Posted by: Rachel | August 21, 2013

Day 2 – Newburn to Heddon

View of the Tyne at the Tyne Riverside Country Park, Newburn

View of the Tyne at the Tyne Riverside Country Park, Newburn

Our second day dawned bright and sunny, and with surprisingly few aches and pains from the twelve-mile walk the day before, we set off from the Tyne Riverside Park visitor centre on the next stage of the Trail.  Skirting a children’s playground, the trail follows the bank of the River Tyne further into the country park.  With the steeple of Ryton Church just visible above the trees on the opposite bank, the river curves, finally leaving the city behind.  Glimpses of the sparkling river through the trees can be seen from the path, until it turns inland at Ryton Island (once a real island, now dry land), crossing fields to join the Wylam Waggonway.

The Wylam Waggonway
The Wylam Waggonway

Built in 1748, the Waggonway was designed to carry waggons of coal pulled by horses on wooden rails up to the point where the River Tyne was deep enough for keeled boats.  Extending for six miles, the Trail follows the waggonway for part of its length before turning across the golf course and rising up hill towards Heddon-on-the-Wall.

We took a diversion at this point to visit George Stephenson’s birthplace (1781).  George Stephenson's birthplaceThis pretty white-washed cottage with lovely gardens seems a tranquil spot, but the waggons must have trundled past the end of the front garden every day during George’s childhood and it must have had an influence on the boy who grew up to be one of the most famous Victorian engineers and founder of the first public railway system.  The famous locomotive Puffing Billy invented by William Hedley ran along this track from 1813, although Stephenson was married and had moved away by this time.

The view under the pylon, near a sandstone quarry, towards Newburn and Benwell, site of Condercum Roman fort

View towards Newburn and Benwell. Three green observatory domes in foreground

Leaving the Waggonway and taking the rising path across the golf course, up through woods and past the 18th century Close House, we then took a steep holly lined lane to the top of the hill, and turning right at ‘West Acres’ we were then able to enjoy the magnificent views across the valley back towards our starting place, Newburn.



Eventually coming out into the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall, we made our way past The Swan pub and St Andrew’s church, which dates back to Saxon times and is built from stones from the Wall.  As the name suggests, the village grew up next to the Roman wall, and there was a milecastle here, although all that remains today is a stretch of the Wall.  This 125 metre length was our first real sight of the Wall, and to celebrate we had our picnic here, before picking up the trail again.

Turning left at The Three Tuns onto the Military Road with north ditch visibleTurning left at The Three Tuns pub, we followed the Military Road (B6318) westwards towards Rudchester, crossing over the modern A69 and continuing through fields, alongside the Military Road built on the foundations of the Wall.  The ditch to the side of the road was the remnant of the Roman north ditch, but all traces of the wall had gone.

Having reached the farm buildings at Rudchester, we then turned around to look back at the way we had come.  The view was breathtaking, with Newcastle in the far distance. Turning back to cross the lane, we then proceeded through a ‘kissing gate’ at the side of Rudchester Farm towards Vindobala Roman fort.

The changes in vegetation may indicate walls beneath the soil

Vindobala Roman fort lies under the grass. Maybe the differences in vegetation show where the foundations of the buildings remain.

Although nothing now remains except tantalising humps and bumps in the grass, the site has been excavated.  The Military Road slices through the middle, and the builders no doubt used as much stone from the fort and the wall as they needed from this handy source.  One thing is obvious though – the Romans certainly knew how to choose their locations.  From this point on the top of the hill it is possible to see for miles all around.

Farm barn at Harlow Hill built almost entirely of wall stones

Farm barn at Harlow Hill built almost entirely of wall stones

For the next few miles to Harlow Hill, the path follows the line of the Wall, with wonderful views of the Tyne Valley.  In places the path follows the v-shaped north ditch.Sarah in the north ditch

The first farmhouse and barn have been built from wall stone.  We decided at this point that we would repair to The Robin Hood for some well-earned refreshment, and to reflect on a day which had brought us away from the city through farmland to the wilder hills of Northumberland.  We had seen the River Tyne with its history of ship building, we had walked along the waggonway with its connections to the birth of the railways and finally we reached the Roman wall, only to find that it soon disappeared, having been crushed for road stone under the 18th century Military Road which runs for many miles on its foundations.  However, the next day’s walk would take us further west and to more archaeology.

Posted by: Rachel | August 19, 2013

Our first day on the trail – Segedunum to Newburn

Segedunum Roman fort

 The reality of what we were about to undertake finally came home to us when we arrived at Segedunum Museum yesterday for our orientation at the beginning of the trail. Our first real sighting of the River Tyne as we reached the site of this Roman fort showed us the river at low tide, and the sea birds were feeding on the exposed mud. Looking down from the observation tower we saw laid out before us the outline of a Roman fort, complete with barracks and other buildings, surrounded by defensive wall and gateways.  We were about to embark on a coast-to-coast walk along the one of the most impressive surviving Roman frontiers, 85 miles of trail following the Wall and including the forts, milecastles, turrets, civilian settlements, quarries and other evidence of this remarkable achievement of Roman engineering.  It had taken 18,000 men from three legions to build the Wall and an estimated two million tons of stone – we were about to discover more of how such a feat had mostly been achieved in only ten years from AD122.

