Thursday, 14 May 2015

London Countryway alternative: St Albans - Alban Way - Welham Green

Murals under the arches of the Midland Main Bridge over the former Hatfield and St Albans railway.

THIS INTRIGUING ALTERNATIVE ROUTE avoids the London Countryway’s long detour to the north of St Albans using secluded, traffic-free paths that weren’t an option when the main route was first devised. It runs from Verulamium to the south of the city centre, first along the river Ver and then on an old railway that’s now a cycling and walking route. It’s arguably less pretty and misses out some places of interest including St Michaels, Heartwood Forest, Sandridge and Hatfield Airfield. Neither will all walkers appreciate the long length of surfaced path. But the riverside section is charming, and disused railway lines with their remnants of infrastructure have their own special fascination.

I’ve also suggested a more direct alternative for the end of this section from Roestock to Welham Green station on field paths and an old lane. Again this misses out a couple of features including North Mymms church and the swallow holes, but also avoids most of a particularly nasty stretch of road walking. As the main and alternative routes share a central section from Smallford to Roestock, you can walk either or both bits of each, saving a maximum of 7 km.

The river Ver

The River Ver from the Ver Valley Walk at St Albans just south of the 'holy well'.
The Ver is one of the main reasons the city of St Albans is where it is, over the millennia providing water, food, transport and power. The Romans built Verulamium on its south (right) bank, and the mediaeval city grew up around the abbey on the opposite bank. This might seem puzzling for what now appears to be a relatively modest and gentle river but back then it was a much more copious stream, navigable by quite large boats.

Up to about 450,000 years ago the river Thames flowed nearby, running northwards up the Colne valley and east across the Vale of St Albans on its way to the Rhine. Then a glacier rolled onto the area that’s now Hatfield, blocking the river’s course and creating a great lake to the west. Eventually the water burst through at Staines to cut the course of the Thames we know today, at the same time reversing the flow in the Colne valley, as the Colne became a tributary of the Thames, and the Ver a tributary of the Colne.

The Ver is a chalk stream, fed by an aquifer formed by rainwater sinking through the porous chalk of the Chilterns. Chalk streams are rare – there are only around 200 in the world and most of these in England – and they are particularly prized for their especially pure alkaline water which supports unusual flora and fauna including the characteristic white tufts of water crowfoot poking above the surface in spring. The official source is at Kensworth Lynch on the edge of the Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire, although there’s a competing claim from Markyate Cell, just inside Hertfordshire. These days the river is a ‘winterbourne’ upriver from Redbourn, north of St Albans, with only a seasonal flow. South of the city it runs through Park Street to join the Colne at Bricket Wood, a length of 27 km.

Human interference with the river’s course dates back at least to the early mediaeval period with the cutting of mill races to power water wheels. In its heyday the abbey claimed a local monopoly on milling and its zealous assertion of this prompted locals to support the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. There were once at least a dozen mills on the 15 km stretch of the river between Redbourn and Park Street including the main abbey mill, the buildings and millstream of which are still visible adjacent to the Fighting Cocks pub only a few steps from where our walk starts. Like most of its fellows this originally milled grain but later became a successful silk mill, only closing in the 1950s.

The river has also been diverted for landscaping reasons and to create artificial water features like the lake in Verulamium Park, but the main reason for the reduced flow today is exploitation for mains water. A string of pumping stations have directly tapped the aquifer itself since the early 19th century, with the water company now entitled to abstract over 30 million litres per day.  Unsurprisingly there is some local concern and pressure around the issue. The Ver Valley Society was formed in 1976 with the support of the city council, initially to help promote and develop the riverside walkway, but it soon also began to campaign around water depletion, and has had some success in limiting pumping.

Between the lake and Holywell Hill the Ver has been restored to a more natural condition, meandering gently through bankside vegetation, quite a contrast to the formality of the lakeside. On the right, across the grass towards the sports centre, a cluster of trees conceals one of the now-controversial pumping stations, Mud Lane, which pumps around 2 million litres daily.

