Stevenage walk: exploring Forster Country
PUBLISHED: 11:02 21 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:02 21 August 2018
Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England explores the rich countryside of novelist E M Forster near Stevenage
At the end of June, under a cloudless sky, I explored Green Belt countryside to the north of Stevenage. I started my walk in Graveley, with its Grade I listed church and adjacent 17th century farmhouse. It still has a rural feel despite its proximity to the new town and the A1(M). My route was along the bridleway which runs to Weston two miles to the east. As I climbed steadily, far-reaching views opened up towards the Chilterns scarp beyond Hitchin to the west, and towards Stevenage to the south.
All around were fields of ripening wheat and barley. The farmer, journalist and MP, William Cobbett, in his book Rural Rides, describes a journey he made through Hertfordshire in June 1822. ‘The land along here’, he wrote, ‘is very fine... the very best corn land that we have in England’. The county’s barley had helped to make Ware the pre-eminent malting town in England by the 16th century. Malted barley, used to produce beer, is still made at Stanstead Abbotts using Hertfordshire barley, and much of it is exported. As in large areas of the county, the Green Belt here is doing what the county has always done well – growing high-quality agricultural produce.
Those who advocate tearing up the Green Belt variously claim it is a litter-strewn wasteland or intensively farmed with little biodiversity or recreational access. Not here. I walked past flower-rich field margins, while yellowhammers sang from the hedges, joined by larks overhead. A glimpse into How Wood as I passed by revealed typical Hertfordshire woodland species, including oak, hornbeam and wild cherry. Chiffchaffs were still singing, and at times I was surrounded by meadow brown butterflies.
In Weston I spent some time in Holy Trinity Church, with its intact 12th century Norman arches and unusual carved stone heads supporting the roof beams in the nave – two are said to represent Henry IV and his queen, Mary. In the churchyard I found the ‘grave’ of the legendary giant Jack O’Legs, a Robin Hood-like figure. According to local historian Doris Jones-Baker, giants were often remembered in legend as benevolent figures defending local people against danger. She also connects Jack’s legend to a 12th century Lord of Weston, Richard de Clare, whose spectacular feats earned him the nickname ‘Strongbow’.
Picking up the route of the Hertfordshire Way, the countryside took on a very different appearance through Weston Park. Here there are woods, pastureland, and scattered trees including some fine veteran oaks. In the heat of the afternoon a herd of cattle made the most of shade cast by a clump of trees.
I passed close to the edge of Stevenage, although the countryside still felt very tranquil, reaching Chesfield, one of the county’s deserted villages and now little more than a single farm. It’s said that in the 14th century the parsons from Chesfield and neighbouring Graveley met and fought, possibly over tithes (church taxes). The vicar of Chesfield died as a result, and later the two parishes amalgamated, with St Etheldreda’s in Chesfield plundered for stone to repair St Mary’s in Graveley. Last used for worship in 1713, St Etheldreda’s is now a ruin.
As I turned a corner Lister Hospital loomed into view, its monolithic structure the only building rising above the tree canopy. The trees largely screen the built-up areas of Stevenage, and further away, of Hitchin. Now I was walking in the wedge-shaped stretch of Green Belt that extends towards the heart of Stevenage, reaching as far as St Nicholas, the medieval church of old Stevenage. Plans to build 1,700 houses here would bring the town over the hill to intrude on the rural peace of Graveley. The southern end of the wedge is the last remaining farmed land in Stevenage Borough.
The novelist E M Forster said in a radio broadcast in 1946, at the time Stevenage was designated a new town, ‘I was brought up... in a district which I still think is the loveliest in England’. He spent 10 years of his childhood, from 1883, in the house called Rook’s Nest (now Rook’s Nest House) which overlooks this still-peaceful spot. The house in his novel Howards End, written between 1908 and 1910, was based on Rook’s Nest.
In a letter to The Times in 1960 a group of literary figures deplored the threat to use the area to expand built-up Stevenage. The letter expressed the hope that the area could be preserved, ‘because it is the Forster Country of Howards End’. While literary landscapes have no formal status to safeguard them, national Green Belt policy is supposed to protect countryside from threats of this nature.
Visit cpreherts.org.uk to discover how Campaign to Protect Rural England is working to protect Herts’ countryside and download the route of a walk in this area.
OS Explorer map 193 covers the area described.