Friday, 21 October 2011

Dunstable Downs Circular Walk, Via Bison Hill and Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

In which I don't go on the walk I originally intended to do, but have a nice wander round in the sunshine and am generally quite jolly.

Ordnance Survey number: Explorer 181
Distance: 4 miles approx
Time: 90 minutes

Rating: Easy-Moderate (Mostly flat, but map reading skills required. Also contains a few hazardous earth steps down the side of a bank).

My husband is a massive feminist. The F word gets a funny old press - it's got linked to a bit of fundamentalist strain, and fundamentalists of any sort are never a good thing. Most of us just want to have a cup of tea and get on with stuff - extremes are impossible to deal with. But yes, in short, men can be feminists, and I will shortly explain how this made me go all girly and produced what my husband refers to as my "Oh, Mr Darcy!" response.

Autumn has appeared, and there's been a very pleasant bite to the air along with some lovely sunny weather. That, however, was not the reason I went for a walk. The reason was due to an 'accident' with a packet of the new Cadbury's Crunchie biscuits, and I felt the need to burn off the calories.

The walk started at the Chiltern Gateway Centre on Dunstable Downs, where it was a lovely day and people were out flying kites. For a £2 car parking fee (if you're not a National Trust member), there's a shiny Eco Visitor's Centre with little seating areas inside and outside and the ability to get a cup of tea and go to the loo and change your baby's nappy. Not all at once; that would be weird.

Head down from the Visitor's Centre towards an iron lump. It may look like modern art, but it is in fact part of the eco ventilation system for the Visitor's Centre -it does something clever with the winds around the Downs to pull air underground which is then used to heat or cool the building. As rusting iron lumps go I think it's quite nice. There were a lot of rusting iron lumps in the Palace Gardens at Versailles when I was there over the summer, and I didn't like those. Incongrous, rather. I quite liked this one, however. And it's useful, too!

Turn left at the big iron lump and head walk along the clearly marked Icknield Way. All around Whipsnade, there are some really pretty waymarkers that look like they hold giant Fruit Gums with interesting designs stamped into them. It's supposed to be something to do with the history of the place, I think - there's an ammonite on the yellow disc. It's probably the sort of thing that will be dug up thousands of years from now and historians will intone "Ah... Some sort of ritual significance, possibly religious".

 The views are impressive - below the Downs it's incredibly flat and seems to stretch out forever. Not only can you watch sheep, and farmers dealing with their fields far below, but you can also watch gliders being pulled up into the sky and then flying around. It's useful that they go up so high, and my reasons for saying this will become apparant later...

But back to my husband, the enormous feminist. He works in an office with a group of women of a certain age (the sort who can sometimes be uncharitably referred to as 'a coven'), with whom he gets on very well. He's pleasant and well-presented and polite and notices when people have had their hair cut or are wearing new shoes, and the ladies of his office have somewhat adopted him. He went into work to find the following forwarded email had been printed out and left in the middle of the communal table:

New evening classes for men!

All are welcome open to men only

NB: Due to the complexity and level of difficulty, each course will accept a maximum of eight participants each.
Sign up early and get a discount on registration.
The course covers two days, and topics covered in this course include:

Day one

How to fill ice cube trays
Step by step guide with slide presentation
Loo rolls - do they grow on the holders?
Roundtable discussion
Differences between laundry basket & floor
Practising with hamper. Pictures and graphics.
The after dinner dishes & silverware - do they levitate and fly into kitchen sink or dishwasher by themselves?
Debate among a panel of experts.
Loss of virility: losing the remote control to your significant other
Help line and support groups
Learning how to find things, starting with looking in the right place instead of turning the house upside down while screaming.
Open forum

Day two

Empty milk cartons: do they belong in the fridge or the bin?
Group discussion and role play
Health watch - bringing her flowers is not harmful to your health.
Powerpoint presentation
Real men ask for directions when lost
Real life testimonial from the one man who did.
Is it genetically impossible to sit quietly as she parallel parks?
Driving simulation
Living with adults: basic differences between your mother and your wife
Online class and role playing
How to be the ideal shopping companion
Relaxation exercises, meditation and breathing techniques
Remembering birthdays, anniversaries, other important dates and calling when you're going to be late
Bring your calendar or pda to class
Getting over it. Learning how to live with being wrong all the time
Individual counsellors available

Now, I am a fan of women, but this sort of gubbins is unhelpful. When my husband came home and told me about this, I sputtered about how if it had been the other way round, and he was the only woman in an office of men, one would hope this sort of thing would be discouraged by the line manager (just to be clear here, his line manager is a man). It wouldn't be considered acceptable, I opined, finger either waving in the air or tapping firmly on the table. Treat others how you yourself would like to be treated, I pronounced.

"Well, yes," said my husband. "But that's not the reason I don't like it". And then he went on to explain. I'm afraid I liked his explanation so much there may have been some girlish giggling and flapping about.

Because having been faced with the forwarded email on the communal table, he responded by placing the following note next to it:

I find this offensive, and not simply because I am a man. Neither is it as simple as putting the shoe on the other foot and imagining what would happen if an equivalent list of evening courses for women was put on this table. I find this offensive for a different reason.

This is sexist, and it is sexist towards women.

