Wheathampstead and the Lea Valley




5 miles (8kms)

155ft (47m)

About the walk

Wheathampstead, in the Lea Valley, grew up in Anglo-Saxon times within the triangle formed by three former Roman roads. A great estate of more than 12,000 acres (4,860ha), which included the site of present day Harpenden, was granted by Edward the Confessor to Westminster Abbey in 1060.

Long before this the Wheathampstead area had been significant because the Catuvellauni – a Belgic tribe, invading from what is modern Belgium and northern France in the 1st century bc – made their capital here. It was a ramparted and ditched enclosure that overlooked the Lea Valley. Immediately to the east of present-day Wheathampstead and enclosing over 100 acres (40ha), the western and eastern defences of the Catuvellauni's structure survive. The eastern one is known as The Slad and the western one as the Devil's Dyke. This is probably the oppidum or town held by Cassivellaunus, King of the Catuvellauni, which was besieged and captured in 54 bc by Julius Caesar. Our route follows the bottom of the Devil's Dyke ditch. It is 1,400ft (427m) long, 100ft (30m) across from edge to edge, and, in places, still over 40ft (12m) deep. The Slad, 600yds (549m) to the east, survives at an equally impressive scale.

Great Scott

Wheathampstead village centre is dominated by its cruciform parish church (St Helen's), set in a generous churchyard. The distinctive, lead-clad spire dates from 1865 when the rest of the church was also restored. The transepts have very fine Gothic tracery from the 1340s which reflects the church's wealthy patronage. The north transept became the Lamer Chapel, and contains memorials to the occupants of Lamer House to the north of Wheathampstead. Many are to the Garrard family, who rebuilt the house in the early 17th century. The most interesting is a bronze statuette of Apsley George Benet Cherry Garrard, in Antarctic explorer costume. He was the last of the Garrards of Lamer House and achieved fame writing The Worst Journey in the World, an account of Robert Falcon Scott's heroic, but incompetent, expedition to the South Pole from 1910 to 1913. Garrard was a survivor and his book is still widely read. Nomansland is not an Antarctic wasteland but a large common south of Wheathampstead. It is reputedly so called because of the bitter medieval rivalry between the abbots of Westminster (who controlled Wheathampstead) and the abbots of St Albans (who controlled Sandridge manor to the south) – the parish boundary bisects the common. The Wicked Lady pub commemorates Katherine Ferrers, the 17th-century, aristocratic highwaywoman from Markyate Cell who terrorised travellers hereabouts.

Walk directions

Turn right past the Bull pub, cross the River Lea bridge and then turn right into Mount Road. At a bridleway sign follow the track, waymarked 'Ayot Green'. You will emerge in open countryside to wind alongside the river.

Go through a gate with the bypass embankment ahead of you, and turn right. Go between some fences and pass through another gate, then bear right on to a metalled track, re-crossing the Lea. Now on Sheepcote Lane, go uphill, over the main road into Dyke Lane.

By Tudor Road go left on to a footpath along the remarkably deep ditch of Devil's Dyke. At a footpath sign to Dyke Lane climb the steps and follow the path to emerge on to a lane. Turn left and follow it, then go right at a footpath sign opposite Beech Hyde Farm. Now on a grass track amid arable fields, pass modern housing to the right, to reach a road.

Cross the road (B651) to a footpath signposted 'Nomansland', and turn left on to a tarmac track – the road runs parallel, to your left. Walk downhill to the Wicked Lady pub and turn right on to the access drive to Wheathampstead Cricket Club. Pass behind the pavilion to a footpath. Turn left past some cricket nets, and continue through the woods, keeping the cricket ground visible over to the left through the trees. Make for the far end of the wood and follow the worn track right to reach Down Green Lane.

Turn right into Down Green Lane, which leads off the common. At a crossroads carry straight on, past the Elephant and Castle pub.

Shortly, opposite Weavers Cottage, go left at a footpath sign and up a few steps. The path passes a golf course, then crosses some cultivated land to reach a road, Pipers Lane. Turn right.

At a T-junction go straight across, heading diagonally left across pasture and right on to a track. Turn immediately right on to a muddy track which shortly turns left downhill between horse fences, then right. After about a mile (1.6km) housing appears on the left, the path becomes tarmacked and jinks to a road.

Go left into High Meads and then right to descend into Wheathampstead. At Bury Green go left to the church. From the churchyard go left into the High Street and the end of the walk.

Additional information

Field paths, bridleway tracks and lanes

Valley of River Lea and gentle chalk hills

On lead in sheep pasture and horse paddocks on second half of walk

OS Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield

East Lane car park, Wheathampstead

At car park; also by Wheathampstead Cricket Club at Nomansland (open Easter to end of September)

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About the area

Discover Hertfordshire

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.

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