Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Friday, 7 December 2018

The Icknield Way - Sundon to Baldock

A 20 mile walk along the Icknield Way between Sundon and Baldock

The modern route of the Icknield Way from Dunstable to Luton diverts from the traditional route which has to negotiate the urban sprawl. The modern route is now takes a more pleasant path through the Chiltern Hills, rejoining the priginal route to the north of Luton. In doing so villages and countryside are the order of the day all the way through to Letchworth and Baldock.

The Icknield Way - Sundon to Baldock - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Sundon Country Park View in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
Baldock View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
20 miles
Walk difficulty
Easy walking with some hill climbing but the slopes are all gentle

Maps:

The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. The links include published hard copy as well as online plots and downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map
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Online Ordnance Survey Route
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Online OpenStreetMap Route
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Online Google Route
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ViewRanger App Route
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GPX data for route (download)

Accommodation:

Residential house Camp site View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Description
Fortunately my sister lives in the area so I had 5 star luxury accommodation!

Walk Data

Date of Walk
2009-06-19
Walk Time
06:00 to 15:00
Walkers
Griffmonster
Weather Conditions
Light rain until 9am followed by an overcast but warm and dry

Walk Notes

This was the second section of a hike along the length of the Icknield Way from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. The previous evening had resulted in wild camping on the edge of Sundon Country Park, with the night punctuated by music from teenagers who appear to use a nearby parking area as an out of town place to drive to and make a noise. At one point two of them had actually ventured over to my camp and then quickly disappeared back to the sanctuary of their car, somewhat taken aback by a wild camping nomadic hiker. Their noise carried on till the early hours of morning with constant comings and going of other cars. In retrospect I should have carried on walking further along the trail if I had known this beforehand.

It seemed that no sooner than I was asleep that my peaceful slumbers were disturbed by a sheep. Sundon Country Park is home to a flock and this particular individual sheep started bleating as soon as the first indication of dawn was evidenced in the sky. This sheep was obviously the ringleader and trouble maker. Baaa, this sheep heralded to the unsuspecting world. A response was made by another more distant sheep and the first sheep bleated again and when no response was returned bleated all the more loudly. Then another sheep responded. Soon another. Then another which eventually cascaded into a cacophony of noise, heralding the rising of the sun like some kind of sheep druid ritual, or should that be a shruid ritual. Eventually, succumbing to the fact that the ability to sleep amid this noise was not a likely proposition, the idea of packing up camp and setting off on the next section of the Icknield Way seemed the most promising prospect. The day was hung heavy with a fine misty dampness lingering in the air, so breakfast was rescinded, the camp packed into the bag and the expedition to Baldock begun. Of course, by the time I was walking the sheep had shut up and were sheepishly chewing on the grass.

Despite the mizzly rain, the walk through the country park was a pleasant affair, somewhat wilder than many managed parks and being on the Chiltern hills, one is presented with some great views across the north of Bedfordshire. The path follows the higher contours of the hills until it turns south and descends slowly to the village of Streatly. The rain became heavier and the waterproof jacket had to be rummaged from the rucksack to prevent spending the rest of the day in a soggy fleece. Cotton trousers dry quick and easy and I have are no qualms about soggy breeches. However, fleeces just hold the water but are nonetheless warm and comforting and are a constant companion to all my hikes.

A bus shelter in Streatly was a convenient point to take a rest, a haven from the continuing rain. Opposite was a pub, its sign on the wide grassed verge declaring The Chequers and behind the pub, up a track, was a church. The pub advertised Bed and Breakfast and it did make me wonder whether if I had carried on walking the previous night that I could have taken a room here rather than the wild camp with those pesky teenagers and rowdy sheep. However, the reality was that it would have been so late by the time I reached this village that the pub most likely would have closed its doors to custom for the day. Even so, the knowledge of this location may be useful for other walkers considering this route.

It has to be said that this hike was pretty much a take it and see affair with little in the way of pre-planning. I had a weeks leave from work and 120 miles to get through. I could have spent more time researching accommodation but there is little information about the Icknield Way and most accommodation is off route. Therefore a policy of leaving every day as it comes and taking what ever comes along the way with regards to overnight stays seemed a novel way forward. This is appealing to any mind that wants to ditch the conventional and just see what the whole wide world presents to oneself. A real free-for-all. Carefree abandon. No aims. No set agendas. No time limitations. Casting all mental baggage to the winds. One just has to walk and see where the day takes them. That really is the way to do it.

