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May 112019

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Chaffinches spurting out their stuttering song, a wren squeaking and trilling, blackbirds fluting, the throaty cooing of pigeons – Combe was a valley full of birdsong. White violets dotted the mossy lane banks, and a partridge scuttled brainlessly ahead of us before ducking at last gasp under a gate.

The broad field beyond Combe village was more flint than soil. Our boots clinked with every step, disturbing a sleek and handsome brown hare who cantered away across the young wheat like a miniature racehorse.

Steeply up the face of Sugglestone Down and we were up on the heights under a wide and blowy Berkshire sky. From the crest we looked back over the Combe valley, a patchwork of milky chalk soil and green wheat, all under the eye of a red kite riding the wind with exquisite balance as it scanned the fields two hundred feet below.

A long flinty holloway dropped through hazel copses where sheaves of wild garlic leaves rustled and long-tailed tits swung twittering on the topmost twigs. At the bottom under Cleve Hill Down we found the Test Way footpath, a guide through the quiet hollows and inlands of these downs.

Someone in a conifer plantation was whistling to the kites, a close imitation of their sharp descending wail of a call. Two of the birds were flapping and playing over the wood, swooping together, springing apart at the last moment, while much higher overhead a pair of buzzards performed the same springtime dance.

The Test Way tilted and steepened as it climbed to the roof of the downs once more. An ancient ridge-way on Inkpen Hill ran east past the tall stark T-shape of Combe Gibbet, at whose yard ends in 1676 murderers George Broomham and Dorothy Newman had swung. They had drowned Broomham’s wife Margaret in a pond after she had caught them in flagrante delicto on the downs nearby.

On the great Iron Age rampart of Walbury Camp hill fort we paused for a final stare out over a prospect of farmlands, villages, woods and hills, stretching away west, north and east for dozens of miles – one of the great high vistas of southern Britain.

Start: Walbury Hill easterly car park, near Inkpen, Berks RG17 9EH approx (OS ref SU 380616)

Getting there: Kintbury (signed from A4, Hungerford-Newbury); Kintbury Cross Ways, Rooksnest, Inkpen Common, Crown & Garter PH, then follow ‘Faccombe’ to car park.

Walk (8 miles, moderate, OS Explorers 158, 131): West up trackway. In 200m, left (378616, fingerpost/FP) down path to Combe. At memorial bench, left (373609, FP) past cottages; in 200m, left (373607), then across wide field. From old fencepost (378606) path goes half right, steeply up Sugglestone Down to stile (379604). Aim for mast; path curves right to road (384601). Right (red arrow/RA) on Byway. In 1¼ miles cross road (372587, ‘Linkenholt’). In 100m, right on track. In ½ mile pass Adventure Centre (364586; Test Way/TW joins from left). In 250m, TW forks left past barn (364588). In 1 mile, at west edge of Combe Wood (353598), TW turns right, steeply uphill. In 1 mile, right through gate (358613, TW, Buttermere Estate notice). In ¼ mile at hedge break (359617, 3-finger post), ahead (not right) to ridge track (358621); TW right to Combe Gibbet and Walbury Hill.

Conditions: 2 short steep climbs

Lunch/Accommodation: Crown & Garter, Great Common Rd, Inkpen RG17 9QR (01488-668325,

Info: West Berks Museum, Newbury (01635-519562);

Ships of Heaven – The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday) out now

 Posted by at 01:28
Jul 212018

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Aldworth slumbered along its sunny lanes. A tiny cream-and-green car stood outside the bike shop. ‘An original Fiat 500, 1937,’ said the owner proudly. ‘They called it the Topolino, the Little Mouse – rather a good name.’

The long lane to the Berkshire Downs ran between hedges thick with the summer’s growth – angelica, cow parsley, pale pink blackberry flowers, docks brown and crisped by July heat. A comma butterfly with raggedly scalloped wings settled on a stinging nettle and opened its wings to catch the sun. At Starveall cottage a patch of wild ground was bright with flowers – purple mallows and knapweeds, blue powder-puff heads of scabious, a bubbly yellow froth of lady’s bedstraw.

Here the motor road expired as if it couldn’t be bothered to crawl any further. A stony lane took over, the dusty flints crunching and knobbling underfoot. We crossed the ancient Ridgeway track and took the road less travelled, a grassy way between cornfields where the fat ripe ears of wheat and barley drooped earthwards on their short stalks as though already bowing their necks for the harvester’s blades.

A marbled white butterfly went kettering over a bank of thistles in a tarry blur of wings. We passed Lowbury Hill, a slightly swelling dome amid the oilseed rape. Was it here that the future King Alfred dealt the Danes a terrible beating on a winter’s day in 871 at the Battle of Ashdown? Or was it on Kingstanding Hill, at the far end of the splendid old grass track called The Fair Mile that runs straight and true, west to east along the spine of the Berkshire Downs? There’s no telling the battle’s exact location now, but the views from Kingstanding across Berkshire into Oxfordshire are something to savour.

