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Discover the village side of Hitchin

PUBLISHED: 16:49 14 October 2009 | UPDATED: 16:17 20 February 2013

Liz Hall, Carol Brown and Judy McDonnell outside The Fox pub, Pirton;

Liz Hall, Carol Brown and Judy McDonnell outside The Fox pub, Pirton;

Sue Armstrong wraps up against the autumn chill and takes a wander around Hitchin's inviting countryside to explore its nearby villages

HISTORIC and full of character, the market town of Hitchin sits on the River Hiz, in the north of Hertfordshire. With its vibrant market square, delightful collection of individual shops and many other attractions, it is easy to overlook the beautiful countryside that surrounds it.
A number of quintessentially English villages lie in wait to charm visitors where, unlike the bustling town life we become so accustomed to, no one will pass you by without a friendly hello or a smile. And a glimpse at the notice boards, displayed at the various village halls, will show the vast number of social activities that go on, far more than first meets the eye. Here's a glimpse of some of the thriving communities that can be found nestled in the rolling hills.

Ickleford
The pretty village of Ickleford, with its winding stream and lavender fields, sits just a few miles north of Hitchin. St Katharine's Church, with its Norman tower, stands proudly in the centre of the community and the quiet of the village is met with a deeper hush as you step inside the church. Its solid walls reveal the nave dating back to 1150 and the intricate handiwork of the dedicated WI, an embroidered millennium map of Ickleford as it was in 1776.
Wendy Crowe, President of the Ickleford WI, says, 'We have over 60 members and meet together at the Village Hall once a month. We have a regular walking group, book club, craft group and theatre visits plus plenty of other activities arranged throughout the year.
'I've lived in Ickleford for over 30 years now and although it is so close to Hitchin, it remains a village with a strong community feeling with the thriving school and church, plus a sports club with cricket, football and squash teams. We have an excellent village shop, florist and a generous helping of welcoming inns and it really is a very friendly village to live in.'
The village school, a Grade II listed building built in 1848, serves the local community and also takes children from Hitchin and surrounding areas. The school has been extended over the years and the 200 children or so enjoy beautiful surroundings, a swimming pool and even a maypole on the front lawn.
There is an extensive network of footpaths here, including the Icknield Way, one of the oldest man made roads in Britain, making it easy to explore the village with its character houses and the surrounding countryside. Plenty of wildlife can be spotted in this area - look out for the muntjac deer.

Great Offley
The picturesque village of Great Offley is home to some 700 residents and sits on top of a hill looking across to the neighbouring hamlets of Little Offley and The Flints, with Hitchin three miles in the distance.
Originally a farming community, many hints of its past can still be seen as you stroll through the village and see barns and old farm buildings beautifully converted into housing to meet modern day needs. The local store, cosy pubs and village hall ensure that residents have most everyday essentials to hand together with a flourishing community spirit.
This small village has earned the grand title of 'Great' through its historic connections with royalty. Legend has it that in the 8th century King Offa of Mercia discovered the bones of Saint Alban and created St Albans Abbey as a tribute to him. He decided to settle in the area himself and built a grand palace in the village.
Each year the children from the local school visit the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban to learn about their famous founder. The village church of St Mary Magdalene is also privileged to take part in events at the cathedral.
The community is also proud of its 17th-century manor house, Great Offley Place. This grand house remained in the same family for 350 years until 1929 when the estate was sold to Guy George, a director of the famous stationery and book stores, WH Smith. He was well liked in the community and set about having a cricket pitch laid and a cricket pavilion built for everyone's benefit. After World War II the manor house was sold on and became a teacher training college until 2003 when it was transformed into a luxury hotel, wedding venue and restaurant.

Pirton
Just under 500 houses are dotted around this picture postcard village with its Blacksmith's Pond and expansive views across the countryside.
Pirton has been described by English Heritage as one of the most important historic sites in Hertfordshire. Several prehistoric, Roman and Anglo-Saxon sites have been identified here and it is also noted for its Motte and Bailey castle. Known as 'Toot Hill', meaning 'look out', the castle site comprises a large earth mound (the motte) with a huge ditch and outer defence areas (the baileys). The 11th-century parish church of St Mary's sits within the castle baileys.
Near the castle and church a large grassed area, known as The Bury, contains the earthwork remains of a deserted ancient part of the village. It is fascinating to see clearly visible long depressions, indicating the streets of the old village and areas of raised ground showing the position of the original houses.
The residents are particularly proud of the history of the village and embrace the community spirit with numerous activities involving Pirton School, the Sports and Social Club and many other groups catering for all ages, from toddlers to the over-60s. Anything from bingo to bridge or Brownies to badminton are all part of the fun as well as the autumn pumpkin show and a very popular firework display each November.
The Fox and the Motte & Bailey pubs provide a great excuse for locals to get together for a drink or a meal. Judy McDonnell, the landlady of The Fox, explains, 'My friends Carol and Liz run the pub with me. We refer to ourselves as 'three ancient old tarts' but to other people we're known as the 'foxy ladies'. Our aim is to run a really good village pub with well presented homemade food, at reasonable prices. We're well supported by people in the village and the pub is regularly used as a meeting place by many of the social groups here. Pirton is a lovely, friendly village - it's buzzing with activity!'

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