There is nothing like a good hike wherever I go in the world but until recently, I never really did any hiking on my home patch. I knew all the roads and cycled them but never gone onto the trails and checked out the rolling hills of the North Hertfordshire countryside. In 2008 a new circular route came about (by joining up all the footpaths and classed it as a route) which surrounds the British new town of Stevenage. Known as STOOP, the Stevenage Orbital Outer Path does get a lot of hikers, ramblers and runners like myself checking out the route. I have been on some parts especially to the east of the town on training runs with my running club but I wanted to explore more. I checked out the path whilst doing my off-road training runs recently, so I didn’t hike it (maybe one day I will) but I have managed to run all of the 27 miles (43.45km). I did stop off in places to take in the views and capture some photos and videos. This post is about why I recommend doing the STOOP. It is just not a hiking trail, there is some history to take in and beautiful villages with thatched cottages and ponds.
Preparing for the STOOP
If anyone is not too sure of the area, I recommend downloading some pages of the walk description or printing them off. The best website I recommend to collect such information is from North Herts Ramblers here. However the route is marked with green circles with an arrow and STOOP written on it but it is always best to have a backup in case something goes wrong (as I had experienced a couple of times when I did the route and got lost). If hiking or running the route, make sure to take plenty of water, some money (for the pubs on route), bus timetable (if taking a bus from Stevenage town centre to get to a certain part of the route), food, toilet paper (if you like to go to the toilet in the wild) and of course, a camera for those beautiful photos. I will explain my route in sections and will go clockwise around the town of Stevenage, starting off in the Great Ashby area of the town, just to the north-east.
STOOP part 1: Great Ashby to Hooks Cross
The reason I say I start here, for me personally, the start of the trail is over two miles away from my house. Also Great Ashby has a great bus connection from the town centre if needed (which connects with the train station). From the bus stop at the local shops which includes a Budgens supermarket, there is a hiking trail called STOOP LINK 1 (which connects the shops to the start of the trail at Dane End Farm). It doesn’t take long to get to the trial but before reaching the farm, there is a bit of a long drag up a hill. Once at the farm turn right and follow this through the fields, slightly going downhill. The views to the north are beautiful (looking out towards Cromer village), but I have to admit, most of the views this side of Stevenage are rolling hills. I am not complaining, I just love the outdoors.
The path goes through a small housing estate in Walkern and is kinda sleepy. Nothing really goes on here. The village (or should I say the village of Ardeley nearby) is most famous for the home of Jane Wenham. She was the last woman in England (way back in 1712) to be convicted of witchcraft and was sentenced to death (however, the sentence was never carried out). Going out of Walkern, the route now follows the River Bean, a small river or should I say a stream which goes through the Beane Valley. Heading towards the Aston area, the path goes through farm fields so you might see a house or two and maybe some sheep.
The route goes to the east of Aston (and over a ford) and the hills here are beautiful. Eventually the route goes alongside Astonbury wood (I remember doing school trips here to the pond when I was a wee little boy) before coming out on the main road (A602) which runs between Stevenage and Hertford. This is Hooks Cross village, known for its pub (that’s about it really).
STOOP part 2: Hooks Cross to Woolmer Green
Leaving the village via Raffin Green Lane (and also leaving the Beane Valley behind), the route goes along a country lane up a steep hill and into the village of Datchworth. This is all road until reaching the church in the centre of the village. I just simply love the view to the south overlooking the village and nearby Datchworth Green. I have many good memories of running off-road races through the nearby fields. Also the views to the north looking out to Stevenage are nice also (as this part of the STOOP is now on the southern side of the town). The village has stood here since 700AD but there is evidence of tribes from Belgium (bless them) settled here way before that. Another interesting fact is at the eastern end of Datchworth Green (just down the road) is a whipping post which was last used in July 1665. Two vagabonds (they were people who had low income, lived in poverty etc), were publicly flogged. The stocks in the village stood near this post too but they have since disappeared. However there is another set of stocks which are located near All Saints Church which the STOOP goes right past. For recent history, the last enemy attack on British soil during the Second World War happened on the 29th March 1945 at 9am when a V-1 flying bomb exploded in a nearby field.
The route now heads westwards and downhill through some fields until the village of Woolmer Green is reached. The area was fought to be settled by the Belgium tribes before the Romans came in and settled in the area. There is loads of evidence of the Romans being here, most notably the Roman Baths in nearby Welwyn.
STOOP part 3: Woolmer Green to Nup End and Knebworth Park
Crossing the main road (which was the old ‘main’ road linking London to Edinburgh) and underneath the railway bridge and to a woodland area known as Mardley Heath. The route goes through part of the woodland and it is beautiful. I came through here in the Spring and to see bluebell flowers dotted around and all the lush greenery of the leaves is simply stunning.
