Lea Valley Walk: Hatfield to Hertford

The Lea is navigable below this point by Folly Island in Hertford. The towpath to London starts besi

The Lea is navigable below this point by Folly Island in Hertford. The towpath to London starts beside the Old Barge - Credit: liz hamilton

Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England continues her route along the Lea Valley Walk from Mill Green to the county town, taking in the history of the area

Early 14th century postern gate at Hertford Castle

Early 14th century postern gate at Hertford Castle - Credit: liz hamilton

After two days following the Lea Valley Walk from where it enters the county at East Hyde, I reached the mill at Mill Green near Hatfield (see February and July 2016 issues). As summer turned to autumn, I resumed my walk. Below Mill Green, the walk and the river diverge. The walk skirts the edge of Welwyn Garden City to reach the Cole Green Way, while the river emerges from Hatfield Park and meanders through farmland to the south of the busy A414.

You can remain close to the river below Hatfield Park by following a public bridleway for the 1½ mile stretch to Holwell Bridge, but beyond here the river crosses private land with no rights of way. The B158 road stays close to the river but carries heavy traffic and with no pavement it is definitely not suitable for walkers. By contrast, the Cole Green Way offers those following the walk four peaceful miles right into Hertford, ample compensation for losing touch with the river.

Horse riders and cyclists can also use the Cole Green Way, which emerges from the edge of Welwyn GC to cross restored gravel workings. After going under the A414, it runs along the trackbed of the former Hertford and Welwyn Junction railway. This sheltered section is ideal for families, including those with wheelchairs and pushchairs. There is parking and access by the former Cole Green station, close to the Cowper Arms pub. From this section there are views over quiet countryside and small villages.

The railway opened in 1858, intended to link to the Welwyn-to-Luton line, but the routes were never connected. Between Welwyn and Hertford, there was a station at Hertingfordbury as well as at Cole Green, but with numbers low it ceased as a passenger line in 1951. Hertingfordbury station was still lit by oil lamps when it closed. Trains bringing London’s rubbish to a landfill site at Holwell Hyde sandpits near Cole Green continued to use the line until 1966, when the line closed, apart from a small section serving local factories.

Figure of a girl kneeling at the feet of monument to her parents Sir William and Lady Harrington at

Figure of a girl kneeling at the feet of monument to her parents Sir William and Lady Harrington at St Mary with St John, Hertingfordbury - Credit: liz hamilton

Much of this stretch of the walk occupies the watershed between the Lea and its tributary the Mimram. Just upstream of their confluence, a short detour takes you to Hertingfordbury, which lies alongside the Mimram. The village church stands on land high above the river, probably the site of the original bury or burgh (meaning fortified place) likely to have been a settlement since early Saxon times. Although 13th century in origin, the church was heavily restored in the 19th century so that little of the medieval fabric remains. Inside there are renowned monuments to the Cowper family of Panshanger Park. I especially enjoyed the monuments in the tower. On one side is a poignant figure of a kneeling girl praying beside the tomb of her parents Sir William and Lady Harrington, who lived nearby. Willian, MP for Hertford during the reign of Charles I, was knighted in 1615, Opposite is a monument to Lady Calvert, a courtier to Elizabeth I and James I, who died in 1622. Her husband, Sir George Calvert, founded the Canadian colony of Newfoundland and later the US state of Maryland.

In the churchyard there are many more tombs and monuments, described in a leaflet available to buy in the church. Jane Wenham, the last woman in England to be condemned to death for witchcraft, had been found guilty by a jury at Hertford Assizes in 1711. Queen Anne granted her a reprieve and she lived locally until her death in 1730. She lies here in an unmarked grave.

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Returning to the old railway line, I resumed my walk towards Hertford. Just before reaching the viaduct carrying the main line from Kings Cross to Hertford North and beyond, the railway trackbed turns away to the left while the route continues under the viaduct. Shortly after passing the Hertford Town football ground, the route crosses a bridge over the Lea, the first encounter with the river since leaving Mill Green. The Cole Green Way terminates here, while the Lea Valley Walk threads its way through the outskirts of Hertford, and crosses the ring road to reach Hertford Castle.

Hertford dates from Saxon times and in the 10th century two defensive structures were built to guard against Danish attacks, one on each side of the Lea. Soon after 1066, the Normans built a large earth motte which is still visible beside the river where it flows through the castle grounds. The Lea Valley Walk first passes an early 14th-century postern gate adjacent to a flint and brick tower and a section of the castle’s curtain wall. Beyond is the imposing brick gatehouse; 15th century, but much altered in the 18th and early 19th centuries, giving it the present ‘gothick’ appearance. Remnants of the medieval structure were found when the building was restored in the 1960s, including ceiling timbers dated to around 1462.

Below the castle, the Lea, now augmented by water from the Mimram, rushes over a weir next to Hertford Theatre. Close by is a statue to another New World pioneer, Samuel Stone, who was born in Hertford in 1602 and founded Hartford in Connecticut. This is the point where the upper Lea ends and the lower Lea begins. Below here, the river is navigable. Changes to the river to aid navigation began with an Act of Parliament in 1424 and major improvements started in 1767 that canalised the river below Hertford.

There is much to explore in Hertford, but with my focus on following the Lea I made my way to Folly Bridge which crosses the Lea to reach Folly Island. Here, beside the Old Barge pub, the towpath begins and runs alongside the river right into London. I will return to this spot to begin my next walk downriver.

Book: The Lea Valley Walk, by Leigh Hatts, 3rd Edition 2015, Cicerone Press.

Visit cpreherts.org.uk to find out how CPRE works to protect our county’s countryside.