Dave Travers and I started walking the path in 2005 and finished at Ivinghoe Beacon in 2007. We walked east to west, which is not the usual direction, we understand. We crossed dry Breckland – the driest place in England, and one of the driest in northern Europe – the Lark valley, the edge of Newmarket heath, and the stud farm country to its south, cut by the embankment of Devil’s Ditch. South of Brinkley, agriculture predominates to the half-way point of Great Chesterford, on the River Cam, and beyond to Royston.
After another rural stage taking in Therfield Heath to Baldock, the original Icknield Way plunges straight through what are now the very modern towns of Letchworth, Luton and Dunstable; we took the quieter northern alternative. Here you take in some attractive corners of the Chiltern Hills, such as the Pegsdon Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers, and indeed from time to time the path coincides with the Chiltern Way. There is a short diversion to a greensand ridge at Toddington too. The edge of Dunstable is no beauty, but this prosaic town has the saving grace of its own downland, before the route passes through the tourist village of Whipsnade en route to the hillfort finish of Ivinghoe Beacon.
One says finish, and it’s generally regarded as such, but there is now a two-day extension to Bledlow, which I soloed in 2009. The Path descends to the Grand Union Canal and runs through some glorious Chiltern countryside, especially between Wendover and Princes Risborough, before a rather disappointing damp squib of an ending, mostly on roads.
There is more information on the website of the Icknield Way Association.
Towns and villages
There are no towns on the eastern section, though the western half cuts through some very built up areas, with alternatives to avoid the worst of the sprawl. Thetford, birthplace of the great revolutionary Thomas Paine, is close to Knettishall Heath, but there is no significant settlement other than tiny Euston as you cross Breckland until Icklingham. From Herringswell onwards the horse-breeding territory south of Newmarket has several pleasant villages, such as Gazeley and Cheveley; further on, Balsham, Linton and Great Chesterford are nearly small towns these days, rather than large villages, but there is less of the dormitory about Chrishall and Elmdon.
Great Chesterford, 2012
The town of Royston has been significant for centuries as the intersection of the Icknield Way and Watling Street, and one presumes that Therfield Heath once ran all the way to Therfield village. Baldock was formerly a coaching stop on the Great North Road, and the new town of Letchworth was planned as a ‘garden city’; Houghton Regis and Dunstable have good history too, but alas little character left. Whipsnade is famous for its zoo. The final village of the path, Dagnall, is in contrast a working village.
On the extension, the trail passes through the picture-postcard village of Aldbury and the working village of Wigginton before the towns of Wendover and, half-a-day away, Princes Risborough – both prosperous places with well-heeled City commuters living in the countryside hereabouts. Chinnor, a mile from the end below Bledlow Cross, is an interesting big village.
The first part of the walk has little transport, other than that provided by the A14 and Ipswich – Bury – Cambridge rail line. Knettishall Heath is around four miles from Thetford rail station, and Kennet and Newmarket stations are close to the route. There are various bus services radiating south from Newmarket, and the reasonable Cambridge – Haverhill bus service passes through Linton.
Great Chesterford has a rail station too; and beyond the Cam, Royston and Baldock are both on the Cambridge – London King’s Cross main line. After that, it’s buses only, fairly decent services including the Chiltern Rambler which helpfully stops right below Ivinghoe Beacon on Sundays in season. Dunstable is the largest town in England without a rail service, by the way.
The extension has excellent rail services to Tring, Wendover and Princes Risborough. Chinnor is linked to High Wycombe by an hourly bus.
There is practically no accomodation in the Breckland part of the walk. The area to the south of Newmarket has plenty as a result of the need to cater for racegoers (obvious warning – avoid Newmarket on race days). Linton and Great Chesterford have good pubs with rooms. There will be B&Bs and hotels in Royston, Baldock and Dunstable to suit all budgets. Dave and Rachel stayed overnight between our two final days, but found B&Bs hard to come by in the area, settling on the Chequers in Streatley, right on the path in a nice setting next to the church; they were happy to recommend it. On the extension, Aldbury has picture-book B&Bs, and Wendover and Princes Risborough have a variety of accommodation, some of it no doubt pricey.