Holywell Hill

Holywell Hill is the name for both the hill itself and the steep and busy road running up it, the main route into the city from the south. Watling Street continued in use as a road link to and from London and northwest England for centuries after the Romans left, but it led through the now-abandoned Roman city, not the mediaeval settlement around the abbey. In the late 10th century Abbot Ulsinus stopped up the Roman road in an effort to improve footfall past the abbey and its associated businesses by forcing travellers from the north up the hill, continuing to London along Sopwell Lane. The London-bound route was subsequently diverted twice more, in the 16th century along Old London Road, and in 1794 along London Road which now helps form the main crossroads in the city centre. Today long distance traffic bypasses the city by some distance on the M1.

Despite variant historic spellings such as ‘Halliwell’ and the local pronunciation ‘Hollywell’, the name ‘Holywell’ means pretty much what it says, referring to the legend of St Alban’s holy well. According to tradition, at his execution on the cathedral site, the decapitated head of the saint rolled down the hill and fell into a well or, alternatively and more miraculously, a well appeared at the site where the head came to rest. There are references to the well from the late 14th century but not much else in the historical record.

In the 1630s a large mansion, Holywell House, was built to the north of the river, encroaching on the road, which was obligingly curved westwards along the line of today’s Grove Road: this later became a home of the aristrocratic Spencer family and the second earl, George Spencer (1758-1834) held the office of Mayor of St Albans as well as being a Whig home secretary. The Ver was straightened and move south, its original channel becoming a decorative watercourse in landscaped gardens that included among their features a well claiming to be the holy well itself. In 1837 the mansion was demolished and the road returned to its earlier course. The grounds fell derelict and the well was “remembered only as a muddy depression, sheltered by the remains of a dilapidated wall and a mournful specimen of blackthorn,” according to Charles Ashdowne in his 1893 History of St Albans. The site later became a playing field for St Albans School, an independent boys’ school originally attached to the abbey, and the location of the well was effaced completely.

In 1984 a proposal to build homes on the site prompted a local outcry demanding the rediscovery and preservation of the well, initially rejected by planners and developers. A frustrated group of guerrilla amateur archaeologists broke into the site with the local press in tow, and located a brick-lined, rubble-filled hole which they claimed to be the well. This action also prompted controversy, not only because of the trespass but the archaeological damage that could have been done if the find turned out to be a genuine antiquity. After much further argument, including an intervention from the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, a former Bishop of St Albans, professional archaeologists determined that although the brick and rubble were relatively recent, there were older structures from two different periods beneath them. Post holes likely of Saxon origin were found nearby.

So the well was uncovered and restored, and now, enclosed by brickwork and railings, provides an interesting feature of a small green space among the flats of De Tany Court, named after one of the early benefactors of Sopwell Nunnery, of which more later. It’s only a little off our route just to the north of the river and east of Holywell Hill. Official sources are guarded about its significance: this is a very old settlement above a chalk aquifer so the subsoil is likely honeycombed with wells. Whether you believe this one is the well rather than just a well will no doubt depend on your willingness to believe that water can spring miraculously from beneath the severed head of a saint.

Sopwell and the watercress beds

On the other side of Holywell Hill the route follows an initially rather narrow and sometimes muddy path along the stretch of the Ver straightened in the 1630s to avoid Holywell House, but the surroundings soon open out into a moist and impressively verdant green strip. The name of the next street crossed, Cottonmill Lane, is a reminder of what was once one of the most important Ver mills, which stood on the north (left) bank on the west (upstream) side of the lane between the late 18th and late 19th centuries. It was not only used for cotton but for candlewicks, diamonds, grain and wool, and in the 1840s around 60 people worked here.

