Discover the Chilterns beauty with an autumnal walk
- Credit: Colin Palmer Photography/Alamy Stock Photo
On its north western edge, Hertfordshire falls within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. With stunning views from its hills, a nature reserve and deep links to prehistory, it's well worth a walk, writes Richard Young...
I set out under a clear blue sky to explore the countryside around Hexton.
This small village, five miles west of Hitchin, is located in a finger of land projecting northwards into Bedfordshire, under the chalk ridge which is the dominant feature of the local landscape.
It is also within the most northerly part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty, detached from the main AONB to the south west and much less well-known.
Hexton has Saxon origins, but was largely rebuilt by the local landowner in the early 20th century as a model village, while the Raven pub was rebuilt in 1927.
Heading south from the village I crossed the B655, then walked up the road towards Lilley for a short distance before taking the public footpath to the right.
This brought me into a wide valley fringed by trees and woods.
Although I was aware that Ravensburgh Castle lies a short distance to the west among the trees, the site is completely invisible from the footpath and is not accessible to the public.
Although given the name castle, this Iron Age hillfort consists of ramparts dug into the underlying chalk and is the largest hillfort in eastern England and the Chilterns.
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Evidence has been found here of occupation dating from 400 BC until the Roman period.
At first my route was level but after a short distance I left the valley floor to climb a short steep hillside, through woodland edged by strips of flower-rich grassland.
Here there were clouds of meadow brown and marbled white butterflies searching endlessly for nectar among the flowers.
Many of the flowers were yellow: the long narrow spires of agrimony, lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle and a species of St John’s Wort.
I recognised the distinctive blue flowers of tufted vetch, and the occasional pink flower of a common spotted orchid. Bumblebees seemed to be especially attracted to the purple flower heads of lesser knapweed.
My route then ran alongside a field bordered by hedges festooned with wild clematis.
Soon the starry white flowers will be open, followed by the fluffy seed heads which give this plant its alternative name of old man’s beard.
Yellowhammers sang their well-known refrain ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ from the hedge tops, while high above the fields the endless song of skylarks filled the air.
These birds sometimes continue their outpouring of notes for up to 15 minutes.
These two songs - of larks and yellowhammers - are for me the essence of our county’s countryside in high summer.
A few minutes later I joined the route of the Icknield Way, to head north-east towards a wooded ridge just over half a mile ahead.
The route here is a wide grassy track between hedges, flat at first before ascending gradually to the ridge.
There are fine views down the valley to the south, towards the village of Lilley.
One of England’s oldest roads, the Icknield Way dips in and out of Hertfordshire as it follows the chalk escarpment of the Chilterns, sometimes on top of the ridge and sometimes at its foot.
It was originally a series of parallel tracks, used at different times and seasons.
The route was possibly first created by migrating wild cattle in the period following the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago.
Hunter-gatherers probably followed the herds, then as people started to settle and farm around 6,000 years ago, the route became a trade route for goods like flint, axes, sheepskins and corn.
Today part of the ancient route is designated as the Icknield Way Trail, a long-distance path running north-east from Ivinghoe Beacon into Norfolk, open to walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
At the ridge I took a path just to the right of the Icknield Way for a short steep climb to reach the summit of Telegraph Hill, (603 feet).
From here there are views to the south and west.
Between 1796 and 1814 an Admiralty signal station here was part of a system designed to give early warning of an invasion by Napoleon’s forces.
Stationed at 10 mile intervals between London and Great Yarmouth, wooden huts used a combination of open and closed shutters to transmit their signals.
To the south of Telegraph Hill, the flat-topped ridge known as Lilley Hoo was once the site of a racecourse.
On Telegraph Hill a young buzzard was practising its flying technique while calling loudly to its parent, while the adult supervised from a high perch in a tree.
After watching the birds for a while I resumed my walk by rejoining the Icknield Way for a short distance.
