How long does it take to walk three stations down a tube line? When you're following the Metropolitan it can take four and a half hours. That's via the Chess Valley Walk, a ten mile stroll from Chesham to Rickmansworth following a shallow chalk stream. I've walked the eastern end of this particular route many times, ever since I was a small child, but I've never tracked any of the western half before. And it's lovely, not least because the railway stayed beyond the ridgetop, so almost all of the Chess Valley has survived without major residential development. An ideal summer day out. [map]
The Chess Valley Walk leaflet describes the journey heading west from Rickmansworth to Chesham. I planned to head in the opposite direction, which is always a bit dangerous, but I assumed you couldn't get too lost following a river. I got lost straight away trying to work out where the path went after leaving the station. I wandered the pedestrianised High Street for a bit before working out I was meant to be on the other side of the main road in Lowndes Park. Cheshamites were lounging on the grass in the sun, or hunting for the pike in Skottowe's Pond, or being loudly hissed at by broody geese. Step back. Church Street in the old town is lined by a characterful collection of houses, which is a bonus because it's almost the only street I'll be walking down. Cue the river.
The RiverChess begins in a pool half a mile up the road, but we're not going there, so it's fortunate I've been before. Instead we follow a quiet path round the back of a car park to the least ostentatious 'Town Bridge' in any town in the country. All chalk streams are shallow, so the bridge barely needs to lift off the ground. Chalk streams also always run clear, so the gravel on the bed is clearly seen, along with any weeds and tiddlers flapping thereon. Ahead is Meades Water Gardens, where the river's recently been allowed to spread out on the site of a former millpond. The remains of the sluice gate can be seen beyond the wetland in a pleasantly shady spot. Bring your pushchair, rest awhile.
Onward beneath the railway, where trains rumble infrequently overhead, to the playing field on Chesham Moor. The floor of the valley opens out a little here, and stays that way, creating a zone where housing would be inadvisable. But some of the cottages backing down onto the Chess are a delight, especially during wisteria season. In the woodland ahead are the remains of a larger mill, or at least its gushing weir, where children can dangle their legs in the water while their parents wait patiently for them to tire. I got lost again ahead, following the path halfway round a large lake before I realised there was no way on. At least that meant I got to encounter several more broods of flapping waterfowl - it's duckling season in the pools of Bucks.
It's not all Elysium, however pretty the valley looks from the railway line above. The path slinks on through the midst of an industrial estate, a very minor one, before emerging onto a ratrun lane. Chesham Council have built their Household Waste Centre out here, not that it smells or anything, but mind the traffic. In the stream nearby is one of those boards used for checking the water level, invariably barely a few inches, but the scale rises ominously to "now try your brakes" height. But that's the only tedious bit. The next field is a buttercup meadow full of horses, entered through a gate in loving memory of Evelyn Stevens. If you lost your mp3 player here the weekend after Easter, they're keeping it safe for you in the farmhouse.
At last we're out in open country, striding along the edge of a gently sloping field. There are lush hedgerows and verges of cow parsley, proof positive that the Green Belt works wonders. The path then climbs along the edge of some woodland, the only substantial effort on the walk, with the last of the spring bluebells as payback. That and the view from the top, which is panoramic. It seems impossible that any valley this close to London could be so green and unspoilt but, like I said, the railway never came this way. There's clear sight down to the largest lake on the Chess, Great Water, which spreads out like a blue finger courtesy of Capability Brown's landscaping. Somewhere on the far side is the site of a 1st century Roman Villa, but you'll have to take that on trust, there's zero evidence from here.
The big Tudor-style mansion above the path is Latimer House, in its previous incarnation briefly a prison for King Charles I. During WW2 the house and grounds were used to hold captured German pilots and U-boat crews - now it's a conference centre where delegates sit out on the terrace with drinks and stare back bemusedly at ramblers. So large is the temporary population of part-time students that the neighbouring hamlet of Latimer is completely outnumbered. A triangle of 17th/18th century cottages nestle round a miniature villagegreen, most with dazzling gardens (and a lot of parked cars)... and that's all there is. Latimer must be the tiniest settlement to be namechecked on the London Underground map, which is only fair because the nearest station is a good fifteen minutes' walk down and over the valley.
You can break thewalk here and head back to the Metropolitan at Chalfont & Latimer. But we're not even halfway yet. The remainder tomorrow.