Herts Embraced 7.1: From Cheshunt, heading westwards

Today, after a missed weekend, I start where I left off two weeks ago, in Cheshunt.  The plan is to complete the last mile of the Essex border and then turn east at long last, along the border with Middlesex, towards Barnet.

The first mile is a farewell to a puzzling place – the Lea Valley.  What industrial torture that pure river, the Lee, suffered in days past I can only guess at to leave its valley scarred and its streams sliced up and diverted.  There must have been massive gravel extraction, hence the lakes, and the canalisation of the River Lea has left just overflow streams, one marked as the Old River. It is in some penance for those days that the land here has been designated the ‘Lee Valley Regional Park’.

I will turn east just a mile from the three shire point – Hertfordshire, Essex and Middlesex – and where I finished the Middlesex Greenway last year).  Then east, meeting I hope some woods which should be familiar.  It is not the straight route though:  I must loop north of and around Potter’s Bar, as that town is in Middlesex.  Chipping Barnet to its south though is in Hertfordshire, and is my destination, if the light holds and I can keep going.

It is to be a late start though – the trains are fewer and slower on the Lord’s Day.  I will be prayerful, as I tend to be when amongst the wonders of creation.

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Herts Embraced 6.3: The New River and an old one, to Cheshunt

Cheshunt, 5:30 pm.

My first destination of the afternoon after crossing the meadow was the Rye Meads Sewage Works, which announced their presence from afar off and did not fill me with hope. The works fill the corner between the River Stort and the River Lea (or Lee, there is no fixed spelling) which is why I headed further in, to the New River.  Incongruously though, after what felt like a mile of sewage-estate, I came across the remains of a gorgeous late-mediæval house – Rye House – famous for the Rye House Plot of 1683, and now just a gatehouse, in stark contrast to the modernity about it.

Rye House

The New River is a remarkable achievement, running from the springs at Amwell it is a real river, in that it flows, but wholly man-made, created to take water to London, and now a good, green route south for me.  I was not looking forward to the afternoon’s walk as the map shows a belt of continuous urban development all the way south to join that of Middlesex, but in the event the New River Path leads straight through to provide a good path and a pleasant one. My goodness, some of the houses leading down to the riverbank!

I eventually turned off the path at Wormely and cut through to the River Lee (or Lea) and a path running south down its valley. Oh Lea (or Lee), what have they done to you? Where once there was a river, centuries of excavation and industry have left lakes and a canal and odd channels, and somewhere in among it must be the old course of the old River Lee (or Lea).  I followed it down and after a few false turns eventually found Cheshunt station, but took the opportunity to dash into the woods on occasion to see the lakes and channels.

I looked down the canalised River Lea (etc) and remembered that just a little to the south is the spot at the corner of Middlesex where I finished the Middlesex Greenway last year.  Well, it was time to go to the station to come home (by way of The Maltsters), but next time I will step another mile south and then say farewell to the border with Essex and turn west at long last.

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Herts Embraced 6.2: a morning by the river

What a contrast from other days.  I started in Bishop’s Stortford just before 8:30 am and set off at once down the River Stort, a canalised version of it at least.  It seemed a bit of a roundabout way that I got to Sawbridgeworth at last, by riverside, meadow, road an river again, and a ploughed path was annoying. Pretty place.

Then south of Sawbridgeworth I followed the Harcamlow Way – as weird a waymarked route as you can imagine, if not as weird as mine, but here perfectly practical and logical; down to the river and along the towpath, which I followed (on the Hertfordshire side almost all the way) for several miles, variously a silent river and a busy one, never an ugly one, until Roydon. I have just had my lunch in a field north of that village and am about to set forth for the afternoon’s endeavours.

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Herts Embraced 6.1: The Stort to start

Today I continue south, aiming to complete Hertfordshire’s border with Essex. If I cross the line I must hope the natives are not waiting to drive me off with pitchforks this time.  As long as I don’t announce my intention by publishing it on the internet or anything….

Today’s start, after two weeks’ indolence, is where I left off, in Bishop’s Stortford.  The border is a wet one; marked first by the River Stort, then the River Lea, so I will try to follow the riverside walks and towpaths (both rivers have been canalised) as far as I can, but on the Hertfordshire side of the border.

I must say that as the rivers have been straightened, by the hand of man the border does not follow the centre of the stream all the way, and in places there is no way through but by a small trespass onto the Essex side.

The way looks gentler, in the green river valleys, until I reach the urban, industrial corner of Hertfordshire, which I do not know at all.  It may turn out to be a pleasant surprise, as have all the previous stretches.  I will see.

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Herts Embraced 5.3: To Bishop’s Stortford

7:30; Bishop’s Stortford

I had the satisfaction of knowing that Brent Pelham was the last village on the route before Bishop’s Stortford.  That does not avoid the fact that it is a cussed long way.  It was also the last place marked with a pub on the route.

Past the church in the village (I am photographing the churches as I go, by the way I headed east to find a path running along the county border itself.  I am not sure that all the paths I used are legitimate:  they are shown as public paths on some maps but not others, and the broken Herts CC signpost was, well, broken.  Emerging then at the border, I found the path, and for the next ill-signposted mile and a half, I walked along the border.  Eventually, it emerges at a concrete drive leading to a massive electric sub-station, and on the gate of that most artificial, monument to the triumph of utilitarian modernity there was a white post and signs: ‘Essex’ to the left and ‘Hertfordshire’ to the right.

Unable to walk through the middle of a massive pile of electricity, humming continually, I followed the paths around it.

There were more diverted paths, but nothing calamitous, until at Patmore Heath I met the Hertfordshire Way again.  It did not quite ask me where I had been all day, but I joined it for the rest of the journey.  It was most well signposted and almost all the paths were clear.

I think it was about 7 pm that my vision started to go blurry.  By that time I was in Bishop’s Stortford, if still on beaten-earth tracks overhung with trees.  Soon there….

(I can recommend Zizzis on a Sunday night, as the only place still serving food.)

At Bishop’s Stortford
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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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