Walks in the Lea Valley

View along the walk at Wheathampstead

View along the walk at Wheathampstead - Credit: liz hamilton

Stretching for 50 miles, much of it in Herts, the Lea Valley Walk follows the river Lea, a long-gone train line and stately grounds. Liz Hamilton of Herts Campaign to Protect England puts on her walking boots

St Helen's church, Wheathamsptead with its witch's hat steeple

St Helen's church, Wheathamsptead with its witch's hat steeple - Credit: liz hamilton

The river Lea catchment, with its tributaries the Mimram, Beane, Rib, Ash and Stort, drains more than half of Hertfordshire, in the centre and east of the county. The Lea rises from chalk springs at Leagrave near Luton and flows for 58 miles to the Thames in East London.

The idea of a walk along the Lea, first suggested in the 1970s, became reality in 1993 with the opening of a 50-mile route from near its source to the capital. Today the Lea Valley Walk’s swan logo waymark has disappeared from some stretches, but a new edition of the guidebook published in 2015, incorporating changes to the original route, helps to keep walkers on track.

Since the Lea flows through the centre of Hertfordshire, it is on the doorstep of many of the county’s residents. Much of its valley lies in attractive countryside, perfect for a winter walk. The river enters the county from Beds at East Hyde, north of Harpenden. Downstream from here, the walk follows the trackbed of a disused railway. Opened in 1860, the line ran between Dunstable and Welwyn, with stations at Luton, Harpenden East, Wheathampstead and Ayot, until it became a victim of the Beeching cuts and closed in 1965. The level route provides sheltered walking overlooking the river valley, ideal for families with pushchairs or wheelchairs.

The walk leaves the old railway line as it passes through the north-eastern side of Harpenden, taking walkers down to the river’s edge in the Batford Springs Nature Reserve. This area of meadow and woodland was once farmed for watercress as well as willow for basketry. The river also powered two watermills nearby.

Lemsford Mill

Lemsford Mill - Credit: liz hamilton

Further on, the walk rejoins the old railway line, then a short climb leads to an elevated section crossing open farmland where the hedges are full of fruit in autumn, including the bright pink fruits of the spindle tree, uncommon in the UK.

Walkers may want to linger for a while in Wheathampstead, a short distance downstream, to enjoy refreshments in one of the pubs or cafés. Beside the river, the Bull Inn has provided hospitality since the 17th century. Upstream of the bridge here, a substantial watermill occupies a site where grain has been turned into flour for around 1,000 years.

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There has been a settlement at Wheathampstead from at least the end of the Iron Age, when it was possibly the capital of a powerful Iron Age tribe, the Catuvellauni. It was one of the places in Hertfordshire – others are at Welwyn, Braughing, Baldock and St Albans – referred to by the Romans as Oppida, large fortified town-like settlements. Here, people worked metal, made pottery, used coins and imported wine, oil and other goods from the Roman world.

St Helen’s Church in the centre of Wheathampstead has Saxon origins, probably as a large minster church at the centre of a royal estate. Saxon foundations and burials have been discovered under the present-day building, much of which dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. The distinctive spire, with a shape sometimes called a witch’s hat, was built in 1859.

The swam was adopted as the symbol for the Lea Valley Walk

The swam was adopted as the symbol for the Lea Valley Walk - Credit: liz hamilton

Heading downstream, the walk reconnects with the river bank, running first through amenity grassland and then farmland for about two miles before reaching the parkland of Brocket Hall. Here, as the valley narrows and deepens, it feels secluded, almost remote. The river meanders over the valley floor, flanked and in places obscured by lines of trees. Noisy ducks sometimes disturb the peace, unlike the languid heron’s flight also seen here.

The attractive brick-built house beside the ford at Waterend dates from around 1610 and was the birthplace of Sarah Jennings, the first Duchess of Marlborough and friend of Queen Anne. From here, the path continues close to the river, alongside wet woodland known as carr, which looks messy but is a rich wildlife habitat. After a steep but short climb through mature trees, the walk emerges on to the golf course surrounding Brocket Hall.

A house has occupied this site above the river since the 13th century. Much has been written about the hall and its famous and infamous inhabitants, including two prime ministers. The river Lea, widened into a lake known as Broadwater, forms the centrepiece of the surrounding parkland. The elegant bridge across the lake, dating from 1774, was designed by James Paine, who also rebuilt the present-day house for the Lamb family between 1760 and 1780.

The walk runs behind the house, before descending to Lemsford, where another watermill sits beside the river. If you have time, visit Lemsford churchyard to see the grave of Lord Mount Stephen, builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who in later life lived at Brocket Hall where he died in 1921.

At this point the walk has covered eight miles since entering the county, but walkers can easily enjoy shorter sections. A reasonably frequent bus service, the 366 (no Sunday service), links the towns and villages along this section of the walk.

The old rail line between Harpenden and Wheathampstead

The old rail line between Harpenden and Wheathampstead - Credit: liz hamilton

Map: The Ordnance Survey Explorer map (1:25,000 scale) 182 covers the walk described.

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