Monday, 31 May 2010

London Countryway 11: St Albans - Welham Green

I apologise for the temporary lack of photos on this post. This was due to bad file management, but it does at least give me an excuse to do the walk again.

One way of looking at the London Countryway is as an exploration, and even a celebration, of the Metropolitan Green Belt, one of the package of post-World War II planning innovations that shaped contemporary England. The Green Belt, more than any other measure, has locked London within the physical limits it had reached by the outbreak of war in 1939. Until then, growth of urban areas in Britain was largely unconstrained, driven by individual landowners and developers, spreading out from the centre to engulf formerly separate towns and villages and then shooting out tendrils of "ribbon development" along lines of communication into the countryside of surrounding counties. This unchecked tumour-like development continued into an era in which comparable European countries had long reined in such tendencies through planning controls to create more rational cities -- the resulting difference in character is obvious today.

The idea of a green belt around London goes back to at least the 17th century, when it could have run a mere 3km out from the centre, and was also championed in the early 20th century by members of the Garden City movement and the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE, now the Campaign to Protect Rural England). The then London County Council adopted a tentative scheme in the 1930s, but it was following 1944's Greater London Plan and the inclusion of green belts in the 1948 Town and Country Planning Act that they became established as a key planning tool not just for London but for other British cities. Subsequent legislation has refined and strengthened Green Belt principles and they have been extended not only to the other big conurbations like Birmingham and Glasgow but to smaller historic cities like Oxford and York.

Green Belts are an apparently simple idea that have captured the public imagination -- they probably enjoy the widest public awareness of any planning tool, but they're also widely misunderstood. Ask most people what they know about Green Belts and they will probably say something about protecting countryside around cities, and perhaps mention something about "green lungs" or conservation and recreation. But the original and still the first purpose of Green Belts is much more about the shape and form of the cities they encircle than the inherent value of the land they enclose. As stated in the current government planning advice to local councils, Green Belts have five purposes:
  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns;
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
The purpose of safeguarding countryside was a late addition, added in 1988. From the start, Green Belts were much more about "shaping the expansion of a city on a regional scale", as a government planning leaflet put it in 1962, initially in line with a model that envisaged limiting further development of big cities within existing bounds on the expectation that populations would disperse to those New Towns beyond the Green Belt which, as I remarked when we first entered Hertfordshire, the Countryway has so studiously avoided. The urban regeneration purpose, another addition from a later era that witnessed the decline of city-based heavy industry, reflects an often unfulfilled hope that developers prevented from building in the Green Belt will turn instead to brownfield post-industrial sites within the city itself.

So no matter what the public might think, the planning philosophy behind the Green Belt is one that has little positive to say about green belt land as such, only that it's open and rural, probably agricultural and not put to "urban" uses. The principle virtue of designated land is that it's non-urban, a thick boundary of "un-city" defining the form of the city it encloses with the certainty and clarity of a fat green highlighter pen. The compelling need to define that urban boundary with such certainty seems as much an aesthetic and psychological need as a practical planning one -- towns and cities become what they are through their boundaries, and a city like London has splurged too far, leading us to agonise over which bit is London and which bit is not. This reaches a new level in the "setting and character of historic towns" purpose, written for the likes of Oxford and York, where the surrounding countryside is reduced almost to a painted backdrop, offsetting a city forever fixed as a composition in built heritage.

Note there is no mention in the purposes of recreation, biodiversity, public health or other potential benefits of Green Belt land in itself. There have been various proposals to extend the guidance -- in the early 1990s, for example, then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine suggested including supporting quiet recreation and enhancing the natural beauty of the countryside, but this was rejected. There's no argument that in practice the Green Belt has protected huge swathes of land, including pretty much everything we've enjoyed on the London Countryway, which otherwise would undoubtedly have been inundated with ugly suburban sprawl. This in turn has supported city dwellers' access to the benefits of green space, as I'm encouraging you to exercise on this walk. But these outcomes are almost incidental to a process that's more focused on establishing city boundaries.

At worst, the Green Belt could encourage vacuous bands of bland and unwelcoming countryside that's minimally open and green, a tendency exacerbated by changes in agriculture and the rural economy that has seen the emergence of large and intensive farms owned by big commercial groups and tended by only a handful of workers. This has resulted not only in depopulation but in big demographic changes which are immediately obvious when walking the route -- the farmhouses, farm workers' cottages and even many former commercial buildings such as pubs and shops have mutated into luxury homes guarded by 4x4's and, too often, nasty dogs, with inhabitants that spend most of their working day in London. Big stretches of farmland have been converted to serve this market, becoming stables and -- worse -- that ultimate suburbanised countryside, the golf course, the most intensive of land uses permitted by Green Belt policy. The best-looking villages have been preserved not as vibrant mixed communities but as monuments to be admired by the sort of well-heeled, cut-glass-accented nimby that stereotypically supports the CPRE. The public transport network has withered, especially since privatisation in the 1980s. The descendants of farm labourers have been squeezed by declining social housing, rocketing propery prices and lack of work: most have moved to the city, while those that remain, are squeezed into "pockets of rural deprivation" on crumbling old council estates, looking forward to the twice-weekly bus.

It's been left largely to other projects to put green belt land to more positive and human use in the interests both of recreation and conservation: the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Community Forests, the Regional Parks and various nature reserves, Country Parks, Environmental Stewardship schemes and National Trust and Woodland Trust properties. Of course there are those that insist the countryside is a workplace, not a giant park for gawping townies -- but their assumptions are the best part of a century out of date. 90% of us now live in towns and cities, and the countryside immediately adjoining them simply wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for planning policies that blocked development. What countryside remains, in common with all the other agricultural land in Britain, has long been subsidised to the hilt with both direct payments and tax breaks, even before the UK signed up to the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy. I'm personally of the view that private land ownership is something of an ethical obscenity, but even a staunch Daily Telegraph reader would find difficulty resisting the argument that the average taxpayer has paid their admission charge many times over. And I'm not saying I'd want all of it to look as managed and interpreted for the public as, say, the Lea Valley Park, which we'll be traversing in a couple of section's time, but the remaining bland and unwelcoming bits do enrage me.

The Green Belt has also been criticised for being ineffective in reinforcing rational development within the urban area. Rather than redeveloping urban sites, some developers have preferred to leapfrog the Green Belt and create dispersed, car-dependent communities beyond it. There have long been calls for a more rational and integrated planning policy, but it's more likely to come under attack by piecemeal attrition. The latest proposals by the current Coalition government are to allow small developments within the Green Belt without a planning enquiry if they are supported by 80% of a local community -- which sounds a good idea, and might result in some increase in affordable rural housing, better local services and economic sustainability, but commercial vultures with their eye on the executive commuter market will also be circling.

The fetish for a clear division between urban and rural zones, the yearning for a city outline seen so clearly in Green Belt policy, also deserves some examining. I suspect it has helped delay and muffle the realisation that cities too can and should be green and liveable places, and has contributed to the appalling record on looking after and investing in urban green space and parks. We have a poor record of making good use of space in cities. Postwar development plans, written when the stench of atrocious slums had only just been covered by dust raised by the Luftwaffe's bombs, start from the premise that urban "overcrowding" is a problem in itself and envision displacing populations to garden cities with much lower densities, not realising how this in itself fed social dislocation and, eventually, car dependency. In recent years the realisation has finally dawned that dense mixed use neighbourhoods provide some of the vital qualities of city living, so long as the quality and amenities are high. But there's still plenty of wasted space. In an ideal world I would like to see much more mingling of urban and rural and a blurring of those lines, with large and even farmed green spaces within historic cities, and denser and better connected development in rural areas. London isn't a city with mountains in the middle of it, like Edinburgh or Hong Kong, but still the occasional discovery of a fragment of countryside within the urban space itself will provide one of the highlights of future walks.

The London Countryway's creator Keith Chesterton chose to navigate St Albans by relentlessly tracking the Green Belt: the route approaches through Verulamium Park, clips the edge of the built up area and tracks a roughly bell shaped curve through the Green Belt around the north and east of the city, avoiding the centre. There are more direct possibilities including crossing the historic centre on a street-based route, or picking up the Alban Way, the disused railway line that starts near St Albans Abbey station and meets Chesterton's route again at Smallford. Here I've stayed faithful to Chesterton's decisions, with a note to return to explore the Alban Way some other time. As we shall shortly see, besides its Green Belt logic there is now a further major attraction on the published London Countryway route, established only recently and set to become even more important in years to come.

