Stage 7 - St.Albans to Letty Green (11.95 miles)
The stage starts at the entrance to Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre and soon joins the footpath next to the River Ver on the east side of Holywell Hill. For the next 0.65 miles the route follows the Ver-Colne Valley Walk – a 15 mile path along the rivers Colne and Ver to Redbourn just northwest of St Albans to Watford. Our route then joins the Alban Way to and through Hatfield and Old Hatfield. We then pass the old mill at Mill Green, go through the nature reserve at Commons Woods, just south of Welwyn Garden City, then join the Cole Green Way to finish at the old platform of Cole Green railway station at Letty Green. There is a lot to see along the route and two disused railway lines now converted to footpaths / cycle tracks makes most of it very direct.
Start at the entrance to Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre and cross straight over Holywell Hill using the pelican crossing. Turn left along the pavement going north along Holywell Hill. After 100 yards and just before the bridge over the river, turn right onto the River Ver Path. Follow the path east along the river. After another 150 yards follow the path left across the river using a footbridge and continue right along the north bank.
Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre sits in the pleasant surroundings of Verulamium Park, below the Abbey Cathedral and overlooking a large open grassy area which runs down to the River Ver. As well as a leisure centre here, there is also the Abbey Theatre. Holywell Hill takes its name from an old “holy well” situated to the east of the street and north of the River Ver. It leads up along the southeastern side of the Abbey Grounds to the centre of the city. It has a lot of history associated with it and in medieval times the east side of the street was made up completely of inns.
At 0.36 miles the path comes out next to some works at Cottonmill Lane. Turn left for a few yards to the road avoiding the obstruction. Then turn right along the pavement over the river and for an extra few yards. Here turn left to cross over the road using the traffic island and turn left on the opposite side to just before the bridge over the river. Turn right and back onto the river path, now with the river to your LHS. Continue along the path for a further 0.3 miles to just before a high bridge over the river.
To the right of the path, just after Cottonmill Lane, are some old ruins. This is where Sopwell Priory once stood (also known as Sopwell Nunnery). It was founded around 1140 by Geoffrey de Gorham, Benedictine Abbot of St. Albans Abbey. Juliana Berners was a prioress during the 15th Century, and is believed to be author of the “Boke of Saint Albans”. The book was first published in 1486 and displayed her love for hawking, hunting and fishing. It was the first book in England to use colour printing and is the earliest British sporting book. The book contains a large list of special collective nouns for animals, such as “a gaggle of geese”, “a pride of lions”, “a school of fish” and many humorous ones such as “a melody of harpers” and “a blast of hunters”.
The ruins seen today are the remains of Sir Richard Lee's house. The priory was dissolved in 1537 by Henry VIII and shortly afterward he granted the site to Lee, one of his military architects. Lee demolished some of the old building and remodeled the rest between 1540 and 1575 to make it more fashionable and added gardens so creating a magnificent Tudor Mansion. However, he died in 1575 and the house was never completed.
Just before the overhead bridge, turn right to climb some steps. At the top turn left over the bridge and along what was once a railway line and is now a cycle track / footpath.
Look down from the bridge to the left, and just north of the river to see the Watercress Wildlife Association nature reserve. This small area is maintained by conservation volunteers. It is on the site of former watercress beds and is now an urban haven for wildlife and plants. To the right below the bridge is a fishing lake and beyond this is the Verulam Golf Club.
For the next 5.7 miles the route follows The Alban Way to Hatfield, the old St Albans to Hatfield railway line.
This branch line of the Great Northern Railway opened in 1865 and was closed in 1969 as a consequence of the report of 1963 by Richard Beeching and known as the "Beeching Axe". It was re-opened for walkers and cyclists by the St Albans & Welwyn Hatfield district councils in 1985.
The railway brought prosperity to the area and many industries grew up along it. These industries attracted workers and homes had to be built to house them and their families. This meant St Albans and Hatfield started to grow towards each other and by the time this branch line was closed in 1969 both places had practically joined up along the area adjacent to the railway. Today many industries still survive along this corridor, with roads now replacing rail as the preferred means of transport. Older industries have been superseded by more modern ones, out of town supermarkets and garden centres have appeared, roads have been widened and dual carriageways bypasses and linking motorways constructed.
