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Painting a landscape: a walk around Barkway

PUBLISHED: 10:48 13 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:48 13 February 2018

Looking towards Cambridgshire from near Reed

Looking towards Cambridgshire from near Reed

liz hamilton

With big views and big history, a walk around Barkway is a journey through the centuries, writes Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England

I have lately been enjoying Anna Pavord’s books. Her bestseller, The Tulip, reflected her background as a garden writer, while in her 2016 Landskipping she takes the reader on a personal journey through her appreciation of landscape, starting with her childhood explorations and finishing with the countryside around her Dorset home. She includes insights into how people first began to appreciate landscapes, which evolved from the desire to enjoy a good view. In the 18th century, visitors to the Lake District, who went specifically to enjoy the magnificent scenery, were among the first landscape tourists in Britain. Only in that century did road improvements make travel for leisure and pleasure a practical proposition. To accompany their travels, tourists could draw on another new idea – the guidebook. The first guide to the Lakes listed the best views or ‘stations’, where (rather dictatorially) sometimes crosses were cut in the turf to make sure people were standing in the right place for the view.

Thankfully, it isn’t necessary to travel as far as Cumbria to find inspiring views, we have them right here in Herts. I was planning to re-visit a favourite landscape when I set out on a walk from the village of Barkway on a bright late November morning last year. This former coaching stop between Ware and Cambridge has one of the finest village streetscapes in the county, with a variety of architectural styles and building materials.

Heading west I entered a landscape of large fields and straight hedges created by the enclosure of 60 per cent of the parish areas of Barkway and neighbouring Reed, following an Act of Parliament in 1808. The open field systems they replaced lay on thin soils overlying the chalk escarpment which runs through this part of the county. It’s easy to miss what has been described as one of the best views in the county when you walk this way, and indeed the guidebook I had consulted when I planned the walk did just that!

To reach the viewpoint, I took the bridleway – and route of the Hertfordshire Way – which heads north from the edge of Reed, off the minor road called The Joint. From the road the view looks unpromising, but within 300 yards it opens out to take in a wide sweep of rural Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire beyond. With binoculars you can pick out the towers and spires of Cambridge, and it’s said you can even see Ely Cathedral 30 miles away, although on the day of my walk a dark haze shrouded the horizon.

17th century wagon wash by Barkway church17th century wagon wash by Barkway church

Turning south I headed for Reed’s 11th century church. The distinctive arrangement of stones in the corners of the nave and tower walls is known as long-and-short work – a Saxon feature. The round-headed door on the north wall may be Saxon too, or perhaps Norman.

My route back to Barkway took me through a different landscape, possibly as old as the oldest parts of Reed church, with small irregular fields, woods, winding green lanes and remnants of old common land or ‘waste’, often called greens. There are numerous moated settlement sites, some abandoned, which are thought to be 12th century. The underlying boulder clay, dumped by a glacier which spread over this part of Hertfordshire more than 400,000 years ago, is thick and poorly drained. The moats were perhaps a defence against flooding rather than intruders.

I took a short detour to explore the abandoned moated settlement at Gannock Grove, lying alongside a remnant of common land at Gannock Green. The site is wooded now, and the substantial moat was dry when I was there. I stood for a while, wondering why this peaceful spot had been abandoned. Did plague wipe out the family, or was the land simply consolidated into an adjoining farm holding, making the buildings redundant?

Further on I was brought right up to date as I passed a solar farm. Tucked unobtrusively into the landscape, silent and still, it was in marked contrast to the massive wind turbines that dominate some stretches of British countryside.

Reed churchReed church

On my return to Barkway I visited its church. The oldest visible parts date from the 13th century while some interesting boards record peals rung on the bells. In 1951 a peal of over three hours marked the birthday of the Queen (later the Queen Mother) and the conclusion of the local Festival of Britain celebrations.

By the church a wagon wash, built in the 17th century, has sloping ends to allow horse-drawn vehicles to enter the water for cleaning. There are walkways on either side for those doing the cleaning. Through a gateway by the wagon wash I could glimpse the manor house, also dating from the 17th century, with Dutch-style gables.

All-in-all a walk through time you might say, and with a surprisingly vast view to boot.

Thatched cottage with decorative plasterwork - one of many interesting buildings in BarkwayThatched cottage with decorative plasterwork - one of many interesting buildings in Barkway

Getting there

Barkway is on the B1368 road south of Royston and east of the A10. There is roadside parking on the High Street and a pub at the southern end of the village.

Visit the walks of the month section at cpreherts.org.uk for further details of the route, which may be muddy underfoot and the northern part is exposed in windy weather. Use OS Explorer Map 194.

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