Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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If your family is remotely into Harry Potter, you’ve probably heard about the Whomping Willow, this magical tree that furiously thrashes around and attacks anyone within branch range. While the most famous whomping willow is located on the grounds of Hogwart’s School of Wizardry, I recently found out that the Whomping Willow in The Goblet of Fire movie was a real tree in a forest close to London. How cool would it be to find it? When I told that to my girls, they were so excited that they even invited a friend–who never hikes–to join our day outside. How’s that to motivate older kids to go on a hike?
Of course, the hitch was finding a single tree in a 5,000 acre (20 square km) forest. How hard could it be? The challenge was too much fun to resist and it wasn’t long before we all embarked on this Whomping Willow hike. It took us to Ashridge Estate, the largest woodland owned by the National Trust and one of the most beautiful parts of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty. When we lived in California, we had already done a night hike on the stars of Harry Potter. In the UK, we already knew another part of the Chilterns loved by children’s author Roald Dahl. The Whomping Willow hike was a great excuse to go beyond the Harry Potter Studio Tour and continue our exploration of the Chilterns with Harry Potter in mind.
This was going to be an exciting quest. As Remus Lupin said in The Prisoner of Azkaban, “People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it.”
Good luck to us.
As we don’t have a car, trains are our best friends for hiking around the UK. The closest train station for this hike was Tring Station, a 35-minute train ride from London’s Euston Station. We took the 10.01 train on a Sunday morning and arrived at 10.36am, a late but decent start time that allowed a full breakfast with a tween and two teens at home. At the train station, the windows of platform shelters were covered in ice crystals, which was a really nice wintry touch. Even if we didn’t find the tree, the forest would be gorgeous.
With temperatures hovering around -6C, it was a very frosty morning and we set off at good pace to warm up. Though the Ashridge Estate National Trust visitor center was only 2 miles away, the walking was mostly done on country roads from Tring Train Station and we were mindful of car traffic. A frozen raccoon found under a field hedge drew a few sad “aahs” from our crew, before we continued through the village and up on a hilly lane.
Once on a wide forest path, we quickly reached the car park and the Ashridge Estate visitor center. First things first, I went in to a buy a trail map of Ashridge Estate and ask details about the Whomping Willow location. I bet that they get this question often because the person behind the counter knew roughly where the tree was. She pointed at it on the map and thoughtfully added: “You have to know that the tree fell down a few years ago.” Sadly, I knew that as I had read on a local website that it fell in 2015. Sure it was a bummer, but we didn’t mind. It was still the same tree and Harry Potter was Harry Potter. Besides, we weren’t going to give up so easily.
Since our watch only showed 11.15am, we decided to take a short walk around the visitor center before having lunch at the coffeeshop.
Though the nicest part of the forest is down south, it’s still worth walking past the Bridgewater Monument and hitting the wide path that enters the woods heading north. No stranger to Hollywood blockbusters, Ashridge Estate doubled as the Enchanted Forest in the movie Maleficent and the small log cabin about half a mile from the visitor center would have been a perfect fairytale cottage in the woods, albeit a very lonely cottage.
With a dusting of fros and bright blue skiest, it was quite whimsical and we stopped a few moments to look at the lovely setting. On a foggy day, we could also have imagined the same forest as filmed in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but that would have been scary so we were glad for the sun. After that, we only continued slightly beyond Moneybury Hill before turning back to enjoy an early lunch.
At the National Trust coffeeshop, outside picnic tables were mostly busy with families, a mix of toddlers in fleece onesies, older kids in hi-viz cycling jackets or school-age kids in warm hoodies. It was wonderful to see so many families outside on a freezing winter day but dang, I wished I had seen the lunch line coming. It was long!
I snapped this picture after 20 minutes in the queue, looking back on the Bridgewater Monument (cool surround view at the top, a must for older kids). After lunch, we got on with the real goal of the day. The visitor center was nice, but we were in for a longer type of adventure to a 400-year-old tree.
The small map proved to be very useful in navigating Ashridge Estate, as the forest was criss-crossed with 30 miles of trails and it was sometimes hard to tell big path from forest road from really important trail. Also, whatever signposts existed were designed with confusion in mind. Check out this sign, at one of the junctions.
It was hilarious and very British (a Christmas pudding?), but seriously, all sides were a public bridleway. How was that helping unless I had a horse? Because in the UK, public bridleways are multi-use trails for horses, cyclists and hikers. I couldn’t help thinking that a trail name might have been helpful. For directions, again, the map came to our rescue and showed that we had reached the Chiltern Way, a 200km/125 mile long-distance path.
The forest in that area was much older than around the visitor center and with the low winter sun barely illuminating the trees, the forest was indeed magical. The best was yet to come, as our final destination was Frithsden Beeches, an ancient part of Ashridge Estate where trees have been left to grow without pollarding for the past 100 years. Branches would be cut from the trunk to around a metre or so off the ground and this would then allow new branches to grow unchecked by browsing animals such as deer, before the process was repeated. After 100 years without pollarding, many of these old beeches took on fantastic shapes, such as the gigantic beech used for the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yes, sorry to break to you, but that willow was a beech.
We would probably never have found the Whomping Without without the geocaching.com app. Past Berkhamstead Common and Coldharbour Farm, we sort of lost our way in the myriad of alternative paths and almost gave up. Fortunately, tipped off by Actually Mummy, I knew that the Whomping Willow was geocache # GC3H4NY. It was only available to Premium members so the night before, I had splurged and upgraded to being a Geocaching premium member. As soon as I found a 3G connection, we uploaded the geocache on my phone and got started.
As the crow flies, we were only 958m away from the tree which meant roughly 20 minutes. My 11-year-old took the iphone in her hands and followed the directional arrow, giving us regular updates as to the distance. “904m! 852m!” Later, “300m!” This was really exciting and more interesting than following a trail because we were in fact, following a straight line. As geocaching directions use the shortest distance as opposed to the shortest trail distance, this geocaching quest sent us through some pretty thick undergrowth and fallen trees.
Particularly fun was an old fallen beech tree covered in ice and moss that we had to climb in order to continue our quest on the other side. It was a bit of a balancing act on the branches, but we did it.
Finally, we were only 25m from the tree and found it. The majestic old beech tree was lying all over the forest floor, split in half and spread out in three different directions, slowly rotting away for the benefit of forest bugs. Poor Whomping Willow, victim of old age, decaying funghi and wind. It is now dwarfed by younger trees nearby but still, it’s quite a monster tree.
Two of our girls climbed the highest part of the stump to prepare cups of hot chocolate while the youngest one looked for the geocache with us. Even with clues about this small geocache, it took us 20 minutes before finding the tell-tale plastic box. Well hidden, I say.
Following tradition, we left a small treasure (a pink hair clip) in the box, wrote down the date and our names on a piece of paper, and put it back where it belonged, away from prying eyes.
In the Harry Potter books, the Whomping Willow was planted specifically to guard the entrance to a secret passage leading to the Shrieking Shack in Hogsmeade. Sitting under the mighty roots of the tree, we imagined pressing a specific knot to freeze the whomping willow and go for a butterbeer, or a hot chocolate as was our case. The Whomping Willow may have fallen, but it still retains all its magic if you care to sit and enjoy the forest.
This concluded our Whomping Willow quest. Guessing that we still had 2 hours to reach the train station before sunset, we left the old tree and walked back via a different route to Tring.
Now, if you too want to do this hike, you can easily find our walking route by following these steps:
Let me know if you have any questions or comments. I love old trees!