On travelling along the Alban Way much of the above is evident. There are not many green fields or views off into the distance. However, as the path follows an old railway line there is a sense of being closed off from the surroundings. From here to Hatfield the path is flat and continuous. There are some entrances from the local areas, but there are no roads to cross as these are all passed over on bridges or under through tunnels. The Alban Way Project is supported by the Millennium Commission, National Cycle Network, Countryside Agency, St Albans City and District Council, Welwyn Hatfield Council, Herts County Council (Environment), Countryside Management Service, Groundwork Hertfordshire, Watling Chase Community Forest, RMC (St Albans Sand and Gravel Co. Ltd.) and the University of Hertfordshire. They have all invested much money along this route to make it an enjoyable and peaceful experience. They have preserved many old remnants from the rail age, added some modern designs which blend in with the surroundings and made the path a recreational area for all to enjoy.
After 250 yards follow the Alban Way straight on through a small modern housing development called Orient Close. Immediately past Orient Close is one mile into the stage, and for the next 4 miles, to the Galleria at Hatfield, the route is very easy to follow along the Alban Way, with no diversions.
On the left, nestled amongst the houses at Orient Close is the Old London Road Station. The station building has been cleaned up and redeveloped as The Old Station Business Centre, but still maintains its original facade. Further along the Alban Way you can also see the remains of what were the platforms of Hill End, Smallford and Ellenbrook Lane stations.
On leaving Orient Close follow the wide path under two bridges. The first is the A1081, London Road Bridge; the second carries the main rail traffic north from London Kings Cross Station.
After 500 yards the track crosses a footbridge over Camp Road. It was built in 2003 to make the cycle track continuous to Hatfield. Before this, users would have to descend to and cross the road, then climb back up on the other side. The paths down off the track and the one back up still remain as access points to the Alban Way.
About 150 yards further the old wooden platform on the left of the track is all that remains of Saunders Sidings. It was built in 1890 and was used to transport orchids from the nearby Saunders Nursery. In later years it was known as “Salvation Army Halt”. Their nearby Campfield Works produced brass instruments and periodicals which left from the station to be transported all over the world. The sidings closed in 1964 and the Campfield Works in 1972.
The Alban Way continues through a built up area on both sides, although not much can be seen from the track. To the left is St Alban’s Cemetery and just past this is Fleetwood School. To the right is the Sphere Industrial Estate followed by some semi-detached mid 20th Century housing backing onto the Way. Soon to the left is a Morrison’s Superstore. Immediately after the store the track crosser Sutton Road. The store is a good place to pick up provisions or stop for a meal in its restaurant.
400 yards later the Alban Way passes through a subway under Ashley Road – access is provided by a path to the right just before it. Immediately after the subway and to the right is yet another industrial estate (Brick Knoll Park). To the left are more semi-detached residences followed by Longacres Playing Fields. A few hundred yards later on the right of the track is the old platform of Hill End Station. It was opened in 1899 to serve the Hertfordshire County Mental Hospital (aka Hill End Asylum) which lay immediately south of it. The asylum closed in 1997 and a residential area now occupies the site. Soon the “Way” crosses Hill End Lane and within 200 yards passer under Colney Heath Lane. On the right between both is the Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School, named after the local man who became Pope Adrian IV.
The track continues with private housing developments on both sides for a short distance. After these on the left is an industrial area with some of the units now out of town superstores. To the right is a reclaimed land named Smallford Pit – at 3 miles into the stage. It was formally a landfill site with a gravel pit on the eastern side. The landfill area is now open fields with paths across it (instructions tell walkers to “please keep to the paths in this area”) and the gravel pit, adjacent to the Alban Way, is now a popular fishing venue. Just south of Smallford Fisheries is another industrial park at Sleapshyde. Opposite the fishing lake and to the left of the Alban Way are Smallford Nurseries. This is a large market garden area with many acres covered with greenhouses. Just next to the track, on the left, is the old platform of the former Smallford Station.