The view west from the old railway bridge over the
river Ver, with St Albans Abbey in the distance.
The watercress beds are to the right.
On the other side of the lane the route runs through the delightful Sopwell Nunnery Green Space, which has wildflower meadows, a riverside boardwalk through wet woodlands of alder and willow, and some imposing ruins just visible to your right soon after you enter the park. A Benedictine nunnery or priory, St Mary of Sopwell, was founded here around 1140, likely as a satellite of the abbey. There’s a romantic but unsubstantiated legend that it was inspired by two holy women who washed travellers with cloth sopped in the holy well. The priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537 and given to his close advisor Richard Lee (1513-75), who substantially rebuilt it between 1549-67 and renamed it Lee House. By the 18th century the buildings were largely abandoned and already mainly in ruins, though an outbuilding continued in light industrial use into the 1970s. Today this scheduled ancient monument comprises fragments of one wing, the main hall, boundary walls and a gatehouse, with features such as oriel windows and fireplaces still visible, probably from Lee’s second rebuild although with parts of earlier buildings incorporated.

Past the boardwalk and the extensive allotments that now occupy part of the Lee House grounds a brick-arched railway bridge and embankment rear up ahead, crossing the valley. On the other side of the river here and just slightly off the route is evidence of one of the other uses for the pure water of a chalk stream – edible watercress cultivation. It’s a relatively recent industry compared to some, starting on the Ver upriver at Redbourn in 1885 and soon spreading elsewhere. Originally the cress was cultivated on the river bed itself but soon purpose-built watercress beds were dug using springs and artesian wells to supplement river water. Two different families grew watercress at Sopwell, taking advantage of the nearby railway (now closed: more below) to pick and despatch the cress early in the morning to London markets and restaurants. In 1972 the beds closed and their site became derelict, reopening 20 years later as a public nature reserve operated by a local trust, the Watercress Wildlife Association, on a lease from the council, with lakes, wetlands and orchards.

The Hatfield & St Albans Railway

St Albans London Road station, photographed in 2004 by Nick Pedley for www.disused-stations.org.uk
Leaving the riverside, you climb up to cross the Ver atop the bridge, with a fine prospect back along the valley towards Verulamium and the cathedral. For the next 5 km the route sticks to the tarmac track that now occupies the trackbed of the Hatfield and St Albans railway.

The line was born from the bitter competition of the railway age. The first railway to reach St Albans was the London and North Western (LNWR), which opened what’s now Abbey station in 1858 on a branch from the West Coast Main Line at Watford. This spurred arch rival the Great Northern (GNR) to support local landowners in promoting a connecting line to its station at Hatfield on the East Coast Main Line. The Hatfield & St Albans Railway (H&SAR) was opened in 1865 by a nominally independent company with a connection into the LNWR, and services operated by the GNR. Originally trains ran non-stop, with intermediate stations and halts added later. Despite being relatively cheap to build, the line was never profitable, and hopes of increasing through-passenger traffic were torpedoed when the Midland Railway (MR) opened its own St Albans station, now St Albans City, on its extension to St Pancras is 1868, now the Midland Main Line.

After this the H&SAR served mainly local passengers, although it enjoyed some importance as a goods line, contributing to the development of the industrial suburbs we’ll soon walk through. It flourished briefly again in World War II, taking wounded soldiers to Hill End hospital and workers to Hawker Siddeley, but in 1951 passenger services were suspended and the line finally closed in 1969. Eventually it was bought by the councils and converted to its current use in stages between 1985-88. As the Alban Way it connects Abbey station with Hatfield station but it’s also part of National Cycle Network route 61 from the Thames valley at Maidenhead to the Lea valley at Hoddesdon. Recently some of the stretch we walk has been designated part of the St Albans Green Ring, a 9 km largely off-road walking and cycling circuit. Over the years, though, there have been some murmurings that the old trackbed could still be reclaimed as part of a light rail system.

