For years I assumed that a walk following Surrey’s long and highly varied boundary would not be practical. I like to walk in Surrey and have got to know a number of happy paths through the middle of the county, but I could not see paths at the edge, one border excepted.
Surrey has particular qualities. The roads in Surrey are single-minded: principally they head to and from London, so if a drives chooses to drive athwart these routes it is a tortuous journey. The footpaths are mainly little ones between villages and even the most famous long-distance route, the Pilgrim’s Way, was invented by a Georgian cartographer from many such disjoined paths. At the edges, the paths seemed few. I have enjoyed many a long and glorious walk may on the footpaths in the green heart of the county, amongst the North Downs and the Weald, and along the Tilbrook amongst others, there are not so many around the border. It is as if the footpath network shared the same aim as the roads – to London.
However, much work has been done in latter years to devise new waymarked routes on the edges of Surrey. Knitting them together and roping in new, local paths, and admittedly some road-walking, it is possible.
The first sketch I made is very close. You find trespasses into neighbouring counties with every boundary path, and there are a few more than I would have wished, into Sussex in the south in particular. That could be drawn in a bit.
On the northern border, we have the Thames Path to follow all the way from Deptford to Runnymede, but this too steps over onto the Middlesex bank – that cannot be helped, as there are long stretches where the well-to-do villas of Surrey folk run their gardens all the way down to the riverbank – and good for them, as it is a delightful river in those parts.
In the west, by Hampshire, we now have the Blackwater Valley Path established by the local councils thereabouts in the last few years. By the Kentish border, a local council has established a path named after the local Hundred (and after the council with a borrowed name which devised the path) namely the Tandridge Boundary Path. These are both very good routes for our purpose.
In the south, the county border is with Sussex, and is in the hills and woods. The Sussex Border Path provides a route though its preference to to dip into the latter county.
This may take work, but an appropriate route, of about 175 miles, should be possible.
The Hertfordshire Border Path from Ashwell heads east then south-west along the Shire Balk, marking the county border, before nipping through the outermost corner of Cambridgeshire at Odsey Hall to emerge on the A505, which marks the border of Hertfordshire with Cambridgeshire for several miles. I walked along the verge of the A505 for two miles, on the southern, Hertfordshire side, but found it to be not only unpleasant but dangerous: for the first mile or so it is a narrow verge with thorn bushes in places projecting out to the carriageway of a frequently busy, 70 mph road. After a mile it becomes a broad sward, but we cannot have the Border Walk involving a lethal mile.
Odsey was the centre of my walk this morning. It is a hamlet in the south-westernmost corner of Cambridgeshire. There is a grand house here, Odsey Hall, and surrounding estate houses, and a station, Ashwell and Morden, with a pub and adjoining cottages, and little else. The name is also that of the neighbouring Odsey Hundred of Hertfordshire – whether there was an original village of Odsey south of the road in Hertfordshire I do not know, but the hamlet of today is firmly on the Cambridgeshire side of the road.
I rejoined the route at a point (TL290382) where the south-west path crosses the railway on an unguarded footpath level crossing, and here the two alternatives split.
Along the A505, north side
I first followed the path south, through a meadow belonging to Odsey Hall emerging at the A505. This time, instead of crossing, I walked along the north side of the road. I kicked myself for not having done this before: the verge is far better for walking. The first two hundred yards or so are a bit narrow, but quite walkable and with no hazards; it can be uncomfortable when a tractor or a lorry bowls past at speed but you are off the carriageway at all times, which I could not say for the south side verge. The shrubs do not project over the path, and it looks walked. Parts are gravelled and soon there is a tarmac path, leading to the mouth of Station Road.
Continuing past station road, the verge is very wide, green and kind underfoot. This I followed for about a mile and a half. Eventually I came to the Horse & Groom, a pub which for as long as I remember has been abandoned and boarded up – it is now at the time of writing a ruin, broken open and smashed by vandals and the weather, but now bearing a “Sold” sign, which promises a long overdue demolition. That is a distraction though: the pub is a landmark but do not go that far as beyond it the verge becomes impassable safely, and I did not try. Instead, I crossed the road before the pub, at the crossing-gap in the central reservation by Thrift Cottages, and continued east-northeast on the south side of the road to The Thrift; whence the route continues up the drive and over fields, but that did not need resurveying.
(Crossing the A505 takes speed and a good look-out but there are no bridges or tunnels.)
The railway path
The alternative path is one running immediately north of the railway. As you might guess, I walked this back to the original point, but I will describe it forwards.
From the point by level crossing, turn left, and take the path east-northeast, parallel to the railway. This is not apparently a public right of way, but a resident of a house that backs onto it told me that it is used frequently by the public for dog-walking and normal walking. (He mentioned a sign saying it is not a right of way, but I did not spot it.) This path is a good, broad path that has been used by vehicles and horses. It continues past a gate as a driveway access to a number of houses, which in turn emerges on Station Road opposite the station access for Ashwell and Morden Station. The station access is a public right of way, leading straight through the station car park and turning into a good footpath.