Walking the Icknield Way Path
Sunday 29 January 2006: Knettishall Heath to the King’s Forest, 11 miles
My first walk since my knee’s contretemps with the train when returning from Wales in October, hence the short and easy tenish miles. We chose the alternative, southerly route by the Duke’s Ride rather than the variant along the Rushford Road, because (a) no cars (b) we’d just driven along the road (c) it’s shorter. No brainer really. Euston is a pretty little village, worth an early stop, and the long empty stretch past West Farm down Euston Drove is quintessential quiet Suffolk. We stopped for a brew in the King’s Forest (don’t do this in a dry summer folks!), hoping the King wouldn’t mind, before the short hop to the George V monument which commemorates the forest’s replanting. Beautiful blue sky, chilly NE wind, just about perfect.
Saturday 25 March 2006: Oldcross Grounds to Gazeley, 13 miles
Although the footpath route passes the King George V Memorial, it then combines with the St Edmund Way towards West Stow Country Park, a route we had walked the year before. Instead, we decided to take the variant by Duke’s Ride and Seven Tree Road. It’s probably a finer route in any case, as there are far fewer trees, some original breckland at Berner’s Heath (beside a strange, ruined free standing wall), and very pleasant views across the Lark Valley from the rabbit warrens of Deadman’s Grave.
Icklingham has a sugar beet factory, but beyond the village Cavenham Heath offers access land and bird watching. We lunched in Tuddenham, at the White Hart, a no-frills locals’ pub. Walk quality deteriorates after Herringswell over what one must call the A14 gap, not helped by a final one mile slightly uphill road-bound plod. Another beautiful sunny day for walking.
Saturday 6 May 2006: Gazeley to Brinkley, 14 miles
Once more, a very nice start, with mixed woodland before the squirearchical remnant of Dalham Hall and church. Another slightly uphill road-bound plod, into Ashley, didn’t bode well, but it’s a pretty village with a pond and some rather too well-kept cottages. No pictures, alas; Ashley has a shop but no gold AA batteries, so no replacements till Cheveley. Around here you can’t move for horse stud farms – Dalham Hall is one – feeding in to the bloodstock sales at Tattersall’s in Newmarket, one of the world’s principal racehorse markets. We chose to deviate from the path to the pretty-looking Three Blackbirds in Ditton Green. From around the path junction there are super views over the Fens, to and beyond Ely.
Back on the path after lunch, you soon cross the ancient earthwork of the Devil’s Ditch (or Dyke), which we spent a little while exploring. At the time of this visit, the authorities had banned one from walking along the top of the Devil’s Ditch, in case of tripping over roots! Locals and careful walkers ignored this daft prohibition. At the ditch, the Icknield Way Path picks up, for a mile or two, the Stour Valley Path through Stetchworth. It’s a bit dull around Burrough Green, other than the cricketers on the green itself, and we finished the day off with a wrong turning at 636551, adding an unnecessary mile to our finish point opposite the hall at Brinkley. Weathermen had forecast rain, but there were only a few light showers.
Descent into Linton
Saturday 11 November 2006: Brinkley to Great Chesterford, 14 miles
The influence of horseracing Newmarket pretty much comes to an end at Brinkley. It’s agricultural emptiness all the way to Balsham, a village we had passed through before, on the Harcamlow Way. No chance for a long stay this time, with nightfall starting to be an issue in November. The stretch on from here is interesting, with a short stretch of Roman road before the climb to the 1930s water tower on Risey Hill, vineyards visible to the west, and a pretty little descent into Linton. Linton is a small town that thinks it’s a village. It had three good pubs to choose from (and as of 2020 still does!); we chose the Crown, a clever choice as puddings came free with main meals! There are good buildings on the high street, and a zoo on the southern outskirts.
From Linton, the going under foot changes as chalk predominates once more. Essentially this stretch traverses a high tableland, with good and distant views over the Cam valley, none more so than after Burtonwood Farm is passed. The OS map shows the IWP descending to Great Chesterford by the road, but walkers are signposted along a fine path, with the destination village (and half-way point on the IWP) in clear view ahead. The day started brightly, but cloud increased after lunch, and we were mostly walking in to a brisk south-westerly.
