Walking the Hertfordshire Way: 14 walks, 166 miles and endless beautiful sights
PUBLISHED: 10:46 15 September 2020 | UPDATED: 10:58 15 September 2020
Marking the diamond jubilee of The Ramblers’ Association 25 years ago, the Hertfordshire Way has grown into a near-200 mile celebration of the county’s countryside and heritage
In the early 1990s a call went out from the Ramblers to its local groups, asking them to devise ways of celebrating the association’s diamond jubilee in 1995. The Hertfordshire and North Middlesex Group decided to organise a walk around Hertfordshire, which it hoped would become a permanent long-distance route.
The group chairman at the time, Bert Richardson, recently recalled how he sketched out a possible circuit, then enlisted walking friends to plan the detailed route for each section. During the year more than 60 walkers completed that inaugural walk of 11 legs, each walk on a separate day. The venture was so successful that a committee was formed to create a waymarked route and produce an accompanying guide book for the circuit, to be named the Hertfordshire Way.
Peter and Sue Garside recall how they finalised the routes for legs seven and eight, covering just under 28 miles between Tring station and Shenley: ‘We made many excursions to test the potential route. Where there were possible alternatives we tried out as many as we could. Bert obtained permission from the county council for the waymarkings, which we then put up during several more trips.’
Not surprisingly it was another three years before the Hertfordshire Way was ready and it was launched on October 31, 1998. During this process the inaugural 11 legs became 14 covering 166 miles. The original committee became the Friends of the Hertfordshire Way, a volunteer-run group which still looks after the route.
The ‘Way’ was designed to run through much of the best of the county’s countryside, as well as passing through towns and villages and the city of St Albans. Many of the legs start and finish where public transport is available. The guide book and the original waymarks run anticlockwise around the route, while clockwise waymarks were added to the entire route several years ago.
A new edition of the guide published in 2005 included two more legs, to incorporate the extensive area of ancient woodland around Broxbourne, as well as parts of the Lea Valley, extending the route to 194 miles. Most of it uses public rights of way over which users have a legal right of access but in some cases access is by permission of the landowner. In a few places where there is no feasible alternative the route uses roads open to traffic.
I have been revisiting photographs I took when I walked the Hertforshire Way, with fellow Campaign to Protect Rural England volunteers, and family and friends, on 16 days throughout 2012. For me the walks in high summer – July and August – of that year were the most memorable.
They were on the legs in the north of the county, an area I had seldom visited, so it was a walk of discovery. The weather was fine, the fields were full of ripening crops and later harvest stubble, and there were butterflies and other insects in abundance along the flowery field margins, left unploughed by farmers to increase biodiversity on their land. We passed ancient village churches and cottages in a variety of vernacular styles, in some of the most rural parts of the county.
Most striking of all were the wonderful views from the high chalk scarp which runs through this part of the county, looking over the neighbouring Cambridgeshire flatlands or west to the Chilterns. On Therfield Heath near Royston the chalk grassland flora of late summer included diminutive bellflowers and rock roses, both species familiar to gardeners. In the hedges were white flowers of wild clematis and field rose, and by late August the thistledown was beginning to blow, a reminder that summer was coming to an end.
Our route in early July took us past the large church at Anstey, which I later revisited to see the fascinating interior, and on to Nuthampstead which 50 years ago was being considered as the site for a third London airport. Passing through Barkway on the old coaching route from London to Cambridge, with its village houses of diverse architectural styles, we reached Reed where the Way runs close to the church displaying rare Saxon stonework. Then we enjoyed a lovely section with far-reaching views, passing poppy-filled fields to arrive at Royston.
Two weeks later we headed up on to Therfield Heath, then south and west through a series of small villages to Wallington, where the author George Orwell lived for a while; it is thought he based his novel Animal Farm on the farm close to his cottage. In early August we again headed south-west, through old parkland and fields of ripening barley, skirting Baldock.
Between Weston and Graveley, close to the ruined church at Chesfield, we had a distant view of Rook’s Nest House where another author, E.M. Forster, lived for some of his childhood, close to the stretch of Green Belt countryside which now bears his name. Staggeringly, the local authority has seen fit to propose this area, accessible to so many residents of Stevenage, for housing development.
A little further on the church at Great Wymondley has retained a rare Norman apse or curved chancel: stones built into its walls were carried to Hertfordshire by an ice sheet nearly half a million years ago.
Later in August, on one of the hottest days of that year, we continued through the lovely Langley valley, then up into the high wooded hills around St Paul’s Walden, before heading downhill again to Whitwell on the river Mimram. Beyond, at Kimpton Mill, we passed one of the few remaining watercress beds in the county, a survivor of a once-widespread industry. After a day of heat we found shade and enjoyed a wonderful tea in Codicote church hall, close to the end of our walk that day.
Since 2012 I’ve retained my connection with Hertfordshire Way by becoming a warden for part of the route near to where I live, which I walk regularly to check for obstructions and to ensure that the waymarking is in place. I helped with the revisions to the current (third) edition of the guide book published in 2017, which added a mile to the overall route. I installed the clockwise roundels on my stretch as well. I’ve also talked about walking the Way to many local groups, raising funds for CPRE Hertfordshire.
The value of countryside close to where we live has been brought into sharp focus this year and people have been exploring their local area and its wildlife, sometimes for the first time. If you are still staying mainly close to home, why not try walking a section or two of the Hertfordshire Way. The length of the legs might seem too long to be tackled in one go, as the shortest is just under nine miles and the longest just over 15 but you could divide the legs into more manageable lengths or incorporate a short stretch into a circular route.
CPRE Hertfordshire volunteers have devised nearly 40 circular walks of between three and seven miles and a number of these incorporate stretches of the Way. All these circular walks are available to view and download at cpreherts.org.uk. We recently received a message from someone who had just walked one of the walks: ‘We really enjoyed the walk and found the instructions to be very clear,’ she said. ‘A very lovely walk, we hardly met anybody and such beautiful countryside.’
As a postscript, Bert Richardson said in a recent message: ‘Ever since those early days we have been lucky to recruit a numberless army of dedicated workers who have tended the Hertfordshire Way to this day; without them it would have faded away into a distant memory.’
The Hertfordshire Way is marked on Ordnance Survey Explorer and Landranger maps. The latest revisions to the route are best referenced from the 2017 edition of the guide book. If you are planning a walk along the Way, check fhw.org.uk/news for details of current diversions (such as on leg 13 where bypass construction during 2020 has closed sections of the route).