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Opening up the Ver valley

PUBLISHED: 19:45 07 May 2014 | UPDATED: 19:45 07 May 2014

Rebournbury Watermill

Rebournbury Watermill

Archant

Elizabeth Hamilton, chairman of Campaign to Protect Rural England Hertfordshire, explores an award-winning project that has opened up the beautiful Ver River valley to walkers

Along the walk four routeAlong the walk four route

Last October, CPRE Hertfordshire presented its first Rural Living Awards. The winner of the environment category was the Ver Valley Society, for its Ver Valley Walks project – the creation of eight circular walks and a linear walk through the beautiful rolling countryside of the River Ver valley from its source near Markyate to its confluence with the River Colne at Bricket Wood 15 miles downstream.

The project took several years’ hard work by volunteers, who had ambition, skill and determination. The result, the judges’ report said, facilitates access to a large swathe of Hertfordshire, celebrates the landscape and enhances the countryside for all to enjoy.

I spoke to new society chairman Jane Gardiner to find out more about the walks project and how the group helps protect the River Ver – one of a number of chalk streams in the county that are globally rare habitats supporting abundant wildlife.

Almost inevitably, we started by talking about the weather – the heavy rain and flooding bringing misery and disruption to many places in the country. Jane was quick to point out that ‘rain is good for our river’ explaining how abundant winter rainfall is needed to top up the chalk aquifer which feeds chalk streams like the Ver throughout the year. ‘Low winter rainfall,’ she continued, ‘can mean that flow in the following summer is low or stops altogether, which means the wildlife suffers’.
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Redbournbury walk. 
I asked Jane to recommend one of the Ver walks. ‘It’s difficult to choose just one’, she said, ‘but the Redbournbury walk takes in the water’s edge as well as higher land on either side of the valley, from where there are good views. There is a longer six-mile route and a five-mile alternative, as well as several possible shortcuts.’

Stepping stones across the Ver near RedbournburyStepping stones across the Ver near Redbournbury

Taking Jane’s advice, and a copy of the walk leaflet, I set out the following Sunday to explore the area. The map is clear and easy to read, and the leaflet includes plenty of interesting information and photographs.

At the centre of the walk is Redbournbury Watermill, the last working watermill on the Ver and one of only two left in the county. Being a Sunday, the mill was open and working, and busy with visitors watching the waterwheel and climbing the steep steps to see the machinery operating.

Downstream from the mill, the river crosses open meadows and the walk runs along the river bank. The briskly-flowing river sparkled in the bright late winter sunshine, and two swans were feeding energetically, bending and stretching their necks in unison. It was a lovely sight. Later I climbed the hill towards Hammonds End Farm, where some of the organic grain used by the mill is grown, and looked back at the shadows lengthening across the valley. It was difficult to believe that I was only a few miles from some of Hertfordshire’s busiest towns. 
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Protecting the river.
The Ver Valley Society has campaigned for many years to protect this lovely river. In 1993, it was instrumental in reducing substantially the amount of water abstracted at Friars Wash. But more work is needed to reduce further the amount of water taken from the Ver’s aquifer, which will help to keep the river flowing and maintain the rare habitat it supports.

The society organises voluntary bailiffs – people who walk the river regularly to check for problems and measure the water depth and flow. It also has a team of volunteers who carry out maintenance work on the river and the walks.

Diesel engine at Redbournbury Watermill, used when the water level is too low to power its wheelDiesel engine at Redbournbury Watermill, used when the water level is too low to power its wheel

Past society chairman Andy Webb played a key role in the walks project, working closely with the Countryside Management Service. A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a legacy received by the society funded leaflets, signs, seats, path improvements and additions to the website, from where maps of the walks can be downloaded. Jane Gardiner is also dedicated to the society’s work, and especially keen to encourage people to get out and about to enjoy the countryside on their doorsteps. The walks project certainly helps achieve that aim.

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