Best woodland walks in and around Hertfordshire this autumn

 Girl squatting wearing a wool cap in an autumn forest among ferns play

Take the family for a free, fun adventure - Credit: Reyes/Alamy Stock Photo

With National Tree Week this month and woodlands in their autumn glory Alvin Nicholas and Martin Cray, authors of new book Wild Woods, give a guide to their favourites to visit in and around Hertfordshire. 
In Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, Giles Winterborne could distinguish different species of trees at a distance, simply from ‘the quality of the wind’s murmur through a bough’. It is a lovely thought – that a person’s intimacy with trees can be so sensuous. It speaks of a former epoch, when the forest figured highly in the lives of the majority of people, a time when our relationship with trees and woods was at a more delicate and responsive pitch. 
Today, perhaps more so than at any point in the modern era, we need to recapture that delicate and responsive pitch. Woods are good for us. Emphatically, they mark the four seasons, the annual compass points of the British condition which we are emotionally and physically synced to. Marking the seasons reminds us that time passes, encouraging us to live well, here and now.
Woods are also conflicting and harmonious pools of natural life, a blend of the timeless and the momentary, and a marriage of the very ordinary and the very beautiful. Thus, they are fairy-tale places for us to wander, rest and set our minds ‘adrift in a floating and rustling ark,’ as Louis MacNeice wrote. 
Looking to the future, these same woods are critical in our efforts to mitigate the escalating climate and biodiversity crises. Trees sequester carbon and help manage flooding; communities of trees provide habitat for diverse fungi, birds, mosses, lichens, liverworts, wildflowers and much more; well-managed woodlands provide sustainable timber, food and even medicine. Yet our woods are under threat as never before – from climate change and the new pests and pathogens, like ash dieback, that arrive on our island with unnerving regularity. To protect our woods, we must first cherish them, and to cherish them we have to visit them. To the woods! 

Fungi, Hitch Wood

Fungi in Hitch Wood, near Hitchin - Credit: Daniel Trim Photography


Hitch Wood and Minsden Chapel, Hitchin
Hitch Wood – a 300-acre, butterfly-rich ancient oak woodland with planted conifers and sweet chestnut – has permissive paths and is carpeted with a haze of bluebells in spring. 
A little to the north, the ruined 14th century Minsden Chapel looks magical under the moon. Eccentric Hertfordshire historian Reginald Hine was so fascinated by the site, he took out a lifetime lease and, in 1907, he and a companion faked a photograph of the ghostly monk who was said to reside here. The nearby Rusty Gun offers good food and fine ales. 
Privately owned. Just over three miles south of Hitchin, via the B656 and B651. 
Maps: OS Explorer 193 and Landranger 166.

Sharpenhoe Clappers beech wood, Bedfordshire

Sharpenhoe Clappers beech wood - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo


Sharpenhoe Clappers, west of Hitchin  
Sharpenhoe Clappers is a high chalk escarpment cloaked in beech ‘hangers’ and crowned by an Iron Age hillfort. The site is said by some to be haunted by the ghost of Cassivellaunus, a British chieftain who was defeated during Julius Caesar’s second British expedition in 54BC. It is also notable for glow-worms – best spotted after 10pm on warm summer evenings. 
National Trust owned site, seven miles north of Luton centre, just south of the village of Sharpenhoe. Maps: OS Explorer 193 and Landranger 166.

Hatfield forest in November

Hatfield Forest in November - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo


Hatfield Forest, Bishop's Stortford 
Dubbed ‘the last forest’, this 1,047-acre time capsule is one of the most complete former royal hunting preserves in Europe. Wooded for millennia and made a royal forest in about 1100, Hatfield has remained much the same size throughout its recorded history. Unlike many royal forests, it escaped the plough when its 19th-century hereditary owner consolidated the various forest rights and enclosed the historic bounds, and it was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1924. 
While hunting and commoning have long since ceased, the main elements of a medieval forest survive: pollards and timber trees, coppice woods, old grassland plains, woodbanks, a warren and a 17th century hunting lodge. Continuity of ancient management practices, including active coppicing, pollarding, and grazing  using long-established closed herds of deer, cattle and other livestock, has allowed wildwood-derived plants and animals to persist. There are more than 850 veteran trees here, the most impressive being the massive pollarded oaks and hornbeams of the eastern plains. Mistletoe is another feature, especially on old hawthorns, but also on black poplar, ash and maple. More than 400 species of higher plants have been recorded, and Hatfield is rich in fungi, bryophytes and lichens. 
The forest is home to insects like lesser stag, rhinoceros and longhorn beetles, as well as butterflies such as the speckled wood, purple hairstreak and silver-washed fritillary. Breeding birds include jay, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, snipe, water rail and nightingale. Among the mammals of the forest are fallow and muntjac deer, fox, badger, rabbit, weasel and hedgehog. Grasssnakes have been spotted near the lake. 
With music, arts, crafts and camping, the annual WoodFest each September is a fun way to experience Hatfield Forest, and to pick up a range of local produce from award-winning venison to firewood from coppiced trees. 
National Trust owned, six miles east of Bishop’s Stortford centre, south of the B1256 at Takeley Street village. Maps: OS Explorer 195 and Landranger 167. 