At 3.83 miles the Alban Way soon passes under an old road bridge with Station Road to the left and Smallford Lane to the right. The next few hundred yards of the trail go through some pleasant countryside with fields on both sides. However, building developments (or progress as it is sometimes called) is never far away.
Just over 200 yards after passing under the old road bridge the trail passes under a metal sculpture named Blackberry Arch. The arch is approximately four miles into the stage and was created by local sculptor Diane Maclean in 1998. In many cultures blackberries were thought to have magical powers and at one time passing children through a blackberry arch was thought to cure them of rickets – I’m not sure if there’s a connection.
250 yards after the arch, on the right is a cast iron mile post. This is the “Boundary Mile Post” which marks the boundary between St. Albans and Welwyn Hatfield.
The trail continues between open fields for almost half a mile passing the old platform of the former Nast Hyde Halt Station to the right at Ellenbrook Lane. Here the trail passes through a residential area and after another 250 yards passes under a high bridge carrying the A1001 (Comet Way), then gradually climbs through trees to run parallel to the A1(M), immediately to the right, and Comet Way a short distance to the left. 300 yards later the path comes to an abrupt stop at Cavendish Way. To the left (at 5 miles) is the former art deco Comet Pub, now the Ramada Hatfield Hotel. In front of it is a small monument to the de Havilland Comet Aeroplane. On the opposite side of the hotel is the site of the former de Havilland works and now disused airfield at the old Hatfield Aerodrome.
The Comet came about when in 1933 Sir Macpherson Robertson put up the £10,000 prize money for the Victorian Centenary Race from England to Melbourne. At this time there was no competition for existing American aircraft. However, through sheer patriotic determination the de Havilland Company offered to build a winner. Three were ordered in advance and completed shortly before the race. The first was flown at Hatfield on 8th September 1934, just six weeks before the race. At dawn on 20th October 1934 the race started from Mildenhall in Suffolk. The first two Comets made Baghdad non-stop, and things remained close till after Singapore. However, with a Douglas DC2 in hot pursuit, it was the G-ACSS, Grosvenor House Comet, piloted by Charles W Scott and Tom Campbell Black which arrived first in Melbourne to win the prize in 70 hours and 54 minutes. Owen Cathcart Jones and Ken Waller finished fourth in the G-ACSR Comet, only stopping to collect photos and newsreel of the winners before immediately setting off back to England. They arrived home 13 days after leaving Mildenhall to set an out and home record.
The comet on the memorial outside the hotel appears to be the model of the winning Grosvenor House aircraft as it was the only one of the three painted red, the other two were painted black and gold, and green.
The first ever jet passenger airplane, the DH Comet 1 was built at the de Havilland works at Hatfield. It first flew on 27th July 1949, but after a few disastrous crashes, caused by metal fatigue on its square windows, it was taken out of production in the 1950s. Today’s jet liners have round windows, a lesson taken from the Comet’s crashes. Other well known aircraft built here included the Mosquito and the Trident.
The aircraft factory started here by Geoffrey de Havilland in 1934 merged with Hawker-Siddeley in 1959, then in 1977 became a part of British Aerospace. Production stopped in 1993 and the site has been redeveloped to provide commercial and leisure facilities as well as home to the aptly named new De Havilland campus of the University of Hertfordshire.
It was at Hatfield Studios (at Hatfield Aerodrome) in 1998 where Steven Spielberg filmed most of Saving Private Ryan, spending $15m on sets. He later came back, with Tom Hanks, to film the TV series Band of Brothers at a cost of $125 million.
On reaching Cavendish Way (at 5 miles) turn right along the pavement to cross over the A1 (M) as it disappears underground into the Hatfield Tunnel.
The Hatfield Tunnel is 1150 metres long and was built in 1984 to replace this section of the Great North Road. Across the road to the left is the Galleria, a shopping centre and leisure complex, which is built over the roof of tunnel.
