Herts Embraced 5.2: To Brent Pelham, the edgy way

1:30 pm; Brent Pelham

I chose to take my edgy way – closer to the utter bounds of the county than the Hertfordshire Way, which took me from Royston out along the Icknield Way (a path is provided off the main road) until finally at an isolated far within shouting distance of the Essex frontier I finally turned south away from the Icknield Way for the last time and away from the Cambridgeshire border, to run instead beside that of Essex, which I have followed for the rest of the day.

It was a climb into the hills, but a gentle one – I hardly noticed the climb, though to my east was Langley, where I once sought out the highest point in Essex.  Then to Barley and on to Nuthamstead, where I joined the Hertfordshire Way for a mile or two.  (Complex paths on the very fold in the map, but a pause and a good compass found the way.

Few people along the way – a solitary dog-walker, three retired folk walking the Way, and the Cambridge Hash House Harriers out for a run.

The Black Horse, Brent Pelham

Eventually, through fields and silent woods to Brent Pelham.  It was a weird, unearthly but back-of-the-memory sound that greeted me, first a series of yelps, then many, and then a baying repeated and repeated – the foxhounds were giving tongue.

To the Black Horse (where there was no mobile reception so I did not ask about Wifi for posting this), and lunch.

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Herts Embraced 5.1: Royston start

Today I turn south at long last: the plan is to head for Bishop’s Stortford, at the border with Essex.  The Hertfordshire Way runs straight there, 21 miles; but looking out at the road running further east along the border, is there a more edgy route?  Adding a couple of loops to the Essex border might not add distance. Let’s see.

It’s a fresh start this morning. (as fresh as can be expected). A few aches but nothing to stop me starting out. If I am in actual pain I might conk out before the target destination, but I will give it a go.

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Herts Embraced 4.3: A tongue, a trespass, a ruined Roman road and a rock

Royston, 6:45 pm.

In Royston – hurrah!  That’s half-way round.

Cutting my posts on the walk itself down to two a day makes it impossible to describe everything. The occasional picture added to the post barely says anything of all there is.  What could I have said?  The apple trees!  The partridges!  The grand houses!  The lake! The black squirrel!  All these and much more.  You will have to wait for the book if ever I could write one.

Hinxworth was not actually on my original route, or only the edge of it, but I will add it now.  After a goodly lunch there I took an indirect route to Ashwell, on a path that runs north to meet a bridleway that runs along the last of the Bedfordshire border; my point furthest north on the Hertfordshire Border Walk.  Here I leave the Bedfordshire border at last and head east.

There is a lane leading away north which is not part of the route but after a mile and a half comes to the northernmost point of the county, where Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire meet.  Very tempting.

However I was aware that at this point in a walk I begin to slow down and I did not want to imperil my objective by adding another three miles to it. South then to Ashwell.

I hope that Ashwell is not forgotten, alone in this northern tongue of the shire.  It is a beautiful village, with friendly folk, wobbly cottages, bold pargeting, a turning mill wheel and an enormous church, telling of mediæval prosperity, indeed two churches and at least three pubs. The again, perhaps it is better off forgotten and left alone to be itself.  I paused here before setting off east on the Icknield Way Trail.

The Shire Balk

The Trail leads east from it to meet the Cambridgeshire border, and then a path runs down along the border for a couple of miles:  it is called “the Shire Balk”. At the end of the balk It is necessary to cut through a few hundred yards of Cambridgeshire territory by a sumptuous farm at Odsey, to reach the A505.

On these paths I caught myself smiling.  It has been a lovely day in fine places.  The last miles though took a toll.  I did not feel tired but the signs of physical exhaustion were appearing.

The A505 lies on top of a major Roman road, which marks the county border north-eastwards.  This is also the ancient track of the Icknield Way, along the bottom of the slopes: Hertfordshire owns the hills and Cambridgeshire the flat ground.  It is historically interesting but not interesting in itself, and I will not recommend walking along the A505 (which I reached ten minutes early, at 4:55) – there is no pavement nor path and though the verge is wide enough to walk on, the first mile is ropey and with frequent thorn bushes and apple trees leaning out that have to be moved aside or stepped round; and the road is treated a bit like a motorway by its drivers. After two interminable miles I diverted over Therfield Heath.  An alternative route, parallel and to the north, is a footpath following the railway, though this is within Cambridgeshire.  Other paths runs higher up the hills.  These need investigation.

Therfield Heath

I like Therfield Heath; a long, lazy, grassy slope on the chalk hills, with a broad path over it.  This is more familiar territory – I used to live outside Cambridge and often drove the A505 and sometimes came to Royston.  Much beyond the town is still a closed book though.  Had I been fresher, it would have been a highlight of the walk. The smile had gone though and my left leg was aching.  Nevertheless, the path took me exactly where I wanted to go:  Royston.

