A walk along Watling Street, returning along the chalky ridge.
Distance 7 miles (11.3km)
Minimum time 3hrs
Ascent/gradient 175ft (53m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Tracks, field paths, some roads, 5 stiles
Landscape Chalk ridges on either side of young Ver's valley
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield
Start/finish TL 059166
Dog friendliness Mostly arable country but sheep pasture south west of Markyate, care also needed on Watling Street
Parking On Markyate High Street
Public toilets None on route
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1 From the north end of Markyate High Street walk southwards. Turn left into Hicks Road, crossing the A5 on a footbridge. Past Lotus Lodge turn right. Where the lane turns left, go straight on along a green lane which shortly turns right to descend, through seemingly perpetual mud, to the valley road.
2 Turn left on to the course of the Roman road, Watling Street, a stretch now bypassed. Follow this for over a mile (1.6km) until, at a petrol station, you turn right to cross the A5.
3 Once over a stile head diagonally right, across a stream to another stile. Follow the field edge before heading into a copse that climbs the valley side. Emerging from this copse, climb a stile to go left alongside a hedge. Cross another stile and head to a lane, River Hill, which leads into Flamstead.
4 At the junction turn left along High Street, right into Church Lane and then right again, into the parish churchyard. Leave via a gate by the war memorial cross. Turn left along High Street and then left into Trowley Hill Road. Beyond No 30, Pound Farm, turn right on to a tarmac path, signposted 'The Chiltern Way'. At a footpath post turn left and descend along the edge of an arable field. At the bottom of the field go left between some gardens to a lane and turn right.
5 At Trowley Bottom go straight on, then immediately right on to a bridleway, at first behind cottages, then along the valley. At a lane turn right to climb out of the valley. At the crest turn left. At a footpath sign, 'Cheverells Green', bear left into Friendless Wood. Once out of the wood go right. The path then follows the ridge along the edge of this and another wood before heading through a series of kissing gates and sheep pasture to rejoin the lane.
6 Go left to the junction, turn right, then left to a footpath sign, 'Buckwood Road'. At a footpath junction turn right and walk alongside an arable field and gardens to a road. Across it the path climbs between gardens. Go along Cowper Road to Cavendish Road junction. Here you turn right, descending to Markyate High Street. Turn left and, just before the White Hart Inn, go right to the subway under the A5. Turn left to visit the church (from its churchyard you can see Markyate Cell house). Retrace your steps to the High Street.
The long and narrow Markyate High Street is set out along Roman Watling Street. The town prospered in the 18th and earlier 19th century from the coach trade - it had several inns, being half-way between St Albans and Dunstable. On the High Street you will see a mixture of properties. Many are Georgian, many are 19th-century brick-fronted houses, and, particularly at the north end, you will find several 16th- and 17th-century, timber-framed ones. The houses on the east side of the High Street had long narrow closes, up to 200yds (183m) long. Sadly these were largely destroyed by the 1957 bypass which, admittedly, relieved the choked High Street.
In the Middle Ages Markyate was famed for 'the Lady Christina of the Woods', a recluse living in the woods near by. She was the first prioress of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, founded in 1145. The Benedictine nunnery lay on the site of the oddly-named Markyate Cell, the mansion north of the town set in delightful parkland along the River Ver. It is seen from the churchyard of St John the Baptist's, a part-1734, plum brick church. A plaque on the nave reads 'This Chapel Enlarged by Jos Howell ad 1811', the then owner of Markyate Cell. The priory was dissolved in 1537 and the site was granted to Humphrey Bourchier. He demolished much of it and converted it into a house. Other alterations were made later, including those by the Ferrers family, but much of its present, Elizabethan appearance is due to Robert Lugar's 1820s rebuildings and alterations for Daniel Goodson Adey of St Albans. Yet more rebuilding was undertaken after a fire in 1840.
Another lady was renowned in Markyate, but she was decidedly less virtuous. She was Kathleen Ferrers, 'the Wicked Lady of Markyate Cell'. Born in 1634, she took to highway robbery along Watling Street. Eventually she was mortally wounded in a hold-up and crawled back to Markyate Cell to die. Her ghost, draped in a black cape, has supposedly been seen on Watling Street and was blamed for three fires that severely damaged Markyate Cell.
Flamstead village, at the other end of the walk, was once a small market town. It's on a ridge overlooking the Roman road and the Ver Valley. Its church is well worth visiting, firstly for its medieval wall-paintings, which were covered over until the 1930s, and secondly for the moving Saunders Children monument of 1690, which was carved by the great William Stanton. The church is only open on Sunday afternoons between July and September. The Saunders family owned Beechwood Park, a mansion built on the site of another Benedictine nunnery, St Giles-in-the-Wood, which was dissolved in 1537. Thomas Saunders built the almshouses to the north of the church, as well as commissioning this superb monument.
Markyate has a number of pubs, some of which are former coaching inns. In the High Street are the Swan, the Sun Inn and the Red Lion. In London Road you'll find the Plume of Feathers. There's also a tandoori restaurant and a fish and chip shop. Flamstead has the Three Blackbirds pub (and a village store).
Markyate Cell, the mansion named after the medieval nunnery, is best seen on this walk from beside the parish church. It sits on the opposite side of the Ver Valley in rolling parkland with fine mature sycamores, horse chestnuts and limes. You could not pretend that the house is beautiful. It's an overblown Elizabethan-style 19th century near rebuild of a much altered Tudor mansion, but it is certainly characterful and robust.
Five miles north west of Markyate, is Whipsnade Zoo, the out-station of the Zoological Society of London, where animals have considerably more freedom than in London Zoo itself. Now also called Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, it was very much a pioneer of free-range zoo-keeping when it opened in 1931. South of the Dunstable Downs escarpment, there are over 2,500 animals in its 600 acres (243ha).