Wheathampstead & Back Again

The River Lea at Mill Bridge in Wheathampstead one day last September. Another walk from the between lockdown daze. It seemed we were always walking back then, but nowadaze it’s let your fingers do the walking, typing keyboard dreams of freedom, stuck indoors again.

Sue walks in and looks at the screen. “Have we been there?” No, I’m just making it up. Wheathampstead, formerly known as Wheat Homestead. It’s where wheat was first grown in this country.

And this is the first mill that ground the first grain to make the first flour to bake the first bread. “You’re having a laugh!” Sue said.

At the top of the town there’s a dismantled railway. To the west you can follow its course along the Upper Lea Valley Walk through Harpenden to the source of the River Lea near Luton (Lea Town). But here, at the old station, there’s a short stretch of track that’s been remantled (is that a word?) with a wagon (and Sue on board – “Are we nearly there yet?”) and a shelter with a carved wooden effigy of George Bernard Shaw. This was his local station.

There’s also a great big double-stemmed Scots pine by the platform, an interactive tree that welcomes you by dropping a pinecone from a great height onto your head just as you photograph it.

We followed the path along the north bank of the River Lea, or as close as we were allowed to get to it, shaded part of the way by some spectacularly gnarly old field maples, then down an embankment into Sheepcote Lane.

Happy to discover we were able to pass under the Wheathampstead bypass.

The path was now called the Hertfordshire Way, but after a few more steps we turned off to the left over a field and through a couple of kissing gates.

We crossed the disused railway, wondering where it might have taken us. A path for another day perhaps. This is one of the many smaller branch lines that were closed in the 1960s, and would have been so much more valuable today than the HS2 waste-of-time line now under construction.

The trees see us coming and they switch on their green light
I could bathe in their radiance all day and all night

I’m energised by their green magic.

I’m brought back to my ancestral homeland.

Home at last!

According to the map, place names hereabouts are printed as Lamer Park, Lamerwood House, Lamer Lane, Lamer Wood and Lamer House. I prefer the evidence of my own eyes. But the gate was locked and I’d forgotten the key.

The sheep apologised but they couldn’t let us in.

So we surrendered to the lime avenue and we were carried away down its green chute, Oh! here we go, hold on, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, and from my perspective now, drafting this in dull January, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Even the stinging nettles look tempting.

Just a few steps, but soaked in the dappled light of summer it’s a million miles from this lockdown room where I write these words. Snow is falling outside and I yearn to be back in the sunshine, free to wander again through my own small adventure movie. My arm aches and my head is spinning with the after effects of a COVID-19 vaccination, but it’s the first step on the road to recovery, to rebalance our world spinning out of control. One small step.

Walk with us and we’ll set the world to rights.

We were welcomed to Ayot St Lawrence by a giant sycamore
(a once lovesick sycamore, but now sick no more).

And field oaks across the meadow.

The path was buzzing

and the ivy was alive with wasps.

St Lawrence’s Church (remains of)

Ayot St Lawrence Old Church

The building, of which only the ruins stand today, was the parish church of Ayot St Lawrence from circa 1150 until Sir Lionel Lyde constructed the new Greek Revivalist church in the late 18th century. The old church was subsequently robbed of materials and, at least in part, deliberately ruined for romantic effect in the early 19th century.

It seems now that it stands as a picturesque relic of the Church of England.

National heritage has its sites, but like amulets to believers these sites exist only to provide that momentary experience of utopian gratification in which the grey torpor of everyday life in contemporary Britain lifts and the simpler, more radiant measures of Albion declare themselves again.

Patrick Wright: On Living in an Old Country

The nearby Brocket Arms was a welcome diversion for a socially distanced glass of ale in the garden, before we turned around and retraced our steps through the village down to Shaw’s Corner.

Shaw’s Corner was the home of George Bernard Shaw, but the house was closed. Maybe one day when the plague has passed we’ll call in to see him.

“Activity is the only road to knowledge”.

George Bernard Shaw: Man and Superman

We kept moving, keeping our distance from other seekers after knowledge, nodding in deference to fellow wayfarers from behind a mask of confidence.

Physical distancing etiquette had become the new countryside code. It was also not considered polite to take photos of other walkers, which is why these paths appear empty. We’re all editing each other out of the picture.

Passing strangers on a country road in the time of plague
shall give wide berth and goodly distance with a smile.

This path was made by others who had gone before. This is as close as we got to them. We followed in their footsteps. Socially distant in memoriam.

Others left wayside mementoes to remember them by.

We continued over the road and up around the bend by Threegroves Wood.

At Sparrowhall Bridge we crossed back over the dismantled railway we’d seen earlier, but here it had been renamed as the Ayot Greenway.

Over the bridge and down the line to Welwyn Garden City.

But we kept straight on to the ford across the River Lea at Waterend.

Crossing the ford in 1960.

By Waterend House there was a display of poetry under a spindle tree…

And along the path were banks of tall nettles.

We were now heading west, upriver along the Lea, which was just visible occasionally over to our left. Sadly much of the riverbank is only accessible by special permit for those willing to pay for a day’s fishing.

So denied the river, I climbed the steep slope behind me through scrapes and brambles to get to an old oak above us, though up close it was not quite so venerable as I’d expected. You never can tell from afar.

“Come on! Hurry up!”

Then along another straight and narrow electrified path, water meadows to our left and electricity supply poles to our right. And a bird on a wire…

with tingling electric feet…

I think it’s a sparrowhawk, studying us and studying the ground…

all wired up and ready to go…

Meanwhile the river winds a meandering route alongside us,
an undercover watersnake hidden out of sight by the reeds…

And a river of green is sliding
Unseen beneath the trees
Laughing as it passes
Through the endless summer
Making for the sea

Wheathampstead to Shaws Corner circular walk

Frames of reference

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