Chess Valley walk: Circular walk from Sarratt to Buckinghamshire
- Credit: Liz Hamilton
From Sarratt, across the border into Bucks and back, Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England walks the beautiful Chess valley
The August morning was still sunny as I set out to explore the river Chess in the south west of the county. This attractive river valley straddles the Herts and Bucks border and lies partly in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. By the time I had navigated the maze of narrow lanes south of Hemel Hempstead to reach Sarratt, the starting point for my walk, the sun had disappeared behind dark clouds. When I last walked here eight years ago - some of my photographs reminded me - we had enjoyed beautiful evening sunlight.
Present-day Sarratt is arranged around a long and narrow hill-top common, and was originally known as Sarratt Green. The earlier village of Sarratt (meaning a dry place) grew near the church over half a mile away, at a place now called Church End. From the 17th century cottagers migrated to the edges of the green where they could exercise common grazing rights and the newer settlement is now far larger than Church End.
Although not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, old Sarratt was an ancient settlement. The 12th century church was built in an unusual cruciform shape which was later extended. The 15th and 16th century tower contains Roman bricks, perhaps from a building discovered nearby, and has a 'saddleback' roof unique in the county. The church was unlocked, so I went in to admire the medieval wall-paintings -although faded, you can pick out depictions of biblical scenes. Another notable feature of this little church is the Jacobean pulpit, with its canopy or tester.
Beyond Church End my route headed down the steep valley side and I was soon crossing the Chess on one of several footbridges which link a network of paths in the valley. The Chess is a Chilterns chalk stream which rises from springs flowing out of the underlying aquifer in and around Chesham, then flows to meet the river Colne at Rickmansworth, 11 miles away to the south east. The central section where I walked is largely rural, with peaceful riverside meadows. The Chess Valley Walk follows the valley for 10 miles, accessible from railway stations in several places.
Now in Buckinghamshire, I soon reached Chenies, where the church and manor house have for centuries occupied a site high above the river. The brick-built manor house dates from 1460 and from 1526 until 1954 was owned by the Russell family, later dukes of Bedford, whose mausoleum adjoins the church. I sheltered from a rain shower in the village bus stop, opposite attractive black and white cottages with colourful window boxes, then headed down another steep path to reach a former riverside mill. Here I turned downstream on to the Chess Valley Walk with a view over the water meadows that were once deliberately flooded to promote early spring grass growth.
Back in Hertfordshire, I reached Frogmore Meadow, a Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserve which protects a remnant of species-rich flood meadow. Such habitats have declined drastically since 1945, so it was a delight to walk among such a profusion of wildflowers including creamy-white meadowsweet which likes damp ground. I saw numerous butterfly species and heard grasshoppers and crickets. These sights and sounds have disappeared from swathes of intensively-managed countryside. Another feature of the reserve is the abundance of anthills, where green woodpeckers love to feed. The river here is a stronghold for water voles, now rare due to habitat loss and predation by mink, descendants of escapees from fur farms.
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The reserve's grassland is still managed in the traditional way, with cattle brought in to graze the 'aftermath' when the hay crop has been removed in early August.
A little further downstream I had hoped to buy some watercress at the Crestyl watercress farm, one of only three watercress beds still operating in Herts - survivors of the once-widespread industry that flourished in the wide valleys and nutrient-rich waters of the chalk streams. Sadly, problems with the river water have affected watercress production here recently and supplies are limited. On the day of my walk the river seemed to be flowing well, but hot and dry weather, pollution and over-abstraction from the aquifer for the public water supply have all contributed to this situation. All of our precious chalk streams face similar problems.
I left the river at Sarratt Bottom and climbed the valley side, passing the site of strip lynchets on the hillside formed by centuries of ploughing in the open fields that once occupied this land. Nearing Church End I took shelter from another shower, before the sun appeared again and I enjoyed a last glimpse of the Chess valley before returning to Sarratt. I resolved not to leave it so long before I walk in this peaceful valley again.
Visit cpreherts.org.uk for a full description of the walk. The area is on OS Explorer Map 172.
Sarratt is around four miles south of Hemel Hempstead and has two pubs and a village store, plus another pub at Church End. Chenies is just off the A404 between Rickmansworth and Little Chalfont and has two pubs. Chenies Manor house and gardens is open to the public at certain times, visit cheniesmanorhouse.co.uk for details.