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Highs of the Lea Valley: walking the wilder side of Stanstead Abbotts

PUBLISHED: 09:39 24 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:39 24 October 2017

In the valley of the river Ash (photo: Liz Hamilton)

In the valley of the river Ash (photo: Liz Hamilton)

liz hamilton

Exploring the valley slopes around Stanstead Abbotts, Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England braves darkening clouds to finds diverse habitats and fine sights

Great willowherb in profusion (photo: Liz Hamilton) Great willowherb in profusion (photo: Liz Hamilton)

Hoping for a break in the heavy showers which were dominating the weather in early August, I returned to the Lea Valley in East Herts but not this time to follow the river. I wanted to explore the higher land to the north of Stanstead Abbotts, a village on the east bank of the Lea two miles south east of Ware. The place name Stanstead comes from Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘stony place’. When the abbey at Waltham Cross owned the manor here, Abbotts was added.

Before heading up the hill behind the village I admired some of the buildings in the High Street. Stanstead Hall is a fine 18th century brick house, while the nearby Red Lion inn dates from the 1530s. On the corner of Cappell Lane the former Clock House school, now a private house, was founded in 1635 by the Baeshe family. Further along Cappell Lane, St Andrew’s Church was built in the Victorian period when the original medieval parish church of St James, located a mile away to the south of the village, was deemed too remote.

I turned off Cappell Lane on to a bridleway – part of the Hertfordshire Way route – and climbed steadily up the valley side, heading north east. In the hedges bordering the path, ripening surprisingly early, were blackberries, sloes and elderberries. Eventually the path levelled out at just over 210 feet above sea level. The wide grassy track between arable fields was edged with the purple and pink flowers of plants typical of late summer, including common mallow, teasel and great willowherb, also known as codlins-and-cream (codlin is an old name for a cooking apple). From here there are views across to the wooded slopes on the western side of the Lea Valley.

Leaving the Hertfordshire Way I made for Easneye Wood, which conceals a red brick Victorian mansion now used as a missionary training college. My path ran downhill through the wood, where all around there were clouds of dragonflies, to emerge into pastureland beside the river Ash, where Jersey cows were grazing. From the footbridge by the ford across the Ash I admired the sweep of woodland framing the pastureland. Buzzards mewed overhead and downstream the river flowed between banks of luxuriant vegetation. It comes as a surprise that such a peaceful spot is only a few miles from the busy towns along the valley.

After a short stretch along the old trackbed of the former Buntingford branch railway, I headed uphill again, reaching the highest section of my circular walk at 250 feet above sea level. For about a mile I walked along the Harcamlow Way, a long-distance circular route of 141 miles linking Cambridge and Harlow and devised in the 1970s. Nearby the oilseed rape harvest was in progress. By a small pond, one of several alongside my route, I turned off the Harcamlow Way on to my path back to Stanstead Abbotts. On either side crops of pale gold wheat and barley awaited the harvest, and here and there yellowhammers perched on the hedge tops.

Then black clouds which had been gathering for a while were now overhead and I was hit by a drenching shower. I sheltered from the rain in the lee of one of the many small woods in the area and pondered on the scope for increasing the amount of wildlife in some of the countryside I had walked through. It would be good to see more wildflower margins alongside the fields to support pollinating insects, produce seeds and shelter insects and small mammals. Such flowery margins help to sustain farmland birds, including predators like barn owls. More hedges would also be welcome – they connect habitats and are diverse in their own right. They provide shelter, nesting sites, and corridors for birds, bats, insects, and amphibians like newts and frogs.

Gradually losing height, I reached the steeper valley side overlooking Stanstead Abbotts. In the foreground were the distinctive rooflines of the former maltings buildings belonging to the county’s last surviving maltsters, French and Jupps (see Hertfordshire Life May 2017). The firm still malts Hertfordshire barley, in purpose-built buildings alongside their Victorian predecessors.

London's skyline from above Stanstead Abbotts (photo: Liz Hamilton) London's skyline from above Stanstead Abbotts (photo: Liz Hamilton)

Away to the south there was a stunning – and unexpected – view of the Shard and many of London’s other tallest buildings, 20 miles away.

Ordnance Survey Explorer map (1:25,000 scale) 174 covers the walk described.

Full details of the route are available at cpreherts.org.uk where you can also discover how the Campaign to Protect Rural England works.

CPRE has joined other conservation bodies to call for a funding system post-Brexit which rewards farmers for delivering a range of benefits for society alongside food production, including restoring biodiversity, regenerating soils, reducing flooding and protecting valued agricultural landscapes. The website, greeneruk.org has more information.

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