First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Bonfires crackled in the gardens of Little Berkhamsted, everyone’s dream of an English village. White weather-boarded houses faced the immaculately kept cricket field, and dog walkers greeted each other with the easy manner of people at home and content.
Hertfordshire lays under brisk grey skies, the countryside folded in on itself in the quiet stillness of a long winter. Golf balls clicked and hummed over the greens of Essendon Country Club. In the oak woods the wind lifted last year’s brittle brown leaves and brought a faint whiff of damp bark and rain-softened earth.
At Essendon the flint-built Church of St Mary carried a wall plaque recording the events of 3 September 1916, when bombs jettisoned from a Zeppelin airship demolished the east end of the church and killed the village blacksmith’s two daughters. Hertfordshire was not as safe as it might have seemed – searchlight batteries ringed the villages, handy targets for enemy bombs.
In the church hall, morning coffee was on the go. We were allowed a glimpse of the church’s singular treasure, kept under lock and key – an 18th-century Wedgwood font of black basaltware, one of only five in existence, rich in decorative swags and flourishes. When Richard Green of Essendon emigrated to Australia in 1880 he asked for the font, by then no longer in use, to be sent to him Down Under. It never reached him; the parishioners of Essendon were too poor to raise the price of freighting such a delicate object to the other side of the world.
There was blue sky over Backhouse Wood, and a gleam of icy blue in the splashy ruts of the byway that ran south along the valley of the Essendon Brook. Lime green lambs tails danced in the hazel branches along the way. Tiny spear-blades of dog’s mercury were beginning to push up under the trees. Hardly the call of spring, but a whisper of it hung in the air like a tentative promise.
Fieldfares stood tall in the paddocks at Warrenwood Manor, their slate grey heads raised, checking us for menace. The namesake trees of Hornbeam Lane lined its banks, their limbs silver and green in the low afternoon sun. Snowdrops drooped their heads in clumps pearled with raindrops retained from the last shower of the morning.
Hornbeam Lane gave way to Cucumber Lane. A partridge went whining off explosively, low over a field of crinkly beet leaves, making us jump and laugh as we turned for home.
Near Epping Green an ancient Dalmatian limped up and thrust its spotted body against my legs for a pat. At the walk’s end in Little Berkhamsted I found a souvenir of the dog, a clutch of white hairs embedded in the mud that I brushed from my trousers at the door of the Five Horseshoes Inn.
Start: Five Horseshoes, Little Berkhamsted, Herts SG13 8LY (OS ref TL 292078)
Getting there: Bus – 308, 380 (Hertford-Cuffley).
Road – Little Berkhamsted is signed off B158 between Essendon and Brookman’s Park (M25 Jct 24; A1000 towards Hatfield).
Walk (7¾ miles, easy but muddy, OS Explorer 182): From Five Horseshoes, cross road, down right side of cricket field (‘Epping Green’, ‘Hertfordshire Way/HW). At kissing gate, right to road (290077). Left; in 100m, right (‘Danes farm’); fork right up drive. In ½ mile descend from woods to crossing of drives by two black-and-white houses (283084), left (HW). Dogleg right round golf clubhouse (281084); up path with lake on right. At top of slope fork right by wooden fence; at road, left (276086) up School Lane to cross B158 in Essendon (275086).
Right; in 75m, fork left; left through churchyard. Path from west end of church to gate into field (273088). Left; follow yellow arrows/YA across fields to turn right along HW (273085). In 400m cross Essendon Brook (269083); on up field edge (HW). At top, at T-junction (267083), left along ‘Byway’ (red arrow), soon marked HW. In 500m fork left off Byway (267078, HW) for nearly 1 mile to cross B158 (270068).
On (‘Warrenwood Farm’) along HW (‘Hornbeam Lane’) for nearly 1 mile. At Cucumber Lane, right (281060), at Tyler’s Causeway road, left (285058). In 100m, right (fingerpost) on HW; in ¾ mile, opposite house no 79 at New Park Farm (295052), left off HW (fingerpost). North for 900m to Tyler’s Causeway (294061).
Left along road; in 100m, right up laneway. In 200m, enter 2nd field; in 200m, right through hedge (293065, YA). At road in Epping Green, left (‘Bridleway 22, Berkhamsted Lane’). In 200m, at entrance on left to Woodcock Lodge, ahead along rutted lane. In 150m keep ahead (not right) at fork (292070, blue arrow). In ½ mile, right up cricket field to Five Horseshoes.
Lunch: Five Horseshoes, Little Berkhamsted (01707-875055, chefandbrewer.com)
Accommodation: Baker Arms, Bayford SG13 8PX (01992-511235, bakerarmsbayford.co.uk)