Immediately over the motorway turn right onto a footpath downhill to a pedestrian subway under Cavendish Way. Go through the subway and after exiting it go straight on along a path / cycle track, still the Alban Way.
The route is now back on the course of the old railway line on its way through residential areas of the new town of Hatfield. This newer part of the town came about after May 1948 when Hatfield was designated one of the 24 New Towns selected to re-house the post war population. The railway continued to run through here when the houses were being built and as a consequence the course of the line was preserved. This meant that many years later when the Alban Way was laid out it could follow the majority of the route straight through. Today many houses back onto the trail and much of it is also tree lined.
After 500 yards the path comes out onto St Albans Road West. Turn right along the pavement for 20 yards, then turn left to cross over the road and go straight on along the path away from the road, still the Alban Way. 300 yards later cross straight over Lemsford Road and back onto the Alban Way.
Either just before or shortly after Lemsford Road are the remnants of the old platform of Lemsford Road Halt. This was a private stop and late addition to the line. It was opened in 1942 for the use of the workers at de Havilland and closed in 1951. The reason for my confusion here is the Subterranean Britain Website places the station before Lemsford Road, yet the pictures from their website seem to suggest it is just after. The Council Leaflet of the Alban Way does not mention the station but from the map on the above leaflet, 200 yards after Lemsford Road are the remains of another platform, “Fiddlebridge Siding”. The leaflet is the only mention I can find of this.
After another 400 yards stay straight over Wellfield Road on a footbridge, and then for almost 600 yards to Clarkes Road. Cross straight over the road and continue along the Alban Way. The trail gradually veers right and after 350 yards turns left through a small grassy area and then right to a road. Cross straight over the road and onto a footbridge over the main railway line.
The footbridge is named Wrestlers Bridge and is on the site of an older road bridge. The older bridge carried the A1 (Great North Road) over the Great Northern Railway, until it collapsed in the 1965. The name comes from the local Wrestlers Pub, which is just north of here and where you can see pictures of the collapsed bridge. It was at this point the branch line from St Albans turned right and joined the main railway. In history this was where two of England’s great communications routes met, today it marks the end the Alban Way.
A short distance south of here is Hatfield Railway Station and just east of the station is Old Hatfield. The town dates from Saxon times when it was called "Hetfelle", meaning “field of heather”. The old town which exists today grew up around the gateway to the Old Tudor Palace of the Bishop of Ely. The Palace dates from 1497 and its remains can still be seen in the grounds of Hatfield House. It was taken over by Henry VIII who used it as a home for his children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. Princess Elizabeth Tudor was later confined here for three years when her older half sister Mary ruled as Queen. It is said she received the news of her accession to the throne, while sitting under an oak tree in the park, following the death of Mary, in 1558. Elizabeth I held her first cabinet meeting in the Great Hall of the Palace. She made William Cecil (1520 – 1598), later the 1st Lord Burghley, her Chief Minister. He lived close by at Theobalds and had become a trusted friend during her childhood. William served the Queen well until his death and was instrumental persuading Elizabeth to sign the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots, something Elizabeth later regretted.
William’s son Robert Cecil (1563 – 1612) also became a trusted friend of Queen Elizabeth and shortly after his father death became Elizabeth’s Chief Minister. He was not of great stature and Elizabeth often referred to him as “Her Elf”. Elizabeth had not married and as a consequence had not produced an heir. For years this worried Parliament but she brushed it aside by stating she was married to her country and her crown. She became known as the Virgin Queen and is still referred to by this today. Robert Cecil was instrumental in ensuring that Elizabeth would name her successor as King James VI (Stuart) of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth’s death also marked the end of the Tudor reign. James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England, Ireland & Scotland on 24th March 1603. He raised Robert Cecil to a peer on 20th August 1603 as Baron Essendon, and in 1604 gave him the title of the 1st Lord Salisbury. Cecil’s other posts included Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin and Cambridge University. He served as a protector and chief minister to the king and as you can see below, managed to foil the Gunpowder Plot. James I preferred Cecil’s family home at Theobalds to Hatfield Palace and offered Cecil a swap. Cecil agreed and in 1607 he acquired the Old Palace.
