Ashridge Forest, Paused

A day to gladden the heart! Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the guaranteed distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors.

Staying local

It’s the New Year, and months of continued uncertainty stretch ahead. I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual”.

A popular destination, Ashridge Forest draws visitors from far and wide. Covid-19 has made the great outdoors more appealing to locals and visitors, but it has put new pressures on our environment that organisations like the National Trust are still grappling with. Visitors tend to converge at the visitor centre or around Ivinghoe Beacon, but the forest is vast, so I can slip away down a muddy trail with Leo, the sounds of the forest and occasional walker to share my space.

Ashridge Forest Trails
The trails are quiet

Sounds are louder in winter; voices carry surprisingly far, as do dogs barking, bicycles swooshing through the grit and mud and the occasional shriek of a child as they climb and balance on fallen tree trunks.

I look for open spaces as I am getting wet walking under the bigger beech trees drip dripping with moisture. 

A hazy winter forestscape

Birdsong is louder too, accompanied by a flash of movement as bluejays, magpies and blackbirds flash up from the undergrowth, noticeable against the bare trees. The robins are already guarding their territories, singing their little hearts out. 

The sun is low, but still warm in sheltered places where I can enjoy the sparking rain drops clinging onto leaf buds. I image some hardy insects having a sauna in the steam slowly rising from a log.

Bare trees in the winter sunshine
Winter sunshine finds its way through the trees

Signs of spring

At first sight, the forest floor is predominantly shades of bracken brown. However, taking an involuntary closer look, after an entanglement with some robust tree roots, turns out there are green shoots – some bluebells I expect, are early signs of spring. 

Now Ashridge forest is laid bare, it looks untidy, branches tangled, huge boughs drooping, as though the trees have been turned upside down and the mass of roots are now visible – inverted. The decay of autumn trodden in and will soon fade as new growth takes hold.  

Ashridge Forest
A tangle of trees

The impassable becomes passable

As I walk beneath tree boughs that are normally thick with foliage and difficult to get through, the impassable becomes passable. The smaller tracks will become chocked with stinging nettles and brambles, others smothered in foliage.

The mud is something else! Thick, deep and sticky enough to loose your boots in. I have walked these trails many times, but each time is different; berries in various stages of growth or decay, views that open or close depending if the leaves are on the trees or under your feet. When the bracken is green, it blends in perfectly with the trees, and can be quite visually suffocating. 

A beautiful view opens up
Only available in winter

A re-purposed saw pit

An old saw pit has filled up with wood and algae floating amongst grasses, mysterious air bubbles popping to the surface. It’s too cold for frogs, so what could it be? Gas from decaying organic matter? 

A quiet winter pond in Ashridge Forest in the great outdoors
A quiet winter pond

I spot an elder tree with the peculiar ‘jelly ear’ (or wood ear) growing along a branch. Found in most places, this edible species of Auriculariales fungus is distinguished by its noticeably ear-like shape and colouration.

Jelly Ear fungus growing in Ashridge

Its specific epithet is derived from the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree; the common name “Judas’s ear” was largely eclipsed by the corruption “Jew’s ear”, while today “wood ear”, “jelly ear” and other names are preferred.

Green moss covers the lower tree trunks in the great outdoors
Winter socks for the trees

It gets cold quickly, and I head home before my fingers are numb. Most walks show me something new, or it’s that I have simply noticed new things. I know that when next I visit, the forest will have changed again; new sounds, more birds, more early, optimistic Chilterns growth. There is however, the potential for snow and ice, which will make the forest even quieter and fun to explore.

Stay safe!

Further Information

I have written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the great outdoors that surrounds this beautiful region.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll. Read about the once Flourishing Ashridge Trade.

In my day job I say ‘to expect the unexpected’ when visiting the Chilterns, but this outing really is the unexpected! In this quiet corner of the northern Chilterns, in St Margarets, Great Gaddesden you will find the Amaravati Buddhist monastery.

Just like an antique rug, with unravelled threads, blemishes, bald patches and stains, once you begin to look, you see these Ashridge threads in fact link across the Chilterns, even the nation, presenting a tantalising picture of this wonderful place and its story.

Enjoy more walks across the region on the Beyonder walks website along the Thames, woodland and churches.

Enjoy the Chilterns at home with our NEW range of Chilterns-inspired gifts and souvenirs. UK orders only.

