Visitors took advantage of the good weather on Monday, the last day of the Christmas holiday for many, to take in the air at Ashridge.
Despite the muddy ground conditions some four hundred and fifty vehicles were parked at any one time along Monument Drive, clogging up the road as is usual at holiday times.
Over at the Beacon, the car park was full to overflowing as people took to the circular walk along the headland from the hill and around to the Coombe. This route has become a regular haunt for many local walkers and is fast becoming like a Victorian promenade! There were at least a hundred walkers on the route at one point in time! The two and a half mile walk is physically testing, but ideal for those wishing to stroll amongst the amazing countryside, and tip toe through it’s early history. The Beacon landscape has not changed much in a thousand years – it has always been a sheep-walk. Today you might find some five hundred Southdown sheep on the hills, but three hundred years ago before the land was enclosed by the Bridgewaters there were thousands more, along with their shepherds. It was common land allowing the people of Ivinghoe Aston to freely graze their livestock.
Three thousand years ago our iron-age ancestors lived at the top of the Beacon in their hill fort!
For four hundred years or more, the drovers carved out their hollow-ways around Piccadilly Hill , climbing up to the Ashridge estate.
In the Stuart period when the Bridgewaters purchased the Estate from the Crown in 1604, the level area below the hill was used as a racecourse – drovers, gypsies and the gentry raced their steeds there.
Scroop the first Duke of Bridgewater (Ashridge 1701-1745) had some one hundred and fifty horses on the Estate, including race horses and no doubt trained them on the course. Mr Ellis from Church Farm in Little Gaddesden tells us in the early 1740’s that a certain Mr Hearne, a gypsy who lived a while at Brick Kiln cottage on Berkhamsted common along with some thirty compatriots, was “full of money”, and kept a couple of race horses. He ran a little black bay-horse against a Gentleman’s large grey at Ward’s – combe, and won a great deal of money by a particular “bite”. (A cunning plan). His horse in the first race was restricted in it’s gallop, and he lost the race. So a large amount of money was wagered by the “locals” on the second race expecting a similar outcome, but the restrictive harness was removed from the bay-horse without their knowledge, and Mr Hearne won the race easily. The cunning plan had worked and Mr Hearne had cleaned up!
We are therefore mindful of the fact that these hills really are a special place, and that it is the visiting N T members who are indirectly paying for the upkeep of this landscape through their membership fees, without forgetting the free contribution made by the conservation volunteers.