Hiking with Children in Roald Dahl Countryside
Willy Wonka would surely have loved this walk for the likes of Mike Teavee whose powers of thinking rust and freeze because they don’t get out or read enough. Less than an hour away from London, you will find the idyllic Chilterns countryside that Roald Dahl loved and featured in many of his stories. I didn’t know nature could be so close to a big city and yet so exquisite. Exploring woodland and tree tunnels, crossing open fields and farms, this 4-mile hike was a perfect introduction to the world of Roald Dahl before visiting the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre a couple miles away. We took our girls (8 and 9) and a friend of theirs (10) last Sunday.
With a picnic in our backpack, we started our walk in Little Missenden by the country pub The Crown Inn. This converted barn is so incredibly charming that we snapped a shot before crossing the road and following the lane by the Chiltern Heritage Trail sign. The narrow lane turned into a footpath that turned into an ancient path in a tunnel of greenery. The tunnel was, quite frankly, very much in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings and I almost waited for dead leaves to start blowing off the ground in our direction.
Since nothing of the sort happened, I handed little fabric bags to our girls and they started an I Spy Autumn Hike, looking for signs of the fall on the ground. Gathering various nuts, acorns, snail shells and dead leaves, they effortlessly moved along the path as the treasures piled up in their bags. At the fork, we angled left and soon a field appeared on our right, then a stile in the hedgerow on the left. Stile-climbing being a great child-pleaser, the girls had fun going over the stile and indulged in some blackberry foraging while following the edge of the field. Roughly 50 meters later we turned left before the divider hedgerow and went through a gap in the hedgerow. From the gap, we clearly saw a green grass path cutting diagonally across a freshly-cut field. We followed it to the far hedgerow by a dirt road.
Dirt roads are often disturbed environmental habitats where brambles thrive and indeed after we turned right to follow the dirt road , we found more blackberries to pick. About 100 meters further, I stopped dead in my track to smell a pungent fragrance carried by the wind. Was it wild mint? sage? I asked my crew to pay attention and they noticed it too. Somehow it reminded us of cough drops. Eucalyptus! Indeed ahead of us, a lane of tall eucalyptus trees continued the dirt road. We didn’t get that far as we climbed over another stile on the left and cut diagonally across the field towards a small gap in the far hedgerow. On the way we saw a pile of hay bales. Hay climbing, yay! It was hard to resist and we didn’t.
Beyond the gap we walked out on a lane and turned right, walking past two cottages. Immediately after Griffin Cottage, we turned left and entered the most charming woodland. I hear these woods are extraordinary during bluebell season but in the fall, they are the perfect stage for a picnic. We whipped out the blanket and sat down for homemade mini-quiches lorraine, cheddar, plums and apples. One of the mini-quiches lorraine dislodged a very wobbly tooth in my 9-year old’s mouth and she proudly tucked it with her other treasures in the fabric bag.
After lunch, we got up and continued our way through the woods, reaching an electrical pylone. It was big and ugly but at least we knew we were right on track. After the pylone, the dirt path narrowed to a single-file track, dipped through the woods, followed the edge of a hill and went down down down to an electricity substation. Fortunately the forest was thick by the substation and so lovely that we stopped for a few minutes to enjoy dead leaves on the ground and blow bubbles in the brambles. If you’ve never tried blowing bubbles in brambles, you should try. It’s a highly-demanded skill on the nature market these days.
Finally out of the woods, we climbed another stile on the left and cut across a wide open field. More bubbles! In fact one of my girls walked in front blowing bubbles and the other two furiously chased the bubbles. How’s that for Roald Dahl fun? However the real Roald Dahl bit, in my opinion, was a lone tree at the top of the hill. Its bare branches were twisted in every direction and black birds were perched at various heights like shadow puppets, giving it a singular witch tree appearance.
Reaching a dirt track, we continued straight on following the footpath sign and turned left at the clump of trees. This path was quiet and tamed and we walked past several oversized benches. They clearly invited sitting down so I got writing notebooks out of my bag and had the girls and my husband create silly poems using vertical nouns as guides for horizontal lines. I’ll say, they very much enjoyed the exercise and drawing the resulting poem.
We went through a kissing gate and turned right down the lane, past a cricket club. At the end of the metal fence, we turned left towards South Bucks Way (literally, inside the cricket club), past the club house and training field to another path in the woods.
Now came the 18th century landscape part of the hike. Soon a small lake appeared on our right, lined with dozens of elders heavy with berries. Ducks and swans glided on the water as we gaped at the perfect countryside picture we were crossing. There were so many elderberries that our foraging instincts got the better of us and we harvested a few handfuls for a yet-to-materialize recipe at home.
The rest of the way was quite straight-forward as we continued onto a dirt road and finally reached the village and The Crown Inn. What a beautiful walk!
Photo gallery – click on thumbnails to enlarge
- Website for the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty: http://www.chilternsaonb.org/
- Interactive map: just type “Little Missenden” in the search box to get the topo map
- Length of the hike: 4 miles
- Hiking time: 3 hours
- Elevation gain/loss: minimal
- Difficulty: easy for school-age children
- Terrain: dirt roads, dirt paths, stiles, fields
- Kids activities nearby: Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden – http://www.roalddahlmuseum.org/
- Hiking guidebook resource: Adventure Walks for Families in and around London, by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis, pages 155 to 121