Coombe Hill and Chequers trail
This is a moderately energetic circular walk offering panoramic views across the Aylesbury Vale. You will see rare chalk grassland, beautiful woodlands, the pretty village of Ellesborough and the Prime Minister’s country retreat at Chequers. You will taste the fascinating history and pre-history of a part of the Chiltern Hills that has been inhabited by people for thousands of years.
A great walk for families with a picnic. Dogs are welcome, but must be kept on a lead as sheep and cattle are grazed in some areas.
Coombe Hill car park, grid ref SP 851062
Enter the National Trust property through the main gate by the entrance to the car park. Take the path bearing diagonally left away from the path next to the picnic area fence. The path soon enters an area of heathy grassland. Continue in a more-or-less straight line across this, heading for a gap in the trees ahead. Continue through this gap and bear half right across open grassland towards the Boer War Memorial ahead of you.
Coombe Hill - At 260m (852 feet) above sea level, Coombe Hill is the highest viewpoint in the Chiltern Hills. It affords panoramic views over the Aylesbury Vale, and on a clear day you can see as far as the Cotswolds. The viewpoint is marked with a monument, erected in 1904, dedicated to the 148 men from Buckinghamshire who gave their lives in the South African War (1899 – 1902).
At the Boer War Memorial, enjoy the excellent views of the Aylesbury Vale. A toposcope in front of the memorial will help you to identify distant landmarks. To continue, turn back, as if to retrace your steps, but instead follow an almost parallel path to the right of the trees and shrubs. Just after a bench and only 50m from the Memorial bear right again on a narrow path. This heads diagonally downhill across chalk grassland with Chequers straight ahead of you. Towards the end of this path, the grassland on your left is festooned with anthills.
Chalk Grassland is one of Britain’s rarest habitats and a reason why Coombe Hill is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In the summer months you can expect to see over 40 different wild flower species and up to 15 different species of butterfly on these slopes. The site is grazed by cattle over the summer to keep the grass short and to allow the wildflowers to thrive. At this time, if you walk over the short, springy turf, you are likely to release the rich aromas of a Mediterranean kitchen, as the smells of thyme, marjoram and wild basil fill the air. The large bumps in the turf are homes to yellow meadow ants, and these ant hills themselves provide fantastic habitats for many of the wildflower species. Meadow ants construct these on south-facing slopes so that the eggs inside keep dry and warm. It is estimated that each anthill typically contains 10,000 ants and grows by one litre each year.
Approaching the boundary fence and woodland ahead, look out for a path on your right (opposite a way-marker post on your left) and follow it steeply downhill though an area of woodland. Take great care as you descend, particularly after wet weather, as this steep path is uneven and can be slippery. At the bottom of the slope, turn left on to a clear bridleway. Follow this, with Ellesborough Golf Course on your right, until you reach the corner of the National Trust property. Turn right, through a wooden gate and follow the path downhill, into a track, which leads to a road. Cross this, and turn right along the footpath. After about 2 minutes (100m), turn left onto a sign-posted footpath that crosses a field in a straight line. Follow this path until you reach a crossing track.
Turn right onto the track, following the public footpath sign until you will reach the road and the village of Ellesborough. If you wish to cross the road to visit the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul, take great care crossing at this hazardous spot. Turn left along a narrow footpath. Pass a bus stop, and after about 30m enter a field on your left through a wooden kissing gate. Follow a path heading diagonally across the field towards a gap in a hedge. Go through a kissing gate to another field - an area of access land surrounding Beacon Hill.
Ellesborough - The village's name is derived from the Old English for "hill where asses are pastured". In the Domesday Book of 1086 it was recorded as Esenberge. The road from Wendover to Princes Risborough, which makes a very clearly defined detour around the hill on which Ellesborough Church stands, follows the route of the Icknield Way, an ancient trackway used by man in the Neolithic age (3000 to 1800 BC), which ran from Norfolk to Avebury in Wiltshire. Ellesborough Church is a distinctive flint-faced building originating from the twelfth century.
The walk now takes a steep ascent up Beacon Hill. (You can avoid this if you wish by taking the public footpath to the right of the free standing metal gate and around the Hill until you reach a gate.) To climb Beacon Hill, take the narrow path to the left of the metal gate, and head straight uphill. Continue towards a small clump of trees at the summit.
At the break of slope you reach a small, distinctive hollow related to the anti-aircraft gun emplacement, located here to protect Chequers in the Second World War. As you walk along the ridge, enjoy the spectacular views of Ellesborough, Coombe Hill and across the Aylesbury Vale.
To descend from the hill, just before you reach the trees; look on your right for a narrow path downhill that almost doubles back on your upward route. It initially follows the contours and then heads more directly downhill until it meets the public footpath. Directly ahead, but hidden in the trees beyond, is Cymbeline’s Castle. Turn left on the public footpath towards trees until you reach a gate.
