Village guide to Wheathampstead
PUBLISHED: 15:53 23 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:53 23 September 2016
A network of heritage trails that take in the fascinating history and beautiful landscapes in and around Wheathamspstead have drawn walkers to the village and given business a needed boost. Louise McEvoy goes exploring
Four miles north of St Albans, on the River Lea in the heart of Hertfordshire, is Wheathampstead - a picturesque village that is making the most of its intriguing history and natural beauty.
With a desire to support village shops and services, a group of astute thinkers came up with the idea of using Wheathampstead’s past and setting to encourage people to visit. A village centre walk was officially opened in 2011 by actors Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter. The one-mile route takes in 21 historic properties, with informative plaques on the buildings and several interpretation boards at various locations. Six countryside walks from the village subsequently opened in 2014, ranging from four to eight miles, designed to extend walkers’ journey into the past and into the surrounding landscape and villages.
The walks take in a history from the Iron Age, taking in battling Celts and Romans, a lady highwayman, railway walks, historic homes and a polar explorer from Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, while nature lovers can experience the rare river habitats, woodlands and valley views.
Known as the Wheathampstead Heritage Trails project, it originated with business group Wheathampstead for Enterprising Business and, with residents and the parish council on board, a £34,800 grant was awarded for the scheme by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Today the walks are a magnet for walkers looking for something more than pretty scenery.
David Johnston, Wheathampstead Parish Council chairman, said, ‘At the time our High Street was suffering a bit and we wanted to attract visitors into the village to help support our retail businesses. We were working on a project to restore part of the old railway station - this was proving to be very popular and we were aware that the village had a rich history.’
As to which historical property stands out from the rest, for David there is only one choice. ‘My favourite property has to be the old railway platform that we restored over the same period. ‘I am prejudice because I led the restoration project, but it was a true community effort with involvement from countless members of the community, the parish council and local businesses. In 2012 we won an award from the Campaign to Protect Rural England for “an outstanding outdoor museum run by enthusiasts for everyone”.’
Recently installed at the former Wheathampstead railway station platform - which was decommissioned in the Beeching Cuts of the 1960s – is a full-sized statue of playwright George Bernard Shaw, its most famous traveller, seated in a shelter. He lived at nearby Ayott St Lawrence.
David continues, ‘My favourite walk is ‘The Old Railway and River Lea’, which takes you out along the Ayot Greenway - the route of the Hatfield, Luton and Dunstable railway which closed in 1965 - and brings you back via Brocket Hall and along the River Lea.
‘I like this walk for several reasons – the railway played an important role in the development of Wheathampstead, and the route changes dramatically with the seasons. In the spring and summer you have beautiful views out across the local countryside from the high embankments. In the winter the route can be very atmospheric in the deep cuttings, conjuring images of Charles Dickens’ ghost story, The Signalman. Arriving at Brocket Hall you learn of the rich history of the house. The return journey along the river is full of our natural heritage. You are made aware of the abundance of life that depends on the watercourse.’
The project is a big success - evidenced by its popularity with residents and visitors alike and by the fact that when it was started there were several empty shops along the High Street and now there are none. The parish council has also had to extend its free car park, as it is often full with walkers setting off from there.
The project has also stimulated other activities in the parish, including a website dedicated to the village’s history, archaeological digs and the reformation of the local history society.
David, who has lived in Wheathampstead for 30 years, says for 15 years he treated the village as simply a place he went to at the end of a day at work. ‘But when I became an independent consultant I began to realise that I actually lived in a community and not just a house.
He became involved with the business community and eventually became a parish councillor. ‘In that role I am able to help preserve what is good in the parish and stimulate a growing sense of community, while helping to steer it through inevitable change,’ he says.
‘What I love about Wheathampstead is that, although it is classed as a large village, it has a soul and there is a great sense of community and belonging that larger towns sometimes find hard to cultivate. Our village organisations such as Wheathampstead for Enterprising Business, the Wheathampstead and District Preservation Society, the community group and the parish council, all play a role in making it a great place to live and work.’
Wheathampstead Heritage Trails maps are available for free from pubs and shops in the village. For more information about the project, visit wheathampsteadheritage.org.uk