Monday, April 15, 2019

This weekend: we hiked the Chilterns

It all started Friday afternoon, when I took a train to Marlow, the Best Kept Village in Buckinghamshire:

Just in case you doubted.

I must confess, while I hadn't yet been to any other villages in Buckinghamshire, I could see it. It had everything one could want in a village:

A church on the Thames, next to the rowing club

A suspension bridge, natch

And the first pub in England with two Michelin stars: the Hand and Flowers. It's this that brought me here, where I had a table booked for lunch.

Lovage soup with Bramley apple, smoked eel, pickled garlic, and ham & cheese tortellini // Essex lamb 'bun' with sweetbreads and salsa verde. Everything was gorgeous and balanced and I enjoyed every bite.

It was after this filling meal that it was time to start Friday's hike: Marlow to the village of Skirmett, where Al would be meeting me after work. We were staying in a quintessential, ancient pub-inn called The Frog (get it! The Frog at Skirmett!). I had a hiking trail map the size of a single bed sheet to guide me there, and I set out with energy and confidence.

I immediately and successfully found the start of the footpath I was looking for; my heart soared. So far, so good! This map is the BEST.

It's a single lane! I can't get lost here!

Or here! 

Oh man, it's just too easy.

Now I'm practically skipping. I'll get to Skirmett in no time!

And then . . . I hit a forest. 

But that's okay! The path is still VERY clearly defined. No forks, junctions, or anything that could possibly indicate a turning or change of direction. Just keep following the trail, you're fiiiine.

Then, I get to this, the first of several IMPENETRABLE SIGNPOSTS:


I soon spot a father with his two kids. He's wearing a sweater tied over his shoulders and his eyeglasses are bright blue plastic. Right away I knew he was the right man to ask. 

Me, unfolding parachute-sized map: Excuse me, can you tell me where I am on this? I'm trying to get here. (I helpfully point.)
Him: Oh yes! You're in this forest. (Points with vigour at a green blob much farther south than the one I had expected.) Did you know that these ravines you see everywhere are trenches from 1914 and 15, where they trained soldiers before they went off to war? (Kids start to wander off as he gets rolling.) 

Aforementioned trenches, actually pretty cool

Me: So, um, if I want to get here (pointing to green blob farther north and west), what path should I take? 

Him: You see that hill through the trees?: 

Me: . . . Yes. 
Him: You want to go down that valley and up over that hill and down the other side. You're in luck, we're heading that way ourselves! But we don't have to walk together if you don't want to. 
Me: Um. (fingers earbuds dangling from my neck)
Him: We'll see you on the trail, then!

And so we happily leap-frogged paths for the next hour, with a chat at each intersection. I learned why mother sheep holler so much (a lamb-call-and-response system) and which birds of prey could be found in the woods we traversed. The last I saw him was when he took a break with his kids on a pile of logs, thermoses in hand, pouring out tea. 'See you down the lane!' I called, waving. 'Try to spot the deer!' he called back. 

I never saw the family again, and immediately got lost.

I went up hills . . . 

. . . and down hills.

Across fields . . . 

. . . and over stiles. 

And then finally, I reached a road that I recognised on the map. That road led to a new footpath, next to a small parish, where yet another another kindly man emerged to show me on the map that I was in the home stretch. ('You're staying at the Frog in Skirmett?? Get it?? It's Kermit!') It's the first time in my two and a half hours that I'd encountered anyone who'd even HEARD of Skirmett.

I enter one last portal-path, a blissfully straight shot, much like how my journey began, so many innocent hours ago:

When I pop out the other side, my destination is in sight at last: the Best Kept Hamlet in Buckinghamshire:

I crossed that field at a near-skip, youguys. I was THRILLED. Also chilled to my bones. It was getting late, and cold. And that pub had a roaring fire, and local cask ales, and my cosy little room was tucked away upstairs, and I was happy.

The next day, I'm with Alan, and we're going to DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN. This time, though, the hike was three miles instead of six, and would take us through two villages, which turned out to be VERY convenient to keeping us on track. 

This wood was in full spring bloom, not a trench in sight.

It didn't take long before we crested a hill and saw the first village - Fingest! - at our feet. We bounced straight down, buoyant with flawless navigation.

Looks like a Fingest, doesn't it?

Once we passed the church, Fingest was done, and we joined the footpath once again. The guide we carried reassured us that we'd be gratified to see the windmill from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the top of the hill before dropping into the next village, but it was so high up and hidden by the owner's foliage, we could barely see the top.


But then we see Turville, the last village, at our feet, and once again we sail down the hill.  Fun fact about Turville: it's where the BBC filmed a show called The Vicar of Dibley.

Obviously a comedy.

The windmill shows off from literally every other vantage point other than the one that directly passes next to it.

Then that night, we head back into Marlow, where we stayed in a delightful guest house, the Glade End, and ate at another Tom Kerridge pub, the Coach, more casual but no less delightful. 

And then we come to Sunday, our last day of hiking before we head back to London. 

And within minutes, we take the wrong path going the wrong direction.
It's like a gift. Or a curse, specifically brought on by the entrance into a forest. 

But then we spot two bounding, friendly dogs, followed by two bounding, friendly ladies, and they immediately guide us not only on to the right path, but advised us to take a fun little detour: 


That's right. A footpath sensibly goes right across it. It was just us, a wood, a field, and a million security cameras.

After this relaxing, random jaunt, we headed back toward the villages our guide actually wanted us to go to, where we encountered thatched-roof cottages and ponies at every turn. 

So picturesque I wanted to punch myself. Also, both of these ponies were very . . . assertive, in their attentions. The black one kept butting us while the blond one tried to eat my jacket. We couldn't climb the stile out of that field fast enough. 

Climbed a hill, saw a landscape, futilely tried to take a photo to capture it.

And then, exhausted but exhilarated, we headed back to London.