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Ashridge's Wedding Cake

A walk in Ashridge Park and the wooded commons of the Chiltern plateau.

Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 225ft (69m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Mostly tracks through woodland or parkland

Landscape Beechwoods, parkland and golf course on chalk plateau

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 181 Chiltern Hills North

Start/finish SP 976128

Dog friendliness On lead crossing golf course

Parking Car park on Aldbury Common, on road to Bridgewater Monument

Public toilets At Bridgewater Monument visitor centre (seasonal)

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1 From the car park on Aldbury Common head towards the distinctive column of the Bridgewater Monument, turning left at a footpath sign behind a young beech tree. Keep straight on along this track until, just before a pond, go left by a footpath post at a track crossroads.

2 On reaching a road, cross on to a byway. The woodland gives way on the left to parkland with cattle grazing. The track bears right into woodland, skirting a paddock and Woodyard Cottages, to reach a metalled track. Follow it to the right, still within woodland. At a footpath crossroads, before a gate to some farm buildings, go left on to a track. At a track fork bear left and, reaching a field, follow the path that descends along the right-hand edge of the woods to a tree belt and then runs through it to a road.

3 Turn left on the road and, past the ornate Berkhamstead Lodge, bear right at a footpath sign, to climb through woodland. At the crest walk alongside some wire fencing and the grounds of Ashridge College.

4 Turn right. With an oak copse on your left, head for a footpath sign to the left of a large oak. Now you get good views of Ashridge. Cross the drive and follow the white-topped posts across Prince's Riding, a vista terminated by the Bridgewater Monument. Continue through a copse and follow more white posts. Cross a dry valley and then the golf practice range. Beyond the practice tees the path winds through a copse to a road.

5 Turn right along the road, now the Chiltern Way. Where it turns left, the footpath bears right between garden hedges, across a fairway, then between more gardens and past the gate to Witches Hollow. At a footpath crossroads turn left on to a metalled track.

6 Follow the metalled lane downhill. Past the drive to Witchcraft Hill it becomes a path through woods. Over a stile the path bears left alongside a clearing, then into some woods to the road at Ringshall.

7 Turn left here and, immediately past some garden walls, turn right into the woods of Ivinghoe Common. At a bridleway post bear left, then left again to walk along a ride, ignoring all tracks and paths to left or right. Eventually you cross a dry valley and, at a bridleway post where the track bears right, go almost straight on to wind through the wood to Prince's Riding and the car park.

Once described as a 'wedding cake', Ashridge is the centrepiece of this walk, a great, early 19th-century Gothic palace. It is set on the eastern edge of a heavily wooded chalk plateau. To its western side is the Aldbury escarpment and to the east is a descent into the deeply cut 'Golden Valley'. Although its grounds were landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in the 1760s and by Humphrey Repton after 1800, much of the effect stems from the dense woodland to the west and south, including the medieval woodland commons of Aldbury, Berkhamsted and, over the county boundary, Ivinghoe.

The mansion bursts from this woodland like a fairy-tale palace. It is built in Totternhoe stone, a white and greyish chalkstone that was quarried over the border in Bedfordshire. James Wyatt designed Ashridge in 1808. His son Jeffry, who Frenchified his name to 'Wyatville', added more from 1814 to 1820. Views are dominated by the more ornate chapel tower and the main block at the east end that almost resembles a castle keep. This great, romantic, rambling mansion was not the first house on the site, however, for there was a medieval monastic college of Augustinian canons here, one of two Colleges of Bonshommes in England, the other being at Edington in Wiltshire. It was founded by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, a nephew of Henry III in 1275, to look after a holy relic, a phial allegedly containing some of the blood of Christ. Only a cellar or vaulted undercroft survives, its stone vaults supported by octagonal columns. At 68ft (20.7m) long by 26ft (7.9m) wide it is quite a substantial fragment.

After the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the college became a secular mansion (set in a deer park) and Edward VI spent much of his short life here before becoming King in 1547 (as did his sister, later Queen Elizabeth I).

The Duke of Bridgewater, who commissioned 'Capability' Brown to rework the park, also consulted Sir William Chambers over rebuilding the old house. This was not implemented, but the Golden Valley plantings and much of Brown's work survives, albeit further changed by the modern golf course through which the walk passes.

One of the most spectacular historic landscape features seen on this walk is the Prince's Riding, a great cut taken out of the woodland, part of which was Aldbury Common. This was done to give Ashridge a view of the 1832 Bridgewater Monument, 1½ miles (2.4km) away. The house has now come full circle: from a great landowner's mansion it has reverted to collegiate status, albeit secular, as a management training college.

While you're there

Despite passing close to Ashridge, its gardens are screened from view. These private landscaped grounds cover 150 acres (60ha) and owe much to Humphrey Repton's proposals, including his cloistered monk's garden, rose and rock garden, and dell with grotto. Ashridge Management College opens the gardens on weekend afternoons between April and October.

Where to eat and drink

There are no pubs or shops on Walk 43. However if you go the extra mile to Little Gaddesden (Walk 44) you will pass the Bridgewater Arms. Alternatively, near the start, at the Bridgewater Monument, there are National Trust tea rooms.

What to look for

The 1,200 acres (486ha) of Berkhamsted Common were the centre of a legal dispute in 1865. Earl Brownlow enclosed a third of it with iron fences. However, Augustus Smith, owner of Ashlyns and a holder of commoner's rights, tore down the fences and took Brownlow to court. The matter was finally settled in 1870 and Smith won.

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