Hertfordshire walk - River Ver Trail from St Albans
PUBLISHED: 15:51 04 February 2020
Its course has powered industry, supported holy orders and continues to be an important, if threatened, wildlife habitat. Take the train and explore the rich river Ver
Resolving to use public transport whenever possible to reach places where I plan to walk, I recently went by train to Watford Junction, then took the Abbey Line to St Albans. From here I explored the river Ver valley downstream from the city. Much of the route I followed is sheltered from the worst of the weather, ideal for a winter's walk on a fine day.
The six-and-a-half mile Abbey Line opened in 1858; with intermediate stations at Bricket Wood and Park Street it was the first railway to reach St Albans. Later it connected to the branch line to Hatfield which opened in 1865 and closed to passengers in 1951. Housing growth in north Watford and south of St Albans ensured the survival of the Abbey Line and three more stations were added later. Also known as the Abbey Flyer, one train shuttles along the single track and the end-to-end journey time is 16 minutes.
The Abbey Line provides easy access to some of the county's Green Belt countryside. I planned to walk the local section of the River Ver Trail, which connects walkers to intermediate stations along the line for return journeys. The trail follows the river for 17 miles from its source near Markyate to the confluence with the Colne near Bricket Wood. In addition, eight circular walks exploring the Ver valley have been devised by the Ver Valley Society in conjunction with the Herts Countryside Management Service. The Watermeadow Walk includes the route I planned to follow.
Like many of England's chalk streams, the Ver had a difficult year in 2019. In April, BBC's Countryfile featured the river between Redbourn and St Albans as a mere trickle, following two dry winters and long spells of hot weather. Later, brown trout had to be removed from parts of the river as there was so little water. Over-abstraction from the aquifer for the public water supply is contributing to this problem. Last May the Ver Valley Society reported the lowest aquifer level in its valley since measurements started in 2004. New sources of water have to be found urgently.
Close to the Abbey station I picked up the River Ver Trail by the bridge over the watercourse at the foot of the busy Holywell Hill, named after a well once used by the monks of St Albans Abbey. I soon reached Cottonmill Bridge, where a watermill, one of many on the Ver, produced cotton goods in the 19th century. Later the structure and adjacent river became a public swimming pool.
Beyond, in the Sopwell Nunnery Green Space, the river flows between fringing trees and vegetation. The nunnery was founded in around 1140 and a prioress, Dame Juliana Berners (born 1388), is linked to The Boke of Seynt Albans, a treatise on hawking, hunting, heraldry and angling. The 1486 edition features the first colour printing in England. The book lists collective nouns for people and professions as well as animals and birds. Examples include 'a superfluity of nuns' and 'a murmuration of starlings'. Sir Richard Lee (died 1575) acquired the nunnery site after the dissolution of the monasteries and remodelled the buildings into a house he called Lee Hall. The ruins you see today are remnants of a later house, also built by Sir Richard.
I continued through wet riverside woodland along a raised boardwalk and under the bridge which carried the railway line to Hatfield (the route is now the Alban Way, for walkers and cyclists). Ahead is the former Sopwell Mill, where a mill has stood since at least the 13th century, producing flour and at times silk and paper. Beyond, the river curves around a promontory of higher ground, with views to St Albans Cathedral. New Barnes Mill by Sopwell Bridge on Cottonmill Lane occupies another ancient mill site. From the early 20th century a steam engine and later an oil powered generator augmented the mill's water power, which continued to grind corn until the Second World War. Behind, the 18th century Sopwell House, now a hotel, was built on the site of an early 17th century house.
Below Sopwell Bridge the Ver flows between meadows across a wide floodplain. Here I saw little egrets feeding in the shallow river. These white herons went extinct in Britain in the 16th century but returned in the 1980s and are now quite common on coastal marshes and inland rivers. The flood meadows are a County Wildlife Site due to the plants of damp grassland found here, including cuckoo flower or lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis), rich in vitamin C and once a remedy against scurvy. The meadows are maintained by grazing cattle, but these can damage the river banks and work is underway to restore the channel. Look out for kingfishers here.
The meadows continue beyond the A414. The traffic noise recedes as you head south, and tranquility is restored. However, just to the south east a massive rail freight terminal has been proposed on 300 acres of Green Belt, which would destroy the tranquility of this area forever.
Further downstream there were once extensive watercress beds on the edge of Park Street. The Abbey Line carried the cress to the London markets, hence an old nickname 'the watercress line'. Corn milling at Park Mill in Park Street stopped in 1921, then for a while the mill was used to grind animal bones to make glue - which had a terrible smell. Recent restoration left the mill wheel and the mill race under the building intact.
To finish the walk head for either Park Street or How Wood station to return to your starting point. I carried on to Bricket Wood and the second half of my walk will be the subject of a future article.
Visit riverver.co.uk to download leaflets for the River Ver Trail and the circular walks. The website abfly.org.uk has train timetables. The walk from Abbey Station to the stations at Park Street or How Wood is about three miles. The area described is on OS Explorer map 182. Be prepared for wet conditions by the river.