Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Calling all Willy Wonka fans! Next time you travel to London, hop on a train to get a taste of childhood magic with a Roald Dahl walk in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty. Less than an hour away from the great city, you will start in the quaint village of Great Missenden, where the late author lived in a farmhouse, and stroll through the woods and fields that fuelled Roald Dahl’s imagination. Bring one of his books and find a quiet spot to read a few pages. What better way is there to watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places?
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The good news about this hike is that you don’t need a car to get to the start. We took a train at Marylebone train station in London and 40 minutes later, got off at Great Missenden. It was simple as apple pie and we started the walk right outside Great Missenden’s train station. It’s fair to assume that Roald Dahl, who lived 36 years in Great Missenden, walked past this station on his way to the woods where he often found inspiration. That’s how the Witches Tree in nearby Angling Spring Wood came to play a part in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
To connect to the route marked “Circular Walk” on the trail, we walked to High Street, crossed the road and continued on Link Road past the library. The library is the one where Matilda (in the eponymous book) spent time reading books when her mother went off to play bingo.
We then turned right at the village green and walked down a small lane straight ahead, leading to Buryfield Lane. At a roundabout, we turned left and looked for a tunnel going under the freeway. It was extraordinary how the walk turned from a pleasant village walk into a lush green tunnel of leaves after the tunnel. After the tunnel and up Frith Hill, we reached a tricky dead-end where we had to search for the path. Initially, we went up someone’s driveway without realizing it but in fact, the path was a narrow lane squeezed between that property and a horse track.
So there are no confusions, here is a photo of the entrance of the lane. Can you see it? It’s between the horse head and the Hill House sign. This part of the trail was very overgrown and led to a short wooded section, but once we reached the trail proper at the edge of a field, things greatly improved.
Stockings’ Wood was the first of three woods we would cross, each blocking off sunlight with their towering trees and momentarily turning the cheerful path into a solemn walk through dark and damp forest undergrowth. The atmosphere of these woods and Roald Dahl’s wildly unsuccessful pheasant hunting days inspired the pheasant hunting in Danny the Champion of the World.
Said Danny, “I flattened my body against the ground and pressed one side of my face into the brown leaves. The soil below the leaves had a queer pungent smell, like beer.”
On we walked, crossing a few fields before entering Jenkin’s Woods.
Note that this was a bright sunny day and the ground is almost all dark. Imagine how that would look in winter, but then the trees would be leafless so perhaps the dark forest ground is a late spring to early autumn delicacy. However, there was another reason to pay attention in Jenkin’s Woods.
Beneath our very feet lay a secret buried by centuries of dirt but we weren’t able to uncover it. Had we been fine detectives, we would have guessed the outline of earthworks of a medieval moat and bailey, as well as a smaller rectangular enclosure measuring 90 x 40m and uneven ground potentially indicating a building. That, my friends, would have qualified us as archeologists for the day. Since hunger for lunch took the better of us, it all looked the same to our eyes.
To distract us from our medieval fail, my husband pointed to legions of mushrooms growing on a fallen tree. Immediately, my foraging instincts went in Code Red mode and from that tree, I spotted loads of other ‘shrooms on another standing tree. Had it not been for the intervention of wiser powers, I might have picked a few. Of course, I don’t know my mushrooms but they would make our family dinners so much more cheerful–if slightly worrying for the rest of the family.
Exit Jenkin’s Woods. We crossed Potter Row and climbed a stile surrounded by blackberries and bright orange rosehips. Beyond the stile, open fields, some of which had been recently harvested. It was a real mind-control exercise not to stop every other step to pluck ripe blackberries off the brambles and we succeeded for perhaps 200 meters until we found the “pot of gold” and dropped our backpacks to the ground. We did a decent job picking a dinner’s worth of fresh blackberries before our girls reminded us that we still hadn’t had lunch and that please, could we stop picking blackberries to eat real food.
The entrance to this wood was particularly pretty, a dark green corridor framed by shiny ivy and blackberry brambles. At this point, we were looking for a good picnic spot which, in our mind, meant a clearing or at least, some fallen trees to sit on in the woods. This part of the walk didn’t yield anything interesting so we continued past more fields, crossed Balinger Avenue and walked left for a few meters to find the narrow path behind a sign saying “Marriotts Avenue.”
This was to be our dining room and I realize now, cross-referencing maps, directions and archeological documents, that it was probably the site of an ancient dining room too. As Jenkin’s Woods, Redding Wick features earthworks of a former 12th century settlement. However at Redding Wick, the earthworks are clearly visible and had we known what to look for, we would have had our Eureka moment. As we were looking for a picnic spot, we didn’t connect 2 and 2.
You see, to find a flat area, we walked past a shallow clearing that could have been pleasant, had it not been flooded by the previous day’s rains. Not to worry. A bit further, just across a deep ditch on our right, was a nice flat wood section with a skeleton tree fort that had seen better days. We crossed the deep ditch and set up camp on a log, enjoying slow-cooked pork and barley straight from Thermos food containers.
Little did we suspect that we were in fact dining on a moated island. As Roald Dahl said, ” those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Historical records show a medieval moated site surrounded by banked and ditched enclosures exactly where we were. Though we didn’t find the ghosts of warriors past, we spotted a rabbit trying not to draw attention to himself. Find the ditch and you’ll have a great Aha! moment that you should completely reward by eating a large piece of chocolate as a nod to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Should you need a catnap or a place to do somersaults or be silly, there’s a field perfect for that past a stile in the middle of very thick hedge.
We spent about half an hour there. While I was foraging for rosehips, my girls were reading books and my husband was observing clouds. Quite the hustle, as you can imagine. We did spot two red kites, raptors that were nearly driven to extinction and re-introduced to the Chilterns 20 years ago. Judging by their flying acrobatics, these two were having a grand time.
Hyde Farm was next on our walk but we took a left turn instead of a right turn at the next stile and ended up discovering quite a bit more of the local (recently plowed and very soft) fields in the direction of Little Missenden than we wished for. If you’re smart, you’ll turn right exactly here.
Hyde Farm stood at the end at that path on the left. Though we didn’t see the orchard, it’s likely that it contained apple trees as apple trees were once common in this part of Buckinghamshire. Roald Dahl’s own garden boasted 70 fruit trees and in contrast to the mean Farmer Bean in Fantastic Mister Fox, Roald Dahl invited local children to pick apples every October in his own garden. What a wonderful guy.
We concluded the hike with more stops for blackberries, rosehips and also elderberries, along open fields like this one.
We returned to Great Missenden via St Peter and St Paul’s church, where lovely ladies were selling jams and hosting a cream tea to finance the restoration of the church’s organ. Roald Dahl was buried here when he died in November 1990. Look for his grave near the memorial bench under the tree. Can you spot The BFG‘s footprints?
As we walked back to the station, we passed the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre (a wonderful day trip in itself), the vintage red petrol pumps at 64 High Street that inspired the description of the garage in Danny, the Champion of the World, and the post office where fan letters arrived by the hundreds (up to 4,000 a week) for the celebrated Roald Dahl.
The train station was around Station Approach and stepped on the platform exactly 2 minutes before the train for London arrived.
What are the favorite Roald Dahl books in your family?
A few details before you embark on this Roald Dahl walk and literary adventure.