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Journey into the past: a Little Berkhamsted walk

PUBLISHED: 11:41 25 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:11 25 July 2017

View across countryside near Bayford (photo: Liz Hamilton)

View across countryside near Bayford (photo: Liz Hamilton)

liz hamilton

Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England walks the woods, hills and fields around Litte Berkhamsted - offering escapism and a connection to the area’s old industries

Bayford Pond (photo: Liz Hamilton)Bayford Pond (photo: Liz Hamilton)

In late April I explored the countryside around the villages of Little Berkhamsted and Bayford to the south west of Hertford. The trees were mostly in leaf and it was a bright sunny day, but appearances can be deceptive because a cold north wind was keeping the temperature low. During my walk I appreciated the shelter offered by the numerous woods, tree belts and hedges in this quiet part of the county. The woods can provide welcome shade too on a hot summer’s day.

Little Berkhamsted lies on high ground (around 400 feet above sea level) on the southern side of the Lea Valley. From the village I headed for the hamlet of Epping Green through a narrow belt of trees where everywhere small white flowers of stitchwort stood out in the shade of ancient hornbeams. Beyond Epping Green my route led across pastureland typical of this area, where heavy underlying clays make more intensive cultivation difficult. In woodland to the north of White Stubbs Lane the path was edged with pendulous sedge, a distinctive plant typical of these damp woods where the clay severely impedes drainage.

When I reached Bayford I stopped to admire the village pond, its surface blown into wavelets by the brisk wind, then moved on again enjoying more views across pasture fields and woodland. This is the time of year when tree leaves are still showing a variety of fresh young colours, before later tending to a more uniform green. Only the ash leaves had yet to emerge, bringing to mind the old saying predicting summer weather: ‘Oak before the ash, then we’ll only have a splash. Ash before the oak, then we’ll surely have a soak’. On my way down into Bayford Wood I admired a huge oak in a hedgerow with its distinctive brownish-green young leaves – a dry summer then, if old sayings have any merit.

Bayford Wood is full of old multi-stemmed coppiced hornbeam trees, remnants of the once economically-important firewood industry, supplying demand from the City of London only 15 miles to the south. On the far side of the small stream which meanders through the wood there are hornbeam pollards, which also once yielded firewood. On pollards, wood was cut higher up the trunk, beyond the reach of hungry animals, to protect the succulent young regrowth.

Stratton's Folly built by a retired admiral in the late 18th century (photo: Liz Hamilton)Stratton's Folly built by a retired admiral in the late 18th century (photo: Liz Hamilton)

I emerged from the wood to ascend another grass field, heading back to Little Berkhamsted. A curious brick-built round tower came into view. This is Stratton’s Folly, 97-feet high, which tradition has it was built by a retired admiral in 1789 so he could keep an eye on shipping on the Thames. John Stratton was a non-conformist however which disqualified him from holding a commission in the navy. Nonetheless views from the top of the tower must be far-reaching – from a spot not far away near Northaw the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf are visible from ground level.

Before leaving Little Berkhamsted I wanted to visit St Andrew’s church in the village. Dating from 1647, the building replaced an earlier church and was itself substantially rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century. I was hoping to see the stained glass installed by the William Morris company using designs by the artist Edward Burne-Jones, of the Pre-Raphaelite school. I’ll have to return though for that as the church was locked. Instead, I walked around the outside of the church to see where artificial stone had been used to build the northern aisle in 1894. This stone was coloured to resemble the Kentish ragstone used in the restoration of the church earlier in the century. It is almost certainly Pulhamite, manufactured in nearby Broxbourne (see Romance in Stone, Hertfordshire Life, April 2017). Its use in churches was rare, and perhaps even unique to this site. From the churchyard I admired a row of weatherboarded cottages across the road.

Until railways, and later refrigeration, made it possible to transport fresh food much longer distances, this part of Hertfordshire was an important resource for London since it was close enough to provide fresh meat and milk on a daily basis. Bulky and heavy wood fuel and hay (to feed the capital’s huge population of horses) were also much in demand from this area since they were expensive to transport from further away. Today, the area remains a precious resource, protected by Green Belt designation, providing opportunities to escape urban life into peaceful surroundings.

Stitchwort can be seen in abundance in the shade of ancient hornbeams (photo: MarinaParshina, Getty Images/iStockphoto)Stitchwort can be seen in abundance in the shade of ancient hornbeams (photo: MarinaParshina, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Maps: Ordnance Survey Explorer maps (1:25,000 scale) 174 and 182 cover the walk.

This route of 4½ miles is fully described as ‘Walk of the month 5’ at cpreherts.org.uk, where you can also discover how to get involved with CPRE Hertfordshire’s work to protect the county’s countryside.

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