Monday, 18 July 2011

The Chiltern Hundreds

I wake up at 6 am at Jordans Youth Hostel near Chalfont St. Peter to the unmistakeable sound of heavy rain.  Andy, the man I was chatting to about HS2 the previous evening, is leaving for work.  Far from being a haven for keen young hikers and cyclists, Jordans during the week appears to be used as a cheap base by people working away from home. 
Andy lives in Warwickshire, and when we talked about the route of HS2 he thought I would find just as much opposition in Southam, Kenilworth and Hampton in Arden as I had in Ruislip.  “You’ll be walking through all the posh bits” he said. “It will be just the same”.  His opinion was that the money would be better spent on improving public transport for all, rather than on a High Speed Line for the few.  “Mind you there’s no doubt Birmingham needs investment, but will this do it? Surely it will just make it easier for people to get to London and spend their money there.”
When I get up and walk about I realise my feet really hurt.   I’ve got big blisters on each heel.  “You need some proper blister plasters” another hosteller assures me, “then you’ll be fine.”
Armed with this advice I set off in full waterproofs for a day in the Chilterns.  Once I get north of Chalfont St. Giles I’ll be in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty all the way.
Jordans is a kind of ex-urbia of horse paddocks and lanes with heavy rush hour traffic.  I’m glad to get off on to a footpath, and even happier to find a pharmacy in Chalfont St. Giles which sells me some blister plasters.  They even let me use their consulting room to put them on.  HS2 is not popular here.  The lady who serves me lives on the tunnel route and isn’t impressed.  “I moved out of the suburbs to this peaceful place, and now this happens”.  She’s worried about vibration from the trains and about all the disruption while the tunnel is being built, “…all those lorries in the lanes taking the spoil away”. 
I ask her what she would do instead.  She recognises the value of a High Speed Line to Scotland, but she doesn’t trust the Government, and doesn’t think it will ever get past Birmingham.  “And saving 20 minutes isn’t going to matter – after all business people work on the train”.
And then I’m back out, under a clearing sky, and into the Chilterns AONB.
I need to make one thing clear here.  The Chilterns are important to me.  I love the peaceful beech woods, the high chalk ridge with its dramatic views, and the secret little valleys behind it.  More than that, my father proposed to my mother on the top of Ivinghoe Beacon, so if it wasn’t for the Chilterns I might not be on the planet at all.  I haven’t come here to take sides but I had better own up to where I start from.
I walk up the Misbourne valley to Amersham.  It’s a lovely walk through wheat fields and beech copses.  At one point a kind of plum tree lines the path (pictured above), and the tiny fruits are lying on the ground already ripe enough for me to eat.  The only thing is that it isn’t very peaceful.  There is the near constant sound of aircraft overhead, and the rumble of HGVs on the A413.  I’m honestly not sure people would hear HS2 over that. 
Old Amersham is a pretty town, built of brick, with Stop HS2 posters in lots of front windows.  I get a coffee in a deli in the High Street.  When I tell the teenage waitress what I’m doing she says “what – to see how they’ll ruin it?”   It seems that everybody from 18 to 80 knows the issues here and they have all made up their minds.  “Mind you” she adds, “I can’t see it being built.  Everyone’s against it”.  Ah, the optimism of youth.
I walk on up the valley.  I hear a shriek above me and look up to see one of the Chilterns’ famous red kites, steering with its striking copper-coloured tail and looking for carrion.  It decides I’ve got some life in me yet, and moves on.
I stop for lunch in Little Missenden (pictured above).  Here too people are not impressed.  “We don’t get any answers.  I went to the local meeting with the top HS2 people.  They couldn’t answer any of our questions.  I felt a bit sorry for them by the end.  Very poorly briefed.”
People here have lived with the Green Belt and AONB designations for decades.  It prevents most new development.  It may even have prevented some of them extending their own homes as much as they would have liked.  They don’t understand why despite these designations the Government can just decide to put a major railway right through it.  For a moment I think about trying to explain the different way Green Belt policy treats a building compared with an engineering operation, but in the end I decide it’s just too difficult.
A window in the church in Little Missenden sums up the mood here perfectly (pictured below).  It shows St. George protecting British troops as they escape from Dunkirk in 1940.  I imagine the residents of these pretty brick-built towns and villages of the Misbourne valley summoning up that Dunkirk spirit to beat HS2.  I can feel myself getting sucked in.  I don’t want them to end up disappointed.
Just beyond Great Missenden I reach Mobwell Pond – the source of the River Misbourne.  Apparently the pond is only full after very wet weather.  Despite the soaking I’ve had it is dry today.  This is the point where I will leave the valley and climb up onto the ridge.  The route of HS2 will be in a deep cutting on the east side of the valley, occasional popping out to cross a stream, so by walking along the ridge on the west side I should get a panoramic view of its path.
My objective is Coombe Hill, 400 feet up and still four miles way.  I’ve been there before, and I know the view will be worth it, but after walking 40 miles in 3 days, boy am I reluctant to start the climb.
I climb steadily through the wheat fields, and once I gain the ridge I can see the route of the cutting for two miles from the Strawberry Hill Farm viaduct back past Woodlands Park (pictured below) towards Great Missenden.  My initial reaction is sadness that this beautiful picture-perfect chalk downland landscape could be scarred forever by a railway.  But then I look more closely.  A line of high voltage pylons marches along the ridge, just in front of where HS2 would go.  I hadn’t seen them at first.  I wonder, once the line is built and the landscape has matured, would people notice HS2 either?
I’m out of the beech woods onto the summit of Coombe Hill by early evening.  I sit on the steps of the Boer War memorial, looking out over the Vale of Aylesbury at the next phase of my walk, which I will start next week.  I can see the route of HS2 ahead of me, and as I look to my left I’m pretty sure David Cameron would be able to see it too from his window at Chequers. 
On Sunday this dramatic ridge will host the Wendover White Elephant Walk, another alliterative attack from Stop HS2.  Whatever your views, you have to admire their gift for PR.  I send my last Tweet of the day into cyberspace and walk down into Wendover. 
I’ve walked right through the AONB and I have the gentle farm land of north Bucks ahead of me.  The Chiltern Hundreds has never seemed a more apt name than today.  Hundreds of posters, banners, tweets, marches and slogans.  Everybody I spoke to here knew the issues, had made up their minds and could quote extensively from Stop HS2’s FAQs.
I check Twitter before I get on the train for home.  @StopHS2 and @YestoHS2 have both retweeted me today.  So my quest for balance is working.  I am about to jump for joy when I remember how much my feet hurt.

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