Take a virtual tour of the central Chilterns

Homefield Wood by Kate Titford

BBOWT member Claire Manojlovic takes a walk through the Chilterns, visiting Homefield Wood nature reserve on her way

In mid-June, I decided to visit Homefield Wood by foot, as part of a longer country walk. I began my walk from Lane End, near High Wycombe, and ended at Mill End, Hambleden, between Henley and Marlow. This is just one route available; circular walks can also be enjoyed, starting for example at Medmenham or Marlow Common.

This part of the Chilterns is scenic, quiet and criss-crossed by public rights of way, and visiting local nature reserves like Homefield wood or Hog and Hollowhill Woods can be turned into an inspiring day out.

From Lane End, I walk toward Freith and through another Site of Special Scientific Interest, Moorend Common, a mixture of marshy clearings and ancient woods. Butterflies – red admiral, marbled white - enliven the areas of heathland. The glades have been here a long time; quite mature beech trees stretch their branches into the clearings’ light.

Swallows flit around the edge of the mixed woodland, and common spotted orchids abound underfoot. One can also see southern marsh and heath spotted orchids here.

I emerge onto the Frieth Road, walking in the direction of Marlow along a narrow lane, edged by thick hedgerows which are full now with mature bracken. The hilltop meadows give a sense of space and remoteness; farm lanes seem to disappear into the horizon and the sky is full of swifts and of skylarks, singing as they rise vertically above the arable fields, their melodies mixing with the ubiquitous whistle of the area’s numerous red kites.

Skylarks have become a rarer sight over the last half-century, their nests on the ground becoming one of the victims of modern, intensive farming; in the more distant past they were eaten as a delicacy. It’s good to see and hear them in the Chilterns.

Common spotted orchid

Common spotted orchid by Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Before the single-track road leaves the arable land for the first of several woods, I spot a group of roe deer, grazing in what I hope is a fallow field. 

The lane bends down into a beech wood; I enter the shade with some relief and accompanied by the harsh, insistent cawing of a ‘parliament’ of rooks. Whoever coined this group name was evidently not entirely approving of the conduct of parliament. A sub-committee of black rooks are still cawing ‘hear, hear’ as I am startled by a buzzard, huge at close quarters, swooping into the road before disappearing into the big crowns of the beeches.

The beech trees are lush and full at this time of year. I walk among their elegant straight trunks in the muted, eerie green light of a tropical forest or an aquarium. Hill-top woods are a feature of the Chiltern Hills. It is suggested that the woods were not originally cut down to make way for arable land because of an odd geological feature, where a clay residue sits on top of the chalk which makes up most of the hills; this gooey soil makes the ground rather waterlogged, as was evident at Moorend.

If so, the clay-with-flints soil on the hills have saved some beautiful woods. The beeches were valued in the past for their wood, nearby High Wycombe being at one time world renowned for furniture manufacture. Coppicing – cutting the tree at a low point so that lots of thin sticks grow up for use as firewood, and pollarding, where the trunk is lopped further up to provide clusters of branches for the chair-making industry, are evident in many local woods. Here, however, the trees are younger, tall and stately, and they are mixed with birches and sycamore, creating a habitat for an abundance of insects and birds.

Robust, broad-crowned oaks line the road too as I leave the hanging wood and continue downhill. From somewhere above comes a horrible rasping, cackling sound, like something from horror or science fiction. There are no goblins or zombies here, however, and the jabbering comes from a nest of jays, the parents’ cheerful pink, blue and white plumage a happy sight on a summer day.

At the hamlet of Wood End I turn right. The houses of this tiny village are covered in flints, a common, hard form of quartz which is found locally. Hard to cut into squares, the flints are rarely used to make walls, but can be suitable for lintels and for decoration.  After rising a little onto a hilltop giving a view over the wide Thames Valley, the lane descends again sharply. 

There is a footpath route which I could have taken here, which would bring me into another part of the woodland at the bottom of this rather Welsh-looking valley, but I have remained on the road as it will bring me to the BBOWT nature reserve, and there is little traffic. As I consider this, of course, an enormous truck comes around the corner and I back into the hedgerow to let it pass, adding the common stinging nettle to the list of species encountered on my walk. There are pros and cons to walking on narrow country lanes, and although this was the first vehicle I had seen since leaving Lane End, a family with small children might well prefer to use the network of public footpaths; routes can easily be mapped out on local Ordnance Survey maps.

Homefield Wood with summer wild flowers

Homefield Wood by Kate Titford

I turn off the road onto the Forestry Commission’s track and, just to the right, into Homefield Wood reserve. Homefield Wood is at the bottom of a dry valley, another typical Chilterns feature.  The chalk of the hills is one of those sedimentary rocks which is made of the crushed, fossilised skeletons of sea creatures which swam here when the whole area was under water, millions of years ago in the Jurassic period. It’s permeable stuff; water sinks straight through it into the hidden water table, rarely staying on the surface as a stream.

Passing the BBOWT noticeboard I walk carefully into a pretty and colourful wildflower meadow. More common spotted orchids, more exotic-looking than their name suggests, and beautiful, deep pink pyramidal orchids are visible all over the small, sloping field, along with ox-eye daisies, wild marjoram and the seed-heads of a big crop of earlier cowslips. I find a few greater butterfly orchids as well. It’s delightful.

I search around inquisitively for the bee orchid, and the rare military orchid for which the reserve is famous, but find neither. Perhaps it is a little late in the season, or maybe they are just hard to spot, which might be a good thing. I am distracted by a deep gronking sound, like perhaps a large machine whose gears have stuck. There is, as far as I know, only one bird which makes this sound and as I look up in surprise the raven flaps slowly into the Douglas firs of the forestry plantation.

