Autumn is now in full swing, and nowhere are the season’s colours more spectacular than on the 5,000 acre Ashridge Estate, nestled in the Chilterns between Dunstable and Berkhamsted.
On Sunday the place was absolutely packed, testament to the fantastic walking and cycling opportunities that abound here. If you’ve never visited before, you’re seriously missing out – the National Trust-maintained estate is an oasis of calm, easily accessible from neighbouring towns and perfect for anything from a long day’s serious walking to a short stroll.
As you turn off the road into the estate, you’re immediately on a long drive flanked on either side by sprawling beech woods. At the top of this road is the Bridgewater Monument, our first port of call on arrival – although I’m not sure quite why as I’m terrified of heights. After conquering the tight spiral of 170 stone steps, you emerge, blinking, into the light to truly spectacular views, which on a clear day stretch as far as Wembley Stadium and even Canary Wharf.
The monument, a Grecian column topped with an urn, was built in 1832, in tribute to Francis, the third Duke of Bridgewater, known as ‘the Canal Duke’ after employing engineer James Brindley to construct England’s first canal to serve his Lancashire coal mines.
Two-and-a-half kilometres to the south lies the Gothic sprawl of Ashridge House, commissioned by the Canal Duke as a replacement for the original monastery on the site, which had been founded around 1283. Now a business school, the house has the longest frontage of any house in England at about 300 metres long.
Spectacular though it may be, the house is eclipsed by the drama of its natural surroundings. Well maintained routes around the estate mean visitors are treated to superb vistas and sites of interest, including the Pitstone Windmill, Ivinghoe Beacon and the picturesque village of Aldbury, which are all within reach. Ashridge Park is the estate’s original deer park, with its gently sloping Golden Valley designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in an open, naturalistic style in contrast to the formal gardens of the house.
The real fun for families, though, is to be had in the woods, which are home to everything from fantastic fungi through to birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Interactive displays inside the visitor centre are a great way of knowing what to spot and when, and a variety of walks and talks throughout the year are a great way to really get to know the estate.
There’s a variety of activities for children, and over the next month there are talks on the estate’s deer, badgers and even one on the elusive edible dormouse.
The one downside on Sunday was that the cafe appeared to have been a victim of its own success.
The fact that food and drink is served through a hatch meant a huge queue trailing back through the seating area, prompting my friend and I to head off to Berkhamsted in search of refreshment, rather than sampling one of the cafe’s cream teas. A pity, as they looked absolutely delicious.
NEED TO KNOW:
Entry: Free (Monument £1.50 adults)
Tea room: Yes
Contact: 01442 851227, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ashridge