Back in the 1930s London Underground published a booklet entitled 'Chiltern Strolls and Rambles'. It was full of walks to be taken at the far end of the Metropolitan line, ideal for boosting Londoners' fitness and for filling off-peak trains. The cover price was threepence, although to source a copy on eBay today will cost you rather more. I don't know whether the Chess Valley Walk appeared, but it jolly well should have done. Yesterday I started at Chesham, and today I'm walking on from Latimer to Rickmansworth. [map][leaflet]
After the delights of the hillside walk below Latimer, the path heads back down to valley level. I say path, but the going gets a little harder beyond the scary sign. "Dogs seen worrying livestock are likely to be shot without warning" screams the local farmer in big red letters on the fence. You can tell he hates having to open up his land to public access because the gate into the next field is firmly locked while the stile alongside leads walkers directly into a quagmire. If it's like this in early summer, best come prepared with resilient footwear after damp weather.
Somewhere off to the right of the track are the remains of Old Flaunden church, abandoned two centuries back when the entire village moved a mile up the hill to avoid flooding. I missed that. I also missed Chenies, the ridgetop village on the other side of the river, where the manor house and gardens look to be well worth a visit. In Frogmore Meadow I passed a group of very tired looking five year olds, and their parents who'd taken them out on a perhaps over-ambitious country trek. I'm not sure they made it as far as the bluebell wood, nor the nature reserve where the water vole allegedly still thrives. I stared awhile into the waterside undergrowth from the observation platform, but saw nothing small and furry.
The Chess Valley has long been famed for its watercress. I say this as a local lad, it's part of the mythology of the area, handed down to me from my grandparents. But this is the first time I've ever seen a watercress bed in the flesh, with long parallel flooded channels covered by a carpet of leaves. Even better they've got a tiny shop for the benefit of passing ramblers, where you can buy a bag of fresh watercress for £1.50 (or an ice cream, I bought a tub). I'd also never before been to Sarratt Bottom, despite it being part of the village nextdoor to where I grew up, although many's the time I'd sniggered at its name. It turns out almost nobody lives here, apart from a scattering of wisteria covered cottages at the foot of a lonely lane.
There is a reason why this isn't called the River Chess Walk, and that's because sightings of the river can be few and far between. The valley floor is fairly flat, so the meandering river is easily screened by a wood, a fence or even a hedge. You take your opportunities when you can, for example where a teensy-narrow footbridge carries a footpath from Church End across the water. The field ahead has very distinct terraces, called lynchets, believed to date back to the 9th century. These days the buttercup slopes are grazed by cattle and picnicking locals - I took a deep breath and walked straight past, and they chewed obliviously on.
Beyond Sarrattmill Bridge the path enters the Chorleywood House Estate. Its 160 acres of meadows and parkland were once the grounds of a Regency mansion, but were later sold off to the council when nobody wanted to buy it as a golf course. You don't see much of the estate on the walk through, unless you decide that this is the point to end the walk and head up the hill to Chorleywood station... but be warned that's well over a mile away. The river wiggles through woodland, past a dilapidated wheelhouse, before slinking in culvert beneath the M25. Meanwhile the Chess Valley Walk follows Solesbridge Lane over the top, then hairpins back along the foot of the motorway embankment along a very narrow passage. On and on it goes, with no means of stepping aside, so best pray it's not been raining.
Horses are the next wildlife on view, with the local stud most keen on shielding their prize mares' faces behind masks. And then we enter Loudwater, quite the poshest place to live, with secluded houses up private roads all around Troutstream Way. Secluded that is apart from those whose gardens back onto this public right of way, which is how I got to peer through the hedge at a family dining al fresco and scraping their plates clean under the gazebo. Tracking this gloomy alleyway always makes me feel like an unwanted interloper, and the occasional barking guard dog agrees.
It's a relief to emerge alongside the water meadow at Loudwater Farm, and even more of a relief when the river finally makes a reappearance after a couple of absent miles. We're in the lower reaches of the Chess now, in the valley below Croxley Green, which makes this the closest bit of river to where I grew up. Many's the time I've fished for tiddlers from the riverbank, or sat dangling my legs from the footbridge, or at least stood frozen in terror as some yappy dog ran shaking from the water. This is still a favoured spot for canine exercise, and easily the best place along the entire walk to get up close and personal with the natural river. Lucky me when I was young, I say.
The path bears off before the River Chess reaches its end. It's destined to run alongside the sports ground and past the restaurant in a former watermill, to enter the River Colne beyond the railway viaduct. Instead we're heading for Rickmansworth town centre, because that's where the station is, which means a diversion around the edge of the Royal Masonic School grounds. The last patch of green is the elevated plateau of Rickmansworth Park, which I've always found oddly artificial, before returning to civilisation with a bump beside a mega-Waitrose. Ten miles all told, from station to station, with the river probably visible for less than half that distance. But this has been the Chess Valley Walk, remember, and the valley is a proper unspoiled treat.