I’ve never seen this more glamorous member of the crow family in the Chilterns, and it occurs to me too late that I should have taken a picture. To me, a quest for good photographs is the best way to spoil a nice day out; wildlife photographers and other people with lots of time and equipment will have already provided the world with plenty of photographs of the wildlife and the views. Something unusual in a certain place is different though. I don’t see the raven again however, and as I have my phone in my hand I take pictures of the orchids anyway; they really are attractive and they don’t fly away.

I relax at the side of the chalk meadow and eat my sandwich, making sure to leave no litter in this unspoilt, tranquil place. Goldfinches chase each other in and out of the woods, and a yellowhammer provides a fitting soundtrack. ‘A little bit of bread and no cheeeese.’ There is something homely and pleasing about the chalk meadow with its riot of flowers; it’s easy to forget that it too is a rarity, with modern farming having replaced over 90% of such wildflower meadows with more productive monoculture fields.

Much of the surrounding woodland is part of the reserve. It feels enclosed, full of life, and somewhat mysterious with its tangle of native trees, again deeply green and healthy after abundant rain following a hot spell. As I come back out into the sunlight a pair of pretty brown argus butterflies accompany me for some way along the path, as if challenging me to spend a frustrating hour trying to photograph them as well. 

The wide Forestry Commission track takes me down the valley between the handsome firs of the plantation; I feel that I have somehow wandered into Norway, or at least Scotland. It’s not a desolate plantation, the commission also manage their woods with an eye to conservation. Along the path and some way under the tree the flowers of the season flourish; wood spurge, foxglove, agrimony and more ox-eye daisies. A singing blackbird reminds me that this is still England, and a green woodpecker flies low over the path some way in front of me.

After following the valley for half a mile I take a footpath steeply up to the left, emerging behind Woodend Farm and turning right along the road toward Rotten Row. The Chilterns Way footpath sign indicates a shortcut over cereal fields to my left. I will be following the Chilterns Way to Hambleden.

Yellowhammer in hedge

Yellowhammer in hedge by Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Rotten Row is rather a misnomer, it’s a lovely village, although the age of the car has left most of these little settlements with no centre, no village shop or pub. There’s a pond, rather stagnant, on my left as I follow the road toward Henley before taking up the Chiltern Way again over the fields on the right of the road. Swallows have gathered to swoop upon the flies and insects which are thick over the pond’s scummy water. 

Another walk over wheat fields brings me into the last of the woods, owned and managed by the Hambleden Estate in conjunction with the Forestry Commission. I spot a colourful cock pheasant, which hurries away from me at a comical run, without bothering to fly. It’s being rather complacent, I think, in light of the shooting season which will start later in the year. The public footpath leads down through more beech woods and quite suddenly the trees give way to a fine view of the Hambleden Valley.

Unlike the smaller vales and coombs along the way, this is a long, comparatively deep valley, draining much of the surrounding water table and harbouring a chalk stream, which runs into the nearby Thames. Like most chalk waterways, the Hamble is seasonal; known as winterbournes, the streams dry up along much of their length in the summer. Its presence makes the valley special, though, and all the villages along it - Hambleden, Skirmett, Turville, and Fingest -  are old and prosperous, with fine churches and manor houses.

A pair of carrion crows are busy bullying a large red kite below me across the valley. They will have their work cut out, as this area is particularly thronged with them and as I descend toward Hambleden there are at least fifteen circling over the village. I have red kites over my garden in Slough, too, but like most people who knew the countryside of South East England before their re-introduction, I never cease to find them awesome.

The path leads me behind a cricket ground and suddenly I am in the charming old village of Hambleden, with its brick and flint cottages and the impressive 14th century church which dominates the village centre. Pretty and famous, having been used as a film and television location, the village is as usual full of visitors. The Stag and Huntsman pub is sadly still closed today, like all pubs in England; the coronavirus pandemic is not yet over. Normally I would stop for a local ale in the pub’s big, friendly beer garden; I look forward to doing so again soon. 

With the pub closed there is a cheerful queue outside the village store. I chat to the visitors and buy some local produce, as I will only need to carry it for the one mile left to walk to Mill End. 

The stream runs through the village, and the footpath across sheep pastures follows it for some way. Winterbourne or not, the heavy rains this June have filled the little river Hamble with fast flowing water, absolutely clear and clean like that of all chalk streams. It’s a hot day and children are splashing delightedly in the cool water as I leave the village.

Downstream, walking toward the Thames between the pleasant wooded hills, I notice a pair of mallards in the stream, surrounded by a prodigious family of some nine or ten ducklings.

My walk ends at Mill End, by the main Henley to Marlow road, where I will catch the regular bus to High Wycombe. Mill End too has its attractions, however, and I would recommend to anyone not too tired or constrained by bus timetables at this point to cross the road and walk over the Thames weir.

Birdwatchers can enjoy the sight of cormorants and herons fishing in the weir, and a short walk away is one of my favourite family country pubs, the Flower Pot at Aston, where you could enjoy the views for one last time in a garden full of friendly dogs and inquisitive chickens.

This walk was approximately 7 miles long, with no rough terrain or steep climbs. From High Wycombe bus number 48 goes to Lane End, and from Mill End or Medmenham buses 800 or 850 go back through Marlow to Wycombe. Both routes are frequent and not usually crowded; please use public transport responsibly.

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