COUNTRY WALKS (Book One, 1971 edition) Walk 1:Black Park Langley to Uxbridge (11 miles)
Having picked up a 1970s copy of London Transport's Country Walks (30p from all good Underground stations), I thought I'd better start with walk number 1. It didn't sound promising, a walk from almost-Slough through the motorway end of Bucks to the shops at Uxbridge. But it was somewhere I'd never been before, and all accessible by London bus and tube. In accordance with the instructions I took the Piccadilly line to Hounslow West and then the number 81 bus, which was an adventure in itself. The Bath Road alongside Heathrow Airport is surely one of the most architecturally vacuous in the capital, but the centre of the village of Colnbrook proved rather sweet. I alighted as directed at the Cedar Way bus stop in Langley, in a very ordinary slice of suburbia, and kept my fingers crossed that instructions I was about to follow hadn't changed too much in 43 years. If you'd like to follow along, I've traced out the route for you here.
For the first half mile or so, there's nothing country about this walk at all. A metalled tree-lined path leads between Langley's more ordinary housing estates, before arriving suddenly at a 12th century parish church. St Mary's is the hub of the amusingly named Parish of Langley Marish, and boasts a line of rather nice almshouses running along behind. My guidebook then referred to "a dirt track over the railway", whereas instead a revamped footbridge has been opened over the Great Western as part of the Colne Valley Trail. Here I passed a weary young couple waiting patiently for their young son to tire of watching the trains so they could go home. Next I crossed the parallel Slough Arm canal bridge, and then paused for the first time to try to work out which way to head next. The book's instructions were detailed and precise, but only if you were sure which "cross-path" was which, and were absolutely sure it hadn't subsequently disappeared.
A brief trek through a caravan park convinced me I was on the right track, watched over by the twitching curtains along retirement trailers. And then it was out into what the book promised would be a timely highlight... "The walk is particularly attractive in Spring when the cherry orchards just outside Langley are in blossom." I'd timed it perfectly, seasonally speaking, but alas now only two lone cherry trees remained at the centre of a large grassy meadow. Through the next meadow the path entered the grounds of Langley Park, the largest mansion hereabouts and set in umpteen acres of landscaped parkland. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough used to live here when he wasn't at Blenheim, and brought in Capability Brown to enhance the view from his windows. Much of the former deer park around the main house is still fenced off, somewhat ineffectively, requiring mere mortals to divert around the perimeter. But the public portion of the estate is extensive and still mighty fine, including a large arboretum and a pastoral lake.
My guidebook had warned me that "Denham is the first place on the walk where refreshment may be obtained", but this was no longer the case. A visitors centre and cafe were added at Langley Park in 2008, and I don't know what ice cream they serve but their 99s are lush. Adjacent are the Temple Gardens, a long-established collection of rhododendrons which are coming into their own at the moment and quite lovely to behold. Stand where the "temple" used to be and a vista opens up between lines of trees stretching all the way to Windsor Castle in the distance. It's easy to see why an organisation like The Friends of Langley Park exists, so do check their website for further details and a History Trail leaflet.
And Langley Park's not the end of it. Across the roaring A412 dual carriageway, the parkland continues for at least another mile to the north. This is Black Park, the largest country park in Buckinghamshire, and formerly the less tame-able half of the Duke of Marlborough's estate. It's named after the Black Pine trees planted here in the 18th century, and there's still a feeling of timber plantation throughout as avenues of conifers lead off in all directions. Down by the lake is another centre of refreshment, very well frequented at the weekend, and a good base for families and friends on shorter strolls. More active souls can enjoy the Go Ape centre deep in the forest, which explains why a dozen folk on Segways suddenly passed me by, bedecked in matching safety helmets, before trundling off in convoy into the trees.
What's most amazing about Black Park is that, even if you've never been, you've almost certainly seen it before. That's because Pinewood Studios (named after the pine woods) are sited on the other side of a long metal fence, through which it's almost possible to glimpse scaffolding, scenery towers and the famous Underwater Stage. And this immediate proximity means that hundreds of scenes from movies have been filmed in Black Park over the years, most especially along the pine avenues and down by the lake. Several Bond films have saved money by pretending this is Eastern Europe, or central Africa, or indeed (in Goldfinger) the area around Fort Knox. I certainly had a sense of déjà vu watching a Harry Potter DVD with my family the day after my walk... "Been there!" "Been there!" "Been there!"
Now halfway through the Country Walk, the route finally exits Black Park to follow Sevenhills Lane. The 1971 instructions mention clumps of trees, hedges and the "little river Alderbourne", but there's been a huge incursion hereabouts since the book was published. Slap bang on top of the old footpath is Junction 16 of the M25, the Denham Interchange, where a vast tract of farmland has been hijacked to link up with the M40. With Sevenhills Lane now forced to cross a tarmac chasm ten lanes and three hard shoulders wide, I wondered if the original right of way through the fields would have been permanently severed. Not so - a hard-to-spot footpath doglegged back to follow the very edge of a slip road. But just as I thought I'd been triumphant, I met two horses guarding a tiny bridge over a brook, and they didn't seem keen to let me pass. I edged forward, they edged forward, and eventually I decided the safest course of action was to retreat.
So I'm sorry, but I never completed the last four miles of the walk. No other footpaths crossed the valley, and the all-conquering motorway blocked all access to the north and west, so I didn't feel up to the lengthy diversion required to continue. I ended up instead on the A412 dual carriageway, trudging awkwardly along the verge in the absence of any pedestrian provision, and headed to Uxbridge via a much less interesting route. I missed out on Denham Village, and I missed out on the Grand Union Canal, rendering page 5 of the walk essentially null and void. But at least I'd explored and enjoyed the twin treats of Langley Park and Black Park, which I'd never even have known about were it not for an old guidebook from when I was six.