Ascend the chalk downs to Deacon Hill and descend via High Down House.
Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 360ft (110m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Mix of green lanes, tracks and field paths, 1 stile
Landscape Chalk downland, some pasture and some arable
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 193 Luton & Stevenage
Start/finish TL 146317
Dog friendliness Good deal of arable land but sheep graze Deacon Hill
Parking On village roads in Pirton
Public toilets None on route
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 Start at St Mary's churchyard in the centre of Pirton. Turn left into Crabtree Lane, then Great Green with the Motte and Bailey pub, to cross the Hitchin Road on to a bridleway, the Icknield Way. The track climbs steadily between fields, eventually curving left to pass the edge of Tingley Wood, now following the county boundary. Past the wood, fork left and continue southwards to the road.
2 Turn right, leaving the road, at a lay-by on the left, on to a green lane, here the ancient Icknield Way. At a stile go right to climb Deacon Hill through chalk downland and enjoy the wonderful views. The track levels out with woods to the right then descends with downland on the left (Telegraph Hill).
3 At the bottom of the hill turn left by an information board. The track climbs downland, emerging in open fields. At the crest head towards a solitary oak, then go right, on to a track, turning sharp left on a grass track. Head into woodland beside a waymarker following a hedge.
4 Passing Little Offley go between two outbuildings, and straight on to a track. Where this bears right, go straight on, heading for Wellbury House, to a lane. Turn left round Wellbury House grounds. Follow the track past the drive to New Wellbury Farm and Park View Stables, going right at a waymarker into a copse. Cross the stables' yard to follow the grassy track uphill. Once through a kissing gate, bear right across meadow to the road.
5 Cross the road, go left within the tree belt, then right, signposted to Pirton. Cross the field and, through a gate, bear right into pasture, heading towards the chimneystacks of High Down House. Follow signs downhill then, through a gate, turn sharp left alongside a hedge. Turn right to follow another hedge to Hitchin Road.
6 Cross the road into Walnut Tree Road, then go left through a kissing gate into pasture. Walk diagonally right to Pirton's church and castle.
The county boundary between Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire is complex along the chalk ridge traversed by the Icknield Way. Despite simplification in the late 19th century, Hexton to the west and Pirton still extend deep into Bedfordshire, sandwiching Shillington, which climbs between them up to Deacon Hill and the Icknield Way. The top of Deacon Hill, just north of the Icknield Way, stands at 567ft (172m) above sea level, giving superb views over the lowlands of Bedfordshire. The land is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rare chalkland flora and fauna can be found amid its sheep-cropped pasture. Although not as high as the western Chilterns, the chalk hills here between Pirton and west into Bedfordshire are spectacularly cut into by combes and dry valleys. The escarpment presents a deeply corrugated edge, bare or tree-clad, to the claylands below.
Pirton village lies below the chalk hills, in the lowlands whose streams drain north east into the River Hiz near Henlow. The village is centred on Toot Hill, a 12th-century motte and bailey castle. It is one of many so-called 'adulterine' or unlicenced castles that were erected during the Civil Wars of Stephen's reign (1135-54). Their purpose was to offer protection from marauding armies during the anarchy. Toot Hill was built by the de Limesy family, the lords of the manor. Its dismantling, along with many others, was ordered by Henry II after he became King in 1154. There are baileys or ramparted enclosures on each side of the motte - the church is within the east one. 'Toot' means a lookout place, so the mound had a useful later life, although its now only 25ft (7.6m) high. The west bailey is mostly built-up, including the Motte and Bailey pub. South of the castle are other earthworks, one of which is a former lane, Lads Orchard Lane, abandoned in the 19th century. To the west was Chipping Green, now Great Green, so presumably the village had a 'chipping' or market. The church is mostly Norman, but the crossing tower was so dilapidated that, in 1876, it had to be rebuilt in replica. The attractive village has some good examples of timber-framed houses and cottages. These include Walnut Tree Farm, which has a complex of vast, weatherboarded barns that have been converted to houses.
On the downs, ½ mile (800m) south west of Pirton, is High Down House. It was built for the Dockwra family in 1599, then added to in the early 17th century. Picturesque, and set in remnants of parkland, it survived plans to replace it with a Georgian mansion.
Little Offley house, east of The Hoo, is all that remains of a deserted medieval village in the manor of Welles. All you see as you walk past is a wonderfully rambling Tudor mansion, refaced in brick in 1695. According to Sir Henry Chauncy, writing in 1700, the village had 'consisted of divers Houses, as is evident by the Marks of Ancient Foundations, often digg'd up there'.
In Pirton High Street you will find the Fox. Near by is Pirton Village Stores, for chocolate, cakes and soft drinks. The Motte and Bailey pub is on Great Green to the west of Toot Hill. In Lilley the Lilley Arms is a welcome source of refreshment at the point furthest from your start in Pirton.
South east of Pirton, a visit to the historic town of Hitchin is most rewarding. It has a long, triangular, medieval market place, which has been substantially encroached and built over. East of the market place is St Mary's Church, mostly rebuilt after an earthquake in 1298. For more information visit the Hitchin Museum and Art Gallery, Paynes Park.