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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Herts Embraced 2.2: Aldbury, Ashridge, Gaddesden

1:15 – The Bridgewater Arms, Little Gaddesden. Trompé jusqu’aux os.

From Tring Station (which is a hamlet in itself, not in Tring) a little loop through the fields and down to Aldbury, a pretty village.

For much of this stretch I was shadowing the Chiltern Way.

Out of Aldbury it climbs steeply up the scarp of the Chilterns through the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate to the Bridgewater Monument.  The rain by this time was very heavy, but the National Trust café by the monument had some shelter as I tucked into a scone (although I was shocked that they had jam on top of the cream, and jam in the proper position beneath it, which is I suppose a compromise between the two opinions on the matter, ie the correct one and the wrong one.

They take law and order seriously in Aldbury

The path then follows the long vista shadowing the county boundary from the Monument almost to the bounds of Ashridge College. The county border, incidentally, runs through the college’s dining room.  (Ashridge used to be a training school for Conservative leaders, but no longer.  Presumably someone ruled that educational charities may not be political, or something.  That would be a surprise to most other colleges these days.)

At this point the county borders are complicated by geography.  Herts and Bucks here are like two vast fish hooks curled around each other, so following the boundary is not practical.  Instead the route takes a quick cut through of less than a mile on Buckinghamshire territory and emerges at Little Gaddesden, a long strangled, pretty village in Hertfordshire.  The Bridgewater Arms is to be recommended, by the way.

Next I am looking west, along the county’s border with Bedfordshire.  The rain  has stopped for a bit.

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Herts Embraced 2.1: Canal walk to Tring Station

11:20 – Tring Station

Starting where I left off in Long Marston, the path begins along the roads to the Grand Union Canal Aylesbury Arm.  Thereafter it sticks to the towpath all the way to the main canal and on to the station.

I have to remind myself that this is a boundary walk. The main Grand Union Canal lies along the county border (as here it is essentially a canalised part of the River Bulbourne)  to Bulbourne itself.

Currently raining hard (which was not forecast yet).  Next step, east into the Ashridge Estate.

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Grand Union Canal near Bulbourne

Herts Embraced 1.5: Canals and reservoirs to Long Marston

8:00 pm, in the Queen’s Head, Long Marston.  (Typed after I returned home.)

The path down from the county top descended swiftly and soon I was off the Chilterns.  Skirting along the northern edge of Tring and turning north, I entered a very different part of Hertfordshire, one which owes its geography more to the Vale of Aylesbury.

The path ran down to an abandoned arm of the Grand Union Canal – the Wendover Arm.  That said, it is not entirely abandoned: west of the bridge the canal was ‘in water’, while east of it, behind an earthen dam, the canal was dry and overgrown, but a “Restoration” banner attached to the bridge pointed to the dry section.  Beyond the canal, the Wilstone Reservoir was visible, and this was the next destination.  North of the reservoir I met the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union, which was in water and operative.

However, I had been noticing for several miles that my pace was slowing significantly and my feet were in revolt.  I did not feel tired as such, I rarely do when walking, but a slowed pace and occasional blurred vision were telling what my brain refuses to accept.

From the Aylesbury Arm I took the road to Puttenham, which is not on the route I had originally mapped but s a worthy addition to the route.  It is Hertfordshire’s westernmost village, and Puttenham is also Hertfordshire’s only Thankful Village – a village to which all who had served in the Great War returned alive.

The light was fading by this time.  I sought the route across the fields to the neighbouring village, Long Marston – the farthermost of the Tring Salient nd more importantly a place with a pub.  Somehow I missed the intended path (they are very poorly signposted and the descending night did not help) but came to Long Marston in the end, and was soon downing a pint of lemonade.

Earlier in the day I had considered heading from Long Marston south-east to the main canal and following it to Tring Station but I was clearly not up to another six miles or so by that time so Long Marston, point furthest north in the Tring Salient, concludes the first day.

Day two should begin where I left off, heading down to Tring Station and then across the Ashridge Woods.  That will not be tomorrow (domestic and civic duties to be done) but will follow shortly.

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Herts Embraced 1.4: to the County Top

5:10 – I have now reached the highest point in Hertfordshire, at Pavis Wood on the county’s border with Buckinghamshire.  This is about as far as I thought I would get today, but the path sloping gently down from here is very tempting.  I just have to ignore the point that my left leg is aching and my right foot throbbing.

This stretch has been a mixture of wooded paths and scrub track, suddenly bursting into broad wheatfields at their ripest and even the parkland of a great house with noble oaks.  Around Cholesbury the woods get dense and thorny as if to bar the way from Buckinghamshire – it is a betwixt-and-between stretch of country, as I suppose a borderland is meant to be.

Now, that path leading north …

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Herts Embraced 1.3: Bovingdon to Hockeridge Bottom

1:30, eating lunch at a pub.  I am well into the Chilterns now.

Crossing Bovingdon Churchyard still following the Hertfordshire Way, the route soon led out across the vast expanse of the Little Heath Golf Course. It needs care, but the route can be followed. Then the A41 is crossed for the first time, to Bourne End.  From here the path turns west, and into the hills.

After crossing back over the A41, the route drops down to the county border at Bottom Farm. Then it climbs again.  I began to realise that I added wide loops to the route just for the sake of keeping on or as close as possible to the county border. It makes for an interesting walk most of the time, but in the hills it adds ups and downs. Picturesque ones though.

The dogs at Harriotts End Farm so vocal in their criticism of my passing, did have a point:  the farm track west of the farm is not a public right of way, so the route should be diverted. I descended to Hockeridge Bottom, which valley bottom marks the county border, but found no linking path, so as it was past 1, I crossed into Buckinghamshire to find a pub (The Golden Eagle in Ashley Green – to be recommended). When I have finished filling my belly I will wobble back down to the Bottom and follow the border path along and out to the next objective.

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