'Exploring the Chiltern Escarpment': a walk between Coombe Hill and Whiteleaf Hill
This is a 10 mile (16 km) walk offering a range of panoramic views across the Chiltern Escarpment and the Aylesbury Vale. You will see a range of historical and archaeological sites, as well as the pretty ‘chocolate box’ village of Ellesborough and the Prime Minister’s country retreat at Chequers. There are several important ecological habitants, ranging from rare chalk grassland to archetypal Chiltern beech woodlands. You will also pass through the largest remaining area of natural box woodland in Britain.
Coombe Hill car park, grid ref SP 851062
As you enter the National Trust property through the gate by the entrance to the car park, you will see three distinct footpaths. Take the left of these paths: a grassy and slightly overgrown path, which runs roughly parallel with the property boundary fence. Stay left (10-20m from the fence) and pass between 2 cattle troughs. The path soon passes through an area of scrub woodland. After 200m, turn left through a metal gate and join the Ridgeway path. Follow this way-marked path for another 200m through the woodland. You will eventually meet a road. Turn right, following the road downhill for 100m. Immediately after a fenced driveway (Lodge Hill Game Farm), turn left following the Ridgeway signpost. Continue following the Ridgeway signposts and waymarks through the woodland for 600m in a southerly direction ignoring several crossing paths. The Ridgeway then turns right, heading downhill for a further 500m until you reach a road. There is a farm shop and café at Buckmoorend Farm, about 50m along the track to the left.
Staying on the same side of the road, cross the lane that leads to Buckmoorend Farm and pick up a sign-posted bridleway that starts just to the left of the hedgerow in front of you. It is also signposted as the Icknield Way. Follow this path, which runs along the edge of a field, with the hedgerow and the road on your right. After 250m, the path, the hedge and the road all curve to the left. The path then enters a narrow belt of woodland and follows it between a field on your left and the road on your right, eventually emerging on the road opposite a track leading to a field. Cross the road with care and follow the track into the field for a few metres until you see a signpost to a bridleway on your right. Follow the bridleway uphill and into an area of woodland (Pond Wood) until you reach a crossing track at the crest of the hill. You will soon see Chequers on your right.
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. Extending between Chequers and the gatehouse you can see Victory Drive, the fine avenue of beech trees planted by Sir Winston Churchill.
At the crossing track, turn left and then immediately right on a bridleway, which is also signposted as the Icknield Way. Follow this for 50m until you see the National Trust sign for Pulpit Hill. Here, turn right, following a wide track gently uphill. Pass a small ‘No Cycling’ sign and continue uphill, ignoring a diagonally crossing path. 50m after passing under overhead power cables you arrive at a crossing path. Turn left, following this path downhill until you reach a crossing bridleway, just before a road. Turn right on the bridleway until you reach some steps. Descend the steps and turn immediately left to meet a road. Cross the road and follow the Bridleway opposite, which is also marked as the Icknield Way. Follow the bridleway through the woodland, with mostly fields to your left for 800m. Ignore any crossing paths. At a T-junction, take the bridleway to the right then almost immediately swing to the left (ignore the path half right that passes through a gate). The path now starts to head steadily uphill for 200m.
At a T-junction by the corner of a field, turn right and follow the bridleway signposted Icknield Way. This meanders through the woodland, with a field to your left and a steep wooded downhill slope on your right. You will eventually meet the Ridgeway once more at a T-junction. Turn right onto this broad path. After 200m you will meet a gate where you will enter an open area at the top of Whiteleaf Hill, overlooking Princes Risborough. This is a nice spot for a picnic, with great views south along the Chiltern Escarpment and west across the Oxford Plain.
A large area of chalk grassland and woodland on top of the Chilterns escarpment with spectacular views and interesting archaeological features. At the top of Whiteleaf Hill is the chalk hill-figure of Whiteleaf Cross and a Neolithic burial mound (or barrow). Whiteleaf Cross, which is difficult to see from where you stand, has dominated the local landscape for several centuries, becoming a cultural focus associated with many aspects of local life. It was first officially noted by Francis Wise in 1742, but its full history is unknown and is the subject of much local speculation and folklore.
