciples, hooded and sombre, lowering the limp body of Jesus into the tomb.
Start: Hare & Hounds PH, Old Warden, Biggleswade, Beds SG18 9HQ (OS ref TL 138440)
Getting there: Old Warden is signed off B658 (A1 at Biggleswade)
Walk (9 miles, easy, OS Explorer 208): From Hare & Hounds, right along road. On left bend, right (fingerpost/FP, white posts) up path through Warden Warren (in ¼ mile, detour left to Queen Anne’s Summerhouse at 143438). At road, left (144433); in 600m, left (149430, bridleway FP) for nearly a mile to Shuttleworth College drive (157442). Right; in 150m, left (gate, black arrow/BLA, yellow top post/YTP) on bridleway for ½ mile to cross road (155448); on for ½ mile to Ickwell Green beside pre-school (150456).
Cross to continue along Northill Road (pavements). In ⅔ mile pass pond, then church; then left (149466, ‘Cople’) on Bedford Road. In 250m, left (147466, ‘Greensand Ridge Walk’/GRW). In 450m, detour left (143465) on Permissive Path circuit of medieval fishponds. Returning to GRW, left (YTP) through Home Wood. At western edge, left (138462, GRW) round field edges.
In 300m through kissing gate/KG (136462); left, and aim left of Highlands Farm house through KG (GRW). Cross paddock to KG left of sheds (GRW). Cross 2 paddocks (GRW), through trees (131460, YTP) and forward across 2 wide fields. At far side, left (126461, YTP). In ½ mile GRW turns right (123455, YTP), but keep ahead on bridleway (BLAs) through Palmer’s Wood. From Mount Pleasant Farm (136448) follow drive to road (138445). Right; in 200m, right to St Lawrence’s Church (137443), or keep ahead to Hare & Hounds.
Lunch: Hare & Hounds, Old Warden (01767-627225, hareandhoundsoldwarden.co.uk) – excellent village local
Accommodation: Old Warden Guest House, SG18 9HQ (01767-627201, oldwardenguesthouse.co.uk)
Info: Sandy TIC (01767-682728)
Shuttleworth Collection: shuttleworth.org