The main road through the middle of Royston is the county border.  Beneath it in the centre of town there are caves for some reason (no time to explore this time) and beside the road, on the Hertfordshire, side is a stone on a plinth, the mediæval Royse Stone, from which the town is named. (It would be really embarrassing if a daft local bureaucrat were to remove it absent-mindedly in some scheme:  they’d have to find a new name for the town.)

To rest at last, before I turn south tomorrow.

(I finally did the distance calculation on Monday evening, which puts this day’s section of the walk at 19½ miles, though that does not take account of the two miles through Hitchin to the start nor diversions for the missing path at Hinxworth etc.)

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Herts Embraced 4.2: Into the northernmost of the county

1:00 pm; Hinxworth

In the end I walked out to Ickleford, getting there before the bus even arrived.  Then straight out of Ickleford at 9:10, on a well-signposted path (the Icknield Way Trail) to the north fringe of Letchworth, then a little road walking to a path which runs northeast along the Hertfordshire / Bedfordshire border.

The main task of the morning was avoiding Letchwoth, not that I have any objection to Letchworth, but this is a border walk, and so I am tracking the paths along the border with Bedfordshire, or closest to it.  It is possible to walk actually on the border for somewhat longer, but with no wish to stroll on the A1(M) nor the A1 half-motorway come to that, I took parallel paths.

This is still completely new territory for me.  When plotting the route beforehand I was concerned about whether it was walkable.  Apart from last-minute diversions and a missing path, in fact it is walkable and the navigation is not too hard either, with the map marked up.  It needs an up to date map though: when I switched to an older map, one of the key paths, a modern cycle route, was missing.

I took a big loop out of the projected path to take me through Radwell, which was a delightful revelation.

There is a goodly string of churches along the way in tiny places – Newnham, Caldecote (which is no more than two houses – the church is in the farmhouse garden) and then Hinxworth.

The Three Horseshoes, Hinxworth

Hixworth is the northernmost village in Hertfordshire, apart from Royston.  I have just enjoyed fish and chips at The Three Horseshoes – much to be recommended.

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Herts Embraced 4.1: Starting from Ickleford

Waking up at Benslow Music in Hitchin, shortly to take a bus, or a walk, to Ickleford and begin where I left off almost two weeks ago.

The plan today is to reach Royston, which stands astride the Hertfordshire / Cambridgeshire border.  The straight route would be along the Icknield Way, which forms the main street of both Ickleford and Royston, but the county has a last trick up its sleeve:  a large tongue projecting north, licking Bedfordshire on one side and Cambridgeshire on the other, with Ashwell in the middle.  This cannot be missed out.  The resultant route is just over 20 miles.

Tomorrow morning, I should finally turn south, but let’s see where I get to today though.

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Herts embraced 3.4: The Icknield Way

6:30 – Ickleford; finish

What can I say about the Icknield Way? It is an ancient route, a prehistoric route, cut by millennia of feet and cart wheels into the chalk.  It must change every generation as new feet and new wheels pass over it.  Much has been tarmacked (the new stage will find that) but elsewhere is raw chalk.  The Icknield Way Path follows some of the route and elsewhere wanders along in the general direction.

The afternoon was glorious walking weather; bright and sunny without excessive heat.  From Lilley the route follows north through the village before darting off on a side-track to follow the waymarked “Bunyan Trail”, north to the Icknield Way path.  Then the route follows the Icknield Way Path all the way to Ickleford.  The first section joined is the genuine Icknield Way, as it climbs Telegraph Hill east of which the path forms the county border for a mile or two until just outside Pirton.  The actual Icknield Way appears to run further south at this point but I followed the modern ‘Icknield Way Path’. Through Pirton, a pretty village, the route crosses the flat, open country to Ickleford, a little place at the north edge of Hitchin, to conclude on the village’s main road, which is the old Icknield Way.  The Old George was a welcome rest stop and a fine hostelry (although not serving food on a Sunday evening, regrettably).

The Old George, Ickleford

The next stage along the border will be north to Hertfordshire northernmost village and down to Royston, but I must not get ahead of myself.

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Herts embraced 3.3: Peters Green to Lilley

3:30 – Lilley

Ever since Day 2, I have been very aware of the nearness of Luton Airport, as I walked first east, to the south of Luton, then north, to its east.  After leaving was now becoming louder.