When you are ready to leave Whiteleaf Hill turn right, through a gate to continue following the Ridgeway path. This descends quite steeply through Giles Wood, eventually emerging at a gate by the Plough public house. (Former Prime Minister, David Cameron entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping here in October 2015. He also famously left his eight-year-old daughter Nancy behind here in 2012 after an afternoon’s drinking). Turn left, in front of the Plough along Cadsden Road. When the narrow, roadside path ends, cross the road following the footpath and Ridgeway signpost. The path passes through an area of woodland before reaching a gate into the Grangelands and Rifle Butts Nature Reserve.
Bear left to follow the Ridgeway path along the northwest edge of the Nature Reserve. Please keep to the footpaths to minimise damaging this rare chalk grassland habitat. Go through two gates and continue to follow the Ridgeway, past the Rifle Butts on your right, and up a short slope to reach another gate.
Grangelands and Rifle Butts Nature Reserve and Pulpit Hill
This is an area of open access chalk grassland and woodland with great views. This is a great place to see orchids and other chalk downland flowers in the summer. Up on Pulpit Hill are the remains of an ancient hill fort, a scheduled ancient monument. Pulpit Hill, together with BBOWT's Grangelands and Rifle Butts site, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The interest of the site lies in the mixture of high forest and open grassland together with the past history of partial clearance for agriculture and later reversion to woodland. The hill-fort was built to follow the contours of the hill, with a single ditch and bank on the steeper western sides and a double system on the less easily defended east. There are many other earthworks in the surrounding woodland, some of which are thought to date to the Iron Age. The grasslands are particularly rich in invertebrates, including the marbled white and chalk hill blue butterflies and populations of glow worms. The large Roman Snail can also be found in the grassland. Further along on your right, the disused Rifle Butts were used for target practice during the Second Boer War. The area wasn’t fully cleared of munitions until 2013.
Go through the gate and up some steps to meet a sunken track. Turn right, then immediately left up some more steps to another gate. Go through the gate, but instead of following the Ridgeway path, bear left for a few metres, up the small grassy hill in front of you. It is called Chequers Knap and offers fine views. From Chequers Knap, turn back to meet the Ridgeway again, following it to your left across an area of open woodland and grassland. Look out for the Jabberwocky Tree on your right, wrapped in a coloured scarf with Lewis Carol’s famous nonsense poem.
This small hill offers fine views of the Aylesbury Vale and Beacon Hill. Look out for the tower of Great Kimble Church. In the summer months, Chequers Knap is covered in numerous chalk grassland flowers, which are visited by a wide variety of butterflies, bees and other insects.
Just after passing a fenced, steep wooded slope on your left, go through a wooden gate on your left into an area of Access Land. The path is signposted as part of the Outer Aylesbury Ring. Follow the path along the top of a slope, with fine views of the Aylesbury Vale, Great Kimble Warren and Happy Valley on your left. After 200m, the path reaches a small summit then turns right, heading downslope to meet a wooden gate in the corner of a field. Go through the gate, following the path along the edge of the field and beneath some trees to meet a wooden gate by a large metal field gate. Continue through the gate and cross a concrete track, and then follow a wide woodland track to a gate. Go through the gate and follow the path across a field, with Beacon Hill ahead of you, until you reach another gate that enters an area of low box woodland.
This is the largest native Box woodlands in the country and one of only three remaining patches and is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Go through the gate and down a series of steps. At a further gate, you will emerge into an area of Access Land that surrounds Beacon Hill. The footpath skirts around Beacon Hill, eventually reaching yet another gate. (If you would like a challenge, and some fine views, you can make a short detour to the top of Beacon Hill using one of the several steep, informal paths.) Go through the gate following the path towards Ellesborough, which you will see ahead of you.
