The county boundary between Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire is complex along the chalk ridge traversed by the Icknield Way. Despite simplification in the late 19th century, Hexton to the west and Pirton still extend deep into Bedfordshire, sandwiching Shillington, which climbs between them up to Deacon Hill and the Icknield Way. The top of Deacon Hill, just north of the Icknield Way, stands at 567ft (172m) above sea level, giving superb views over the lowlands of Bedfordshire. The land is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rare chalkland flora and fauna can be found amid its sheep-cropped pasture. Although not as high as the western Chilterns, the chalk hills here between Pirton and west into Bedfordshire are spectacularly cut into by combes and dry valleys. The escarpment presents a deeply corrugated edge, bare or tree-clad, to the claylands below.
Pirton village lies below the chalk hills, in the lowlands whose streams drain northeast into the River Hiz near Henlow. The village is centred on Toot Hill, a 12th-century motte-and-bailey castle. It is one of many so called 'adulterine' or unlicensed castles that were erected during the civil wars of Stephen's reign (1135–54). Their purpose was to offer protection from marauding armies during the anarchy. Toot Hill was built by the de Limesy family, the lords of the manor. Its dismantling, along with many others, was ordered by Henry II after he became King in 1154. There are baileys or ramparted enclosures on each side of the motte – the church is within the east one. 'Toot' means a lookout place, so the mound had a useful later life, although it's now only 25ft (7.6m) high. The west bailey is mostly built-up, including the Motte and Bailey pub. South of the castle are other earthworks, one of which is a former lane, Lads Orchard Lane, abandoned in the 19th century. To the west was Chipping Green, now Great Green, so presumably the village had a 'chipping' or market. The church is mostly Norman, but the crossing tower was so dilapidated that, in 1876, it had to be rebuilt in replica. The attractive village has some good examples of timber-framed houses and cottages. These include Walnut Tree Farm, which has a complex of vast, weatherboarded barns that have been converted to houses.
Start at St Mary's churchyard in Pirton. Turn left into Crabtree Lane, then Great Green with the Motte and Bailey pub, to cross the Hitchin Road on to a bridleway, the Icknield Way. The track climbs steadily between fields, eventually curving left to pass the edge of Tingley Wood, now following the county boundary. Past the wood, fork left and continue southwards to the road.
Turn right along the left verge, leaving the road at a lay-by on the left, on to a green lane, here the ancient Icknield Way. At a gate go right to climb Deacon Hill through chalk downland and enjoy the wonderful views. Return to the track and follow it as it levels out with woods to the right, then descends with downland on the left (Telegraph Hill). Pass an information board and continue ahead.
At a fingerpost turn sharp left. The track climbs downland, emerging in open fields. At the crest head towards a solitary oak, avoiding a track running off sharp left and take the next left track after a few paces. Head into woodland beside a waymarker along the left side of a hedge.
Passing Little Offley go between two outbuildings, and straight on to a track. Where this bears right, go straight on, heading for Wellbury House, to a lane. Turn left round Wellbury House grounds. Follow the track past the drive to New Wellbury Farm and Park View Stables, going right at a waymarker into a copse. Cross the stables' yard to follow the grassy track uphill. Once through a kissing gate, cross a track and bear right across meadow to the road.
Cross the road, go left within the tree belt, then right, signposted to the Chiltern Way extension. Follow the field-edge path, go through a gate and bear right into pasture, heading towards the chimneystacks of High Down House. Follow signs downhill, then, through a gate and turn sharp left alongside a hedge. Turn right to follow another hedge to Hitchin Road.
Cross the road into Walnut Tree Road, then go left through a kissing gate into pasture. Walk diagonally right to Pirton's church and castle.
Mix of green lanes, tracks and field paths
Chalk downland, some pasture and some arable
Good deal of arable land, but sheep graze Deacon Hill. Keep on lead at Park View Stables
OS Explorer 193 Luton & Stevenage
On village roads in Pirton
None on route
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
As Hertfordshire is so close to London, many of its towns have become commuter havens. St Albans, less than 19 miles (30km) from the capital, has retained its distinctive character, along with many historic remains. The Roman city of Verulamium is situated in a nearby park, and excavations have revealed an amphitheatre, a temple, parts of the city walls and some house foundations. There are also some amazing mosaic pavements.
The abbey church at St Albans is thought to have been built on the same site where St Alban met his martyrdom in the 3rd century. The abbey was founded in 793 by King Offa of Mercia, and contains the saint’s shrine, made of Purbeck marble. Lost for years, it was discovered in the 19th century, in pieces, and restored by the designer of the red telephone box, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The abbey also contains some wonderful medieval wall paintings. Nicholas Breakspear was born in St Albans, the son of an abbey tenant. In 1154 he took the name Adrian IV, and became the first, and so far only, English pope. Another famous son of Hertfordshire was Sir Francis Bacon, Elizabethan scholar and Lord High Chancellor, born in Hemel Hempstead in 1561.