From pretty St Michaels the route climbs slightly from the Ver along residential Branch Road, with some interesting art deco houses and wooden barns on the left, to an encounter with the next of the series of northbound roads mentioned in the previous section, although it's one users of the station links will already have crossed. Verulam Road is part of the old turnpiked section of the A5 Shrewsbury road, here numbered A5183 in an effort to discourage through traffic, and lined with housing estates. A little way along it, Down Edge Open Space, a small and modest green rectangle with a play area doubtless much appreciated locally, provides a convenient cut corner to Batchwood Drive, marking the western boundary of development. Across it we're into fields along an old lane, also used by the Hertfordshire Way, from where, looking left and back, the valley slopes gently down to the A5183, Watling Street and the river. In the distance, on the opposite bank, you can see the remains of the Roman theatre, which was once in the heart of the city -- it's difficult to imagine the now quiet fields of Lord Verulam's estate covered with fine villas and temples.

A little further on the route reaches one of those classic Green Belt developments, a golf course, although this is a council-owned one now operated under contract, the Batchwood Golf and Tennis Centre, which makes me more kindly disposed towards it. The mansion of the old Batchwood Estate at the centre of the course now also functions as an 'exclusive niteclub' featuring retro disco nights and A-level results parties on its programme. The path that crosses the course is well waymarked and several lengths of old hedgerow have been preserved. It takes us to another small green patch on the edge of New Greens, one of the city's outlying housing estates that date from before the early 1970s, when the London Green Belt was extended to include almost all of Hertfordshire. From here the route runs along the edge of the old coppiced woodland of Batch Wood or Batchwood, a surviving fragment of what in Roman times would have been a much bigger wood, the location of the original Catuvellauni settlement and of a long vanished mediaeval manor.

The path then tacks around the edges of playing fields and woodlands and across a field of fruit canes to the south of the hamlet of Childwickbury to emerge at Hawkswick Lodge Farm, on another important road. Harpenden Road is part of another turnpike route north, linking London with Manchester and Carlisle, generally designated A6 but , similarly to the A5, renumbered A1081 at this point to encourage through traffic to use the motorway. Here we rejoin the Hertfordshire Way, which left us at the golf course to follow a slightly less direct route via Childwick Bury. Across the main road we pick up a good farm track through rollling fields which in turn takes us over yet another key transport route, the Midland Main Line, on Cheapside Bridge, a lovely old brick bridge which presumably dates from the 1860s when the line was first opened – its history has already been considered briefly at St Albans City Station in the previous section.

Over the railway, a fine track continues ahead, now on high airy farmland with wide views towards the Colne valley. To the north of the track is the slowly developing major attraction alluded to earlier. The fields to the north of the path, and the patches of ancient woodland they surround, are part of the 347ha site of Heartwood Forest, a Woodland Trust project to create “the largest new native forest in England”, with plans to plant over 600,000 trees, alongside creating new wildflower meadows, open spaces and paths, eventually encircling all of the north of Sandridge to create a new public space bigger than the post-Games Olympic Park planned for Stratford, and still only 40km from central London. It’s the Trust’s biggest project in England, the flagship of their current tree planting programme.

Currently much of the site is still farmland and they’re busy raising the money to plant it, but there are already some public areas – the biggest one is accessed via a wooden gate from our path – and a busy programme of events including an impressive array of community and arts-related projects. The name, incidentally, is a multiple pun arrived at following a competition among staff, referencing Hertfordshire, the heart-shaped leaves of the small-leafed lime trees found in the wood, the “heartwood” found at the centre of the trunks of broadleaved trees and the connection with individual, social and environmental health.

As a land management and conservation charity, the Woodland Trust is a relative newcomer, dating only from 1972, when it was created by a Dorset farmer to protect small local woods. Clearly its aims and approach resonated – there’s something reassuringly long term about woods and trees which encourages people to invest for the future. The Trust has grown rapidly into a major organisation with 200,000 members, over 200 staff, an annual income of over £25m and 20,000ha of property. It’s been canny with its brands, partnering with supermarkets, and exemplary in its community work, encouraging local people into its woods – one of the best examples of how people can be encouraged to care about environments they have access to. I wish it luck with its project at Heartwood, and look forward to viewing the site in a decade or so’s time.

Sandridge is a relatively large village, today barely separate from the city's sprawl, supporting several pubs, shops and even a football team, straddling another old northbound road, this one a relatively minor one linking St Albans to Wheathampstead and the upper Lea valley. Further downstream, the river Lea and its valley have played a key role in shaping the growth of London as well as forming star attractions in its walking network, as we'll see both further along the London Countryway and on other London underfoot walks. The Lea is only 4km or s0 from Sandridge Church here along the village high street, but we now travelled to the furthest point north of the Countryway and here, on the watershed of the Lea and the Colne, we'll start to work our way back south again.

Although some way outside the village, the river was long a key feature of the old Sandridge Manor, which included mills strung along it. The name wears its etymology on its sleeve: a sandy, or rather gravelly, ridge between the Lea and the Ver. Unsurprisingly the village's history is closely connected to St Albans Abbey -- on the death of the abbey's founder King Offa in 796, his son Egfrid gave the extensive manor of Sandridge to the abbots. It remained ecclesiastical property until Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, when it was sold to a London banker for £400. Eventually it passed to the Spencer family who finally auctioned it off to smaller landowners in 1951, retaining only Nomansland Common, a strip which now abuts the northern boundary of Heartwood Forest west of the road -- this is now leased to the council as a public space. The most famous Spencer is of course Diana Princess of Wales (1961-97) whom we've encountered before on the walk -- her brother Charles (b1964), the current Earl Spencer, is still officially Lord of the Manor.

The route takes us right to the front of pretty St Leonards Church, mainly dating from around 1119 but with masonry thought to be older -- there was no doubt a wooden church on this site since shortly after the manor was handed to the abbey. Like most churches it's been subject to numerous additions and rebuildings and the current appearance is largely down to a major restoration in 1887 -- the current bells, popular with bell ringers, date from 1890. The Hertfordshire Way forks left of the church, leaving us for a while -- we'll encounter those white waymark arrows again in the next section, just outside Newgate Street. On this occasion, however, it doesn't offer a more direct route, instead travelling via a long inverted U into the far northeast of the county via Royston, Bishops Stortford and Hertford.

The Countryway meanwhile tracks the edge of a pleasant green and cuts through residential streets to run out of Sandridge along a lane. Here there's the more pleasant option of walking along the generous field headland parallel to the lane on the other side of the hedge, to which there is informal access. Although clearly appreciated by local walkers, I suspect this feature is primarily for the benefit of owls. These birds tend to hunt along roadside verges, flying low and parallel with the hedgerow to avoid the wind, and consequently are often killed in collisions on narrow but fast country roads. A broad headland attracts similar wildlife to a verge and provides the owls with an alternative hunting ground, safe from traffic.

An old track, in places a charming sunken green lane, then takes the route further south. Looking to the right, you'll see the edge of the large housing estates on St Alban's eastern flank. The core of this residential sprawl is Marshalswick, once an historic country estate and park with a history dating back to the 1100s, but developed for housing from the 1920s. In the 1970s the housing spilled over further into the farmland of Jersey Farm and it's these houses we see from the trail. Here is the Green Belt in action, the limits of development clearly dileneated by the enclosing fields.

Approaching pretty Oak Farm I encounter a path problem, the first notable one on my whole walk so far. Chesterton's route follows a bridleway forking off southeast across a field, away from the farm, but though this is clearly shown on the OS map and actually waymarked on the ground, the field is solid with crops, and no sign of any line along the right of way. So I continue on the clear path which rounds the front of the farm and joins the farm drive to reach Coopers Green Lane. Here the map shows a more direct bridleway ahead towards Smallford, but Chesterton has chosen a footpath further east to minimise disruption from gravel workings. So far the previous problems he mentions have been solved in the intervening decades since the last edition of his guidebook was published in 1981, so I investigate this more direct route, but end up struggling along a rugged and unwelcoming field edge with no obvious way ahead, and a gravel pit clearly still in operation, so I backtrack and catch up again with the recommended route. If you're walking the route from my directions, don't worry about any of this, as I've taken account of it all in outlining a hopefully seamless walking experience.