Reconstructed Roman bath house, seen from the path

Sunday 18th August
Although the day began with showers we were very fortunate that the strong westerly wind soon dispersed the clouds.  The trail path begins from the rear entrance to the museum and follows the course of the River Tyne, past the side of the Roman fort and reconstructed bath-house, and on past the derelict Swan Hunter shipyard from Wallsend towards Walker.  Either side of the path, grew rose bay willowherb, ragwort, buddleia and other flowers that favoured the dry alkaline soils on the former railway embankments.

On the path from Wallsend passing through Walker

On the path from Wallsend passing through Walker

The path descends to the quayside in the Walker Riverside Park, the banks festooned with bladderwrack.  Although the sunshine was warm, paddling here is forbidden because of the history of this part of the river.  A former tar works and lead works have left this area too polluted for bathing.  Nevertheless, we did see a pair of swans and ducks feeding among the weed, as well as gulls on the water.

After St Anthony’s Point, we reached St Peter’s Marina where we stopped for coffee, before walking through Byker towards Newcastle.

View from St Anthony's Point

View from St Anthony’s Point

St Peter's Marina

St Peter’s Marina

Our first view of the famous bridges across the Tyne proved at once why Newcastle is considered to be one of the most architecturally significant cities in Europe.  On the Gateshead side of the river the most noteable landmarks are the Millennium Bridge, the Baltic contemporary arts centre (the former flour mills) and the silver mollusc-shaped Sage music centre.Millennium Bridge and Sage & Baltic Music and Arts centres

We passed through the crowds enjoying the riverside walk and Sunday market, to eat our packed lunch underneath the Tyne Bridge, very close to where the Pons Aelius Roman fort once stood.  Walking further along the river past the anglers optimistically fishing for salmon, we walked through Elswick and up onto the A695, the Scotswood Road (famous for the song Blaydon Races).  Before we had even sung two verses we had crossed the road to continue walking the Trail, which passed through Denton Dene, Lemington and to the Tyne Riverside Country park, where we stopped for well-earned refreshment at The Keelman at Newburn.  This whole stretch of the river was once a major centre of shipbuilding, engineering, and commerce, but the wharves and warehouses have mostly been demolished and the area landscaped and redeveloped.

Approaching Denton Dene, statue of Past, Present and Future

Near Denton Dene, the statue of the Past, Present and Future

Although we had started from the Roman fort at Segedunum, most of our 12 mile walk today had not followed the actual course of the Wall, which could be traced.  We found one of the few visible sections beside the A69 when driving to the museum to begin our walk.  It was, however, a fascinating exploration of how this area has changed and developed over the past 2000 years, from Roman conquest to the height of the industrial revolution, and the modern city of Newcastle, a thriving cultural centre.

Posted by: Rachel | August 16, 2013

Setting off


Everything’s packed – setting off now for the north!

Posted by: Rachel | August 10, 2013

Walk to the site of Julius Caesar’s victory in 54BC

Devil's Dyke Entrance RH gate pillar

Entrance pillars to the Devil’s Dyke, Wheathampstead

With only one week to go before our Hadrian’s Wall expedition, we decided to walk around Wheathampstead and visit the site of Julius Caesar’s victory over the Catuvellauni in 54BC.  We set off to enjoy the evening sunshine and to see if we could discover the site of the battle.


Map of the territory of the Catuvellauni tribe

Wicked Lady pubWe set off from the Wicked Lady pub, named after the 17th century highway woman who terrorised travellers on the road from St Albans, and began to walk down Dyke Lane.  The high hedges to either side bordered fields of wheat stubble and oil seed rape, now dry and ready to harvest.  Here, on the eastern side of Wheathampstead lies the site of the one of the largest and most significant cities of the Belgic tribes who occupied England before the Roman invasion.  The Catuvellauni tribe originally came from the area which is now Belgium and Northern France during the 1st century BC, and they conquered and then settled in this area, which was flat and fertile.  Their territory stretched over much of southern England, with their capital city at Wheathampstead.

Beech Hyde Farm from Beech Hyde Lane

We followed the track past Beech Hyde Farm to join Beech Hyde Lane, and walked north towards what is thought to be the site of the city.   Marked on the map as Belgic Oppidum, it lay under what is now a huge cornfield on the hill above the River Lea.

There is a pleasing view across the valley from the lane, but as there is no public access to the site, we continued on to the junction with Marford Road, taking the next left turn into Dyke Lane.  Here it is possible to see and walk along one of the most impressive features still remaining from the citadel, and according to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who excavated the site in 1932, this was the site of the battle.

