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Milton Keynes Boundary Walk Day 1

Map Coming Soon

Stony Stratford to Weston Underwood

Date: 31 August 2008
Distance: Estimated as 17 miles from Ordnance Survey map (felt a bit silly taking a GPS on the MKBW!
Ascent: Estimated as 150m from Ordnance Survey map
Walkers: Anth & Jim
Parking: Public car park on banks of the River Great Ouse, between Stony Stratford and Calverton at SP787395, and on the roadside in Weston Underwood.

How hard is it to walk? There are no trail markers, and the paths are non-existent at points, so I’d recommend using OS Explorer maps to find your way.

Introduction

It was the first time I’d stayed at my brother’s new place in Milton Keynes, and obviously we’d felt duty-bound to try out the local pubs and beers. I had been surprised by how green and pleasant all the paths around Milton Keynes were, running as they did through woods, around lakes, and with barely a view of housing. However, this did mean that we had walked the best part of 7 miles to reach four very average modern pubs (and the rather more unusual Movie Bar) which served beer which from the taste of it had been sat in the pump since Milton Keynes were built. The following morning it was, of course, this poor quality of ale rather than the quantity that I had drunk which I blamed for my thumping hangover. Some free advice, for what it’s worth – don’t touch the cask ale in the Burnt Oak or the Old Beams!

For some reason Jim was keen for us to walk his local long-distance path, the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk. The weather forecast was predicting that it was to be the only hot and sunny day in the whole of the cold soggy year of 2008. My pounding head and tarmac-wearied feet really didn’t want to walk 17 miles in high temperatures on what seemed from the map to be a pretty dull trail. In fact, Jim pretty much had to physically push me out of his front door. Even a large breakfast at McDonalds (eaten as slowly as I could to try to delay proceedings) couldn’t divert Jim from his course, and eventually we ditched my car in Weston Underwood and drove back his car to a busy little car park in Stony Stratford to begin the walk.

a) Stony Stratford to Cosgrove

It’s always difficult to know where to start a circular trail, and one tends to simply start where the guide does because it’s convenient. We couldn’t see any particular reason why the guide started in Stony Stratford, but we couldn’t see any other obvious places to start, so Stony Stratford it was.

It was a fairly inauspicious start compared to other trails; no big signs or landmarks were visible, we just ambled out of the bottom of the car park and joined the trail the banks of the Great Ouse river. It wasn’t really looking so “Great” here – just a few metres wide, and a picture of tranquillity. The riverside path ran briefly behind houses and then out into an open space full of early(ish!) morning dog walkers. We crossed by a small weir onto an island with an impressively modern playground, and strolled easily along the flat paths.

We eventually left the broad riverside park beside a former mill building that had been tastefully converted into modern apartments. A turn down a footpath led us into open fields with lots more dog walkers and some mildly scary horses (after one tried to mount Jim on a walk in London, we’ve always been a bit wary of these beasties). We crossed a busy road and entered the Stony Stratford Nature Reserve; as this is Milton Keynes, it was the neatest nature reserve we had ever seen. Sensually sinuous tarmac paths wound through what looked far more like a neatly manicured park than a nature reserve.

As we were now a little further from the houses, there were fewer dog walkers, and it felt a surprisingly serene area – that is, until we passed beneath the tumult of the A5. A few hundred metres later, we turned off the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk on a short, planned diversion. The trail continued straight along the banks of the Great Ouse to join the Grand Union Canal, and we felt that it all seemed just a little too much waterside walking in one go. We had spied on the map, just a couple of fields away from the trail, a parallel footpath running through the site of the medieval village of Wolverton. Although it was likely to just be some barely-visible humps and bumps, we felt that it might be an interesting diversion. Plus the motte and bailey would provide a nice link back to our previous trail, the Three Castles Path.

After a brief unpleasant flirtation with a busy minor road, it turned out to be a very pleasant and instructive few minutes’ walk. The earthworks of the former village were clearly visible, especially after we’d climbed the low hill to view them from above from the Holy Trinity Church. The church itself was also rather nice, in a severe sort of way – apparently it was the first in England to be built in the “Reformed Norman” style of architecture (whatever that means – it sounds more like a formerly naughty trainspotter!). More to the point, there was a bench in an exposed spot overlooking the Ouse valley, where we took a quick muesli bar stop, glad of the slight breezes available here on what was becoming a very warm and humid morning.

Beyond the church, the motte and bailey turned out to be a rather desultory affair, but we were pleased enough with the village humps and bumps, the church, the view and the solitude that we didn’t care. Feeling rather pleased at having discovered what felt like a little secret, we returned to the road, crossed over the Grand Union Canal beside a rather run-down pub, and then descended to join the towpath on the far side. We strolled up the canal to rejoin the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk at the point that the canal passed over the Great Ouse on the Iron Trunk aqueduct. It’s always weird seeing the far bank of on aqueduct consisting of what seems like just a thin sheet of metal – it’s amazing it manages to keep the water in! On ether side of this point the canal ran across the Ouse valley on an enormous embankment of earth – the work involved in constructing this must have been truly colossal!