Saturday 13 January 2007: Great Chesterford to Royston, 13 miles
Great Chesterford manages to keep some prettiness despite having its own commuter rail station and an M11 junction round the corner. We managed to choose a week in which the footbridge over the motorway was closed, necessitating a two mile diversion through Ickleton and a long trudge up Coploe hill in the drizzle. From Strethall church we were off road again, past a shooting party at Free Wood, shot raining down, before a succession of distinct little villages: Elmdon, Chrishall and Heydon, where we ate at the King William IV. This area features in Walk 17 of my Walking in Essex.
Leaving Heydon, there is a lovely little valley running northwards, and scenically that’s it for long miles into Royston. We’d been this way before, on the Harcamlow Way, and it’s not got better since. Still, the drizzle stopped in the afternoon. In near dark, we entered Royston; here, the Roman Watling Street intersected with the original Icknield Way, so it’s a point of great significance on the path.
Saturday 24 February 2007: Royston to Baldock, 13 miles
Must own up to a little cheating here. Readers might have noticed that we like a pub lunch, yet any inns beyond Therfield had long gone. With Dave not favouring a hedgeside sandwich this time, we diverted south to the Moon and Stars at Rushden (and it was pretty good too). In practice, today was an Icknield start and finish, with the Hertfordshire Way in between, and a pub diversion in the middle. Of course, the original Icknield Way on this stretch is now the A505, not a stretch an iron age merchant might recognise.
Our diversion didn’t make for a bad day though, even though rather overcast with rain coming in to Rushden. Therfield Heath nearly manages to feel wild (the IWP avoids the golf course), and Therfield village is a pretty place. However we had to miss out Wallington, where George Orwell lived and married, for the pub diversion. Clothall’s church and manor house give a view more typical two hundred years ago than now; after Clothall, the open chalk lands return, but thankfully not in as dull a fashion as at the end of the previous day. Finally, Baldock is an old coaching inn on the Great North Road, and hasn’t had its atmosphere completely suppressed by the advent of commuterville.
Saturday 8 September 2007: Baldock to Streatley, 14 miles
Half a year later … ! Letchworth was the original ‘garden city’ but maybe we don’t see its best side, other perhaps than the magnificent Spirella building. Eventually open fields return, and Ickleford is reached through pretty water meadows. Lunch was at the Motte & Bailey pub in the interesting village of Pirton, and it set us up nicely for classic stretch of the path, up and over Telegraph Hill. It’s the first taste of the Chilterns, and not a moment too soon.
Suddenly there are deep little coombes (like the Pegsdon Hills), small entrancing woods and hills with proper edges to them. We cut off through access land to the hillfort atop one such, Deacon Hill, a few hundred yards off route and an excellent viewpoint, all the more remarkable for having had nothing like it since Norfolk. Below Galley Hill, where the Chiltern Way is joined (I walked it in 2003-05, and it will be added to the site in due course), it’s decision time for the IWP walker: stick close to the prehistoric way through urban Luton and Dunstable, or divert to the north. We diverted north.
Saturday 6 October 2007: Streatley to Whipsnade, 15 miles
My elder son Matthew (then 19) joined us for this stage, which starts along the Chiltern escarpment of Sundon Hills, the promontory of Sharpenhoe Clappers jutting out north. A traverse over the M1 takes you to Toddington, better known for its motorway services, but still home to several pubs and a broad green – a far better place for the motorist in the know. It’s also a major stop on the Greensand Ridge Walk. Our pub though was the beautiful little Plough at Wingfield.
North of Houghton Regis, it’s back on the Chiltern Way, with the magnificent hillfort of Maiden Bower the highlight of a stretch that includes too much dull plodding round the edge of Houghton Regis and Dunstable. Catch Maiden Bower while you can: off-road bikers and housing developers are two types of vandal having a pop at it. Finally, though, it’s onto the open Dunstable Downs before the final cut south to Whipsnade.
