Nasty, Romans & Vogons

Link to the GPX File  Nasty, Romans & Vogons

Why the comma in the title of this ride? Think 'Have you eaten Grandma'?

The route starts from Knebworth Station and then runs clockwise to the east of Stevenage, on quiet, gently undulating roads around the East Hertfordshire Plateau. (You could as easily start from Stevenage, if you don’t mind the town traffic!). It crosses the River Rib and (Roman) Ermine Street at Buntingford and beyond that follows the River Quin south to Braughing, before turning West to return to Knebworth via Stapleford. This was another part of territory of the Catuvellauni until the Romans arrived and turned their oppidum at Braughing into a town which for a while vied in importance with St Albans. There is little t o see of it now; and the varied landscape is a microcosm of the changes in the agricultural and village landscape since Medieval times.

Zooming In

Highlights are:

  • The post mill in Cromer. You won’t see many of those!

  • Locations used in the 2005 film of 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent's house and the local pub, where he is drinking when the planet is blown up.

  • A hamlet named 'Nasty'. You can guarantee that name wasn't invented by estate agents. (There is also a hill called Bummers!)

  • Buntingford, where the High Street is a Roman Road and (it is claimed) became England’s first turnpike.

  • A cornucopia of ancient and listed buildings. The churches at Walkern, St Wydial, Buntingford and Braughing are rated 'Grade 1' and (catering to my own religion), Braughing has a Grade 2* listed boozer, the Brown Bear

  • And gratuitous oddities.

Route Tips

If your app provides notes on the road surfaces etc. keep in mind that they are automatically generated and only as good as the underlying mapping. This is a road tour and I have never had a problem on it. 

 Zooming Out

This is chalk country but that is usually only seen where the plateau has been dissected by a river. Elsewhere it is covered, mostly by boulder clay, first deposited and then diced, sliced and scoured through aeons of glaciation and erosion. In the valleys, more fertile loamy soils facilitate intensive arable farming.

In the Iron Age, the Belgic 'Catuvellauni' tribe took over the area from the Trinovantes and built an 'Oppida' or stronghold at Braughing, which is on this route and which later developed into a lively, commercial Roman settlement covering some 15 ha. To picture it, think of a settlement of timber houses built around a few streets, with a few brick or stone public buildings such as a baths. Only a little further south, at Puckridge, was the intersection of Stane Street, Ermine Street and other major roads, all part of the system that started with the Appian Way in Rome and revolutionised European transport. There is nothing to see now, but Braughing is regarded as one of the most important archaeological sites in Hertfordshire. 

The current pattern of settlement and cultivation began with the Saxons. One of the early tribes were known as the Brahingas who gave their name to Braughing. The villages are stuffed full of Listed Buildings and old churches. Some of the latter have Saxon origins traces of the latter See Link: Listed Buildings in Herts

Beyond that the main legacy is in the faded patterns of ditches, fields and tracks in what experts define as 'ancient' countryside with villages, isolated farms and hamlets, narrow lanes and very old hedgerows; a pattern of settlement thought to have been created by 'assarting', or the clearance of forests, in the 12th & 13th century. Forests apart, the area has always been relatively densely settled.

Braughing’s decline as an administrative centre compared to St Albans started very early on, and in the Medieval era it must also have been eclipsed by places like Ware, with its access to the navigable River Lea. Like most places, the agricultural population and economy would have grown in the centuries immediately after the Norman Conquest. The 1300’s brought a sharp reversal as the climate cooled and crop failures were followed by the Black Death at a time when England was almost constantly at war. If there is once century to avoid on your time travels, this might be it! There are several abandoned villages hereabouts. Recovery took a century or more during which labour shortages led to rising incomes and a shift towards less labour-intensive pastoral farming, mainly sheep. People started investing in the their property and many of the oldest houses that you see today were the result of this ‘Great Rebuilding’.

A. Knebworth 

The route starts in 'new' Knebworth. The name is mainly associated with massive rock concerts which were held in the grounds of Knebworth House in 'Old Knebworth'  a Victorian-Gothic pile which, if you want to make a detour, is about a mile or so to the west but difficult to see from the road. If you want a trip down musical memory lane try the timeline at (Link) . 

B. Walkern

Walkern was home to the last woman in England to be found guilty of witchcraft. If you are interested, google. 'Wenham Walkern'. There is even a YouTube video about the trial although I guess that it wasn't a live recording. The village church is said to be the oldest in the county, in part dating back to the Saxons. They probably needed it. Inside there is a marble effigy, probably of William de Lanvalei, Baron of Walkern, one of the people entrusted to make sure that nasty King John stuck to the rules in the Magna Carta, something he had no intention of doing.

C. Cromer Windmill

A few hundred metres down the road to your right is the only surviving post mill in Hertfordshire. There has been a mill here since Norman times. This iteration dates back to 1681 and has been restored. A post mill is a very early type European windmill where the whole mill is mounted on a single vertical post allowing the structure with its attached sails to be turned towards the wind.