Includes Goring and Streatley
A celebration of the Chiltern Hills – a field guide

Do Trees Fall Uphill?

In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.

I love the wide open winter vistas. They reveal unexpected views and spaces, the shadows long. A raw wind causes the bare tree tops to clatter and scratch against one another, loud on the otherwise still hillside.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss.
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The younger trees sway about like drunk patrons, crashing into one another

The Ashridge estate is huge; with over 5,000 acres of woodlands and many visitors not straying far from the toilets, cafe and carpark, the chances are always good you’ll have the other 4,999 acres pretty much to yourself.

Heading off-piste

What looked like the aftermath of a great disturbance with piles of flint, up-ended trees, mounds of excavated chalk and the biggest wall of roots I’d ever seen, awaited us as we headed off-piste to follow the animal trails that branch off the well-trodden Ashridge Forest Sunday paths.

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Heading downhill through the trees, it’s only as the track became even narrower and I have to watch where I am walking, that I notice the toppled trees interspersed with tightly-packed new growth, enjoying a few years of space before they are muscled out. These upended beeches, all pointing uphill, whilst the oaks, needing space have jumped the fence and taken root in the field alongside.

The oaks needs space to stretch out and breath
The oaks need space to stretch and breath

Keeping everything out. Or in?

This scene of furious activity by nature’s hand, not human, looks surreal; big pieces of scattered flint, stones, numerous piles of chalk excavated by badgers as they enlarge their extensive hillside homes, even trees turning to dust. The leaf litter is still thick, and covers ankle-twisting holes and rocks, and still the barely visible track leads on along the edge of the tree line, very straight, there is no mistaking the intention of this boundary. In places the original iron fence has been replaced by wood, then barbed wire simply rolled over the gaps that will keep everything out. Or in. The contrast between the carefully managed fields and the disarray and upheaval behind me couldn’t be greater. The former almost lifeless, the latter bursting with life.

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A mound of excavated chalk, stones and flint mark the entrance to a den

Wide open winter vistas revealing the unexpected view back down the valley rising up to Wiggington and Wendover. This seasonal sight will close up, like a theatre curtain draws over the view as the trees spring back into life. A crow hangs lazily on the wind.

Excited barking

Leo is spooked by something, so scrambles onto a log, growling and begins to bark. Suddenly, the hillside comes alive as a small herd of deer crash through the trees, in flight from another excited barking dog, The deer however, have the upper hand, they know all the tracks and escape routes. They sweep past us, twice. I bet they know this is a Sunday morning, their least favourite day of the week!

Next up on the weirdness scale, a wall of roots and stones, at least 10 foot in circumference, that shields a well-trampled clearing, a good spot for the deer? What forces were at work to upend such a large tree, revealing this stoney underworld apron?

The aerated soil is crunchy underfoot, a mix of pebbles, beechnuts, and twigs. We pass a large saw pit, criss-crossed with bike tracks as we follow a well-used single track uphill. The vegetation on this sunny slope quickly changes from the stark to timid signs of the first primroses and what will be another grand display of bluebells in April or May, their tiny leaves breaking through the leaf cover.

Do trees only fall uphill? From my unscientific study, I’d say yes they do. However, I was delighted to see that here and there, rebel trees had thrown themselves onto the fence downhill, in some places crushing it flat beneath their weight. Result!

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The one that got away!

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I would say it does. And judging from the unceasing movement and change that this stretch of forest has undergone, it must be a daily occurrence and therefore could be heard.

Voices carry on the wind and I know it’s time to head home.

During the Covid-19 restrictions, please exercise locally, keeping your distance where you can.

Further Information:

The Ashridge estate is vast, and Ashridge House, located down the grand avenue from the visitor centre, is treasure trove of local tales and spectacular events.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas and to visit the Ashridge Estate

We have recently launched a new online Chilterns retail service, Chilterns Gifts, selling individual gifts and souvenirs inspired by the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills. Deliveries to the UK only.

Chilterns gifts
Beautiful new Chilterns gifts and souvenirs

A Cautionary Tale

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support

Piccotts End is a dot on the Chilterns landscape; somewhere you wouldn’t even pass through as the busy Leighton Buzzard road bypasses the village. Yet this tiny settlement has one of the most remarkable and historically important features, tucked away inside a Grade I Listed 15th century cottage at No.132 Piccotts End.