We dropped down above Starveall Farm – another Starveall! This must have been a grim area to farm in times past. After the heat and dust of the downland cornfields, the cool green light under the beeches of Unhill Wood was delightful. When we emerged to follow the flinty trackways back to Aldworth, a whitethroat in an elder bush sang us by as though in private raptures.

Start: Bell Inn, Aldworth, Streatley, Berks RG8 9SE (OS ref SU556796)

Getting there: Aldworth is on B4009, signposted from Streatley (M4 Jct 12, A340, A329)

Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorers 158, 170): From Bell Inn, right to junction; right on Ambury Road. In 1 mile pass Starveall cottage (546809); in another half mile, Ridgeway track crosses and forks left (540815), but take right fork (grassy central strip). In ¾ mile, just past ‘Ridgeway closed to motor vehicles’ notice, right (544826) along The Fair Mile for 2 miles. Just before A417, turn right through right-hand of 2 gates (573837). Half right down field slope to bottom right corner (571835). Right along drive; in 75m, left up roadway. In ¾ mile, at sharp left bend (564823), ahead on grass track (fingerpost), forking left into woods. Uphill; at start of next descent, right at pheasant feeder (564821) on grass path. In 150m, at pheasant pen (562821), left down to tarmac lane. Right; in ½ mile, at fork, ahead between waymark posts (555817). Path to stile onto driveway (553814); right to gate; right along trackway. In 200m, left (550812, ‘Byway’); in ½ mile, bend right (552805, ‘Byway’) to road (551804); left to Aldworth.

Lunch: Bell Inn, Aldworth (01635-578272) – a rural delight (NB closed Mondays)

Accommodation: Bull Inn, Streatley RG8 9JJ (01491-872392, – comfortable, friendly pub;;

 Posted by at 01:55
Dec 052015

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A blustery afternoon with a driving sky and reports of trees down across Berkshire. It was a day just like this, according to an anonymous poet of the school of William McGonagall, when the old church tower at Kintbury blew down;

‘Fate had decreed, come down he must,
And Boreas then gave him an extra gust,
And down he went with a crashing fall,
Clocks, birds, bats, the green ivy and all.’

The church bell, often cursed by the villagers for its loudness, rolled into the River Kennet, and tolls there still – according to legend. But all we heard as we set out was the ting-ting of the level crossing bell, and the rattle of the London-bound train.

It’s a very long time since the Kennet & Avon Canal provided ‘logistics solutions’ to the broad green countryside of the Kennet Valley. We walked its muddy towpath by still waters through a tangle of willows, reeds and marshy ground. A fisherman had hooked a rainbow trout, but it got away with a mighty splashing as he drew it to the bank. ‘That’s the trickiest bit,’ he sighed ruefully, ‘when they catch sight of the net!’

At Hamstead Lock we cross the humpy canal bridge and entered the green spaces of Hamstead Park. Fine specimen oaks and chestnuts, some very old and storm-blasted, raised skeletal limbs to the racing clouds. A pair of red kites hung on their elbow crooks and bounced in the wind over our heads, craning their heads to assess us from on high.

We came up from the pools and lakes along the Kennet and followed a path beside an ash coppice where ripe sloes hung from blackthorn twigs. They looked so tempting and felt so plump I just had to pop one in my mouth. Ugh! Bitter aloes and blotting paper, as ever.

A tedious stretch of road through Hamstead Marshall led to rutted fields around Barr’s Farm where Friesian heifers came cantering up to check us out. The silvery light of a stormy winter’s evening streaked the west as we turned away from the long line of the Berkshire Downs and dropped back down to Shepherd’s Bridge and the homeward path along the old canal.

Start: Kintbury Station, Berkshire, RG17 9UT (OS ref SU 386672)

Getting there: Rail to Kintbury
Road: Kintbury is signed off A4 between Hungerford and Newbury. Use Dundas Arms car park opposite station (ticket from pub).

Walk (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 158. Detailed directions recommended – download them with online map, more walks at Left (east) along north bank of canal for 2½ miles to Hamstead Lock (423670). Cross canal; on right bend of road, left (kissing gate) into Hamstead Park.

Ahead (yellow arrow/YA), following tarmac drive. Pass lake (428667) and curve right; in another 500m, at right bend into The Mews (428661), keep ahead off drive, through kissing gate (YA). Ahead up hedge; in 100m, ahead across grassland to drive (428659). Left; at left bend by memorial, right through gate (431657, YA). Aim a little right to find gate into trees (429656, YA). Follow path and YAs for ¾ mile to road (421651). Right along road through Hamstead Marshall (take care!).

