Last walk through the villages of Eastwick, Gilston and Hunsdon?
PUBLISHED: 12:52 21 May 2018 | UPDATED: 12:52 21 May 2018
Garden town or Green Belt? The countryside around three villages could change forever if plans for a new 'garden town' are approved
In bright February sunshine I explored countryside to the north of Harlow around the villages of Eastwick, Gilston and Hunsdon in East Herts. I set out from tiny Eastwick, where a church has stood above the floodplain of the river Stort since at least the 13th century. I climbed steadily on to higher ground to the north, while skylarks sang overhead. Soon the towers and chimneys of the house at Gilston Park came into view. Built in the 1850s to replace an Elizabethan building, the house has been converted into apartments.
When architect Sir Frederick Gibberd designed Harlow New Town, he envisaged the river Stort as the northern boundary to the built-up area, with a rural backdrop of the ‘Hertfordshire Hills’ beyond. The hills where I was walking felt increasingly remote as I headed north towards St Mary’s church at Gilston. The oldest parts of the church are 13th century, and it is renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved medieval screen. In the 19th century old houses around the church were demolished and much of the village’s population migrated south to Pye Corner.
Enjoying the sunshine from a seat in the church porch, I was conscious that the view ahead may soon alter radically if plans go ahead for a new ‘garden town’ on 2,700 acres of the surrounding area, eventually comprising 10,000 houses. Much of the area is Green Belt. The villages of Eastwick and Gilston (combined population around 400) would be swamped and grade 2 and 3a agricultural land, which is supposed to be protected under national planning policy, would be destroyed.
Continuing northwards, the land to either side of me would be included in the new town. Turning west, I walked alongside woodland of hazel coppice with taller trees of oak and hornbeam, typical of woods in the county which were managed in this way for centuries to provide timber for many uses. Ahead of me was
Hunsdon airfield, now a quiet place used by a few light aircraft, but during the Second World War it was an RAF station from which a large number of operations were flown. At one time 2,500 RAF and WAAF personnel were based here, as well as those operating ground to air defences and searchlights. A ring of pillboxes surrounded the airfield of which eight survive – I caught glimpses of two as I walked.
Beyond the airfield I reached the centre of Hunsdon village, with houses in a variety of architectural styles and a former village pump. Near The Crown pub the village sign depicts a Second World War aircraft and a Tudor rose – a reminder that Hunsdon House was a favourite residence of Henry VIII and his children. Now much altered, the house lies a little way to the south of the village, beside the parish church of St Dunstan’s with its noted Jacobean screen.
Beyond Hunsdon I crossed the airfield once more, before threading my way through woods and fields until I was again overlooking Essex and Harlow, spread out to the south. I sat on a bench beside the path to enjoy the surprisingly warm sunshine, and while a buzzard mewed overhead I wondered whether Sir Frederick Gibberd’s original vision for the rural backdrop to his new town would be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England believes that the housing we so desperately need should not be built in the Green Belt or in other open countryside. This land is needed for food production and to provide vital green space for people to enjoy. Instead, previously-used or brownfield land should be used for housing first. Recent CPRE research has identified space for more than a million homes on brownfield land in England. Furthermore, nearly 425,000 homes in England and Wales already have planning permission but have not yet been built, a figure which has increased by 16 per cent in a year.
As recently as last November both the prime minister and the chancellor repeated the government’s pledge to protect the Green Belt, yet despite this more than 40,000 homes in the Green Belt in Hertfordshire alone are currently proposed by local authorities.
Now another threat has emerged which could blight Green Belt countryside to the west of the area where I had been walking – a vast quarry proposed to the east of Stanstead Abbotts, covering more than a square mile, could be worked for over 20 years to remove 11 million tonnes of aggregates. The area is adjacent to the ‘garden town’ site and would bring heavy lorries and machinery, noise and dust pollution to this quiet rural area.
Eastwick is seven miles east of Hertford, just to the north of the A414, and under a mile by footpath from Harlow Town station.
OS Explorer maps 174 and 194 both cover the area described.
Visit cpreherts.org.uk to download the route of a walk in this area and to discover how CPRE is campaigning to protect Hertfordshire’s countryside.