If, like me, you like keeping a good pace on a straight, flat path, you’ll love the next few kilometres, but the hard surface, slightly enclosed feeling and occasional rude cyclist might not be to every walker’s taste. On the other hand, as mentioned above, there’s a special interest in walking old railways, not just confined to rail enthusiasts, and this is the only such example on the Countryway. Such routes share with canal towpaths that sense of separation from surrounding streets and paths, like secret ways. But with railways there’s the additional thrill of walking somewhere you were never intended to walk. The geometry, the gentle gradients, the dead-straight stretches and long and graceful curves, all tell you that you’re intruding into an environment that wasn’t designed for you.

When operational, railways and their surroundings form green corridors of a sort, and rapidly enrich themselves further when abandoned. I personally find fascination in the new accretions to repurpose the infrastructure: the spindly footbridges balanced on the still-visible abutments of once-sturdier structures, the steps and ramps patching the track into its surroundings in a way that was never meant to be. Then of course there are the relics, the viaducts and bridges, the still-recognisable station buildings and the platforms now poignantly overgrown. And who, when walking such a route, hasn’t imagined the approaching whistle of some ghostly locomotive, perhaps a phantom tank engine chugging its load of watercress through a time warp?

On the other side of the Ver the land rises rapidly and the path digs into it through a cutting which unexpectedly opens out onto a street of new housing, Orient Close, on old sidings. The railway alignment is marked by a particularly broad and sinuous pavement, at the far end of which is the architectural gems of today’s walk, the old London Road station building. The former use of this H-shaped red brick structure, complete with canopy and fragments of platform, is immediately evident, but it looks oddly isolated now the rails that once surrounded it are long gone.  Now Grade II-listed and thought to be the oldest surviving GNR station building south of York, it houses offices and a children’s nursery.

The route now runs under London Road and soon encounters another splendid example of Victorian railway architecture, this time the work of the Midland Railway: a towering but elegantly detailed brick arch bridge taking the Midland Main Line over the competitor it was eventually to obliterate. Within the arch are some murals depicting the history of the line. A little further, a ramp into the 2010s residential development of Charrington Place provides a direct route to City station, with more railway souvenirs on view at the restored St Albans South Signal Box across the tracks, now operated by a local trust with regular open days.

Just before the next road crossing at Camp Road, where a 2003 footbridge has replaced a sturdier structure, are the wooden remains of a platform. This was originally a private halt for staff at Sanders Orchid Nursery which was formerly adjacent. It came to be known as Salvation Army Halt as it was also used by staff at the Salvation Army printworks, the Campfield Press, which stood alongside the railway a little further on across Camp Road, off Campfield Road, from 1889. Both businesses had their own sidings, and millions of flowers and millions of bibles journeyed into the world this way.

Fleetville and Hill End

East of Camp Road, the city sprawled along the railway from the late 19th century on, into the suburbs of Fleetville to the north of the line and The Camp to the south. Various features can be glimpsed through the trees, beginning with Hatfield Road Cemetery on the left, the city’s first municipal cemetery, opened in 1884 and still in use today, followed on the same side by the playing fields of Longacres open space.

On the opposite side of the track here is a more poignant burial ground, filled with the graves of inmates of Hill End mental hospital nearby. In the first half of the 20th century, over 1,000 corpses were buried seven-deep here in communal graves marked only with numbers, though in recent years volunteers have tidied up the space and created more dignified memorials, renaming the space, now a County Wildlife Site, the Hill End Garden of Rest.

Platform remains at the former Hill End station on the Alban Way, St Albans
Hill End Hospital is one of those big suburban asylums that so fascinates London psychogeographers like Iain Sinclair, Most of them were built following the Local Government Act 1888 which gave county councils a duty to care for ‘lunatics’. The Hertfordshire County Asylum opened in 1899 just to the south of the railway line, on a self-sufficient site with its own farm, railway siding and station. It was known as progressive in its day, with outdoor activities and occupational therapy, but people with mental disabilities were still treated alongside those with mental illness until a dedicated unit for the former, Cell Barnes Hospital, opened on an adjacent site to the south in 1933. On the outbreak of World War II, Hill End was requisitioned as an emergency facility for both military and civilian casualties, pioneering among other things reconstructive and plastic surgery. It returned to use as a psychiatric hospital under the NHS in 1948, and was a target of the evolving critique of mental health care in the 1960s and 1970s. You don’t have to look far on the web to find horror stories from this period, particularly from patients of its Adolescent Unit.