The rain poured down. The road danced with a thousand drops in random fashion. Every so often a car would wash itself along the road. There is something particularly comforting about summer rain viewed from the open confines of a modern metal bus shelter. The fresh aromas the rains produce, the trickles of water that finds its way down to the gutters, the soft dancing and pitter patter on the shelter roof. Despite being enveloped in this scene the pangs of hunger kept a constant reminder that I had not eaten since the previous day and then that was only the humble offerings from the rucksack. Pasties and Mars bars are essentials that accompany me on every lengthy walk. That food was now gone. Despite the lack of planning, the route had been pondered over in the weeks before and it was obvious that this trail passed many towns and villages and there would be ample places to purchase food. One thing for certain when one has a full load on ones back is to keep the weight down to a minimum. Therefore enough food was packed for the first day and then it would be resorting to local shops and pubs. But this time of the morning the pub opposite was closed and there was little chance of finding an open shop. Something would present itself along the way though. It always did.

The rain eased so the walk resumed up the track past the church. The path heads south and skirts around the urban suburbs of Luton before heading across Galley Hill following the iron age earthwork known as Drays Ditches. This leads down to a track which can be used as an alternative to navigating over Galley Hill and is indeed the original route of the ancient Icknield Way. The modern path that comes down from Sundon is nothing more than the conglomeration of local footpaths, the Icknield Way's ancient route takes a near straight line from Dunstable across to the north side of Luton which is all completely built up these days. It can still be walked but one would need to be a dedicated urban walker to use such a route, I would guess that the Sundon route is much the preferred route for most walkers.

Back on the ancient Icknield Way, the wide track climbs up Telegraph Hill with a descent back down to a main road. Once again we diverge from the traditional route which the road now occupies, and use paths and tracks to the village of Pirton. Traditionalists can still follow the ancient route. This does involve a one mile walk along the road where a track veers off to the left and leads through to Ickleford.

By the time I reached Pirton I was flagging somewhat. Some 10 miles had been accomplished thus far. Another bus shelter offered a place to rest, this one a wooden shelter with pitched roof and a sturdy wooden bench where one could offload ones bag and lay across the seat with feet up. On the opposite side of the road was a pub. The Motte and Bailey. It looked inviting but was not open. I lay there and dozed. In fact I positively fell asleep at one point. The thought occurred that I could rest here for another hour or so until pub opening time. The thought pondered around my head batting around from one side which suggested turning this into a pub crawl and the other which suggested getting onto Baldock. Now, although this hike was not preplanned, Baldock was a preferred destination. If I made it to Baldock then there was a promise of overnight accommodation and a BBQ at my sisters house. Baldock wasn't too much of a challenge in distance and it would provide spare time to relax. The pub here at Pirton only offered Greene King ales and although many years ago these were something worthy seeking out, the brewery had become a national concern and profit had become the driving force rather than the ale and consequently such pubs were ones to avoid. Therefore, the decision was made, head onwards.

Luckily, not far down the road from the bus shelter was a village shop. The sort of shop that is the hub of the village and doubles up as a Post Office and general place for the latest gossip judging by the assortment of locals that filled the place. It offered general foodstuffs, breads and cooled fresh comestibles but in this instance it was something to satisfy my craving to revitalise the energies that was required. Now I am not one to advertise or even indulge in junk food, such things as sweets, crisps and that sort of ilk. Mullock as my old mum would have called it. But there are occasions when some good old mullock is required and this was one such occasion. With flagging energies I needed something to get the body back into tune and although I stocked up on a menagerie of mullock, it was the Love Hearts that were the first to be plundered. You know the ones, those kids sweets that come in a long round packet and each individual sweet offers a suggestive word contained within an embossed heart on the top face. They come in an assortment of pastel colours all with a subtle difference in their fizzy taste. Think Pink, Ever True, Hug Me, they teased as each one was purged from the packet, read and then popped into the mouth. But it was not these little words of encouragement I bought them for, nor was it their sherbet tickle as they dissolved in the mouth. The main reason was they were made of little more than pure sugar and one whole packet was eaten in quick succession. It was an instant boost. In fact this was the first time I had experimented with such a solution to flagging energies, and was amazed how quickly such a sugar rush resolved the issue. The weariness faded and I was ready for more miles with a spring in my step and an elated smile on my face. Think Pink!

From Pirton, the Icknield Way heads east to Letchworth passing through the small village of Ickleford where it rejoins the ancient route of the long distance path. In fact on this occasion, just before entering the village I cut down a track known as Hambridge Way that led back onto the original route into the village. Yes, there was some road walking but it is semi rural and it is THE Icknield Way. The modern route is just a collection of footpaths around the north side of the village.

At the centre of Ickfield is the Old George pub which was open for business and a pint and snack was consumed amid a hustle and bustle of young couples who appeared to be the regular Saturday lunchtime crowd. A footpath then leads across to Letchworth with the main road into the town named Icknield Way. That may appear to be coincidental but look on old 19th century maps before the town existed and this really was the Icknield Way, a track labelled as a Roman road that led to Baldock. It is also notable that on the western side where the footpath joins is an area marked plainly as Camp which is a site of a Bronze Age Hillfort. The old maps indicated human remains had been found here. In more recent times Roman coins have been unearthed in the same area.

