Coombe Hill Trees, Shrubs and Grass
This short walk around the beautiful Chilterns countryside of Coombe Hill and Low Scrubs takes you to and describes some of the notable plants that have populated this landscape. It also explains how the National Trust and its volunteers work to conserve them.
National Trust car park, grid ref: SP851062
Start the walk at the right hand side of the entrance to the car park as seen from the road. Enter the woodland at the public footpath sign just to the left of the wooden posts that mark the road-end of the car park. For the first part of walk follow the orange way-marking signs, the first of which can be found on a low post just as you enter the woodland. The path winds through trees until you reach a sign-post on a crossing, sunken path.
The beech trees within Low Scrubs were allocated as a fuel source for the poor of Ellesborough Parish. Some were regularly cut down to near head level (copparded) and then allowed to grow back. This regular cutting extended the life of the trees and these may be some of the oldest surviving beech in the Chilterns. The National Trust is continuing this regular cutting of the largest limbs and you can see examples of this in the two large beech to the left of the path at the start of the walk.
Turn left up the sunken path and continue in the same direction for about 350m until you meet an orange sign pointing sharply right on a post in front of a large beech tree. Don’t follow this sign but continue walking in the same direction, just to the left of the beech tree, following white arrows on trees. You soon meet a wide avenue/bridleway that heads back left to the car park. Cross it and go through a metal gate into the open grassland of Coombe Hill.
Head along the grassy path past the Coombe Hill sign, with a fence on your left and grassland to your right. After 120m you reach a corner where the fence turns sharply left, next to a gravel path heading back to the car park. Take a look at the large oak tree just in front of bend in the gravel path.
The deep scar running from the top of this tree down to ground level was the result of a lightning strike in 2010. English oak trees are widespread on the plateau top of Coombe Hill where they like the deep, damp soils. Oaks regenerate poorly and over time would be naturally replaced by other trees such as ash. Conservation work is therefore limited to clearing other trees and scrub around them, as well as removing dead or dying limbs close to footpaths.
Now turn sharp right from the path you came on from Low Scrubs along a vague grassy path. (This path continues the line of the gravel path from the car park.) After about 40m notice the lone conifer tree to your right, nick-named the Lonesome Pine. Continue in the same direction for another 50m towards a fence where a crossing path, the Ridgeway, enters Coombe Hill through a metal gate.
This Scots Pine, now standing in splendid isolation, is the last remnant of a group of about six such trees that retired National Trust Ranger Jerry Page remembers seeing here in 1985. Their hilltop location and proximity to the old trackways/holloways leading up from Wendover and Butlers Cross suggests they may have been planted as routemarkers. It was a habit in the eighteenth century to plant small groups of Scots Pines along old droveways as their dark green foliage would have been visible from a long distance.
Turn left onto the Ridgeway path and head towards the Monument. Very soon after the view opens up over the Aylesbury Vale to the right you will see a lone yew tree below the path. Continue to the Monument.
Yew trees grow particularly well on chalky soils so are widespread in the Chilterns, in places forming patches of dense, dark woodland. This darkness, their twisted shapes and their longevity (they are Britain’s oldest living trees, with specimens believed to be over 1500 years old) have contributed to the yew’s mysterious and spiritual character. They are common in churchyards and have been seen as symbols of both immortality and of impending doom.
When you reach the Monument bear right downhill on a wide grassy path. Please be careful as this path is quite steep and it can be slippery in the winter or after heavy rain. 150m from the Monument, stop to look at a large yew tree just to the left of the path. Behind and below it is the largest group of Juniper trees on Coombe Hill.
Photographs of Coombe Hill from the early 20th century show open chalk grassland, scattered juniper and very little else. The clump of juniper around the yew tree below the Monument is largest remnant of these. Surviving junipers are carefully protected by periodically clearing all other trees and shrubs around them. We have also planted juniper seedlings across the west-facing slope of the hill; the plastic guards and wooden frames are there to protect them from grazing cattle.
