Hertfordshire has a key place in the history of the Garden City Movement. Within the county are Letchworth, begun in 1903, and Welwyn Garden City, the theme of this walk, started in 1920. The movement was the inspiration of the utopian socialist Ebenezer Howard, who published the cumbersomely titled, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898. It inspired the foundation of the Garden City Association in 1899 and the book was rewritten in 1902 with the somewhat snappier title, Garden Cities of Tomorrow.
Letchworth was started by Howard in around 4,000 acres (1,620ha) of land to the west of Baldock. After World War I he began his next venture, refining his ideas after the lessons of Letchworth. Howard bought 1,688 acres (684ha) southeast of Welwyn at auction from the Cowper Estate in May 1919, adding a further 694 acres (281ha) in the October. In April 1920 he formed Welwyn Garden City Limited and the first houses were occupied by Christmas. The aim of both Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City was to create a complete town with industry and commerce giving a viable economic base.The railway that cuts through the middle of Letchworth, running north to south, had a profound influence on its layout, which was masterminded by a young, idealistic architect called Louis de Soissons. The principal boulevard is Parkway, which has parallel avenues of trees. Parkway and the semicircular Campus at its north end have the same axis as the railway, which also served to separate the city into two. On the east side were working-class housing and factories. West of Parkway is middle-class housing, much of it occupied by commuters to London. Our route crosses The Campus, goes down Parkway and then west to wind through the middle-class housing with its trees and hedges, many retained from the previous farmland. The style of buildings here is 'cottage Georgian', which works well at this scale. However, to the east of Parkway the larger-scale 1930s buildings, also by de Soissons, are in an overblown neo-Georgian style, complete with pedimented porticos or temple fronts.
Welwyn's cereal factory, designed by de Soissons in 1925, is now a listed building. After World War II a third generation of planned towns arrived and Hertfordshire received Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead and Hatfield.
Cross The Campus, a semicircular, leafy open space, and pass to the right of a large John Lewis department store, along Parkway. At the second traffic lights cross right, into Church Road. At its end turn left into Guessens Road, which curves right. Cross Handside Lane into Youngs Rise and then turn left into Elm Gardens. At the end turn right into Applecroft Road.
Turn left into The Links. Leaving Welwyn Garden City, go under the A1(M) bridge and straight on into Lemsford village, with the River Lea to your left.
At Lemsford Mill turn right to cross the river on a stylish modern bridge. Follow the footpath and bear right at a junction, now on the Lea Valley Walk. You are soon in Brocket Park, this part a golf course. Carry straight on where the right-hand fence ends. Cross a tarmac path to a footpath post – a thatched tennis pavilion is behind the fence here.
Turn right but follow the drive for only about 20 paces, then continue ahead to the right of young trees and carry straight on across the golf course, guided by waymarker posts. The footpath climbs right, out of a dry valley and, passing a cottage, you head out of Brocket Park. Go through a kissing gate and turn left into Brickwall Close, with the Waggoners pub on the right. At Ayot Green turn right and cross over the A1(M).
At the T-junction turn left and almost immediately right, down to a kissing gate leading into some woods. Go diagonally left, not sharp right. When you reach a bridleway junction bear right, the path descending to cross the course of an old railway line. At Six Ways (which has carved totem poles) turn sharp left on to a bridleway. Pass through a car park to a lane. Turn right, with the parkland to Digswell Place Mews on your left.
At Digswell Place Mews turn right by a waymarker post, to return to the woods. At a bridleway post bear right uphill – the path carries on straight through the woods. Ignore all turns to the left and right until you come to a waymarked bridleway running off right. If you miss it, you soon come to houses and a school. Follow the bridleway as it bends left, signed Roundwood Drive, to houses and gardens. Pass alongside their fences, eventually bearing left to merge with a track and leave the woods. Go straight over Reddings into Roundwood Drive and on to a tarmac path between gardens.
Turn left on to the old railway trackbed (the Hatters Line). Turn right up a fenced ramp, out of the cutting and back into the Campus West car park.
Town roads, parkland paths and woodland tracks
Garden City, 18th-century parkland (and golf course) and mixed woodland
On lead on town roads and golf course
OS Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield
Campus West Long Term car park (free on Sundays), off B195 in Welwyn Garden City
John Lewis store, Welwyn Garden City
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.