What is noticeable on these old 19th century maps is the lack of Letchworth. To be honest Letchworth is marked but it is no more than a hamlet that consists of a farm and is located on the south west extremities of the modern day town. It was during the early 1900s that some bright spark by the name of Sir Ebenezer Howard had the idea of creating the Garden City Movement and Letchworth was his first experiment at turning a rural area into an urban metropolis, the so called Letchworth Garden City. Obviously fired by ideals of creating a modern Utopia, he wanted to also build satellite Garden Cities with Letchwork as the central hub. Fortunately this did not happen otherwise this entire area would now be a built up monstrosity. Whatever ones opinion of Howard's results, it has to be said that from a walking perspective this is now nothing more than asphalt and urbanisation and certainly is the worse part of the entire Icknield Way trail. It may be called a Garden City but it is nonetheless a municipal town. If it looks like a town, if it sounds like a town, it is smells like a town then it is most likely a town. Gardens are definitely very much in the minority and houses and roads and traffic are very much in abundance.

In fact the official trail guide, which I had purchased some weeks prior to the walk, clearly stated that a bus or train can be caught to avoid the industrial area that one has to walk through in this urban conglomeration. It is not good when the guide book vindicates getting past such an area as quickly as possible. But it is true, the area is a blight of urbanisation and despite a park area where a red squirrel was seen, it is roads, pavements, industrial estates, traffic, people, houses. Yes I did persevere with the walking but give me countryside and villages any day. The idea that a Garden City is somehow a rural retreat is just the sales pitch, the reality is it is still a town. The same goes for the modern day renaming of industrial estates as business parks. They are industrial areas. There is no two ways about it. You cannot kid me, an area that has industry and lorries and workplaces is not a park. A park is a place of green grass and trees. Somehow big business and property developers want you to believe that you perceive countryside and parkland not housing and industry. I for one am not fooled.

Baldock merges in with Letchworth separated only by the A1 trunk road which is a fully fledged motorway in these parts. It was 3 oclock by the time I was wandering down the main streets of Baldock. Baldock is not a Garden City yet in a spot the difference competition one would be hard pressed to point out the variance between this town and Letchworth. Baldock is smaller, about the third the population of its neighbour and consequently the countryside in close proximity, that in my book is a better candidate as a Garden City than Letchworth. I sought solace in a pub only to find that practically all pubs in Baldock appear to be Green King houses. I have since read that The Orange Tree pub on Norton Road is the place to go for the real aficionado. Sometimes pre-planning does have its advantages!

Directions

Follow the Icknield Way waymarkers through Sundon Country Park and down into Streatley. The path goes through the churchyard and heads south out of the village to the northern edge of Luton. Here it turns to the east and heads up Galley Hill and into Hertfordshire following broad tracks through to Pirton then on to Ickleford. From here it heads across to Letchworth and Baldock where there is a lot of road walking through the towns with no alternative route.

St Margarets Church, Streatley whose graveyards holds the remains of the rackmaster general, Thomas Norton. Gerry's Hole, a conservation area originally created from the building of the railway.
On the left St Margarets Church, Streatley whose graveyards holds the remains of the rackmaster general, Thomas Norton. ; On the right Gerry's Hole, a conservation area originally created from the building of the railway.

Pubs

The Old George, Ickleford View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
Arlesey Rd, Ickleford
Website

The inn dates from the 17th Century, but the site formerly housed Gilbertine monks in the 12th Century whilst they built the church. Dick Turpin is reputed to have hidden in the chimney of the large inglenook fireplace! A friendly and traditional establishment that does bar meals. It is a Greene King house with the usual IPA and Abbott on offer.

Review

With a choice of Green King Abbot or IPA, I kept to the IPA as there was more walking to do. I find that the IPA lacks character as a session beer and traditionally an IPA should be well hopped, but the Green King example is lack lustre in this respect. Cheese and onion crisps were nice though!

The White Hart , Baldock View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
21 Hitchin Street, Baldock

A Green King town pub.

Review

It appears that most of the pubs in Baldock are tied to Greene King so there is little choice in the way of ale. This place was busy on account of an international Rugby Union fixture which was being screened live. I caught the end of the game whilst supping on a pint of ale that Greene King had brewed for the rugby called Dallaglio's Heroes - a fruity pale coloured ale. It always annoys me that Green King are far too happy with taking over other breweries and pretending the relocated ale is the same but theirs, when it clearly is not, rather than brewing something of their own formulation. This ale tends to buck that trend and was worth trying. The game was South Africa vs British Lions and when I arrived the Lions were making a spirited comeback from being 26-7 down. Despite their efforts and the cheering and encouragement from the pub locals they lost the match 26-21

The Victoria, Baldock View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Address
11 Sun St, Baldock

A town pub formerly known as the Sun and set in Sun Street behind Whitehorse Street. Although a traditional drinkers pub it is very much sports orientated on account of the landlord being a sportsman himself. Tony West, who took over the pub in 1977, had played cricket for Luton, was a regular golfer and had stint of boxing. The interior reflected his passions with multiple tv screens dedicated to sport attracting similar minded clientel. Two ales, Deuchars and St Austells. Mr West finally called time on the pub in July 2017 aged 75.