With the move towards community care, the idea that mental health patients should be segregated ‘out of sight and out of mind’ in places like this fell out of medical fashion. The hospital finally closed in 1996 and the site was redeveloped as housing and parkland, now known as Highfield Park. Most of the buildings were demolished but three blocks were converted to social housing and the former chapel is now an arts centre. The old siding has been obliterated but the former station platforms are clearly visible from the path. Spare a thought as you pass for the thousands whose lives changed for better or worse here.

Once across Hill End Lane the Countryway re-enters WatlingChase Community Forest, although the views to the north soon become industrial, a result of council policy to encourage businesses out of the centre into the city’s own ‘east end’ since the late 1940s. But there’s now open country on the opposite side, the site of Butterwick Farm prior to World War II, later used for gravel extraction and still known as Smallford Pits even though it was restored some years ago. One of the pits remains a little further along as a fishing lake. Soon after this you’ll encounter the substantial platform remnants of Smallford station, opened as Springfield in 1866 and renamed in 1879. The former ticket office can also be seen in the builder’s yard nearby.

Overlooking the fishing lake at Smallford Pits from the Alban Way, just west of the former Smallford station

Sleapshyde and Roestock

The route now finds its way between a couple of other scattered settlements in the slice of Green Belt between St Albans and Hatfield, all part of the parish of Colney Heath, relatively flat countryside straddling the very upper reaches of the river Colne. Approaching the edge of Sleapshyde across fields, there's a rare overt sign of the Community Forest as the Countryway joins for a short time the Watling Chase Trail. When this was first developed in the 1990s it was known as the Watling Chase Timberland Trail, as footwear manufacturer Timberland sponsored trails in all the Community Forests. The sponsorship has long ended but cannily the company had their distinctive tree logo used as a waymarking device. The trail runs north to south through the centre of the Forest area. We encounter it very near its northern end, at Wilkins Green a couple of kilometres north of here and also on the Alban Way; to the south it stretches to Elstree where it links with the London Loop, giving the most direct link in some time between the Countryway and the Loop.

Sleapshyde

Sleapshyde has a tiny remant of a village green complete with sign, pump and surrounding rustic buildings, which doesn’t quite make up for the fact that its southern side is lopped off by the A414 North Orbital Road. As its name suggests, the road, formerly numbered A405, was originally envisaged as part of an orbital highway route round London when it was first built in the 1930s by the Ministry of Transport, one of many successive concentric circles drawn round the capital over the decades by planners. Patrick Abercrombie's 1944 Greater London Plan chose it as one section of the "E Ring", the outermost of five ring roads which together with the Green Belt would help define that all important edge of the capital. Interestingly Abercrombie didn't see the E Ring as primarily a fast traffic route but as a "Parkway", including "a strip of open space which gives it a positive amenity value...at once part of the communications and part of the park system."

This grand plan was never implemented due to lack of funds, but the London County Council, its successor the Greater London Council, and the Ministry of (now the Department for) Transport continued to draw up radical and sometimes conflicting plans for further circular and orbital routes. In the 1960s, Abercrombie's E Ring re-emerged minus green strip as Ringway 4, but this time public horror as well as underfunding and internal politics scuppered the proposals. Instead we got the M25, and the old orbital was renumbered A414 in an effort to discourage longer distance traffic. Even so it remains a busy road which the Countryway is now obliged to cross via a very minimally formal crossing point. As you dodge through dual lanes of fast cars to zigzag around the gap in the crash barriers on the central strip, try to imagine Abercrombie's positive amenity value.

