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Walk back in time: four historic hikes in England’s woodlands | Travel

Garbutt Wood and Sutton Bank, North Yorkshire

From the visitor center at Sutton Bank, wooden signposts point to “the most beautiful view in England” with typical Yorkshire modesty. The words are James Herriot’s, and he was right. The view of the Dales from Whitestone Cliff on the edge of the North York Moors is enormous. To the right at the foot of the wooded slope is the mysterious looking Gormire, a deep green lake that is said to be both bottomless and haunted. From the lookout, it’s a short walk to a steep path through Garbutt Wood, managed as a nature reserve by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which drops to the lake. It soars past trees hanging from ledges with knotted, muscular roots and a huge boulder that was once part of the cliff, well worth a closer look at the miniature moss and fern gardens that grow in the weathered holes.

The next stop is the lake, a popular place for swimming. From the lake it is possible to drive back up the cliff to the start or to extend the path to see another huge landmark. Head south via Gormire Farm and High Rigg to cross the A170 (turn right and walk about 100 yards on the road). Follow the next path on the left to Hood Grange and then continue to get back into the forest – a mixed plantation this time.

Aerial view of Kilburn White Horse, North Yorkshire


Aerial view of the Kilburn White Horse, cut in 1857. Photo: APS / Alamy

Forest roads lead steadily uphill to the giant geoglyph of Kilburn White Horse. It’s new in a hilly shape, dating from 1857, and its whiteness is maintained by regular topping up with limestone shavings.

From here the route goes back to the start around the Yorkshire Gliding Club and along the cliffs, with more blockbuster views to the west. For a perfect finale, set the sunset destination.
• • The 31X bus runs from York, Station Avenue, via Byland Abbey to Sutton Bank
Amy-Jane Beer, author of Cool Nature and The A – Z of Wildlife Watching

Ranmore Common, Wotton Estate and Box Hill, Surrey

Woman hiker in red cloak roams Ranmore Common


Hiking on Ranmore Common. Photo: Peter Lane / Alamy

For most of us, Surrey is synonymous with the stockbroker belt, but it’s also a wooded county. The Surrey Hills AONB is 40% woodland – compared to just 10% of England as a whole – and a stroll through the ancient woodlands is also a foray into English environmental history.

This hike starts at Box Hill & Westhumble station and turns left onto Chapel Lane. Follow this west until it becomes Bagden Hill and turn onto the horse chestnut lined footpath. This is Polesden Lacey, owned by the National Trust, whose Victorian founder Octavia Hill wrote about the “need for quiet, the need for air” that is common to all people.

The trail turns south past Tanners Hatch, one of the Youth Hostel Association’s first stops. Now turn due south and take the left path over Ranmore Common with its dark and mysterious forests of beech, birch and yew. In autumn the forest floor is bursting with mushrooms: the sticky red exuberance of a beefsteak mushroom; the ghostly translucency of porcelain mushrooms.

As you emerge from the forest, continue across the road to Denbie’s Hillside, a magnificent mosaic of species-rich chalk grassland filled with woody and scrub. From this point of view, the entire wooded area of ​​the Surrey Hills extends as far as the eye can see.

Take the pilgrimage back west into the forest: this is the edge of the Wotton Estate, which has been in the Evelyn family for over 400 years. John Evelyn, the diary writer of Stuart England, was also an early environmentalist – his book Sylva (1662) urged landowners to reforest the land so the Royal Navy could rebuild their fleet.

Walk back to Denbie’s Hillside, but now follow Ranmore Common Road back to Westhumble, where the Stepping Stones Inn serves food before crossing the actual stepping stones that call the River Mole and take you to Box Hill. Box trees are usually just thought of as clipped hedges. There’s a tangled forest of them here, preserved by the National Trust and just an hour from London.
• • Box Hill & Westhumble station connects London Waterloo and Horsham
Guy Shrubsole, environmental activist and author of Who Owns England?

Snipe Dales, Lincolnshire

Snipe Dales Nature Reserve in Lincolnshire


Snipe Dales Nature Reserve. Photo: Graham Uney / Alamy

East of Horncastle the land rises to gently rolling wolds with a sunny view over small valleys and secluded farms that have a calming comfort. Despite all this domesticity, the landscape has pockets of wilderness with fascinating stories such as Snipe Dales next to the almost disappeared hamlet of Winceby, which is clearly signposted on the A158. Snipe Dales is a landscaped park and conservation area that isn’t very big on the map but feels big inside. The landscaped park was planted with Corsican pine in the 1960s, but most of it has been felled, and alder, silver birch, willow and hawthorn protect the natural regeneration of deciduous forests. The reserve is a rare example of a semi-natural, humid valley, open and scruffy, and rich in grasses and wildflowers, including common spotted orchids. In summer there are numerous butterflies and the rich sound of willow warblers.

