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Big Ride: Chilterns

Sam Challis
14 Dec 2016

For those trapped in the concrete metropolis of London, green fields and quiet roads are nearer than they might think

London isn’t well known for its areas of outstanding natural beauty.

With nine million people crammed into an area of 1,700 square kilometres, the city’s road bike riders have a choice between doing endless laps of Richmond Park while being shouted at by Range Rover drivers, or getting out beyond the Greater London boundary in search of solitude.

The latter is exactly what Cyclist is attempting today, and our escape plan is taking us to the Chiltern Hills. 

The Chilterns stretch diagonally southwest to northeast from Goring-on-Thames in Oxfordshire to near Hitchin in Hertfordshire – a 74km long, 18km wide forward slash of wooded inclines and expansive countryside through the heart of the northeastern home counties.

Built-up areas comprise only 5% of the land area so the quiet, meandering roads that link settlements are the perfect playground for a day’s riding.

Sticky situation

As an escarpment, the Chilterns are clearly defined on the northwest side by a steep ‘scarp’ slope. With that in mind, my ride partners and I quickly and unanimously decide that we should start our ride on the more forgiving ‘dip’ side of the hills in the Hertfordshire village of Redbourn. 

The village is held in high regard by local cyclists for its Bike Loft workshop and associated Hub cafe, a charming old hit-your-helmet-on-the-ceiling-joists kind of place that serves rocket-fuel coffee and doorstep slices of toast with jam.

The waitress who serves my breakfast tells me that around the time of the Second World War, Redbourn was well known for housing a large food factory, but it had to be closed when a young man fell into a vat of jam and died.

In 2003 local schoolchildren successfully lobbied for a memorial bench in honour of ‘Sticky Joe’, which now sits pride of place further down the high street. I decide that perhaps honey would be best for my toast.

Suitably refuelled, I join up with my ride companions for the day – Mike, Joe and Rob – and the four of us roll out east, past Redbourn’s village green.

In what I’d like to think was meticulous ride planning, but which was actually just blind luck, the indifferent weather of the last few weeks has given way to Britain’s annual three days of proper summer, so the sun is shining and the day is already hot.

Without the need to warm up, the pace is gentle and the conversion flows as we pass under the M1 and ride along country roads that, even just 10 minutes from civilisation, are for the most part traffic-free.

While choosing to start on the ‘dip’ side of the Chilterns means we avoid any overly sharp gradients early on, it does mean we’re consistently gaining altitude, albeit gradually, for the first 15km of our ride.

Uphill battle

The climbing starts as a gentle nagging that we can almost ignore, but it becomes a more pressing concern as the gradient rises more consistently after Whipsnade, not far from the eponymous zoo.

It is just a touch too far away to stop me passing off my panting as one of the animals, so my distinctly average climbing ability is exposed to my companions much earlier in the ride than I’d hoped.

The trade-off for a grinding start to the route is a spectacular view down into the Aylesbury Vale from the one of the highest points in the Chilterns, Dunstable Downs.

In the early 19th century, the Downs, because of their 243m elevation, hosted a semaphore telegraph station that allowed the Admiralty in London to communicate with its naval ships in Great Yarmouth.

It is said this method of communication was faster than the horse riders it replaced, but as I watch my partners shoot down the descent into Dunstable, I can’t help thinking employing some bike riders might have been even faster. 

Having traversed the width of the Chilterns the ‘easy’ way, our route takes us along some mercifully flat stretches of road, weaving through rural Buckinghamshire to ultimately deposit us at the base of one of the most famous climbs in the area, Ivinghoe Beacon.

As we work our way towards the climb, the Chiltern Hills are ever-present to our left, jutting up in stark contrast to the Belgian-esque flatness of the arable fields in Aylesbury Vale.

Warming up

The sun is high in the sky and the temperature is touching the high 20s, so talk turns to tan lines, or more specifically the lack of them, as up until now none of us have properly been able to establish any thanks to an indifferent early summer.

Rob remarks that our tan lines should be razor sharp by the end of the day, and with 100km still to ride, I’m inclined to agree.

We pass through Northall and Slapton and I feel like we’ve just experienced a glitch in the Matrix – they are separate villages that look strangely identical.

I later find out that this is because they were once both part of the Ashridge Estate that we will pass through later on today, so their high-gabled cottages have matching thickly latticed windows, indicative of having been designed by the same estate-employed architect in the 19th century.

Just after Slapton the route veers left and we are faced with an almost arrow straight road pointed directly at Ivinghoe Beacon. It puts me in mind of the roads you see when travelling across Australia or the American mid-West – unwavering and seemingly endless.

In silent acknowledgement of the opportunity this simple stretch of tarmac presents, we tuck into an efficient pace line and all too soon the climb is upon us.

The Chiltern Alp

The road ramps up for a while, teasing us before revealing the real challenge.

As we turn left off the B489 the gradient suddenly tips up beyond 10% and the peace is shattered by the sound of chains clattering from big rings to small.

For a moment we can pretend we are climbing an Alpine col as we encounter a single perfect hairpin around a pillar of chalky rock, but such romantic notions are abruptly dispelled post-bend as we see the road stretch away in more typical British fashion, straight up the remainder of the climb.

The impressive views back over our shoulders and proximity of the Beacon to the film studios in Elstree has made it a favoured location for various television series.

But despite some over-acting from my thighs on a 15% section, we arrive at the summit without too much drama and head back into the depths of the Chilterns.

Winding, quiet roads through forests of beech, ash, cherry and oak mean a diversion through the Ashridge Estate is essential on any ride through the Chilterns, and today we get to see the area at its best – the towering tree-tunnels make for picturesque riding and take the edge off the midday heat, casting dappled sunlight across the road.

Recovered after our ascent of Ivinghoe Beacon, we agree to push on in tight formation and our speed is amplified by the broken shadows rippling over us.

After taking a turn on the front I drop back and take time to look around. It is easy to see why the Estate is part of an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and why it was used as part of the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter films – there’s quite an eerie atmosphere in the woodland.

Thankfully the centaurs and giant spiders are keeping their distance today.

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