My original plan had been to walk the paths shown through Lawrence End Farm, but they are a private drive and tracks and inaccessible; this explains while the Chiltern Way keeps to the road, as did I therefore, up to Wandon Green Farm.  The I had to find the path by Slough Wood: it is not signposted but appears on careful examination as a hole in the trees which opens up into a path.  Eventually it reaches an open field, but the harvest has made it completely disappear.  A careful compass bearing found the route, which then joined up again with the Chiltern Way to the edge of Breachwood Green.  This path is directly beneath the inbound flightpath of Luton Airport: all those EasyJet aeroplanes flying back from Malaga with passengers who have just spent two weeks lazing in the sun, and here and I down here.  They don’t know what they’re missing.

The roar of jets in the air and on the ground is ever-present here and for several miles of the path, and I could clearly seen the aircraft manoeuvring on the ground at Luton or ‘London Luton’ as it is now called. (Actually, that’s not a bad idea, for expanding London’s airport capacity – do not demolish the county’s prettiest village but redesignate more airports as ‘London’.  How about ‘London Cambridge’, ‘London Cardiff’ or better still ‘London Schiphol’.) The Chiltern Way follows on ever-closer to the edge of Luton. When out of sight of it I stopped in a silent wood to have lunch and continued then to Cockernhoe.  Then mercifully the route moves north, away from the airport.

Eventually the route brought me in to Lilley, a very pretty, privately-owned estate village, and a pint of Coca-Cola at the Lilley Arms.

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Herts Embraced 3.2: To Peters Green

12:00 – Peters Green

A lot more road-waking this morning – almost the whole way from the M1 to beyond East Hyde – and even some of the bridleways are metalled.  Nevertheless, a dry morning through new parts of Hertfordshire that I had not seen before.

The route heads east out of Markyate into the woods, and south then to cross under the M1 on a lane.  After the harvest, the footpath has been lost and I had to follow faint traces and my compass..  Then it is a long road walk to Kinsbourne Green, which defies description, and the northern fringe of Harpenden. The a stretch down the A1081, which marks the county border here, and then following the Chiltern Way north-east (on a stretch which follows a minor road paralleling and then running on the border).

River Lea at Hyde End

The River Lea forms the county border running downstream.  A small, shallow river, one can hardly imagine the way it emerges on the Thames as a broad, meandering, industrial river. Here a minor trespass is needed into Bedfordshire, and a dangerous stretch of the walk, down a busy, narrow, sinuous road with no pavement nor walkable verge on either side.

Soon though an initially metalled path runs north-east, just yards inside the boundary line, and meets a path with runs on the border north towards Peters Green.

Peters Green
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Herts embraced 3.1: From Markyate

8:00 am – Markyate

A chilled, overcast morning and likely to stay cloudy.  A vigorous walk provides the heat though.  I begin where I left off, on the main street of Markyate, a border village.  Some inhabitants may be surprised to be remined that a third of their village is in Bedfordshire but so it is:  the border runs down Buckwood Road, on which I entered the village last week, and north up the High Street.

The plan today is to head out on Hicks Road and thence out onto the bridleways and footpaths, heading east, skimming the north end of Harpenden along the county border, then north, initially along the border to meet the Chiltern Way to Lilley, then to the ancient Icknield Way, which in parts marks Hertfordshire’s northern border.  I am not familiar with any of these paths, yet.

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Herts Embraced 2.3: Open fields to Markyate

5:30 – Markyate.

What a change in the weather:  bright and sunny the whole afternoon.  This was all new territory for me since Ashridge and I had no knowledge of the landscape I was to cross.

This is a more open section, with few wood walks.  From Little Gaddesden the route passes over the fields to the village’s solitary church, alone in the fields.  From there the path dipped down into a valley at the head of the River Gade, a reminder of home.  Then after some road walking it climbs, following the Chiltern Way and Icknield Way Path.  Where the two separate, I followed the Icknield Way route to the edge of Studham.

From Studham, the path delightfully runs exactly on the boundary of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire for some miles, all the way into the centre of Markyate.

Twenty-five miles on Wednesday (Day 1) (plus a mile or two for diversions off the route).  Fifteen miles today (plus two miles for missing a junction and retracing my steps at one point!)

One question I have been asking myself is whether it would be possible to do the route on a bicycle.  One Day 1 the answer was “No” – the first sections are broad and cyclable down to the Chess, and the first bridleways up form it, but then there are too many narrow and overgrown paths and one by Cholesbury has a notice signed off by both councils (it being a boundary path) warning of hefty fines for cycling.  Of today’s sections I would say “yes”, mostly.  The first parts are road and towpaths, with bridleways after that, and more open spaces.  However it is not all cyclable.  The route remains a walking route.

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