On the other side of Coopers Green Lane the route re-enters Watling Chase Community Forest, as discussed in the previous section, although there's nothing to mark the fact. The ground now traversed does indeed show signs of past and present gravel workings -- the inevitable side-effect of development, with demand from construction fuelling the excavation of vast swathes of Home Counties farmland, particularly in Hertfordshire, for the pebbly subsoil deposited by past rivers. But the path isn't unpleasant: it's well-defined and easily walkable and the roughly restored land surrounding it has something of the wildness of a heath. A young oak tree just before an aluminum gate commemorates the aggregates company's forestry officer, Roger Mould, who died in 1996. Unexpectedly, the route crosses a conveyor, a ribbon of machinery stretched across the fields, though sadly not in operation during my walk.

A long, straight path ends in a pair of old gates that hang open, revealing another apparently derelict green space ahead. This is actually a key site in the history of aviation: a couple of decades ago these gates would have been firmly shut with good reason, for anyone walking ahead would find themselves on the western end of the runway of Hatfield Airfield. The pioneer aircraft maker Geoffrey DeHavilland, seeking an undeveloped rural site within easy reach of his existing factory in rapidly urbanising Edgware, bought some farmland here in 1930, converting it into what was originally known as Hatfield Aerodrome. Art deco factories were developed at the opposite end of the extensive site, and such was their importance in their prime that a whole suburb, Hatfield Garden Village, was created to house their workers. The site saw the launch of the world's first commercial jet airliner, the celebrated Comet, in 1949. The company became part of Hawker Siddeley in 1970 and was in turn absorbed into British Aerospace when that then-nationalised company was created in 1978 in an attempt to perpetuate the flagging UK aerospace industry. BAe finally quit Hatfield in 1993, and much of it has been redeveloped, as well as being used for films. The devastated French town of Ramelle was famously recreated here in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Currently this end of the field is a piece of waste ground on which locals walk their dogs unhindered, but the official route turns with the field edge and cuts between fences by Notcutts Garden Centre to reach Hatfield Road at Smallford. Notcutts are one of the biggest garden centre chains, developing from a nursery established at Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1749. The big centres started to evolve in the late 1950s, benefitting from increased prosperity, more houses with gardens and increased car use making it possible to shop for bulky items at out-of-town sites; the company's official history also attributes its growth to early 1970s postal strikes that decreased the popularity of mail order. It's a curious feature of suburban England that what are essentially garden shops have become visitor attractions in their own right, a weekend trip with fun for all the family in a controlled environment, complete with children's play area, displays, exhibitions and catering. You might be grateful for the refreshment opportunities -- the cream teas pictured on the website look very alluring.

There was indeed a small ford at Smallford, on a stream west along the Hatfield Road. Today it's one of a number of scattered clusters of housing estates and services in between St Albans and Hatfield. Across the Hatfield Road, down the side of a bean field and through a few residential streets there's another improvement to the route, Peggy's Path, running alongside but segregated from the busy but narrow Station Road. Peggy Hughes was a former director of St Albans Centre for Voluntary Service, a keen community campaigner and sometime district councillor and the path is here thanks largely to her work.

The path brings us to a junction with the Alban Way, the former route of the St Albans branch of the Great Northern Railway, built in 1865, closed to passengers in 1951 and finally dismantled closed and dismantled in 1969. A few metres to the right along the Way, under the railway bridge, you'll find the platform of the old Smallford station, originally known as Springfield; a derelict ticket office is adjacent. Subsequently the trackbed, now owned by the council, became an informal off-road route, the eastern part of which was formerly known as the Smallford Trail, but over the last decade the whole route has been improved and named the Alban Way throughout as part of National Cycle Network route 61 from Maidenhead to Hoddesdon.

Following the Alban Way from St Albans Abbey station to here would be an obvious way of cutting off the hump in the trail around the north of St Albans if you preferred, and in the other direction the Way provides the obvious route to Hatfield, about 4km east. The route takes you past the new town centre and straight to Old Hatfield and the station. This is just across the road from the entrance to Hatfield House, an extensive and handsome Jacobean mansion set in grand parkland, and the adjoining late 15th century Old Palace where the young Elizabeth Tudor was living when she was told she'd become Queen in 1558. Still the residence of the Cecil family, it's long been open as a popular visitor attraction, and Chesterton goes into some detail about it in his book, but in my view it's too far off route for a visit.

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 now ended but cannily the company had their distinctive tree logo used as a waymarking device which is still visible. The trail runs north to south through the centre of the Forest area. We encounter 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, and you could continue south along the Dollis Valley Green Walk and through Hampstead Heath and Regents Park to central London, as suggested in previous postings. We'll be returning to this route in a future London underfoot.

Sleapshyde boasts a village pump and its southern side is lopped off by the A414 North Orbital Road. Built by the Ministry of Transport in the 1930s as a result of some of the earliest plans to rationalise and expand Britain's trunk road network, and originally numered A405, as its name suggests it was originally envisaged as part of an orbital highway route round London, a grand plan interrupted by war. Over the decades a whole succession of planners set about drawing successive concentric circles round the capital in an effort to meet the challenge of increasing motor vehicle use, and the road formed a part of several of these. Patrick Abercrombie's 1944 Greater London Plan envisaged 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 once part of the communications and part of the park system." His grand plan for postwar London soon stumbled on severe lack of funds but the vision of concentric ring roads persisted and the North Orbital was even extended west to meet the M1's M10 spur, now the A414 and crossed in the last section, in 1960 shortly after the M1 opened.

In the 1960s the London County Council, its successor the Greater London Council, and the Ministry of (now the Department for) Transport produced radical and sometimes conflicting plans for further circular and orbital routes. Under these, Abercrombie's E Ring was redubbed Ringway 4, but this time public horror as well as underfunding and internal politics scuppered the plans. Instead we got the M25, opened between 1975 and 1986, and while some sections of the motorway do follow planned alignments of the North Orbital, here the completed ring runs some way to the south. The old orbital was left as an isolated length of road which was then 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.

Woodland and field paths lead through to Roestock, a hamlet in the triangle of an old road junction, where our path winds through houses to reach Tollgate Road, taking us towards North Mymms. Where the houses of Roestock end the Countryway leaves St Albans district and enters the borough of Welwyn Hatfield, although the boundary, which appears to go right through the middle of a house, is a relatively new one, dating from an extension to the boundaries of St Albans in 1913. Tollgate Road is one of the least satisfactory stretches of the route so far: the footway soon runs out and the traffic is relatively frequent and fast, so it's a case of walking determinedly on the right of the carriageway and staring out the drivers.

Thankfully it's not too long before we reach the grazed parkland of North Mymms Park. This is the core of the ancient Manor of North Mymms (or Mimms) which dates back to pre-Conquest times and was once much bigger than the still extensive park of almost 50ha which survives today. It's recorded in Domesday as belonging to the See of Chester but over the centuries it's seen numerous changes of ownership. In 1599 the then owner, Ralph Coningsby, built the impressive Jacobean mansion you can glimpse through the trees, allegedly in anticipation of a visit by Queen Elizabeth that never happened. Among its important features is an early 17th century mural on the traditional theme of the "Nine Worthies" -- Hector, Alexander, Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. Coningsby's son Thomas retained his father's royal-pleasing tendencies: he was arrested and imprisoned for raising an army against Oliver Cromwell in 1642, and the house was sequestrated. The last private owner, Major General Sir George Burns, sold the house in 1979 to an overseas corporate investor. It's now owned by the drug company Glaxo, but the Burns family still retain the park which they rent out for events.

As often in this sort of environment the line of the right of way is a little unclear. As I'm standing puzzling over the map to work out whether to go left or right of a stand of trees, I notice movement off to the side. Turning, I notice that a herd of bullocks, about 20 of them, are standing a few metres away looking at me curiously. As I start to walk, they follow, getting closer behind me each time. I start to feel rather uncomfortable. Remembering the advice for dealing with cattle, I stop, turn round and wave my arms at them, trying to look firm. They stop too and back off a bit, but of course as soon as I turn around and continue walking they're behind me again. Several attempts to wave them off achieve the same unsatisfactory result. Spotting the gate on the opposite side of the field I foolishly attempt to run, but they just speed up too, and this time they're getting closer. This time when I turn and wave, they look more restless and aggressive -- some are even salivating. A stretch of hummocky ground gives me an advantage, but the whole herd goes round the side and is catching up with me again as, with some relief, I get through the kissing gate. While it's unlikely if I'd stood my ground they would have trampled me, it's still an unnerving experience for an adult on their own, and would have been very worrying had I had young children with me, or a dog. It's a difficult balance -- livestock fully deserve their place in the working countryside, but when they behave like this they certainly reduce the amenity of public paths. A report about the incident, and about the path problem mentioned above, to Hertfordshire's public rights of way office has not yet received a response.

