Itinerary: Hertfordshire

Anna Hughes' Cycling Adventure

Meet Anna, a flight free adventurer, cyclist, author and sustainability advocate. Back in October, Anna set off on a two night Epicurean Passport cycling adventure, exploring hidden gems in and around beautiful Hertfordshire countryside, her childhood home. Read on to find out what she discovered.

I've always loved Hertfordshire for its vast expanses of countryside, historic market towns, and being close enough to London that excitement is never far away. The Grand Union Canal, connecting London to Birmingham, borders the west of the county; on the eastern edge is the River Lea Navigation.

Hertfordshire boasts the only two Garden Cities in the UK: Letchworth and Welwyn. There's also the historic Roman settlement of St Albans, the roman road of Ermine Street, and Tudor market towns including Hitchin, Royston and Baldock - there's so much to explore!

Growing up in the market town of Hitchin, I started exploring my local area by bicycle in my early teens. Hitchin is surrounded by farmland and small villages, and strong in the memory are the famous watercress farms near Whitwell, the herds of deer dashing across fields as I freewheeled down the occasional hill, and the impressive architecture of the railway viaduct at Welwyn.

There are three Epicurean Collection inns in Hertfordshire: The Farmhouse at Redcoats, Hitchin (near Stevenage), The Fox Inn, Willian (near Letchworth Garden City), and Banyers House, Royston. These can all be stitched together for anything from a weekend adventure to a week-long Hertfordshire discovery. I decided to do a two night weekend cycling trip across all three, exploring this wonderful area I was brought up in, and what a super local adventure it was!

 

Stop 1

I decided to start my weekend adventure on Friday night at the delightful Farmhouse at Redcoats. The building has bags of character with its low exposed beams, an interesting garden and huge barn. I loved my well-appointed room overlooking the tractor in the yard!

The Farmhouse at Redcoats is a short cycle ride from Stevenage station - around 15 minutes - so from my London home it was an easy journey, and Stevenage's extensive network of cycle routes meant I barely encountered any traffic on the way.

Arriving as dark was falling I went straight to the cosy bar for my complimentary Chase Distillery gin and Double Dutch tonic which was included in my Epicurean Passport voucher. The menu looked delicious, and although there was nothing specifically vegan, the chef was more than happy to adapt two of the dishes to suit my diet.

Saturday began with a 7-mile pre-breakfast run around the local villages of St. Ippolyts, Gosmore, Charlton and Preston. On the winding country lanes I encountered plenty of dog walkers and cyclists enjoying the early morning light, and was surrounded by wildlife, including sighting my first ever stoat!

For the less energetic, the network of public footpaths offer plenty of routes for walking, and with welcoming country pubs in the various villages, there are plenty of opportunities to take a break. There are enough footpaths in the area to fill a day of gentle rambling if using the Farmhouse at Redcoats as a base for more than one night.

Back at the Farmhouse, I had a well-earned breakfast: hash browns, flat mushroom, baked beans, tomatoes and spinach, all washed down with a refreshing orange juice. Yum!

With my adventure itinerary I needed to hit the road after breakfast, but for those with a more relaxed itinerary, there's plenty more to see. The historic market town of Hitchin, just three miles away, is well worth a visit, and tourist attractions such as Knebworth House and Shaw's Corner are an easy drive or an enjoyable bicycle ride.

 

Stop 2

The next part of my adventure was to meet up with my sister who would be riding with me for the rest of the trip. She also arrived by train, so after leaving Stevenage station we headed towards Willian through Little Wymondley and Great Wymondley - two villages hidden between Stevenage and Hitchin with good pubs and plenty of walking routes.

The best thing about exploring an area that is supposed to be familiar is discovering new things you didn't know existed. As we approached our lunch stop at The Fox Inn, we noticed Willian Arboretum, a nature reserve with thickly wooded paths that will be covered with bluebells in spring. We briefly abandoned our bikes to explore beneath the trees. Neither of us had ever noticed it before, despite having driven or cycled through Willian many times.

In addition, this part joins two other routes of interest: the National Cycle Network Route 12, which would take you all the way from Enfield Lock in north London to Spalding in Lincolnshire if you chose to follow it the whole way, and the Garden City Greenway which is a 13 mile circular countryside route around the periphery of Letchworth, the world's first Garden City.

We didn't have the opportunity to explore either of these, but if you choose to stay at The Fox Inn in Willian you would certainly be able to. This would also offer a good base from which to visit Letchworth Garden City and the neighbouring town of Baldock. Both towns have a huge amount to offer: historical interest in Letchworth's Spirella building and the classic old Broadway cinema, and the coaching inns and parish church in Baldock.

Both towns also boast a large number of very good pubs - slightly ironic for Letchworth as it was originally a 'dry' town, established on the principles of the social reformer Ebenezer Howard: a good standard of living, plenty of trees and open space, and no alcohol. Its dry status was removed in 1958 after a referendum of residents, and the pubs moved in with gusto.

The reception at The Fox Inn couldn't have been more welcoming, and with a separate vegan menu I was more than catered for. We cycled away past Willian pond which was buzzing with children fishing and feeding the ducks.

 

Stop 3

The country lanes between Baldock and Royston are lovely when the sun is shining. But our luck ran out just after Kelshall, so after sheltering under some trees by the roadside (all part of the adventure!) it was a quick dash into Royston. We did manage to call into Therfield Heath along the way during a break in the clouds. It's a nature reserve and golf course with a popular cafe and bar - definitely worth a visit.

Arriving at Banyers House in Royston we locked our bikes to the bicycle planters directly in front of the building. It's always fantastic to find cycle parking exactly where you need it.

Banyers House is a Grade II listed Georgian building right in the centre of the town. Built for the Revd Edward Banyer, Vicar of Royston from 1739 to 1752, there's a tunnel under the road which originally connected it with the parish church opposite. It's had plenty of notable residents including the Beatles who were playing a gig nearby, as two members of staff took great pride in telling us.

The place is very popular on a Saturday night, possibly down to the wide-ranging menu, with plenty of options for vegans as well as family-friendly choices. It was the perfect setting for a well-earned meal after a day of being out in the fresh air on our bikes.

There is much to enjoy in Royston for those who wish to stay for more than one night. This town is steeped in history as it evolved on the crossroads of the roman road Ermine Street and the ancient chalk ridgeway of the Icknield Way. There's a cave system beneath the town that you can visit - Royston Cave - and the attractive Priory Park Gardens with its splash park is a great venue for families. It's a great base for walking routes including the Hertfordshire Way and the aforementioned Icknield Way, a long-distance walking or cycling route that stretches for 110 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk.

 

Even in my short weekend I discovered so much that I hadn't known about my childhood county, and I would have been happy to spend several days in each location exploring the surrounding area.

For hiking enthusiasts the venues are just close enough to walk between, and they are easily connected by road. For cyclists there are endless possibilities of short, long and off-road day trips using one of the venues as a base. There's even the option of doing the whole adventure by train, with the rail line out of London linking Stevenage, Hitchin, Letchworth, Baldock and Royston on its way to Cambridge.

This was my ultra-local adventure, my attempt to find excitement and discovery in a place that is already quite familiar, and I certainly achieved this. I would recommend this particular itinerary to anyone, but I would also say, get out in your local area too. There's always something new to be discovered - you never know what you might find!