In ¾ mile, right (412657, ‘Marsh Benham’). In 250m on right bend, left (411659, stile, YA), aiming half left across field to farm track (407659). Right/north up track for 700m to lane (406665). Left to pass Peartree Cottage; in another 100m at junction, right (403665, stile, YA). Aim for middle tree of three; same direction to far left corner of field by conifer plantation (401668). Join grassy track; keep ahead along it. In 150m on left bend, right over stile (400670); descend field to cross Shepherd’s Bridge (398672). Left to Kintbury Station.

Conditions: Take care on road through Hamstead Marshall!

Lunch/Accommodation: Dundas Arms, Kintbury RG17 9UT (01488-658263, – warm, stylish stopover

Info: Newbury TIC (01635-30267);

 Posted by at 02:35
Feb 012014

The Norman invasion of 1066 must have been a devastating blow to the Saxon landowner who lent his name to today’s downland village of East Garston. First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Not only was Asgar – ‘Spear of God’ – severely wounded at the Battle of Hastings; he also lost his extensive estates on the Berkshire downs and his prestigious position as procurer of horses for King Harold, slain in the battle.

Asgar’s tradition, though, lives on hereabouts. These wide, rolling downs with their lush grass are still prime horse-training country. Strangely enough, though jumps and grass courses and railed gallops seemed everywhere, we saw not one actual horse all day as we tramped the downland tracks. Maybe they were indoors, taking it easy or in light training for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The first creature we saw was more exotic and certainly more unexpected than any horse – a marsh harrier, dark and enormous against the cloudy sky, balancing on long-wings as it quartered the Lambourn valley looking for unwary mice. Two red kites wheeled not far away, forked tails spread on the wind. When we were able to tear our gaze away from these dramatic sailors of the sky, it was to find ourselves in a dappling landscape of valleys whose farmhouses lay sunk in shelter trees among fields crisp with stubbles.

From Maidencourt Farm a gravelly track rose between thick hedges, climbing the face of the downs before dipping over to run down through the meadows to Whatcombe. A few humps and hollows showed where a medieval village had stood close to Whatcombe monastery, before history cleared both away. Now a beautifully-appointed stables stands in the hidden valley – stalls, barns, sheds and a great covered exercise ring.

Beyond Whatcombe it was ploughland and big skies all the way to South Fawley, another famous racing establishment. We went west under gently stirring shawls of cloud, ambling along a quiet road to nowhere. On Washmore Hill there was time to picnic and watch a sparrow pretending to be a stone in the furrows, so well camouflaged it was hard to distinguish bird from soil. Then we headed for home, south across a grassy gallop and down past lonely Winterdown Barn in its roadless hollow, down to the old thatched and timbered cottages of Asgar’s settlement once more.

Start: Queen’s Arms, East Garston, Berks, RG17 7ET (OS ref SU 366764)

Getting there: Bus service 4 (, Newbury-Swindon
Road – M4 Jct 14, A338 to Great Shefford, left (‘Lambourn’) to East Garston.

Walk (8½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 158 and170): From Queen’s Arms, left along road, first left into East Garston, cross River Lambourn, and turn right along Lambourn Valley Way (fingerpost). In 50m, left up fence (368765) and follow ‘Permitted Path, Shefford’. At Maidencourt Farm (373761), left up stony track for 1 mile. Just beyond Furze Border thicket, fork right (376777, fingerpost) for three quarters of a mile to signal mast on Kite Hill. Ahead through hedge (388783, fingerpost); follow BAs for ½ mile down to Whatcombe (393789).

Right (BA) for 150m. Just past house, left before horseshoe-shaped pond (394789) up hedge. Left at top of garden (yellow arrow/YA); right up path in hedge (YA) and on with hedge on right. Nearing South Fawley, cross 2 paddocks (391799, stiles, YAs); cross stile on right into lane; left to T-junction (390802). Left (‘Eastbury, Warren Farm’) on tarmac lane, then stony track for 1½ miles to junction of tracks on Washmore Hill (367804). Pass a line of conifers on your right; just before a waymark pole on left, turn left along the side of a thicket.

In 700m, at T-junction of tracks (366797, ‘Restricted Byway’), turn left for 30m; then right on grassy path/track with bank and gallops on your left. In ⅓ mile, track bends right; in 150m, go left (363792, fingerpost) across field. Pass through wooden fence (364790, YA); keep same line ahead, crossing gallop (365788 – take care!) and grassland, aiming for left-hand of three trees on skyline. Recross gallop (366784 – take care!); descend to fingerpost (365783). Down across field, then through grassland down to track (365778). Left into East Garston. Just before first buildings, left (363772, fingerpost). At field end, right (365771, fingerpost) down fenced path to road. Left into village.

Conditions: Please look out and take care crossing gallops!

