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Fields of Great Gaddesden

A walk entirely within the richly rewarding parish of Great Gaddesden.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 240ft (73m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths and bridleways, 37 stiles

Landscape Water-meadows and plateau above

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield

Start/finish TL 030137

Dog friendliness Often on leads - many cattle, sheep, horses and ponies

Parking The Green, Jockey End

Public toilets None on route

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1 From The Green go past the bus shelter and turn left at a footpath sign into paddocks. Walk alongside the hedge. Where it ends cross to a hedge. Turn left, then pass through oak and thorn scrub to a road.

2 Cross the road on to the Bunkers House drive, bearing left at its gates. Go over a stile to walk alongside the garden hedge, then cross a cultivated field to a stile. Go through the hedge and turn left.

3 Cross a stile by a large oak, then head diagonally to the right of The Hoo, a house in remnants of 18th-century parkland. Follow the fence towards the woods, then enter them. From the woods descend across some arable land to a hedge, following the field edge as it curves right to a road by some houses.

4 Cross into some water-meadows. Walk across the long footbridge, then bear left towards the parish church. Beyond the Victorian, brick and flint school, turn right to enter the churchyard.

5 From the south west corner of the churchyard, cross some pasture to a road. Turn right, then go left at a footpath sign by some cottages. In the field, head to a stile, go over it and follow a grass margin to some arable land. Turn right at the crest. At a footpath T-junction turn left to head for some woods. Once in them turn immediately left, the path descending to the valley. At a stile bear right to a footbridge and then go between buildings to a road.

6 Go through a gate beside some cottages, climb a stile, and turn left, uphill, across cultivated land towards the porticoed Gaddesden Place. Go into parkland, climb two stiles, and head uphill, to the left of an oak and then to a waymarker post to the left of the mansion.

7 Past Gaddesden Place and through a field gate, head to a drinking trough. Bear right to a stile by some woods, then head to a gate. Turn left on to a metalled track to Home Farm. At the wood edge go right at a footpath sign to walk beside the wood.

8 The path then enters Golden Parsonage's ancient lime avenue. Leave this at the valley bottom by turning left on to a track. At a track junction go right and immediately diagonally left towards a stile, passing ancient sweet chestnuts, to another stile.

9 Once over this, continue through a sequence of paddocks and stiles, passing The Lane House, crossing a road and continuing north west, passing a copse. Beyond the copse you reach a road, turn right here, back to Jockey End.

The sparkling upper waters of the River Gade wind through damp, green water-meadows, the valley rising on both sides to the chalk plateau. Human impact on the landscape here is very ancient. Up on the plateau above the valley is a pattern of long, narrow, rectangular fields. It seems to be the remains of the Roman grid field system known as 'centuriation' (division into hundreds). It was laid out to the north and north west of the Roman town of Verulamium, possibly in the late 1st century ad.

A close look at the Ordanance Survey map shows the pattern very strongly in the area between Jockey Row and Golden Parsonage, the route of our walk. It is particularly clear here because the fields remain pastoral. In Redbourn, Flamstead, Bedmond and elsewhere it is less obvious because many hedges have been grubbed out to make more profitable arable fields. There are three explanations in circulation for the field system. One theory is that 'centuriation' took place after Boudica, the fiery Queen of the Iceni, sacked Verulamium in ad 60; a second is that the highly Romanised aristocracy of the local Catuvellauni tribe reorganised their estates in the Roman way; and a third sees the field system as merely refining pre-Roman, Belgic or Catuvellauni, colonisation. Whatever the case, the field boundaries are either at right angles to, or parallel to, the Roman road system. This is particular clear with Watling Street and the road that runs south west from St Albans, along the southern edge of the Chilterns. Gaddesden Row looks like any other country lane but the map shows it aligned parallel to Watling Street and a key element in the Roman field pattern. It is awe-inspiring to think that these fields had their boundaries established nearly 2,000 years ago.

Parks were laid out on top of this ancient landscape and you will pass three of them on this walk - Gaddesden Place, The Hoo and Golden Parsonage. The 'golden' in Golden Parsonage is a corruption of 'Gaddesden'. This park has several surviving late 17th-century sweet chestnuts. A tree ring count of a fallen tree showed its avenue of limes (leading towards the house from London Wood) to be over three centuries old. The house was built in 1705 for John Halsey. Earlier sets of buildings ranges were demolished when the Halseys moved to their new mansion, Gaddesden Place (encountered earlier on the route). The Halseys employed James Wyatt to design Gaddesden Place in 1768, but it was extensively rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1905. 'Capability' Brown's The Hoo parkland also partially survives but its house was also extensively rebuilt (around 1904).

Where to eat and drink

The only pub near the route is the Crown and Sceptre at Briden's Camp. To visit it necessitates a slight diversion after you have passed Gaddesden Place.

What to look for

Browsing church memorials often gives glimpses up fascinating historical byways or of the interesting lives of those commemorated. In Great Gaddesden church seek out those to Thomas Plumer Halsey and his wife and son, all drowned in the Mediterranean when the steamship Ercolano sunk in 1854, or Dorothy Abdy who left an annual grant of tea and sugar to eight local widows.

While you're there

About 3 miles (4.8km) to the south of Great Gaddesden you'll find the sprawling New Town of Hemel Hempstead. Despite its 'anytown' feel, it also possesses one of Hertfordshire's best churches. Set between parkland by the River Gade and the old town's High Street, St Mary's is almost entirely Norman, with a soaring spire, an aisled nave and stone rib vaulted chancel.

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