I'm so relieved to leave the field that I barely notice the dry ditch the path croses on the other side of the hedge. This is actually the line of the river Colne, just a short distance from its source, and these days almost always dry. The Colne is one of the larger tributaries of the river Thames, which it joins at Staines, having gathered waters from several tributaries of its own, including the Ver, and tangled for some distance with the Grand Union Canal. In this lower section, the Colne forms something of a bookend to west London, complimented in the east by an even more important tributary, the river Lea. Both rivers are now the basis for Regional Parks and signed trails and the Lea's will play a significant role in the section after next; the Countryway misses the Colne Valley Park and Path but it'll be explored on a later London underfoot walk.

The location of St Mary's Church, North Mymms, reaffirms the importance of the manor -- it's one of those churches in the heart of the parkland rather than in a village, as if it's primarily intended for the squire's private worship, and indeed it includes a separate chapel for the Lord's use, where the Coningsbys are now interred. The first parish priest is recorded in 1237 but the core of the stone church standing today was built by then Lord of the Manor Simon Swanland in the 1330s. There were extensive restorations in 1859, 1871 and 1992. In 1998 a new octagonal "parish room" was bolted on which frankly looks rather tacky.

Beyond the church and some pretty cottages a path strides through fields to cross another in the succession of major roads north, the A1(M) to Peterborough, York, Newcastle 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 from London 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. Descending from the footbridge to Water End, you'll immediately encounter a parallel road, Swanland Road, notably broad and straight but now strangely quiet. This is one of the original improvements to the A1 in the modern era of motor transport, part of the Barnet and Hatfield bypasses built by the Ministry of Transport in 1928. Shortly into the next section we'll encounter the road it replaced.

Running along the old road now is the Great North Way, part of National Cycle Network route 12 which will eventually link London and Grimsby. This section runs from Hadley Wood to Stotfold on the Bedfordshire border and although it's mainly intended as a cycle route with some significant road-based sections, there are also enough off-road sections to keep the dedicated walker intrigued. Amazingly, the little transport café at Water End has managed to survive despite being robbed of its motorists' landmark status by the A1(M). Past some vintage traffic bollards a concealed path leads behind the cafe: behind it is a forest of lifting platforms making for a rather surreal sight.

The water that ends at Water End is the river Colne. In the little meadow behind the café there's a cluster of swallow holes or sinkholes, where an outcrop of underlying chalk meets the London clay and water circulating below has eroded the chalk -- uniquely they are the only major permanent sink holes of this kind. The place is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest managed by the Country Trust, an educational charity. One of the sinkholes is right by the path and quite a curiosity it is too; the surrounding woodland, rough ground, an overgrown stream called the Mymmes Brook and rich hedgerows also make for a pleasant walk.

Field paths well used by local walkers now head up to the overgrown village of Welham Green, originally a tiny Hertfordshire hamlet just off the Great North Road but now really a southern extension of Hatfield, linked by light industrial sprawl. It's a plain looking place dominated by 20th century residential development. The Countryway route misses the village centre, but if you walk up Station Road and Dellsome Lane you'll find plenty of shops, and a memorial marking 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 badly airsick, so he landed in Welham Green and handed it into the care of the locals. The flight finally terminated at Thundridge near Ware, off to the northeast.

I've decided to make a diversion here from Chesterton's 1981 route, which finishes at Brookmans Park station. 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. In 1850 the Great Northern Railway opened the London to Peterborough section of its planned 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. Eventually the line extended to Edinburgh and points north, in partnership with other railway companies that merged to form the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) as part of the government sponsored Grouping in 1923. It was the LNER that added the station at Brookmans Park in 1926, in response to suburban development, but Welham Green only got its station in 1986. Originally I recall it had wooden platforms; it's now a little more substantial but still modest, with a simple ticket office.

The line remains one of Britain's busiest and most important. The East Coast expresses whizz through, of course, while 1970s electric multiple units provide the local services to Kings Cross, Moorgate and Welwyn Garden City. A lot of metal has passed under the railway bridge since the Grouping and Welham Green is just 2.5km south of a site that played a major, if tragic, role in that story. After the war the Grouping evolved into the full nationalisation of what became known as British Rail, which survived until privatisation mania in the 1980s. In 1994, a private company, Railtrack, took over ownership and maintenance of the former British Rail infrastructure as part of a complex system involving numerous privatised operators and rolling stock companies. The company was always controversial, still subsidised by government but paying huge shareholder dividends while performance dragged and safety got sloppier. Then, at 1223 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 renationalisation of railway infrastructure under the not-for-profit company known as Network Rail.


Download a route description PDF

View Google map,-0.706859&spn=0.001599,0.00478&t=h&z=18

More information

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

London Countryway 10: Kings Langley - St Albans


The political leaders of ancient Rome were remarkably active in fronting personally the armed force of their state, despite living in an era in which travel in Europe was measured in weeks rather than hours. The first major documented figure to appear on Britain's historical stage is none other than Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44BCE), historian, First Consul and key architect of the Roman Empire although never an emperor himself. In the summer of 55BCE, having led his legions in the conquest of Gaul (roughly, modern day France and Belgium), Caesar stepped ashore at Deal at the head of a small expeditionary force -- the likely landing place is passed on the Saxon Shore Way walking route, part of European Long Distance Path E9, although it's considerably outside the scope of this project.

Caesar had driving ambitions to expand the frontiers of Roman power as well as amassing personal wealth, and Britain was regarded as rich in silver and other valuable items, but it may be that his initial interest in Britain was more to do with securing power in Gaul. The territory on both sides of the Channel was dominated by a tribal people known as the Belgae. Links between mainland and island-based Belgae remained strong and Britain provided a potential safe haven for troublesome insurgents opposed to Roman power. On that first visit, Caesar achieved a couple of local victories. He returned the next year and succeeded in establishing his Belgic ally, Commius, as king of powerful tribe the Atrebates, with a promise of tribute to Rome, but Caesar never returned and the arrangement didn't last. Nonetheless the wet island in Europe's northwest corner was now very much on Rome's radar, and trade and other links between the island and the Roman world flourished over the following decades.

Almost a century later, in the year 43, Rome's fourth emperor, Claudius (10BCE-54CE, a figure probably now best known through Robert Graves' fictionalised portrait in I, Claudius and the legendary 1970s BBC miniseries based on it), newly acceded to the throne, launched a more serious military initiative that eventually resulted in the annexation of most of Britain. Once again Belgic politics was involved - Commius' successor Verica had fled to Rome asking for help after being deposed by the rival Catuvellauni. Four legions led by General Vespasian, who later became emperor himself, landed at Richborough on the Walney channel, also now on the Saxon Shore Way and E9. The legions pushed on across the Medway and then the Thames, and in another example of hands-on leadership, Claudius himself arrived with reinforcements including elephants, routing the Catuvellauni stronghold at Colchester which, as Camulodunum, became the Roman capital for a while.

The emperor spent 15 days in Britain before returning to the mainland; meanwhile Vespasian set out to subdue the southwest. Originally the Romans planned only to occupy the south and southeast of the island but the need to establish secure borders saw the occupying forces push further north over the succeeding decades, reaching its furthest extent by the 140s when the Antonine Wall was built between the Clyde and the Forth in Scotland's central belt to mark both the northern border of Britannia and the northernmost boundary of Roman power. This high tide mark was only held for relatively short periods, with Hadrian's Wall between the Solway and Tyne some way to the south forming a more enduring and better known boundary. Both walls are now the basis of walking routes.

