Crossing worlds - wonderful walks in Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 18:29 23 May 2016 | UPDATED: 10:29 24 May 2016
With a walk of the month and many more routes besides, the Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England website is a great resource for exploring the county’s countryside (and to cross hemispheres) says Liz Hamilton
When a day turns out surprisingly fine or you have some unexpected free time, what better than a walk? Try looking at cpreherts.org.uk for ideas. Its current walk of the month might suit you, or you could search the site for other walks: they are circular, not too long and have downloadable maps and easily-followed directions.
Campaign to Protect Rural England campaigned for Green Belts for 25 years until they were introduced in 1955: 60 years on they continue to protect large areas of countryside from urban sprawl. In much of Hertfordshire, thanks to these buffers, open and peaceful countryside remains in easy reach of many towns, with the transition from urban to rural often sharply defined.
Earlier this year, I took a CPRE Herts walk of the month of approximately three miles starting and finishing to the east of Ware that offers far reaching views, glimpses of wildlife and the novelty of stepping between hemispheres.
The route goes east on the B1004 where a wide bridleway heads north off the road, before looping around in a wide arc to the River Ash valley, a tributary of the Lea. Immediately you are in open countryside with views to the east. Soon the path runs alongside a narrow belt of woodland with old coppiced hornbeam trees. Just where the wood ends you reach the Greenwich Meridian and you step from the western hemisphere into the eastern. There is of course nothing to indicate this on the ground!
Here, from late winter to midsummer listen for the sustained song of skylarks as they rise high in the air: often you hear them long before you manage to spot this small brownish bird. Here too you may see a buzzard, now the UK’s commonest bird of prey. When flying close to the ground they may glide then flap their wings a few times before gliding again. They often also soar high in the sky, making their distinctive mewing call.
After crossing the River Ash by footbridge the path bears right to follow the river downstream, entering parkland on the Easneye Estate with its pasture, mature trees and a new generation of young trees protected from grazing animals by sturdy tree guards. To the left, woodland clothes a steep hillside and on the right the river is flanked by trees. This sheltered valley feels remarkably remote and it’s easy to forget that the busy towns of the Lea Valley are so close.
By now back in the western hemisphere, at the far end of the parkland a stile gives access to the Amwell Walkway which runs along the old railway trackbed of the Buntingford Branch line. Opened in 1863 the line ran from St Margarets Station to serve the villages and rural industries in the valleys of the Rivers Ash and Rib. The railway required eight bridges across these rivers on its route to Buntingford of just under 14 miles. The line was a victim of the Beeching cuts and closed to passengers in 1964, with freight services running until the following year.
Just past the road bridge over the old railway line the route turns right, but if you have time you can continue along the line to visit Amwell Nature Reserve managed by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. Here you are in the Lee Valley Park and only a short distance from the river. The Amwell reserve is set around former gravel workings. Colonised by reintroduced otter, it also supports many other species, including wintering wildfowl. All 19 species of dragonfly and damselfly resident in Herts are found here, making it the county’s best dragonfly site. Look out for the entrance to the Hollycross Lake dragonfly trail, open May to September (no dogs).
Arguably the best feature of the walk is yet to come. Climb up to the Hollycross Road just before it crosses the bridge over the old railway, cross the road and go across the field opposite, then continue to climb steadily with a field on your left and woodland on your right, which will be full of bluebells in late April and early May. You are now on Widbury Hill with a fine view of the Lea Valley below. You can also look across the rooftops of Ware to hills and woods beyond, while straight across the river the little church at Great Amwell clings to the steep valley side.
The place name ‘bury’ in Widbury derives from the Old English ‘burh’, meaning fort or defended place, and although there are no visible signs, there is archaeological evidence of a pre-Roman Iron Age defensive structure here. Standing on this hilltop, with its nearly complete all-round view, you can understand why such a commanding view was valuable.
Don’t miss an opportunity to enjoy this view. If you only have a few minutes, the top of Widbury Hill is just a few hundred yards from the B1004 road, reached by the footpath heading south though Widburyhill Farm. But to experience the full variety of this walk complete the circuit – the short climb up Widbury Hill at the end is well worth it!