Event route planned and designed by Roy L in 2014.
Weather: overcast, occasional drizzle, limited sun, 4°C, wind 14mph NE, cold-to-the-bone.
Attendance: 12 men.
Time: start 11:14, end 15:27. Walking time 03h28m. Average walking speed 2.52mph.
Terrain: pavement, woodland, grassland.
Elevation: low 93m, high 140m, start 110m.
Number of sewage works on the route: nil.
This was a circular walk of 8.74 miles around Fairlands Valley Park in Stevenage, visiting other green areas of the town. Stevenage, Britain’s first New Town under the New Towns Act 1946, has a reputation for concrete, metal and glass. For most car drivers, that’ll pretty much all they’ll see. But Stevenage’s planners chose to leave a lot of green space, which they protected by designing a road and a cycle network that made transport easy and quick. This walk was designed to include a lot of the green spaces, along with a little history.
We started in Fairlands Valley Park, former farmland that has been landscaped into a large park that includes five artificial lakes. The park is in the centre of the town, in contrast to other towns where normally shops occupy the geographic centre.
After starting from the café and circling the sailing lake, we entered the ancient Whomerley Wood to see a Saxon Moat, a scheduled monument. Adjacent to the moat, the housing to the immediate west were the first houses built of Stevenage new town.
We bumped into a group of the Stevenage Green Space Volunteers, of whom one of our walkers is such a Volunteer. The Volunteers were picking up litter from the wood, tidying the place up for the forthcoming summer.
We continued onto the Grasshopper Trail, taking us to the Shackledell Grassland. This is a key site for Stevenage, because it is the only home of the Great Green Bush-Cricket in Hertfordshire. Green Space Volunteers have cleared much of the overgrown saplings and older trees to maximise the open grassland. Stevenage Borough Council runs the site on advice from Herts & Middx Wildlife Trust.
After a walk through Wiltshires Spring, through one of Stevenage’s many cyclepath junctions and road underpasses, we returned to the café for a quick coffee break, then resumed uphill, through various other ancient woodlands, up to Stevenage’s highest point at Hampson Park. This phase of the walk offered a number of contrasting woodlands with equally contrasting architectures, showing us how Stevenage’s housing had evolved over the decades.
Our route went through Abbotts Grove, Ashtree Wood, Pescotts Wood, Lantern’s Lane Wood and Mobbsbury Wood. Each of these woods had subtly different characteristics, some being coppiced woodlands, others blanket-planted, one with very large ancient trees. Bluebells grew in most of these woods. Along the way, housing estates peeked through the naked trees, and we could spot the differences between the 1950s to 1970s (slightly less plain boxes with each passing decade), the slightly more decorated but smaller 1980s and the sharp angular lines and bolder colours of the 1990s and 2000s.
One extreme example of bold architecture was The Nobel School, recently redeveloped and now a shockingly bright collection of orange panels and blue walls, a riot of textures and broken lines, screaming its defiant modernist attitude to design, and boasting its achievements.
After lunch at Mobbsbury Wood, we visited Hampson Park. Aside from a rich history of its own, this is Stevenage’s highest point, which the town has commemorated with a water tower and covered reservoir. All quite practical really. The Friends of Hampson Park and occasionally the Green Space Volunteers maintain the park, such maintenance has intensified over the past two years. We visited a recently-planted small copse of trees and nearby took a group shot with the water tower in the background. The park has Stevenage’s tallest tree - visible even from the railway station - and views over the town towards the hills on the western side of Stevenage (near villages Preston and Langley)
Our route continued north-west towards St Nicholas Church. This area was originally a Saxon settlement around a wooden church, with a stone tower as a fortification, i.e. a bury. The settlement was called Stithenæce in 1060 and corrupted to Stigenace by 1086 (Domesday Book), meaning ‘place at the strong oak’. The stone tower appeared in ~1120 and is the oldest structure in Stevenage. Near the church is an old listed building, a manor house called “The Old Bury”. In the churchyard is a memorial to the author E M Forster, who grew up in the nearby Rook’s Nest house, on which he based Howards End. Another plaque commemorates Elizabeth Poston, a local who became a musician and composed the score to the television production of Howards End.
On returning towards the start point, the route took us through the neighbourhood of Pin Green. This is one of Stevenage’s most innovative housing designs, whereby the houses are arranged to face each other, roads servicing their garages are effectively kept out of view from the front doors. The idea is neighbours would be able to have easy contact with each other, but, of course, nobody in the 1950s/1960s predicted just how car ownership would become so widespread. So in Pin Green, like elsewhere in Stevenage, cars pile up just about anywhere, and many people seem to use their home’s back door as the primary way into their own home.
Another feature of Stevenage’s history was that it needed building urgently, but was at the time where ferrous metals were largely unavailable. To make ends meet, the use of metals was rationed. Therefore, a practical way of demarcating front gardens was to plant hawthorn hedges instead of installing picket fences. Most of these hedges still exist, and they demonstrate the concept of false economy: hawthorn takes a lot of maintenance, which is best done by tools that need…. ferrous metals. Oops.
On the final phase of the route, we returned to Fairlands Valley Park, passing the original Fairlands Farmhouse, a grade 2 listed building. The building was renovated in 19th century and now looks somewhat dilapidated. We passed the four other lakes of the park. The Council’s current biodiversity action plan declares an intention to designate the three middle lakes as a local nature reserve, which would then become Stevenage’s first nature reserve.
The walk ended at the café at Fairlands Valley Park.
Pictures by Martin Thornhill. Words by Peter O'Connor and Martin Thornhil.