CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today CLICK HERE

Walks in the Lea Valley

PUBLISHED: 11:00 12 February 2016 | UPDATED: 09:33 15 February 2016

View along the walk at Wheathampstead

View along the walk at Wheathampstead

liz hamilton

Stretching for 50 miles, much of it in Herts, the Lea Valley Walk follows the river Lea, a long-gone train line and stately grounds. Liz Hamilton of 
Herts Campaign to Protect England puts on her walking boots

St Helen's church, Wheathamsptead with its witch's hat steepleSt Helen's church, Wheathamsptead with its witch's hat steeple

The river Lea catchment, with its tributaries the Mimram, Beane, Rib, Ash and Stort, drains more than half of Hertfordshire, in the centre and east of the county. The Lea rises from chalk springs at Leagrave near Luton and flows for 58 miles to the Thames in East London.

The idea of a walk along the Lea, first suggested in the 1970s, became reality in 1993 with the opening of a 50-mile route from near its source to the capital. Today the Lea Valley Walk’s swan logo waymark has disappeared from some stretches, but a new edition of the guidebook published in 2015, incorporating changes to the original route, helps to keep walkers on track.

Since the Lea flows through the centre of Hertfordshire, it is on the doorstep of many of the county’s residents. Much of its valley lies in attractive countryside, perfect for a winter walk. The river enters the county from Beds at East Hyde, north of Harpenden. Downstream from here, the walk follows the trackbed of a disused railway. Opened in 1860, the line ran between Dunstable and Welwyn, with stations at Luton, Harpenden East, Wheathampstead and Ayot, until it became a victim of the Beeching cuts and closed in 1965. The level route provides sheltered walking overlooking the river valley, ideal for families with pushchairs or wheelchairs.

The walk leaves the old railway line as it passes through the north-eastern side of Harpenden, taking walkers down to the river’s edge in the Batford Springs Nature Reserve. This area of meadow and woodland was once farmed for watercress as well as willow for basketry. The river also powered two watermills nearby.

Lemsford MillLemsford Mill

Further on, the walk rejoins the old railway line, then a short climb leads to an elevated section crossing open farmland where the hedges are full of fruit in autumn, including the bright pink fruits of the spindle tree, uncommon in the UK.

Walkers may want to linger for a while in Wheathampstead, a short distance downstream, to enjoy refreshments in one of the pubs or cafés. Beside the river, the Bull Inn has provided hospitality since the 17th century. Upstream of the bridge here, a substantial watermill occupies a site where grain has been turned into flour for around 1,000 years.

There has been a settlement at Wheathampstead from at least the end of the Iron Age, when it was possibly the capital of a powerful Iron Age tribe, the Catuvellauni. It was one of the places in Hertfordshire – others are at Welwyn, Braughing, Baldock and St Albans – referred to by the Romans as Oppida, large fortified town-like settlements. Here, people worked metal, made pottery, used coins and imported wine, oil and other goods from the Roman world.

St Helen’s Church in the centre of Wheathampstead has Saxon origins, probably as a large minster church at the centre of a royal estate. Saxon foundations and burials have been discovered under the present-day building, much of which dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. The distinctive spire, with a shape sometimes called a witch’s hat, was built in 1859.

The swam was adopted as the symbol for the Lea Valley WalkThe swam was adopted as the symbol for the Lea Valley Walk

Heading downstream, the walk reconnects with the river bank, running first through amenity grassland and then farmland for about two miles before reaching the parkland of Brocket Hall. Here, as the valley narrows and deepens, it feels secluded, almost remote. The river meanders over the valley floor, flanked and in places obscured by lines of trees. Noisy ducks sometimes disturb the peace, unlike the languid heron’s flight also seen here.

The attractive brick-built house beside the ford at Waterend dates from around 1610 and was the birthplace of Sarah Jennings, the first Duchess of Marlborough and friend of Queen Anne. From here, the path continues close to the river, alongside wet woodland known as carr, which looks messy but is a rich wildlife habitat. After a steep but short climb through mature trees, the walk emerges on to the golf course surrounding Brocket Hall.

A house has occupied this site above the river since the 13th century. Much has been written about the hall and its famous and infamous inhabitants, including two prime ministers. The river Lea, widened into a lake known as Broadwater, forms the centrepiece of the surrounding parkland. The elegant bridge across the lake, dating from 1774, was designed by James Paine, who also rebuilt the present-day house for the Lamb family between 1760 and 1780.

The walk runs behind the house, before descending to Lemsford, where another watermill sits beside the river. If you have time, visit Lemsford churchyard to see the grave of Lord Mount Stephen, builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who in later life lived at Brocket Hall where he died in 1921.

At this point the walk has covered eight miles since entering the county, but walkers can easily enjoy shorter sections. A reasonably frequent bus service, the 366 (no Sunday service), links the towns and villages along this section of the walk.

The old rail line between Harpenden and WheathampsteadThe old rail line between Harpenden and Wheathampstead


Map: The Ordnance Survey Explorer map (1:25,000 scale) 182 covers the walk described.

Book: The Lea Valley Walk, by Leigh Hatts, 3rd Edition 2015, Cicerone Press.

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hertfordshire visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hertfordshire staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hertfordshire account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We quiz author Kevin Exley about his new book that takes the reader on the trail of fascinating stories, new and old, around Berkhamsted

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Don’t miss the November issue of Hertfordshire Life - out now!

Read more
Monday, October 29, 2018

Hertfordshire is a county with a vast, fascinating and sometimes dark and bloody history that has reportedly lead to more than a few angry ghosts sticking around to wreak havoc and take revenge on the living. We have gathered 10 of the most haunted places in the county

Read more
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Make the most out of autumn with these eight walking routes that take in a variety of Hertfordshire’s terrains and - most importantly – have a cosy pub along the way

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

We've selected a variety of spooky activities in the county that are sure to delight the kids

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Christmas isn’t complete without a trip to a festive fair. From German-style food stalls to vintage fetes, Hertfordshire’s Christmas markets have it all

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Charlotte Hussey explores the fascinating world of bats and new projects in the county to help conserve these remarkable creatures

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is asking the public to look out for mammals on Hertfordshire’s roads as part of a citizen science project

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From stately homes to skateparks, we have selected some of the best ideas for things to do in Hertfordshire

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The diverse parkland of Pishiobury Park in Sawbridgeworth is undergoing a five-year plan to promote its heritage and enhance its habitats. It makes for a royal day out

Read more
September 2018

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy



Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search