Henry VIII was the last and most foremost king to enjoy making a collection of palaces. His favourite was Hampton Court, but he enjoyed having them all over the country, especially the south of England. Elizabeth and then James found they could not afford the upkeep of all the palaces Henry had acquired, so some fell into ruin and some were given away or swapped for smaller houses.
Cecil did not have much respect for the history of the Palace at Hatfield and tore most of it down. He used the materials to build his own splendid Jacobean House. This was originally designed by Robert Lyminge with modifications by many others including a young Inigo Jones. The rooms within the house were built to entertain and accommodate royalty. Only the Great Hall of the Palace was left standing and this was used as stables. Robert Cecil did not live long enough to enjoy his new house, dying just before it was completed in 1612. He is buried at Hatfield. However, his descendants continued to make it their family home and have now lived there for almost 400 years. Today, Hatfield House is home to Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. It is deemed to be one of the best examples of a Jacobean house in England. The house is surrounded by over 1,000 acres of formal gardens and parkland, much dating back to the 17th Century, and is now one of the largest enclosed private parks in the country.
James I was a Protestant and although married to a Catholic, under his rule Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their religion. Priests had to hide in “Priest Holes” and anyone not seen to follow the Protestant church were punished. It was because of these rules that the Gunpowder Plot was born. The plotters were Sir Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Robert Wintour, John Grant, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, Thomas Bates, Sir Everard Digby and Guy Fawkes (1570 – 1606). Fawkes, although a late addition to the conspirators, had experience of using gunpowder after serving abroad in the Spanish army. The members of the group were all well educated and privileged young men. They planned to blow up the king, his family, his nobles and bishops at the state opening of parliament.
An outbreak of the plague delayed the opening of Parliament until 5th November, 1605 and in the meantime a cellar/undercroft below the Parliament buildings became available to rent. Although this seemed like good fortune to the plotters, it may be that Robert Cecil 1st Earl of Salisbury, who had a very efficient spy network, was aware of the plot and this was a ploy to enable him to know exactly where the conspirators were operating.
There are many conspiracy theories connected to the plot, mainly because Cecil was very anti-Catholic and wanted to rid England of the religion. The story below is the official line as it was given at the time. You can also visit the BBC version which still follows the official line but reads more like a story, or the History Learning Site which casts doubts on the official version.
Restrictions had been relaxed on the availability of gunpowder after the cessation of the war with Spain. Thirty six barrels of gunpowder, approximately 1 metric tonne (18 cwt) were placed in the cellar. It was agreed that Guy Fawkes, because of his experience with gunpowder, would light the slow fuse which would allow him to escape before the explosion. Guy Fawkes hid in the cellar on the 4th November to await the morning.
In the early hours of November 5th, on the instructions of Lord Salisbury, Sir Thomas Knevett J. P. for Westminster led a group of Yeomen of the Guard to search the cellars of the palace of Westminster and found “a very tall and desperate fellow” hiding with the gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London with the gunpowder. He was tortured, enduring excruciating agony on the rack, and eventually named some of his fellow conspirators. Catesby and the rest of the plotters met at Holbeche House, Staffordshire. Some died resisting arrest, the others, including Guy Fawkes, were hung, drawn and quartered. On the BBC History website you can play a game by testing your knowledge on the Gunpowder Plot. After the plot James and Parliament wanted people to remember the failed plot and hence now bonfire night is celebrated every year since on the 5th November by fires burning “the Guy” and fireworks. There are many traditional rhymes associated with the occasion; probably the most famous one is below.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I can think of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
The Old Palace was rebuilt and Great Hall returned to its previous glory, after 300 years of being used as stables, by James Edward Hubert Gascoyne-Cecil, 4th Marquess of Salisbury (1861 – 1947).
Through the 400 years since the building of Hatfield House many of the members of the family played senior parts in the British Government as Leaders of the House of Lords, Ministers, MPs and Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess even served three terms as Prime Minister. The house has hosted many Monarchs and celebrities and its interior and grounds have been improved greatly through the years. Hatfield House remains the family home of the Cecil Family and both it and the Home Park are open to the public in the summer months.