Lunch/Accommodation: Queen’s Arms Hotel, East Garston, Berks RG17 7EE (01488-648757,

 Posted by at 01:28
Jan 042014

Hurley lies modestly beside the River Thames a little west of London, a quiet village of handsome red brick houses. First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The single road ends just before the river at the remnants of a Benedictine priory – church, house and barn made of flint, infilled with that soft blocky building chalk known as clunch.

Jane and I set out under a sky opaque with cold milky light. A scraping of snow clung to the field slopes. Big burly sheep cropped the grass, their fleeces dark with winter mud. Under the sycamores and beeches in High Wood at the top of the down, little Eeyore-stile shelters of propped-up sticks showed where local children had been hiding out in their own make-believe world.

A horse-gallop forty feet wide led like a green highway towards thickly wooded Ashley Hill, where bare trees stood knotted with mistletoe clumps. A stripped-back, skeletal landscape, as thin and stark as this midwinter season. By contrast we found the chimney of the Dew Drop Inn smoking cheerfully. The secluded pub, tucked down in its dell, exuded a seductive smell of burning beech and hazel logs. What a siren note a good pub fire sings out to winter walkers. We stepped inside out of the cold air and spatter of rain, and found soft lamplight, low chatter and the growl of sweet soul music on the sound system. A quick one, eh?

Back outside in a nipping wind we went on along a muddy bridleway that wound through green wooded country, gently rolling, generously wooded. From a nature reserve coppice we got a stunning view out over a swooping field where seven dark horses walked slowly in line abreast up the slope, tossing their heads conversationally together. On the squared-off stump of a fence post lay the greeny-white skull of a squirrel, clean and feather-light, the tremendously long incisors seeming too large for the narrow face structure.

Down in the valley the River Thames ran snow-swollen and brassy brown, a muscular arm of water flexing towards London and the sea. We followed it back to Hurley past willow-smothered eyots or islets, on through flooded meadows where Canada geese sailed with dignity and black-headed gulls screeched over their feast of drowned insects like greedy clubmen over the port and stilton.

Start: Hurley village car park, High Street, Hurley, SL6 5NB approx. (OS ref SU 825840)

Getting there: Bus service 239 (, Henley-Maidenhead
Road – Hurley is signposted off A4130 between Maidenhead and Henley-on-Thames

Walk: (5½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 172. NB: online map, more walks: From car park, right along village street to cross A4130 (827831). Ahead up fenced path. At top of rise, ahead (828827) through High Wood, then on along horse gallop (yellow arrow/YA). In 600m cross track (828820); ahead (YA) across field and along green lane past Ladyeplace to road (828815). Right; follow ‘Dew Drop Inn’ past end of Honey Lane (825815). In 250m, right (823814; ‘Knowl Hill Bridleway Circuit’/KHBC) past Dew Drop Inn. In 400m, left at T-Junction (822818; KHBC). In 400m, right (818817) along track. In 600m, enter Nature Reserve (813819). At far end KHBC turns left (813822), but go right here (‘bridleway’) for ½ mile to cross A4130 (812830). Down Blackboy Lane to River Thames (810835). Right on Thames Path for 1¼ miles. At tall footbridge (825842), right to car park.

Lunch: Dew Drop Inn, Batts Green, Honey Lane (01628 315662; – cosy, warm and welcoming

Info: Maidenhead TIC (01628-796502);

 Posted by at 08:20
Jun 022012

Gentlemen in cream linen jackets and white hats, ladies in floral dresses fluttered by the solitary zephyr to stir a baking hot summer morning in the southern end of Windsor Great Park.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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Lord, what a beautiful day! The Royal Landscape (Savill Gardens, Valley Gardens and Virginia Water) looked absolutely at its peak, the Savill Gardens especially. Their many decades of scrupulous landscaping, planting and pruning were bursting out in this Diamond Jubilee weather in a carefully crafted ‘sweet disorder’ of rhododendrons – purple, pink, orange, peach, white, mauve. The gardens, created in the 1930s, only occupy 35 acres of ground, but I could happily have lost myself all day following the trails to the Hidden Gardens and the intensely scented Rose Garden, through Spring Wood and Summer Wood, past the coot sailing in the Obelisk Pond and the flood of psychedelic colour from the senetti magenta in the Queen Elizabeth Temperate House.

At last I tore myself away, paused in the Savill Building for a glass of lemonade that hardly touched the sides going down, and set out through the glades and lawns of Windsor’s wider Great Park. This is one of England’s oldest parks, founded by William the Conqueror and embellished over a thousand years by his successors. After the beautifully sculpted formality and simmering heat of the Savill Gardens, it was like throwing off a heavy cloak to wander in the shade of the oaks and sweet chestnuts, past Cow Pond (a unique Baroque water feature, recently restored from dereliction), and to see what artless nature had scattered in the grass – bluebells, milkmaids, red campion, buttercups.

