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Sawbridgeworth: a Market Town on the Stort

From Sawbridgeworth walk along the Stort Navigation and back through Pishiobury Park.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 55ft (17m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Canal tow path, field and parkland paths and some streets

Landscape Gentle countryside, parkland and wide, shallow valley

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

Start/finish TL 481148

Dog friendliness No problems but lead advisable on town stretches

Parking Bell Street car park, Sawbridgeworth

Public toilets At Bell Street (East) car park

1 Turn right from the car park into Bell Street. Sawbridgeworth is a delightful market town, despite the fact that most of its buildings lack the grandeur of nearby Bishop's Stortford. Bell Street is a good example, it's a street of well-preserved Georgian and timber-framed houses, some re-fronted.

2 Go straight on across the junction of the Square and Knight Street into Church Street.

3 Pass the 1652 Church House (clad in painted weatherboarding) to enter Great St Mary's churchyard. The church is built mostly of flint with stone dressings but it has a striking Tudor, red brick stair turret added to its tower. Since it was an important and rich market-town church, the local gentry filled it with their memorials, including fine brasses and wall monuments. The grandest are the marble one to George, Viscount Hewyt of Gowram from 1689, and the Jacobean one to Sir John Leventhorpe and his wife from 1625. The best brass is the 1430s, life-size pair to another Sir John Leventhorpe and his wife.

4 Once out of the church, continue downhill to the south east corner of the churchyard and into a close of quirky, 1920s brick and flint cottages. Continue on the path, now between garden boundaries, to the road. Here turn left to leave the town. At Sheering Mill, Lock Number 6 - the mill now replaced by housing - turn right on to the tow path of the Stort Navigation.

5 You reach the road at the Riverside Restaurant with the Harlow Mill pub on the opposite corner. Turn right over the Stort bridge, then turn right again at the footpath sign between the modern flats, Riverside Court, and the river bank. Go over two footbridges then through a kissing gate to continue along the river bank. At a post-and-wire fence go left, away from the river, then turn right through a kissing gate to walk parallel to the left boundary of the meadows. Go left over a footbridge to a grass track alongside a hedge, heading towards houses lining the old drive to Pishiobury Park. Passing between garden fences, you cross Pishiobury Drive - to your right is the west front of the mansion.

6 Across the drive you join the Pishiobury Park Circular Walk through a kissing gate. Through another kissing gate you enter proper parkland. At the crest bear left into an avenue of oaks and horse chestnuts, the avenue veering right along the ridge. Leave the parkland through a kissing gate. Carry straight on, along a path between gardens. Cross over a road then descend to a footbridge over a stream. Climb out of the valley on to another road and go along a path diagonally right, beside the cricket club entrance. Emerging at Far Green, go left past the Old Manse to the Square, and left back into Bell Street.

This part of Hertfordshire has always been rich barley country. In the Domesday Book of 1089 it was recorded that Sawbridgeworth was the most valuable estate in the county with two-thirds of its land under the plough.

In 1222 Sawbridgeworth received its first market charter, which was renewed in 1306. Two annual fairs were granted to the Leventhorpe family of Pishiobury in 1447 so its grid of streets is long established. The market place runs from Far Green northwards to Church Street, but later encroachment to the east of the Square has blurred the plan.

The River Stort was canalised in 1769. It has 15 locks along 13 miles (20.9km) of canalised river. The collapse of Roydon lock in 1909 ended the canal's commerce, exporting malt and grain and importing ash, wood and coal. Follow the tow path for nearly 2 miles (3.2km), firstly on the

Hertfordshire bank and then across a footbridge to the Essex bank. Along this pretty walk with water-meadows, dragonflies and willows, you will also get glimpses of Pishiobury Park.

By 1534 Pishiobury had been 'emparked' as a hunting park. The mansion was rebuilt by Walter Mildmay around 1570. Some of this survives, although the appearance, which includes battlemented brickwork, is that of James Wyatt's rebuilding after a fire in 1782. His stucco render was removed in 1904, exposing much Tudor brickwork, while the stables and barn are still basically Tudor. The park itself was converted to 18th-century Picturesque by 'Capability' Brown.

Where to eat and drink

Try the Bell in Bell Street and the Market House Hotel at the junction with Knight Street (the latter being a 16th-century, timber-framed building jettied to both streets). Out of town, where you leave the Stort Navigation, are the Riverside Restaurant and the Harlow Mill.

While you're there

For a complete contrast, visit Harlow New Town, across the Essex boundary to the south of the Stort Navigation. Instituted under the New Towns Act of 1946, it was planned by Sir Frederick Gibberd in 1947 and intended for London's overspill population.

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