Cinema goers will recognise the inside of Hatfield House as that of Bruce Wayne's house in the Batman films (1989 & 1992). Other films made here include the Lara Croft movies with Angelina Jolie, Orlando (1993) with Tilda Swinton & Billy Zane, “The Golden Age” (2007) with Cate Blanchett, “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) with Gwyneth Paltrow & Judi Dench who both won Oscars, “Cromwell” (1970) with Alex Guinness, “The New World” (2005) with Colin Farrell, “The Avengers” (1998) with Sean Connery, and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005) starring Johnny Depp..
Old Hatfield is a beautiful town with many old houses and pubs, including The Eight Bells, dating from 1630 and which Dickens knew and featured in Oliver Twist. It was to The Eight Bells where Bill Sykes was said to have fled with his dog after his brutal murder of Nancy.
"It was nine o'clock at night, when the man, quite tired out, and the dog, limping and lame from the unaccustomed exercise, turned down the hill by the church of the quiet village, and plodding along the little street, crept into a small public house, whose scanty light had guided them to the spot. There was a fire in the tap-room and some country-labourers were drinking before it"
It is from one of the upper windows of the pub that highwayman, Dick Turpin is said to have leapt onto his horse Black Bess and galloped away, as the Bow Street Runners entered the place.
In the days of horse drawn coaches, Hatfield was a staging point on the Great North Road linking London to the North. From 1839 a coach called “The Sovereign” left The Eight Bells for London at 7am every day.
Immediately over the Wrestler’s Footbridge turn sharp left and after 50 yards go straight on onto an enclosed footpath. The path leads to a residential road called The Ryde. Turn right for 170 yards and just before reaching the main road (A1000) turn left into Park View. At the other end of Park View, go straight on along a cycle track which leads downhill between trees and eventually next to the pavement along the side of A1000. Stay straight on soon crossing straight over Lodge Drive. After another 170 yards turn right to cross the A1000 at the traffic island (now at 7 miles into the stage), then turn left on the pavement along the A1000 and over the dual carriageway (A414 (T)).
To the left, just after the junction of the two roads, is the Bush Hall Hotel. The 25 bedroom hotel was originally a Tudor Manor House dating back to 1574. It was once the home of Sir Robert Chester (died 1848), Master of Ceremonies to three English Kings. Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943) as a child often visited the area with her parents, as her grandparents lived at the nearby Camfield Place in Essendon. She spent time at Bush Hall and paintings of the hall by her can be seen in the Linder Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. To read more follow the link to Our Hatfield.
Immediately after crossing over the A414 (T), turn right onto a path which leads downhill to join Bush Hall Lane. Go straight on along the lane, soon passing Mill Green Mill now a museum.
Mill Green Watermill dates from the 18th Century, it is thought to be on the site of one of three mills in this area listed in the Doomsday Book, and was in use up until 1911, when competition from larger mills forced its closure. It was fully restored by volunteers between 1979 and 1986 and is now one of the few remaining water-powered corn mills still producing flour. The flour is supplied to a local bakery which uses it to produce their Mill Green Loaf. The mill’s wheel is powered by the waters of the River Lea. The Lea (or Lee in some books) rises at Leagrave, near Luton, and flows for 58 miles to enter the Thames at Bow in East London. This is our first encounter with the Lea on the route, but will certainly not be our last.
Next door to the mill is the Miller’s House which dates from 16th Century and was home to millers for hundreds of years. It now contains the local history museum of the Welwyn Hatfield District.
Across the lane from the entrance to the mill & museum is an old stone horse trough which for many years sat next to the Great North Road, but was moved here in 1983 to preserve it.
Just past the mill the lane passes over the River Lee and comes out onto another lane (Mill Green Lane). To the left is the Green Man pub and to the right the lane is blocked off from joining the dual carriageway. Go straight across and between bollards onto a cycle track. The track is enclosed between trees but soon opens out on the right to run parallel to the A414 (T). After just over half a mile turn left into Gypsy Lane and past Mill Green Golf Club – (at 7.9 miles).