When the occupying forces first met the Thames, they established a crossing at one of the lowest practical points of the tidal river. There's evidence that the original crossing was roughly along the line of today's Vauxhall Bridge, but the permanent crossing was established downstream, from the marshes of Southwark towards a small hill east of the Thames' confluence with the Walbrook, where a military pontoon bridge was quickly replaced by 55 with a permanent piled bridge. Unusually for what became a major Roman town, there was no existing indigenous settlement on the site, but there was a Celtic placename for the area, possibly for a local farm, borrowed into Latin as LONDINIVM.

It appears originally there was only a small fort to the north of the bridge, and the settlement grew up from around 47-50, not as the result of military decisions but of spontaneous commercial enterprise, with businesses serving military and other travellers using the strategic river crossing and a port that took advantage of the relatively wide and deep tidal waters. A decade later London, Colchester and several other Roman cities were burnt to the ground in the rebellion led by Iceni queen Boudica, and when they were rebuilt, the centre of provincial adminstration was moved from Colchester to London.

Though Britain bears many visible traces of life before the Roman occupation, it's in the Roman period, with its written records, roads, walls and cities, that the first clearly legible and coherent layer of history was etched onto our physical and cultural maps. Before the Romans there was a Celtic Iron Age culture which was relatively sophisticated and complex, with a rich oral literary tradition, but which didn't do books, hard copy databases and big centrally planned civil engineering, so it's come down to us largely through a Latin filter.

Roman historians such as Tacitus speculated on the origins of Celtic culture in Britain and their conclusions influenced the longstanding consensus that it had arrived as a result of mass migration or invasion of Celts from central Europe about 600BCE. But this view has recently been questioned as genetic studies suggest it was the culture, rather than the people, that migrated, with the existing indigenous pre-Celtic people adopting Celtic language, technology, religion and social organisation rather than themselves being displaced or exterminated. The Belgians that Caesar encountered in southeast England were however recent settlers from the mainland whose cultural affinities seem mixed. Caesar described them as a distinct group of Celts that had been influenced by adjoining Germanic peoples, or they could have been Germans influenced by Celts, a mixture of both cultures or a distinct ethnic group of their own. Whatever, it's fairly certain they spoke a Celtic language.

And the complexities of cultural assimilation and absorption continued during the Roman period, in ways that are probably not generally appreciated. The popular view of the Romans is often influenced by more modern totalitarians, some of whom consciously adopted Roman iconography, and by their sporadic but well-publicised persecution of Christians which suggests a propensity to religious intolerance. But the Roman empire was not a homogenous entity intent on clamping its ideology on the known world. As we've already seen, the force that drove on the legions was the quest for wealth.

Today, the use of politics as a means to personal wealth, while far from unknown, is generally frowned upon, but in Rome it was simply the way things worked. In a pre-capitalist slave-owning society, the only long term means to forward the accumulation of wealth was through conquest. The key interests of government were taxes and ensuring the conditions to collect them effectively, and occasional religious persecutions would be driven by the latter, directed against troublesome folk whose beliefs prevented them swearing allegiance to the Emperor. Roman religious and philosophical beliefs were pragmatic and generally tolerant, with a propensity to absorb local deities and forms of worship in a way that astonishes those brought up in a monotheistic tradition with a tendency to deceive itself about its own history of theological flexibility. Besides which, before mass communication, there simply wasn't the means to impose ideological uniformity on a territory that stretched from Britain to North Africa and the Middle East.

At the same time the military and economic needs of the empire drove a mass mobilisation of people within its boundaries, precipitating multiculturalism on a grand scale. We speak of the "Romans" in Britain, in the sense of non-natives who came to the island to serve the Empire, but the overwhelming majority would not have come from Rome, or even from Italy -- they were drawn from anywhere from Flanders to Morocco to Palestine to the Ukraine. The existing inhabitants, meanwhile, didn't disappear but became largely assimilated into Roman society, creating a unique Romano-British culture heavily influenced by the existing Celtic way of life. And it is this culture, rather than anything specifically Roman or Celtic, that left that first coherent layer on the landscape of England and clung to survival down to the present day in parts of Wales.

One of the most obvious and better-known features of that layer, and one of the most relevant to the walker, is the network of roads, with London as both the hub of the national system and the gateway to the mainland, the crossing point of the Thames for traffic to and from points north and the Channel, accessing the easy ferry crossing to Gaul from whence all roads led, of course, to Rome. Two millennia later, the routes have been modified and the scale is vaster: the big trucks are diverted round the M25 to cross the river at Dartford, rail passengers changing at St Pancras to the Eurostar cross even further downstream at Ebbsfleet, while millions of people a year transfer at the world's biggest international airport at Heathrow on their way to continents Casear never knew existed. But London's role as hub and gateway remains, and it's comforting to think you can still cross London Bridge, turn left at the Borough and follow the line of Watling Street to reach the ferries at Dover.

Today we think of our main radial roads starting and ending at London, an assumption reflected in their numbering, but Watling Street, the line of which predates the Romans, runs through and out the other side. We've already crossed it south of the Thames, very soon after the start of the walk on the edge of Gravesend. At London it turns northwest on its way to Wroxeter (Viroconium) in Shropshire. In Roman times, the first major settlement it reached north of the Thames, 40km out of London, was Verulamium, on the gentle slopes of a hill to the west of the river Ver. Originally the capital of the Catuvellauni, in the year 50 it was granted Munipicum status, and became one of the four biggest Roman cities in Britain. A mediaeval town known as St Albans, after the first Christian martyr in Britain, who lost his life there, grew up around an abbey on the opposite bank, eventually becoming a cathedral city. This is the destination of today's walk.

If the London Countryway had a "natural" course at this point, it would probably run some way south of St Albans, perhaps along something like the alignment chosen by the Hertfordshire Way, which shortly diverges from our route. But having entered the hinterland of St Albans, Keith Chesterton, the original deviser of the Countryway, found its gravitational pull irresistible, resulting in a considerable detour northeast and then southeast again. The resulting bump may be inelegant, but I'm fully in accord with the way it places the city as the northernmost extreme of London underfoot. To the Romans it was easily the most important settlement within easy reach of London and it's still the closest urban area with city status outside the Greater London boundary and the only city on the London Countryway.

The start of the walk at Kings Langley seems a long way from ancient Rome, but it was itself originally a settlement on a more minor Roman radial road, from which modest paths would have run across the gently rolling countryside towards Watling Street and Verulamium, through what must then have been dense woodland. There's a more surprising and degraded echo of Latin, though, very soon after leaving the station. The route turns under the railway along Egg Farm Lane -- the egg farm in question is the old Ovaltine Egg Farm, the old Ovaltine factory is nearby, and the brand name Ovaltine partly derives from the Latin "ovum" meaning egg.

Ovaltine, a powdered drink for making up with hot milk, was invented in Switzerland in the 1860s by a Dr Georg Wander, and originally named Ovomaltine, reflecting its original formulation of eggs and malt. When introduced into the UK in 1909 the name was miscopied at the trade mark registry, gaining its familiar English language form. The Kings Langley factory was opened in 1913, and expanded in 1929 when the current imposing art deco-cum-Arts and Crafts building opened as a self-conscious showcase landmark, clearly visible to rail passengers on the West Coast main line.


The company originally had a policy of self-sufficiency in supplies and about the same time as building the new factory bought two local farms. The one on the hillside on the opposite side of the railway became a model egg farm while the one in nearby Abbots Langley was turned into a dairy farm. Both were given showcase architecture on a more modest scale, inspired in part by Marie Antoninette's farm at Versailles -- not, you'd have thought, the most auspicious reference point, but it's a cute idea. I wonder how much it reflects on the dynamism and confidence of capitalism that the age of iconic company headquarters appears to be well and truly over -- most of them are now housed in anonymous boxes by the side of motorways that would not provide much scope to the label designer.


Demonstrating that the sophisticated understanding of brand value was around long before Soho creatives started blithering and brainstorming constantly about it in the 1980s, images of the factory and farms were used to promote the product, with building and packaging design and advertising all feeding into Ovaltine's image as homely, healthy product suitable for packing off well-behaved pyjama-clad children to bed with while mummy and daddy got ready for an evening around the wireless in their Metroland manse. Regular drinkers could sign up as Ovaltinies, with their own special song. Personally I always thought it tasted of old socks and sawdust dosed with sugar, but like Marmite it has its devoted fans.

