A journey into the deep past
PUBLISHED: 12:52 02 February 2014 | UPDATED: 12:52 02 February 2014
For a few special miles along the western the edge of the county, the ancient hunting and trade route of the Icknield Way is much as it was thousands of years ago. Campaign to Protect Rural England Herts chairman Liz Hamilton walks us through its prehistory
The Icknield Way is one of England’s oldest roads. It dips in and out of Hertfordshire’s north-western boundary from Tring to Royston, following the chalk escarpment. It was almost certainly never a single route, but rather a series of parallel routes used at different times and seasons.
Its route south between the River Thames and Suffolk continued as the Ridgeway to Salisbury Plain and perhaps further, while northwards, the Roman Peddar’s Way linked the Icknield Way to the Norfolk coast. Today the long-distance footpath designations are different, with the Ridgeway running to Ivinghoe Beacon, where the Icknield Way takes over. . Mesolithic to medieval. Ancient long-distance tracks, such as the Icknield Way, may have developed from animal tracks used by wild cattle migrating long distances in the period following the retreat of ice sheets from England at the end of the last glaciation around 12,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers probably followed these animal herds. Later, when people started to settle and farm around 6,000 years ago, they also traded goods like flint, axes, sheepskins and corn, possibly moved around on simple man-hauled sledges, before the use of wheel technology, and later horses.
The highest concentration of known Bronze Age burial sites in the county cluster around the Icknield Way, between Letchworth and Royston. And most of the county’s known hill forts in the succeeding Iron Age – thought to have functioned partly as secure storage sites for grain and other goods – also lie on the route.
There is evidence that some goods were traded internationally before the Romans arrived. On the Icknield Way at Baldock, Italian amphora (large terracotta pots for wine or oil) were found in first century BC burials. When the Romans did arrive, they made use of the Icknield Way, improving its surface in places, and also relocated sections to lower, flatter ground. So, between Watlington in Oxfordshire and Ivinghoe Beacon just over the Hertfordshire border, there are now two named routes – the Upper and Lower Icknield Ways.
The Icknield Way remained an important route after the Norman Conquest. On a map of around 1250 it appears as one of four roads in Hertfordshire designated as highways on which travellers could expect peaceful passage. In modern times, much of the route has been incorporated into roads, the A505 east of Baldock for example, or has been swallowed up by urban development. . Walking the Way. An unmodernised stretch of the Icknield Way runs from the eastern edge of Luton to Ickleford near Hitchin. Here the route is still track or green lane, perfect for walking.
A small car park on the B655 to the east of Pegsdon gives access to this stretch. Heading south west, enclosed by hedges which give shelter on a winter’s walk, the route climbs steadily for just under a mile to Telegraph Hill. You are on the county boundary here, with lovely views over neighbouring Bedfordshire from Deacon Hill and Pegsdon Hills (the latter a Wildlife Trust nature reserve) and the intriguing Devil’s Ditch, all accessible to the right of the Icknield Way.
Beyond the summit of Telegraph Hill, the Way descends to Lilley Bottom and tranquil countryside crossed by numerous public paths that are easily accessible. This area is protected from development (the CPRE hopes) by its Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation. It is part of the Chilterns AONB, separated by Luton from the larger AONB to the south west. Huge old trees line the boundary banks bordering woodland alongside this stretch of the Way.
Instead of returning along the Way, take the path to the right at the foot of Telegraph Hill, to climb the steep grassland to the summit. Your exertion will be rewarded with splendid views to the south and west.
The hill gets its name from the telegraph station, part of the Admiralty signalling system between Great Yarmouth and London, located here between 1796 and 1814 to give early warning of an invasion by Napoleon’s forces. Spaced 10 miles apart, these wooden huts signalled with a combination of open and closed shutters.
To the south of Telegraph Hill, several paths lead across the partly wooded Lilley Hoo, where there was once a race course. Rejoin the Icknield Way to retrace your steps.