Event led by Peter W
Attendance: 12 men
Distance: 10.4 miles (16.7 km)
Time: start 11:06, end 15:59, lunch 31 minutes
Terrain: pavement, footpath (track), field, grass.
Elevation: start 74m, high 141m, low 74m
Weather: light rain followed by overcast, 14°C, strong cool wind, felt like 11°C
Number of sewage works: 0
Number of churches: 1
Number of golf courses: 0
This was a circular walk of 10.4 miles (16.7 km) from Hertford North railway station, W into Panshanger Park, S to Letty Green, East End Green and Hertingfordbury, then ENE to Hertford, then return to the railway station.
The walk started at a railway station adjacent to a busy road, so we marched off immediately and within two minutes, lurched off the pavement uphill into some alley way squeezed in between houses, to the top of Camps Hill. This is typical Hertford. This historic town accumulated itself in an unplanned fashion around the lowest bridging confluence of five rivers, which might have worked, but for the jumble of inconveniently placed hillsides that five convergent river valleys generally tend to produce. Cause, meet effect. The result today is that Hertford always has a lovely, small, homely feel to it: houses are relatively small, relatively low and densely packed together, with narrow streets and ever narrower alley ways secreted in all sorts of places.
Our route took us into Panshanger Park. Panshanger Park comprises a former quarry, owned by Lafarge Tarmac and the remains of an old estate. The company provides a very brief history relating to the company’s ownership of the land itself, along with a summary of its strategy for restoring the land to public use. The Friends of Panshanger Park detail a more comprehensive history. The name Panshanger first appeared as a medieval manor prior to 1369. The journey from 1369 to the present is the usual series of upper-middle class twists and turns, including the odd execution. This park’s particular story included at least advice from Capability Brown to plan the landscape that we recognise today. Ultimately, the owner of the estate (and Panshanger House) from 1905 – Lord Desborough – was unable to support the estate. By 1919, Desborough sold a chunk of the then-dilapidated estate to Ebenezer Howard to form a part of Welwyn Garden City. The estate was broken up for sale in 1953 after the death of Desborough (1945) and his wife (1952). Attempts to sell the house as a potential going concern failed, due to a lack of buyers. The house and 89 acres of land sold for only £17,750 (potentially the equivalent of only £2.4m today). The house was subsequently demolished (history), leaving only a dilapidated orangery, which has since fallen even further into ruin, a sorry state most likely explained by its grade 2 listing.
The history of the park grants it a major feature: the preservation of old trees left at strategic locations. Lining the floor of the Mimram Valley are rows of trees, many of which exhibit features pointing to their great age, principally branches that contort in all sorts of weird directions. The broad valley flood plain sets a gorgeous view, the eye guided further into the middle-distance by the arboreal border. At the centre of the valley is the River Mimram itself, a chalk stream, clean and fastly flowing.
Slightly away from the valley floor is the Panshanger Great Oak, a gigantic tree whose branches lunge out from the trunk at a solid ninety degree angle and resemble a trunk of which any other tree would be happy to have as its main trunk. The tree has attracted the attentions of royalty, including a legend that Lizze #1 planted it. This tree also gives us the excuse to refer to a huge girth of 7.6 metres without being censored for being smutty.
After lunch, our route resumed on the Cole Green Way, a former railway that is now a public byway (PDF leaflet, old photographs). The Way includes the ruins of the former Cole Green station, whose specific history formed the question behind Peter’s Puzzle, which David W solved and duly won the covid-friendly star prize.
Peter also told us the story of the East End Green slag heap. A builder-quarrier needed to find a place to dump lots of waste hardcore (slag), so received planning permission, and duly filled in East End Green’s former quarry with lots of slag. And then promptly overfilled it. Some residential neighbours complained, including the author and one-time spy, Sir Frederick Forsyth. The builder-quarrier basically ignored the residents, so the residents went to court. The residents won. The builder-quarrier then had to skim the top of his slag heap to bring its maximum height within the limits defined in his planning permission. The result is an unexpected hill next to East End Green.
The route’s next point of interest was Grotto Wood. This was originally part of a small formal garden belonging to the former Roxford Manor House, now occupied by Roxford Farm. The earthworks are the remains of the formal gardens (a scheduled monument) and a grotto at the southern end. The English 18th century upper classes considered grottos ever so trendy, a mark of superior class distinction, alluding to the habits of the ancient Greeks and Romans to deify their pagan Gods and spirits. Which, roughly translated into plain English, means that the 18th century English used grottos to store pseudo-artistic trinkets. Little of the grottos exist today.
Bizarrely, however, Grotto Wood does have one artifact of intrigue. There is a ruined wooden hut on iron wheels – literally, a caravan – dating to 19th century. The caravan was used by a gamekeeper tasked with feeding and shepherding pheasants. At this time, the formal gardens would have grown into woods. Resembling a cheap version of Queen Victoria’s bathing hut, the caravan features a small window in the fashion of 15th century leaded lights, a fair few big gaps in the side panels, and, somewhat pointlessly, a modern padlock on the door. On one panel, located with absolute precision, is a round hole in one plank – probably the location of a now-degraded knot in the wood – which our member with the filthiest mind suggested was a glory hole.
After a brief pass by the Bayfordbury Observatory, we returned to Hertford via the Hertford Castle Gatehouse, a grade 1 listed building dating back to mid-15th century, on a site recognised by the Normans in 1066 of key strategic importance. Well, it is located right next to the A414.
We briefly visited St Andrews Church, where three of us ventured in and discovered that the organist was practising with his organ, precisely blowing air into his huge pipes and producing a pleasant melody.
On our way back to the start point, we become aware of a blizzard of blue plaques fixed onto buildings. We’d normally associate blue plaques with London – North London in particular, especially between Marylebone and Islington – but here in Hertford, they seem to be growing plaques quicker than teeth. The plaques drop the names of former celebrities, forming part of the Hertford Heritage Trail, designed by the Hertford Civic Society and funded by Hertford Town Council.
Today, we decided not to proceed with our customary visit to a local pub.
Notwithstanding the vicious economic vandalism brought about by lockdown, Hertford town centre is well worth a visit, whether as a group or as an individual. One of the better times to visit has been Saturday mornings, when the market has been in full flow, and lots of street food has been available to fuel exploration of the town. The Heritage Trail (linked above) is a good starting point to design a route around the town – alternatively, try a pub crawl – with both Panshanger Park (to the south) and Hartham Park (to the north) providing opportunities for longer walks in between meals.
More pictures are at https://rb.gy/lbzzom.
The event (unlike this report) was planned in line with GOC’s covid-secure policy. This walk required no particular mitigations.
Words by Martin Thornhill. Pictures by Peter O’Connor.