The great strides that have been taken by women into industries, professions and boardrooms necessitate reciprocal strides by men into the domestic sphere. These strides have been taken and are being taken in the face of ridicule from the media and from women collectively seeking solidarity in documents such as this. We find this amusing primarily because a man in a domestic setting is a figure of fun. This is part of the backlash against women's liberation, in which this document is taking an active and self-defeating part. The author, in seeking to deny the cultural acceptability of a man who is capable around the house, is effectively policing the borders of women's own domestic drudgery.

I challenge this, and invite you to do the same.

I am so his fangirl.

Leaving the shameless fawning over my husband where it is, let me distract you with large bovine creatures. Bison, to be exact; this indicated that I was approaching the boundary of Whipsnade Zoo. I tried to take a picture, but it was pretty rubbish. Bison are awfully big; do go and have a look.

Turn left, continuing to follow the clearly marked Icknield Way  - it's a really obvious path between two hedgerows. The sun shone prettily through another glass waymarker, and I liked the way somone had left stones on top of it like an offering (possibly ritual significance?), so - not expecting to see it again - I took a picture.

I passed one turning onto a footpath on my left, and continued forward until another left hand turn leads you towards Whipsnade Tree Cathedral (indicating worship of nature Gods, I hear future archaeologists declaim). There's quite a narrow gap you have to wiggle through (well, you do if you've got a baby on your front and a knapsack on your back) before you pass through a field auditioning for 'Pastoral Idyll'. At the corner of this field you go into the back gate of Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, which is one of those places we've often threatened to go to, but never quite made it there. I didn't quite make it there this time, either, but it does look very nice.

Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

Follow the boundary until you pass the obelisk and the gate, and then immediately almost double back on yourself. You follow the path until you pop out onto a single-lane white road, cross over and bear right into the woodland strip of Sallowsprings Nature Reserve.

It was at this point I went wrong. I thought I had gone further than I had done, and thought a mast had been removed when I suspect it was there all along - I just never found it. Confused as to where exactly I was now, I did not do what common sense dictates. I knew vaguely where I was, so what I should have done was - wait for it - looked at the map. I should have stopped and had a good look. Instead, I did what I usually do when I feel a bit lost - got to a signpost and followed the path I recognised a name for. I knew I was on the Chiltern Way, so it couldn't be all that bad. The Chap had been fed in the last hour and was still napping in his carrier, and if the worst came to the worst it would be an hour to retrace my steps to the beginning, and a spell of bandaging of my wounded ego.

Looking back on The Field Of Confusion

Following signs for the Chiltern Way I turned left through the Field Of Confusion. My sense of direction is bad, and so I was pretty disoriented, but I sort of knew the  area I was in, so it wasn't a cause for panic. I was aware that the chances of me getting to my husband to pick him up from work at the time we had arranged was now unlikely, so I phoned him with the merry cry of 'It's fine! I know vaguely where I am! I'm still on top of a Down!". I'm sure this filled him with confidence.

Mercifully, however, while I was on the phone a glider rose up into the air to my right. Having seen the gliders earlier and knowing where they were coming from, my sense of direction was restored, and I just needed to get over there somehow.

At the end of the field there were some hazardous earth steps down to a strangely familiar path. I turned right, heading in the direction of the glider. My suspicions of where I was were confirmed when next to the path ahead of me I saw...

I thought the path seemed familiar. Maybe the stones on top were an offering after all - to the God of Those With Poor Map Reading Skills And A Dubious Sense of Direction, perhaps. We'll call him Keith. Thank you, Keith, God of Those With Poor Map Reading Skills And  A Dubious Sense of Direction!

I got to have another look at the bison (really very big), and retraced my steps, enjoying a nice view of the Down as it heads towards Dunstable. I had been facing the other way the first time, and so had failed to appreciate it.

It was not a long journey back to the Visitor's Centre and the car, and so despite the unintended route my walk had taken, it all turned out rather well. I was even only 15 minutes late picking up my husband from work. Thanks for that, Keith.

Things I Learnt
  • The Chiltern Gateway Centre is a building that breathes. It does something terribly clever with air underground, that works as both cooling and heating, and when the building gets too hot, windows by the roof automatically open and let hot air rush out. Very clever!
  • When I find myself disorientated, I should not hare off in the direction of the nearest signpost with a vaguely recognisable name. I should slow down and take a good long look at the map. That's what it's there for.
  • You can look at anything and declare that it may have ritual significance, possibly religious.

The chap chills out in his car seat while waiting
for me to take my boots off.


  1. I love it-sorry but I was laughing at the note but only because I live with an undomesticated male. I now feel reprimanded by The Husband and will not laugh again.
    You live in a lovely part of the country!

  2. Excellent blog post. Had me silently chortling all the way through, but nearly led to a coffee/keyboard incident at the naming of Keith.

  3. Have you ever seen the Benrik Gods? None of them are called Keith, but they are all useful in their own ways, such as:

    Benrik God No 9: Against Commuting Delays
    Benrik God No 558: To Prevent Gazumping and
    Benrik God No 39: To Ward Off Spam Email

    You can find a selection here:

    But none of them are called Keith, more's the pity.

  4. So it was communing with Geoffrey, god of biscuits, that lead you to Keith, God of Those With Poor Map Reading Skills And A Dubious Sense of Direction.
    Surely the gods move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.