Walk: Cole Green Way and Panshanger Park
PUBLISHED: 12:12 09 July 2018
Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England takes a circular walk on the historic Cole Green Way and Panshanger Park
The six main railway lines which radiate out from London across Hertfordshire were once linked by a network of branch lines. While many of these are now closed, some of the former track beds have been converted into routes for walking and riding, including the Alban Way, the Nickey Line and the Cole Green Way. In early May the latter provided me with a link to walk a circuit of just over five miles, taking in Panshanger Park and the quiet countryside to the east of Welwyn GC.
From the car park and picnic area at the site of former Cole Green station I headed east along the old track bed of the Hertford and Welwyn Junction railway. Operating a passenger service from 1858 until 1951, the railway continued as a goods line and was used by trains bringing London’s rubbish to nearby landfill sites until the ’60s. At Birch Green I picked up the route of one of the Chain Walks devised by the East Herts Footpath Society in the 1980s. The 15 linked circular walks through rural east Herts have sadly lost their waymarking, but are shown on Ordnance Survey maps.
Just before crossing the footbridge over the A414, I spotted my first speckled wood butterfly of the year. Once over the road I was in the Panshanger Estate, and continued along the public footpath with woodland to my right and restored gravel workings to my left. From beside an area of open water two lapwings took flight – if these were a nesting pair it would be good news as these birds are becoming scarce due to a decline in suitable breeding sites. A little further on I turned right into woodland, heading downhill towards the river Mimram.
I had been looking forward to my first visit to Panshanger Park, once part of an extensive network of estates along the Mimram owned by the Cowper family. At one time the family lived in a house at Cole Green, where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown advised on landscaping the park. Later they moved across the valley to a new house at Panshanger in the first decade of the 19th century. Humphry Repton had already been engaged to create a new design for the two parks, and by 1799 there were 60 labourers at work digging out the base of a new lake, the Broadwater, alongside the Mimram.
I stood just above the valley floor overlooking Repton’s lake, and recalled that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of his death. The landscape designer is famous for his Red Books, which set out his ideas for a designed landscape, complete with folding pages opening out to reveal his vision. The one for Panshanger is in the care of the county’s archives in Hertford.
Like many estates, Panshanger declined in the 20th century. No male heirs survived (two sons were killed in the First World War and a third in a later car crash) and of the 4,000 acres sold from the estate in 1919 nearly half was acquired for the new Garden City at Welwyn. The rest of the estate was sold and the house demolished in the 1950s. In the early 1980s planning permission for gravel extraction was granted on condition that a 1,000-acre country park with full public access would be its legacy.
It was a perfect day to admire Repton’s landscape. As I turned west to resume my walk I heard my first cuckoo of the year. The path for the remainder of my route through Panshanger Park ran between wire fences, presumably because lorry traffic continues in this area as gravel pits are being filled to complete restoration works. Eventually the public should be allowed to explore the park more freely (visit friendsofpanshangerpark.co.uk for details).
Beyond Panshanger I headed east towards the edge of Welwyn GC on the public footpath which runs just south of Birchall Wood, making a detour into the wood to enjoy the lovely bluebells there.
All around is an area of Green Belt, which will be lost if plans for a Birchall Garden Suburb go ahead.
The charity Fields in Trust recently estimated that Britain’s parks and green spaces save the NHS £111m annually because of their positive impact of health and happiness. Its report, Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces, recommends a target of 75 per cent of the population living within a 10-minute walk of a protected green area. So let’s cherish countryside adjacent to towns, not destroy it.
I was soon back on the Cole Green Way. Emerging from the south-eastern edge of Welwyn GC, the route crosses restored gravel workings, goes under the A414 and then occupies the disused railway track bed. Walkers, runners and cyclists were out enjoying it too, making the most of the spring sunshine. A further mile and a half and I completed my circuit.
Visit cpreherts.org.uk to discover how CPRE campaigns to protect Herts’ countryside and download full details of the walk.
The area described is covered by OS Explorer Map 182.