Leg 22 on Friday had been a day of water. And then it rained again. Setting out on Sunday morning the weather was cold but bright and forecast to be dry. Yet again we needed a detour on the way to the start. This time the road into Great Amwell from the A10 roundabout was blocked by flooding, with 50 metres of temporary lake visible to prove it. We did three laps of the roundabout whilst working out the next best route and eventually went one junction further south. Parking was along the side of the road at the entrance to Amwell Nature Reserve. This already had a lot of cars when we arrived and it would prove to be a busy day with lots of people out walking, running and cycling wherever we went.
Almost straight away we discovered the path along the New River blocked by a large fallen tree. This hadn't been there two days previously. We skirted round it and climbed up to the church again. I had done my research this time and knew that the gravestone of Harold Abrahams was against the rounded wall of the early Norman apse. It turns out I was standing right next to it taking pictures last time we were here. Today it was adorned with a pile of pebbles balanced on top of it.
We dropped back down to the New River and I stopped to take photos of the islands. After a muddy kilometre along the river we turned right and crossed the railway to get to the River Lee Navigation at Hardmead Lock. This brought us pretty quickly to Ware.
Pleasant riverside housing estates gradually gave way to older industrial buildings and we were soon in the centre of the town. Dark bricks picked out the words "Ware Flour Mills 1897" on one of the large renovated buildings. The name of the canal boat on the far bank clearly raised a question of interest: "Where's Ware. Two more ringed mute swans swam by: 4EAF and 4CUW were two more locals, ringed at Cheshunt Marshes and Kings Meads three and four years ago. The path was busy with walkers, joggers and cyclist. Overall a very pleasant stretch of river.
At the next bridge a notice board announced that we had reached "The Gazebos the River Lea at Ware" which are apparently "the largest group of gazebos on a riverside anywhere in Britain" although I'm not sure there's a great deal of competition for that title. They originate from 17th and 18th century attempts to make the riverside inns more attractive for passing trade and started out as "Dutch summerhouses". The remaining ten or so were rebuilt in the 1980s and the term gazebo seems to have been applied then. Today they were glinting nicely in the sunshine and reflecting in the river.
Just past the gazebos we got to Ware Lock Weir and then took a footbridge to the north side of the River Lea at the rear of the GlaxoSmithKline factory. The woods here were already carpeted in snowdrops. Skirting round the edge of the sports field we crossed under the A10 and now had views across the river and King's Meads meadows towards the centre of Hertford. The first red kite of the day flew over the gentle hills in the farmland just north of the path. A small group of people stood on the far bank getting dressed after what had presumably been quite a chilly swim in the river. A canal boat on the near bank had its own quite extensive allotment on the bank.
We had now reached the site of Ware Watermill. The original mill was built in 1721 and ground corn for flour and animal feed, and various extensions were added over time. Water was diverted from the River Rib and the mill had an overshot wheel with water the flowing out into the River Lea. The main mill building has now gone but the Mill House has recently been restored and the mill site has been renovated. A viewing point gave views of the restoration including a tufa waterfall and the remains of the brick structure of the old mill.
Just past the mill we reached the River Rib and crossed a footbridge into the wet and muddy expanses of the water meadows on this side of Hertford. A short splash across this first section and then we climbed the small hill up to St Leonard's Church in Bengeo. This is another old church with Norman origins, and has the rounded early Norman apse at the east end to prove it.
The path then dropped back down to river level through the woods of Hartham Common. A thatched cottage on the side of the hill was decorated with three thatched chickens on the ridge, perfectly sited for photographs. Another footbridge took us across the River Beane onto the sports fields in a slightly drier area. Helen did a lap of the toilets by the Sports Centre but they were definitely locked, despite the noise of a hand dryer coming from inside.
The final section of this extra loop was back across the River Lea, over the weir and and then along the river past allotments, cottages and a canoeist until we reached Parliament Square for a second time. Making sure to do a loop round the war memorial we then set off back to Great Amwell.
I pointed out the Egyptian Building as we ran down Fore Street, but only because I knew to look out for it after writing up Leg 19. The brightly painted building was most recently a restaurant but now appears empty. A bit further along was the former Christ's Hospital and Bluecoats School. The school has been relocated to Sussex and the buildings have been converted to flats and offices but the site still has some impressive buildings and is marked by two gateposts topped by blue-coated statues.
We passed Hertford East Station and got back to the weir. Heading along the river towards King's Meads it was still busy with people making it quite difficult to keep going along the narrow paths. By the time we got to Hertford Lock Helen had had enough of other people so we set off on the cross-country route rather than following the path which everyone else was on.
This did involve quite a lot more paddling through standing water and deep mud, but it also gave nice views of the ice still sitting on the surface of all of the ponds. We soon reached a right-angle bend in the New River next to where it exits from the River Lea. Now we could follow the New River all the way back to the car, having decided that a possible later detour up the hill before Great Amwell didn't really add much of interest, especially now it was getting a bit cold.
The trees along the river provided the odd sighting of redwings but not the egrets I had been hoping for. We crossed under the large pillars on the viaduct carrying the A10 across the valley and then reached the railway. The water was up to the bottom of the bridge that took the railway over the New River and only just below track level. By now the shorter grass had been replaced by extensive reed beds on each side and everywhere you looked there were expanses of water. We passed an old pumping station complete with tall chimney and red kites flying above it.
We had now made it back to Ware and had to do a short stretch on the road. This took us past the old maltings buildings in Hoe Lane that used to be the Vaughan Harmon factory where I have spent many days working in the past. This was where they developed and built the Train Describers and Modular Control Systems used extensively across British Rail, Railtrack and now Network Rail. The signs now indicated that it had been split up into a suite of offices, mainly populated by fitness and wellness businesses.
We got back onto the New River at the next roundabout. This stretch was obviously less popular since there was still evidence of grass on the path rather than the mud everywhere else. We spotted more ringed mute swans on the far bank. 4CJG and 4CWG turn out to both be from Ware. Whilst trying to get photos of the rings I also discovered a small brass sculpture on the edge of the river that had a passing resemblance to Wallace and Gromit. It was certainly a person and a dog-like animal, although they were probably only two inches high so it was a bit difficult to tell.
It was now definitely chilly so we kept up a good pace and were soon back in Great Amwell. I decided to take a few last photos of the two islands, and to try to get a shot that allowed me to read the engraving on the large memorial stone. Whilst doing this I noticed two mermaids sitting right on the edge of the island that I had completely missed when taking the same photo two hours earlier. They were again only a few inches tall but someone has clearly been having an entertaining time putting statues along the New River that most people probably never notice.
Having written that paragraph I obviously couldn't resist trying to find out more. And so I now know that we had discovered only two of the 31 small bronze sculptures that make up the Chadwell Way Sculpture Trail. Wallace and Gromit are in fact "Murphy and his Dog" by James (Number 10) whilst the mermaids are "Mermaidia and Mermaid II" by Jessica and Grace (Numbers 4 and 5). The sculptures were made by children from the school in Great Amwell and are now spread out along pretty much the path we followed today. The whole idea is brilliant and I almost want to do the leg again to find more of them.
Having failed to spot any more sculptures we had now got back to the car so that was the bonus extra loop of the Hertfordshire Way done. It had been quite a short day but we made up for it with an hour exploring Amwell Nature Reserve. Still no bitterns or otters but a lot of coots, moorhens, mute swans, black-headed gulls, cormorants, great crested grebes, mallard, tufted duck, pochard and, following investigation of the photos afterwards, gadwall. We can now set off again north east to the far reaches of the county and whatever lies there to be discovered.