Up at Snow Hill, King George III in green bronze looked out from his seat on a pawing horse over the Great Park, where the Long Walk ran arrow-straight between newly mown verges towards the distant towers and battlements of Windsor Castle nearly three miles away. Back south through the woods and down beside the wide empty polo field, and a final saunter through hilly Valley Gardens and along the tree-lined banks of Virginia Water, that vast man-made lake, in a blue simmering haze of heat so arcadian I might just have dreamed the whole walk up.

Start & finish: Savill Gardens car park, Englefield Green, Berks TW20 0XD (OS ref SU 977707)
Getting there: Train (; to Egham (2½ miles). Road: Savill Gardens (car park: about £5 cash) signposted from A30 (M25 Jct 13)
Walk (7½ miles, easy grade, OS Explorer 160): Start with circuit of Savill Gardens (adult £8.50, senior £7.95, child 6-16 £3.75, family of 4 £21; includes leaflet map). Return to car park; leaving Savill Building, left (north) along tarmac track. In 300m, ahead past ‘No Cycling’ notice (977710). In 400 m, left past end of Cow Pond. Left on track from pond’s left (west) edge; in 300 m, right (972715) up tarmac drive. In half a mile pass pink lodge (976722); through gates (press button); over Spring Hill to equestrian statue on Snow Hill (967727). Left (south) on grassy ride for ½ mile into trees. In 250 m, 7 tracks meet (967717); left on gravel path bisecting 2 tarmac drives. In 400 m, at 5-way junction (971715), right on gravel path; on beside Smith’s Lawn for 1 mile. Just before bridge over Virginia Water, bear left (966695; ‘Lakeside Walk’). Follow along shore for 1½ miles; left past Totem Pole (980696); follow ‘Savill Gardens’ to car park.

Lunch: Savill Building restaurant (01784-485402)
More info:;

Breast Cancer Care’s Pink Ribbon Walk:
0870-145-0101; Marble Hill Park, London, 16 June

 Posted by at 02:45
Mar 212009

A beautiful sunny day in West Berkshire; just the afternoon to go strolling on the common. Skylarks climbed high in the blue overhead, pouring out passionate song. Golden cowslips and pale pink milkmaids bobbed in the breeze. Cows grazed contentedly. Beneath their hooves, under the turf of the common, lay hidden the ghostly shape of the runway that once slashed its concrete scar across this heath. Beyond the fence squatted the truncated, toad-like shapes of silos which held the doomsday weapons that, in the event of war at the end of the 20th century, would have lifted off the runway in the bellies of USAF bombers, bound for a dropping point somewhere over Russia.

‘I stumbled on Greenham Common while I was taking the dogs for a walk, some time after we moved to the area in 1978,’ mused Derek Emes, Chairman of Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers, as we strolled the common together. A retired civil engineer who’s worked all over the world, Derek and a band of like-minded volunteers have laboured tirelessly to restore the disused Greenham Common cruise missile base to its former state of ecological richness. ‘The nuclear silos were just being built, but the whole place was in a dormant state; the fence had been allowed to deteriorate, and I found I could get in and out pretty much as I pleased. I thought: what a lovely place! Of course, once the cruise missiles were installed and the first women’s protest group arrived from Wales, the ‘Women for Life on Earth’, everything changed.’

Greenham Common is not like any other common in these islands. From the Second World War until 1997 it was an air base, run for the most part by the United States Air Force; and for eight of those years, 1983-1991, it housed cruise missiles with a nuclear capability. No-one who watched television news in the haunted years of the 1980s, with international tension sharp and the Iron Curtain giving no hint of melting away, could fail to remember the Women’s Peace Camp that established itself outside the gates, nor the fence-scalings, incursions, sit-down protests, chants, televised struggles with stolid policemen, and other ways that the women found to keep their anti-missile cause in the headlines.

‘The peace women weren’t especially unpopular hereabouts,’ noted Derek. ‘But they weren’t exactly welcome, either. Greenham Common is really two neighbouring commons, Greenham and Crookham, and the women found out that some local commoners still enjoyed ancient rights of access to Crookham Common. So they befriended them, and were able to get onto that section and carry on publicising their cause.’

Eventually the peace women saw their mission fulfilled. By 1992 the USSR’s policy of glasnost or open engagement with the West had neutralized its perceived threat. The nuclear missiles of Greenham Common were removed and returned to the USA. Five years later the air base was closed, and the MoD handed Greenham Common over to Newbury District Council and the Greenham Trust. Since then the 1,200 acres of Greenham and Crookham Commons have been managed as one enormous nature reserve.