There’s a very physical link between the flat area we’re now crossing and the big roads that now entangle London, including the M25: much of the gravel needed to construct them was dug from beneath the land we now cross. These gravels were originally deposited by the Thames on its old course and the glacier that diverted it to its new one, as described above. The green space and woodland south of the A414 is another restored former gravel working.

Beyond this is Roestock, a hamlet in the triangle of an old road junction, and where its houses end along busy Tollgate Road, the Countryway leaves St Albans district and enters the borough of Welwyn Hatfield. The boundary, which appears to go right through the middle of a house, is a relatively new one, dating from an extension to St Albans in 1913.

Welham Green

The A1(M) between Roestock and Welham Green, looking north.
At this point the main route continues rather uncomfortably along the road to North Mymms park, but there’s an opportunity to cut the walk short by heading across fields towards the A1(M), the latest incarnation of the main road from London to the northeast and Edinburgh. I discussed the A1 in the previous section in connection with the M1 and M6, which now provide between them the route of choice to most of industrial Yorkshire and Scotland, but the line of the A1 itself is still a major link in its own right. Since the 1930s there have been plans to upgrade it all to motorway standards but while never fully realised, significant sections now bear the affixed bracketed M, including this one which was opened in 1979. Elsewhere along its length you can still trace the parallel strand of the previous A1 Barnet and Hatfield bypasses built by the Ministry of Transport in 1928, but here the successor motorway has completely obliterated it.

A strange figure peers from Bush Wood onto Dellsome
Lane, Welham Green.
After a brief encounter with the oaks and hornbeams of Bush Wood, one of the few largish woodlands in the area, we join a more modest road significantly affected by the A1(M). Dellsome Lane was a local through route to Colney Heath before it was severed by the motorway. Now, still tarmacked but radically narrowed by overgrowth, it provides a quiet path along the woodland edge that soon metamorphoses into a residential street on the approach to Welham Green.

The village was originally a tiny hamlet on the northern edge of North Mymms but is now really a southern extension of Hatfield, linked by light industrial sprawl. It's a plain-looking place dominated by 20th century residential development. So big has it become that its name has supplanted its historically more important neighbour as the common label for the area. The substantial triangular junction where Parsonage Lane and Huggins Lane converge on Dellsome Lane before the village centre is known as Balloon Corner, as it was the site of the first landing of the first passenger hydrogen balloon flown in England, piloted by Vincenzo Londardi in 1784. Londardi had a dog, a cat and a pigeon with him when he took off from Moorfields, London, but the cat got airsick, so he landed in Welham Green and handed it into the care of the locals: an engraved plaque marks the spot. The flight finally ended at Thundridge near Ware, off to the northeast.

The original Countryway route headed for Brookmans Park station rather than Welham Green but since then, not only has a path been diverted inconveniently to avoid a stopped up railway crossing, but an entire new station has opened much closer to the route. Both stations are on the Great Northern Railway which opened from London to Peterborough in 1850 as the first stage of a main line from Kings Cross to York, built under the direction of the great civil engineer William Cubitt (not to be confused with the near contemporary politician William Cubitt who built Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs). The line ran from Potters Bar to Hatfield on an alignment roughly parallel with but to the west of the Great North Road, originally with no intermediate stops. Its successor the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) added the station at Brookmans Park in 1926, in response to suburban development, but Welham Green only got its station in 1986 under the nationalised operator British Rail.

Welham Green station
The station is just 2.5km south of a site that played a major, if tragic, role in the recent history of Britain’s railways. In 1994, a private company, Railtrack, took over ownership and maintenance of the former British Rail infrastructure as part of a complex privatisation, still subsidised by government but paying huge shareholder dividends. Following several years of warnings about corner-cutting to help boost those dividends, on 17 October 2000, a Leeds-bound express travelling at 185km/h derailed due to poor track maintenance in between Welham Green and Hatfield, killing four passengers. The subsequent fallout led to Railtrack being placed into administration and to the effective renationalisation of railway infrastructure under Network Rail. 

No comments: