Lea-Stort Navigation Cycle

23rd October 2005

[1]

 

I am in the process of documenting this cycle trip on the evening of 5th November, when the Royston night sky is ablaze with colour and the air thick with the smell of sulphur.  It sounds like a war zone outside, much like some militia sniper dogfight battling for control of the town centre. This does not describe how I've been feeling for the last few days, having been inflicted with a chronic stomach virus. Hope it's not the dreaded avian flu bug that has understandably has Europe in a frenzy right now. With the bottom falling out of my world (or is it...?), I am prepared to soldier on and complete this narrative. The digital radio downstairs, purchased some two weeks ago in order to listen to Rick Wakeman's Saturday morning music show, is now tuned in to Planet Rock constantly pumping out classic rock over the airwaves.

Having enjoyed the Lee Navigation (with Dave and Andy) and the Grand Union Canal Cycle with Andrew, I was going to have to do this one on my own, as Dave was away in the Peak District on a scouting trip with the cubs. The instant I got up on the morning of Sunday, 23rd October, just about a week before my birthday, and saw blue skies, I knew what I would like to do with this day. Good weather days at this time of the year in the UK are like hen's teeth, though to be fair, we have been experiencing something of an Indian summer - I have never understood the precise logical connection that can conceivably link UK and Indian weather patterns, to be honest.

 

  So it was I set out with relish down the A10 highway from Royston, bicycle on rack. Though the priority was to navigate the Stort towpath all the way to Bishop's Stortford in Essex from it's junction with the Lee Navigation, the intention was to spend time trying to capture more of the Lea on camera, which I could understandably not do as easily, if I were to be cycling with others. I set out from Hertford North railway station car park once again, though only around 10h00, the air fresh and crisp, a touch chillier than on the previous occasion.  

Early morning canoeing classes on the Hertford canal; A narrowboat passing through Ware.

 

    I was aware of a slow puncture prior to starting, but this did not concern me. Shortly after leaving Hertford Lock, I encountered a group of enthusiastic canoeists being taken through their paces. It was not long before I reached Ware. What somehow seemed different this time was a stillness on the water or perhaps it was just the sunlight at that particular time of the day, but the overall effect was that it served to create the most beautiful reflections off the surface of the water. This resulted in my spending all of 20 minutes capturing images in and around Ware.  I was dawdling!

18th Century summer houses just before Ware town centre on the River Lea, Hertfordshire; Reflections on the water.

 

  But at the same time I was having fun, in my element, so to speak. I'm happiest with a fat chunky Nikon in my hands. I noticed with great interest that the moment I got off my bicycle, hoping to make the most of being able to capture the graceful elegance and beauty of a group of mute swans on film, the pesky beasts wandered over my side of the water's edge, expecting to be fed, to which they are probably so accustomed. Stand still, you plonkers, I don't want you here I want you over there, I muttered grumpily to myself! A woman came by with loaves of bread and a feeding frenzy resulted!  

Upmarket accommodation just after Ware town centre on the River Lea, Hertfordshire.

 

Sadly, with it's broken glass panes in evidence, Hardmead Lock seemed long abandoned and run down, in sharp contrast to the well kept Stanstead and Feilde's Weir Locks which followed, the latter of a symmetrical design. Though a sign indicated that I had now reached the junction of the Lee and Stort Navigation, I had to proceed on a short distance to a footbridge in order to cross over and then double back over a metal bridge before reaching the Stort towpath. The Stort is instantly different from the Lee: narrow, winding, totally rural along almost its entire length.    

Mute swans at Ware on the River Lea, Hertfordshire, engaged in a feeding frenzy; Feilde's Weir Lockhouse on the Lee Navigation.

[Click here for enlargements].

 

  The towpath reflected this too, in that it was, mostly, a track warn in the grass, quite muddy and slippery in parts as a result of the recent rains.  There is no longer any commercial traffic on this river, with its winding course and locks narrower than on the Lee, it became financially uncompetitive long ago. A number of water mills exist at many of these locks. Low bridges are also common, and when the river is excessively swollen, the headroom under the bridges is significantly reduced. The Stort follows a line of hills past Lower lock and Brick Lock, completely rural in nature.  

My pride and joy; Feilde's Weir Lock at the junction of the Lea and Stort navigations.

 

    Though the former has no LockHouse, the latter boasts a curious but neat cottage dated 1830. Roydon Mill is now the centre of a large caravan site, located at the end of a canal cul-de-sac, so to speak. Roydon village itself lies up a hill away from the river. Roydon Lock is some distance on. I reached the level crossing at Roydon station and despite my Nicholson guide indicating that I would have to cross over to pick up the towpath, the evidence of one on the same side seemed the more obvious route. Here I met a German guy from Berlin who had been studying for a year in London. 

The 1830 cottage at Brick Lock on the Stort Navigation; Roydon Mill.

 

  Though he announced that he too was heading for Bishop Stortford, he was clearly not using the tow path.  It was at Roydon Lock that I engaged in conversation with the friendly Lockhouse keeper tending his pot plants out front. He diverted my attention to a shield on a side wall of the lock cottage commemorating Sir George Jackson, a former owner of the Stort Navigation, who ran into financial difficulties owing to the uncompetitive nature of the route. East of Roydon the river flows through quiet water meadows with the 60-acre Hunsdon Mead Nature Reserve to the north.  

Roydon Lock, on the outskirts of the town; The shield of Sir George Jackson (a former owner of the Stort Navigation) at Roydon Lock.

