Event led by Martin T
Route designed by Peter O on 03Jan2016.
Attendance: 14 men
Distance: main route 9.89 miles (15.91 km), plus additional on return leg 0.63 miles (1.01 km)
Time: start 11:14, end 16:02, lunch 38 minutes
Terrain: grass track, field, pavement, woodland
Elevation: start 71m, high 119m, low 49m
Weather: sunny, no wind, ~20°C.
Number of sewage works: 0
Number of churches: 2
Number of golf courses: 1
This was a point-to-point walk of 9.89 miles (15.91km) from South Oxhey Playing Fields to Watford High Street. From the start, S into South Oxhey Wood, N to the Ebury Way, NW to Croxley Common Moor then to Croxley Green, N to Whippendell Woods, SE to Watford.
The route visited an alternating patchwork of Gritty Metro-land and Pretty Metro-land. We started off in a large, free car park by South Oxhey playing fields. The car park is well used by the locals, because the playing fields cover a vast area for municipal sports and dog-walking types-of-things. Even so, the car park is slightly dilapidated, an aura heightened by the former pub perched on one side of the car park.
The next phase of our route continued deeper into Gritty Metro-land, taking a small slice of a large London Overspill estate. Oddly, Parliament did not consider South Oxhey a form of London Overspill in 1973, but it is clear from historic Ordnance Survey maps that South Oxhey is indeed London Overspill (by comparing South Oxhey’s non-existence in the 1945-1947 series and its instant appearance in the 1952-1961 series).
After this small dose of grittiness, we advanced into a form of prettiness, the woodland named Oxhey Woods Local Nature Reserve. Whatever the relative merits of London Overspill, whoever planned it had the foresight to ensure that green spaces existed between various clumps of housing estate.
We walked for a short distance on the Ebury Way, a disused railway route from Rickmansworth to Watford, leading to Croxley Common Moor. The moor is a site of special scientific interest (amongst other designations). It sits in the flood plain of the River Gade, which runs alongside the Grand Union Canal at this point. Although absent from today’s walk, the moor is used by grazing cattle, resulting in close-cropped grassland with significant groups of gorse and broom trees.
After a bit more grittiness through Croxley’s Watford Road and a housing estate - one of the locals was maintaining his car and encouraged us with, “Only 20 more miles to go!”, revealing an English working class accent - we emerged into Stones Orchard (also local history). The Orchard was originally a cherry orchard, but which is now part of a project to conserve the diversity of fruiting trees in Hertfordshire. We took lunch at the orchard, sat underneath a glorious tree. As the fruits were ripe, a few of us took a sample of apples. Unlike commercially grown apples, these apples actually had flavour. Truly shocking.
After lunch, we progressed through Croxley Green, whose village green today hosted a steam fair - a fun-fair featuring a number of Victorian steam-powered machine rides - and entered an urban path which counted as another piece of grittiness on the walk. Prettiness was soon restored as we entered the ancient Whippendell Woods (in parts, another site of special scientific interest). The lighting inside the woods was quite fantastic: the slightly orange sunlight pierced through a thick canopy of trees, resulting in vibrant speckled colours on the forest floor.
The path through the Woods emerged into the West Herts Golf Course. After again crossing the Grand Union Canal and the River Gade, we took a long, straight march through Cassiobury Park. The Park is awarded a Green Flag and exhibits evidence of substantial investment in facilities over the years. The park was busy with young families enjoying time in the sunshine. The park counts as Pretty Metro-land, demonstrating that Metro-land needs planning and management to keep it pretty. The Park was also the host to Hertfordshire Pride in 2019.
Leaving the park, we entered Watford, the last leg of the route. And, not entirely by coincidence, we said farewell to Pretty Metro-land for the last time. The sounds and sight of the A412 underpass thundering alongside us told us that we were back in gritty territory.
But, of course, where there’s grit, there’s art. Our route slightly diverted to visit the Watford War Memorial, a bizarre piece for such a solemn theme. The piece features three naked young men, each representing a tribute to three features of war (the fallen, the victory and the wounded). It was unveiled in 1928 and certainly needs the morals of the 1920s to understand it properly: with today’s attitudes, it seems very odd to use naked men as a memorial for war. Yet, it is history. From 2017, the work has been a grade 2* listed building.
Our route continued through Watford’s main historic shopping centre via the Parade and the High Street. Much of the town’s centre felt like any other suburb of North London. Old buildings sit alongside modern re-developments. A confusion of early 20th century Arts & Crafts, next to 1950s desperate-post-war-rationed-cheapism, next to 1960s brutalism, 1970s functionalism, an occasional spit of quasi-surrealism and 2000s modern bland-multicolour buildings guided us down the route. Where there were once shops, there are now restaurants, including quite a few Turkish grills, all of which smelt lovely. Contributing to the range of smells was a number of street food stalls as part of Watford Market (paella and chicken ribs being the smelliest). Renovation of the centre included a stylised flower bridge over an artificial pond and other public art, including a giant hornet (Watford F.C. are also known as The Hornets) and various theatre masks. We also saw the old Metropolitan Line railway station: the railway company abandoned the building when it discovered the prohibitive cost of tunnelling underneath Cassiobury Park to extend the railway to its newly built station. The abandoned station building now houses a Wetherspoons pub.
In the middle of the High Street sits St Mary’s Church. The church was open. Inside, the church is modest, plain, but excellently maintained, with strong colours appearing infrequently. In the church yard, there were 12 listed tombs. Looking onto the graveyard is a very decorative building, the Mrs Elizabeth Fuller Free School building, built in 1704 as a school and now a grade 2* listed building.
The walk ended at the One Crown pub. Well. If one can’t say something nice, then one should say nothing at all. Then again, it is always right to tell the truth. So here goes. The pub’s location was fine. It had a beer patio at the back, which included a partially covered area for smokers. The general state of repair is slightly higher than the typical urban pub (only the toilet seat was missing from this pub so far as we could make out). In the beer patio, the decoration included some old chairs nailed to the walls. When two of us had ordered two bitter shandies, the pub ran out of real ale. The rest of us had to put up with 1970s keg beer at £4 a pint.
We lurched from the pub to Watford High Street London Overground station. The standard-priced single cost £3.30 each for the journey to Carpender’s Park station, from which we walked back to the car park.
Words by Martin Thornhill. Pictures by Peter O’Connor.