The Devil’s Dyke is a ‘v’ shaped ditch, wooded and mysterious.  In places almost 100 feet across and 40 feet deep, it must have been deeper still originally, forming part of defences that eventually encompassed a huge area stretching from the River Lea south to the River Ver.  Another section of earthworks near St Albans can also be visited at Beech Bottom Dyke.  Excavations are still revealing new evidence about this period, but it is thought that by the time of King Cunobulinus these defences had encompassed a city centred further to the south, called Verlamion, from which the later Roman city took its name, Verulamium.

Devil's Dyke (2)

The Devil’s Dyke

The Romans knew of Britain through trade, and following the conquest of Gaul, were interested in this relatively unknown island as a rich source of tin and possibly other metals, including gold and silver.  The southern tribes had also helped the tribes of Gaul in resisting the Romans, and for these reasons, Julius Caesar mounted two expeditions.  The lessons learned from his first attempt in 55BC proved invaluable in planning an invasion the following summer.  The Romans landed and advanced to the Thames, where they were held back at the River crossing from crossing into the territory of the Catuvellauni.  However, the Romans had a secret weapon – an armoured elephant, which terrified the Britons into abandoning their defences and allowing the Romans to cross.  Caesar also was able to exploit the rivalry between the tribes, some of which were allies through trade, who revealed the location of the Catuvellauni’s capital city.  Given the ferocious nature of the woad-painted Britons and the defences before them, Caesar placed the city under siege.  Cassievellaunus, their king, sent messages to his allies in Kent, asking for their help by attacking the Romans at their base camp, hoping to draw Caesar away.  When this failed, he was forced to surrender and obliged to agree to conditions that forced him to pay an annual tribute to Rome and not to attack the territory of the tribes who had supported the Romans.   Julius Caesar then left for Gaul, leaving no soldiers behind.  He believed that Rome now had what it wanted – control over new territory in Britain, and the Catuvellauni lived to fight another day.

Emerging from the woods into Dyke Lane, we then took the footpath across the fields to the B651, under a glorious sunset, in reflective mood,  and following the road south for a further 500 metres, returned to The Wicked Lady for some well-earned refreshment.

Footpath from Dyke Lane to B651

Posted by: Rachel | August 10, 2013

The Gout Track

St Stephen's Hill milestone

Mile stone on St Stephen’s Hill, St Albans

As anyone will tell you who has ever tried to drive through the town at 4.30pm on market day, St Albans can be a nightmare for the motorist. Add into the equation a traffic incident on one of the motorways nearby, and you could find yourself envying the pedestrians as they make slow but steady progress up Holywell Hill.  It is at these times that motorists notice the hidden places and architectural details that can only be appreciated on foot.  Walking brings a connection to the place and a sense of perspective about places in the landscape that is rooted to the physical process of movement. When we are cocooned in the metal boxes of our vehicles we don’t experience our surroundings in the same way.  It’s not just that we miss the smells of the real world – damp earth, wood smoke, or the scent of lime trees on a hot afternoon, or the feel of cobbles or pavements underfoot.  Sounds, like the distant chiming of the cathedral carillon or the echo under the railway bridge are muffled and distant.  What walking does for us is not merely a question of improving our fitness,  or reducing pollution (though being in St Albans could convince anyone of the reality of too many vehicles producing too many emissions).  As Stuart Maconie describes it in his book, Never Mind the Quantocks, walking enables us ‘to root ourselves in real human experience, measured in real human scope’.  In doing this we are also brought closer to the experiences of those who walked that way before, who loved those places and lived their lives connected to the same places that we love.  How lucky we are then to live in a place like St Albans – despite the traffic!

Holywell HillHolywell Hill is the road in St Albans to which every driving instructor takes his pupils to practice hill starts.  The road takes its name from the legend of St Alban, for when Alban was arrested by the Romans and refused to deny his Christian faith, he was taken up the hill to be executed.  On the way a miraculous event occurred.  In one version of the story, Alban was desperate for water to drink, and at once a spring bubbled up near his feet to quench his thirst.  In another, Alban was beheaded and his head bowled down the hill, coming to rest at a place where at once a spring of miraculous healing water gushed forth.  This place became a Holy Well, which refreshed pilgrims as they toiled up the hill to the shrine of St Alban in the Abbey, and the site was not lost even through the Reformation, in the late 17th century becoming a feature of the gardens of the Duke of Marlborough’s house. When eventually the house was pulled down in 1837, the grounds fell into disrepair, and by the turn of the century the well was marked only by  what Charles Ashdowne in his History of St Albans (1893) described as ‘a muddy depression, sheltered by the remains of a dilapidated wall and a mournful specimen of blackthorn’.

The Holy Well

The Holy Well with its modern, rather uninspiring setting

St Albans School used the area for a playing field for around 60 years, when the site of the well was grassed over.  A huge controversy raged when after a century the field came to be sold for development.  Determined to save the well from the developers, and frustrated by the local council’s refusal to investigate the location of the original site, the town’s people decided to take the matter into their own hands and to excavate the site, regardless of the risk of prosecution.  They took with them a water dowser, who found a water source and very close by a brick lined well was uncovered.  Tony Reeve’s article describes the whole story in detail, and in particular the furore that greeted their discovery, which was seen as trespass by the developers, and archaeological vandalism by the council.  It was not until the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, formerly Bishop of St Albans, had a quiet word with his friends the archaeologists at the museum that the very genuine concerns of the townspeople were addressed.  The structure of an old well was found with three levels of brickwork from different dates , linked to a water course that extended down to the river, with Saxon post holes from some kind of structure nearby.  It was sufficient to preserve the site in the middle of the housing development, and it is still possible to see the structure today in De Tany Court.  The brick surrounding is not in the least inspiring and hardly likely to attract tourists!

A footpath runs along the bank of the River Ver from Cottonmill Lane, close to the ruins of Sopwell Priory (mentioned in a previous post)  and past the site of the Holy Well.  On one of our training walks, following this path and then turning south up St Stephen’s Hill we discovered a milestone hidden among ivy at the side of the road. It had a very puzzling inscription.  The distances were measured not to London, but to Reading.  What we had discovered was a turnpike road running across country from Hatfield to Reading, via the A4147 to St Albans, then the B4630 to The Noke, Chiswell Green, A405 to Garston, A412 to Rickmansworth, A404 to Amersham, High Wycombe, Marlow, Henley and finally Reading to join the road to Bath.  It is a winding route joining roads out from London, but why would it start at Hatfield and meander across to Bath?  There is a local legend which may provide the answer.

The Earls of Salisbury and Essex had their houses at Hatfield and Cassiobury, near Watford, and both men suffered from gout and, as was the fashion of the times, instead of visiting holy wells or shrines for healing, they went regularly to Bath or Cheltenham to take the waters.  The journey involved either the discomfort of travelling to London and out on the Great West Road, or travelling across country on roads which by 1768 were known to be ‘ruinous’.  The Cecil family of Hatfield, the Earl of Essex and a large number of other noteable families of the area sponsored a parliamentary Bill to establish a Turnpike trust to build a road.  It is still possible to see the route marked with distinctive cast iron mile posts, including the one on St Stephen’s Hill, known as ‘Lord Salisbury’s Gout Tacks’.

The turnpike began at the parish boundary of St Etheldreda’s Church in Hatfield, but as both the parish boundary and the roads have been altered with the development of Hatfield new town and the Galleria shopping centre, it is no longer possible to find the exact beginning of the road.  However, the street names still give a clue as to the original route through the town (St Albans Road East, for example) and five cast iron milestones still remain.  The best example I have found so far was at Little Chalfont, in beautiful condition with the makers’ name clearly visible.  The iron mile posts were made in 1820 to replace the original stones, and unfortunately the condition of some of the others is rather worrying.  It would be nice to think that in another two hundred years other walkers along the hill would be able to discover this reminder of travel before the age of railways.

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Posted by: Rachel | July 26, 2013

Sopwell and Scottish plunder

20130526_164715Last Sunday was one of the hottest days we have ever experienced in England – 32 degrees in the shade, with the grass underfoot crisp and the countryside silent except for the occasional buzzing of insects, with every bird or wild creature hidden away in some shady place to wait and endure until the fierce heat subsided.  Having walked to St Stephen’s Church, we were thankful for the cool tranquillity of this ancient place with its thick stone walls and tiled floors.  Having revived ourselves with a traditional cream tea and some excellent fruit cake in the hall, we went out again into the churchyard and paused beneath the spreading branches of a fine horse-chestnut tree which dates from 1758.  However, this is not the oldest tree near the church.  A Cedar of Lebanon reputed to be the oldest in England (which would date it to at least 1640) stands where the old vicarage garden used to be, and this was the point where we began a walk on May 26th, exploring the Sopwell area and the connections between Sopwell nunnery ruins, St Stephen’s Church and a magnificent Scottish medieval brass lectern, once one of the great treasures of St Stephen’s before it was stolen in 1984, precipitating an extraordinary series of events.

Cedar Tree - St Stephen's Church

Cedar of Lebanon by St Stephen’s churchyard. Could this be the oldest in England?

We began our walk at the Cedar tree.  The legend locally is that Henry VIII used to court  Anne Boleyn secretly under its branches, and even proposed to her there, while she was staying at Sopwell Priory, escaping from the tensions of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s court in London.  Measuring 9 metres in circumference, it is older than any cedars planted locally (see Kate Bretherton:  The Remarkable trees of St Albans, 2010) and it would be wonderful to discover that it was indeed planted in Tudor times from a seed or seedling brought back from the Middle East.  Heading away from the Cedar across the park into Mercers Row, named after the manufacturer of chronometers that once had a factory here.  At the bottom of Wilshere Avenue we turned right to walk past Sainsburys and the superstores built on the old gas works, to cross the Abbey Flyer line at the level crossing.  The banks along this branch line to Watford were decked in white cow parsley, and the late spring sunshine had brought out the Hawthorn blossom and pendulous sycamore tree flowers, above grass studded with golden buttercups. Following the footpath through to Cottonmill Lane, we reached the ruins of Sopwell Priory, once the home of Sir Richard Lee (mentioned in a previous post as instigating the re-routing of the medieval road into St Albans from London).  These ruins are now a delightful picnic spot, the red Tudor brick being a perfect foil to banks of wild flowers.

Sopwell ruins

Sopwell ruins

Although Richard Lee was not born into a wealthy family, his father’s connections with court, family connections with the masons and his friendship with Thomas Cromwell led to his rapid advancement.  Sir Richard was awarded the grounds and buildings within the bounds of St Alban’s monastery, Sopwell Priory and also the rectorship of St Stephen’s Church for his services to Henry VIII in the Scottish campaign of 1544 (The War of Rough Wooing) in which Edinburgh and Holyrood Abbey were destroyed as an act of revenge.  Henry had hoped that by this action he could force the Scots to accept the 1543 treaty of Greenwich and the planned marriage between his son, the young Prince Edward and the ten-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots.  Richard returned to England with a knighthood and an appointment as Surveyor of the King’s Works.  He also brought with him plunder from the campaign, including a magnificent brass lectern in the form of an eagle, perched on an orb, standing on a pedestal with three brass lions at its base, which he placed in St Stephen’s.

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Sir Richard was now one of the wealthiest men in St Albans, and decided to make his house and estate worthy of his position.  In 1549 Sir Richard built a new house on the same foundations, ‘Lee Hall’,  taking brick and flint from the Abbey monastery. In 1562, he had the road from London diverted away from his estate and around this time he made further improvements to the house with a courtyard and hall where the cloisters and monastic church had been. When his wife died in 1555, he continued to live there with his two daughters until they married.  He then began further rebuilding of the Hall in the plan of an H, with two courtyards and a hall of two stories and formal gardens. Unfortunately, he did not live long to enjoy it, dying on April 25th, 1575, and the unfinished house passed down in the family until it was sold in 1669 to Sir Harbottle Grimston.  He used it as a source of building materials for his new house at Gorhambury, which left it as the romantic ruin that can be seen today.


Disused branchline of the Great Northern Railway from St Albans to Hatfield, now the Alban Way trail

Between the Priory and the River Ver is an area of open space that has been created into a nature reserve, firstly a wild flower meadow, and then further along the footpath, an area of wet woodland, where the river naturally floods.  A wooden walkway through the alders and willows brings the path back to the river bank, past allotments, and then to the base of the railway arch.  At this point we climbed steps to walk along the Alban Way trail, once a branch line from St Albans to Hatfield.   There is a fine view of the Abbey from the bridge.20130526_173147

Looking down on the rows of vegetables and tool sheds, so lovingly tended,  with the river flowing nearby, and seeing the Abbey church dominating the skyline, it is difficult not to reflect on the lives of the ordinary citizens of St Albans throughout the turbulent times of the Tudor period.  Only a century later, followed the Civil War.  St Albans became a Parliamentarian stronghold and the destruction of religious images and articles was authorised.  The Eagle lectern disappeared at around this time, and it was presumed that it had been destroyed. It remained a mystery until in 1748 the Montague family vault was opened and the lectern was discovered, hidden in a grave.  It was then placed back in the nave once again.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story.  Since the lectern was regarded as a national treasure of Scotland, there were regular requests for its return to grace the new cathedral in Edinburgh from 1879 onwards. There was an attempted burgulary in 1972 when thieves were disturbed making off with the eagle in pieces.  Matters were made worse when the lectern was sent to Edinburgh in 1982 to appear in an exhibition of Medieval Scottish art at the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.  Demands that the lectern had to stay in Scotland were ignored, and when the lectern came back to St Albans, a group of nationalists broke into the church and stole it in November 1984.  It was only through the mediation of a journalist on the Inverness Press and Journal, the Revd. John Pragnall, Vicar of St Stephen’s (1991-5), Mr David Maxwell, Convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Artistic Committee, and Mr David Caldwell of the Royal Museum of Scotland that a compromise was found.  St Stephen’s could not agree to waive any charges against the thieves, but did agree to support the return of the lectern to Scotland, if it was safely returned first.  The lectern did not reappear for 15 years, when it was delivered anonymously to the Netherbow Arts Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.  It is now in the National Museum of Scotland.  In the meantime, St Margaret’s Church, Barnhill, Dundee offered a Victorian lectern for St Stephen’s to use, that proved to be an almost exact copy of the Dunkeld lectern, even down to the inscription.  When this copy could have been made nobody knows.  Hopefully with this kind gesture the story of Sir Richard’s lectern has finished happily.

20130526_174331Following the old line for a short distance, we then came down to follow the track across the golf course, along the medieval road into the town from London. Turning left into Mile House Lane, we then turned left towards the town centre along London Road, where the grassy bank and trees along part of the road side are remnants of the boundary created by Sir Richard Lee at the edge of his estate using stones and rubble from the old priory.   Returning at last to St Stephen’s we passed the tower with stone corbels either side of the door.  It was the custom to carve the faces of patrons of the church on the corbels, and this angel has a particularly enigmatic expression.  Not surprising considering all that it has seen.20130526_164846

Last night we went to see the newly released film, The World’s End, in which five middle-aged men return to their home town with one aim – to try to finish a pub crawl across town finishing at ‘The World’s End’.  For Gary, the gang’s former leader, this is an unfulfilled ambition, something which he looks back on as the crowning moment of his youth.  The others, who have moved away and on to far more successful lives, are far less certain that they want to return, either to their boring home town or to relive that disastrous evening.  Not unexpectedly, they find that everything has changed, even the beer, but just as they decide to leave Gary to carry on the pub crawl on his own, they discover that their town has been taken over by alien robots and they find themselves in reality at ‘The World’s End’.  Curiously, just as the gang begin to realise that something strange is happening, so I began to realise that the film was set somewhere very familiar, and in fact most of it was shot on location in Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth.  As a comedy exploring the nature of nostalgia and the dangers of trying to revisit former times, they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate setting than the Garden Cities with their unique architecture drawn from Arts and Crafts and medieval styles.  The tree-lined streets of houses and cul-de-sacs with little ‘greens’ were all part of a vision of town planning that was based on nostalgia for an Arcadian past.  If anyone wants to explore the locations, the pubs in the film are all real pubs (with the names changed)!


The Alpha Picture Palace


The Odyssey cinema, now under restoration

Many places locally have been used as locations for films or TV series because of the proximity to the studios at Elstree, Levesden and Pinewood. This inspired the route of our walk to Childwickbury on June 14th.  Setting off from the former St Albans jail near the station (used in the series Porridge) we walked down Alma Road towards the old cinema, now happily being renovated to its former glory.  The original cinema on this site, The Alpha picture palace, was founded by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, an early pioneer of film animation who was born in St Albans.  The present building dates from 1931 and is being faithfully restored by James Hannaway, who successfully resurrected The Rex cinema in Berkamsted, one of the finest art deco buildings in the area.  The Odyssey is due to open in 2014. Carrying  on along London Road to the Peanhen junction, we then walked down George Street to the cathedral, which was used as a substitute for the nave of Westminster Abbey in the film Johnny English.  The area around the Abbey gateway and St Albans School appear as part of an Oxford college in Inspector Morse and as we walked down one of the most picturesque streets in St Albans, Fishpool Street, we were reminded that the area around St Michael’s Manor was recently used as the location for scenes in the next series of Silent Witness.

View from Batchwood Lane to the Redbourn Road A5183 woods surrounding The Pre Hotel

View from Batchwood Lane to the Redbourn Road A5183 and woods surrounding The Pre Hotel

White Bryony

White Bryony

We joined some of our friends on the steps of Verulamium Museum, and walked through St Michael’s Village, over the River Ver at Kingsbury Water Mill, along Branch Road and across the park at the bottom of Verulam Road towards Batchwood Drive. Taking the single track road towards Batchwood Hall we walked gradually uphill, with views over the fields to either side.  Entering an avenue of lime trees, we then crossed the golf course behind Batchwood Hall, close to the clock tower built by E D Denison, who later became Lord Grimthorpe. This clock is known locally as Little Ben as it is a smaller version of the clock tower in Westminster, commonly known by the name of the its bell, Big Ben.

English: St Albans Cathedral, from the west

Lord Grimthorpe was responsible for restoring St Albans Abbey and saving it from ruin. It is said that he built the house and kept the trees trimmed so that he could observe the restoration work from his window, and there is certainly a fine view of the cathedral from this point.  Without his intervention, and the work of other Victorian architects, the old Abbey church and other churches in St Albans would probably not have survived until today.  Almost without exception, however, architectural historians take a dim view of his work. Part of the problem may be that, just as with film, or any artistic endeavour, the past is always viewed from a particular perspective, and the prevailing fashion at the time was for a pseudo Gothic style which resulted in some truly magnificent buildings.  At St Albans the restoration changed the west end (which he could see from his house) to create the longest nave in England, in a style uniquely its own, which is much loved in the context of a building which bears testimony to every period in its long history.

strawberry cultivation in troughs on raised structure

Watering and picking problems solved – how about the slugs?!

Gateway to Childwickbury

Gateway to Childwickbury

Following the footpath through Batch Wood, we eventually emerged onto the playing fields in Toulmin Drive and walked behind Townsend School. This area was once part of the estate land of Childwickbury, and remnants of old iron estate fencing can be seen alongside the path. Reaching the fruit farm on Harpenden Road, we were impressed by the rows of loganberries, gooseberries, and strawberries grown on raised self-watering structures supporting long polystyrene troughs – no back ache picking fruit here!

Childwickbury drive

Childwickbury drive

Passing out onto the Harpenden Road, we walked the short distance to the gates of the Childwickbury Esate, and were treated to a wonderful prospect of a driveway of rhodedendrons and azaleas in full bloom, with shades ranging from fiery crimsons, purple and magenta through to pale pink and ice white. Notwithstanding all my reservations about rhodedendrons, this was a beautiful show and makes a magnificent entrance to the estate.  The estate village, neatly set out with model cottages, well, church and white painted iron fences precedes the house, home of the late Stanley Kubrick, the internationally renowned film director who lived and worked most of his life in England.

Following the road back towards Batch Wood, we took the left hand fork near the Childwickbury Goat Farm, and continued along the path until it re-joined the lane from Batchwood Hall to Batchwood Drive. We finally reached The Six Bells in St Michael’s Village just as a few spots of rain began to rhodedendronRhodedendron

Posted by: Rachel | July 14, 2013

Circular walk in search of South Mimms castle


Anyone who has suffered the congestion on the M25 approaching junction 23 will have noticed the sign for South Mimms, a quiet Hertfordshire village with an interesting medieval church whose tower can be glimpsed briefly when driving east.  It has always been an ambition of mine to discover South Mimms’s other main claim to fame, a motte and bailey castle, marked on the map but whose remaining earthworks are disguised by trees and field crops. The public footpath that passes closest to the site was part of our route for a Friday evening walk, starting at the Black Horse pub.

Turning left from the car-park, we took the public footpath between the houses in the direction of North Mymms. Passing through a small field of rough grazing, we attracted the attention of some ponies, which followed us hopefully before we passed through a gate into the first of three vast fields. The farmer had cut the path with precision through a crop of still-green wheat that covered the flinty soil. The ground rose gently to our left until the wooded brow of the hill, while before us and to the right the wheat crop extended down to AlM. Having emerged from between the houses the open expanse of the hillside was all the more surprising, and gave a view across the valley to Potters Bar.

white variant of Oilseed Rape

pink flower

Unknown pink flowered plant

We passed by a disused chalk pit into a field of acid yellow oil seed rape, shoulder-high, and followed the footpath down to the A1M and along to the footbridge. At this point we paused, partly to try to guess where the castle motte once may have stood, and partly to brush off the golden pollen.  We had noticed that at the edge of the field there were white and pink variants of the oilseed rape, and this led to a discussion about cross-pollination and experiments to produce varieties that are resistant to herbicides through genetic modification.  If you can help identify the pink flowered plant below, please let me know!

At this point we could have crossed the footbridge and continued along the path to North Mymms.  Instead we turned up hill along a well-metalled track, entering the gloomy shade of Mymmshall Wood. The track follows the parish boundary, with evidence of banks, ditches and the remnants of ancient hedges marking the route. Although nearly over, bluebells were still visible at the margin of the wood. After a short distance the path became wooded on both sides; Hawkshead Wood on the right was mainly planted with conifers, and purple flowering rhododendrons had colonised sections of the wood. This prompted two discussions, the first about invasive species such as the rhododendron and the deadly fungus that it carries, and the second about navigation within woodland.

I have always wondered what the problem was with rhodedendrons, which when in flower seemed so beautiful.  After a previous walk I discovered a plant which was on the list of non-native invasive species in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and was left with the unsettling feeling that the countryside was being invaded by plants which were taking over the rightful habitats of our native plants.  When I started to investigate, I found that the rhododendron was one of the worst offenders.  Over the last fifty years this garden plant has escaped to colonise the entire British Isles, smothering native vegetation and destroying the habitats of the insects, mammals and so on that depend on it.  Its leaves and pollen are poisonous to certain species and when they fall as leaf litter these too contain a poison that suppresses the germination of rival plants.  Worse still, it is a host to a deadly fungal disease related to potato blight that arrived in this country in 2002 and escaped with the rhododendron from nurseries.  It kills beech, oak, sycamore and horse chestnut trees, and more recently is mutating to threaten moorland and mountain habitats, and to destroy bilberries and larches.  So now I understand why management of the spread of rhodedendrons in the wild has become a serious issue (see discussion in the beautifully illustrated book ‘The Wild Things guide to The changing plant life of the British Isles’ by Dr Trevor Dines, Sally Eaton and Chris Myers, Channel 4 Books, 2012).  I don’t think I will ever look at the plant in the same way again!wild rhodedendron

A fork in the path set off our discussion about navigation within woodland.  It seems that most of our group were carrying mobile phones with a GPS navigation system capable of providing precise locations in terms of latitude and longitude, as well as the more traditional map.  There are clues within woodland that can help, for example lichen growing on the sheltered side of the tree trunk or signs of ancient hedge boundaries (see picture below).  The question was how reliable or helpful was a modern aid to navigation.  I have since discovered a free app available for android and apple phones, Livetrekker, that uses GPS to record the route you are walking, allows you to add in photos and videos at positions you decide, and even share your journey with others live or archive the route you have taken (as opposed to the route you thought you had taken!)

ancient remnant of laid hedge

Remnant of laid hedge

There was no danger of being lost on this walk, however, and eventually emerging at The Grange, we walked the last mile down a sunken lane, the banks rising steeply on either side. This section of Black Horse Lane has changed little from the time when it was once the main road north from London to St Albans. Full of twists and turns, and liable to flooding, a new road was constructed by Telford in 1807 which severed the village in two, leaving this Lane as a delightful remnant and reminder of travel in the days of coach and horse.  Our walk finished with a pint in the Black Horse garden, where we were treated to an ariel display by bats flitting between the trees.

Posted by: Rachel | July 6, 2013

Thank you everyone for supporting us

Before the walk

Before the walk

Kodak building by night

Hemel Hempstead by night

St John the Evangelist Bourne End by night

St John the Evangelist Bourne End by night

Residents of Hemel Hempstead may have been a little startled last Saturday evening to see a procession of pink flashing bunny ears walking along.  It was, of course, the Midnight Walk in aid of the Hospice of St Francis, an extremely well organised and worthwhile event, now in its seventh year.  If you’ve never taken part in a night walk before, I would thoroughly recommend it.  The well-known landmarks are transformed by night and with fewer cars on the road, other sounds become more apparent.

Flashing bunny ears

Starting from Hemel Hempstead School, we walked along a route past St John’s Church, Boxmoor, over the Grand Union Canal and River Bulbourne, along the A4251 past Hemel Hempstead station, through Bourne End to Berkhamsted Sport centre before returning along the same route.  One question intrigued us – would the celebrated herd of Belted Galloways on Boxmoor be standing up or lying down at night?  The answer was that not being completely dark, especially with the glow from 700 pairs of flashing bunny ears the cows seemed undecided!  One section of the route was not lit by street lights, and here we had more of an experience of walking in darkness. St John the Evangelist, Bourne End was in darkness except for the porch and the yew lined path.

The Rex cinema and Gatsby Restaurant by night

The Rex cinema and Gatsby Restaurant by night

Berkhamsted was a welcome sight, and we received plenty of support from those still enjoying a Saturday evening in one of the pubs along the High Street.  The cheers from The Lamb were the loudest!  Having reached Berkhamsted sports centre, we then had to retrace our steps, and it was only the thought of a hot mug of tea and a bacon butty that kept the tiredness at bay during the final stages.  Thanks to the catering staff at Hemel Hempstead school for staying up to cook for 700 walkers – it was much appreciated!

Thank you everyone for your support – we have raised nearly £400 for the Hospice and also enjoyed a very memorable walk.

Posted by: Rachel | July 6, 2013

Four Peaks Walk

Bluebell wood

A carpet of English bluebells in Lilley Wood. Even more beautiful than the colour of so many flowers was the intoxicating scent, quite unique and unforgettable.

Since deciding to walk Hadrian’s Wall, I have been encouraged by friends and family to build up my stamina and take the opportunity to explore some of the beautiful scenery and historic landscapes nearby to St Albans.  Having lived most of my life in Hertfordshire, the unique character of the countryside here is something which I have probably taken forgranted.  Typically, it is green and wooded, with fields bordered with hedgerows, a peaceful landscape of gentle hills and river valleys.  The major towns, railways, motorways and industrial developments can be left behind for the villages and market towns of old Hertfordshire, where it is possible to forget that London is only a short journey away.  Hadrian’s Wall was built across some of the most dramatic scenery in the country, and will require stamina both to walk distance and gradients – for this reason, I was persuaded by my friend Chris to tackle something a little more demanding than the 400 feet of Ridge Hill.

Starting in the village of Lilley, in Bedfordshire we began a 9 and half mile circular walk, leaving the village by a footpath that skirted beech woods, heavy with the scent of thousands of bluebells.

Climbing to the top of Warden Hill (630 feet), we were then rewarded with a magnificent panorama from the trig point, with views over Luton.  The hills form part of the chalk ridge of the Chilterns, a geologists’ delight, with dry valleys and typical chalkland grasses and wild flowers.   Cowslips grew in profusion on the slopes down to the golf course.

Trig point on Warden Hill


Walking along the ridge to Galley Hill (600 feet), there are neolithic burial sites dating from between 2500-1500BC, which indicate the long history of settlement in this area. We descended the hill and continued along the Icknield Way, an ancient trackway which dates back to neolithic times and which skirts the bottom of the hill and leads towards Telegraph Hill (600 feet).   In Elizabethan times there was a ‘pitch-pan’ beacon on the top of this hill and its commanding position over the surrounding countryside would have made any signal visible for miles around.


View from Telegraph Hill

The Icknield Way

Deciding that this would be an excellent spot for a sandwich or two, we paused to take in the magnificent views before walking further along to Deacon Hill (560 feet), a chalk grassland SSSI and Beds Wildlife Trust nature reserve.  Apart from some very friendly black sheep Sheep with lamband some rabbits, we saw few other animals on our walk, except that on our return journey to Telegraph Hill and on to Lilley Hoo we were treated to a breath-taking ariel display by two Red Kites.  It is not often that you can observe the seemingly effortless gliding and circling of birds of prey from above!

Trig point on Deacon Hill

Trig point on Deacon Hill – why was it painted pink?

A thin layer of clay soil covers the chalk at Lilley Hoo, and this area, once a race course in the 16th century, was ploughed during the war to increase food production and has remained as arable farm land.  A steep descent towards the village of Lilley brought our walk to a conclusion at the Lilley Arms, and a well-earned pint.

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