Two factors vie for your attention as you walk the common: the natural world that is re-establishing itself with astonishing speed, and the ominous remains of the air base that still lie in situ. Here are mires and sphagnum bogs, ponds and streams, acid grassland, mown meadows where orchids thrive – bee orchids with their bumble-bee-bum patterns, green-winged orchids, Autumn lady’s tresses with tiny white flowers. Hares, rabbits, weasels and foxes find refuge here. Dartford warblers nest, and so do skylarks and woodlarks. The common is bright with great blue drifts of viper’s bugloss, yellow of ragwort and purple-pink of rosebay willowherb, and the pink 5-petalled stars of lime-loving common centaury. These thrive next to acid soil plants such as bell heather, in patches where lime leaching out of the broken old runways has enriched the surrounding heathland. Nearby, old air base buildings quietly crumble. The cruise missile silos, green flat-topped pyramids with dark entrances, squat behind a triple layer of fencing like the burial mounds of long-superseded warriors. And a fire-practice plane lies in its moat of water, no longer blasted with flame in simulated emergency, silently rusting itself away.

This wonderful variety of wildlife, the resurgence of the common’s ecological riches after half a century in the shadow of military development, has not come about by chance. ‘All sorts of ideas were put forward for the base when it was closed,’ said Derek, ‘a housing estate, a new airport for London, a car racing track. But in the end we got what we were lobbying for. The Greenham Trust bought the entire site for about £7 million, and leased the Greenham and Crookham commons to West Berkshire Council for one pound. Our conservation volunteers meet on the third Sunday of each month and we go out on a task – scrub-bashing, perhaps, or clearing away rubble, cleaning up the ponds or maybe doing some hedge-laying or putting in a footbridge. Little improvements, but persistent.’

The shadow of the past still lies long on this wild place, lending it an extraordinary poignancy. And the Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers can’t afford to be complacent, insists their Chairman. ‘The commons themselves may be safe now, but we’re always having to challenge applications for inappropriate development around the perimeter – intrusive lights, too-tall factories, increases in road noise and transport movements.’ Derek Emes swept his arm wide in a gesture that embraced wild flowers, ponds, woods and streamlets. ‘It’s just so beautiful when it’s all out in full colour on a day like this. A miracle, really, to think what it was like only ten years ago. And we are completely determined to keep it safe for the future. That’s what it’s all about.’

Information on Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers (


Greenham Common is one of 500 wild places described and explored in Christopher Somerville’s latest fully-illustrated book, Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places – 500 Ways to Discover the Wild (Allen Lane, £25)


 Posted by at 00:00
Dec 202008

It was a beautiful winter morning, shortly before Christmas – one of those crisp, smoky mornings with ice skinning the puddles and a sky of unbroken blue over the leafless woods.

Nature calls you imperiously out of doors, then smacks you in the face when it has got you there. Setting off from The Swan Inn in the West Berkshire hamlet of Lower Green, eyes running with chilly tears, breath pluming out like a leaky locomotive, I gasped with cold. Five days ago I had been basking in 35°C heat in tropical north Australia, and this thermometer plunge into the minus zone was a shock to the system.

Out in the fields rooks strutted the stubble rows, their fat feathery thighs making them roll like drunken sailors. My boots cracked milky panes of ice in the ruts; brambles hung whitened and stiff in the hedges, each spiny leaf tipped with a droplet of half-melted frost. All the pleasures of walking in the English countryside in winter suddenly came flooding in on me. After weeks of energy-sapping heat on baking Queensland beaches I welcomed the rough embrace of winter stinging my cheeks, a brisk exhortation to stride out and get the blood coursing round the body.

Up the steep breast of Inkpen Hill I slogged, puffing out steam, stripping off scarf and then woolly hat as the interior radiators were turned on full by the hard exercise. Up at the top there was time to pause, pour a cup of coffee from the flask and take in the quite stupendous view. I gazed north, 20 or 30 miles across the plains of Berkshire and Wiltshire towards the White Horse Downs and the distant Cotswolds. The windows of country houses flashed among spinneys and copses that in the full leaf of summer would shield them from sight. Sheep moved slowly along the crest of the down, their fleeces turned to gold in the sunlight.

The black T-bar of sinister Combe Gibbet, by contrast, stood stark on the humped back of a Neolithic burial mound. The original hanging scaffold, set here on the skyline so that everyone for miles around would see it, was used only once. In 1676 the bodies of George Broomham of Combe and his lover, Dorothy Newman of Inkpen, were suspended from each cross-piece and left to rot as a grim warning, after the pair had been hanged for murdering Broomham's wife Martha and his son, Robert. It was Mad Thomas, a barefoot village idiot, who blurted out that he'd seen the victims being drowned in a pond. They had stumbled by chance across the lovers, in flagrante delicto, on the down.

Beyond Combe Gibbet rose the green inverted bowl of Walbury Hill, bisected by the ancient trackway I was following. The works of our distant ancestors litter the long ridge of the downs hereabouts: burial mounds, ditches, rutted tracks and the high-piled ramparts of Walbury Camp. It is easy to see why Iron Age men fortified this hilltop – at 974ft above sea level, Walbury is the highest chalk hill in Britain. Anyone commanding this site would be able to see strangers, friendly or otherwise, approaching from any direction in plenty of time to prepare an appropriate reception.

