Best Rides: Jack Thurston of the 'The Bike Show' writes about his favourite cycle tour in rural Hertfordshire

Jack Thurston, author of Lost Lanes — the best-selling guide to bike rides within easy reach of London — shares one of his favourites, a gently rolling exploration of a hidden corner of Hertfordshire



What will I see? 
A quiet corner of rural Hertfordshire that’s full of surprises, from an Iron Age hill fort on the Icknield Way to a ruined chapel said to be haunted and Hertfordshire’s last remaining watercress farm. It’s all gently rolling farmland and villages with redbrick and weatherboarded buildings. Starting at Knebworth, and roughly following the watershed of the River Mimram west as far as the chalk ridge of the eastern Chilterns, where the summer wildflower displays are spectacular. 

What are the highlights? 
George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, philosopher, wit (and dedicated cyclist) lived in the pretty village of Ayot St Lawrence from 1906 until his death in 1950. The National Trust has preserved his Edwardian villa with its Arts & Crafts interiors more or less as he left it and offers half price admission for cyclists (£3.15). Also in the village is a ruined church (right opposite the pub) and its incongruous Palladian-style replacement.

From the Iron Age hill fort atop Deacon Hill, it’s possible to see for dozens of miles into Bedfordshire. The hill is now a wildlife reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest, on account of its rare and diverse fauna and flora, including orchids in the early summer. Leave bikes locked at the bottom and walk up to the top. In fine weather, it makes for a perfect picnic spot.

En route
Knebworth may be famous for hosting huge open air concerts by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen and Robbie Williams, but the real stars of the village are the carved memorials to various members of the Lytton family in the church of St Mary and St Thomas — among the finest examples of 18th century sculpture in Britain. The ruined Minsden Chapel, in a copse of woods on a bridleway just off the road between between Preston and St Paul’s Walden, is said to be a site of paranormal activity. There were no ghosts when I visited, but it’s a strangely atmospheric spot and the flint walls of the chapel are slowly disappearing under the advancing vegetation.

Who's the route suitable for? 
At 37 miles (60km), the route makes for a leisurely day ride as there are plenty of places worth stopping. There’s no one big climb, but almost constant undulations makes for a total ascent of 586 metres. The route follows quiet lanes and there are a few twists and turns so a good map (OS Landranger 166: Luton and Hertford) or GPS makes sense. The route is on surfaced lanes throughout so any bike is suitable.

How to get there? 
Trains to Knebworth leave from Kings Cross and take 32 minutes. Bikes are allowed on trains without reservations. Weekday peak hours restrictions are largely irrelevant as you’ll be travelling in the opposite direction to the daily tides of commuters (check the First Capital Connect website for its cycle policy). 

Travel tip 
There are even faster trains to Stevenage (as little as 19 minutes) from where it’s a couple of miles along the B197 turning left onto Old Knebworth Lane.
 
More rides in the area? 
Modern Stevenage was built after World War II as part of a ring of ‘new towns’ around London. It boasts a network of cycle tracks that in the 60s and 70s was held up as a shining example of how a British town could ‘Go Dutch’. Unfortunately, most residents  prefer to get around by car and the town’s grand cycle tracks are largely deserted — read more here.



The Stevenage and North Herts CTC organises excellent audax rides marking the beginning and end of British Summer Time as well as the ‘Stevenage Circular’ route of 50 miles (84km) — details of the routes are on the rides pages of the club’s website.

The Icknield Way is a prehistoric trackway that’s now a 70-mile (274km) long distance trail for horse riders, off-road cyclists and walkers. 

Bike shops and hire
Marshall’s Cycles in Stevenage sells spares and offers bikes for hire. There’s also a Halfords in on the London Road in Stevenage.

Emily’s Tea Room in Whitwell has a small bike shed for spares and basic repairs. Cycle mechanic Steve Rhodes runs a small bike repair shop based in Stevenage Indoor Market and offers a call-out service if you’re stuck and not too far away (07941 228518). 

Where to stay
Make a weekend of it by staying at the Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence, a historic oak-beamed inn with a few guest rooms upstairs.
 
Food and drink
The Plough in Preston (01438 871394) is a no-frills village pub serving basic bar food and homemade specials. The Red Lion in Preston (01462 459585) was Britain’s first community-owned pub and serves a good range of real ales and excellent food.

In St Paul’s Walden, the Strathmore Arms (01438 871654) is a traditional, unspoiled ‘drinkers pub’ offering simple food. Emily’s Tea Shop in Whitwell is a favourite of local cyclists and the small farm and garden nearby make for a very bucolic atmosphere.

Nine Wells in Whitwell is the last commercial watercress farm in the county. It’s been in same family for 150 years and the traditional production methods have remained unchanged. There are two harvests a year (March-May and September-December).

Jack Thurston presents The Bike Show on Resonance FM and Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England is published by Wild Things Publishing (£14.99).









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