By the 1990s the farms had fallen into disuse, and in 2002 manufacturing operations in the UK also ceased, with the company, now linked to the Twinings tea group, moving production back to Switzerland. The listed factory building has been converted impressively for residential use -- the landmark façade remains, but behind it all has been rebuilt. The dairy farm had already gone over to flats, known as Antoninette Court, and in 2003 the egg farm, now known as Beaufort Court, became the headquarters of renewable energy company RES. Their wind turbine has become a new local landmark, and they also offer a visitor centre and guided tours. It's worth detouring from the route slightly by continuing along Station Road to look at the factory; the route itself then goes right past the egg farm, where there are fine views back down the Gade valley to the factory.


Just past the West Coast main line we've lost the Hertfordshire Way for a while: it takes a more roundabout route via the village of Bedmond, birthplace of Nicholas Breakspear (c1100-1159), later Adrian IV, so far the only English-born pope and a distant ancestor of the family that ran and later asset-stripped the Brakspear Brewery in Henley-on-Thames. Breakspear's father Robert became a monk at St Albans Abbey, the owner of Abbots Langley since 1045 when a Saxon thegn, Ethelwine, had split his territory of Langley into King's and Abbot's, granting the latter to the monks. Kings and abbots...the reason why Brakspear is usually now described as the only ever English pope is that since King Henry VIII refused to accept the authority of Rome, creating an Anglican church that may not be Roman Catholic but is still a long way from being Protestant, the likelihood of there being another English pope is relatively low. As to the abbot, that post too fell victim to monastery dissolving Henry, one of history's foremost asset strippers.


Continuing past the wind turbine a farm drive sweeps across the M25, finally bringing our route back within the orbital motorway for the first time since Merstham, at least for a while. Beyond this I walk through fields on the north edge of Abbots Langley where lots more paths not shown on the map as rights of way seem freely used by local people. Presumably the fields were once used for growing barley destined to satisfy Ovaltinies' craving for cloying maltiness, and are now part of RES's estate. After a brief dip into a corner of the built-up area of Abbots Langley we're back into fields and apparently heading straight for the M25 again, but a hedge interrupts us, deflecting us along a well-defined track along a field edge. The hedge here marks the district boundary: we're still just inside Three Rivers but the other side is already the City and District of St Albans.

The Hertfordshire Way converges again but only for a short distance along a lovely old bridleway that soon becomes a surfaced lane. As suggested above, the HW offers a more logical and direct route for this leg of our circumnavigation as its white waymarker arrows keep straight ahead. If you were following the route into London from the north mooted in previous sections, this would be the point at which you'd leave the Countryway and follow the Hertfordshire Way, the Watling Chase Trail, the London Loop and the Dollis Valley Greenwalk towards Hampstead Heath. It's by no means the last time we'll see those white arrows, but for the moment, having accepted Chesterton's argument for the detour, we leave them left on a footpath, plunging decisively into St Albans district and heading not just for one motorway but for two.

This was always the place where the Countryway crossed the M1, but I can imagine the groans among the early champions of the walking route when it was also chosen as the place where the new orbital motorway that became the M25 would cross the M1 too. The slightly dingy, heavily graffito'd tunnel through which I now walk is the first of a succession of motorway crossings on today's section and also the first and westernmost of a long series of encounters with various incarnations of Britain's big road north.


Given the shape of the island, you'd expect to start with a north-south spine road when drawing the surface transport network in broad strokes, perhaps followed by one down the southwest peninsula and another much shorter one from the Thames to the channel coast. But in prehistoric times the great highways yielded to the physical geography by following the lines of chalk ridges, which, as we've seen in the Chilterns, ran predominantly diagonally, southwest to northeast. Britain's geological north-south spine, the Pennine range, was too rugged and boggy to form a natural highway, though it's now the basis of a famous walking route, the Pennine Way, for those who appreciate a challenge. The Romans, with their more advanced technology, better disciplined labour force and centralising drive for military convenience and tax collecting efficiency, asserted human geography over physical and built networks of roads that prioritised linking major settlements directly rather than allowing natural features the upper hand in determining economic and cultural relationships. They built the first great roads from London north to link other important centres like York and Shrewsbury to the capital.

The Roman roads continued in use for millennia, though some of them became redundant as the places they linked declined in importance -- London, interestingly, remained an exception to this and is still the hub of the modern network. The Roman legacy wasn't really bettered until the 18th century when the inadequacies of road transport infrastructure became economically intolerable and the turnpikes began to supersede the deteriorating patchwork of highways maintained by parishes. But no subsequent road builders ever had the license of the Roman engineers to drive highways along alignments of their own choosing -- now there were hosts of vested interests to satisfy. Turnpikes generally covered only limited stretches of road, and were often improvements of existing routes rather than wholly new ones, sometimes buffeted off course by reluctant landowners. Travelling long distances still involved following a succession of shorter, more local routes, rather like many long distance walking routes today.

The new age of grand road building came in the 20th century -- it's tempting to say under pressure from the development of the motor car but this ignores the very active role of governments who decided to support and encourage that development by transforming the road network into a highway network for cars. The politicians adopted the enduring "predict and provide" policy, a self-reinforcing cycle in which new roads encouraged more cars which would in turn be used as the argument for still more roads. For the first time since the Roman occupation road building became a national, strategic matter backed by government clout, and a new network of trunk roads, and later motorways, began reaching out from London.

One result of this has been the creation of skeins of parallel roads all running roughly in the same direction. Sometimes capacity has been enhanced by widening a road on its existing alignment but this isn't always that easy and the advent of the bypass has seen major routes diverted out of towns and villages which in many cases owe their original existence to the road. One of the most dramatic examples of this bundling of new, detrunked and obsolete roads can be seen with the northerly routes out of London. Over the next couple of sections we'll cross, in succession, the M1 (to Leeds, and via the M6 to Birmingham, the northwest and Scotland, 1959); Watling Street (A5183, formerly A5, to Wroxeter and Shrewsbury, ancient and later Romanised); the A1081 (formerly A6, to Manchester and Carlisle, partly Roman, later turnpiked); the A1(M) (to Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, 1979); the original Barnet bypass (formerly A1, 1927); the Great North Road (A1000, formerly A1, 1720s turnpike); Ermine Street (to Lincoln and York, Roman); the A10 (to Cambridge, Kings Lynn, 1970s) ; the Great Cambridge Road, also known as the Old North Road (A1170, formerly A10, turnpike connecting with Ermine Street); and the M11 (to Stansted Airport and Cambridge and connecting to the M1, 1977). There's a clear pattern here, with the main north road moving westwards over time.

The preponderance of 1's in these road numbers reflects the primacy with which this north-south axis was viewed when Britain's road numbering system was first established in 1923. Six major routes radiating from London were chosen to divide England and Wales into segments, and of these the Great North Road was quite literally picked as Britain's number 1 road and designated A1. The other five followed clockwise, and other roads were given numbers with first digits determined by the segment in which they began, with a similarly clockwise radial theme to many of the two-digit numbered roads. Scotland got 7, 8 and 9, radiating out from Edinburgh, but the A1 was too important for that and kept its number all the way to Princes Street in the Scottish capital, where it's still glowered over by the impressive bulk of the North British Hotel. The principal north-south motorway was quite logically given the number M1 but it's also primary in another sense, as when the first section between Watford and Crick near Rugby opened in 1959 it was Britain's first proper motorway, although the Preston bypass, now part of the M6, had predated it by a year.

The idea of a special class of road optimised for fast and continuous long distance motor travel had been around since at least the 1920s. Italy was first with its autostrade, a new generation of Roman roads: the first opened in 1921, just before Mussolini's rise to power, but the network underwent major expansion under his government. Then in the 1930s the idea was taken up in another fascist state now much more famously associated with it, with the launch of a programme of Autobahn building in Nazi Germany, self-consciously echoing the Roman military imperative. British politicians, still on speaking terms with Hitler, visited to see this programme in operation and were inspired to draw up their own plans, but developments were interrupted by World War II. Motorways soon came back onto the agenda in the postwar period, with the enabling legislation passed in 1949.

