Saturday, 1 August 2009

Wendover to Great Kimble and back, finishing with a somewhat different sort of hot chocolate...

Wendover is less than an hour by train from London Marylebone and sits astride The Ridgeway, one of the UK's waymarked national trails. It was along this, heading for the summits of Balcombe and Coombe Hills, that I began the 15km circular walk via Great Kimble.

Shocking weather had been promised but scarcely materialised all day, except for some exceptional light drizzle on the home stretch. In fact, the journey began in reasonably warm sunshine. Quite a few walkers were out already on the National Trust's Coombe Hill property. This area was gifted to the Trust by Arthur Lee in the 1920s (it used to be part of the Chequers Estate, sitting below the hills, but more of that later...) and is a splendidly kept piece of moorland. A sign at NT boundary talked of the wild ponies that had been introduced in recent years, although sadly none were spotted today.

The centrepiece is the resplendent Boer War monument at the highest point, commanding sweeping views of the Chilterns countryside. This was not a day for sweeping views, however enough could be taken in to make worth the reaching of it. Erected originally in 1904 to commemorate fallen soldiers from the local regiment, it has been struck by lightning twice since - a conductor is now installed to prevent any future mishap! It pleased me greatly to see the monument, having last year explored the history of that fight against the Boers in South Africa itself. A full circle appreciation, no less.

Next stop, after descending the other side of Coombe Hill, was the Chequers Estate, country retreat for Prime Ministers since 1921. I mused whether Mr Brown was there, and if so, what would he be doing? Whilst Sir John Major is known to have adored the place, and Tony Blair became similarly drawn to its appealing respite, our present leader has never struck me as one that would be open to the charms of the English countryside. I doubt that he stays often, preferring the dark solitude of the bunker in Downing Street perhaps. Notwithstanding, this industrious, sore-smiling Scot striding out over the estate in the finest cut of tweed is a warming thought indeed! I'm sure that it would do him the world of good to get out into the fresh air, wander out over the hills and down into the neighbouring village of Great Kimble for a pint of (English) ale. Sir John is known to have taken President Yeltsin on such a romp, after which Russia's most celebrated alcoholic of recent times is alleged to have tried to order a whole bottle of vodka for himself at the bar. Tut-tut, no manners.

Incidentally this is exactly what I proceeded to do. Well, walk over the hill from Chequers to the pub in Great Kimble, that is. No vodka would be involved - yet it could have served well to fortify me for a run-in with a herd of cows in an ensuing field. They turned out to be completely pacific in demeanour (as most cows indeed are), nevertheless walking through a field of cows always puts me on edge. I blame it on that unfortunate encounter along the Yorkshire Wolds Way last year - a tale that is not now for telling, although perhaps it will appear on these pages at some point...

The pleasant grandeaur of Chequers, with its tall chimneys and lengthy driveway, is somewhat displaced by the presence of numerous CCTV cameras watching your every move. However it is a welcome enough sight and after all, it is not every day that one walks past the Prime Minister's house. I left that behind me and was soon in Great Kimble and seated outside in the garden of the Bernard Arms, bathed in warm sunshine, tucking into a ploughman's and reading Sybil. Egremont is out for a walk of his own, over the countryside surrounding Mowbray and visiting the sad ruins of Marney Abbey. He has just met Sybil for the first time. Call me presumptuous but I think she's going to be important... watch this space.

Having departed from the Ridgeway just after Chequers, the North Bucks Way took me into Great Kimble and the Avebury Ring led me out of it and on my way through Little Kimble and Ellseborough. A brief stop was made at All Saints Church, an unassuming, miniscule ecclesiastical edifice that happens to contain within some of the most extraordinary medieval wall paintings in the country. If you are ever in this part of the world I implore you to call in because they are really special. A couple are in remarkable condition too. It is amazing what you can stumble across around unexpected turns.

The Aylesbury Ring sweeps across farmland back towards Wendover. This second stretch is pleasant enough but certainly shorter and less interesting than the first half of the walk. Two brief highlights are the motte & bailey called Cymbeline's Castle, outside Ellesborough, and the very fine Elizabethan farmhouse at Wellwick Farm.

Turning to Wendover itself, I can't really make my mind up about the place. One one level it is totally anonymous suburbia (being 45 minutes from central London by train perhaps does for this) but it is not your obvious commuter town. In fact, I don't even know whether it is a commuter town. There is little indication of it, in spite of its metropolitan proximity. The charming High Street lacks the typically mundane nature of English towns. The closest it comes to a big chain is probably a small Budgens and an outlet of Winerack. There are a couple of pubs, two pleasant enough French eateries and various independent shops. The show-stopper (and if ever this could be said about a sleepy English town, this is the time) is Le Chocolaterie, an utterly delightful chocolate shop-cum-coffee house set in an old wooden-panelled building. It was positively bustling when I called in for a warming drink before catching my train home, and if I were to come back for a sit-down drink I would want to explore the little upstairs gallery seating. I ordered a hot chocolate to go (it was a chocolaterie after all, and they did proclaim it to be good). Just the smell of it told me it wasn't your usual hot chocolate. Cradling the warming cup in my hand I strolled back up the High Street to the station to wait the few minutes for my train. Holding the cup to my lips, I tipped it towards me gently, testing the temperature. Perfect. So, eagerly I drank. And drank! Quite possibly the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. Thick, not too sweet, the bitterness of true chocolate though silky and luxurious. I believe that the secret lies in the slab of chocolate I noticed the girl plonk into the cup before slapping on the lid.

All in all, go to Wendover - because the walk is very nice indeed, in particular Coombe Hill and Chequers, plus the Bernard Arms in Great Kimble is friendly and does a good lunch.

And if walking's not your thing, just go to Wendover for the hot chocolate. Honest.

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