We soon started to see a series of houseboats on the far bank. They were clearly a permanent fixture, as many of them had tables and chairs set amongst the trees behind – one boat even had an associated three-piece suite! One dodgy looking fella had even had signs out begging for passing ladies to join him in his aquatic life. It was like another world – fascinating to look at, but you did feel very guilty staring across at what were people’s private residences.

Opposite a lock there was a rather nice sculpture; beyond this the canal appeared to branch. The turning off to the left is now disused (and closed further along) but used to form a link to the Great Ouse; the true Grand Union continued ahead towards the village of Cosgrove. I could have done with a wee here, but the toilets were for the use of boaters only, and were locked to walkers. More to the point, they stank to high heaven, and I felt nauseous for several minutes after passing them. There was a nice-looking pub garden a little further along – but it was distressingly located on the opposite bank, and it was still too early for a pint. My spirits were only slightly restored by the sight of the rather attractive Solomon’s Bridge over the canal at the end of the village.

b) Cosgrove to the M1

Leaving Cosgrove felt like leaving civilisation behind. Whereas between Wolverton and Cosgrove both the canal and towpath had been heaving, suddenly there was now nothing at all – no dog-walkers, no boats. There were, however, dozens of crab apple trees. The fruit didn’t look quite ripe yet, and anyway I wouldn’t have wanted to carry the extra weight with so far still to walk, but in different circumstances I would have scooped up a few kilos for my wife – she’d have loved to make her favourite crab-apple jelly from them.

There was a brief sign of life as we passed under the next bridge, by the Navigation Inn – a couple of people got out of the car for a cigarette, looked over the parapet, remarked that it was “so good to get out in the country and get some fresh air” (breathing in their cigarette fumes as they did so) before getting back in their car and driving away. We pushed onwards up the canal, making sure that we got our daily allocation of fresh air too.

I was not very happy at this point – my hangover was starting to throb angrily, it was getting stiflingly hot, there was not a breath of wind, and it felt like we’d been walking along the canal for ages. There was nothing to see, a long way yet to go, and I did start to occasionally (only every ten seconds or so, you understand, nothing excessive) utter “I’m bored” and “can we go home yet”, safe in the knowledge that it was Jim’s choice of path and not mine.

Eventually, after what seemed like miles of endless featureless humidity, we finally came to the red brick bridge where we could finally turn away from the canal. We strolled down across pleasant grassy fields to cross the River Tove and re-enter Milton Keynes Unitary Authority (for the last few miles we had been on the Northamptonshire side of the border). On the far side we had a tiny little navigation problem – the path completely disappeared, with no sign of footprints or footpath markers at all. It seemed that, as far as Milton Keynesians were concerned, this was off the edge of the map. With a nifty bit of map and compass work (which frankly I’d never expected to need on this walk!) and a thankful prayer to the makers of the OS Explorer maps, we navigated our way between creeks to an overgrown stile that indicated we were on the right track (even if it was a track that no-one else used!).

We turned left up a gentle slope along the edge of a field (still no sign of any other humans coming this way), eventually turning left on a crossing track marked on the map as the Hanslope Circular Ride. This unheard-of minor route was considerably better-used than the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk seemed to be, and we were able to step up our pace to cross a minor road and enter a bizarrely long, thin field full of curious sheep. As we had left the Hanslope Ride behind at the road, we were once again pathless, but the shape of the field left us in no doubt as to the way forward, and led us through deep grass to pass through a tunnel beneath a railway.

Up ahead a small pond was marked on the map, and I had hoped that it might provide an opportunity for a lunch spot. Unfortunately it was an enclosed, raised reservoir that was barely visible, let alone accessible from the path. Fortunately the field we were now in ended with a pair of stiles, which proved a comfortable place to sit. Well, it did for me anyway – Jim’s lunch came under attack from a persistent wasp, and he spent most of the next 30 minutes running about madly trying to get away from it.

One field later, after fighting through more pathless long grass and boot-catching clover we rejoined the Hanslope Ride at a broad track which escorted us easily out to a road. Beyond that a rather better-used path took us past a farm and on to a road bridge over the M1. We played the usual game of “guess how many cars will pass underneath in 30 seconds, and for once Jim won, having undercut my standard guess of 23.


c) The M1 to Weston Underwood

Beyond the M1, at Forest Farm, we looked in some disbelief at the map. It suggested that to follow the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk, we should leave the farm drive, execute a zigzag across a field of sheep and lambs, and return to the farm drive again a hundred or so metres on. We’re normally very careful to stick to the designated route of footpaths so as not to antagonise farmers. However, in this case we decided that the farmer would probably prefer us to “trespass” over the non-public hundred yards of his drive and avoid alarming his sheep. Sometimes you do think that, where it’s clearly in the interest of both farmers and walkers to move a footpath then it needs moving. There’s many examples of footpaths across the centre of crop fields where the farmer would prefer them to go around the edge, and walkers would find it easier (assuming the distance didn’t increase too much) not to walk.