Review

This is an unashamed sportsman's pub and on this Saturday afternoon it was full of punters watching horseracing on the TV screen at the end of the bar. It has to be said that finding something other than Green King in Baldock was a rewarding experience in itself and although the St Austell Tribute is not local ale it was a well kept and in perfect condition. A rewarding and thirst quenching ale after a long day of walking.

The path up to Galley Hill
The path up to Galley Hill

Features

Streatley Churchyard View in OS Map | View in Google Map

The churchyard of St Margaret's church in Streatly is the final resting place of one Thomas Norton, otherwise known as the Rackmaster General. Born in London in 1532, he became an English lawyer, politician and writer of verse. As the years went on he became a Calvinist fanatic and petitioned for the post of rackmaster, seeking permission to have a rack in his private house, where he could pursue his avocations in the leisure and comfort of domestic surroundings. The rack stretched the body apart, until the joints were dislocated and then separated from the rest of the body. His punishment of the Catholics led to him being nicknamed Rackmaster General and Rackmaster Norton. He once boasted that he would drag Arthur Bryant, the Jesuit, a good foot longer than God had made him.

Theedway View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Crossing the A6 on the northern edge of Luton, the Icknield Way follows a track up Warden Hill. In Saxon times this track was part of a path known as Theodweg which was used as a trade route. The Romans established the route as Theedway and used it as a salt route from the Midlands to the south. Theedway ran from the Hertfordshire boundary between Galley and Warden Hills, across Bedfordshire and down to the upper reaches of the Thames.

Drays Ditches View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Running east to west from the base of Warden Hill are Drays Ditches. These started as a Bronze Age boundary earthwork separating neighbouring tribal groups. Later, in the Iron Age, they were built up to control traffic along the Icknield Way.

Galley Hill Barrows View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Galley Hill has two Bronze Age burial mounds, otherwise known as barrows, on it. In the middle ages, one barrow was used as the site of a gibbet and lots of people including so-called witches were hanged there. The place has been linked with witchcraft and magic over the years. At one time, the place was also used to bury local witches who were hanged during the persecution of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 1960's, while they were digging in the burial mounds, a deer's skull was found. A dice had been placed on it with the six face up; this makes it look as if magic and rituals were used at the site in the past.

Telegraph Hill View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Established in the early 19th century by George Roebuck, a line of telegraph stations was constructed to provide an optical link between great Yarmouth and the Admiralty in London. As the shutter telegraph was a line of sight communication a clear view from one station to the other was crucial, and had to be no more than 12 miles apart. The system was finally dismantled in 1814 when there was no longer a threat from Napoleons, his navy having been destroyed at Trafalgar.

Toot Hill, Pirton View in OS Map | View in Google Map

A large artificial mound behind the church of St Mary is known as Toot Hill. This was the site of a 12th century earthwork motte and baileys fortress surrounded by a moat. Legend has it that a woman was entering the castle one night across the drawbridge when it was suddenly raised and she was thrown into the moat and drowned. Since then her ghost is said to haunt the area. Another legend states that the church was to be built on the mound but each night the devil would move the foundation stones and so it had to be constructed in front of the mound.

Gerry's Hole View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Gerry’s Hole is a pond formed when the Hitchin to Bedford railway from was built. In 1983 it became a voluntary conservation project led by a local landowner. Its name is taken from a navvy called Gerry who worked on the railway and was drowned in the pond after a night in a local pub. Today Gerry’s Hole is one of the most important toad, frog and newt spawning areas in north Hertfordshire.

Gallery

Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2018-12-08

2010-11-28 : Initial publication
2018-12-06 : Major updates to the notes + general website updates

  2 comments:

  1. That is a surprisingly enjoyable day's walk, despite the urban sections. True, it is hardly classic walking terrain, but the variety can be interesting.

    As for seeing a red squirrel - lucky guy! I have never seen one whilst out and about walking.

    When did you do this walk? I assume that it wasn't this weekend, or the camping must have been bloomin' cold...

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did this last summer. I always like to plan a week long walk around the summer solstice and this was my 2009 summer solstice walk. I will be adding the rest of it in the next few weeks. I was a little hesitant about the Icknield Way as it is not a true National Trail but now, having walked it, I would recommend it to everybody.
    As for the cold - the last two days were in a heatwave and I must thank those dogwalkers I met along the end sections who gave me additional water.

    ReplyDelete

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