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Wheathampstead, Where Julius Caesar Marched

A walk from Wheathampstead along the Lea, through Devil's Dyke to Nomansland Common and back.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 155ft (47m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths, bridleway tracks and lanes, 1 stile

Landscape Valley of River Lea and gentle chalk hills

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield

Start/finish TL 178141

Dog friendliness On leads in sheep pasture and horse paddocks on second half of walk

Parking East Lane car park, Wheathampstead

Public toilets At car park; also by Wheathampstead Cricket Club at Nomansland (open Easter to end of September)

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1 Turn right past the Bull, go over the River Lea bridge and then turn right into Mount Road. At a bridleway sign follow the track, waymarked 'Lea Valley Walk'. You will emerge in open countryside to wind alongside the river.

2 Go through a gate with the bypass embankment ahead of you, and turn right. Go between some fences and through another gate, then bear right on to a metalled track, re-crossing the Lea. Now on Sheepcote Lane, go uphill, over the main road into Dyke Lane.

3 By Tudor Road go left on to a footpath along the remarkably deep ditch of Devil's Dyke. Emerging at a lane, turn left and follow it, then go right at a footpath sign opposite Beech Hyde Farm. Now on a grass track amid arable fields, pass modern housing to the right, to reach a road.

4 Cross the road to a footpath signposted 'Nomansland', and turn left on to a tarmac track - the road runs parallel, to your left. Walk downhill to the Wicked Lady pub and turn right on to the access drive to Wheathampstead Cricket Club. Pass behind the pavilion to a footpath. Turn left past some cricket nets, the path winding through trees. Across a clearing, ignore a path to the right and continue through the trees to another clearing. Head towards a bench in an oak copse, then to another bench where the path bears right to the road.

5 At Nomansland car park you turn right into Down Green Lane, which leads off the common. At a crossroads carry straight on, past the Elephant and Castle pub.

6 Shortly, opposite Weavers Cottage, go left at a footpath sign and up a few steps. The path passes a golf course, then crosses some cultivated land to reach a road, Pipers Lane. Turn right.

7 At a T-junction go straight across and over a stile, heading diagonally left across pasture to a stile and right on to a track. Turn immediately right on to a muddy track which shortly turns left downhill between horse fences, then right over a stile. After about a mile (1.6km) housing appears on the left, the path becomes tarmac and jinks to a road.

8 Go left into High Meads and then right to descend into Wheathampstead. At Bury Green go left to the church. From the churchyard go left into the High Street and the end of the walk.

Wheathampstead, in the Lea Valley, grew up in Anglo-Saxon times within the triangle formed by three former Roman roads. A great estate of over 12,000 acres (4,860ha), which included the site of present day Harpenden, was granted by Edward the Confessor to his Westminster Abbey in 1060.

Long before this the Wheathampstead area had been significant because the Catuvellauni - a Belgic tribe, invading from modern Belgium and northern France in the 1st century bc - made their capital here. It was a ramparted and ditched enclosure that overlooked the Lea Valley. Immediately to the east of present-day Wheathampstead and enclosing over 100 acres (40ha), the western and eastern defences of the Catuvellauni's structure survive. The eastern one is known as The Slad and the western one as the Devil's Dyke, a common Anglo-Saxon attribution for mysterious earthworks. This is probably the oppidum or town held by Cassivellaunus, King of the Catuvellauni, and besieged and captured in 54 bc by Julius Caesar. Our route follows the bottom of the Devil's Dyke ditch. It is 1,400ft (427m) long, 100ft (30m) across from edge to edge, and, in places, still over 40ft (12m) deep. The Slad, 600yds (549m) to the east, survives at an equally impressive scale.

Wheathampstead village centre is dominated by its cruciform parish church, set in a generous churchyard. The distinctive, lead-clad spire is from 1865 when the rest of the church was also restored. The transepts have very fine Decorated Gothic tracery from the 1340s which reflects the church's wealthy patronage. The north transept became the Lamer Chapel, containing memorials to the occupants of Lamer House to the north of Wheathampstead. Many are to the Garrard family, who rebuilt the house in the early 17th century. The most interesting is a bronze statuette of Apsley George Benet Cherry Garrard, in Antarctic explorer costume. He was the last of the Garrards of Lamer House and achieved fame writing The Worst Journey in the World, an account of Robert Falcon Scott's heroic but incompetent expedition to the South Pole from 1910 to 1913. Garrard was one of the survivors and his book, a classic tale of privation and ill-luck, is still widely read. Nomansland is not an Antarctic wasteland but a large common south of Wheathampstead. It is reputedly so called because of the bitter medieval rivalry of the abbots of Westminster (who controlled Wheathampstead) and the abbots of St Albans (who controlled Sandridge manor to the south) - the parish boundary bisects the common. The Wicked Lady pub commemorates Katherine Ferrers, the 17th-century, aristocratic highwaywoman from Markyate Cell who also terrorised travellers hereabouts.

What to look for

In St Helen's Church, Wheathampstead, are several fittings from the private chapel of the Garrard family of Lamers a mile (1.6km) north of the village, the odd name a corruption of de la Mare. The mansion was built in 1632 and the fittings come from this house, demolished in 1761. They include the hexagonal pulpit, dated 1634, the communion table and benches in the north transept, one dated 1641.

While you're there

Just a mile (1.6km) south east of Wheathampstead, at Coleman Green, is the John Bunyan pub (formerly the Prince of Wales). It commemorates the Puritan preacher, John Bunyan, a Bedfordshire man, famed for his book, The Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678. He stayed in a house near by, now gone. Coleman Green Lane is a good stretch of the former Roman road from St Albans to Welwyn, which became a medieval lane.

Where to eat and drink

The Bull, by the car park at the start of the walk in Wheathampstead, serves food. It has 17th-century, timber-framing, and has been a pub since at least 1617. The Swan in the High Street is older, partly about 1500 and partly 17th-century. At Nomansland the Wicked Lady has 'family dining' and a garden with outdoor play equipment.

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