Linking quintessential English villages with lofty countryside views, the 85km/53-mile Outer Aylesbury Ring is a new high-level walking route masterminded by local Ramblers that shows off the best of rural Buckinghamshire. Hanna Lindon (words) and Steve Morgan (photography) went to road-test a section and meet the people behind its creation…
A red kite is circling Whiteleaf Hill in the Chilterns, riding the warm air currents in a graceful aerobatic ballet.
“You can tell it’s a male,” says the amateur wildlife enthusiast who’s stopped us just below the brim of the hill to impart a few pearls of local wisdom. “You see that tail? The fork’s more pronounced, and the body is smaller than the female’s.”
“Do you get many of them up here?” asks Steve, my photographer and walking companion for the day. “Oh yes,” says the naturalist. “You won’t credit it, but we’ve got more kites than sparrows. It’s thought that there are more than 600 breeding pairs now, and the flowers are incredible, too. Look over there: we’ve got white hellebore growing and bee orchids. Up over the hill you get military orchids, which are preciously rare.”
Buckinghamshire has never been high on my list of stellar UK walking spots, but a few hours of rambling among all this natural abundance has forced me to reassess my opinion of the 053-Aylesbury-34county. Up here, on the green hills that swell gently up out of Aylesbury Vale, the hazy views vie for attention with the neon-green beech woods and the riotous wildflower displays. Every signpost is peppered with multicoloured waymarks directing walkers off on different long-distance routes, and through it all runs the hiking superhighway that is the Ridgeway National Trail.
It was an afternoon amble around this scenically scrumptious area that gave Aylesbury & District Ramblers secretary Roy Johnson the idea for a new circular route. “I was surveying the Aylesbury Ring, which was a walk created by my predecessor, and I had to go up to the high ground around the Ring to take photographs,” he explains. “It occurred to me that there was another route here – one that linked plenty of big views and explored the pretty villages around Aylesbury.”
116-Aylesbury-93He took the proposal to a committee meeting in the summer of 2011, and soon afterwards the new Outer Aylesbury Ring (OAR) route was born. Roughly echoing the shape of the original Aylesbury Ring, it hugs the high ground around the town of Aylesbury and takes in some of Buckinghamshire’s most idyllic villages. The route begins in Wendover, winding through a patchwork of woodland, canal and water meadow, before circling back to rejoin the marching line of the Chiltern Hills. If you thought that the Home Counties were lacking in diversity, then this 85km/53-mile long-distance romp is ready to prove you wrong.
Ancient ways and awesome panoramas
With just a day to spare, Steve and I are aiming to complete the three sections of the OAR that link Princes Risborough with Buckland Wharf. A stiff climb up out of the town brings us onto Kop Hill, and soon we’re ambling through manicured woodland with the red kites whistling a ghostly soundtrack overhead.
It’s fairly easy to get lost in the web of long-distance paths that intertwines around this rural reach of the Chilterns. For much of the Princes Risborough stretch, the OAR follows the line of the Ridgeway – a 5,000-year-old drovers’ trail shrouded in historical mystery and littered with burial barrows and hillforts. We stumble across the first one on Whiteleaf Hill, where the conveniently placed information board reveals that it dates from Neolithic times and counts as one of the oldest monuments in Buckinghamshire.
But it isn’t just the history that makes Whiteleaf Hill a good place to break your walk. The smashing views across Aylesbury Vale merit a few minutes of awed admiration, and there’s a handy bench where you can pause and drink in the quintessentially English panorama. This is one of OAR designer Roy’s favourite sections of the route.
“It’s a superb area,” he says. “I chose to go that way because it looks across the Vale – we were trying to stick to high ground wherever possible.”
Just above Whiteleaf Cross – an incongruous chalk hill carving, whose origins are shrouded in obscurity – the route forks east and plunges through unruly beech woods down to the hamlet of Lower Cadsden. This pint-sized place had a brush with fame last year when Prime Minister David Cameron accidentally left his daughter behind in its pub. Whatever else you may think about the PM, he has impeccable taste in hostelries: The Plough is a caricature of country pub charm, with a cosy bar area and a menu packed with locally sourced comfort grub. Unfortunately, it’s a little early in the day for lunch, so we mosey on to the postcard-perfect village of Ellesborough, where the pretty churchyard makes a good sandwich stop.
As well as showcasing the best views in Buckinghamshire, the OAR aims to link as many of the county’s leafy villages as possible. “There are some beautiful places along the route,” says Roy. “It goes right through the middle of Haddenham, which is the biggest village in Buckinghamshire, and the centre is spectacular. North Marston is another pretty village, and there are plenty more – each one with something to offer, and many have interesting histories.”
Past haunts of kings and prime ministers
At the risk of harping on the subject of history, it’s worth stating what an archaeologist’s carnal fantasy this area is. The hill above Ellesborough was the last bastion of the British King Cunobelinus – better known as Shakespeare’s Cymbeline – who mustered his troops here to fight against the Romans. In medieval times his fort was replaced by a motte and bailey castle, and there are several more medieval ruins scattered around the region. Later legend associates the Aylesbury Vale with Oliver Cromwell – a chair graced by the Lord Protector’s bum reportedly still stands in the King’s Head pub in Aylesbury. And then, of course, there’s the overawing presence of Chequers, the country pad of Prime Ministers since 1921.
The route of the OAR doesn’t actually pass Chequers itself, but it does brush the boundaries of the estate near Chequers Knap. After another brief glimpse of those Vale views, a series of wild zigzags takes you on to Ellesborough and then up to the Boer War memorial at Coombe Hill. This is the second-highest point in the Chilterns, and by the time we’ve slogged up the steepest path I’ve ever encountered outside mountain country, I’m quite happy to collapse at the base of the monument and admire the views. There are plenty of tracks up here but surprisingly few people, which gets me thinking about Roy’s take on the importance of routes like the Outer Aylesbury Ring.
“In my experience, people are not very adventurous these days,” he says, regretfully. “So they are more likely to just follow an existing route than they are to simply go out and get lost. The more things we can do to get people out enjoying the countryside and visiting villages, pubs and local businesses, the better. That’s what routes such as the OAR aim to do, and that’s one of the reasons why the Ramblers is so important.”
Newly created routes can also help publicise the old classics. That’s why the Outer Aylesbury Ring uses its predecessor, the Aylesbury Ring, to piece together a series of shorter circular walks that are easily doable in a day. The two intersect in several places, offering Steve and me glimpses of a peaceful, low-level ramble that contrasts completely with the airy heights of the OAR. On the final leg of our day, the two fraternal routes blend seamlessly together to lead us on a sunset stroll along the Grand Union Canal into Buckland Wharf. And overhead, the kites whistle an eerie farewell.
TIME/DISTANCE: With several tough climbs and the occasional navigational challenge, this 15½km/9½-mile walk between Princes Risborough and Buckland Wharf should take approximately four hours.
MAPS: OS Explorer 181; Landranger 165.
FURTHER INFO: Find out more about the OAR and download guides to each section at www.aylesbury-ramblers.org.uk.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Morgan.