D. Cottered. Twinned with East Asia.

Cottered House which is to the North here, has a fine Japanese garden. To add to the Eastern allure, Dr Sun Yat Sen, the founder of Modern China was a frequent visitor to the village when in exile here between 1896 and 1911. He stayed at 'The Kennels, a house then owned by Sir James Cantlie and located down Warren Lane which runs off to the South. As you cycle into the village itself, Lordship farm on your right is a medieval Manor House dating back to 1425 and with parts of its original moat still visible. The church is an oddity, having no aisle, but adorned with a large painting of St Christopher next to a medieval road and river. 

E. Buntingford

The route of the high street here, follows the Roman 'Ermine Street' that for centuries connected London to Lincoln and York; in 1663 this particular stretch became the first turnpike road in England. One useful legacy is a surviving variety of decent pubs. From Buntingford you head east until you reach the valley of the River Quin, which you them follow southwards.

F. The Last Pub In the World 

The Last Pub in the World

In 'The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' film, the Beehive is the pub where Arthur Dent & Ford Prefect have a beer and some nuts while Arthur's house is being demolished. As Ford explains to him, this is inconsequential because an Alien spaceship captained by Prostetnic Vogon Jelz lurks overhead with the intention of demolishing Earth itself to make way for a hyperspatial express route.

Ford plans to mitigate this inconvenience by hitching a lift through hyperspace and suggests a quick six pints of beer as a preparatory muscle relaxant. That is always wise as I am sure you would agree. Ford pays for the beers with a fiver. Prices have gone up since. The barman reacts to Ford's bad news by wondering whether he should put a paper bag over his head.

Arthur Dent's House (again, from the film and not the TV series), stands alone, down a little lane off on the left about a mile down the road from the Beehive Pub. It hasn't been demolished by Vogons or anyone else.Ford plans to mitigate this inconvenience by hitching a lift through hyperspace and suggests a quick six pints of beer as a preparatory muscle relaxant. That is always wise as I am sure you would agree. Ford pays for the beers with a fiver. Prices have gone up since. The barman reacts to Ford's bad news by wondering whether he should put a paper bag over his head.

Arthur's House

Arthur Dent's House (again, from the film and not the TV series), stands alone, down a little lane off on the left about a mile down the road from the Beehive Pub. It hasn't been demolished by Vogons or anyone else.

G. Braughing & The Roman Town

Braughing village is off to your left. This is a good place to enjoy a heart attack. The village website boasts that they have two automated defibrillators in the village, strategically placed on the outside wall of the Golden Fleece Pub and the phone box in the square. It also records pride in its 'legendary wheelbarrow race'. What jolly fun! 

It sits on the River Quin, which meets the River Rib in about half a mile. This is the old limit of navigation on the Rib which is itself a tributary of the Lea. Between here and Puckeridge, the Roman roads, Ermine Street and Stane Street joined up. As a result a sizeable Roman town grew up called Ad Fines ('On the Limit') to the west of the Rib where you cross it.

Even before then, this site was important, occupied by a major Catavallauni tribal settlement covering some 500 acres and which was big enough to have been trading with Europe for goods such as wine and posh pottery. According to my archaeological source there was a 'discrete zone of ritual activity' around what is now Station Road, which is just south of the River Rib. Maybe there still is; you can never tell what they get up to out here in the boondocks.

Ad Fines had a planned street grid and some impressive buildings including baths and a temple. Now, Roman detritus still appears sometimes, when the rivers are in spate and the banks are eroding, Roman detritus is sometimes found. The Latin for 'trolley' as used for shopping and later dumping in a river, is ‘Trahit’. You need to know that

The Buntingford Ramblers Association

The current pattern of settlement and cultivation around here began with the Saxons, one of whose tribes was the Brahingas who gave the town its name.

H. Nasty

Schoolboy humour section. The route turns left here but if enjoy a good snigger turn right first and cycle and extra few hundred yards so that you can say that you visited a genuinely Nasty place. In this age, when Town Council's pay marketing consultants to spruce up their image; how did this one survive? Mind you, the founders apparently named it 'at the eastern hedged enclosure' which is not at all snappy, and thankfully did not survive post-Saxon translation. How Nasty is it? Is it that bad? Compared with Brokenwind in Scotland or Wetwang in Yorks? Asa child, I used to live near Pratt's Bottom in Kent. As, more recently and appropriately, did Nigel Farage and another right wing propagandist, Enid Blyton. 

I. Woodhall Park

The rather impressive spread on your right is Woodhall Park, It is often used for filming, most recently for 'Foyles war'.

It was built around 1775, with money extracted from India by two 'Nabobs'. Firstly came the notoriously corrupt Sir Thomas Rumbold, a former aide to Clive of India. He had enriched himself to the tune of £1.5m Pagodas (sic) partly through deals with the Nawab of Carnatic but also by some opportunistic embezzlement. But he applied boot to bucket rather quickly and the place was bought by another notorious old India hand called Benfield, otherwise known as Count Rupee, who made his fortune through dodgy financing and construction deals. His eventual bankruptcy saw the house end up in the hands of a family whose descendants now live in the Park's stables. Hopefully these were converted first. The house itself is now used as a school.


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