The London Countryway – Day 10

July 20, 1986: Kings Langley to St. Albans

St. Albans Cathedral

St. Albans Cathedral

A Sunday was selected for the next stage of the London Countryway, a short seven and a half mile stretch from Kings Langley to St. Albans. Tosh was in Poland and Harold had been in St. Albans many times before, so that left Dorothy, Toby, and Bill Vincent ­– who was visiting London for the summer with eight Michigan State British Film students.

In the event the caste of characters was not finalized until the last moment. Bill’s participation was problematical from the start. He didn’t call for directions as instructed on Saturday, and I was unable to rouse anyone at Reid Hall when I called him on a drizzly Sunday morning at 9:00. Soon thereafter he called and asked if he could bring one of his students along as well. But now Dorothy refused to go – her Sundays were too precious for walking these days. After changing her mind several times, she decided to remain at home with the dog. I took the lunch she had made for the three of us, stuffed it into my pack and left the house at 10:05. It had stopped raining.

On the platform at Baker Street I met Bill and Nicky, a slim senior Telecommunications major from Connecticut. Bill had a huge camera and a British flag shopping bag containing his tennis shoes. These he began to exchange for his sandals, having completed only half of the operation before we had to board a Whitechapel train. We arrived at Euston at 10:40 and bought tickets. Bill then looked for some liquid to take with him – there were no screwtop bottles in the store so he bought two cans of orange Britvic. We left at 11:05 and, after three short stops, got off at Kings Langley at 11:30. It was grey but not too dark. We had a cool breeze to begin with and a fairly humid day that was nevertheless good walking weather. I put Nicky’s sweater and Bill’s sandals in my pack, got out my Sheet 166 and opened Chesterton into my plastic map case. We headed north. Soon I would discover that route-finding on this day would be even more complex than figuring out who to include on the trip manifest.

It was not hard to find a road under the railway line and we climbed up this, heading east. We were abruptly in the country but as we cleared the Ovaltine Egg Farm our track surprisingly ended its course at the gulf of a huge motorway cutting – not present on the map and obviously bulldozed after Chesterton had completed his text. I assumed that we still needed to get alongside the woods on the opposite bank and fortunately a bridge – some small distance to the left – had been added to make this possible. We crossed the cutting and continued on the old track past a house and between fields of peas and some plant we couldn’t identify. The angle of the turnoff suggested by Chesterton (105 degrees) no longer seemed possible in the burgeoning wheat field that faced us, but there was a good path along the southeastern edges. This path led back to civilization but I did a little reconnaissance and whistled to the others to follow me along a path between houses along the northeastern perimeter of the same field. This path led us to the Abbots Langley-Hemel Hempsted road, where we turned right for a bit, then left along Love Lane. Three lounge lizards sitting in kiddy swings in a rec area asked the time. It was 12:26.

We followed our path as it curved northwest, over stiles, through wheat fields, across a lane, through another wheat field. These paths offered only the narrowest slit for walkers. At the bottom (with Footpath 38 signs to help us) we turned to the right along a litter-clogged lane and emerged onto a road. Amid lovely gardens we turned northwest here, following a track until it turned southeast. It seemed inviting to follow it, but I thought this was wrong. While I was pondering how to proceed we had our first rest. There was a very light sprinkle.

Sitting down when you need to figure out where to go next is often a good idea. You can play with the compass, look at the text carefully and determine where you are now on the map. It was clear that we had to continue our northerly line along the side of a wheat field along a narrow ribbon which descended to a stile, quite overgrown, opposite a tunnel under the MI. Nicky was enjoying the route finding challenges – “This is a lot more fun that I thought it would be.”

The tunnel, though obviously used very infrequently, was illuminated at midday. We climbed the bank on the opposite side and entered a small wood. The beech tree mentioned by Chesterton was lying on its side, its roots in the air. Everything looked like a “path through the wood” but I found a route eventually – it led us out the north end of the woods and right up against the graded embankment of another unexpected motorway project. We climbed to the crest in order to hunt for some surviving landmarks ahead but here we found a comforting series of footbridges over the chasm of a major multi-branched system under construction. After the last footbridge a path carried us forward in a northerly direction again. Coming toward us were two riders who turned east to follow an obvious diversion back to the original route on our right. We followed them toward the trees of Holt Farm, where we picked up the access road coming from a large establishment of some antiquity and character. It was becoming sunny and I took off my sweatshirt to stand revealed at last in my new blue TV Conference t-shirt.

We wandered eastwards along the road past Noke farm, looking for a stile in a hedge and a signpost for Chiswell Green. We found nothing and retraced our steps to wander through the farmyard in search of a path. Bill eventually turned up the farmer himself – who pointed out our direction. Obviously one must begin the ascent here, west of all farm buildings. There wasn’t much evidence of use on the ground now and to reach a more distinct northerly track we had to step over a low wire strand – but the bushes of the Royal National Rose Society’s grounds at Bone Hill were directly in front of us now and we were obviously intended to be here.

We had to follow the western perimeter fence to reach the access road to Bone Hill but when it came time to pay the £1.30 admission Nicky begged off, claiming an aversion to the aroma of roses. Bill and I entered and had some lunch in the shade of a small birch tree while a brass band played everything form Hava Nagila to Star Trek. Then we wandered around amid rose freaks for a few minutes (many dogs on lead) and left via the gift shop – where Bill bought two jars of jam.

A well-rested Nicky was sprawled in the grass opposite our turn-off, another thin ribbon in the wheat which lead to a paved lane heading north. When this turned right we continued ahead on a track through a delightfully cool and fragrant woods, emerging at the side of the M10. A few hundred meters to the east there was a footbridge over this motorway. We rounded a corner of the next woods and found a wide track heading for suburban St. Albans.

The countryside was abruptly left behind as we followed a civilized path through a housing estate and along a huge sports field. A pelican crossing put us onto a path

through Verulamium Park, with the ruins of a Roman wall on our left. We could see glimpses of the cathedral and a large pond ahead. Another band was playing on the grass. It was 3:50. The place was crowded with families (the ubiquitous mum threatening the bums of her offspring), dogs and German nuns pressing tracts in the hands of the unwary. Nicky and I bought orange ice lollies and we proceeded north through the park. Looking at some of the brilliantly colored mallards asleep by the side of the pond one woman said,  “Just like all males – resting while the women do all the work.”

Next we continued west and then north along some roads in a charming section of the town in order to view the Roman theater. We circled the excavations before heading back. I was rather dragging now – for it was very warm. So was Nicky – but Bill seemed perturbed when neither of us seconded his desire for tea. We headed south on Fishpool Street and eventually arrived at St. Albans Cathedral, not very interesting from the outside. Bill had a look inside but Nicky and I lay panting in the grass. Naturally he took his time and when he returned there was only twenty minutes left to reach the station and a fast London train. I lead a corking charge through downtown St. Albans but Bill kept stopping to photograph pub signs. When we got to the station there was a long queue to buy tickets. The guard said we could buy them on the train but we had to run up over and down the crossover bridge in order to hurl ourselves aboard the last car (source of a later heel strain?). It was 5:38 and by 6:00 we had reached St. Pancras. Still perspiring, I wore my red sweatband all the way home.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 11: St. Albans to Brookmans Park ­