A recently released DVD collects the transport-themed instalments of the long running Look at Life series of short documentaries, made by Rank from 1959 to pad out cinema programmes. These films show a fascination for the way technological innovations in transport are changing our lives, and several of them deal with the new motorways. One shows the M1 under construction, not yet covered with blacktop, a thick gravel ribbon rolling across the Hertfordshire countryside like a bloated farm track. Another features overnight hauliers. "Not all drivers use M1", barks the commentary in clipped, plummy tones, the definite article having not yet become obligatory, "and some ban their drivers from using it." From an age where Stobart, Dentressangle and their colleagues are frequently jammed end to end on the M25, I'd like to ask these Teddy Boy era truckers what the issue was. Was it safety concerns, in the face of evidence that for drivers motorways are much safer than the fast but narrow and twisting A roads they superceded? Or was it simple neophobia, like those early 19th century opponents of rail travel who were firmly convinced the human body couldn't withstand such terrifying velocities as 50km/h?

At first our footpath tunnelled beneath a two-lane highway, but since then it's been widened and in 1986 acquired a three level junction with the M25, itself now the subject of a widening scheme. The right of way has been maintained, threading through the junction like a wisp of cotton caught up in a couple of knotted tow ropes. On the map it looks complicated and unpromising, but on the ground it’s easy to follow and quite fascinating in its own way. It delivers an early surprise: through the subway you’re immediately into a corner of well-kept woodland, Winch Hill Wood, filling in the gap between roads. On my springtime visit it’s carpeted with bluebells. The traffic roar, though dulled, is inescapable but the quality of this little refuge is enhanced by its unexpectedness.


Winch Hill Wood also provides a welcome to Watling Chase Community Forest, one of the original pilots for a scheme originally championed by government agency the Countryside Commission, predecessor to Natural England, in 1990. The Community Forests are large areas on the rim of big towns and cities, where partnerships of local authorities and other agencies work to deliver social and economic benefits through environmental improvements, not only forestry but other conservation and public access initiatives. Though the term "forest" is slightly confusing in modern usage, it's a pleasing echo of the earlier meaning of a designated area, usually reserved for royal or aristocratic hunting, that included both woodland and more open space. There are two of them in the London area, both of them overlapping the Greater London boundary and both of them on the London Countryway -- Thames Chase is still to come.

Watling Chase is, of course, named after Watling Street, which it flanks -- our name for the Roman road is in fact Saxon, originally Wæcelinga Stræt, the Road of the Welsh, with its eventual destination in Holyhead. Chase, too, refers to land reserved for hunting. Its 18,840ha is in a rough square shape, with the M1 in the west, St Albans in the north, Hatfield and Potters Bar in the east and Barnet and Edgware in the south. Most of it falls within Hertfordshire, mainly in Hertsmere but also in St Albans, Three Rivers, Watford and Welwyn Hatfield, with bits spilling into the London boroughs of Barnet and Harrow. The core funding for the forests having long expired, the project seems to have declined in recent years, and is no longer listed on the Community Forests website, though it's still has a modest page on Hertfordshire County Council's information website. There's little evidence on the ground that you're in such a designated area, though in the next section we will encounter its Timberland Trail -- all the Forests have one of these promoted routes, originally sponsored by the footwear manufacturer.


From the wood the path runs along and above the southbound carriageway of the M1 and then bends along the westbound M25, still high above the traffic, before climbing a bridge across the orbital with a view back to the interlacing concrete of the junction. Once again I’m struck by the feeling of moving in an entirely separate, if parallel, universe to the speeding traffic, through infrastructure specifically reserved for moving at a fraction of the speed. From the path you can see a sign on the M1 that announces "Services 17 miles". For a driver that's a mere 15 minutes or less before a loo break and an overpriced cup of tea. For me it's pretty much a day's walk.

I’m greeted by an elderly man who has installed himself on the bridge with binoculars and a thermos – perhaps there are birds to watch here but I’ve already powered past him when I think to stop and ask. One final bridge across a slip road and I’m back into fields, walking outside the ring of the M25 again.

It’s amazing how quickly the roar of traffic recedes. Only a few minutes later I’m passing idyllic old buildings at Holt Farm, site of an ancient moat, then wandering deserted Noke Lane between silent farms. My path from here is shown on the map as running on a farm drive but it’s been diverted through paddocks before you get to the farm and is easy to miss. This is clearly a longstanding situation, judging by the patient and polite but evidently well-practised way a driver I meet turning into the farm gate puts me right.

From here the route climbs to a surprisingly exposed ridge with the rather chilly name of Bone Hill, where I can see groups of people behind a fence, strolling around earthworks. The hill, just outside Chiswell Green, is the longstanding site of the Royal National Rose Society’s Gardens, generally known as the Garden of the Rose, which Chesterton rhapsodises about in his book. The path runs right past the garden entrance, but this rather genteel visitor attraction has recently been upstaged by another, much bigger, one next door, and the people I saw are patrons of the newer site.


This is Butterfly World, a £27million project conceived by lepidopterist Clive Farrell to create “the biggest butterfly experience in the world.” Opened in 2009, so far it consists of a few smallish but unusual buildings – such as the beehive-shaped toilet block visible from the main entrance -- and a lake set in gardens laid out in the shape of a butterfly’s head, but 2011 should see the construction of a 17.5m high, 100m diameter “rainforest biome” with “Maya caves and ruins” populated by insects, spiders and hummingbirds. I assume it’s ended up sited here as the hilltop is also the HQ of the Royal Entomological Society.


I ponder whether interest in butterflies was widespread enought to sustain a multimillion pound theme park, but they do have a certain fascination, particularly in concentration. Butterfly houses in botanical gardens always arouse oohs and aahs. Some of the appeal is in the mythic narratives we build around their life cycles, those tales of astonishing metamorphosis from dowdy earthbound caterpillar to a brief but brilliant life as a spectacular winged creature. Though I didn’t go in, the place seemed busy for a bright but rather chilly spring day. The rose gardens, in contrast, seem to have declined. Though rebuilt in 2007, they’re currently only modestly promoted and open for only a limited season.

North of Bone Hill a new woodland is being created, with straight fenced paths running between saplings along a route more convenient than the one that appears on the map. Beyond this I round an older-established and bluebell rich woodland, Park Wood, with one more big road to cross. Until very recently this was one of Britain’s shortest motorways, the M10, a 5km spur between the M1 and the road now numbered A414. This latter was a legacy of an earlier pre-M25 scheme to encircle London with ringways, still known locally in places as the North Orbital Road, but the scheme was abandoned superseded by the M25 project in the mid-1970s. The M10, opened in 1959 at the same time as the main M1 as the main distributor road at the southern end of the new motorway, retained its motorway status even after the M25 opened in a bid to lure traffic between central and east Hertfordshire and the M1 away from the already congested orbital. As such it probably would have featured in my list above, but following various widening schemes, congestion is no longer such an issue (at least for the time being), and in 2009 the M10 was downgraded to become a mere extension of the A414

On the other side of the A414 the housing estates of St Albans lie before us at the bottom of the hill: reaching them, we leave the Community Forest for a while. An old path, preserved through the residential sprawl of Westfields as both street and alley, takes the route straight to the corner of Verulam Park, the modern day public park that now encompasses most of the site of old Verulamium. The London Countryway makes a fine entrance along one of the best preserved sections of Roman wall, on a path following the line of the flat berm which runs between the wall on the left and defensive ditch on the right, giving an excellent view of the city’s defences.


The current wall dates from the early 3rd century, but the ditch is older, and would have been overrun when Boudica’s Catuvellauni burnt the city to the ground.


Today it’s a pleasant, leafy place, well kept and well provided with council litter bins, difficult to imagine as the site of a bloody and ferocious assault.


The path leads us to the edge of a large open green area, where a busy pedestrian fingerpost at a junction of paths is now the most prominent marker of the former London Gate, the city gate onto Watling Street in the London direction. Several sources claim that there are markers in the ground at this point indicating the extent of the gate, but I looked hard and couldn’t find anything conclusive. Much has been lost: the city was abandoned following the departure of the Romans and the masonry was eventually reused to build the abbey and the mediaeval town on the opposite bank of the Ver. The site became farmland, until it was donated to the council by the Earl of Verulam in 1929 as a public park. Excavations in the 1930s uncovered many of the remains visible today.


I won’t go into too much detail about the city and its remnants as it’s very easy to find information from more expert sources, including the Verulamium Museum, a little to the north of here. One of the biggest visible remains is the famous mosaic and hypocaust (underfloor central heating system) dating from around 160 that once formed part of a big, posh house on the shallow hillside to our left. To this day you can appreciate the delicate, pleasing abstract design, which should be symmetrical except that one of the roundels is at an angle 45° off what it should be. I’m not sure what the appropriate Latin or Celtic expletives would have been, but I imagine several were spoken when, having painstakingly laid down a few thousand tiny tesserae the wrong way, they finally spotted the error.


