IT’S EASY to get lost in Hodgemoor Woods.
Even armed with the handy downloadable map produced by the Hodgemoor Riding Association, once you stray off their network of bridleways, it’s likely to be only a matter of time before you lose your bearings.
Perhaps that’s why many dog walkers stick to circular routes from the main car park on Bottrells Lane.
It’s not that the wood is huge: at 250 acres, it’s a good bit smaller than nearby Black Park or sprawling Burnham Beeches. But then there’s no easy grid system to keep you on track and in the densest parts, all the paths tend to look the same.
Owned by Bucks County Council but run by Forestry England, Hodgemoor lies sandwiched between the historic villages of Chalfont St Giles and Seer Green, bordered by farms, stables and almost deserted country lanes.
A natural heritage area designated a site of special scientific interest by Natural England, it’s sufficiently remote to remain unspoilt and is well maintained by riding association members as part of an impressive 20-year project to improve access for all users.
Among the oaks, birches, beeches and hornbeams are elusive foxes and badgers, though it’s much more likely that walkers will stumble across a startled deer or scurrying squirrel.
At night the hoots of owls can provide an atmospheric soundtrack, but there are times when the trails feel almost eerily silent and near deserted, both by humans and wildlife.
It’s pretty hard to believe that for 15 years the woods were home to more than 150 Polish families, and that these hidden paths must have echoed to the sounds of children playing as that post-war generation grew up.
It was in 1946 that Buckinghamshire County Council built and managed a reception and billeting camp for Polish soldiers and there are many families who remember Hodgemoor as providing a safe home after the war, with the camp’s population reaching more than 600 at its peak in the 1950s.
Few remnants remain of those prefabricated barracks buildings and Nissen huts that offered a refuge among the trees here until 1962, mainly to families of servicemen from the Third Carpathian division in Italy who could not safely return to Poland, where the country had fallen under the totalitarian regime of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
They were among some 120,000 Polish servicemen and women who had fought alongside the allies and accepted the British Government’s offer to settle in this country, initially housed in dozens of similar ‘temporary’ camps.
Conditions may have been primitive but those who lived there recall a real sense of community, complete with a church, infant school, post office, cinema, shop and an entertainment hall boasting a dance team, theatre group, choir and sports club.
Locals referred to Hodgemoor as ‘Little Poland’, although it wasn’t until 2017 that the first formal reunion took place at the General Bor-Komorowski Club in Amersham, itself built by former Hodgemoor residents and opened in 1974.
Today a commemmorative plaque recalls the days of the camp, though for the most part it’s hard to imagine just how busy the place would have been in the 1950s, with its own resident priest performing mass every day and with adults picking up jobs in Slough, Amersham and High Wycombe, where many would later settle.
Deep in the heart of Hodgemoor much of the central area is ancient in origin, with records of its existence dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, though the ancient core is surrounded by semi-natural woodland dating from the 18th century to the present day, one of the largest such tracts remaining in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns.
Generations of children recall riding their bikes up and down the slopes of its mysterious dells, some perhaps marking the remains of diggings for clay to be used in the local brick kilns.
With a wide range of soil types and mixed history of planting, the woods boast an extensive array of trees, shrubs and insects.
Bluebells and foxgloves provide splashes of colour in the spring, while mosses, lichens and an assortment of fungi help to add texture and intrigue to the woodland palette.
To the north, more serious ramblers on the Chiltern Way may bypass the woods on their way down from Winchmore Hill and the Red Lion at Coleshill towards Chalfont St Giles, preferring open outlooks over the Misbourne Valley to an unfamiliar detour into the depths of Hodgemoor, perhaps.
Likewise casual visitors to the farm shops which flank the woods – the Hatchery on the main Amersham road and Stockings Farm on Bottrells Lane – may be unaware of the extended network of woodland walks which surround them.
On the edges of the woods, those glimpses of sheep, cattle, pigs and horses are a reminder that civilisation isn’t very far away, and it’s always nice to see members of the riding association cheerily trotting along the bridleways, families building an Eeyore house or inquisitve spaniels nosing among the autumn leaves.
But some of the deeper recesses can feel almost silent, and frozen in time…sometimes a little too quiet for comfort. It’s a reminder of just how overgrown parts of the wood had become back in the 1960s and the extent to which they have been transformed in recent years.
Research carried out by the author and amateur sleuth Monica Weller in 2016 reveals a very different place, with charcoal burners who worked in the woods from the 1950s recalling how dense and impenetrable it had become by the time a brutal murder in 1966 focused the nation’s attention on Hodgemoor.
Weller probes the killing of popular Amersham GP Dr Helen Davidson in her book Injured Parties, and in the process recalls a complex legal battle between the Forestry Commission and local residents over the future management of the woodland.
Thankfully those early wrangles paved the way for what has become something of a model for private-public co-operation, with the horse-riding association members getting the right to use the trails in return for maintaining them.
It’s an arrangement that’s worked well and for the most part helps to protect the area, with a network of riders and dog walkers on the lookout for any anti-social behaviour and the local parish councils working hard to discourage “unsavoury” activities of the sort that has brought one small area of nearby woodland some notoriety over the years as an alleged hotspot for casual sex.
Back in the heart of Hodgemoor, the changing seasons provide a constantly shifting backdrop of different colours and textures, from spring greens to autumn leaves, from frost glittering in the dawn light to evening rays shining through the trees.
The variety is startling, altering with the time of day and the seasons, from those crisp frosty mornings of winter to muggy summer nights where the air is still and listless.
It’s 60 years since the Polish camp shut and those families moved out, but the woods still echo to the sound of children playing, the rustle of inquisitive dogs and hooves of horses on the bridlepaths.
These days, a new generation of ramblers, riders and dog walkers are disappearing into the maze of paths which make it so easy to feel you are alone, even when know other people are close at hand.
In so many ways it’s a very different landscape from that which housed the postwar camp, yet often the place feels timeless: and for villagers in Seer Green and Chalfont St Giles, it remains a wonderful playground on the doorstep where the appeal of a walk in the woods never grows old.