The London Countryway – Day 11

August 2, 1986: St. Albans to Brookmans Park

I celebrate my thousandth mile on British footpaths at the pub in Sandridge.

I celebrate my thousandth mile on British footpaths at the pub in Sandridge.

The Lees were waiting for Dorothy, Toby and me at Euston at 8:50, when the fearsome foursome were once again assembled – this time for Day eleven of the London Countryway. I had been advised by telephone to take the 9:05 to Watford Junction, but, on the spot, all record of the actual existence of such a train had disappeared from living memory. We could have taken the 8:55, but the women had vanished into the ladies loo. A second train was also boarding and while we dithered it too disappeared into the distance. Harold seemed to be in a bit of a fog this morning. He had ended up with round trip tickets to St. Albans Abbey, though this is surely not what he wanted, but he cited a complete failure to communicate in spoken English with the Asian guard behind the ticket window. He now spent the time until the next departure, 9:20, sitting on the floor of the crowded station. I used the extra minutes to get a cup of coffee.

At Watford Junction we had a twenty-five minute wait, plenty of time to wander over to platform 11, the little siding for the St. Albans line. A kilted Scot was waiting for our train. “You look wonderful,” Tosh told him. When the train pulled in we all entered the same carriage. When we reached the end of the line we were still engrossed in innocent chatter and another passenger had to remind us, “This is it.” Tosh left the compartment first and Toby jumped for the platform after her but no one had told him to mind the gap. Into this quite substantial breach he fell. Fortunately he was on lead and Dorothy was able to reel him back in without too much difficulty – Schnauzer on a yoyo.

We walked along the station approach and the girls tried to get into a locked loo at a petrol station. I studied my sheet 166. I had chosen the Abbey Station in order to reduce the return distance to the Water Mill Museum and eliminate some dull walking on St. Albans’ back streets. Now I had to get us back to the duck pond where, I assured Tosh, I knew there were open loos. Parkland began on the other side of the road. We used two zebra crossings to reach it, then pursued a northerly course across open fields, with the stream on our right.

Toby was unleashed here and ran about in joyous circles, visiting other dogs. By keeping close to the water on our right we were able to recapture territory familiar to me from two weeks earlier: the duck pond, the brick his and hers, the passing Saturday parade. I used the bench between the loo entrances to arrange my pack while the others went inside. Toby gingerly approached the water’s edge and took a delicate sip. Then some ducks sailed into view, taunting him, as it were, by ignoring him completely. Toby’s solution was to fling himself upon the ducks. There was a loud splash, for the ducks were in deep water several feet from the shoreline. The startled Schnauzer, who had never encountered such wet grass before, began a furious dog paddle in the direction of the embankment. I was ready to greet him here, yanking him out by the collar. “Jerk,” I said, with some relief. A large and appreciative crowd had gathered to witness this scene – as the dog shook himself off, ran into the ladies loo, and tried to squeeze under a stall door in search of his mistress. This was her first inkling that her pet not only could swim but

had done so recently.

We began our walk up the east side of the pond. Toby dislodged a family of swans from their perch on the grass – a hissing chorus. The stream on our right was speckled with slow-moving coots and mallards and this again proved an irresistible sitting target for our dog. A second splash was followed by another poignant struggle for solid footing and more amused chuckles from passersby. With another hundred meters of water on either side of us I decided that there had been enough swimming for one day, and Toby was fastened to his Extendo-lead. We continued in a northerly direction and emerged on lovely St. Michael’s Street, opposite the Water Mill Museum.

This day’s outing proved to be very enjoyable, but full of typical LCW route-finding puzzles – though I think it is fair to say that much of my pleasure comes from dealing with these riddles. Things were straightforward enough at first. With the dog on lead we walked along Branch Road to the busy A5, crossed it and walked north to a roundabout, where we turned right. Across the street was the exit from Batchwood Hall. We walked up this for a few minutes and turned right as we neared the golf course. There was no iron gate, but the local corporation had done a good job of providing a series of white posts to get walkers across the course safely.

I asked Harold to fish my compass and whistle out of the top of my pack. Tosh thought that the need for an emergency whistle in such well-populated surroundings was probably superfluous, but I noted that it was permanently tied to the same string as the compass. The latter was used to follow Chesterton’s bearings around some bunkers. Golfers were strolling about searching for their balls and a whole class was poised to bombard us with tee shots. Fortunately Toby missed all these opportunities to add souvenirs to his ball collection.

