10 miles (16 kilometres). October, clouds and sun, cool. Solo with silly dog
The River Chess is just 11 miles long, rising from the Chiltern hills north of Chesham (from which it gets its name) and disappearing into the River Colne at Rickmansworth. For quite a lot of those miles it is full of watercress, so the river Cress might have been a better name. But most of all I prefer its old name, the Pittlesburn. The piddle stream.
I walked the Chess valley the other way about, beginning in Rickmansworth but the Chess Valley Walk is well signposted from either end. As well as being full of cress in places, it is also in places full of school children. If you go to school in the area I can pretty much guarantee you will be knees deep in it for a geography field trip at some point. Several times judging by the range of ages. What a fine way to do lessons.
Leaving the town behind, I reach the river where the water was running beautifully clear. With 160 of them, England has over three quarters of the world’s chalk streams, just consider that for a moment. The Chess is a chalk stream, filtered through the chalk aquifer of the Chiltern hills which means it contains very little gunk and being alkaline it is a very very special habitat for wildlife, including mayfly and trout. Which makes it all the more bizarre that from 2014 to 2021 Thames Water thought it was fine to periodically discharge raw sewage into it. I imagine they thought it was cheaper than fixing their pipes. I pay these idiots money to do these things.
Following the walk signs and sometimes you are following a heron, sometimes a blue and yellow roundel, but my favourite is these old trout. There don’t seem to be many of these left (perhaps the River Chess Association changed them thinking there won’t be any trout left if Thames Water doesn’t stop killing them).
I pass the first group of kids splashing about with poles and measuring tapes, I wish we’d been allowed to do this in the Wharfe, I could have drowned some bullies in it. There were rumours that Kenny ran away from school by swimming it but he never came back.
There’s a jay flying in front of me, he lands in the ash tree, shaking a few leaves loose. The Chess might be piddling but it is lovely. There were several mills back in the day, and here the river was known as the Loudwater. It’s almost silent now.
The walk doesn’t keep you by the riverside and there’s the first of some very miserly paths between properties, wire and fencing as though it’s trench warfare. Wear long trousers as there’s no way to avoid walking through nettles. Before long you pass over my old friend the London Orbital (M25).
There’s some fantastic wilderness beneath the embankment. It’s pesticide- (although not pollutant-) free, the M25 is a studied and interesting wildlife habitat and corridor.
Then through one of many nature reserves I reached Sarratt, where they still cultivate watercress commercially. There’s a lovely private stretch of river with a heron fishing. But more interesting was an interesting striated hill, the remains of a 9th century system of lynchets, or terraces to protect crops from the marshy ground. It’s suggested that grapes were grown during the medieval warm period. The photo, of course, doesn’t do it justice.
There are more children in the river near the watercress beds noisily enjoying themselves and soon I’m following a lovely stretch of river again, where my son and I walked recently. The watercress is everywhere. There’s so much of it I have to stop to check i’m not confusing it with a wild plant that I’ve misidentified. It’s more of a mead or water meadow here.
The path climbs up to Latimer house which I assume is a fancy hotel. The views up here are sweeping. I understand part of the reason for that is the baron swept away any homes that were spoiling his view. The hotel has put up irritating signs on the fence which state ‘no peaking’. The hotel clearly doesn’t think common people should be looking in, but not enough to put up a larger fence which would stop the guests peaking out at the nice view. Hypocrisy.
I find an excellent mushroom by the woods, which my book tells me is a magpie inkcap. It is actually a toadstool for goth pixies. It also stinks and is poisonous but you could probably guess that just from looking at it.
From Latimer we walk through farmland where one of the calves wants to play with Shovell and starts following him. I’ve one eye out for its ma so we quickly get across the field, much to Shovell’s annoyance as he was hoping to roll in some cowshit. Then an industrial estate and more strangulated paths between wire fencing, this time more like a badly designed zoo. Eventually we reach civilisation and the water meades on the outskirts of Chesham, known as Chesham Moor. There’s a breeze blowing across the meadow and we are walking through a shower of leaves. Never mind forest bathing, we are tree showering.
It’s a sad fact that in recent years the Chess has been badly affected by drought, disappearing almost entirely in 2005 and 2012. It is thought that water abstraction by the Nestlé bottled water plant nearby was responsible in 2005 and thankfully it lost its licence. Other pumping stations have also closed, the locals encouraged not to waste water in dry summers and there is now a plan in place to try to manage the drought risk. If Thames Water can just be persuaded to stop poisoning it, and HS2 to stop stealing water from Chiltern aquifers (oh yes, stealing) then the lovely River Chess may have a bright future.
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More walks in this area
An informative printable leaflet is available from The River Chess Association website here, the Chiltern Society website also has the walk with minor differences. You can also download and follow my GPX here but the walk is reasonably well signposted and could be walked in either direction. Both stations are on the Metropolitan Line making it an easy trip from London.
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