Eventually the route goes underneath the motorway A1(M) (the new ‘main road’ which links London to Scotland), and through more fields and along a country lane. The village of Old Knebworth is next (with another nice pub of course). After the village the route goes towards Nup End which is a hamlet next to Old Knebworth. Just north of the village the trail heads towards the road which links Codicote and Hitchin. Carry on with the STOOP by going across the road towards Saint Pauls Walden.
However, I did do the STOOP link here from here which goes through Knebworth Park and into Stevenage. It is free to enter the grounds but hikers must not go towards the house and the fun park. The route runs alongside the western end of the park and the main thing to watch out for here are the Hertfordshire Deers and a few Muntjac’s (small deers). I saw well over fifty deers in my path. I just walked slowly at this point but all of them seemed to be more scared of me so they went off. There is a nice view of the house from the trail. The house was used in such films as Batman (the 1989 version!), The King’s Speech (2011) and Anastasia (1956). The Park is also famous for its outdoor concerts and have had Robbie Williams and Oasis perform here amongst others.
STOOP part 4: Nup End to Langley Green
I love this part of the route which is full of woodland, walking across fields and coming across the beautiful village of St Pauls Walden. After conquering Easthall Farmhouse and running across the field, the route goes into Reynold’s Wood. It’s not a big wood but I love the trail through it. Soft ground, completely covered with green leaves hanging over head from the tree branches and some bluebells on the ground. As I came through here early morning, the sounds of the morning wake up call by birds was wonderful.
The route as I said goes through Saint Paul’s Walden, a very small village but with lots of history. One notable resident was Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, otherwise known as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. She was born in the area on the 4th August 1900 (but historians are not sure if she was born in nearby Hitchin, the royal estate in the village known as St Pauls Walden Bury or in London) but was baptised at All Saints Church in the village to which the route passes through. In 1923, Albert Frederick Arthur George who later became King George VI in 1936, asked Lady Elizabeth to marry him and this was done in the woods surrounding the village. Elizabeth became Queen in 1936 when George IV took the throne and remained there until 1952 when he died. She was still a very dominant figure in the House of Windsor right up until her death in 2002. As you can read, she has a lot of connections to the village.
After leaving the village, the route goes through woodland and across a field before another woodland. There is even a pretty meadow to walk through at one point. The route comes into a small hamlet called Langley Green. A lot of hikers bend left here to take on the small trail paths of Hitchwood – Bluebell Wood (which is known to have woodpeckers and I am pretty sure I heard one too) and before the road on the right is the Hill Chalk Pit.
5: Langley Green to St Ippolyts
After leaving Langley Green and heading north, one of the most noticeable sites on route is the ruins of Minsden Chapel. Here at the chapel is the grave of local historian Reginald Hine who was brought up in nearby Hitchin. He was a bit of a cheeky fella, he and two others went to Minsden Chapel with the intention of photographing the ghost of a monk who it was believed had been murdered there and whose spirit was said to emerge from the stone walls of the ruined chapel. Hine claimed that they had been successful and published the resulting photograph in his The History of Hitchin. The photograph is now accepted as having been a practical joke at best, and a hoax at worst, but Hine never admitted this and its inclusion in what was purported to be a work of serious history is questionable. The shrouded figure is almost certainly that of Hine (See photo). He later killed himself by jumping in front of a train at Hitchin in the 1940s and is buried here.
Heading further north the path goes through the grounds of a pub (of course) before crossing the main road and going across hills to the farm at Almshoebury. The views of the surrounding area are quite nice. Take it all in, that’s what I say. The route goes a bit up and down because of the rolling hills but eventually flattens out when the village of Saint Ippolyts (also spelt St Ippollitts) is reached.
St Ippolyts lies 80 meters above sea levels and is located at the northern end of the Chiltern Hills and is famous for having a couple of houses built in the 16th and 17th centuries (made out of timber). However the village is probably more famous about the spelling of its name and has caused debates between locals and even once on the regional news on Anglia TV. The village is derived from St Hippolytus and over the years according to a local researcher, the village has been called Epolites, Nipples, St Ibbs and Pallets. However when the 1881 census was done, there were twenty-eight different spellings of the village mentioned! Ippolytts, Iplits, Ipolits, Ipollitts, Ipollyts, Ipolytes, Ipolyts, Ippolts, Ippatyts, Ipplits, Ipployts, Ipplyts, Ippolett, Ippoletts, Ippolits, Ippolitss, Ippolits, Ippolitss, Ippolitts, Ippolyts, Ippollit, Ippollits, Ippollitts, Ippollyts, Ippollytts, Ippololits, Ippolytis, Ippoplitts.