From the old hilltop stronghold I dropped down into the sheltered valley where Combe hamlet sits. In the south wall of the flint-built Church of St Swithun, shadowed by yews, I found a tiny stone head carved by some humorous-minded medieval mason, an imp-like homunculid with crazed feline eyes and the cheekiest of smiles. The narrow interior with its fine Victorian glass and elaborate Georgian graveslabs of black marble breathed peace and stability, a fixed point in a whirling world.

Up on the back of the downs once more, I faced into the wind and forged northwards. Pheasants exploded out of the hedge roots, and meadow pipits flew swooping and squeaking across the track. Back at the crest of Inkpen Hill I took a deep breath and went half-running down the slope, through a tunnel of pale elder suckers and back into Lower Green, heading for the door of the The Swan Inn.

There are certain pubs that you'd cheerfully take root in. The Swan is one of them: a firelit winter pub par excellence that brews its own bitter and serves its own organic beef. Cheerful barman Tomas, a Prague boy very much at home in the Berkshire countryside, pulled me a pint of the sort Australians will never understand. I sat by the log fire, feet well out in front of me, fingers a-tingle as they thawed; I felt my cheeks reddening and my grin widening. It was good to be home.


 Posted by at 00:00
Nov 262016

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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The blowy blue afternoon sky over Berkshire was patchworked with vast silvery clouds backlit by the sun. Along the hedges in the broad valley of the River Pang wind-dried umbellifers stood as tall as a man, each papery seedpod holding the blood-red streak of a single seed.

This is understated countryside, with a faint dip and roll to it. The sun put a glossy green polish on the wooded ridges of the valley. A jay, disturbed by our passing, swore like a trooper from its hideout in a thicket, and high overhead a stunting plane growled among the clouds.

We trod a carpet of gold and silver willow leaves beside the slow-flowing Pang. The water rippled as clear as gin over a gravelly bed. An angler had snagged his line in an elder bush; with great patience and dexterity he freed it and drew a flapping brown trout from the water. Then he lay prone, cradling the fish in a wetted palm, and slipped it very carefully back into the river.

Bradfield was a gorgeous dream of mellow red brick houses, the shaven playing fields of its college still smelling faintly of cut grass. Here we crossed the Pang and climbed the gentle slope to the north, into woods where horse chestnuts shone a rich mahogany in the leaf litter, as though freshly polished.

At a point where the sigh of wind in the treetops was overlaid by the seashore roar of the M4, we turned away through the silver birch and tall pines of The Gravels. This is sand and gravel country, a place of old heathy commons now overgrown with woodland, from which we looked out across the Pang valley to a rainstorm gathering in the south.

A tawny owl hooted among the hazels at Nightingale Green as we dropped down to recross the Pang and take the path through sedgy pastures back to Stanford Dingley. In St Denys’s Church we found red ochre frescoes 800 years old, and a medieval tile on which the Lamb of God gambolled with shaggy legs as unco-ordinated as a puppy’s – an image that bridged the centuries with charm and humour.

Start: Bull Inn, Stanford Dingley, Berks RG7 6LS (OS ref SU 576716)

Getting there: Stanford Dingley is 2 miles north of Chapel Row, west of Theale (between Jcts 12 and 13, M4)

Walk (7½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 159): From Bull Inn, left along road. At junction, left (fingerpost) on footpath (yellow arrows/YA) for nearly 1 mile to road (591719). Dogleg right/left across, and on (YAs) for 1 mile to road in Bradfield (604727).

Left; in 200m, left past ‘Private Road’ notice (603728; white arrow/WA; ‘Recreational Route’/RR). In 150m, right through gate (fingerpost). Aim half left across field to corner of hedge (599728); same line to gate through hedge, and on to cross road (596728). Up Greathouse Walk track (‘Bridleway’/BW). In ½ mile pass entrance to Great House Cottages (590734); in another 150m, at crossing of tracks, follow main track round to left (BW). In ⅓ mile, halfway up slope, left (585736, YA, RR) through ‘The Gravels’ wood. In 700m leave wood; forward to cross Scratchface Lane (577733).

Take path opposite (WA, RR); in 100m, right (WA, ‘Permitted Footpath’). Follow this path, ignoring side turnings. In 350m, at T-junction by post, left (574732, YA). Follow path (YAs) for ¼ mile; at wood bottom bear right (YA) to cross stile (574728). Down long field to lane (571727). Right; in 200m, opposite Mazelands Farm, left up track. In ¼ mile at 3 gates, right (567725; WA, RR, BW). In 200m, left through KG (YA), up fence and into House Leas wood (563725). Left (WA, RR), following wood edge south (‘Restrictive Byway’/RB) for ½ mile to Pangfield Farm (564719).

