It’s funny what excites me nowadays. As a lifelong lover of the great outdoors, I’ve always delighted in nature. But in the last 12 months, few things have thrilled me as much as the babbling thread of silver water that runs along the bottom of a local field.
The river Ver is one of Britain’s precious chalk streams, created where rainwater soaks into the chalky ground to form natural underground reservoirs or aquifers. Eventually it bubbles to the surface as springs, but excessive dry weather or water extraction can dramatically affect the flow.
There are less than 200 chalk streams across the entire world, almost all of them found in the UK and some 10 per cent of them in my home county of Hertfordshire. With their clear water and lush habitat, a healthy chalk stream is a thrill for anyone who loves the soothing effect of a riverside nature walk, so I’m doubly blessed to have both the Ver and the Lea within an easy walk of home.
Twelve months ago in the first spring lockdown, I headed down a public footpath across farmland to the Ver valley near Redbourn. For years, this upper section of the river has been a dry ditch, so I was thrilled to find water flowing freely again. And over the last twelve months, I have returned regularly to watch the wildlife and plants return to this enchanting spot, where the young Ver gathers momentum for its 17-mile journey through the cathedral city of St Albans to join the Colne.
Now we have ducks, dragonflies, and aquatic plants once more along the edge of this quiet Hertfordshire field. Usually I have them all to myself and every time I visit, I’m reminded of the opening lines to one of my favourite poems, Leisure, written in 1911 by Welsh poet W Davies:
What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows
There’s certainly been plenty of time to stand and stare over the last year. Lockdown walks have proved a lifesaver for so many people, especially us Silver Travellers whose travel horizons have been severely curtailed. I’m lucky to live on the edge of a Home Counties commuter town with a wide choice of both urban and rural walks, but even though I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve discovered many new things on my lockdown rambles. I’ve helped others to discover them too, taking friends along with me once walking in company was allowed again.
I watched the countryside burst forth in vibrant spring shades before my eyes, saw it mellow in summer, and morph into autumn colours as the trees and hedgerows got ready for winter. Now we are on the second cycle as spring transforms the countryside yet again. I’ve captured the changes on my smartphone, creating blank greetings cards and desk calendars online to share with friends. And I was surprised too at the level of reaction to the photos I shared on social media. “I never noticed that!” “Where did you find those?” And, time and again, “Can I come with you?”
Of course some of my walking routes were already familiar, but this year I have been able to return in different seasons, as well as research the flora and fauna, the people and places. The ruined church at Ayot St Lawrence, home village of George Bernard Shaw, and the churchyard with no church at nearby Ayot St Peter. The remains of a Tudor mansion at Gorhambury, St Albans, twice visited by Queen Elizabeth I. And Someries Castle near Harpenden, once Bedfordshire’s largest brick building and now an atmospheric ruin hidden at the end of a rough farm track.
Other routes were new to me. I was born with the curiosity gene, so I need little prompting to explore a hidden footpath here, a quiet lane there. All I need is an Ordnance Survey map, a pair of comfortable shoes, and a bottle of water, although I’ve also become a connoisseur of coffee-and-cake stops. It’s been heartening to see the enterprise of local cafes and farm shops in serving walkers and cyclists when indoor hospitality was closed. Long may they all survive! After all, everyone knows there are no calories in outdoor cake.
And when the late winter wet spell turned the footpaths to quagmires, I simply set off to explore village high streets and even town centres, where normally my gaze would be drawn by shop windows rather than architecture. It’s amazing what you can see when you look above the takeaway or hairdresser’s shop. An old pub sign. A carved lintel. And, last week, the name of a long-gone wheelwright spelled out in coloured brick on a cottage wall.
It has been good to see so many people improving their physical and mental health by walking, but now that I’m back on the field tracks, I’ve noticed one unwelcome side effect. Not just the way popular paths have been artificially widened by badly shod walkers avoiding winter mud, but by the ongoing disregard for farmers and their livelihood. All too often I have – very politely – suggested to youngsters that it’s not a good idea to picnic in the cornfield or run their dogs through the wheat. “Oh, aren’t we allowed in here?”, came one bemused reply.
Sadly it’s not just youngsters. I got the group death stare recently when I tackled two families walking abreast along a local footpath, the two adult men scuffing their feet through the first few rows of young wheat. Ignorance or just lack of respect? Who knows, but please back me up if you see people walking through crops near you or trampling on bluebells. Otherwise, landowners will simply erect more fences.
I can’t wait to explore further afield on foot and am looking forward to walking in Sussex with HF Holidays later this summer. The South Downs are just two hours’ drive from my home, but the trip will feel like a huge adventure. But I won’t be stopping my local discoveries either, walking and photographing my own little corner of Britain, and – very often – just standing and staring. Life is really too short not to.
You can follow my outdoor adventures on Instagram @travelwithgt.
Discover more about the Ver chalk stream at www.riverver.co.uk
And discover Hertfordshire at www.visitherts.co.uk