Walking the line: a new rail-based trail at Watford
PUBLISHED: 15:02 14 April 2015 | UPDATED: 15:09 14 April 2015
A new walking trail that links rail travel with exploration of the Hertfordshire countryside has been launched. Isabel Crozier of the Countryside Management Service explains
The Abbey Line Trail has been created by the Countryside Management Service in association with the Abbey Line Community Rail Partnership to combine a scenic walk with a trip on a local rail line. The Abbey Line is a branch railway running between Watford Junction, on the national rail network, and St Albans Abbey station. The trail takes the scenic route between these stations and links to other stations in between. Visitors can therefore complete the full nine-mile trail in one go or break it up into smaller sections by taking the train and enjoy a different walk over several visits. The trail is waymarked and there is a leaflet available so walkers won’t lose their way.
History of the Abbey Line Opened on May 5 1858, the Abbey Line has given more than 150 years of service to the local community. As it is a branch line, trains were usually made up of three or four coaches and hauled by a tank engine. These engines were housed at the Watford Junction engine shed. Diesel trains gradually replaced steam in the 1950s. The Abbey Line played host to a variety of experimental designs of diesel engines until steam was replaced fully by diesel trains in 1955. Since 1965, new stations have opened at Garston and at How Wood, and in 1987-88 the branch was electrified.
Since 2005, the Abbey Line Community Rail Partnership has worked to promote the use of the line. It brings together local people and organisations who work in partnership to improve the railway. More information can be found about the work of the partnership at abbeyline.org.uk
What to see on the walk
The Abbey Line Trail winds its way through beautiful countryside and many interesting locations including Watford Junction – the original Watford station, which opened in 1837, was built on the London to Birmingham Line, just north of the present-day St Albans Road rail bridge. The original station now houses a used-car sales office. In 1846 the line became part of the vast London and North Western Railway and the present Watford Junction station was opened in the 1850s.
Orphanage Road housed the London Orphan Asylum. Built in 1871, the buildings still stand and are now private residences. They once housed 600 orphans from the London area. During the Second World War the asylum was evacuated; the boys to the Seymour Hotel in Totnes and the girls to a number of houses near Towcester. The site was then used as an army hospital during the conflict.
The River Colne is a tributary of the Thames, rising five miles to the east in North Mymms Park. The river meanders within the valley bottom and there are many associated pools and springs that are important for wildlife. Here visitors are likely to hear the ‘peewit’ call of lapwings and see herons and little egrets fishing in the pools.
Munden Estate covers 850 acres of parkland, meadows and gardens, including a formal lime avenue to the country manor house. This section of the river corridor also contains the site of several Roman villas. Bricket Wood Common is also part of the estate.
Riverside Way is a multi-use path following the River Ver just before it joins the River Colne. The Ver is a chalk river, an internationally rare habitat. Here, it follows a man-made channel and work is being carried out to create more meanders in the river, speeding up and increasing variation in flow. This will improve the habitat, increasing the number and range of insects and fish found in this stretch.
Sopwell Nunnery dates back to 1140. Following the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, Sir Richard Lee, a soldier and royal engineer, was granted the land by the king and built his house on the site of the medieval nunnery. A romantic ruin is all that remains of the Tudor mansion built around 1560. The open space is worth exploring with its raised walkway, willow tunnel and stretch of the River Ver, frequented by kingfishers. Here, you can walk under the Alban Way, a multi-use route along the former Hatfield to St Albans branch line of the Great Northern Railway.
St Albans Abbey station The Abbey Line was the first railway to reach St Albans, in 1858. The mainline didn’t open until 10 years later. The station, known originally simply as St Albans, changed to St Albans Abbey in 1924, to distinguish it from the mainline station, now known as St Albans City.
For more details of monthly guided walks on the trail, visit hertsdirect.org/walksandmore or call 01992 588433.