Beacon Hill towers over Ellesborough
This grassy mound, with its isolated clump of trees at it summit, is distinctive amongst the Chiltern Hills when viewed from the Aylesbury Vale. Nearby, hidden in trees, is the site of Cymbeline's Castle, the remains of a small medieval motte and bailey castle (no public access).
Go through the gate to reach a road, turn right along the footpath then cross the road to the church. Take great care crossing this road, as there is a blind hill on the road to your right. In front of the church, cross a stile (or use the church gate if it is unlocked) and follow a footpath to the left of the church. The path descends a series of steps to the left of the graveyard. There is a bench just to the left of this path with a nice view towards the Aylesbury Vale, if you’re ready for a short break. Follow this path to a gate, which enters a field. The path continues straight ahead down the slope of the field to a stile by a metal gate ahead of you, about 50m to the left of a thatched cottage and an outbuilding. Having crossed the stile, turn immediately right, following the field boundary for a few metres, to reach a narrow lane (Springs Lane) by the thatched cottage. It is marked as part of The Aylesbury Ring path. Follow the lane until it turns sharp right. At this point, follow the footpath straight ahead between a house on the right and a field on the left. Continue on this path until you reach a road.
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.
At the road turn left for 60m and then cross it, and go through a metal gate onto a footpath, which is a continuation of the Aylesbury Ring Path. From here you have a nice view of Coombe Hill ahead and to the right of you. On meeting a gate, the path continues in the same direction along the edges of three fields to a stile. Cross the stile and turn immediately right. You will soon reach another stile, which takes you into the grounds of Ellesborough Golf Club. The path continues in more-or-less a straight line in the same southerly direction, and has been waymarked by the Golf Club (keep to the right of the Club House). Just after the Club House, you will meet a road. Cross the road and take the left of the two paths ahead of you. This path, which soon becomes a sunken path heads gently uphill. After 150m, look out for some rough steps at a crossing path. (If you wish to shorten the route, you can continue up the sunken path. On reaching the top of the hill, turn right through a metal gate and head for the Boer War Memorial that you will see ahead of you. You can re-join the route at point 14.)
At the crossing path, turn left up the steps. DO NOT turn right uphill, but cross some tree roots to a path, which soon becomes more obvious. This goes downhill to cross an access road to houses. The path initially passes between private gardens, horse stables and crosses driveways. Please be careful to follow the yellow footpath way-markers. After 200m, the path continues on a more or less level course with a steep wooded slope on your right and a mixture of private gardens, woodland and small fields on your left. After a further 800m, you will reach a gate into the Bacombe Hill Nature Reserve. (There’s no sign for this Nature Reserve as you enter via this gate). Go straight ahead, through the gate and follow an obvious path until you meet a T-junction with the Ridgeway path. The depressions and mounds in the lower part of this Reserve are the workings of the old chalk pits.
Bacombe Hill Nature Reserve
Bacombe Hill Nature Reserve is a valuable area of downland, scrub and woodland. It has a mix of mature beech woodland, particularly to the top and the south of the reserve, also with large areas of open chalk grassland. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (for its chalk grassland). There are some rare chalk grassland butterflies and flowers, including orchids. As you climb the hill you will see fine views across the Aylesbury Vale and back towards Wendover.
Turn right, following the Ridgeway path uphill. Ascend some wooden steps, and continue uphill. You will eventually meet a metal gate, leading to a sunken track. Continue across the sunken path and through a second metal gate. This will take you back onto the National Trust property at Coombe Hill. At the second gate, head for the Boer War Monument, which you will see ahead of you.
On reaching the Boer War Monument, turn left across a wide grassy plateau, which offers excellent views back to Beacon Hill and Ellesborough, where you were earlier. After 350m the grassy path narrows and heads through a gap in the trees. This will lead you back to the entrance gate by the car park, where you started the walk.
Coombe Hill and the Boer War Monument
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).
Coombe Hill car park, grid ref SP 851062
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