By Maggie Hartford

A holiday in the Lake District was looming and we needed practice before heading for England’s highest hills. So we cycled to the bus stop and took the quickest escape route to the Chilterns.

Fortunately, the Oxford Tube and Airport buses stop at Lewknor every 10 to 15 minutes, even on Sunday morning, so we were soon on a footpath leading towards the Ridgeway, a track which has been used by travellers since prehistoric times.

Nowadays it becomes busy with cyclists and runners on summer weekends, but it was still early as we followed it west for a few hundred yards, soon escaping the M40 noise to take the first route up Aston Hill.

There are plenty of ‘permissive’ paths inside the Aston Rowant nature reserve, but they are not marked on my Ordnance Survey map so we followed the right-of-way, where the birdsong is, sadly, sometimes drowned by the noise of traffic on the A40.

Fortunately, we were following a favourite route, still surrounded by the blue haze of fading bluebells, and we were soon on a well trodden, quiet path towards the A40 layby. We crossed the busy road at almost the exact point of the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border, and followed the boundary along a B-road, then a muddy bridleway and footpaths, up and down the folds of the Chiltern escarpment.

These dry valleys are comparatively recent in geological terms, having been sculpted by melting glaciers about 450,000 years ago, and the curving landscape seldom fails to lift the spirits of walkers who enjoy a good view.

People have been here since prehistoric times, carving routes like the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, and building burial mounds, later leaving Saxon names such as Chinnor and Bledlow to remind us of the past. Nowadays there is another route across the ridges and valleys – the Chiltern Way, a 134-mile circular trail which crosses the rolling hills from Dunstable to Ewelme and back.

It’s a quintessentially English landscape – a perfect preparation for our trip to the Viking-influenced North of England.

Eventually, we emerged on to a minor road past Crowell Hill Farm. In the tiny hamlet of Sprigs Alley we found another footpath heading north-east towards our first destination, Chinnor Hill, one of the finest viewpoints in the Chilterns.

We had walked some of these paths a few years ago while completing the Seven Shires Way, a 234-mile walk around the county boundary of Oxfordshire.

In this part of the Chilterns, the border follows a series of ‘tongues’ along the ridges and valleys of the escarpment. Generally, the hills are in Oxfordshire, perhaps because the spring-line villages of Lewknor, Aston Rowant and Chinnor have long, narrow parish boundaries, dating back to a time when villagers needed access to the beech woodland’s valuable timber, and for charcoal-burning, beechnuts and bedding for animals.

While the Seven Shires Way follows the contours and is relatively free of steep hills, we were going straight up and down – an easy introduction to the big climbs in store for us in the Lake District.

We took the road through the Chinnor Hill car park, which was relatively quiet on this early summer Sunday.

This is another nature reserve managed by BBOWT and a deservedly popular spot, with breathtaking views of the Thames Valley from Didcot Power Station to Muswell Hill and beyond into Aylesbury Vale, with the Chiltern scarp disappearing into the distance in blue waves.

To complete the quintessentially English view, a steam train hove into sight, puffing its way between Chinnor and Princes Risborough, and red kites soared overhead.

The hill itself is a picture in early summer, with the white flowers of hawthorn, wayfaring tree and whitebeams contrasting with the different greens of the juniper and yew, and the fresh leaves of the beech woodland.

By now we had worked up a thirst, so we dropped down into the valley, guided by the chalk figure of the Whiteleaf Cross, into Buckinghamshire and the welcoming arms of the 16th-century Lions of Bledlow, one of the few Chilterns inns which has not become a gastro pub.

It was a hot day and the triangle of grass opposite the pub was full of sunbathing bodies and beer mugs. We joined them for lime and lemonade, eating our meagre picnic lunch while looking longingly at the pub’s delicious-looking roast dinners.

We were leaving plenty of room in our stomachs, since we were aiming for afternoon tea in the garden of Bledlow Manor, home of former Conservative politician Lord Carrington, which was open for charity that afternoon.

We tore ourselves away from the pub and walked through the village, admiring the old flint-and-brick cottages. It was our first walk through Bledlow, but the scene seemed vaguely familiar, perhaps because it features on TV in episodes of Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie stories.

The village church, which seems to be perched precariously on a steep slope above the river Lyde, a tributary of the Thames, has many interesting features, including medieval wall paintings and an equally old font.

Just next to it, along the road towards the Manor, is a small gate which leads down to a hidden gem, the Lyde Gardens, created by Lord Carrington and his late wife. It was originally three watercress beds, surrounded by large and beautiful wych elms. It had become a wilderness after Dutch Elm disease ravaged the trees, but is now a delightful woodland water garden, with wooden bridges, walkways and colonnades, planted with primulas, astilbes, gunnera, hostas and roses, and with striking garden sculptures and a dedication to the British Legion.

We walked to the Manor past the village’s unusual 18th-century workhouse, built for around 180 of the poor of Bledlow and later used as a school. In 2010 it burnt down and was on an ‘at risk’ register, but now seems to being redeveloped.

The garden was due to open at 2pm, but there was already a traffic jam and a queue of people waiting to get in. Bledlow is part of the Carington family estate, but by some historic quirk the title of Margaret Thatcher’s former Foreign Secretary is Lord Carrington, with two Rs. He and his wife took over the Manor House in 1943 and engaged garden designer Robert Adams. The gardens are huge, with a series of ‘rooms’ enclosed by yew hedges. A brick pathway leads to the Coracle Garden, where a metal bowl-shaped fountain sits in the middle of the grey, blue and yellow of hebes, mahonia, philadelphus, rosemary, potentilla, sage and lavender and iris.

Past a sunken pool, you enter a less formal area with quirky contemporary sculptures. It’s a voyage of discovery, since it has been designed so that you can’t see the next sculpture until the previous one is out of sight.

The latest addition is a memorial ‘snail’ garden dedicated to Lady Carrington, who died in 2009, which is a spiralling mass of roses.

Most importantly, the lemon-drizzle cake did not disappoint, and we discovered afterwards that the occasion had raised £2,600 for National Gardens Scheme charities.

Having eaten our fill, we started back towards the Lewknor bus stop. We retraced our steps to search in the woods for the Bledlow Cross, a Chilterns chalk figure which has apparently become overgrown and is notoriously difficult to find.

After some fruitless wandering we took the short route towards the Lewknor turn, straight along the Ridgeway and under the motorway. We estimated that we had walked more than 12 miles (20km), with some 350m of ascent. Not quite Scafell Pike, but good training.

l The Lyde Gardens, Bledlow, are open at the owners’ discretion 9am-5pm every day, while the Manor Gardens are open to groups by appointment. Refreshments at The Lions of Bledlow. For opening hours, see, or tel 01844 343345. The Seven Shires Way was created by Oxfordshire Rambler Elaine Steane and the guidebook is published by Reardon at £12.95.