Walking the Lea Valley 6: PROPER-LEA Hertford → Ware(2 miles)
Despite being Hertfordshire born and bred, I'm relatively unacquainted with its county town. So when I strode in along the Lea, I was surprised to get a feeling that the place seemed strangely familiar. And then the Shire Hallclock struck two, and that's when the penny suddenly dropped. Trumpton... Hertford's suspiciously like Trumpton. The town centre is a relatively un-wrecked grid of backstreets lined by quaint-ishbuildings - most of them shops, but also including the oldest Quaker meeting house in the world. There are higgledy-houses and meandering alleys, and there are oddly-shaped squares and regimented terraces. There are statues, of the sort beneath which a flower seller might sit, and there are proper greengrocers that sell non-shrink-wrapped fruit and vegetables. It really wouldn't have surprised me to see six lads from the local fire brigade come gliding round a corner at any minute. OK, so the clock didn't perform a merry dance on the hour, and I'm sure Trumpton never had a giant Waitrose tucked away in an ugly brick mall round the back of the bus station. But as generic Betjeman-friendly county towns go, Hertford's survived better than most.
It's in Hertford that the Lea changes, irreversibly, from a tame stream to a deep river. Earlier I'd always thought I might be able to wade across it, but from here on it's proper drownable. The town centre is also the upper limit of the navigable Lea. Set off in a narrowboat from the quayside behind Hertford Museum and you could, if you wanted, chug all the way down to the Thames [photo]. There's a particularly pretty urban section alongside Folly Island, where a row of flower-bedecked cottages face directly onto the river [photo]. Unfortunately the best view is not from the Old Barge pub nextdoor, it's from the tacky terrace of a modern Starbucks on the opposite bank (beside the aforementioned Waitrose).
I headed downstream across the top of a lengthyweir - a popular place for preening ducks, but also home to a number of speculative riverside developments [photo]. Out here in Hertford, there's a premium for a Lea-view address. Then out of town towards the Navigation's uppermost lock[photo], the first of about 20 between here and Bow Creek. From the lower gates there was a fine view out across King's Mead - the 250 acre water meadow that separates Hertford from Ware. The land's never been ploughed, and is maintained as commonland for grazing and as a nature reserve. It's probably quite bleak in the middle of winter, but in midsummer it made for a delightful panoramicstroll.
New River: When 17th century Londoners needed fresh drinking water, and the Thames obviously wouldn't do, an ingenious entrepreneur called Sir Hugh Myddelton turned instead to the Lea. He funded the construction of a 20 mile artificial channel from just-below-Hertford all the way down to Islington, following the contours of the land to avoid any necessity for pumping. The head of the New River is on King's Mead, inside a remote-looking house-type building, with a sluice inside to divert water away from the natural stream [photo]. From here it runs across the meadows towards the edge of the valley (and some additional springs), before running pretty much parallel to the Lea at least as far as the M25. One day, honest, I'll run a detailed feature on the NewRiver and its lost meanders through North London. For now, however, I continued along the proper Lea (and under the A10 KingsmeadViaduct) into the town of Ware.
Ware is an old coaching town, ideally located one day's ride from London on the Great Cambridge Road. It's famous for a couple of things. One is for being an 'hilarious' homonym ("Where are you from?" "Yes, Ware"), and the other is for once having an enormous bed. The Great Bed of Ware was a ten-foot-wide four-poster, carved out of oak around 1590, and capable of accommodating more than a dozen heavy sleepers simultaneously. It started out as an overnight attraction in a local tavern, but has since ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The town's museum in the High Street therefore has to make do with showing a scrap of ripped coverlet, which quite frankly isn't as exciting. Nevertheless I rather enjoyed Ware Museum. It's a good example of just how much can be done with an extremely limited space, including a selection of Hertfordshire brickwork, a WW2 bunker and (at the moment) a geological exhibition on 'Chalk'. The nice lady volunteers who run the place are also charming (unless you're a bunch of irreverent 12 year olds, in which case they'll tut a lot after you've left).
The Lea hugs the town from the south, arriving beside the HQ of GlaxoSmithKline beside a strangely modern weir [photo]. Shortly afterwards the river crosses the route of Roman Ermine Street (but invisibly, so you'd never know), then continues round the back of a Franciscan Priory. Next are the picturesque Waregazebos - a series of white-painted summerhouses perched beside and above the riverbank [photo]. Some are more than 300 years old, while others are more recent additions installed by house owners who fancied a very different style of conservatory at the bottom of the garden. My camera loved them.
» If you're looking for an interesting day out from London, I can recommend a trip to Hertford and Ware (via the Lea inbetween). A bit of heritage, some independent shops and a nice walk - enough to keep you busy. For Hertford you'll need thesewebsites, for Ware thesewebsites and, for the bit inbetween, thesemaps. Visit Ware on a summer Saturday and you could even visit Scott'sGrotto - six underground chambers in a suburban street. But bring a torch.