Retrace your path to the Monument then follow the footpath signs beyond it, just downhill and to the right of a thorn tree with a bench behind. 10m after the bench bear right off the Ridgeway onto a small path heading diagonally downhill in the direction of Chequers, which you will see in the distance. This path is called The Sheep Track as it was initially created by the sheep that grazed Coombe Hill over the centuries. The path crosses a wide area of chalk grassland. Shortly before the path reaches the boundary fence, a small path leads downhill to the right. This is as good a place as any to pause here to look at the chalk grassland on your left.
Chalk grassland is the ecological highlight of Coombe Hill and, together with wide variety of scrub, the reason Coombe Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This wildlife-rich habitat (with up to 40 species of plants per square metre) results historically from intensive sheep grazing on nutrient-poor chalky soils. With the decline of sheep grazing after the 1930s, the chalk grassland has been progressively taken over by scrub and young trees. Much of the conservation work on the Hill is directed at removing these and the longer grasses. Techniques used include cutting down and burning up by volunteer work parties or contractor heavy machinery, selective herbicide spraying and cattle grazing.
While you are here, look at the ash woodland below. Continue towards the fence
Ash is the second commonest tree in the Chilterns, favouring the chalky soils of the slopes rather than the clayey soils of the hilltops. Ash is fast growing and spreading and can easily take over from other trees; seedlings are shade-resistant and can survive repeated cutting or deer bites. As a result, on Coombe Hill, ash is one of the prime culprits in the invasion and destruction of chalk grassland, and much of the conservation work is directed at removing ash. Ash dieback disease has been seen on the Hill and it is likely that much of the younger ash will die off in the coming years.
At the T-junction of paths turn left steeply uphill with the fence on your right. You pass several large beech trees on your left. At the top of the steep slope, the Ridgeway path from the Monument joins from the left. Continue uphill until the Ridgeway path turns right through a metal gate.
Parkland Beech Trees
These magnificent specimens demonstrate the spreading habit of isolated beech allowed to grow in open ground. It is interesting to contrast these with the stubby, copparded beech in Low Scrubs and with the tall, straight- stemmed beech standards seen in much of the Chilterns where they were cultivated for the furniture industry.
Turn left here away from the gate on a broad path through woodland of predominantly sycamore trees. Continue in the same direction to leave the woodland, winding through an area of gorse and brambles before emerging into the wide grassy area that leads back to the Monument. Walk towards the Monument keeping to the right of the open grassy area, with gorse bushes on your right. Half way to the Monument head towards a large solitary oak tree with gorse at its base.
Gorse bushes are very common over much of the plateau top of Coombe Hill. The bright yellow flowers create a strong splash of colour and a distinctive coconut scent during spring and summer, although gorse can flower throughout the year. Left untended, plants can create invasive and impenetrable stands, and become very leggy, reaching heights of over 2m. Conservation work is targeted at breaking up the big clumps and periodically cutting plants to ground level. Compact gorse is an important habitat for nesting birds.
When you reach the oak tree, take a grassy path diagonally back to the right, passing gorse bushes on the left. The path narrows through some trees then enters an open area, widening to your left and with a patch of heather bushes on your right.
Acid Heathland Plants
An approximately 2m thick layer of clay-with-flints underlies the plateau top of Coombe Hill. As a result the soil here is thick and acidic in contrast with the thin, alkaline chalk soils on the hill sides. The acidic soil favours a distinctive assembly of heathland plants including gorse, heather, silver birch and broom. The clumps of heather on Coombe Hill are particularly rare and conservation is aimed at protecting them and encouraging them to expand. This work includes the regular removal of competing plants, particularly gorse, and scraping off layers of topsoil to encourage the germination of heather seeds from the underlying seedbed.
Take some time to explore this open area of acid heathland. When you are ready to continue, return to path where you entered then continue in the same direction through woodland again, passing a three-fingered tree stump. You leave the woodland and enter an open grassland area with a fine sycamore tree on your left. Keep along the left hand edge of grassland and you soon reach the gravel path and picnic area with the car park beyond.
Sycamore trees are distinguished by their smooth, pink-grey bark that becomes cracked and scaley with age, and their large 5-lobed leaves that often develop blotches caused by a leaf fungus. The sycamore can make handsome specimens when grown in isolation but struggle in woodland against competition from oak, ash and beech. The bark is also particularly vulnerable to grey squirrel attack.
National Trust car park, grid ref: SP851062
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