It is a pleasant enough path, if you ignore the scrapyard behind the station and chalk-quarrying, which are a brief interruption. It runs mainly between a hedge and the railway before emerging into a field edge (the main picture on this page), then turns south on a tarmacked farm track to meet the A505.
At this point, it would be tempting to try to cross the road, but do not: follow the broad grass verge until the wrecked Horse & Groom comes in sight, then look for the crossing-gap in the central reservation by Thrift Cottages: cross here (carefully) and continue east-northeast to The Thrift.
The railway path is the more pleasant path in that it is away from the road, but there is little to choose between them in the walking otherwise. The A505 route is along the county boundary, one side of it; the railway path is a little away from it, but in sight. The railway path starts on a frequently used path but not a public right of way, and you do not get to enjoy the brief scoot over the Odsey Hall Estate.
A compromise could be to take the original route, across the level crossing and the meadows to the A505, walk the verge on the north side of the road as far as Station Road, and then go up that road to join the railway path at the station.
Both of these routes, in particular the railway path, are outside our county, and run through Cambridgeshire for a mile and a half or more, which is a long ‘Trespass’. Nevertheless it is as Brooke explained, ‘Cambridgeshire, of all England a shire for men who understand’, and I am sure they would understand – no one came running at me with spears or mortarboards.
After the last ‘excitement’ with the HS2 works, all went smoothly to plan: straight along Shire Lane, which is variously a road and a broad, woodland path. As it approaches Chorleywood, the path shows the signs of once having been a crudely metalled road. Then it begins to turn into a road as farms appear at the top, then cottages where the tarmac begins, then as it descends the village appears around it, and all the way, it marks the border of Hertfordshire to the east from Buckinghamshire to the west, even as the village grows around it.
So I followed the lane along the road, the path and the road again, down into Chorleywood, and as the railway bridge appeared at the bottom of the valley, I knew the end was, literally, in sight, and the last stroll down just seemed so ordinary as people were getting on with their own business as every day. I however had walked 170 miles to get to where I was, where I started.
I found in my walk parts of Hertfordshire I thought I knew but which were unfamiliar close to, and a county well worth embracing.
I should have finished long since, but for unwanted engineering. I started as planned where I left off and completed the Boundary Path to Batchworth Heath, then entered Bishop’s Wood where, despite a minute or two of doubt, I managed to follow the planned path through the wood, and across Woodcock Hill. After Fieldways Farm the route nips across the north-westernmost corner of Middlesex down to the Colne and the Grand Union Canal, across which I re-entered Hertfordshire.
In this stretch I came across a sponsored walk in aid of the Michael Sobell Hospice; a popular walk by the numbers I greeted.
After Coppermill Lock I left the charity walkers. I walked south beside the canal and then crossed between the lakes and to the southernmost point of Hertfordshire. So far, so good.
Old Shire Lane begins at the Uxbridge Road, at the Buckinghamshire border. I followed this wooded path west and north, on the county border, and intended to follow it all the way to Chorleywood, but north of the path the whole landscape is filled with the works for the HS2 line Then when I got to a cross-track I found that the Department of Cussedness has closed Old Shire Lane, rot them.
I therefore took a long diversion out to Chalfont St Peter, and a path back – which itself was blocked when I got to the end. (Never mind how I got to the lane again.) The roads have been messed around so much that I missed the footpath part of Old Shire Lane and so had a diversion-from-the-diversion-from-the diversion. Hence being very far behind time (that and sitting down to blog it).
It should now be a straight run in from here; well, let’s see.
Last day today. I am starting where I finished yesterday, where the boundary path crosses the railway line (between Moor Park and Northwood stations; I will walk there from Northwood). Then the plan is to carry on westward to the end of the path, and work my way through Bishop’s Wood Country Park and Woodcock Hill to West Hyde’s Coppermill Lock. To the south is the county’s southernmost point, where Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Buckinghamshire meet, and a footpath that runs along the county border all the way to the top of Shire Lane in Chorleywood, which lane then runs along the county border to the station, which is where I started on Day 1. Nine days to get back to where I started.
The rain eased off a little after my late lunch. Behind Bushey Heath a path runs out across the open space called Merry Hill, with far views over the valley southwards with barely a house to be seen. Whatever your ideas of this congested part of our county, there is its natural state still to be found.
Eventually though it drops down to Carpenders Park, where the habitations of man begin, then it is along the road some more, compassing round Carpenders Park and South Oxhey, where the route heads south to the path along the county border, watched and occasionally followed by curious horses. Then through Nascot Wood and Oxhey Wood, where I followed an unsystematic westward path, to hit the exactly right spot.
At the end of the wood begins the path known locally as just ‘the Boundary Path’, which runs for two miles along the border of Hertfordshire with Middlesex, cutting between houses, even across roads, turning from a narrow, muddy path to a broad, clear one almost randomly, with great oaks or their stumps all along the way, suggesting it was once an estate boundary path. Here then I came to the railway line and called it a day, just over ten miles from the finish where I began. That is for tomorrow.
2:45 pm: The Three Crowns, Bushey Heath. Raining. Cold, wet.
