First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
An old favourite, this Hertfordshire walk – and, like many such, a delight whatever the season. Last time out, the trees of Berkhamsted Common had been of that rich, juicy gold you only get after a long hot summer. Today I was looking forward to seeing what the long cold winter had done to the woods and hedgerows. Through Berkhamsted snaked the Grand Union Canal, smoking with early mist. Chaffinches were trolling on the broken walls of Berkhamsted Castle, and in the bushes around the site where William the Conqueror accepted the homage of the Saxon nobility of Britain after riding here through the autumn countryside of 1066, flushed with his victory at Hastings.
Picturing the chaos and terror that the Norman invaders brought with them, I headed up the fields from Berkhamsted along hedgerows where the celandines, usually heralds of spring, lay tightly curled in waxy green spearblades. There was something grand and bracing about this uphill march through the sleeping Hertfordshire landscape, from memories of one famous battle to the site of another, all but forgotten, that lovers of access to open country ought to have as an equally red-letter day in history.
Berkhamsted Common occupies the ridge north of the town, a sprawl of open ground where locals had always enjoyed the right to roam. When Lord Brownlow arbitrarily railed off a great chunk and added it to his Ashridge Estate in 1866, he thought he’d encounter little opposition. But an equally autocratic and bloody-minded grandee, Augustus Smith, took exception. Smith paid a gang of tough London navvies to come and tear down the three miles of railings by night – and leave them neatly rolled up for Brownlow to collect in the morning. The locals reclaimed their common land, and Lord Brownlow had to ‘retire hurt’.
Today Berkhamsted Common is a thick wood with a maze of footpaths. I trod its tangled ways as far as Lord Brownlow’s country seat of Ashridge House, a vast Georgian mansion modelled by James Wyatt for the 7th Earl of Bridgewater as a Gothic extravaganza with turrets, battlements and a thousand-foot-wide frontage. From the house it was back into the trees, among the grey old seniors of Frithsden Beeches. These wonderfully gnarled beech trees of the Chiltern slopes were ancient when Ashridge House was built. I stood under their
pale, contorted limbs, looking up. Hardly a bud, not a breaking leaf to be seen. But over the meadow beyond the trees a lark was spilling out song like seed – spring’s favourite doorkeeper.
Start & finish: Berkhamsted station, Herts HP4 2JU (OS ref TR015660)
Walk (6 ½ miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer 181): Left out of station – Berkhamsted Castle (995082) – north up Brownlow Road; path towards Well Farm; in 400 yards, left (996088 – FP fingerpost). NW up hedge paths for 3/4 mile – through hedge, turn right (991097 – post with 3 yellow arrows/YA), heading NNE past pond – into Berkhamsted Common woods (993102). Just before Brickkiln Cottage, left on bridleway (post; blue arrows/BA). Follow south wood edge; right (991107) to north edge. Left (992108; BA) – Coldharbour Farm (989113; BA) – Woodyard Cottage (987117). Just beyond cottage, left over stile (YA) – north through trees to Ashridge Park golf course. Turn right; aim right of Ashridge House (994122) – road for 3/4 mile – 300 yards beyond Crome Hill entrance, right (4-finger post; take left-hand of 2 bridleways) – south through Frithsden Beeches (‘bridleway’, then ‘Grand Union Canal Circular Walk’ arrows) – Well Farm – Berkhamsted.
NB – Online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
More info: Hemel Hempstead TIC (01442-234222)