Continue through the gate into Ellesborough Warren. Go up a series of steps, through a gate then follow a path across a field. Shortly after the path is met by a wire fence on the right, go through a gate in a corner of the field, and follow a clear track through woodland. Cross over a surfaced track to reach a further gate.
This is the largest of only three significant natural box woodlands in Britain. The Warren was used in medieval times for breeding rabbits or hares. The small mound you passed on the top of Beacon Hill is the remains of a pillow mound, purpose-built to centralise the colony.
The walk now starts a loop around and up Pulpit Hill. [To miss this out, and to shorten the walk by some 2.5k m/1.5 miles follow the grassy path on the left side of the field, with woodland and a fence on your left. You will soon meet the Ridgeway path . Turn left to meet a gate. Then go to straight to instruction (12)] Once you have passed through the gate, bear immediately right, following a path that runs beneath the trees (sign-posted Outer Aylesbury Ring). When you emerge from the trees, head for a wooden gate in a wire fence. Go through the gate into an area of Access Land, and head straight on, up a short slope opposite. Turning left at the top, you will soon see views across Great Kimble Common, Happy Valley and the Aylesbury Vale. The path now drops to the right below the ridge. Go past a wooden field gate, until you reach a kissing gate.
Go through the gate and turn right onto the Ridgeway path, with a steep wooded slope on your right. As the path soon enters more open grassland, keep left following the well-used path. The Ridgeway here is locally called the Cradle Path. Continue to follow the waymarked Ridgeway path until, just 15m after crossing another path and directly opposite a Ridgeway path marker, turn onto a grassy path branching off to your right, leading uphill to a flat-topped mound called Chequers Knap.
This small hill offers fine views of the Aylesbury Vale and back to Beacon Hill. Look out for the tower of Great Kimble Church. In the summer months, Chequers Knap is covered in numerous wild flowers, visited by a wide variety of butterflies, bees and other insects.
Turn back, taking the right hand path that descends Chequers Knap back to the Ridgeway, meeting it near a large beech tree by a metal kissing gate. Go through the gate and turn right down a sunken path. After 30 metres turn left, down some steps and through a kissing gate. Follow the Ridgeway path downhill and then up again. After 4 minutes (200m) and 30m past a bench, turn off the Ridgeway onto a branching waymarked path on your left, which follows the contours, until you join a sunken track (bridleway) merging from the right.
The disused Rifle Butts on your left were used for target practice by the British armed forces in the 1940s up and until the 1970s. The area was cleared of munitions in 2012.
Continue on this until you meet a metal, horse-friendly gate. Just after the gate, turn sharp left uphill following a sign to ‘Pulpit Hill Fort - 500m’. Follow two further Pulpit Hill signs making one sharp left and one sharp right turn. Eventually, beneath the trees on your left, you see the degraded ramparts of the ancient hill fort, protected by some low hazel hurdle fencing. Turn left through a gap in this fencing to cross the rampart and enter the fort. The path crosses the fort for about 100m then turns right at a T-junction. Go gently downhill, straight across a crossing path, and then through a kissing gate. Continue downhill, coming into open grassland, eventually following a wire fence on your right. . At a crossing of paths, turn right through a metal gate onto the Ridgeway path, and across a field to a gate.
Pulpit Hill - The small Iron Age hill fort at Pulpit Hill consists of pronounced ditches and earthworks standing on a steep-sided natural spur, which once commanded extensive views across the Vale of Aylesbury, although today the fort and the views are largely obscured by trees, particularly in the summer months. The views from the fort may be impeded, but its isolated location gives it the uniquely evocative atmosphere of a place forgotten by time.
Go through the gate, following the Ridgeway, with fields and a view of Chequers on your left and woodland on your right. After 11 minutes (550m) turn sharp left through a gate, following the signpost for the Ridgeway. Continue through the grounds of Chequers in a roughly straight line across an open field, over the main driveway, through another field and a gate to reach a road.
Chequers is a 16th-century mansion, although there has been a house on the site since the 12th century. The house was given to the nation as a country retreat for the serving Prime Minister in 1917 and it has been used for that purpose since 1921. In that time, the mansion has been visited by numerous presidents, prime ministers, leaders and monarchs, from all corners of the world.
Take great care crossing the road here; it is on a blind corner with fast moving traffic. On the opposite side, head to your left. Follow the track uphill signposted Ridgeway Bridleway to a signpost showing the South Bucks Way. You are now in a woodland area with numerous crossing footpaths. Continue to follow the Ridgeway signs and ignore any other signs, including any further bridleways. The waymarks on posts (with the acorn symbol) will also help you keep to the route. Eventually you will emerge onto a road with a private driveway on your right.
Turn right onto the road and follow it uphill for 3 minute (150m), then left at Ridgeway Footpath sign at the brow of the hill. Follow the Ridgeway until you reach a metal kissing gate. Go through the kissing gate and turn immediately right to follow a path, with a fence and field on your right that leads to the gate where you started the walk.
Coombe Hill car park, grid ref SP 851062
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