With one friend on his way to London, we returned to the village to begin the catching up. Considering we hadn’t seen each other for two years, we managed to get a surprisingly early night, which was just as well, as we were going out to play the next day after seeing Nick. My American friend had never experienced an English bluebell wood in full bloom… and one of the most beautiful displays I have ever seen was just coming to its best. We headed for Ashridge.
It took a while to wander down the pathways. The day was overcast, the flowers unwarmed and although magnificent, the true beauty of the wood did not make itself felt until the clouds broke. A little sunshine dappling the blue, the fragrance rising… and we were walking in paradise. Then the rain began and, as we reached the car, solidified to snow. It lasted only a few minutes before the sun erased it from the day, but by that time we were on our way and in search of coffee.
I parked the car in a spot we had stopped two years before, just long enough to pay our respects to the bright creature that graces the hills of the Dunstable Downs. The Whipsnade Lion is around 483’ long and was cut in outline into the chalk in 1933 from a design by Mr. R.B. Brooke-Greaves. The figure marks the location of Whipsnade Zoo and the old, tiny lion enclosure used to be quite close to it. Long gone now, the lions have a larger and more natural environment as the zoo takes a leading role in conservation. I remember long ago watching the cavies and wallabies who have colonised the hillside. The hill figure is one of the largest in the country and a very visible landmark. During WWII, it was covered to prevent it being used as guide or target in air-raids. On special occasions, the lion is illuminated, as it was for the zoo’s 50th anniversary in 1981. I have only recently found out about that and having seen photographs, am more convinced than ever that our ancestors would have lit the ancient hill figures in a similar manner.
We stood and looked out over Ivinghoe Beacon, where the Ridgeway now ends. The track once crossed the entire country, from the Dorset coast to the Wash in Norfolk. Now only 87 miles remain of a route that has been travelled for over five thousand years. It still passes through ancient and sacred ladscapes, beside barrows and hillforts as well as some of the oldest hill figures, like the great White Horse at Uffington.
But we still needed coffee and set off in search of a suitable hostely, meandering through the anes and villages in the general direction of home and in no particular hurry. We passed the old ‘castle’ at Wing where we had visited a one of the oldest and best preserved Saxon churches the last time we had met… which gave me an idea. Almost the next village held another church… not Saxon this time, but Norman…. and several pubs. We would go to Stewkley…