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8 October 2016: Sawbridgeworth

Event led by Martin T
Attendance: 13 men
Distance: 9.6 miles
Time: start 11.09am, end 4.13pm, lunch 43 minutes
Terrain: Pavement, grass, ploughed mud, field edge, towpath, footpath, road
Elevation: start 68m, high 78m, low 41m
Weather: Overcast, dry, 12°C after wind-chill, winds N/NE moderate.
Number of churches on the walk: 3
Number of disused mills on the walk: 2

This was a figure-of-eight route of 9.6 miles from Sawbridgeworth, W to High Wych, S to the River Stort, NNE to Sawbridgeworth, NNE to Gaston Green, SSW to Lower Sheering and NW to Sawbridgeworth.

Starting from Sawbridgeworth town centre, the two loops of the walk ascended the Stort valley’s sides first to the west, then to the east.  As a result, the route was mainly in the Stort’s flood-plain, along water meadows.

The start point was a large car park - free on Saturdays (for now, at least) - which was nearly full as the locals did their Saturday morning town stuff.  Herts County Council had taken up a couple of parking spaces with an electric item recycling event.  This amounted to a few council employees huddling underneath a small marquee and no customers whatsoever (until we turned up; one of our members left some obsolete gadgets with them, possibly the busiest they got all day!).

Leaving the car park, we entered the chocolate-box quaintness that is Sawbridgeworth (“Sawbo”).  The history of the place seeps through every street and every building.  A lot of Sawbo seems to derive from the Georgian period, including one grand house immediately opposite the car park entrance (pic #14).  Memorials in the church (pic #06) allude to the Georgian period, featuring busts of the deceased with their long, flowing wigs fashionable at the time.  Sawbo’s architecture has evolved over time, such that every street has a taste of an era of English history: pic #05 (Corner House) is Georgian, pic #13 (40, 42 and 44 Bell Street) is Tudor, pic #15 (the pub) is part-Tudor, part-Georgian with a Victorian extension.  Even new built houses take style from the existing buildings.

Sawbo’s street layout predates the Georgian period, pointing towards a pre-Norman settlement which subsequent generations adapted to their own needs, in preference to re-building from scratch.

Yet, for all of the history, modern Sawbo had few people going about their business on a Saturday mid-morning.

Leaving Sawbo, our ascent to High Wych was surprisingly quick.  After a whiff of a delicious-smelling curry house, our first stop was at St James Church at High Wych.  Consecrated in 1861, the building oozes classic Victorian decoration.  The exterior features a short(ish) round tower with spire, with a pediment for the clock face resembling a cuckoo clock with the star of St David’s etched into it.  A vast low-slung terracotta roof gives the impression of a sort-of modesty, disguising the exorbitant richness of the architecture inside (pic #02).  The church is the background to our group shot (pic #01).

Leaving High Wych, a short stretch of perilous road took us to the next phase of the walk, the return journey to Sawbo via elevated fields, descending to the flood plain and the River Stort and River Stort Navigation.  On the journey, we encountered lots of ivy in flower, offering its powerful distinctive aroma.  We saw a specimen of the newly discovered ivy bee.  Views from these fields gave us a flavour of Harlow, one of the ‘mark one’ New Towns of the 1946 Act.

As we proceeded towards Sawbo in the Stort’s flood plain, we were aware of the importance of the sunken, overgrown fields that run parallel to the river.  These water meadows are a fundamental defence against flooding.  Today, they offered typical autumnal vegetation and some insect life.

Leaving the water meadows, we entered Pishiobury Park.  Originally defined by an arbitrary Norman land-grab, and subsequently a royal estate, Pishiobury Park is now owned and managed by East Herts District Council (on this site is an 81-page, 19Mb file with a very detailed analysis of the park, its land, its ownership, its history).  The council bought it in 1980 when the park was fragmented and dilapidated, management of the park being short-termist and expedient, with acts of vandalism in the forms of atrocious planning decisions and of the planting of wholly inappropriate tree varieties in the wrong locations.  Today, the park appears to be progressing well towards restoration, one tool for which is a herd of longhorn cattle.  We encountered a herd of young bulls at the exit gate.

We lunched at Great St Mary’s Church of Sawbo, a sturdy but modest building.  Its interior is well-lit and feels open.

Departing lunch, we embarked upon the second of the walk’s two loops.  This loop headed eastbound, returning to the Stort towpath, then ascending the Stort valley (again!) into Essex.  The initial part of this loop left Sawbo at a lock surrounded by a stylised housing development borne out of a disused mill.  All very picturesque.  One car’s licence plate reminded us of the Herts-Essex-border folk who live here, in particular their sense of humour: on a Mercedes, the licence plate read, “AR51BOB”.

Herts GOC seldom visits the River Stort and its Navigation, partly because its location at the very eastern edge of Herts means relatively little distance flows in Herts before it arrives into the River Lea.  Throughout this walk, the Stort meanders regularly, with virtually no view on our route longer than 100m (e.g. pic #08).  This resulted in a fascinating collage of nature and industrial heritage (particularly in the first loop of the walk).  The Stort is home to numerous residential narrowboats, whose population density along our route is far lower than of any comparable stretch of the Grand Union Canal in West Herts.

After some distance along the Stort, we climbed the hill to Gaston Green, walking past a former mill (pic #09), now a restaurant and hotel.  Hereafter, much of the route was road edge and field, except for a route through the rural Quickbury Farm industrial estate.  We suddenly found ourselves walking through stacks of industrial kitchen equipment mid-way through being loaded into an estate car for later delivery.  We also noticed another slight difference in this area compared to others in Herts.  It seems that, here, they use oil cans to prop up wheel-less cars (pic #11), instead of bricks.

The environment changed again on arrival at Lower Sheering, now a residential dormitory, its commercial property having succumbed to the larger traders in Sawbo and Harlow.  A relatively new housing development alongside the Sheering Mill lock shows the extent to which building design maximises the attractiveness of the area, in sympathy with the surroundings.

As we arrived at the lock, a boat pulled in upriver.  What do any walkers do when a boater uses a lock?  Rubberneck.  A sole boatsman suddenly found himself being gawped at by 13 vaguely fascinated blokes.  Two of our group helped him by opening the lock gates on his departure (pic #12).  When asked where he was headed, the boatsman replied that he was off to “see the Wizard of Oz”.  We drew our own conclusions and moved on.

From Lower Sheering, we returned almost immediately to Sawbo, ascended the relatively steep final slope to the church and continued to the start point.

A sub-group visited the White Lion pub (pic #15).

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

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