Gypsy Lane previously continued to the sawmill on the other side of the A414, but the building of the dual carriageway resulted in it being blocked off and now it only serves the golf club and the cycle path and has recently been marked as the route of the Lee Valley Walk. On older maps (and still some current ones) the original route of the Walk runs east along the other side of the A414, from its junction with the A1000, and entered the woods immediately after a back gate to Hatfield Park - this can be seen by looking right and across the road just a few yards before Gypsy Lane. The change, I expect, was due to the fact there is no space for a path between the road and the boundary of the park and it is was dangerous to walk along the edge of a dual carriageway - possibly an oversight by the architect of the road.
Gypsy Lane is pleasant and peaceful, with the golf course on both sides. Follow it for 500 yards to where a brick pillar on either side marks the entrance of the golf course. Immediately past the pillars, turn right away from the lane onto a wide uneven track along the northern edge of the golf course. To the left and just over a fence is the ground of Hatfield Cricket Club, the golf course is on the right and directly in front is a wood.
The wood forms part of The Commons Local Nature Reserve. The reserve covers thirty-five acres of waste ground sandwiched between Welwyn and Hatfield which has been lovingly restored to fenland, woodland and pasture over the last decade by a dedicated group of local people. It is managed by the Commonswood Nature Watch, a voluntary group headed by Peter Oakenful, a local who went to the adjacent Commonswood School and who has been very supportive of our Green Belt project. The volunteers have made the nature reserve accessible to the public by opening paths, building bridges, elevated walkways over wetlands and hedges using ancient techniques. There are rare breeds of animals, insects and plants. Newly erected notices provide us with information about the reserve.
When I first found The Commons and a route through it, I was in a way pleased we could not follow the old River Lea Walk along the A414. The woods are a very lonely and peaceful place, they bring us back to nature and a natural habitat for it to thrive in, and what a way to cut out the new long trek through the houses of Welwyn which the Lea Walk currently follows.
On entering the woods, on the left through the trees, is the Commons Woods Caravan Club Site and the tall building behind this is the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital. Some of the locals still refer to the woods as “Hospital Woods”. The area was once part of the Hatfield House Estate, but was given to the local council by Lord Salisbury in 1997. This was probably shortly after the building of the A414 which certainly cut the common off from the rest of his estate - possibly a smart bit of planning by the architect of the road.
There are many miles of paths within the woods, I have found this out through getting lost many times and loosing a sense of direction caused by the density of the trees blocking out the sun. However, the route through is relatively direct, gives you a real feel for the place and takes in most of its points of interest. For insect, bird, fungi and plant lovers, also try a few of the other paths.
On entering the woods turn right along a wide path. After 100 yards continue to follow the path as it turns left and goes deeper into the woods and eventually come out next to a golf tee. Stay left of the tee and along a wide track for a short distance. As the main track turns right, stay left onto a narrow path into the trees. The path soon widens to a large track. Go straight on, soon passing a metal gate across the middle of the track. The gate seems to play very little purpose as the track is open on both sides. After another 150 yards, and as the track veers right and descends, turn left and slightly uphill onto a narrow path. Stay left along this path for a short distance, then after 200 yards turn right onto a narrow path which leads downhill to a stream. Go straight across the stream and up the bank. Turn right through a metal kissing gate and straight on along a path. The path leads gradually downhill with a fence to the left and a narrow open area to the right. After 450 yards the path comes to a small open area with an information board to the left. Continue along the path as it turns right then left to a footbridge. Cross over the footbridge and go straight on uphill with a field to the left. At the top turn left along the top edge of the field.
Although the path along the top of the field is only slightly elevated there are good views and a sense of openness. There is a rare bread of black sheep in the field to the left and on the right is a tree with a wooden plaque below it as a memorial to Jack Lonergan, a former Chairman of the Local Council.