Extremely rare and of national importance, these Pre-Reformation Catholic paintings, were hidden behind a sheet of course hand-woven linen until they were discovered by Arthur Lindley in 1953. Compared with many murals found mainly in local churches that were either damaged, destroyed or simply never completed, these rare, fine in situ examples, that briefly saw the light of candles for 50 years or so, before being covered up for over 500 years, are a sensation. I feel privileged to have seen them.

Piccotts End exterior
Never judge a book

The co-owners of this remarkable building, Karen and Alison have moved heaven and earth to ensure these treasures have not been lost to property developers or simply careless conservation, they are custodians of medieval history in the Chilterns and they do so without funding nor support.

Don’t smoke in bed!

Arthur Lindley’s son Alistair, picks up the story: “In 1924 my father bought these cottages and a nearby house and opened a petrol station to cater for the busy Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard traffic. He describes the buildings as ‘hovels’, this one inhabited for 78 years by a widow, whose husband had lived and died doing what he loved best; smoking in bed!” A lucky escape for the house you could say.

Olive the Scraper

Arthur Lindley invested in the serves of a lady referred to as “Olive the Scraper” who spent many many hours scraping off past layers and so helped uncover the entire panel.

The cottages were built 600 years ago as a hospice for pilgrims on their way from the Abbey of St Albans to the monastery at Ashridge. The Abbey attracted pilgrims who visited the shrine of the first English martyr, and could have taken the 13-mile journey to the nearby Monastery of the Bonhommes at Ashridge.  On the pilgrim trail to view a holy relic – a phial of the blood of Christ,  Piccotts End being mid-way between the two, would have served well as place for the pilgrims to rest and take refreshment before continuing their journey through the forest to Ashridge.

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The murals are dated from between 1470 – 1500, and could only have been on display for around 50 years due to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and is most likely the reason for the damage to the faces. The fact they survived this event, is in itself remarkable. One theory is that the faces were damaged on purpose to ‘buy some time’ before they were covered up. For good. That is what makes them so rare; up and down the country, parish churches, abbey’s, monasteries and cathedrals were destroyed, or returned to the Crown, stripped of their riches and relics as King Henry Vlll became Head of the Church.

What relevance has this for us?

What is its meaning? To the modern eyes, it’s a jumble of symbolism and hard-to-detect imagery (including the All seeing Eye), that needs either many hours of looking at the paintings, or someone to show you the swallows (who were thought to spend the winter in holes in the ground), a dragon, a grinning cat, claw hammer, St Peter and the keys to heaven, even safety pins. I recognise those! All from a time when there was little literacy and religious symbols were a powerful influence in people’s lives.

Part of the second floor was removed to show the entire mural as it was meant to be seen. The building had no natural light, so viewing the mural would have been difficult for the pilgrims, but perhaps they had a resident storyteller and interpreter who led them through the story of the heresy of the Cathars, who believed that if God was all good, why did he create and allow evil? Pope Innocent lll called a crusade against them which resulted in the slaughter of 30,000, indistinguishable between Catholics and Cathars. I felt this account to still be raw today, as Alistair asked if any Catholics were present before he shared this piece of information. By choosing to remain silent, I know even more will be shared, unpalatable as it might be.

A Buddhist Monastery

In 1825, Sir Astley Paston Cooper founded the first cottage hospital in the country on the site of these cottages at Piccotts End. This is only part of the Piccotts End story as there are strong local connections  between St Margaret in the painting and the nearby Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at St Margarets, Great Gaddesden. This area once boasted a busy straw growing and weaving industry that linked these traditional farm house-crafts with the high streets of Luton, the mills at Tring and China. Now long gone, their traces are revealed in unusual ways; such as the providing unknowing protection for the mural at the time when the house had a second floor and where the floor boards didn’t quite meet the wall, where the bedding straw fell in between the two, provided protection for the painting.

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The landscape around Piccotts End in the Chilterns

Further Information:

Abbey Walks is dedicated to mapping long distance footpaths that monks walked from abbey to abbey in the 12th to 14th centuries and they have some lovely local routes that link into long distance paths that could take the adventurous all the way to Rome!

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll, but holy relics were once a flourishing trade at Ashridge.

Find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns.

Most of the images in this blog can be purchased as wall prints or postcards. If you don’t see what you are looking for on this page, please contact me to enquire if what you are looking for can be produced.

Amaravati Buddhist monastery
Amaravati Buddhist monastery