The farm was called Forest Farm, and sure enough after passing it we headed down a gentle slope towards Salcey Forest. Although the trail only dipped briefly into a corner of this huge area of woodland, I was looking forward to some respite from the hot day. Unfortunately, it was not to be had – though it seemed reasonably airy woodland which would have been very pleasant on a normal day, today it was even more oppressive and humid under the trees than it was outside them. Nevertheless, we scheduled in a quick water and snack break before leaving the forest, as the map showed some upwards contours ahead.

The hill was just one field long, but seemed far steeper than the map suggested – maybe I was just too hot and tired. It was all the more aggravating because it could have been avoided by taking the direct route here from Forest Farm, rather than the meander down to Salcey Forest. We had a lot of trouble getting out onto the road at Rooks Farm, which had been converted into a smart new family home. Our difficulties were partly due to the lack of signposting, but mainly due to our being too polite to walk through someone’s garden when their kids were actually out in it. We initially tried a different path a little further on, which proved to be impassable. Returning to the back of the property, we made our way through the extensive garden as circumspectly as possible. To compound our woes, we couldn’t find the right turn onto a footpath out of the garden, and to get out of the family’s way as quickly as possible we ended up escaping down their driveway. Amazingly, the family were the first people we had seen since we were half-way along the canal – it seems like Milton Keynesians don’t walk in the country much, which would explain the overgrown nature of many of the footpaths. A short right turn along the rather dangerous B526 got us back on track.

We gratefully left the road at Eskley Grange Farm. Another moment of navigational indecisiveness ensued, as once again we were rather embarrassed to walk down what appeared to be the driveway for some posh farm building conversions. We pushed onwards, however, and then entered fields where we had to dodge some rather frisky horses. Ahead was a slope that on the OS map looked rather steeper and longer than the one I had struggled with coming out of Salcey Forest (although by normal non-hungover standards it still wasn’t much of a hill at all). I needn’t have worried – Salcey Forest must have come at a low point in my post-beer trauma, for this one I stormed up without slowing.

The hill led into a different world – a golden, wheat-crested plateau, thrubbing with the noise of dozens of combine harvesters. I don’t know if all the farmers in the district operate some sort of co-operative, where they use all of their combine harvesters at once to bring in the wheat on each farm in turn, but there was certainly a lot of machinery here! The air was thick with wheat dust (luckily neither of us suffer hay fever) and the noise was intense. However, it’s always pleasing to see other people working hard on our days off, and so as soon as we found a place to stop a little away from the main dust cloud (hanging our legs over the edge of a concrete drain on the edge of Parkfield Spinney), we did. We watched the passing tractors with much the same curious, vaguely interested expression as their drivers did us. Friendly waves were exchanged each time one passed particularly close to us.

As we were now walking along a largely level farm track, and the humidity seemed to have finally died down a little, walking was easy and for the first time all day I started to get into my stride. The wheat ended as we bore off the farm track and began a gentle descent across grass towards the pretty thatched village of Ravenstone. However, as we have seen, the Milton Keynes Boundary Walk is shy and retiring and tries to avoid meeting people as much as possible. Rather than exploring the centre of the village, the trail wiggles through some fields to the back of it – ones that were pleasantly steep but unpleasantly populated with bullocks.

We briefly encountered the other end of Ravenstone as we crossed the village road again a little further along, before heading off on the final short leg of our journey towards our destination in Weston Underwood. For the first couple of fields the path was rather rough and weed-ridden, but then (possibly a change of farm owner) suddenly the way ahead was blazed in a cleared strip across the centre of a wheat field, and the final half-mile downhill into Weston Underwood was very easy indeed.

With its high grassy verges, stone-gated village entrances, golden-stone building and occasional thatch roofs Weston Underwood is a very attractive village. The village pub in particular looked very tempting now that my hangover had passed, but we didn’t have time to stop (and, as I had a long drive home, I couldn’t really afford to have a drink either).

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh in judging a route walked on a day when I was in no fit shape to walk it, but I have to say that on first impressions the MKBW seemed poor compared to other trails we’ve walked. After the initial excitement of the river, medieval village and the busy part of the canal, it really did seem like it was just a long slog to the end on barely-there paths, with nothing at all to see en route. Although I knew that we would eventually walk the rest (“Rule one – no quittin’”), I didn’t particularly feel any eagerness to do so, and it would remain something to do as and when I stayed over at Jim’s, rather than a goal in its own right.