Step this way for outdoor adventures

THE Chilterns Walking Festival returns this month with a programme of more than 80 walks and outdoor events.

Running from May 22 until June 6, the walks help people explore the landscape, villages, nature and heritage of the Chilterns. 

The activities and events are designed to appeal to different age groups, interests and levels of fitness, from those wanting to sample local drinks and produce to families finding out more about local heritage or explore nature reserves, churches or film locations.

All walks must be pre-booked at www.visitchilterns.co.uk/walkingfest and numbers are limited to make them Covid-safe.

Highlights include bushcraft events and nature-spotting walks, a chance to step back in time on a Hedgerley Deep Time Walk or costumed Tudor walk and opportunities to explore some old drovers routes, enjoy a George Orwell or Charles Dickens literary tour or some local produce tasting.

Whether it’s mastering tree identification, practising map and compass navigation, or having a go at Nordic walk, while healthy options include mindfulness walks, gentle Nature Connectedness sessions, a challenging trail run or a beautiful 25-mile walk around the Chess Valley.

Chilterns Conservation Board People & Society Officer Annette Venters said: “After months of lockdown we are delighted to be offering such a full programme of events. It will be a chance to explore and enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Chilterns in small groups, led by experienced guides.”

Details of all guided walks, events and activities available in the spring programme can be found at www.visitchilterns.co.uk/walkingfest. Most are free, though some require a small fee.

The festival is being sponsored by Brakspear, a family owned and run Henley brewer and award-winning pub company which has been at the heart of British life for over 200 years. Many of the company’s 132 pubs are located in picturesque rural and town centre settings across The Chilterns. www.brakspear.co.uk.

Woodland wander back in time

HOGBACK Wood is one of Beaconsfield’s hidden secrets.

An attractive area of old, mainly deciduous woodland on the western edge of the Seeleys housing estate, it’s owned by the National Trust but not mentioned on their website.

LOCAL SECRET: Hogback Woods in Beaconsfield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Indeed online references are rare, thought it’s one of a number of local woods mentioned by the Woodland Trust and is very popular with dog walkers and joggers, as well as boasting a plentiful cross-section of birdlife, including jays, goldcrests and firecrests.

Back in the 18th century there were some 30 farms and smallholdings around Beaconsfield, boasting a mixture of arable and pastoral farming, with wheat growing and the rearing of cows, pigs and sheep being the main activities.

Seeley’s farm was swallowed up and the land developed between the late 1940s and early 1970s, though the name lives on in local street names on the estate.

By 1881 the farm covered more than 200 acres and employed nine labourers. Like so many other local places, the land was well suited to growing cherry trees and in 1892 Job Wooster planted a huge 18-acre orchard of cherries.

HOME SWEET HOME: a nuthatch nest building at Hogback PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Cherry trees are still abundant in the area today – but back then there were up to 60 people employed at the height of the picking season, when trainloads of fruit would leave Beaconsfield by rail for the Midlands.

Since the housing development of the 1960s, Hogback today is a natural playground for local youngsters, a perfect place for den-building or playing hide and seek.

The 22.5 acres form a narrow patch of wooded paths linking the village of Forty Green with the outskirts of Holtspur. Usually accessed from Woodside Road, the woods are also perfectly situated for a wander over to the Royal Standard of England for a welcoming pint or meal, when lockdown restrictions permit.

The pub itself is steeped in centuries of history, predating the 16th-century farmhouse at Seeleys, which was originally part of the Gregories Estate, probably taking its name from the Cely family who lived in Beaconsfield in that period.

BUSY BIRDLIFE: a green woodpecker in Hogback Woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Researchers from the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society explain how the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds stayed at the farm in the 1780s and while in Beaconsfield fulfilled a commission from Catherine II, Empress of Russia, to paint an historical picture.

He chose as his subject The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents and the model he used was William Rolfe, the six-month-old son of a local family. Today the original painting still hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Farming days at Seeleys may be a distant memory, but the woods provide a perfect base for a circular ramble to Holtspur and beyond, picking up the Berkshire Loop of the Chilterns Way to head towards Wooburn Green, or returning along Riding Lane to Forty Green and that welcoming pint.

Big skies offer room to breathe

BIG skies aren’t normally a feature we associate too often with the Chilterns landscape, but for those who enjoy plenty of room to breathe on a walk, Pinkneys Green is perfect.

This glorious expanse of open grassland owned and managed by the National Trust is home to a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects, thanks to the fact that the open unfenced hay meadows are left to grow tall in the summer, providing a perfect hiding place for a variety of wildflowers.

From delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious, specks of colour dance amongst the grasses for as far as the eye can see, allowing walkers to wander a network of paths cut into the hay until it is cut in late summer, encouraging the distribution of seeds for the next year.

Alive with the hum of bees and butterflies in the summer months, this grassland is a popular haunt for species like the marbled white, a medium-sized butterfly with black and white checked wings which is particularly fond of purple flowers like wild marjoram, thistles, and knapweeds.

Here you might listen out for the call of a skylark on a summer’s evening, spot the dunnocks, fieldfares and redwings sheltering in the hedgerows around the field or hear the rustle of a vole, shrew or field mouse in the long grass.

A perfect place for trying your hand at kite-flying, or just enjoying the wind in your hair on a blustery day, it’s one of a number of open spaces owned by the National Trust in the area.

