Ok, here’s the thing: my boyfriend and I enjoy planning surprise dates for one another.
YES I KNOW. It sounds uncharacteristically romantic and adorable. But I must counteract it with the assurance that there’s an element of one-upmanship in each date (competing against both each other and ourselves) and also one time I cried because Peter’s date only involved a restaurant and he hadn’t researched a bar for afterwards. That was a low point (in my emotional stability, that is, rather than his creativity, which is generally quite excellent).
This weekend I decided to shift the action outside London. I’m a city-dweller through and through (instead of an internal nervous system I have a map of the Tube) but Peter grew up in Abingdon and misses the green spaces and occasional tree. So I googled “parks in London” and discovered Burnham Beeches. Confusingly it’s not actually in London, but operated by the City of London Cooporation who, with great foresight, bought the area in 1879 to save it from town planners. Despite being totally famous, I’d never actually heard of it before, probably because it exists beyond dragon land (Acton) and therefore I ignored its existence. And that’s a shame because I learned 24 hours too late that it was the filming location for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Holy moly, the reenactment opportunities we missed . . .
My first revelation came when I realised that Ealing is further out of London than Acton. I’m not sure why I didn’t know that already, particularly since I came very close to buying a flat in Acton, and I’ve been to Ealing specifically for pizza so you’d think I would have remembered the journey. But as we cycled endlessly along Uxbridge Road (with a small detour en route to Laveli Bakery for some ok croissants and excellent sourdough) I did think “well THIS is further than I anticipated”. Yes, I had googlemapped it but some things just need to be experienced to be believed. This included the increasing drabness of Uxbridge Road segueing into Acton’s upwardly-mobile high street, a descent into grim concrete at the junction with the North Circular and then a surprising leap into pleasantly bustling suburbia in central Ealing. As routes go, it’s not a particularly exciting cycle ride from Shepherds Bush but it’s always quite fascinating to travel a more-or-less linear path down a single road, and witness the changing surroundings, especially in a city as diverse as London.
Ealing Broadway brought brunch in the form of Maggie’s, an American diner offering generous stacks of pancakes, chirpy staff, fantastic music, and an ugly bicycle hanging from the ceiling. Our location next to the window enabled us to witness a man walk past Grazel, stop and stare for a minute, then write a note and leave it in her basket. The moment he’d left, I dashed outside to retrieve it, and discovered this:
Obvs I have emailed Mr Sapsed with a resounding THE FUCK YES (thank you Caitlin Moran) but perhaps due to my overenthusiasm and lack of coolness, have sadly have not yet received a response. Fingers crossed for an imminent photoshoot. I definitely have the required attitude. I may even give Grazel a spring clean in anticipation (haha not really. I might add some more flowers to cover the grime, though. Story of my life).
After brunch we hopped on a train to Slough which was brilliant because Peter’s face was a sort of screwed-up confusion which suggested “I’d like to be excited, but my train ticket says Slough”. It only took 22 minutes (who knew?!) before we had arrived at David Brent’s hometown and location of one of Europe’s biggest Tescos.
After a quick pit-stop at the aforementioned megastore for a coffee at Harris + Hoole (surprisingly pleasant, good cappuccinos) and picnic ingredients (they didn’t have tiny cucumbers. Why does nobody have tiny cucumbers?), off we set on our bikes for a 40 minute cycle ride up to Burnham Beeches.
Googlemaps claims it takes 27 minutes to which I say HAHAHAHAHA GOOD ONE, GOOGLE. I’d planned the route on Citymapper which estimated a more reasonable 37 minutes but neglected to point out that it was up one long continuous hill. So the route looked like this:
Bearing in mind we’d already cycling from SheBu to Ealing and were on our city bicycles, which weigh 25kg without riders, baskets, 2 litres of water, and picnic ingredients, not to mention the other essentials (blanket, additional layers, Sunday Times, Bananagrams).
Let’s just focus in on the final part of the journey, shall we?
I don’t believe the map does it justice and you’re probably thinking “a gradual rise of 100ft? Whatevs, losers, I could do that on a gearless penny farthing” but it was constantly uphill for over a mile and part of it was practically vertical. Frankly I thought I was going to die and immeasurably regretted the bright idea to cycle on bikes designed for Holland’s pancake-flat roads in the effing mountainous countryside. Damn that mountainous countryside. DAMN ALL THE COUNTRYSIDE.
Happily, we arrived as living human beings on intact bicycles, only to discover that Burnham Beeches itself is also built on what Peter called “basically a pit”, i.e. the inside is MUCH lower down than the outer roads, and impossible to realise from the outside or, indeed, a map. Still, off we careered, doing a lap and crossing a couple of times before realising that one more dip and rise and it would truly be the end of the world.
We dragged our sorry selves to one of the small grassy glades – most of the park is still covered with trees – for our well-deserved picnic, and a game of al fresco Bananagrams. (Technically I won but Peter managed to include “git” and “loser”, so he held the moral victory).
Burnham Beeches is an ancient forest and that was enough for me. I love the word “ancient”. It’s so evocative. They’ve got pollards over 400 years old and it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book. In fact it’s filled with history I neglected to research before our trip which makes me feel I failed immeasurably. I can say however that it’s a beautiful woodland which appears to have been untouched for millennia, blanketed by piles of crisp leaves spread under the knobbly old trees, filled with blissful silence, and plenty of paths and roads closed to cars but openly welcome to cyclists. They stress the importance of avoiding off-road cycling but frankly the paved bits should provide more than enough opportunity for exploring the area. It may only be one square mile but you only need to go in a short way in before you’ll feel cut off from the rest of the world.
I was far too busy remembering to breathe to take any photos, so here are a few courtesy of Flickr, to give you an idea.
Burnham Beeches really is a gorgeous place to visit, and had I appreciated its potential for exploring, I probably wouldn’t have insisted on so much excitement beforehand. Still, it was undoubtedly an ideal place to end up after a relatively active day, even if chillier than expected, and really excellent if you want to step back in time to how the whole of Buckinghamshire would have looked half a century ago. Living in the frenetic concrete jungle, I tend to forget how beautiful England can still be, and appreciate these reminders.
Kazuo Ishiguro sums it up nicely in The Remains of the Day:
We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective. And what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.
It’s also pretty unusual to find a forest in the UK comprised mostly of just one species of tree, so I imagine it would look stunning in the autumn when the leaves are simultaneously turning similar shades of gold. I’d definitely return, if only to live out my Sherwood Forest fantasies (although I’m more of a Maid Marian and her Merry Men kind of a woman, to be honest) and possibly not after cycling from Shepherds Bush to Ealing and up that sodding hill.
Still, another successful outing beyond the M25 with city bikes, and more examples of how these packhorses can be used even for less obvious journeys. Next stop: the Peak District!
(Oh god, I can’t even joke about that . . . my poor miserable legs. It’s Norfolk or nothing).