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

Garbutt Wood and Sutton Bank, North Yorkshire

From the visitor centre at Sutton Bank, wooden fingerposts point with typical Yorkshire modesty to “the finest view in England”. The words are those of James Herriot, and he had a point. The vista from Whitestone Cliff, on the edge of the North York Moors, towards the Dales is enormous. To the right at the foot of the wooded slope is mysterious-looking Gormire, a deep green lake said to be both bottomless and haunted. From the viewpoint it’s a short walk to where a path drops down steeply to the lake through Garbutt Wood – managed as a nature reserve by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It descends past trees clinging to rocky outcrops with knotted, muscular roots, and an enormous solitary boulder, once part of the cliff above and worth a closer look for the miniature moss and fern gardens growing in its weathered holes.

Next stop is the lake, a popular spot for swimming. From the lake it’s possible to head back up the cliff to the start, or extend the walk to take in another giant landmark. Head south via Gormire Farm and High Rigg to cross the A170 (turning right and walking about 100 metres on the road) and follow the next path on the left to Hood Grange, then onwards to re-enter the woods – this time a mixed plantation.

Forestry trails lead steadily uphill to emerge at the huge geoglyph of Kilburn White Horse. It’s recent, in hill-figure terms, dating from 1857, and its whiteness is maintained with a regular topping of limestone chips.

From here, the route leads back to the start around the perimeter of the Yorkshire Gliding Club and along the cliff edge, with further blockbuster views to the west. For a perfect finale, time the finish for sunset.
The 31X bus goes from York, Station Avenue, to Sutton Bank via Byland Abbey
Amy-Jane Beer, author of Cool Nature and The A–Z of Wildlife Watching

Ranmore Common, Wotton Estate and Box Hill, Surrey

For most of us, Surrey is synonymous with the stockbroker belt, but it’s also a county rich in trees. The Surrey Hills AONB is 40% woodland – compared with just 10% of England overall – and a walk through its ancient woods is also a ramble through the history of English environmentalism.

This walk begins at Box Hill & Westhumble station and turns left on to Chapel Lane, following this west until it becomes Bagden Hill, and turns on to the footpath lined with horse chestnut trees. This is Polesden Lacey, property of the National Trust, whose Victorian founder, Octavia Hill, wrote of “the need of quiet, the need of air” as common to all humanity.

The path bends south past Tanners Hatch, one of the early Youth Hostel Association stopovers. Now turn due south, taking the left-hand path across Ranmore Common, with its darkly mysterious woods of beech, birch and yew. In autumn, the forest floor here teems with fungi: the sticky red exuberance of a beefsteak fungus; the ghostly translucence of porcelain mushrooms.

Emerging from the forest, cross the road on to Denbies Hillside, a glorious mosaic of species-rich chalk grassland pocked with copses and scrub. From this vantage point the whole wooded expanse of the Surrey Hills stretches as far as the eye can see.

Take the Pilgrims’ Way west into woods again: this is the edge of the Wotton Estate, owned by the Evelyn family for over 400 years. John Evelyn, diarist of Stuart England, was also an early environmentalist – his book Sylva (1662) urged landowners to reforest the country, so that the Royal Navy could rebuild its fleet.

Retrace your steps back to Denbies Hillside, but now follow the Ranmore Common Road back into Westhumble, where the Stepping Stones inn serves food, before crossing the actual stepping stones that ford the River Mole and take you up to Box Hill. Box trees are ordinarily only seen as clipped hedges; here, there’s a tangled forest of them, preserved by the National Trust and just an hourfromLondon.
Box Hill & Westhumble station connects to London Waterloo and Horsham
Guy Shrubsole, environmental campaigner and author of Who Owns England?