What soaring dramas were created in Elstree! Here Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra (Richard Burton in one production, Sid James in another and you can guess which was the commercial success). Those studios are gone now and built over. Infamy!
The whole of the Old Village appears closed too. Straight on then; north a way then a path across to Aldenham Country Park (while that lasts). The path lies across the embankment marking the north of the Aldenham Reservoir (which I think in the context of all this manwrought landscape we can honour with the name of ‘lake’). There for lunch and .. they had closed the café! Thank goodness for the kiosk and its sole remaining hot sausage roll. Nowhere to dry out though or warm up, so it was straight on to Bushey Heath.
It is very wet. The rain started as I came to Totteridge and has been getting heavier, and I just have to carry on.
It is too much road walking here and Tina is a harsh mistress (“This Is No Alternative”). Eventually though I came to the main road through Bushey and Bushey Heath, and blessed be The Three Crowns for a toasted cheese and ham sandwich with chips.
(On Day 1 I stopped at the highest point in Hertfordshire, at the edge of Pavis Wood. Just along the road from here, at the border of Middlesex, is the highest point in that county. The border is marked by a small stream, which means that the stream is at the top of a hill. Odd.)
In a moment I must part from the warm pub and head out into the rain again – Carpenders Park, South Oxhey and the Boundary Path call me.
It was an odd clash of cultures I started through, from the busy town, Barnet, just after 9 am and its accompanying sports field to the stream trying its best to preserve its natural dignity amidst the trespassing hand of man. There is no path on the western bank, the Hertfordshire side as this is the land of the South Herts Golf Club, and so I gingerly trod the Middlesex bank, keeping a look-out for hostiles, though here they tend not to wield pitchforks but smartphones. (which is odd – you can’t drive off invaders with an iPhone, not pick up a bale of hay, so what use are they?)
As soon as the golf course finished I waded across the Dollis Brook (if it is wading when the stream is just an inch deep) only to find there is a bridge, and followed the brook all the way down to Totteridge Lane, where I had to resume on Middlesex soil. until again I could cross.
At the southern edge of Totteridge is a perfect village pond beside a farmhouse and a cottage. The path then runs down over a broad heathland and woodland lower down, through which I walked, down to a lake surrounded by woods. From here I walked paths through farmland, grazed by great black cattle. All this is marked on maps as ‘the London Borough of Barnet’, but can any bureaucrat see all this and seriously label it ‘London’? This is Hertfordshire land as sure as any.
I had some double-takes as I was using the same Ordnance Survey Explorer 173 ‘London North’ on which I marked the Middlesex Greenway and the two paths are so close here that I had to keep reminding myself which pencil line I was following.
At last, after a long perambulation across the heath and farmland I came to the meadows of Totteridge, which must be one of my favourite villages in Hertfordshire.
All along Totteridge Common – the houses, oh the houses! Eventually I passed a house named ‘Boundary House’ after which the road suddenly became louder, more uncouth: I had left Hertfordshire.
Somewhere in the woods I got lost. I took a footpath through the woods, another short incursion into Middlesex, to avoid the road, and it was pretty indeed, but somehow I ended up on the A1. (I will have to come back and explore it from the other end to get the right track.). Thereafter it was a long walk along the road runs along the border to Elstree Village.
This morning I feel the end in sight. I am starting at High Barnet Station, where I left off last weekend. Chipping Barnet, or High Barnet, is in that hook of Hertfordshire which sticks into the body of Middlesex and I could go deeper into that finger of the county, as far as the edge of Southgate, but sanity prescribes limits. As it is I will be passing within less than a mile of my previous day’s path in.
From the station I will walk down to the Dollis Brook and follow it down to where the border turns, and then by the Folly Brook (yes, I though that too) I find the broad greensward of Totteridge Common, wonderfully preserved to hold back the encroaching metropolis. Totteridge itself is a well-to-do village very Hertfordshire in spite of its position and bureaucratic arrangements. From here the way leads, by some necessary short trespasses through the corner Middlesex, up to Elstree and a road stretch along the border to Bushey and as best I can to Carpenders Park, South Oxhey and the Oxhey Woods.
The border path through Mimmshall Woods is a delight, ended too soon. At this point I had almost to double-back on myself to follow the border as it describes a deep hook into the body of neighbouring Middlesex.
South-west, across the M25, then south to the little village of Ridge. Out of Ridge, I could see the church in High Barnet across the valley, but it was still two hours’ trudging. There is a danger after a while of concentrating on the path and not appreciating the wild beauty about it. How much I must have missed.
Two seriously invisible, ploughed-up paths here: a compass bearing was needed each time. Soon, it crossed back across the A1. Oh. (Memo to the Department of Transport – when you provided a helpful footbridge to carry a path over a trunk road, put it where the path is, not quarter of a mile up the road.)
Suddenly the farms turned to stables, and at once to the outermost suburb, Arkley. Thereafter roads led into Chipping Barnet, or High Barnet (which are alternative names for the same place, if marked separately on the OS map). The station is High Barnet: the outermost of the Tube network.