PUBLISHED: 15:56 08 December 2014 | UPDATED: 15:56 08 December 2014
Author and rambler Phoebe Taplin shares five winter walks along the Harcamlow Way, perfect for a bracing Boxing Day stride out
With cheerful market towns, thatched villages and ancient churches set among rolling fields and winding rivers, the Essex countryside is full of charm. In winter, the woods are wreathed in mist and the frost-fringed paths lead to cosy pubs with open fires and comfy armchairs. So don’t hibernate and wait for summer. Grab your wellies and step out.
Essex has every kind of walk, from a ten-minute circuit through parkland to long-distance routes that span the county such as the prehistoric Icknield Way crossing the northeastern corner or rambles through the saltmarshes to the sea. The Harcamlow Way is a 140-mile, figure-of-eight-shaped walk, running (as the name hints) from Harlow to Cambridge and back again. Here are some highlights along the trail that might make a perfect post-Christmas walk.
1. Thaxted, with its cobbled lanes and half-timbered cottages, is a great little town for brightening up a bleak and wintry day. The houses along Town Street, near the medieval Guildhall have been painted ochre and russet, salmon pink or peppermint green, while the pale blue Manse near the tourist office has a plaque, commemorating composer Gustav Holst, who lived and worked there.
The Thaxted Morris Men, founded by the local vicar in 1911, will be dancing on Boxing Day at 11am in the Church Hall and at noon in the Bull Ring, outside the Swan Hotel, where there is music afterwards. The Swan, an old coaching inn opposite the church, is serving up some festive treats for lunch, from slow-cooked beef or honey-glazed salmon to sticky toffee pud with figs and whiskey.
For a short postprandial stroll from the pub, cross the road and head right down Watling Lane. Turn left along the second footpath, past houses and trees, and then sharp left along the winding River Chelmer. Keep following the path over a footbridge by a gnarled willow tree and then across a road. After the road, take the next path left, doubling back along the river a little way and then turning right to follow a hedge up to the brick windmill on the hill above.
John Webb’s Windmill, built in 1804, next to spire of the John the Baptist church makes for a spectacular skyline. Approach the church past the windmill, through colourful alms-houses, and go inside to admire the huge, airy windows and carved corbels. The Swan is over the road.
For a much longer walk, you can follow the Harcamlow Way for ten miles to Hatfield Forest, past the ruined abbey at Tilty and the soon-to-be-snowdrop-carpeted gardens of Easton Lodge.
2. The delightful Green Man in Takeley is a handy place to start a wintry circuit around ancient Hatfield Forest. The pub is planning to open for Boxing Day, if only for a glass of rich, red Amarone wine from Italy or a pint of Cornish Doom Bar. There is coffee and cake shop area, as well as the refurbished bar, and the outdoor café in the forest does hot drinks and sandwiches too.
Cross the main road and walk a little way along thelane opposite. Immediately after the old railway bridge, turn right up onto the Flitch Way, which is a disused railway. Pass the sign for Stane Street, an old station, and turn left through a gate into a huge field, part of Hatfield Forest, Britain’s best-surviving example of a royal hunting forest. There are ancient trees, wild deer, and areas of traditional coppicing. 2014 is the forest’s 90th anniversary as National Trust property.
Walk ahead, keeping near the trees on your right. When you arrive at more trees ahead, keep straight on along a broad woodland track and, when this ends, keep going in the same direction across grass and then along a Tarmac lane.
Follow this lane to the café near the lake and turn right past the Shell House. This little shell-decorated picnic room was designed in 1759 by the teenage granddaughter of Hatfield’s then owner Jacob Houblon. Turn left along the end of the lake and, on the other side, follow the boardwalk left again until it ends at a little road. Cross over and go on across fields, with trees to the left until you reach the Flitch Way again.
3. A ramble along the River Stort is beautiful at any time of year. Harlow Mill, once used for corn and flour, is now a welcoming pub and a good place to start a waterside walk. Simply turn left from the pub and follow the towpath as it winds through trees and meadows all the way to Roydon and back, or as far as you want to walk.
Modern Harlow is hidden in the trees to your left. It began as a pioneering new town in 1947 and is home to some of Britain’s first post war tower blocks, as well as dozens of public sculptures including works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Soon after Harlow Town, you pass the workshops of Parndon Mill with riverside artworks nearby; these include a walkway across the weir, decorated with glass, and a sandstone sculpture called Flowing Onwards. Parndon Mill is a creative centre with numerous studios for artists and craftspeople. Painters, jewellers, carpenters, sculptors, print makers and others work here every day. Local potter, Sally Anderson rescued the derelict mill in 1968 and her creative vision has been thriving ever since.
Back at Harlow Mill, this crowd-pleasing Beefeater has a festive menu with some seasonal twists like the double steak burger with brie and cranberry.
4. The Cross Keys Hotel, right in the heart of picturesque Saffron Walden, is offering their regular menu on Boxing Day from 12pm until 5pm. Or, for half price, you can treat yourself to the Christmas Day menu, which includes Norfolk turkey with all the trimmings or pan-fried venison with chocolate and cherry sauce. There are lighter dishes too if you’ve overdone it the day before and, appropriately enough, the baked sea bass comes with saffron potatoes. The town’s name and its wealth in the Middle Ages came from growing crocuses to produce saffron.
A trundle round the town trail (available online) is a good place to start, passing medieval shops and St Mary’s Church, the largest parish church in Essex, with its 60-metre spire. Have a look inside at the stained glass, glowing in the winter sun, and the angelic Trompeta Real pipes by the organ.
From half-timbered inns to the Georgian Town Hall, Saffron Walden has more than its fair share of listed buildings. There are even the ruins of a 12th century castle behind the brick museum. Don’t miss Bridge End Garden, with its yew-hedge maze, walled kitchen garden and sloping lawns with a hexagonal summer house.
For a short, rural walk, follow colourful Castle Street until it eventually turns into a path, leading along a ridge above the town. The path eventually swings left along a hedgerow and reaches a junction of tracks near some trees. Turn left here and left again at the next field boundary, re-entering the town along a tree tunnel, to emerge on Little Walden Lane.
Another lovely route leaves from the end of Abbey Lane through hilly Audley Park. Turning right along the road and then left on a path just before the gates of Audley End, you can follow Beechy Ride almost all the way to Newport.
5. Newport itself is an interesting village to stroll round, despite the road through the middle, with several good walks in the surrounding (gentle) hills. The High Street is lined with Georgian mansions and old cottages, including the late 15th century Monk’s Barn at number 56. The upper storey still has a beautiful oriel window with the original sill, carved to show a crowned Mary and Jesus, flanked by angels.
One scenic walk starts from St Mary’s Church (worth a look inside, for its 13th century painted chest and brass memorials), heading north from the churchyard. Take a permissive path diagonally left across a small playing field to emerge through a gate onto Tenterfields Road and go on along Bury Water Lane, under the M11.
Bear right along a track beyond the motorway, past two clumps of trees, with panoramic views opening up as you leave the noise behind. Turn sharp left uphill before the pylons, then right through a hedge and finally left along a track to reach the picturesque village of Arkesden in the valley ahead.
Arkesden’s charming Axe and Compasses pub is open at lunchtime on Boxing Day with a full, seasonal menu, featuring mussels and venison. This should give you the energy to walk back to Newport, or – if you can work out transport – on for a further five miles to Chrishall, through rolling, wooded hills and wintry orchards.
Find out more
You will find more details and walks in Harcamlow Way 1: Scenic Walks in Hertfordshire and Essex, which is available from Bishop’s Stortford or Saffron Walden tourist information offices, or direct from www.phoebetaplin.com