We exited from the course and released the dog to run over a grassy stretch – which we followed in a northerly direction up to a wood.  Chesterton says that one can choose either a path just inside the wood or follow suburban Toulmin Drive to the right of the wood. I tried the former for a while, but was defeated by undergrowth, so it was back to the pavements for a hundred meters. At the end of the wood there was a large grassy field. I paused to read my next instruction, telling the others to wait (three times!) – but they continued to march due west. We were meant to be heading for a field corner due north. I began a solitary march without the others, certain that they would soon note by absence. The dog, running back and forth between these divergent members of his little flock, was soon covering greater and greater distances. Finally I tried a desperate remedy and, yes, doubting Tosh and the others wheeled about like a precision marching team when I gave them a mighty blast on my disparaged whistle.

We exited from the field and worked our way in a northeasterly direction along a series of fenced paths. A curious horse watched as we exited from the last of these paths, following our progress as we turned right at a small wooden gate and then losing sight of us as we rounded on the ranks of a large field of staked raspberries. Their odor was itself delicious, but we did not have time to join other do-it-yourself pickers – who were roaming the rows with their buckets. Instead we followed a drive out to the A6 and crossed this to walk along the access road to Cheapside Farm.

The countryside was quite flat here, with golden grain ripening on all sides beneath a sunny, cloud-filled sky –enlivened by a westerly breeze that kept temperatures down. It was a lovely day for a walk. Cheapside Farm is actually the most northerly point on the LCW. We passed behind it into a field in which some young riders were being instructed by one of the mums. Tosh objected because she was encouraging her pupils to have a race, when it was obvious that these ponies couldn’t get above a trot, but I argued that the children were probably too young to take such a disappointment seriously.

Toby was on lead, as he usually is in farmyards, but he was freed to lead us over the pedestrian railway bridge and into the woods opposite. We continued moving east on well-trodden tracks, crossing a road at Sandridgebury and entering a paddock. Beyond it we could see the cricket ground of Sandridge, an attractive village whose church steeple had been serving as a beacon for some minutes.

We went through an open gate into a second field, then had to cross diagonally to climb a stile into the recreation ground. The B651 was not far beyond and as we turned left on it we could already see the village pubs, The Green Man and the Rose and Crown. I had a look behind the latter and found the tables and benches of a nice little garden.

Here we paused for lager and lunch and a small celebration for on this, my 86th day of walking, I had at last reached the one thousandth mile of my long-distance footpath walking  career in Britain. Appropriately I was wearing the red and grey t-shirt presented by Tosh in October, 1984, and bearing the legend “750 going on 1000.” Harold now bought my lunch and presented me with a white on blue t-shirt with a legend in large type, “1000 going on 1500.” The Rose and Crown had a very elaborate menu. Harold and Dorothy had prawns fried in garlic butter, Tosh had cheese and fruit and I had the tagliatelli. We were sitting in the shade and a strong breeze was chilling us so I suggested we get a move on. I had originally hoped to visit two pubs today, but the late start was working against this now and other obstacles were soon to be encountered.

We had some road walking to accomplish first, then an escape uphill on a clearly marked track through Nashe’s Farm – southeast was now the dominant direction. After crossing a tarmaced lane, the girls paused to put on their shorts. It was warm and sunny up here, with views of St. Albans’ suburban sprawl nearby. We followed a farm lane to Oak Farm but here, as Chesterton warns, the path had been ploughed out of existence. I could see a bridleway sign pointing up at us from the road below but between us and it there was a huge field, half harvested, with squashed stalks and hillocks of dried rape in alternating stripes. The girls put their trousers on over their shorts and I began an overland trod knee-deep through this crackly sea – with little Toby bravely pursuing my heels, leaping out of the troughs and breasting each wave, occasionally going back to see that the others were coming too. Eventually, our shoes filled with straw, we crossed the road and sat down on the access track to Beech Farm. Harold emptied his boots and we had some coffee from the Lees’ thermos. Everyone’s legs were tired.

