Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A day in the country 

The view from our front door, of rows of 1930's semis and bungalows, could easily be suburban London, even though in reality it's a small Hertfordshire town. A rather featureless town though - it has no real history, since most of it has been developed since the second World War. It is neither part of London nor does it have any of the character of an English provincial town, but occupies a no-man's-land at the boundary of metropolis and countryside. Just a collection of dormitory housing with a smattering of offices and light industry.

Because so many of my waking hours are spent in urban surroundings, I tend to forget that it only takes half an hour's drive to reach a much more pleasant environment. Away from the influence of London, although the general feel is still highly 'civilised' - since over the centuries, the hand of man has touched everything you see many times over in this part of the world - at least there's a more wholesome balance between town and country. The two seem better blended, more complementary than at home where we seem to exist in a bubble of suburbia, surrounded by uninviting intensively cultivated fields.

In recent months - or perhaps for longer, it's hard to tell - I've been conscious that the energy and enthusiasm I once felt for so much has been draining away; everything seems such a struggle. So on Easter Monday I gave myself a choice. I could have sat at home doing stuff, hemmed in by walls and isolated from the world outside, making this holiday no different in most respects from any take course; no preplanning, just a spur-of-the-moment decision to get out there and spend a few hours allowing the elements to touch my senses.

It only took a few minutes of Googling to locate a suitable route for a walk - a seven and a half mile circuit over the downlands near Tring to Wendover Woods and back, following two paths which both claim to be the oldest roads in Britain, and crossing the highest points in both Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the process. I printed the directions, cut the two paragraphs to fit back-to-back in a small plastic bag (inkjet printer ink has a nasty tendency to run into an aesthetically interesting but entirely illegible abstract water-colour in the presence of rain...), found the appropriate Ordnance Survey map, realised I'd lent my compass to my son, figured I could do perfectly well with the electronic compass built into my watch, rounded up camera, water bottle and snacks, threw the lot plus boots and waterproofs into the back of the car, and set out.

Half way there, it began to snow. Small, soggy, wind-driven dollops of cold wetness spattered the windscreen. All the better, I thought; it adds to the sensation of being 'out there'. Curious though how the snow settles on bare earth, but not on grass; almost as though the grass, being alive, has some capacity to generate warmth.

A brief climb up a muddy path through the woods leads you up onto the Ridgeway - part of an ancient trading route linking East Anglia with the south west.

It's curious how so many of these ancient roads follow ridge lines. Were they chosen because ambush is harder here? Or because they are better drained? Or did those ancients simply enjoy the view?

On either side is evidence of woodmanship both ancient...

...and modern.

Just love those convolutions...

The next section of the walk is along the Icknield Way - the other track which lays claim to being the oldest road in Britain, and which follows a very similar route to the Ridgeway - indeed, the name apparently derives from the Old English word for upper. You'd be forgiven for not realising that this unremarkable spot is the highest point in Hertfordshire. It's not even a hill, not one that you'd notice. It just happens that all the slopes, imperceptible though they may be, all run ever so slightly downwards from here or hereabouts.

Given time, there would have been some marvellous photo opportunities amongst this wayside hoard of rusting relics, but I confess; the feeling of pressure hadn't escaped me, and my stroll was turning into a route-march. Not that I ever stroll anywhere, anyway. Just time for a couple of quick snaps, then press on, to the edge of the downs and a view over the Vale of Aylesbury.

There are clearly some well-heeled folk in these parts:

If not four seasons in one day, then at least two: no sign here of winter any more.

Did I achieve my aim? Perhaps; at any rate, it turned out there was more to post here than I had imagined.

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