On reaching the far end of the field, turn left to follow the path downhill, with the field still to the left. The path soon veers right. At the bottom, turn right onto a path through the trees. After 100 yards, where there is an opportunity to turn left and over a footbridge, stay right along a narrow path which soon becomes an elevated wooden walkway above the marshy ground. Go straight through on along this mixture of paths and elevated footways staying to the main path and avoiding others off to the right. After a few hundred yards the path passes a small pond to the right and eventually comes out through a wooden kissing gate and onto an open common. It is here the route exits the nature reserve.
Immediately through the kissing gate turn right along the edge of the common hugging the fence on the right. This leads to some houses. Turn right towards the houses and go straight on along a well placed footpath between houses. Follow the path straight through this housing estate crossing straight over two roads and eventually coming out next to garages. Immediately after the garages turn left onto Holwell Hyde Lane – now at 10 miles into the stage.
Holwell Hyde Lane is practically traffic free as it only leads to Holwell Hyde Farm which is just 100 yards to the right. The farm was part of a manor which dates back to Saxon times (A 'hyde' or “hide” is a Saxon land measurement (120 acres) used as part of the process of assarting, that is, clearing trees and scrub thus enlarging the area of cultivated land around the edge of a manorial settlement).
On reaching the lane, directly in front and on the other side through the trees is the north edge of a small fishing lake stocked with carp which is especially popular with angler. Their car park is about 200 yards away at the south tip of the lake.
On the right of the lane, just north of the lake, is a large fenced off area of elevated ground with strange hatted cones growing out of it at uniform intervals. This was once a huge gravel pit which was filled with waste from London during the 1930s and has now been returned to what looks like a field. The cones are vents to allow gases to escape from the buried waste and not let them build up under the ground.
In October 2008, French aggregates company Lafarge put forward proposals to build over 4,000 houses on green belt land in this area. Holwell Hyde Lane would be enlarged as an access road for many of the properties. There is currently a campaign to stop this from happening because it is green belt land and concern that the biodiversity of The Commons Local Nature Reserve will be affected. You can read about the proposal at Welwyn Hatfield or on the Nature Reserve website.
After 400 yards Holwell Hyde Lane meets Cole Green Lane at a T-junction. Turn right along the wide grass verge and after 160 yards turn right again through a kissing gate and onto The Cole Green Way.
Just before the end of Holwell Hyde Lane there is a gate to the right. This has been sealed closed. However, if the local council put in a little bit of effort here they could build a kissing gate or stile next to it and give us access to a track which leads to the Cole Green Way without having to go onto Cole Green Lane. It looks as if they have blocked it off because it was used for dumping stolen cars and for fly tipping. Yet if well managed and only opened during daylight it would make a wonderful picnic area and scenic short-cut for our route.
The Cole Green Way is a disused railway line and now is a cycle track / footpath. The closure of the railway in the 1960s was another consequence of the "Beeching Axe".
Where our route joins the “Way” it is fenced on both sides. Underfoot it is a gravel path built by the local council and remains flat for a short distance before descending gently downhill. To the right is the opposite side of the ex-gravel pit come ex-landfill site seen earlier along Holwell Hyde Lane. It looks like pleasant pastures, yet the metal cones protruding from it do make it look somewhat sinister. It’s obvious this reclaimed land has still lots of toxic fumes seeping up through the metal cones. This is why I assume there are no animals grazing and it’s still fenced off as it may prove hazardous to the public. Maybe a sight to make people and councils put more effort into recycling as it would give less places like this in the middle of such beautiful countryside.
After almost a mile the path lead to a subway under the A414 and within a few yards passes straight across a lane.
From here, by looking at maps, is where the Cole Green Way joins what was the route of the railway from Welwyn to Hertford. It is also just a short distance after here where the original route of the Lee Valley Walk joined the Cole Green Way. However, part of this was along a permissive footpath which now seems to have been closed off.
Within half a mile the trail crosses a high bridge over Station Road and after another few yards reaches what remains of the old platform of the previous Cole Green Station.
This is a peaceful and pleasant place to finish the stage. There is a small car park, a wood with carved creatures, a picnic area, and at the bottom of the lane is the inviting Cowper Arms public house.
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