6: St Ippolyts to Great Wymondley
From the village green of St Ippolyts where the church is located, the path goes through a residential area before going downhill going through some farmland, whilst walking alongside the small streams known as Ashbrook (which a nearby hamlet is named after). The path comes out by a small roundabout on the western end of Little Wymondley (where I was brought up in most of my childhood on Grimstone Road and attended the primary school on Siccut Road). To be honest, this is all hikers are going to see of the village (however, heading east along the main road into the village, there are two pubs located here). Head up the road (hill) towards Great Wymondley but turn left 300 yards along and the path goes across fields and alongside the railway track (eventually going underneath it). The track will eventually finish at a country lane.
This part of the trail joins onto the HOOP (Hitchin Outer Orbital Path) but not for very long. Crossing the road the trail goes alongside a fishing pond before bearing right, going uphill across fields (also leaving the HOOP behind). The 200 yard section of the path just done is the only part of Hitchin the STOOP touches. Also located near here are the remains of a Roman Villa (I am still yet to find this!). At the top of the hill there is another country lane to cross. Here the trail is just north of the village of Great Wymondley.
7: Great Wymondley to Great Ashby
The northern section of the route and some of the STOOP is also part of another trail path, the Hertfordshire Way. Also just north of Great Wymondley is the Greenway which is a circular trail path surrounding Britain’s first garden city of Letchworth (worth checking out). The trail goes across fields and woodland until the A1(M) motorway is reached before going underneath it and heading into the village of Graveley. Apart from a pub and a nice pond in the village centre, there is nothing much to see here apart from the church. However a mile east of the village, the lost settlement of Chesfield can be found. The ruins of St Etheldreda’s church can be found but I think the site is located on private grounds so it can’t be visited.
Up the hill and again across fields and through woodland, the trail path leads to Weston. Before Weston, there is a great viewpoint overlooking Western Stevenage and the surrounding hills but also there is a field where a local farmer likes to keep bulls in a field. Just be careful. I had to run bloody fast to escape a couple of them who were gunning for me one early Sunday morning. Weston is a village located on the top of the Weston Hills, which are probably the highest hills in North Hertfordshire (and are not part of the Chiltern Hills). I love running in this area. As well as all the nearby hills to run up and down, the views and the countryside around here are quite nice.
Weston is also famous for the local legend of Jack O’Legs who is a giant but was also an archer like the famous Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest. Jack also used to rob the rich to give to the poor and is supposed to be buried in the local churchyard (there is a grave so I think I am going to have to check it out on my next visit there). The legend is that Jack lived in a cave in a wood in Weston (which is located near the town of Baldock, three miles away from here). One year there was a poor harvest, the bakers in Baldock raised the price of flour. Jack got angry, ambushed the bakers and gave the flour to his friends in the village. The bakers got pissed off, caught him and blinded him. They gave him one final wish. Jack asked to be pointed in the direction of Weston so he could shoot an arrow with his bow and said where the arrow landed, that is where he will be buried. The bakers gave him a huge bow which no one else could pull. The arrow landed into the churchyard in Weston, three miles away (he fired it in Baldock) and this is where he is buried.
The legacy of Jack O’Legs, well, there is a grave in the churchyard where two stones are 14 feet (4.3 meters) apart which mark the head and foot of Jack’s grave. The cave is located in nearby Weston Wood and on the road between Graveley and Baldock (Great North Road), and also the hamlet of Jack’s Hill (where there is a pub and near a golf course). There is a storyboard sign on Weston village green and the Tring Brewery has an ale named after the legend.
Away from the village and heading south-east the STOOP train path heads across farm fields and through the hamlet of Warren’s Green (not much going on here) and then back out into the fields just north of Great Ashby. Then Dane End farm comes into view, turn right here and this is the STOOP link back into Great Ashby local shops.
As mentioned, I have mostly run on the STOOP and totally love getting up at sunrise and hitting the trails. I love saying hello to a few farmers and dog walkers out en route. I love taking in the rolling hills, woodlands, valleys. One day I hope to hike all around it and take it slowly. The route isn’t that hard, there are hills but not many. 90% of it is trail paths whilst the other 10% I would say is along country lanes with hardly any car traffic. There are a good few pubs as well on the way. I would also say that this hike is worth doing in stages or a full day trip from London (catch the train up, take a bus to Great Ashby or the other STOOP Link stops). I actually enjoyed doing the whole of the STOOP and would recommend it able enough to run or walk this. However, bicycles are not welcomed on most parts of the routes (I saw the signs from locals and farmers) and I wouldn’t really take a buggy/stroller with a child onto it. Can get a bit bumpy.
So go on guys, give it a go. You will love it!