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Group shot Herts GOC HItchin work of art

10 August 2019: Hitchin HOOP

Event led by Peter O
Attendance: 14 men
Distance: 12.2 miles (19.6 km)
Time: start 11:10, end 16:46, lunch 40 minutes
Terrain: gravel track, pavement, grass track.
Elevation: start 56m, high 97m, low 50m
Weather: sunny intervals, strong winds, ~20°C, one squally shower.
Number of sewage works: 0 (one disused sewage works nearby, though: cool).
Number of churches: 2
Number of golf courses: 1


This was a circular walk of 12.2 miles (19.6 km) from Ickleford Sport Club car park on the Hitchin Outer Orbital Path (“HOOP”) for the entirety of the HOOP.  The route was W from Ickleford on the Icknield Way Trail, SW to Oughtonhead Common, SE into Hitchin town centre, S to Charlton, NE then N to the edges of Letchworth, then W into Ickleford.

This walk was mainly hardstanding (gravel footpath), with some pavement and grass track.

The HOOP is a collection of long-ago-established footpaths and bridleways that surround the whole of Hitchin.  The HOOP was institutionalised in 2010, being a project of the North Herts Ramblers Association and Countryside Management.  The route’s design takes in a variety of landscapes, including old urban, new(ish) suburban, a village (of sorts), riverside, common land, works of public art, managed countryside and railways.  Parts of the HOOP are common to the Letchworth Greenway, from which the views westbound feature the Barton Hills in the background, with Hitchin nestled in the confluence of the Rivers Hiz, Purwell and Oughton.  “Hiz”, by the way, is pronounced “Hitch” because the Romans didn’t know how to use their alphabet to approximate the sound of “tch” (it was all foreign to them).

For most regular walkers of Hertfordshire GOC, the rivers of Hitchin are a source of potential disorientation.  The rivers flow sort-of backwards. That is, they flow northbound, towards the River Ouse and out to the North Sea via the Wash.  The rest of Hertfordshire sits in the Thames’ watershed, meaning river systems generally flow southbound.

Oughtonhead Common is a Green Flagged local nature reserve.  It is managed by Herts Middx Wildlife Trust, which describes the Common of six hectares as a “mature alder and willow woodland running adjacent to the River Oughton” and as “one of the larger fen woodlands in Hertfordshire” comprising a crucial mix of wet and dry habitat, with lots of margins where the two habitats meet.

According to Wikipedia, Hitchin was first noted as a centre for the Hicce (pron “Hitchie”) people in the 7th century.  Since then, the town grew wealthy on the trade of wool and grain, developing some seriously meddlesome, virtue-signalling, middle-classism along the way.  St Mary’s Church demonstrates the nexus of these two developments, becoming the victim of competitive, plutocratic exhibitionism.  Founded allegedly by King Offa in 792AD, today’s church is a walloping great big thing, far bigger than one would expect of a middling trading town.  Inside, the building offers a big, broadly open space. Vast windows - very expensive once upon a time; showing off the wealth was the point, after all  - allow lots of light; the nave feels a little like a greenhouse. The font is so large, it almost counts as a moat. The church has one of the biggest organs in the country, with large bass pipes whose throbbing vibration could be the stuff of nightmares.  Twelve bell ropes indicates a craze for bells at some stage of the church’s history, as if the locals once needed twelve different types for calls-to-prayer, or thought that somehow the church was supposed to be a musicbox.  From the outside, the architecture demonstrates the usual contradictory confusion of ego-driven “improvements” over the centuries with a distinctive Heath Robinsonesque result.  Most noticeably, the tower wears kitsch architectural jewelry from the Victorian era and the later Arts & Crafts movement.  The tower is propped up by the most outsized of buttresses, presumably a solution to the the self-inflicted problem of twelve bells attempting to capsize the tower.  Finally, with the scope of “improvements” diminishing over the centuries (or, perhaps, periodic losses of imagination), the local great-and-the-good poured any residual wealth on ostentatious memorials and murals, which sit on the interior walls like textured wallpaper (literally, “spaffed up the wall”).  It’s as if donations to the church were a simple form of tax avoidance.

We ended our walk with a drink in the Plume of Feathers pub in Ickleford.

Words by Martin Thornhill. Pictures by Peter O’Connor.


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