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Ermine Street Heroes and Turnpike Road Pioneers

From a pagan settlement at Thundridge to stories of 20th-century heroism at High Cross.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 140ft (43m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Good paths and tracks with only one large arable field to cross, no stiles

Landscape Valleys and chalk hills, a mix of arable land and pasture

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 194 Hertford & Bishop's Stortford

Start/finish TL 359172

Dog friendliness Sheep pasture and horse paddocks along Rib Valley

Parking Ermine Street, Thundridge (to east of A10)

Public toilets None on route

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1 At the bend in Ermine Street there are two footpath signs: follow the 'Ware' one steeply uphill to the Victorian parish churchyard, for good views northwards and westwards. Retrace your steps downhill to Ermine Street and follow the other footpath, signposted 'Thundridge Old Church'. After a kissing gate go straight on across pasture, now on the Hertfordshire Way, then cross some arable land to descend to the Rib Valley. Turn right on to a lane. Where it goes right carry straight on on to a metalled track. The ruined church tower is visible ahead and to the left, beyond the river, are the grounds of Youngsbury, a country house from 1745 set in 'Capability' Brown parkland.

2 Only the tower of the medieval parish church remains, the rest having been pulled down in 1853. Continue along the metalled track, between pastures. Where the track goes right, continue straight ahead, now on a footpath. Cross an access road. At a footpath crossroads go left over a footbridge that bypasses the River Rib ford.

3 Now climb out of the valley with arable fields to your right, Youngsbury's Picturesque parkland to your left. At the brow the track skirts woodland, in fact an arboretum. Carry straight on, ignoring the track bearing right. Go straight on, past some farm buildings. The track, now metalled, curves left and downhill.

4 By some white-painted, iron gates go sharp right across cultivated land, heading for a footpath post in front of some woods. Turn left here and head west towards the tower and spirelet of High Cross Church.

5 From the churchyard turn left down the A10, here following the course of Ermine Street. Near the White Horse pub turn right into Marshall's Lane. Pass some modern houses, then Marshall's Farm and Marshall's (both Victorian), to descend into the valley by a winding holloway lane.

6 Cross The Bourne and go left by the footpath signposted 'Wadesmill' (the footpath is to the left, not the field track on the right). The path keeps alongside The Bourne almost into Wadesmill where it crosses to the other bank on a footbridge. It becomes a gravelled access lane and you reach the A10 road.

7 Turn right over the River Rib bridge. Turn left at the Post Office Stores of 1904, back into Ermine Street, Thundridge.

Although Thundridge and Wadesmill are on Roman Ermine Street, they were not always so. Thundridge, like many early Anglo-Saxon settlements, grew up off the road, about ½ mile (800m) to the east along the valley of the River Rib. Of this original village only the 15th-century tower of the old church, romantically situated overlooking the river in a tree-filled churchyard, survives. There is a reset Norman doorway in its tower arch, together with the remains of a moat and a fragment of the old manor house, Thundridge Bury. This peculiar fragment is the Tudor chimneystack with three fireplaces one above the other. The rest of the house was demolished in 1811.

The name 'Thundridge' refers to Thunor, a pagan Anglo-Saxon god, and dates the first settlement to before about ad 600, that is, before the East Saxons were converted to Christianity. The new St Mary's Church was built in 1853 and is dominant on the crest of the ridge by Ermine Street. It's a stiff climb up from the River Rib bridge, which was designed by Caleb Hatch in 1825 but has modern balustrades.

In Marshalls Lane, High Cross, you'll see Marshalls, a Victorian brick house on the left. This was once the home of Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake. He was an army surgeon, who held the distinction of having been awarded the Victoria Cross twice (known as 'VC and Bar'). Born in 1874, his first act of meritorious bravery was at Vlakfontein, South Africa in 1902, during the Boer War. Despite being under heavy fire from Boer positions, he continued to dress men's wounds, even after he had been shot himself. His second Victoria Cross came in Belguim in 1914, during the First World War. Again Martin-Leake managed to tend to injured men despite constant enemy fire from nearby trenches. He was the first to receive the medal twice and remains one of only three to have been recognised in this way. In the Second World War he took command of a local Air Raid Precautions unit. He died in 1953 and is buried at St John's Church, High Cross.

Wadesmill is the site of the first road toll-house in England. The turnpike was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1663. The income it generated was to be used to repair and keep open the roads. The local malting industry was mainly responsible, since their laden wagons churned up the local highways. There was no actual toll gate at this stage - one was not installed until many years later. A little up the hill on the west side of Ermine Street is an obelisk erected in 1879 in memory of Thomas Clarkson, a Quaker from Wisbech, who in 1785 'resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade'. It was placed here by Arthur Giles Pullar of Youngsbury.

What to look for

The main local land-owning family, the Hanburys, left their mark on Thundridge village. At the 'new' church, a tomb by the gate is a sad indication of 19th-century infant mortality. Robert and Emily Hanbury buried five of their children in the churchyard between 1825 and 1834. Down the hill on old Ermine Street. you will see a long row of gabled brick cottages, built by the Hanburys for their estate workers between 1864 and 1901, and the village school built in 1894.

While you're there

If Victorian churches are not to your taste head 4 miles (6.4km) north west to Little Munden. Here All Saints Church sits on its hill in a parish of scattered 'Ends' or hamlets known locally as Little Devon for its winding high-banked lanes. A part-Norman church, its chief glories are the superb tombs of Sir John Thornbury, died 1396, and his son, Sir Philip, died 1456, and their wives.

Where to eat and drink

The White Horse is at the crossroads in High Cross. In Wadesmill the Feathers Inn is on the left and the Anchor is on the right, past the B158 junction. All three serve food. On the Thundridge side of the River Rib the Post Office Stores has chocolate, snacks and drinks.

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