Where to spend the warmest Early May Bank Holiday on record?
A couple of hundred people have had the same idea, streaming off the hourly train at Tring station and dispersing into the Chiltern countryside down forking tracks and pathways.
The villagers of Aldbury are setting up their annual May Fair in the churchyard and on the green. The maypole awaits tangling and untangling. Someone has coned off the pond. Ladies with clingfilm-wrapped cakes dash into the street. The Lost Children tent is primed. The Ridgeway Scout Group are setting up their coconut shy in front of the stocks (Ancient Monument Please Do Not Touch). The village bobby is looking forwards to one of the easiest beats of his year.
The Ashridge Estate is awash with families, fanning out from the central clearing by the visitor centre and spilling into the trees. "One circuit of the Meadow Walk should be enough, and then we'll have an ice cream." All ages and cultures are represented. "Hang on while Gran catches up." Tiny faces wave down from the top of the Bridgewater Monument. "I think we should join the National Trust, dear." A small child sobs on a scooter. "It must be this way for the bluebells."
The bluebells are at their bobbing blue best, not yet on the turn, and best seen by wandering off the main tracks into the shady beechwood. They seem to go on, and on, intermittently illuminated in sunlit splendour. There are plenty to go round. Families wander in awe before arranging themselves in front of a prime mauve backdrop, usually with reverence but sometimes crushing the little beauties obliviously underfoot.
Opposite the space-less car park and the ice cream van, Dockey Wood has the very finest display. The National Trust have it fenced off, and for just two weekends a year charge a nominal fee to enter. The central densely-packed carpet is mesmerising, safely protected from trampling by a ring of protective branches. A handful of encircling paths provide the ideal opportunity for blokes with SLRs on tripods and friends with shaky iPhones to capture the perfect purple portrait.
Up on the Chiltern Ridge, from the jutting heights of Stepps Hill, the Aylesbury Vale spreads out in a patchwork of whites and yellows and vivid greens.
Ivinghoe Beacon is the end of the quest for many, now sat on the edge of the escarpment around the trig point nibbling picnics or turning lobster red. Dad's brought his drone, but is having trouble with his gimbal clamp so the battery's run down, and today's panoramic flight will be much shorter than planned. High above, orange-bodied Easy jets whine their way into Luton. The distant haze shimmers. Whipsnade's chalk lion dazzles.
Pitstone Windmill, one of Britain's earliest, is alas closed. This year's opening dates: Sundays from May 20 to Aug 26
Back down at river level, Ford End Watermill is holding one of its dozen annual open days. A trestle table out front sells tickets, cut-out models and bags of wholemeal home-milled flour. Take the path across the millstream to see the old sheepdip, and the millpond gently draining to keep the buckets of the waterwheel spinning, and the emergency plank which stops the flow if ever the worst happens. A red kite circles low and ostentatiously above the neighbouring meadow.
A goodly crowd has turned up, and the car park is almost full. They head inside to hear the history of the mill from a chap in a bowler hat, and climb the steep ladders from the Meal Floor to the Stone Floor to the Bin Floor. As the stones turn the brushes sweep the milled grain down a chute into a series of paper bags, the use-by date already stamped on the front. Down the road the ladies at St Mary The Virgin are doing teas and cakes. This year's opening dates: Apr 2, 15. May 7, 13, 28. Jun 17. Jul 15, 29. Aug 12, 27. Sep 16. Oct 14.
In the neighbouring village, Pitstone Green Museum has been packing them in. The Heritage Park opens nine days a year, its sheds flung wide as a window into rural days gone by. It's much bigger than you'd expect, a repository of farm machinery and forgotten crafts, including a well-stocked blacksmiths and a monster racksaw. In many rooms it looks like the widows of men who died 20 years ago simply handed over their entire collection of 'stuff', including old radios, glass bottles and wartime magazines. The contents of several defunct local shops have wormed their way here. This year's opening dates: Apr 2. May 7, 28. Jun 10. Jul 8. Aug 12, 27. Sep 9. Oct 14.
Visitors can have a go at throwing pots or join in with the ladies making lace. The orchard is full of classic vehicles, and their owners. Model trains run back and fro on the tracks at Much Hammering. The last tractor ride is at 4pm. Glum couples sit behind tables of knitted toys, unsold jam and glazed bowls. Keith is ever so keen to demonstrate the inked-up Adana letterpress. The ladies in the cafe have run out of ice cream.
And yes, it being May Day, obviously the Whitchurch Morris Men are waving handkerchiefs and thwacking sticks in the courtyard, and even encouraging visitors to join in.
Threading to the southwest, the Marsworth Reservoirs are used to keep the summit of the Grand Union Canal topped up. Courting couples walk the perimeter, faces (and occasionally torsos) glowing. All the litter bins are overflowing with bottles and cans. Nobody is buying framed art from the Mobile Canal Gallery. A birdwatcher focuses his binoculars on the far side of the water, completely missing the great crested grebe I can see diving through the rushes.
The Grand Union reaches its highest point near Tring, for a three mile stretch starting where the Wendover Arm branches off. At the top of the Marsworth flight an artist sits on a lock gate sketching Watermans Cottage. The garden at the Grand Junction Arms is full of families quaffing, and smells of barbecue. A bearded old man with a garland of green leaves around his head cycles past and grins. It's unclear who's had the better bank holiday.