What you can see on a countryside walk at Kings Langley
- Credit: Liz Hamilton
With some of Herts’ loveliest countryside and steeped in royal history, Kings Langley holds hidden gems for the walker or cyclist | Words & photos: Liz Hamilton, Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England
In early August I went out with my camera to explore the quiet countryside between Kings Langley and Chipperfield.
Travelling by train out from London Euston, Kings Langley is the next stop after Watford Junction. From the station the countryside on both sides of the Gade valley is just a few minutes’ walk away.
I set out towards Chipperfield, initially on a stretch of the Hertfordshire Way I am very familiar with, as this is the section I walk regularly to check that all is well (see last month’s issue, A Way of life).
Very soon after leaving Kings Langley station there’s a brief glimpse of the river Gade flowing under a footbridge.
This fast-flowing stream, which derives its headwaters from the underlying chalk aquifer, powered the early industry in the valley, including paper-making which was developed into a major enterprise by John Dickinson.
In less than a third of a mile from the station I was in open countryside. The buildings of Wayside Farm, which house one of the county’s few remaining dairy herds, were behind me as I headed uphill.
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Once across the footbridge over the A41, I left the Hertfordshire Way to take a slightly more southerly route towards Chipperfield Common about two miles away.
With the traffic noise receding, my route took me through an area of new woodland, planted to commemorate the centenary of Hertfordshire County Council’s rural estate in 2008.
Beyond a complex of farm buildings I came across one of the loveliest small stretches of countryside I have encountered in Hertfordshire. Perhaps it felt this way because I had the area to myself, and the sun had come out at last as earlier clouds cleared away.
I sat for a while on a grassy bank to watch six red kites perform their aerial ballet above the peaceful valley below. Beyond, a short uphill section brought me to another equally tranquil and beautiful view.
The King’s England volume for Hertfordshire, edited by Arthur Mee and published just before the Second World War, describes the countryside around Chipperfield as ‘a wide and lovely stretch of Hertfordshire’ and ‘one of the best bits of country within easy reach of London’.
Although the M25 now carries its noisy traffic barely more than a mile from this point, I could neither hear nor see the motorway.
The valley running gently downhill from this point enclosed a peaceful landscape of woods, hedges and fields. Turning away from the view I reached the hilltop settlement of Bucks Hill, then headed for Chipperfield Common.
Much of the hilltop area I had reached is over 400 feet above sea level. The soils here are poor and until the last century the area was sparsely populated with extensive tracts of woodland and grazed common land.
Chipperfield Common covers 117 acres (47.5 hectares), once part of the manor of Langley (later Kings Langley), a royal possession from the Norman conquest until 1630 when Charles I sold the manor to pay his debts.
In the 20th century the then lord of the manor gave Chipperfield Common to the local authority on condition that it was managed in consultation with local people.
The common has become woodland since grazing ceased in the early 20th century. It is now a popular place to walk, with a number of well-surfaced tracks suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.
I paused by Apostles’ pond, one of several on the common that were essential to provide water for grazing livestock. The term Apostles’ reflects the fact that 12 lime trees once stood around the pond’s perimeter.
Further on I passed one of eight veteran Spanish (or sweet) chestnut trees, believed to date from around 1600. Nearby are two Bronze Age tumuli – burial mounds which are also thought to mark the boundary of territories of that date in the Gade and Chess valleys.
To return to Kings Langley I again followed the route of the Hertfordshire Way for a while, then diverted on to a path heading north. In the hedges blackberries and elderberries were ripening and I enjoyed the views looking back the way I had just come, towards the wooded ridge of Chipperfield Common.
In the first half of the 20th century, as more people owned cars, and electricity was supplied to rural areas for the first time, new housing began to proliferate in the countryside.
In the Gade valley rows of housing plots bordering the lanes sprang up with little planning control. The regulation of such uncontrolled growth was a key reason for the formation of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in 1926, as fears grew that large areas of countryside would be engulfed.
CPRE’s campaigning led to the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act which was finally passed in 1935 and put an end to this type of development – a major victory for the fledgling organisation.
The patterns of ribbon development are still very apparent all along this section of the Gade valley, especially near railway stations. I walked a short stretch of road bordered by original ribbon development plots, where many of the homes still display classic design features of the inter-war period.
At the time of the Domesday Book, the manor of Langley was held by a half-brother of William the Conqueror. The manor was later acquired by Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I. After their coronation in 1274 she built a large palace and established a deer park here.
Edward II stayed here often with his friend Piers Gaveston and founded a priory nearby. The palace went into decline after a fire in 1431.
I took a path which runs close to the site of the former palace, just off Langley Hill on the western edge of Kings Langley and now occupied by a school.
Only a small fragment of the palace has survived, together with part of the priory which has been incorporated into the school buildings. A cellar built under the palace was discovered in the 1960s when the school was extended.
Down the hill in Kings Langley village I was able to visit the parish church of All Saints – open again to visitors thanks to the easing of lockdown. Fragments of a 13th century building remain but most of the church is 15th century, subsequently altered in the 19th and 20th.
Outside, the ‘Hertfordshire spike’ above the tower is typical of many of the county’s churches. Inside is the tomb of Edmund of Langley (1341-1402), fifth son of Edward III who was born and died in Kings Langley.
He became the first Duke of York and founded the York dynasty. His tomb was moved to this church from the priory church up the hill after the Dissolution. Some say his tomb was intended for Richard II. There is much more of interest in the church including a carved Jacobean pulpit with a tester or cover typical of the period.
Continuing downhill I reached the towpath of the Grand Union canal which runs close to the Gade: sometimes the two watercourses become one as the construction of the canal in places swallowed up the river channel. Canal and towpath form a pleasant green corridor between residential parts of the village on one side and industrial premises between the canal and the railway line to the east.
Here between 1924 and 1929 a factory was built for the Ovaltine company in the Art Deco style (the company had set up a small factory here in 1913).
Beyond the railway an egg farm and a dairy farm were established by Ovaltine between 1929 and 1932 as model farms, both built in a half-timbered style, the dairy farm with a thatched roof.
The company left Kings Langley in 2002 and its buildings have been converted to residential and office use. Near one of the farms there’s a large wind turbine which you can see from the M25.
It was good to be able to walk at will again, with so much to see and enjoy in this area.
Both Kings Langley and Chipperfield are well-served by pubs and cafés but for now it’s best to check what is open before starting a walk. The area described is on OS Explorer Map 182.
The full walk description is on cpreherts.org.uk where you can also find details of many other circular walks in the county, and find out how CPRE Hertfordshire is working to protect our beautiful countryside.