Take an amble around Hambleden

AS picture postcard English villages go, they don’t get any quainter than Hambleden.

This is the ultimate cliché, the stuff of jigsaw puzzles, chocolate boxes and tourism brochures.

Pretty flint-and-brick cottages jostle round an impressive medieval church in a village set in a broad open valley overlooked by hills topped with mature beech woods.

Nestled into the Chiltern Hills close to the River Thames between Henley and Marlow, this is your quintessentially English scene, mentioned in the Domesday Book and still providing the perfect starting place for a family rambles.

Predictably popular with film crews and providing a backdrop for a variety of murder mysteries and children’s classics like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Nanny McPhee Returns and 101 Dalmatians, the village nowadays forms part of the impressive Culden Faw Estate, some 3,500 acres of woods, rolling pastures, parkland and unspoilt chalk valleys. (It also had a slightly darker role as Tadfield, home of the Anti-Christ and his friends, in the 2019 mini-series Good Omens.)

On a sunny Saturday, it resembles a scene from The Darling Buds Of May, with children playing in the brook beside a footpath that stretches invitingly into the distance. Just “perfick”, as Pop Larkin might have put it.

This unspoilt setting is an important staging post on the Chiltern Way, a 134-mile perambulation around the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which manages to encompass all the most characteristic features of a historic Chilterns landscape, including those quaint villages, ancient beeches and crystal-clear chalk streams.

Opened in 2000 and maintained by Chiltern Society volunteers, this is one of the most dramatic sections, taking ramblers from the woods of Marlow Common towards the hamlet of Rotten Row and down into Hambleden, before looping north to Skirmett, Fingest and Turville.

Suitable for walkers of all abilities, the route is well signposted and popular, but for those who want to keep Hambleden as their base, there are numerous circular possibilities in the area, including one trail on the National Trust website.

This circular five-mile walk initially ascends the east side of the Hambleden Valley, descends through the hamlet of Pheasants Hill and then explores the west side before returning to the village from the south, following the route of the Hambleden Brook.

Back in the village hungry walkers gather outside the Village Stores & Post Office for coffee, cake and scones, or adjourn to the Stag and Huntsman Inn for a meal or refreshing pint.

Walkers wanting to tackle the Chiltern Way can find out more about the route from Pete Collins, who chronicles each stage of the journey in some detail on his blog.

And for those looking for something more than a leisurely amble round the village, there are plenty of alternatives – like the Thames and Chilterns walk highlighted on the Chilterns AONB website, which takes you from Henley-on-Thames along the Thames Path National Trail and back via Aston. You can even combine the walk with a boat trip on the Thames between Easter and October.

In the village itself, the key attraction by the old village pump is the fascinating medieval St Mary the Virgin church, an imposing structure boasting a beautiful Norman font and a range of other historical features including a bell tower with eight bells, the oldest of which may first have been rung at around the time of victory at Agincourt in 1415.

Apart from the ornate ceiling detail, there are a variety of features spanning the centuries to engage the visitor’s interest.

In the north transept, the oldest part of the church, is a magnificent monument to Sir Cope D’Oyley (d 1633), his wife Martha and their ten children. In traditional Jacobean fashion, the figures are portrayed kneeling, facing each other, with some of the children carrying skulls to show that they died before their parents.

Inside the church you can also find out about Saint Thomas Cantilupe, born locally and, in 1320, the last Englishman to be canonised before the Reformation; and see the sea chest taken to the Crimea by Lord Cardigan, who led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

But then there are associations spanning all the centuries here, from a small brass plaque on the south wall of the nave to WH Smith, the famous bookseller, who was a churchwarden at Hambleden, to the grave of Deep Purple rock legend Jon Lord, who lived locally for many years.

Lazy days on the Beeches Way

AS long-distance paths go, the Beeches Way is a minnow among leviathans.

Many national trails are more than 100 miles long, and some greatly exceed that – with routes like the Greater Rideway, Pennine Way or South West Coast Path being measured in hundreds rather than tens of miles.

But however modest the Beeches Way may sound at a mere 16 miles, it cuts a picturesque route through some magnificent Chilterns countryside, taking in a top trio of local country parks and sites of special scientific interest along the way.

It runs from Cookham on the Thames to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton, a route developed by the Iver and District Countryside Association in conjunction with Buckinghamshire County Council.

It also links up with other long-distance routes, including the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path from Cookham.

Several walkers have chronicled highlights of the route and you can see full details on the website of the Long Distance Walkers Association and Pete Collins’ informative website, which also includes links to other connecting walks in the area.

Tim Bertuchi is another walker to provide a step-by-step guide to the route back in 2009 and if, like him, you find the section around Iver feels insufficiently picturesque, you can easily pick up the path in Langley Park, once a deer park that was the scene of royal hunting parties into the Middle Ages.

Since the war the park has been council owned, and although it’s only a stone’s through from Slough, you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Walkers might want to linger here a while, watching the wildfowl round the serpentine-shaped lake, a landscape feature influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s.

There’s an arboretum too, and in the spring the rhododendrons of the Temple Gardens are alive with colour.

From here it’s a short step across the busy dual carriageway into Black Park, a spectacular 530-acre network of 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to explore.

Thread your way past the grazing Sussex cattle and you face a short descent into Fulmer, where the Black Horse might prove tempting if you feel you have earned a pint or bite to eat.

Cross the road and you are entering Stoke Common, the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England, also currently graced with its own visiting herd of Sussex cattle to help with the grazing.

If you’ve come all the way from West Drayton this is around the halfway mark. You may even want to take the weight of your feet to appreciate the new benches produced by Gina Martin and inspired by artwork by local pupils at nearby Stoke Poges school.

Among the heather, ling and purple moor grass and gorse you may hear the distinctive scraping sound of a stonechat or even catch a glimpse of a lizard, adder or slow worm.

From here you are heading to Farnham Common and another glorious swathe of ancient woodland, Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve and conservation area that is another site of special scientific interest. It’s worth making a date to take this trip in the autumn too, when the woods are a blaze of colour.

The route is shown on the OS Explorer map 172 and is waymarked and signposted in both directions, but it’s easy to get distracted in Burnham Beeches and find yourself wandering away from the route. Try to get back on track to make sure you pick up the path to Littleworth Common and on towards Wooburn.

The Beeches Way links up with the Berkshire Loop near the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub.

From here, the path leads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas at Hedsor and on to Hedsor Wharf, where the old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames.

Anyone travelling by train can pick up the path at either end, either from West Drayton station, close to where the Grand Union Canal meets Yiewsley High Street, or in the picturesque Berkshire village of Cookham on the banks of the Thames.

More ambitious walkers can pick up the Thames Path here, or even diverge onto the Berkshire Loop of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, a more ambitious ramble through the characteristic Chilterns landscape of woods, downland and pretty old villages.

It may even inspire you to tackle some of the further-flung national trails or themed routes, which may take their name from historical or literary figures like Shakespeare and Bronte.

But there’s nothing wrong with savouring a short stretch of the route either, or diverging from it to take a lazy village wander like those around Cookham Village or a short local detour into the woodland paths around Wooburn.

Small is beautiful, they say – and as long-distance walks go, that’s certainly true in the case of the Beeches Way.

Lose yourself in the woods

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THERE aren’t too many country parks where it’s easy to get lost.

But with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

And with that amount of room to explore, it really does have something to suit everyone.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.

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And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

Although the 14-acre lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks or even Indian runner ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.

A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.

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A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, in normal circumstances the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.

There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops. The park is also home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, whose lifelike models can often be seen bobbing around on the water.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, and you only have to go down to the lake entrance to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.

One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.

The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.

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For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.