Skirt clockwise round buildings on marked ‘Preferred Pathway’, before turning left down drive. Cross road (566716); down track opposite. In ¼ mile, left at gate (569713, RB). Immediately left through gate (YA); half left across field to gate (571713, YA). Through trees; aim across field for St Denys’s Church; at road (575717), right to Bull Inn.

Lunch/Accommodation: Bull Inn, Stanford Dingley (0118-974-4582, – cosy, stylish and friendly

Info: Newbury TIC (01635-30267);;;

Britain’s Best Walks: 200 Classic Walks from The Times by Christopher Somerville (HarperCollins, £30). To receive 30 per cent off plus free p&p visit and enter code TIMES30, or call 0844 5768122

 Posted by at 01:51
Jan 012011

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window

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'It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things.'
Crunching through the snowy fields to Cookham Dean, I caught myself looking out for the short, intent figure of Mole scurrying along in his newly bought goloshes. Kenneth Grahame was living in the Berkshire village at the turn of the 20th century when he wrote The Wind In The Willows for his son Mouse. That story immortalised the landscape of the River Thames, its fine houses and meadows – and especially its woods. How thrilling to my childish imagination were the adventures of Mole and Ratty in the depths of the Wild Wood! Now, leaving Cookham Dean’s whitened village green and entering snow-bound Quarry Wood, I found myself in the thick of that sinister forest.

A sunken cart track led down to the bottom of the wood. I turned back along a path between bushes of spindle whose brilliant orange seeds pushed through splits in bright pink fruit cases, the brightest colours in the sombre wood. With the muted winter sun already setting and shadows lying long on the snow under the trees, I was visited by a frisson from childhood, the thing that Rat had tried to shield poor Mole from – ‘the Terror of the Wild Wood!’

A stunning panorama from Winter Hill over the graceful curves of the Thames; then a peaceful stretch under frozen willows along the river bank in the half light of dusk. I got into Cookham just in time to catch the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a treasure-house of the fabulous art of another celebrated Cookham resident. What an odd, complicated and ecstatic vision this kind-of-naïf painter brought to his work, most of it rooted in his beloved native village. And how strange to walk from the black hollows and snow-crusted trees of Grahame’s Wild Wood into Spencer’s summery Cookham of picnickers in short sleeves, girls in bathing dresses, and the figure of Christ in a black straw boater preaching with fiery fury from a punt at Cookham Regatta.


Start & finish: Cookham station, Berks SL6 9BP (OS ref SU 886850)

Getting there: Train (; to Cookham. Bus: Arriva ( Service 37 (Maidenhead-High Wycombe). Road: M40 Jct 4; A404 Marlow; A4155, A4095 to Cookham; B4447 to Cookham Rise. Park near station.


Walk (7½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 172): From station, left; 1st left along High Road; pass school, then Stanley Spencer’s house Clievden View (corner of Worster Road); follow High Road to T-jct (879851). Ignore path opposite; right for 75m; cross road; path through fields (yellow arrows/YA) for ⅓ mile to road in Cookham Dean (874853). Left round S-bend; right across green to pub sign; left here (‘Chiltern Way/CW; Berkshire Loop’). Down right side of Sanctum on the Green Inn (871853). Through trees for 100m; right over stile (YA, CW). Down slope; cross path at bottom; forward (fingerpost) up to road (864853). Left for 50m; right (‘bridleway’, blue arrow) on path inside wood edge. In ⅓ mile, fields on your left give way to trees; just beyond, at 4-way path crossing (859851), ignore paths crossing through barriers and YA, and take right-hand of 2 paths ahead, following sunken trackway downhill.

In 300m keep ahead across a path crossing (856850); in 250m, hairpin right (854849; ‘Restricted Byway’) along bottom edge of wood for ⅔ mile to cross Quarry Wood Road (861857). Immediately right up path between fences, steeply up for 300m to road (864857). Don’t cross; left along path beside road, then through wood for ⅓ mile to road at Dial Close (870860). Left along grass verge by road for ⅓ mile; left down Stonehouse Lane (874863); in 20m, right along path (YA) follow CW. After going through metal gate (marked ‘donated by East Berks Ramblers’), in 200m CW forks right; but keep ahead on downward track. At foot of slope, left (882867, fingerpost) through kissing gate; track across fields, bearing right along River Thames. Follow river for 1½ miles to Cookham Bridge (898856). Right along Ferry Lane past church; right up Cookham High Street, past Stanley Spencer Gallery (896853) and Bel & Dragon Inn; follow footpath by road for ¾ mile to station.

NB – Online maps, more walks:

Lunch: Sanctum on the Green, Cookham Dean (01628-482638,; Bel & The Dragon, Cookham (01628-521263;

Stanley Spencer Gallery: Winter opening Thurs-Sun, 11-4.30; 01628-471885;;



 Posted by at 00:00