Here it also the line of the county boundary, and shortly afterwards I stepped out of Hertfordshire and into Bedfordshire.
Through a gate I reached the Pegsdon Hills and Hoo Bit nature reserve, where a stunning view to the north gradually unfolds as you walk across the flat land at the edge of the reserve.
The 195 acre site is managed by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust and lies on the steep scarp edge of the Chilterns.
From the top of the hills there are lovely views across Bedfordshire to the north.
The vegetation is mainly flower-rich grassland with some areas of woodland, as well as hawthorn and other scrub species.
There are also ancient earthworks, strip lynchets (cultivation terraces) and small quarries. The reserve is grazed by a variety of species to help maintain the grassland.
Heading across the flat hilltop I reached the edge of the steep-sided deep valley which dominates this part of the reserve.
Similar scarp-front features are found throughout the great stretches of chalk downland in southern England.
Known as coombes, they are usually dry but sometimes have springs in their lower sections.
Their origin is uncertain, but they were probably formed by water erosion during wetter and colder periods, especially during the intensely cold periods during the last stage of the ice age around 20,000 years ago.
I took the public footpath which runs alongside the western edge of the coombe, where in places the side seems almost vertical, but is well-fenced for the safety of visitors and grazing animals.
On the flat hilltop the grassland was tall and full of many flowers including a few common fragrant-orchids, one of five orchid species found on the reserve.
This species flowers in June and July and is quite common on chalky soils.
Its name derives from its sweet scent, which is especially noticeable in the evening.
Small heath, marbled white and meadow brown butterflies were everywhere.
As I descended the hillside a tapestry of flowers opened out before me, including beautiful and delicate-looking harebells.
Careful management of grassland lying over shallow soils with chalk beneath gives rise to these wonderful floral displays; sadly many former areas have been lost due to ploughing, over-grazing, use of fertilizers or encroachment by woody species such as hawthorn.
This is why reserves such as this one are so vital.
Almost too soon I reached the foot of the hill, where I recrossed the B655 road and headed out across the flat land north of the chalk scarp to return to Hexton.
Several times I turned to look back towards the panorama of hills I had just walked through.
My route took me along quiet lanes and back into Hertfordshire just before reaching the outskirts of Hexton.
To return home I drove south from Lilley, across the A505 which is also the south-eastern boundary of this part of the Chilterns AONB.
To the south lies the valley known as Lilley Bottom, which stretches towards Whitwell.
For some years CPRE Hertfordshire has advocated the inclusion of this beautiful and peaceful countryside in an extended Chilterns AONB.
This would protect this area from development, especially on the western edges of the valley where it borders Luton and where large housing developments have been proposed.
Following the publication in 2019 of the Glover Review, which looked at how the management of England’s designated landscapes could be improved, in June 2021 Natural England (the government’s statutory advisor on landscapes) announced that an extension to the Chilterns AONB is to be considered.
Although the Glover Review recommended that the Chilterns should become a national park, this idea has not been taken up at present, although it remains a possible future option.
The Chilterns Conservation Board, which is responsible for the management of the Chilterns AONB, while welcoming the proposal, said: ‘We are being careful not to suggest that any specific areas of land around the existing designated AONB are proposed for inclusion in an extended AONB.
'The board’s starting point is that more of the chalk landscapes that form the Chilterns National Character Area, plus contiguous areas of associated landscapes, habitats and features, can and should be considered for protection by the AONB designation’.
The board also posted on Facebook: ‘this newly designated land will provide people living in urban areas such as Luton... with greater opportunities to access the countryside, benefit from the tranquillity it provides, and get away from the pressures of everyday life’.
CPRE Hertfordshire has also welcomed this proposal, saying: ‘This is great news for the future of the Chilterns and an important first step in protecting more of Hertfordshire’s beautiful countryside from unwanted development’.
We look forward eagerly to further announcements from Natural England.
Meanwhile, do get out to enjoy all of Hertfordshire’s countryside – there is so much to discover.