The other major survivor is the theatre, which now lies outside the park to the north. Here, sufficient masonry survives to give an idea of how the building might have been in its prime, though the prominent pillar by the stage is a modern addition intended to give an idea of scale. Within the theatre’s precincts, a set of rectangular foundations that once belonged to shops have been labelled rather poignantly: Fishmonger, Carpenter, Baker. Layers of ash found here attest to the vengeance of Boudica.

The theatre is still owned by Verulam, and Watling Street runs past it as a private drive, though there’s permissive access. The gravelly trackway has the look of a very old road but in its heyday it would have been paved. It didn’t run in a straight line through the city’s street grid but instead forked by a temple just beyond the London Gate. Its alignment through the park, along with pretty much all the rest of the original street pattern, has been lost to view: though known to archaeologists, for the casual visitor it’s obliterated by swathes of featureless mown grass and football pitches. Crossing these, I’m walking through ghost walls, crossing ghost kitchens, and paddling in ghost baths, trying hard to imagine the bustle of a once important city. I’d be grateful for a bit more on the ground to honour those vanished structures and the people whose lives they once shaped.


From the London Gate you could take the slow route back to by rail. A path roughly approximating Watling Street leads past the 1960s Westminster Lodge leisure centre with its peculiar exterior flumes, currently marked for redevelopment, and the Abbey Theatre, home of one of Britain's leading amateur theatre companies The Company of Ten, to St Stephens Hill (the A5183, of which more later) and St Albans Abbey station. This is now the smaller of the city’s two stations but was in fact the first, opening in 1858 as a branch from the London and North Western Railway (the West Coast Main Line) at Watford. In 1865 it was also linked to the Great Northern (the East Coast Main Line) at Hatfield, but this route closed to passengers in 1951 and to freight 18 years later. The station is now a mere single platform with a shelter, enlivened only by some cheerful murals by local schoolchildren depicting locomotives through the ages, installed to mark its 150th anniversary; its Abbey Line services to Watford are a curious appendage to London Midland’s outer suburban services. A poster was on display inviting users to contribute to a consultation on the future of the service, with one possibility being conversion to a tram line operated by the council.


Meanwhile the Hatfield link has found a new life as a footpath and cycleway known as the Alban Way, part of National Cycle Network route 61 from Maidenhead to Ware. This can be accessed a little southeast of the station, and provides another more direct alternative to the Countryway’s bell-shaped detour around the north of the city.

Sticking to Chesterton’s route brings you into a more formal part of the park, where the 1930s designers took advantage of the river Ver, and the former abbey fishponds, to create a fine collection of water features and a promenade that remains popular today. It now comes complete with a Quack Snack Spot for bread-free regulated duck feeding.


The river, which formerly powered numerous mills, rises at Markyate, to the north, from the edge of the Chiltern chalk, and Watling Street tracks its valley all the way to where it joins the Colne at Bricket Wood, its waters eventually feeding the Thames. Two other walking routes track it, joining us at the lake in Verulam Park. The Ver Valley Walk began life as the Ver-Colne Walk, championed from the 1970s by the Ver Valley Society: as shown on OS maps, it runs 24km from Watford to Redbourn but only the Ver section is now consistently waymarked. The Alban Trail, which isn’t consistently waymarked, starts at London Colney and ends 15km later at St Albans Abbey: it’s a later invention, also supported by the Ver Valley Society, linking sites connected to the history of the saint.

The Countryway shares the promenade with these two routes as well as with huge numbers of strollers who aren’t aware of any of these trails’ existence, then leaves the park to encounter another spike of the Hertfordshire Way, this time detouring down from the northern stretch of that wiggling circular route. We’re now in St Michaels, a village within the city and a gobsmackingly pretty one too, with some old inns and a wonderful Victorian school building lining a village street. One of the Ver mills, Kingsbury Mill, which has a claim to an entry in Domesday Book, is still working, though the building is currently operated as a waffle restaurant. Subsequent development has blocked the course of both Watling Street and the riverside walk straight ahead, but the London Countryway adopts a different solution to this than the other routes. We’ll consider this in the next section, as this one officially ends here in St Michaels on a street corner.


Reaching the big station on foot will take you deep into the mediaeval and modern city, which you wouldn’t want to miss anyway. You can either U-bend back from St Michaels along picturesque Fishpool Street, or drop out at the bridge, past one of the city’s most photographed sights, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, with foundations dating from 793 and a superstructure that was installed here in 1539, currently the official Guinness record holder for the oldest pub in England, though not without its challengers, and head up Holywell Hill. By either route, you’ll come to the cathedral.


There are numerous variants of the story of Alban, the first British martyr, supposedly sacrificed by beheading to the Roman gods after he sheltered a persecuted Christian priest who converted him, perhaps in 209, 251 or 304. It was Bede who first claimed Alban lived in Verulamium, and was executed on the hill across the Ver where the cathedral now stands. Alban is credited with having parted the waters of the Ver on the way to his execution as the bridge was too crowded, and of carrying his head in his hands after it was chopped off. He’s been suggested as a replacement for St George as the patron saint of England.

An abbey was founded on the alleged site of Alban’s execution at the behest of Mercian king Offa II in 793, though much of what we see of the abbey church today is a late 11th century rebuild. It’s big Gothic, with a massive crossing tower, but its lengthy 84m nave, the longest in England, gives it a slightly squat appearance. The Roman city isn’t the only long vanished structure here – in its glory days, the abbey’s buildings stretched over much of the Ver’s left bank, with outbuildings cascading down the now-grassed hillside, but as we know, Henry ended all that in 1539 and much of the site fell into decay. Besides the cathedral, only the chunky 1365 gatehouse still stands. The 19th century saw much restoration work to the church, much of it under the direction of the great George Gilbert Scott of St Pancras fame. The building was upgraded to cathedral status when St Albans was created a diocese in its own right in 1877. The main entrance is now through the Chapter House, a 1980s addition which I think achieves a good balance, fitting the context without resorting to slavish pastiche.


Anyone doubting my earlier questioning of the Protestant nature of the Anglican church should take a good look round St Albans Cathedral. The holy of holies, the saint’s shrine, is behind the high altar: it’s mainly 13th century work that was destroyed and discarded during the Reformation, then retrieved and rebuilt in Victorian times, and lovingly restored as late as 1993. In 2002 a rather grisly aspect of Christian tradition was upheld when an alleged piece of Alban’s corpse, a fragment of a shoulder blade, donated by St Pantaleon’s church in Köln, was placed in the shrine. Burning candles now surround it in an atmosphere that almost reaches Russian Orthodox levels of mystic.


The route from here through the city centre also has much to gawp at, including secluded former vineyard and graveyard Vintry Garden, the early 15th century clock tower, pretty French Row with its corner where a sign prohibits what the French call “urine sauvage”, and the wonderful 1831 Palladian town hall, built on the site of the old Moot Hall. You cross two turnpiked north-south routes. The High Street is the later reworking of Watling Street, originally numbered A5, while St Peters Street is the Manchester road, originally numbered A6. To dissuade drivers from using them as through routes now that the motorways are opened, these sections of both have for several decades been renumbered A5183 and A1081 respectively.


A stretch of the legs down Victoria Street, past an ugly and blocky 1970s police station that's not really redeemed by the floral display outside it, brings you to the biggest and busiest station, St Albans City, usually called simply St Albans. This was opened in 1868 by the Midland Railway when it extended to Scott’s St Pancras, giving St Albans links to all three main lines north from London. The current building is now a rather dull 1960s affair but the services, now operated by First Capital Connect, are excellent: since the reopening of the Snow Hill tunnel in 1988 most trains have run through London as Thameslink services to Croydon, Gatwick Airport and Brighton.


Growing up in Hertford, St Albans was one of those day out places, one of the choices for major shopping and the nearest choice for sightseeing apart from London. I didn’t appreciate it properly at the time, and it was a delight to rediscover it on this walk. Chesterton says that if you find this section of the walk itself too short, you’ll find plenty in the city to occupy you, and I couldn’t disagree.

Download a route description PDF

View Google map,-0.706859&spn=0.001599,0.00478&t=h&z=18

More information