Sunday 7 October 2007: Whipsnade to Pitstone Hill, 7 miles
My younger son Adrian (then 15) joined us for this short stage, as a prelimary to our Hadrian’s Wall excursion. Skirting the famous zoo, we soon made Dagnall, which had a dedicated real ale pub the Golden Rule – so dedicated then that it had no food, silly people, and alas by 2020 it was no more. We lunched instead (with Dave’s wife Rachel, who was in charge of transport this weekend) at the Red Lion, which didn’t do real ale because the Golden Rule did!
It’s a nice climb from here back to the escarpment and the final push on chalk to Ivinghoe Beacon. The Beacon is a splendid viewpoint, and it’s the start (or finish) of The Ridgeway national trail. Dave met Rachel here; Adrian and I wanted a bit more though, so the two of us continued on the extension path to the Ashridge Estate car park below Pitstone Hill, from where Dave and Rachel kindly drove us back to Tring station.
Friday 23 January 2009: Pitstone Hill to Wendover, 12 miles
I’d always intended to walk back up to the extension path from Tring station by the Ridgeway, but perhaps not intended such a long gap. But no matter. On a wet morning, I took the national trail through the nature reserve of Aldbury Nowers, home to half of all England’s butterfly species. The view north here is spoilt alas by the incredibly insensitive siting of an ugly business park not far below the scarp, but this is good chalk downland, especially the rise over Pitstone Hill itself. After a road stretch, the extension climbs into a wooded stretch above Aldbury, without entering the bijou heart of this village. A plethora of routes and intermittent IWPE waymarking make it easy to go astray, and I took the Chiltern Way route to the Grand Union Canal lock at Cow Roast, partly in error and partly to save faffing about wondering which path was which.
On the Chiltern Way some years ago, I had taken a lunch stop at the Cow Roast pub, but the Greyhound in Wigginton was better placed this time. It was far better, and an excellent example of a well-run, unpretentious local with good and well-priced food and beer. The path then leads over tableland, with the bonus of a red kite circling the woods above Tring Park, to the dell of The Crong, which has a sudden, dramatic view back to Icknield Beacon; surely one of the best views in the Chilterns. A magnificent sunken green lane leads down to The Hale, with a quiet road stretch leading to Wendover and its station.
Friday 13 March 2009: Wendover to Bledlow Cross and on to Chinnor, 12 miles
The archetypal walk of two halves. Superb morning, lacklustre afternoon. Quite why Princes Risborough was not chosen for the finish, I do not know; presumably good historical reasons. That’s not to say it’s a great start, along a field edge with the Wendover by-pass for company, but you soon head uphill to Dunsmore, steeply downhill to a typical Chiltern dene, then up again to Little Hampden. The Rising Sun pub here was (and I mean was – it’s closed now) an absolute gem. The landlord came out and we had a chat, offering me an early drink, but I was getting over a dental infection and the antibiotics said ‘no’. More up-and-down follows, skirting around some deeply-indented wooded hangings, before a brief rise brings you to the wonderful high open space of Whiteleaf Hill. This was used as a burial place 5,000 years ago, and a local school child had written a superbly evocative poem celebrating the space for the display board.
Coming back to valley level, the Explorer map, which places the Red Lion on the wrong side of the wrong road, plus helpful cyclists, thoroughly confused me, so I ended up entering Princes Risborough alongside the A road through Monks Risborough. My alcohol-free state meant that I avoided my usual pub and instead lunched in the Top Wok; what a depressing place. On the way out of town, the Explorer map shows the Extension and the Ridgeway both hugging roads, but one taking an inordinate detour; alas, the Extension hereabouts is immaculately signposted, and I obediently took the official long way round. There’s then a long mile on a minor but busy road before a cindered track heads with promise uphill. The promise at last of an interesting windy bit (ie a bit that winds, not a bit with wind), where the Ridgeway rejoins, was dashed with a subsidence warning, forcing yet another detour. Ah well. It was still not far to the presumed end of the Extension in the hamlet of Hempton Wainhill, below the chalk figure of Bledlow Cross in the woods above. From there, it was a simple walk across fields and over the preserved Icknield line railway into the thriving village of Chinnor and my bus home.