Event led by Martin T
Attendance: 18 men, of whom 1 guest member
Distance: main route 4.98 miles (8.0 km).
Time: start 11:31, end 13:33.
Terrain: pavement, track, field, mud, swamp as footpaths, bridleways, highways.
Elevation: start 38m, high 49m, low 32m
Weather: overcast, 10°C, moderate wind, felt like 7°C
Number of sewage works: 0
Number of churches: 1
Number of golf courses: 0
Number of rivers: 4
This was a circular walk of 4.98 miles (8.0 km) from Hartham Common E to Ware Lock then W back to Hartham Common.
The King’s Meads Nature Reserve sits in between the towns of Hertford and Ware, to the west and east respectively, in the flood plain of the River Lee in between the two steep slopes of the Lee valley, to the north and south. The nature reserve competes for land gobbled up by Hertford over the years.
The topography is best demonstrated by this image, courtesy of Google Maps. The blue line is the walk route, starting from the car park at the bottom of the image, looking eastbound towards Ware at the top of the image. The elevation is shown exaggeratedly, to emphasise the (relative) steepness of the slopes that hems the confluence of five (!) rivers in four river valleys, one railway, the town of Hertford, common grazing land and nature into a very small space. The whole area within the two slopes is a flood plain for the River Lee. The ground is constantly waterlogged, demanding sound use of land to ensure reliable drainage. In other words, geologically very awkward.
Geographically, the abundance of water made Hertford an attractive settlement at the cost of becoming the lowest bridging point on the River Lee (prior to London’s development since the First Elizabethan era). Being the lowest bridging point over any number of rivers resulted in traffic bottlenecks (and still does!), which in turn created clusters of hotels (especially in the horse-and-coach era), which in turn created subsidiary trades, which in turn created demand for industry.
Inevitably, Hertford’s choice to settle in a very cramped space led to dwellings, shops and roads being small. Very small! The congestion worsened as the town grew, resulting in the town building on islands otherwise stranded in the middle of waterways and thus inconvenient to access. Hertford also wanted to monopolise the use of the River Lee as a source of commercial revenue, which meant depriving Ware access to the river. Over time, Hertford’s strategy of settling on a swamp in a pinched flood plain and creating bottlenecks to maximise commercial revenues resulted in such self-inflicted congestion that it had become a blight to the wider commercial interest of transit of goods.
By the time of the era of the motor vehicle, congestion worsened considerably. The old A10 - the Great Cambridge Road, now the A1170, running through Hoddesdon & Ware - was perma-jam, resulting in the A10 bypass in the 1970s. One of the major features of this by-pass was the Kings Mead viaduct, opened (allegedly) in 1976. This huge viaduct cuts across the two slopes, from south to north, becoming a brutal visual feature of the landscape. On the topological image, the path of the A10 by-pass is a grey line running left-right in the upper-most sixth of the blue line.
The above context sets the scene for our route. On both outbound and return journeys, we were able to see each side of the Lee Valley flood plain, crossing the flood plain from north to sound on the return journey, walking in the middle of the flood plain for a part of the walk.
For a short walk of only 5 miles, the number of features to observe on this walk is great.
Key features included:
- Hartham Common is now a sport-orientated leisure park, which presumably is reclaimed flood plain to the north of Hertford. History about it is thin on the internet, even on the website of East Herts District Council (“1,000 years of history”, they say, but not a hint of what the history might be!), but the Greenspace Action Plan 2018-2023 sets out maps, features and planned maintenance/changes year-by-year.
- St Leonard’s Church, a Norman church (own history, wiki, British Listed Buildings).
- The East Herts Branch line, built 1843, runs parallel to New River and River Lee in the middle of the flood plain (wiki). The engineers must have been confident about drainage to lay a railroad on a swamp! Today’s engineers must have been even more confident to poke electric wires (25kvAC!) over the railroad. All quite shocking, really. We saw two trains today, both class 317 units.
- The juxtaposition of flood plain and viaduct: standing at the New River sluice hut, looking westbound, we saw heavily flooded fields, walls of man-made river channels, birds, a railway and, in the background, the A10 King’s Meads viaduct.
- Pleasant urban development around the River Lee Navigation between the A10 viaduct and Ware Lock. The land to the north of the Navigation is dominated by GlaxoSmithkline. Since the 1970s, it has gradually expanded its operations at this location, eventually replacing a farm smallholding with an extensive recreation park.
- The confluence of the Rivers Lee and Beane, in Hartham Common, was noticeable: although both rivers are (originally) chalk streams, the Beane’s water was heavier with chalk, giving it a whiter, greener look compared to the darker, blacker look of the Lee. The two waters didn’t look like they wanted to mix!
- Modern art, “Evolution”. Located at the end point, this piece of public work was commissioned by East Herts and J Sainsbury plc, designed and manufactured by Bristow & Murphy. It is an intricate fencing of metal, arranged as a spiral, with a stool in its middle, stood on a foundation in which glass bottle bottoms are embedded. The artwork is one of many commemorating Alfred Russel Wallace, a long-forgotten contemporary (and rival?) of Charles Darwin, who lived in Hertford. The bottom of https://www.ourhertfordandware.org.uk/content/people/alfred_russel_wallace_1823-1913 describes this artwork.
More pictures are at https://photos.app.goo.gl/St5L4PBkU3VQMn4V6.
Words by Martin Thornhill. Pictures by Peter O’Connor.