 

  The site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSi), managed by the Essex Wildlife  and Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trusts, the mead is full of wild flowers from March till June. The site is managed on the ancient Lammas system, practised for over 600 years. The variety of wild flowers attracts a variety of insects, and the flooded meadows brings ground feeding birds in winter. I reached Hunsdon Mill Lock just as a narrow boat was negotiating the Lock waterway and watched with keen interest. I was breathtaken by the estate and its sumptuous gardens adjoining the lock. Beyond this I cut through the Three Forest's Way, which was a delight, before a sudden twist due south to the attractive Parndon Mill and Parndon Mill Lock, where the route turns north-east yet again. It was at Parndon Mill Lock that a geezer wearing a large round hat, negotiating the lock in his narrowboat, for which he was looking for a suitable permanent mooring, told me about the wacky Tuesday Night Club, a group of narrowboat enthusiasts who travel Britain's canal routes photographing every lock, a bit like your train spotters, I guess. Burnt Mill Lock? Perhaps the name explains its absence. It is here the navigation runs close to the Essex Wagn rail route, near Harlow New Town. I suppose every tow path has some unattractive sections surrounding it and in this case, the extensive industrial development of Harlow in Essex accounts for this but soon it does not intrude on the navigation, which passes it by amidst pleasant parkland.  After Latton Lock one reaches Harlow Lock, passing through the heart of Harlow town and crossing over at a bridge just after, the river continuing under the A11. The old Mill, now an extensive pub and garden, beckoned in terms of a lunch break.  Though I had only been snacking on some bars and apples, it was almost 15h00 and I had a way to go yet - too many stoppages and too many photographs.   The river continues to wind through the isolated Feakes Lock and on to Sawbridgeworth. My journey along the tow path through the town was about to be rudely interrupted, however.  

Hunsdon Mill Lock; Estate gardens at Hunsdon Mill Lock.

 

  An enforced detour through the town centre due to engineering works on the navigation and towpath, even before reaching Sheering Mill Lock, was necessitated. Sawbridgeworth is an attractive little town, rich in Georgian architecture, and I would return to explore it further, but now was not the time. The parish church of Great St Mary, dates in part from the 13th to 15th century, although it is known that a church existed in Saxon times. The staple East Herts' industry of malting was behind Sawbridgeworth's steady prosperity, coupled with 18th century river transport.  

A wealthy country estate at Hunsdon Mill Lock; Parndon Mill at Parndon Lock.

 

    Today, the River Stort provides attractive riverside walks and regular cruises run from Sawbridgeworth during the summer months. Just over 8,400 inhabitants enjoy Sawbridgeworth's peaceful setting, which is located four miles south of Bishop's Stortford and twelve miles east of the County town of Hertford. Also popular with commuters, with fast rail links to London's Liverpool Street Station and only 27 miles away by car. Besides the pressing time schedule, all my own fault, ominous clouds began to gather in the skies above.

A return to the tow path, shut due to engineering works, at Sawbridgeworth station, on the Herts -Essex border; Sawbridgeworth Lock.

 

  Situated in Hertfordshire, Beckingahm Palace is owned by David and Victoria Beckham and has the estimated value of 7 million.
David and Victoria bought the grade II listed 1930s Georgian style house for 2.5 million in October 1999. The luxurious Sawbridgeworth mansion has been given the title Beckingham Palace and was a council owned children’s home. The house is patrolled by ex-SAS bodyguards.

Though I originally intended to cycle the Stort route there and back, I knew at this point in time that I was going to have to make use of the above-mentioned fast track  to get back, for part of my journey at least.  The railway crosses the river at Kecksey's rail bridge, which in turn winds its way past Tednambury Lock.  Just after this, an arm of the canal leads off to Little Hallingbury Mill.  Sawbridgeworth Marsh is a 22-acre SSSi with ponds rich with life, diverse bird and insect life, also containing rare plants. Spellbrook and Twyford Locks follow. Here water meadows flank the river. The outskirts of Bishop's Stortford comes into view.  At South Mill Lock I saw some canoeists return after an outing, the clubhouse situated directly on the canal. The railway crosses the river yet again.  East Herts' largest town, Bishop's Stortford, is home to more than 32,200 people. Situated to the east of the district, the town's unique character, which has developed from its early days as a coaching stop and market centre, offers a rich heritage for both the resident and visitor to explore. The River Stort, which runs through the middle of Bishop's Stortford, took its name from the town, predating any mention of a river by several hundred years. The arrival of the railway in Victorian times laid the foundation for its present importance as a market town. I reached my destination at the Causeway bridge in Bishop's Stortford, the station located just around the corner. It was now 16h30. I wisely purchased a rail ticket to East Hertford station, with a change at Broxbourne.

 

Sign at Sawbridgeworth station bridge detailing detour due to engineering works; The skies begin to grey in this view from Spellbrook Lock.

 

As the train sped back through the countryside I had just travelled through, I tried to pick out relevant landmarks from the train window. Unfortunately I had to wait for 45 minutes at Broxbourne. I was in no mood at this stage for any additional cycling along the Lea towpath. It was dark, the station is a dump and I was cold.  I cycled into Broxbourne town in a vain attempt to find something to eat but to no avail. From Hertford East I cycled through the well-lit streets of the centre of town to Hertford North station car park and then made my way home on the A10 motorway.    

View from South Mill footbridge back downstream;  The end of the road - view of residential apartments from the Causeway bridge, Bishop's Stortford, East Hertfordshire.

 

What I discovered subsequent to my cycle ride and which is undoubtedly  of great interest to me as a South African, is that Bishop's Stortford's most famous resident was Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, founder of the De Beers, the largest diamond mining company in the World. His former home has been turned into the Rhodes Memorial Museum and Commonwealth Centre. On the lower slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town lies Rhodes Memorial, built in honour of the man, adjacent to the University of Cape Town.  Depending on one's perspective of South African British Colonial history, one cannot deny the enormous impact this pioneer had on the development of the region.

 

 

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