An autumn walk with a ranger at Pulpit Wood

Chequers Knap on the Chequers Estate (Not NT)

As the steely sun of summer mellows to a gentle golden glow, Ranger Nick Marsh leads writer, Katy Dunn, on a short, but varied walk along hollow ways and chalky footpaths to the ancient hill fort at Pulpit Wood.

It’s the kind of perfect autumn day that makes you feel nostalgic for summer, eager to walk the countryside and soak in the views whilst it’s still warm enough to amble rather than march. Ranger Nick is waiting under a bronzing beech.

Wryly smiling, he’s already been busy in the car park and has a bulging bag of litter. ‘It’s a compulsion,’ he says, and not just on the sites that he looks after. ‘My wife despairs of me, I always have a bag of litter under my arm.’

Pulpit Wood itself is gloriously unsullied. It’s a mixed woodland of beech, ash and conifers which were planted in the 60s as a softwood crop, but never harvested. It’s part of Nick’s long term management plan to gradually thin these out, open up rides and glades to improve light conditions and assist native tree regeneration. You can hear the passion in his voice as we walk up the short slope at the start of the walk. 

Outer bank at Pulpit Hill
Pulpit Hill
Outer bank at Pulpit Hill

‘You see here, where we’ve thinned in the past or trees have blown over?’ There’s a tangle of pioneering bramble, ash whips, rowan and sycamore in the dappled light of the clearing. ‘It’s a microcosm in the woodland. Birds will nest here in spring and it’ll be crammed with butterflies in summer. Eventually it will provide us with that succession of different ages and diversity of trees that’s vital for a healthy woodland.’

We wander along a forestry track, elegantly tunnelled with overhanging branches. Occasionally, as if weary of them, they drop spiralling leaves to the ground. Nick points out an ancient bank and ditch to the right of the lane, lined with a row of sturdy veteran beeches. He’s just completed a Masters degree in Forestry and this is one of the reasons he is delighted to have Pulpit Wood in his care.

We turn right at a low hazel hurdle fence built by Nick’s keen volunteer ranger team to mark the boundary of the hill fort for the benefit of visitors. Dating from the Iron Age, it is one of a series of hill forts along the Chiltern ridge. It has a double rampart around the plateau, although parts have disappeared over the years.

The tree covered Hill Fort in Pulpit Wood.

Trees have grown up on the once-clear site, obscuring the view. ‘They could potentially damage the archaeology if they fell and take a chunk of the ground out with their root plate,’ says Nick. He’s got his eye on them and will aim to thin out trees as part of the plan. It’s an atmospheric place and strangely easy to imagine our ancient ancestors going about their business there.

Crossing the ‘bridge’ across the double ditch fortification, we head down the slope to where views across to Coombe Hill open up dramatically ahead. There’s an option on the walk we’re following to cross the open grassland, but we turn left down the sunken lane.

On our left are some table-sized earthen humps in amongst the trees. ‘They may be remnant pillow mounds,’ explains Nick, ‘The Romans built them with tunnels and hollows to house rabbits, which they imported to Britain.’ 

Rabbit-farming is a surprise, but Romans are not. One of the oldest roads in Britain, the Icknield Way passes through Pulpit Wood and it is well-known to have been a trade route for the Iceni tribe.

The Icknield Way
The Icknield Way
The Icknield Way

Another ancient route, the Ridgeway, also passes through the wood, and we join it as the woodland gives way to the chalk grassland of the Rifle Butts – so-called as it was used in the Second World War for artillery practice.

The vitally important habitat of the Grangelands and Rifle Butts Nature Reserve is looked after in partnership with the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Wildlife Trust. It’s carefully managed to protect the precious Juniper bushes and myriad rare species of grass and wild flowers. In summer it’s speckled with orchids, buzzing with insects and fluttery with butterflies.

Grangelands, A great place to discover chalk grassland species
Grangelands in Buckinghamshire
Grangelands, A great place to discover chalk grassland species

For now, for true majesty, it’s worth looking back at the steep bank of woodland, arresting in its infinite variety of glowing colour and texture. 

From here, it’s a short walk along the Ridgeway and the path round the southern edge of Pulpit Wood back to the car park. 

It’s been a wonderful walk, with cosily enclosed woodland avenues, vast inspiring views and wide open spaces of grassland bathed in low autumn sun. I turn to thank Nick, but he’s temporarily distracted by a drinks can at the side of the road.

If you visit the Chilterns Countryside this autumn, please make a special effort to take your litter home with you, if only to save our ranger’s sanity.

We’re able to look after the footpaths, woodland, chalk grassland and archaeology of the Chilterns Countryside thanks to extraordinary, ordinary people who support our conservation work by becoming National Trust members.