A good track lead us away from the farm and on to the edge of the Hatfield aerodrome and a plane took off as we moved south. Toby, we noticed, was taking advantage of our shadows to walk in the shade. When we reached the warning signs of the airfield we turned right at the bidding of a large public footpath sign and followed the last of the runways, outside its fence. Some stiles permitted additional progress, though the last put us in a field with a tethered horse. Toby rushed forward to greet this animal but the dog dutifully returned when we called him. I could find no path along the west side of the airstrip – it had been allowed to fall into disuse. I scouted ahead a bit in the backyard of a nearby nursery, but got no reward except some scratches on my arm. The others staged a sit-down protest while I pondered what to do. Tosh suggested we walk through the nursery and this we did, after our rest, emerging on the St. Albans Road after encountering not a soul. We turned left and left again at the roundabout and just beyond Notcutts Nursery I could see a sign pointing optimistically at the end of the path we should have been on. Harold had another sit down at the bus stop here while the girls went into the loo at the Shell station and Toby and I waited impatiently outside the closed Three Horseshoes. When we reassembled I asked Harold to solve a riddle: if it takes one woman five minutes to go to the loo, why does it take two women fifteen? At least we all got ice cream cones out of this pit stop.

We slurped at these as we continued moving south, following a path along a field edge and behind some houses to emerge on a residential street. Here we turned right to reach the St. Albans Road (again), crossing over an abandoned railway line on a humped-back bridge and shooting off diagonally through a wheat field on a tarmaced path. Wonderful to see bicycling boys making progress along the other paths through this field, with only their bobbing heads visible above the grain. We passed the Plough pub at the end of the field and followed suburbia out to the busy dual carriageway of the A46. A gap in the quarry fence on the opposite side seemed promising so we followed a gravel roadbed through the works and continued on a track south. Quicksand signs speeded us on our way through the gravel pits. We kept the same southeasterly direction along a trod between fields, emerging at the car park of the equally closed Chalkdrawers pub. Some boys occupied a pear tree above us while I made some sandwiches. Toby had some water but he always seemed to need this less that Bertie had.

After our rest we turned right to a roundabout and left on the Tollgate Road. There was a long and not very pleasant stretch of road walking needed here, with me keeping Toby in line behind me – at that he was more cooperative than his elder brother had been. At last a sign to Water End and St. Mary’s church beckoned us to abandon the busy road – but when I climbed a stile into the first section of the North Mymm’s parkland I found no path at all. Toby had to be left behind as I did some reconnaissance and he squealed with anxiety until I said he could be released. A herd of back cows was heading for us, intrigued by the dog, but we turned away from their fence and wandered south in search of a path. When we reached a crossing track I again left the others to search field and wood nearby. North Mymms House was visible off to the right but I found no way forward to the church. We had to return to the road and follow it south, leaving it just before it crossed the A1 and sitting down on benches near the war memorial opposite the gatehouse. I was studying the OS map carefully – since I was just off route – but after our rest we used the adjacent road to have a look at St. Mary’s church (which boasted a “No Confetti In the Car Park” sign) and to regain the LCW.

We entered a field at a sign to Water End and followed Chesterton’s directions for escaping it by the third stile. Here things were harder to follow. We left a cricket match behind us and crossed a field but I wasn’t convinced that we should take the pedestrian overpass here in order to cross the A1 – and therefore we followed bridleway signs too far to the south. We had to turn around and go pack to the overpass. From its height I could see that part of my confusion came from an embankment of trees that had completely screened my view of the village of Water End on the east side of the motorway.

When we reached it we were supposed to leave by a path between a cafe and a brick garage (There was a footpath sigh) but it was so overgrown and unpromising that the others let me go on without them. I found it to be completely obstructed by scaffolding further on. Fortunately Chesterton describes a second option for visiting the Swallowhole. This leaves from the Woodman pub, just to the south; we trudged past it to discover it was open – for it had just reached 6:00 pm. I wanted to stop and so did Harold, but Tosh, as usual, wanted to get home, so we continued east into a reedy area (with the trousers going on again) – with an old oak as our guide post. The Swallowhole, in this dry time of year, looked like any other sandy path. We continued on past the tree and turned left when we reached an open field, following a good path up to and along a stream. We crossed this and a feeder and entered a second and final field for the day. To the end it had remained dry and bright, though the wind had died down a bit.

Out of my back pocket there fell the little pieces of paper on which I had listed the other 100-mile milestones of my walking career. I recounted these details, as if anyone else were interested, as we walked south on the sidewalk of the Brookmans Park road – the girls complaining of sore feet and blisters and looking accusingly at me whenever the station failed to emerge after each bend. We arrived at 6:30 and crossed the tracks on an overpass whose open risers proved somewhat daunting for the dog. Toby had never faltered in this twelve-mile day. We were really proud of him.

We sat quietly for about ten minutes. Along the tracks on the opposite side we could see the footpath which had witnessed the last hours of the murdered Ann Lock, just a few weeks earlier. A train took us to Moorgate, where we said goodbye to the Lees and headed for home.

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

Day 12: Brookmans Park to Broxbourne