Snipe Dales, Lincolnshire

East of Horncastle the land rises to gently undulating Wolds, with sunny views over little valleys and isolated farms that have a reassuring snugness. For all this domesticity, the landscape has pockets of wilderness harbouring intriguing histories, like Snipe Dales, next to the almost vanished hamlet of Winceby, and clearly signposted off the A158. Snipe Dales is a country park and nature reserve that’s not vast on the map but feels big inside. The country park area was planted with Corsican pine in the 1960s, but this has largely been felled, and alder, silver birch, willow and hawthorn shield the natural regeneration of deciduous woodland. The nature reserve is a rare example of a semi-natural wet valley, open and scrubby and rich with grasses and wildflowers, including common spotted orchids. In summer there are numerous butterflies and the rich sound of willow warblers.

The paths are well-mapped, through woods and plashy meadows, yet it’s easy to feel pleasantly lost in its humid, lazy atmosphere. I’ve been visiting since I was a boy. There are favourite places – a little bridge over a stream with a place to paddle under the ancient willows; an old hydraulic ram in the valley serving the local farm; moss-glazed headstones marking where St Margaret’s church once stood.

In winter, under leaden skies, there’s a sense of calamity here. Perhaps it’s a memory of war. On 11 October 1643, Winceby was the site of a vicious battle in which Parliamentary forces under Fairfax routed Royalists who had come to relieve the siege of Bolingbroke Castle. It involved 6,000 mounted men: the Royalists were eventually scattered by the Parliamentary cavalry led by Cromwell – who had his horse shot from under him – and lost 300 men, many of whom were driven into the valleys, and hunted down and killed. Locals claim to occasionally hear the clanking of armour and the cries of terror. Fanciful, perhaps, but it is no less extraordinary to think that the future Lord Protector was once here, and thousands of cavalry horses clashed where wild ponies now graze the wetlands.
Spilsby is on bus routes run by Brylaine Travel and Stagecoach. The 56S goes from Spilsby to Snipe Dales
Will Cohu, author of Out of the Woods: The Armchair Guide to Trees

Ide Hill-Westerham, Kent

South of Sevenoaks and Westerham, the Greensand Ridge presents spectacular views of the Garden of England and East Sussex. A timeless patchwork of woods and fields, studded with oasthouses, stretches off to the heights of Ashdown Forest. It’s a mostly ancient landscape in which it’s easy to imagine a Tudor lord gallivanting around with a hunting party or practising falconry.

The ridge is heavily wooded: birches where the soils are poorer; oaks, pines, chestnut, alder, whitebeam and beech elsewhere. Much of it is classified as ancient, but more than half of its older trees were lost on one night in the great storm of October 1987.

At Scords Wood, below stunning Emmetts Garden, the forest floor has been deliberately left alone to see how the flora and fauna respond. If you come back in spring, it is a vivid green: lichen and moss coat the fallen trunks and a variety of wildflowers spangle any open spaces – where the bluebells allow them.

Starting the walk at Ide Hill, Kent’s highest village, follow the path past the vicarage’s extravagant garden, down through National Trust woods (another bluebell hotspot) to the Greensand Way. On the way is a seat dedicated to Octavia Hill, the Victorian social reformer and open space champion who created the National Trust, and who saved the three major hills on this route from urban development.

Springs gush and seep from the hillside as the path wends west into a secluded valley, becoming lined with gorse and crossing a vigorous little stream. Buzzard sightings are almost guaranteed at this point, as the valley side steepens and meets Scords Wood. Detour here to see the Ram Pump Pond and its ingenious old gravity pump that feeds Emmetts perched above, or continue west to Toys Hill and more fascinating woods, complete with charcoal workings from the mists of history.

At a viewpoint by the ruined, pine-shrouded Weardale Manor, descend into another valley cut into the ridge, this one covered with orchards.

At French Street re-enter the woods and make for Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home. Beyond is Mariners Hill, where wonderful views over Churchill’s roof open up between towering non-native conifers. Ending the walk at Westerham means heading north now, through more ancient woods, passing the River Darent close to its spring-fed source and Hosey Common, with its 1,000-year-old chert mines now occupied by several bat species.
The S41 bus links to Ide Hill from Edenbridge and Sevenoaks; the 246 bus connects Westerham with train stations at Hayes and Bromley South
Adam McCulloch, author of the Kent Walks Near London website

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