I last visited the Chiltern Hills, and Ivinghoe Beacon, in warmer, drier times. My trail shoes got dusty from the chalk escarpments, but they weren’t muddy. My legs were sore from the climbs, but my glutes weren’t barking for working so hard to keep me upright on the slip ‘n slide sections.
The Chilterns is an Area of Oustanding Beauty covering 324 square miles of countryside stretching across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire. I’d struggle to cover all of that at once, so instead I opted on a couple of hours of running with some decent elevation gain, and plenty of pretty sights.
I parked at Pitstone Hill, a free car park slightly south of Ivinghoe Beacon. Although we are now in December, it was packed. It was busier than it had been back in the summer, but who can blame us? It was a glorious day, and it has been a less than glorious year. Any chance we get to take some precious time outdoors, we have to take. It was cool and clear with bright blue skies, and sweet winter sun.
The route was downloaded as a TPX file off AllTrails and then uploaded to my Garmin, making it the first time I had actually used the map feature on the watch. It was good! The convenience of a quick glance at my wrist compared to taking the time to take and unlock my phone, or unfold a map (I can at least pretend that I might have ever been the type of person to take a physical map with me, right?), was immeasurable. The route starts at Ashridge Estate, usually, but I ran the route in reverse, and also from my preferred starting point at Pitstone Hill. By doing it that way the Estate and Monument becomes a considerable midpoint, and the Beacon evolves into a momentous finale.
The first hill delivers a tough as nails half mile opening salvo, sending you immediately up and over a range of rolling climbs and falls with beautifully short grass, damp but not too soggy from the recent moisture. I took a quick gander over the quarry that the hill overlooks, and then headed down into the woods to get my first little taste of the mud which would come back in regular intervals to keep me on my toes.
Out of the woods, I went wrong. How could I with a goddam map on my wrist? Well the detail on my 645 isn’t super clear, on a heftier model this probably isn’t much of an issue, but on my model the ‘map’ is just a green line to try and follow. It beeps if you go off course, which is to say if you go off the line. You might well be going the right way, but not necessarily in the exact way the map expects and so, you get a beep. I would be exaggerating to say it was annoying, but keep your wits about you and don’t rely on what is actually a fairly basic system. You know the rules with trail running, keep a fully charged phone in your pocket, nutrition in your belt, and your eyes on where you are going.
A little bit of road running wound me up towards Toms Hill, which on reflection may well have been the hardest climb of the run. Later climbs felt harder, but this was due in part to the fact that they came later and I was getting more tired. Toms Hill was a slow climb up through a line of skinny trees, and although the incline wasn’t too intense the trail was muddy and lined with the slippery mush of fallen leaves. I was grateful to reach the top and catch my breath, and happy to see that what was next for me was solid, stable ground lurching downhill.
A man wheeled a washing machine up said hill towards me, probably working just as hard as I had been up Toms Hill. The slightly weary look he gave made me realise I was essentially now on a shared driveway – I hadn’t gone wrong, this was just where the right of way ran. Indeed, there were a few sections of this run which felt a little like trespassing, although the frequent signage confirms that this wasn’t the case. Alongside the driveway, the route took me through two farms. Through the first I was warmly (loudly) greeted/warned by an alsatian, whilst the second led immediately through a busy, working yard.
Right of way or not, you can’t help feeling a bit awkward as you stumble through the lives of the people who live on them.
As I approached the midway point of the run I entered Ashridge Estate, the busiest section of the trail as it is a National Trust site. The entire estate is full of ancient monuments. It began life as a monastery in 1283, but has been revisited and adapted by it’s many owners throughout history. The Bridgewater Monument, the busiest point on the estate (stop here for a coffee/toilet break if that’s your bag), was built in memory of the ‘Canal Duke’ – Francis Egerton – so named as he was the commissioner of the first canal in Britain. The area around the monument is pretty, but like I said, real busy (and I was there on a Thursday, I can only imagine the weekend will be even busier), so if you’re anything like me and prefer a bit of isolation with your trail running, you will be pleased to move on.
Past the main estate I enter tumbling farmland, crossing rolling fields up into steep, slippery woodland. The path got a little muddled at some point, but I skipped across a few fallen branches and eventually found myself in the most enchanted section of the run.
As I entered the shadows of this dark forest, I thought I saw a cyclist approaching and ducked to the side so they could pass. When they didn’t come through, I thought perhaps I had made a mistake or they had stopped or…something. Anyway, I jumped back out and nearly gave a dear old man out for a spirited winter walk a heart attack. Nearly. He didn’t die so I, and we, will move on. Out of the forest I could see the finale, the Beacon. Inspiring, but scary for my fading legs.
Indeed, this glorious end was a real gut buster, but the view from the top paid for the suffering.
The clamber back down to the car at the Pitstone Hill was a bit of a pain because the water had accumulated there on that last half mile section more than it had anywhere else on the run, so although I’d seen plenty of mud, my socks had so far stayed relatively dry…but there was no avoiding a solid soaking.
Gratefully I slid into the back of the car and awkwardly peeled my filthy shoes, socks, and running trousers (not tights, they’ve got real pockets) off. I scoffed a hot cross bun, a bunch of nuts, and felt real good about my day. It had been a struggle at times. It would be easier in the summer, but easier doesn’t necessarily mean better, does it? Getting back and washing my filthy clothes, my caked up trail shoes, and even the interior of my car, it’s way more effort than what a normal run requires, but it’s all part of the experience.
Yes, it is good training.
12 miles in the bag, 1300 foot or so of elevation gain, ace.
But we all know that it’s worth way more than that.