A very common walk around Therfield Heath
PUBLISHED: 16:54 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013
Therfield Heath is the perfect place to walk, relax, enjoy a spot of sport and watch for wildlife, whatever the weather
SITUATED just to the west of Royston, Therfield Heath extends for two-and-a-half miles, covering an area of 420 acres. Although it once belonged to the church, the heath is now owned by the Therfield Trust.
The heath's status as common land protected it from urban and agricultural development, thus preserving an important historic site and a valuable wildlife haven. It now provides a fascinating area for study and one of the best sites for informal recreation in Hertfordshire.
A dry place
Most of the heath lies in the parish of Therfield which gets its name from the Old English words for dry place, reflecting the freely draining nature of the underlying chalk.
The heath was originally more extensive than it is today, stretching as far as Kelshall and Odsey. Most of the original area was cultivated following the Enclosure Act of 1849 but other small fragments, such as Rush Green, still retain their status as common land.
The chalk rock beneath the heath was laid down around 100million years ago when the area lay beneath a warm sea. The remains of tiny animals fell to the sea bed and were compressed over millions of years to form a band of chalk up to 90 metres thick.
Twenty million years ago the same earth movements which formed the Alps caused the chalk to dip towards the south east. Over the last million years successive ice ages formed the dry valleys. The last ice sheet retreated from here about 12,000 years ago, only a few thousand years before the first humans settled.
Perfect for wildlife
Most of the chalk downland habitat of southern England has been destroyed in the 20th century, mostly through conversion to arable farmland and intensively managed grassland. Therfield Heath is one of the best examples left in East Anglia and it has been designated as a Local Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The wild animals and plants found on the heath today have survived over thousands of years alongside man's changing use of the land. Some species are so dependent on the short grass produced by regular sheep and rabbit grazing that they soon disappear if grazing stops.
While it is more likely these days to play host to a game of frisby or a dog fetching a stick, the heath has an illustrious history of events. Large crowds often gathered to witness various spectacles ranging from tournaments in the 13th century to the odd kite festival in more recent years.
Racing has long links with the heath, a tradition maintained since at least the time of the Stuart kings. In the 19th century thousands of people gathered here for the reopening of the local course. Today, no racing takes place, the only horses allowed being those trained by the stable at King's Ride. In recent years winners of the Derby, Grand National and Cesarewitch have all been trained on the heath.
From cricket to fights
Cricket has been played on the heath for more than 200 years. Royston Cricket Club is only three years younger than the MCC and the club's most famous player was Keith Fletcher, capped 59 times for England between 1968 and 1982.
In the 19th century illegal prize fights were held close to where the golf course now begins. The proximity of the county boundary meant that participants, if challenged by Hertfordshire Police, could easily escape from their jurisdiction. In 1827 more than 10,000 people watched Jem Ward defend his title against Peter Crawley.
Royston Golf course was founded in 1892 and is one of the oldest courses in the county.