The trails are well mapped, through forests and clumsy meadows, but it’s easy to feel comfortably lost in its damp, lazy atmosphere. I’ve been visiting since I was a boy. There are favorite spots – a small bridge over a stream with a place for paddling under the old willows; an old hydraulic ram in the valley that serves the local farm; moss-glazed gravestones mark the place where St. Margaret’s Church once stood.

In winter there is a feeling of unhappiness under the leaded sky. Maybe it’s a memory of the war. On October 11, 1643, Winceby was the scene of a vicious battle in which parliamentary forces under Fairfax routed royalists who had come to ease the siege of Bolingbroke Castle. There were 6,000 mounted men: the royalists were eventually dispersed by the parliamentary cavalry led by Cromwell, who shot his horse under them, and lost 300 men, many of whom were driven into the valleys and hunted and killed. Locals claim to occasionally hear the rattle of armor and the screams of terror. Fanciful perhaps, but it is no less extraordinary to believe that the future Lord Protector was here once and thousands of cavalry horses collided where wild ponies now graze the wetlands.
• • Spilsby is on bus routes operated by Brylaine Travel and Stagecoach. The 56S runs from Spilsby to Snipe Dales
Will Cohu, author of Out of the Woods: The Armchair Guide to Trees

Ide Hill-Westerham, Kent

Autumn scene from Mariners Hill near Chartwell.


A view across the Kent Woods from Mariners Hill near Chartwell. Photo: Adam McCulloch

South of Sevenoaks and Westerham, Greensand Ridge offers spectacular views of the Garden of England and East Sussex. A timeless patchwork of forests and fields, dotted with skyscrapers, extends to the heights of the Ashdown Forest. It is a largely ancient landscape where it is easy to imagine a Tudor lord galloping around with a hunting party or practicing falconry.

The ridge is heavily forested: birch trees, where the soils are poorer; Oaks, pines, chestnuts, alders, white beams and beeches elsewhere. Much of this is classified as ancient, but more than half of the older trees were lost in one night in the great October 1987 storm.

In Scords Wood, below the breathtaking Emmetts Garden, the forest floor was deliberately left alone to see how flora and fauna react. When you come back in spring, it’s a vivid green: lichen and moss cover the fallen trunks, and a multitude of wildflowers dot all the open spaces – where the bluebells allow them.

Bench in the foreground and looking south from Ide Hill.  The seat is dedicated to Octavia Hill, the Victorian Open Space Champion who founded the National Trust


View from Ide Hill to the south. The seat is dedicated to Octavia Hill, the Victorian Open Space Champion who founded the National Trust. Photo: Discover Kent

Begin the walk at Ide Hill, Kent’s highest village, and follow the path past the Rectory’s extravagant garden through the National Trust Forests (another bluebell hotspot) to Greensand Way. En route is a seat dedicated to Octavia Hill, the Victorian social reformer and open space champion who founded the National Trust and saved the three great hills on this route from urban development.

Springs gush and seep from the slope, while the path leads west into a remote valley, is lined with gorse and crosses a powerful little stream. Buzzard sightings are almost guaranteed at this point as the valley side steepens and meets Scords Wood. Here, take a detour to Ram Pump Pond and its ingenious old gravity pump feeding Emmetts towering above, or head west to Toys Hill and more intriguing woods made with charcoal from the mists of history.

At a lookout point of the ruined, pine-clad Weardale Manor, descend into another valley cut into the ridge and covered in orchards.

Re-enter the woods on French Street and head to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home. Behind it is Mariners Hill, where a magnificent view over Churchill’s roof opens up between towering non-native conifers. When you finish the walk in Westerham, you will now have to head north through older woodland and pass the River Darent near its source and Hosey Common, with its 1000 year old chert mines now occupied by several species of bats.
• • The S41 bus runs from Edenbridge and Sevenoaks to Ide Hill. Bus 246 connects Westerham with Hayes and Bromley South stations
Adam McCulloch, Kent Walks Near London website author

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