One bright morning in early autumn I set out to walk across the Chiltern Hills, following in the footsteps of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. It was almost 150 years since he had crossed these same hills, arriving in High Wycombe by train and stopping overnight at Great Missenden and Wendover before reaching Tring three days later. In choosing this route he took a shortcut across the chalk escarpment, walking from south to north – a journey of some twenty miles.
Like Stevenson, I arrived in High Wycombe by train. My passage was courtesy of Chiltern Railways, which runs from London Marylebone to the Midlands, passing through the hills after which the line is named. Unlike Stevenson, I knew the landscape of my childhood by heart. Placid hills crowned with woods of beech, ash and oak – well-bred cousins to the thorny uplands and sullen moors of my current Yorkshire habitat. Intimate valleys scooped out by glaciers where clear chalk streams now glide. Narrow lanes and deep holloways, secretive and tunnel-like under canopies of foliage. Flint churches glinting in autumn sunshine, harbouring time-weathered wall paintings within. Hamlets huddled in secluded dells, or perched high on chalky hills. Villages of russet-roofed cottages clustering around ancient ponds where livestock once drank and ducks now float, serenely. So fixed in my mind’s eye is this muted and melodious landscape that I did not need to gaze through the train window as it slipped by. But gaze I did – for the Chilterns was once my home, and this was my homecoming.
When Stevenson arrived at High Wycombe to walk across the Chilterns he was twenty-four. He had yet to find fame with Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, all written a decade later. He had not yet even penned his best-known travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). By the time Essays of Travel, the book that included an account of his Chiltern walk, was published in 19051 he had been dead nearly ten years. At the age of forty-four he is thought to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in his home in Samoa in the South Pacific, a world away from the benevolent Chiltern countryside of his youthful wanderings.
My own Chiltern story began in 1969, almost a century after Stevenson’s. My father, having retired early from the British Army, chose to install our itinerant family in the Buckinghamshire village of Ashley Green. One of the village’s prime attractions was its proximity to Berkhamsted, from where he could commute to London Euston and his new job in the City. But just a few generations back – certainly at the time Robert Louis Stevenson lived – my father, like most of the male population, would have been a farmer. He would have belonged to the land, worked its soil with his hands, wiped the sweat from his brow and scraped the dirt from his fingernails. Finely in tune with the elements and with each incremental change of season, his whole life, and that of his family, would have depended on a small patch of English ground. Just as we depended now on him – a twentieth-century breadwinner, dutifully commuting to London for twenty years.
But we cannot so easily shake off this deep bond with the earth, and with our own piece of landscape, despite the camouflage of pressed suits and the smokescreen of commuter trains. On summer weekday evenings my father would put down his briefcase and, still in his business suit, head straight out to the garden to look over the borders he’d worked on during the weekends. My memory is of him walking alongside the flowerbeds, his hands clasped behind his back as if inspecting the troops. As our mother put the finishing touches to supper, he would head back outside armed with a watering can. Sometimes I followed him into the stifling greenhouse to inhale the peppery scent of tomatoes. My father seemed to loosen and unravel as he tended the plants, just as the parched leaves did as he sprinkled cool water over them.
For my father, whether he recognised it as such, watering his tomatoes for a few minutes each evening was his way of renewing his bond with the soil, taming his small patch of landscape, reconnecting with the past. He might have spent his own life encased in school uniform, army regimentals and business suits, but once the wrappings of modern life were peeled back he was a countryman to the core. Even now, a quarter of a century into his retirement, my father still seems happiest outside, cultivating the roses in his Chiltern garden.
In the early autumn of 2017, when I decided to follow in Stevenson’s footsteps, a new railway line was planned, threatening to consume everything in its path – including the comfortable lives of Chiltern commuters, and of retirees such as my father. HS2 (or High Speed 2 as it’s properly known) will run from London Euston to the Midlands, and then on to northern England. It will cut through the Chiltern Hills, above and below ground, bisecting the route taken by Stevenson in 1874. It will not run through my parents’ village of Ashley Green, but it will cross the nearby parishes of Wendover, the Chalfonts and the Missendens just a few miles away. Like a Roman road, it will march almost arrow-straight through the heart of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), mowing through the landscape.
Covering 324 square miles and stretching across swathes of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, the Chilterns AONB is recognised as a landscape of national importance. Yet with HS2, ancient woodlands, historic buildings, centuries-old field systems and long-standing boundaries will be sacrificed. Grim’s Ditch, a Bronze and Iron Age earthwork named after a Norse war god, will be severed. Despite its status as a scheduled monument, a 150-metre stretch will be destroyed. My mother, not normally very political, is rather upset about it. I’m upset about it too, even though I left the Chilterns long ago.
And it’s not only this new railway line that endangers the natural and built heritage of the Chilterns. Creeping urbanisation, intensive farming and population pressures are transforming the landscape at a startling rate. For Robert Louis Stevenson, despite the recent industrial revolution and the Enclosure Acts,the country he passed through had changed little for centuries. Reading ‘In the Beechwoods’, his essay about his Chiltern walk, instils a sense of timelessness of countryside and of culture. For me, writing a century and a half later, the impression of a fast-disappearing landscape is overwhelming. The idyllic panorama glimpsed from my train window exists chiefly in my mind’s eye, living on in memory only.
Even in the few decades since I lived in Ashley Green, just a few miles from Tring where Stevenson ended his journey, the change has been palpable. Since I grew up here in the 1970s, farmland birds have declined in number by half, reflecting a trend in wildlife worldwide, as highlighted in a recent report by the WWF. The magnificent elm, beloved of poets from John Clare to John Betjeman, has virtually disappeared from our islands, and the ash – like the beech so characteristic of the Chiltern landscape – threatens to follow. Until recently I wouldn’t have been able to describe an ash tree. Now I see them everywhere. In my home of Ashley Green they were once so numerous the village was named after a clearing in their midst:
Ashley: ‘ash wood or clearing in an ash wood’; from Old English æsc + leah
In undertaking this walk I hoped to trace not only the changes this small sliver of England has seen since Stevenson’s time, but also how it has changed since I lived here forty years ago. Moreover, I wanted to record what will – if progress has its way – be further lost to us with HS2. As I write, the ‘enabling works’ have begun (although the discovery of prehistoric artefacts near Great Missenden has delayed activity there) and the mild hills and dells of my Chiltern childhood will be altered irrevocably. So this is a pilgrimage in honour of Robert Louis Stevenson the travel writer, but also in honour of a land – my land – that was once so rich and diverse, so bursting with birdsong, that Stevenson named it ‘The Country of Larks’.