First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Two skylarks sprang out of the stubble field as we climbed its gentle slope towards Poynders End. They ascended skywards, blithely singing as though it were baking April and not a cold and cloudy winter’s day. Such little incidents inject a welcome shot of joy into these gloomy months when all nature seems to have curled up and pulled the blankets over its head.
The sticky ochreous clay under our boots was studded with flints. We picked up one with a delicately bevelled edge – whether by man or natural process wasn’t easy to decide, but we stood looking out over the wide fields of north Hertfordshire and pictured the men who hunted here when it was all forest. Milo the mad spaniel, meanwhile, went on running in circles and pointing at pheasants flying overhead.
A string of old woodlands lies here on the upland. In the margins of Hitch Wood, twisted green-barked hornbeams pointed their witchy limbs along the trackway that took us south towards Stagenhoe. This lovely Palladian house, now a Sue Ryder care home, has had some notable tenants and owners, among them the 14th Earl of Caithness, a genial Victorian soul who would drink whisky with his tenants and whose Spanish wife, ‘massive and theatrical’, believed she was the reincarnation of Mary, Queen of Scots. Caithness’s son rented Stagenhoe to Sir Arthur Sullivan while he was composing the music for ‘The Mikado’ in 1881.
From the track though Stagenhoe’s grounds we caught a glimpse of St Paul’s Walden Bury at the far end of its long avenue, another splendid 18th-century house, childhood home of the late Queen Mother. We stopped to admire the gurning gargoyles and other stone-carved grotesques at All Saints’ Church, and then turned north again along the well-waymarked Chiltern Way, heading across wide fields and down a tree-hung lane at Langley End where a flock of jaunty yellow-cheeked siskins bounced and twittered in the branches overhead.
Out of bounds in a thicket at the crest of the last hill crouched the broken flint walls of Minsden Chapel. It was built in the 14th century as a staging post for pilgrims on their way to St Albans, but the Reformation swept away its raison d’être. Now it stands forgotten among the trees, a ruin haunted by the wraith of a monk who walks accompanied by a ghost of sweet music. Some claim to have seen the shades of men and women here, hiding in a phantom cart full of spectral barrels. An eerie place. We went quickly on down the hill, with something more substantial in our sights – the Rusty Gun pub, and a damn good lunch.
Start: Rusty Gun Inn, London Rd, St Ippolyts, Herts SG4 7PG (OS ref TL 199253).
Getting there: From A1(M) Jct 8, follow Little Wymondley, Todds Green, St Ippollits and Preston. At B656 cross roads, left for ⅓ mile to Rusty Gun PH.
Walk (5½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 193): From Rusty Gun, left along B656 for 150m. Left (‘Preston’, Chiltern Way/CW) on field track for nearly 1 mile. 300m beyond Poynders End Farm, right through hedge (190245, CW); clockwise round field edge, past reservoir to road (186245). Left (CW); at right bend, ahead down Hitchwood Lane. In 350m, at left bend, bear right on tarmac lane (188242, ‘Whitwell’) past houses, and follow path (yellow arrows/YAs) along right edge of Hitch Wood.
In ½ mile leave wood (187234); bear half right across field and along right edge of Pinfold Wood. Left past house, then right for 400m (186232, YA) along field edge, then left edge of Foxholes Wood. At post with 2 YAs, turn left (184229). Follow YAs with metal fence on right to drive beside Stagenhoe House gateway (186228). Left along drive for 70m; fork right down gravel track past lodge house with tall chimneys. Follow track on left edge of Garden Wood and on (ignore footpath fingerposts) to All Saints Church, St Paul’s Walden.
Go through iron gate on left (192223), through churchyard, past north side of church to gate into lane (CW). Left up lane past White House; right (CW) along path by fence, then field edge to B651 (194227). Left (CW) for 200m – NB nasty double bend; take care! Just past Stagenhoe gates, right (195228, CW) on track through trees. Leaving trees, don’t follow track round to right but keep ahead (YA) across field. Go between fence posts (YA); path across field to road (199234). Ahead (blue arrow/BA) on woodland path. Emerging from trees (200236), left on track (BA, ‘STOOP’). In 300m it swings right (199238); ahead here (BA) on grass path to road. Left (CW) past red brick Langley End; on down path (CW); in 50m, fork right (198239) to cross B651 (198241). Right along field edge; in 100m, left across field; up right side of Minsden Chapel Plantation to pass chapel ruins among trees (198246). Ahead across field over brow of hill; keep left of hedge; follow sunken lane to Rusty Gun.