Walk the Wheathampstead Heritage Trail

PUBLISHED: 14:05 28 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:54 04 October 2012

River Lea Heritage Plaque

River Lea Heritage Plaque

Medieval buildings, a Victorian station and a rare crinkle-crankle wall all feature on Wheathampstead's new heritage walk. Gillian Thornton enjoys an historic stroll...

Medieval buildings, a Victorian station and a rare crinkle-crankle wall all feature on Wheathampsteads new heritage walk. Gillian Thornton enjoys an historic stroll...

NESTLED in the Lea Valley between Harpenden and Welwyn Garden City, Wheathampstead ranks as one of Hertfordshires prettiest villages. Theres been a community here since pre-Roman times. Today there are more than 50 Grade II listed buildings in the village centre and 117 within just one mile.

Now residents and visitors alike can discover more about the communitys rich past thanks to a new self-guided walking route which provides a fascinating glimpse behind 20 of the most significant sites in and around the High Street.

The Wheathampstead Heritage Trail was officially unveiled in late November by Downtown Abbey actor Jim Carter and his wife, Harry Potter star Imelda Staunton, who posed for pictures beside some of the distinctive green and gold heritage plaques.

The idea for the trail was conceived by the Parish Council and Wheathampstead for Enterprising Business, as a way of sustaining their High Street. Grants of around 14,000 were initially obtained from Luton Airport Communities, Hertfordshire County Council, and St Albans Local Strategic Partnership, but it wasnt enough.

Each plaque costs around 350 and we really needed more money if we were going to bring local history to life for as wide an audience as possible, explains project leader Councillor Annie Brewster. So we applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund who loved our proposal and offered us 34,000.

So now we can implement the project in two phases. In 2011 we launched the village trail with plaques, maps and signage, and this year, were adding a selection of wider walks to Water End, Nomansland

Common and Ayot St Lawrence. These will enable people to discover places associated with Sarah Jennings, 1st Duchess of Marlborough; Wicked Lady Kathleen Ferrers; and playwrite George Bernard Shaw. We also have funds to organise re-enactment events, work with schools, and develop the website.

The circular plaques that now adorn 20 of Wheathampsteads most historic buildings tell a wide variety of stories the circus elephant that damaged the river quay in the 1940s, and imposing Wheathampstead House, once visited by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. A pictorial map by Cityscape Maps is mounted on the High Street beside Fuchsia Pink flower shop, with paper copies available from local retailers and restaurants. Or visit http://www.wheathampsteadheritage.org.uk/ to download a copy.

Start walking

Walkers can join the route at any point, but for motorists, the free car park behind The Bull Inn is a good place to start. Originally a group of 16th-century buildings, this striking black and white building beside the Lea has been an inn since 1617.

Pass the colourful village sign and the Elizabethan Arch to Place Farm, and you come to the medieval hall house owned in the 19th century by two British Prime Minsters, Lord Melbourne

and Lord Palmerston. Beyond that, the trail brings walkers to the new flight of steps leading to the station platform.

Opened in 1860, the line operated between Luton and Welwyn Garden City until 1965. Restoration began as a separate project to the Heritage Trail and the station first opened to the public in 2010, but work is still very much on-going.

I met Terry Pankhurst and Peter Ryan, two of a dedicated band of enthusiasts who have painstakingly cleared scrub, revealed the platform and installed signs and planters. The platform level was changed in 1916 when the adjacent bridge was raised to allow gun carriages to pass through, and volunteers recently revealed a section of the original Victorian tarmac underneath the newer slabs. Latest addition is a section of reclaimed track from further up the line.

Theres always somebody pops along when were working, said Terry. Only the other day we met a couple who left from this station in 1963 for their honeymoon in Welwyn!

Back on the High Street the old water mill was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. Contemporary jeweller Rachel Jeffrey has her workshop here now, directly over the place where the wheel once turned.

When the water level is high and Im teaching students, it can be quite a challenge talking over the noise, laughs Rachel. I think the trail is a great way to bring people into the village and even though Ive lived here for a number of years, Ive learnt a lot.

The curved brickwork of the crinkle-crankle wall around the Old Rectory is just one hidden gem that surprises visitors and locals alike, and Phase Two of the project will include access through the wall into a replica Victorian garden. The churchyard beyond the wall has its surprises too, including six Grade II listed chest tombs and the grave of Apsley Gerry-Garrard who lived at nearby Lamer House and was a member of Scotts expedition to the Antarctic.

Weve discovered so many interesting characters and stories whilst researching the Heritage Trail, says Annie Brewster. And thanks to the HLF grant, we can now share them and make everyone proud of their local village.

If you value what this gives you, please consider supporting our work. Click the link in the yellow box below for details.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life