Other nearby spots to explore include Maidenhead Thicket, famed for its associations with Dick Turpin, and the Cookham Commons from Cookham to Cock Marsh and Winter Hill, a landscape which inspired the artist Stanley Spencer and children’s author Kenneth Grahame.

A number of useful National Trust trails provide an opportunity to get to know the commons better, including a four-mile circular trail taking in Cock Marsh and the Thames and a longer trail incorporating Winter Hill, Maidenhead Thicket and Pinkneys Drive.

Raynor’s walk on the wild side

Raynor Winn and husband Moth lost their home just as Moth’s diagnosis with a terminal disease also appeared to rob them of a future together. Not knowing what else to do, they began to walk and the true story of their journey along the South West Coast Path turned into a surprise bestseller

IF YOU owned a bookshop, it would be hard to know quite where to place Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut, The Salt Path.

It’s not a nature book, yet the significance of the natural world is inescapable throughout. It wasn’t planned as a spiritual journey or a pilgrimage, yet it certainly was a journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t meant to be a sociological study. But it contains plenty of trenchant observations about homelessness in Britain today – and about human nature.

Nor was it ever planned as a book about long-distance walking. Back in August 2013 when Raynor and her husband Moth set off from Minehead in Somerset to walk the South West Coastal Path, they were a couple in their 50s without any clear plans for the future.

The spur for that decision was a combination of life-changing twists of fate – a toxic investment which led to them losing their home in a devastating court case, coupled with a shock diagnosis that Moth was suffering from a rare degenerative brain disease and probably did not have long to live.

“You can’t be ill, I still love you,” Raynor told the man she had met at sixth-form college more than three decades earlier. But with the bailiffs banging on the door it seemed that choices were limited – and tackling some of the 630-mile South West Coastal Path seemed as good a way as any of buying some time to figure out the next move.

With a friend storing their few remaining possessions in a barn, they set off pretty much broke, equipped with thin sleeping bags, a tent bought on ebay and with access only to the few pounds a week they were due in tax credits.

Their journey – split over two summers, with the winter spent in a friend’s shed – ended in 2014 in Polruan, Cornwall, when their lives changed again with an offer from a kind stranger of accommodation on the coast path they had been trekking along for so long.

Raynor’s story of that walk, originally an article for The Big Issue, turned into an inspiring, lyrical and emotional story of human endurance against the odds – and about what homelessness really feels like in 21st-century Britain.

Published in 2018 and shortlisted for the Costa book award, the couple’s epic trek also proved to be an eye-opening examination of a divided society where our preconceptions about the homeless are often misguided.

Forget the stereotypes about people with addictions and mental health problems, Raynor suggests – what about the rural poor, many of them in temporary, seasonal or zero-hours jobs in communities where housing costs are astronomical?

As she revealed in a Big Issue interview in 2019 this problem is largely hidden, as local authorities eager to support their tourism industries want to keep the streets clear of rough sleepers.

Wild-camping along the coastal path in the footsteps of guidebook author Paddy Dillon, the bedraggled pair feel pretty out of place in the picture-postcard villages they pass through along the way – and not always welcome visitors once people discover they are homeless.

But if that heart-breaking loss of identity and self-worth is hard to handle, along with the physical hardships, it’s not a dark and depressing journey.

Writing with warmth and humour, Raynor manages to remain surprisingly free of bitterness about the circumstances which have combined to push them out on their journey, and equally unsentimental about what they have lost. While being forced to desert the Welsh farmstead they had transformed into their family home and business is tough, it’s the loss of sense of self which is the fundamental issue about becoming homeless, she explains in a 2018 Guardian interview.

Plodding along the path – and doing it together as a couple – helps to offer a sense of purpose and a new perspective, that home is not about bricks and mortar but a state of mind, about family, and about being at one with nature.

Alone for weeks in all weathers, that immersion in nature is inescapable, and Raynor is good at immersing the reader in the experience too, so that we can share in the highs and lows, the uplifting encounters with people and animals as well as the more depressing ones.

Thankfully, despite the aching bones and blisters it seems that the experience helps Moth regain some of his physical strength too, and straddling that void between life and death makes each experience all the sweeter, whatever the elements throw at them.

Walking the path hasn’t changed Moth’s diagnosis, but it may have helped stave off his terminal illness a little longer – and his routine of walking and physiotherapy has continued since the couple finally found their new base in Cornwall.

It’s that reconnection with nature that is perhaps the book’s overwhelming message, and while some readers may not be convinced by the health benefits of surviving on fudge, noodles and pasties, the pair emerged from their roller-coaster journey leaner, fitter and better equipped to face an uncertain future.

Growing up on a farm, Raynor was aware of nature being a fundamental part of her daily life. But most of us have lost that connection and need to rediscover it again. As she told The Big Issue: “Nature doesn’t just make a nice TV show, it’s what we actually need to survive, it’s the most important thing we have.”

Whatever the future holds for the Winns, it’s clear we are going to hear a lot more from Raynor this spring when her second non-fiction book, Wild Silence, is published by Michael Joseph , about nursing an over-farmed piece of land back to health.

Expect Raynor to explore some familiar themes here – of lifelong love, nature and what it means to find a home. And expect an army of well-wishers to be toasting her success as a writer as she and her beloved Moth continue to explore a new chapter in their lives.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Michael Joseph at £14.99 and in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). The pictures reproduced in this article were taken by Raynor Winn.