King's Wood & Apsley Heath, near Woburn
King’s Wood is Bedfordshire’s biggest, most biodiverse area of ancient woodland. Soil types are diverse here: birch, sessile oak, bracken and heather dominate acidic sandy areas, while ash, pedunculate oak, hornbeam and dog’s mercury occupy the
clay. Small-leaved lime grows in between. Here you will find the largest population of lily of the valley in the county; other rare plants include great woodrush, wood
vetch, climbing corydalis and saw-wort.
To the north, Aspley Heath has vast swathes of coniferous and mixed woodland (some of it ancient), grassland, heathland and miles of paths and trails. There’s even an Iron Age hillfort. Sandy soils make Aspley Heath the perfect place
to improve your tracking skills. Abundant wildlife includes muntjac and fallow
deer, badgers, rabbits and hares as well as a rich diversity of reptiles and birdlife.
There are miles of bridleways for hiking and horseriding, and for cyclists, too, it is
a gem. Obtain a permit from the Greensand Trust ( greensandtrust.org) and you
can explore various off-bridleway tracks including a downhill skills and jumps area.
King’s Wood: The Greensand Trust/ Central Bedfordshire Council. three miles north
of Leighton Buzzard, just southwest of the A5 towards Bletchley. Maps: OS Explorer 192 & Landranger 152/165. 
Aspley Heath: The Greensand Trust on behalf of Bedford Estates/Central Bedfordshire Council. Southeast of Milton Keynes via the A5.

Epping Forest, Cheshunt
Covering 6,000 acres and stretching for 12 miles along a ridge between the valleys of Lea and Roding, Epping Forest is one of the few sizeable lowland woodpastures remaining in Britain and holds the seventh-largest concentrated tract of ancient woodland in England. Plant pollen indicates that this area has been wooded for more than 4,000 years.
In the 12th century, Henry I rendered the Forest of Essex – an area of woodland covering around 60,000 acres, including Epping and Hainault – subject to forest
law, protecting it for royal hunting and allowing commoners some grazing rights.
In 1812, amid a widespread dismantling Hatfield Forest of the ancient forest system, much of Hainault Forest was put to the plough. The same fate would have befallen Epping had it not been for a wave of resistance, including from a group of commoners, one of whom insisted on his right to lop hornbeams for fuel. In 1878, the Corporation of the City of London acquired what was left of the Epping Forest in order to protect what remained.
Full of ancient beech pollards, oaks, hornbeams and birch, Great Monk Wood
marks the deepest part of the forest. Towards its north edge, woodland gives way to heathland at Deer Shelter Plain, where red and fallow deer were traditionally fed under a thatched shelter through harsh winters, and a long-established
herd still roams. The dark, secret recesses of this ancient
forest have inspired much folklore. Dick Turpin and accomplices famously
terrorised travellers here, and in 1737 Turpin allegedly hunkered down at
Loughton Camp, one of two Iron Age forts deep within the woods. Some say his ghost haunts the surrounding area.
Wild swimmers should take note. A letter in the Essex Countryside in
1959 requested information about a mysterious ‘suicide pool’ where unearthly forces reputedly gathered, its whereabouts long forgotten. On High Beech, a slip road off Avey Lane, you might encounter another strange phenomenon, this one nothing to do with the supernatural. If you stop here in neutral, your car will seem to roll slowly uphill, an optical illusion caused by topography.
Straddling both sides of the A104, heading south from the M25 at Epping to Chingford and Buckhurst Hill. Maps: OS Explorer 174 and  Landranger 167/177.

More Herts woods to explore:

Deer on Ashridge Estate, Richard Puncheon

Deer on Ashridge Estate - Credit: Richard Puncheon Photography


Ashridge Forest 
An Area of Outstanding Natural beauty, the National Trust Ashridge Estate on the western edge of the county has 5,000 acres of woodland, meadows and chalk downland. With more than 80 miles of footpaths, cycle tracks and bridleways including four waymarked trails from one to eight miles, park up at the visitor centre and go exploring. 

Heartwood Forest 
England’s largest new native woodland, this Woodland Trust site at Sandridge connects ancient woodlands with meadow, orchard, arboretum and 600,000 trees planted over the past decade. Waymarked trails will show you the way. Car parking, public toilets and various pubs are conveniently located nearby. 

Broxbourne Woods
Hertfordshire's only National Nature Reserve, this 600-acre site is also a Special Area of Conservation covering Hoddesdonpark Wood, Wormley Wood, Broxbourne Wood and Bencroft Wood. As you would expect this is a precious place for wildlife which you can spot on four trails ranging from a leisurely one kilometre stroll to a challenging 17.5km. 

Balls Wood 
Managed by Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust there are three signposted walks available at this Hertford Heath nature reserve, from a one mile stroll to an extended hike that trails the perimeter. Keen eyed walkers may spot one of the great spotted woodpeckers or sparrowhawks and be sure to check out the old hornbeams that once marked boundaries. 

National Tree Week, run by the Tree Council from November 27 to December 5, aims to bring people together to celebrate and plant trees alongside an online programme of tree-related arts and culture events. See treecouncil.org.uk

Wild Woods: An explorer’s guide to Britain’s woods and forests by 
Alvin Nicholas and Martin Cray is out now, priced £18.99