Helen spent the morning volunteering at a vaccine centre in St Albans so this ended up as an afternoon leg. There was still a light covering of snow from the weekend and the forecast didn't expect it to get above freezing, but there was quite a lot of blue sky and sunshine so we decided it was worth a go. Arriving at Waterford we drove past the big the area of laurel between the road and the river that we had run past on Leg 19 and speculated why anyone would plant it like that.
We crawled up the narrow road towards the railway bridge following an Asda delivery van that clearly wasn't quite sure where it was going and didn't seem too keen to get stuck. There was plenty of space in the car park at Waterford Heath Nature Reserve, despite the car maintenance that appeared to be going on with someone lying flat on the ground and fiddling with something inside the wheel arch on the car next to us, and we were soon on the way back down the hill to set off along Vicarage Lane. I optimistically suggested that this should be relatively sheltered from the cold easterly wind since we would be below the ridge along the river. Unfortunately the wind turned out to be more northerly but it didn't really become obvious until a bit later.
The route to Stapleford followed the Rive Beane north, crossing under the railway and then going through narrow strips of woodland. A church spire appeared above the trees and we ran through the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin to reach the road. Heading up the road I stopped to take a photo of the "Clusterbolts" road sign and said I thought we needed to go along it. There were no obvious signs but Helen checked the map and confirmed that we needed to stick to the main road for a while.
We climbed steadily out of Stapleford and then turned off the road just after overtaking a walker in a bright red jacket. The path went across a rough open area which was probably once a rubbish tip but was now covered in short grass, blackthorn bushes, ponds, ice, mud and sheep. The track at the far end went through a farmyard, past a veterinary practice and back to the road. Then it was more roads and fields as we set off towards Tonwell. A red kite flew over the trees. I took a photo of two small brown splodges in a distant field that I assumed at the time were two pheasants but which turned out to be hares when I got to look at the photo afterwards.
And then Helen said "Can I have the book please". We hadn't seen a sign for a long time. We were definitely following the route marked on the OS map. But something felt wrong. And indeed it was. The book showed that the Hertfordshire Way headed north out of Stapleford along Clusterbolts before doing a large loop round Woodhall Park and then turning back towards Bengeo Temple. We had nearly cut off this whole loop. We both knew we had to go back and do it properly, so we set off along the road back down to Stapleford. Checking afterwards my first edition of the Hertfordshire Way guidebook does have the route we followed. The OS map was newly bought last year and still shows the old route, as does the online version of the OS map.
That short detour had added well over three kilometres to the day, though it did produce the hares. We turned right along Clusterbolts and were soon back on the River Beane. A man in a red jacket was walking back towards us having found a much more efficient way of getting here. A single solar panel sat by the side of the path which turned out to be driving a pump for a water trough. And I then spent ages trying to get a photo of a white splodge in the thick vegetation next to the river which I was initially convinced was a little egret but decided was in fact a plastic bag, but which finally turned out to be a little egret when I looked at the photos afterwards.
The path ended at a large wall complete with ladder stile. We climbed over it and into Woodhall Estate; yet another large area of ornamental parkland with various impressive buildings scattered around. The river here went over a large weir and the lake behind the weir was frozen over with snow on top of the ice. We ran through a large flock of sheep that were spread out on the gentle slopes along the river and then crossed the long straight driveway leading up a large house at the top of the hill. It was over a kilometre from the house to the lodge at the other end of the driveway.
The memorable feature for this particular estate was bricks. We climbed a brick wall to get in. A very large walled garden lay at the top of the hill on the edge of the woods. And then we got to the far side of the estate to be confronted by the brick wall again. Another ladder stile got us over it, and I could just about see over the top as we ran alongside so it was well over five feet high. It ran for hundreds of metres separating the woodland outside from the parkland inside. Somebody had obviously spent a long time building and maintaining it.
We crossed back over the driveway by the lodge and ran through various signs warning of road closures over the next six months. This turned to be associated with widening of the A602 but we crossed it easily enough and set off up the entrance road to the next estate: Sacombe Park.
The path turned right off the driveway and headed across fields past a covered reservoir. The triangular outline of the water tower at Tonwell appeared above the trees for the first time. We were about to spend the next hour running in a big circle around it. The paths along the hedges started to get muddier and by Bengeo Temple Fam we were back to the familiar attempts to dodge the puddles and mud. There were deer hoof prints everywhere. A sign warned of free-range game birds, chickens and guinea fowl but we saw nothing but red kites and a lorry carrying "racing pigeons in transit" parked in the next farmyard.
The sun went behind a large dark cloud for ten minutes and it suddenly got vey cold. Dropping down towards Thundridge we got the full force of the wind. The fields here still had quite a lot of snow lying on them and there hadn't been enough sun to start it melting. A short stretch of road took us through Wadesmill and across the River Rib to Thundridge where we rejoined Ermine Street, last visited on the way through Broxbourne Woods on Leg 21. Here it was lined by a row of old cottages and brought us to a path junction by the church which was the somewhat arbitrary end of today's leg. We decided to save the visit to the church for next time and instead headed off along the River Rib past allotments and playing fields.
We crossed the golf course with views back up to the water tower on the other side of the valley and then had to climb to the top of the ridge to follow the path through a small group of houses. Signs on the edge of the woods warned of quicksand and deep water from what was presumably old gravel workings, but there was little evidence left. We took the chance to eat snacks on the gentle run down hill but then had to stop for photos of an enormous and solitary icicle hanging from a branch by the path. Helen decided this was a suitable point to Whatsapp James to keep him informed of progress.
I joked that the subways shown on the map where we were about to cross under the A602 might prove a bit muddy. We passed a row of palm trees in the snow by a cottage just before crossing the River Rib on a bridge and were then confronted by the reality of the subways. The path went into a grassy field which turned into an on ocean of mud, ice and standing water. Three somewhat overgrown semi-circular tunnels led under the road. We couldn't get within twenty metres of them let alone go through them.
The alternative was to climb the bank and cross the road. A faded sign indicated that there was still a right of way up through the thick vegetation but Helen vetoed the idea of crawling through it and then climbing the Armco barrier straight onto an A road. So instead we backtracked for a while and found an easier way onto the road. Sticking as close as we could to the edge in an attempt to avoid the oncoming traffic we crossed the bridge over the river and the subways and were then faced with a steep muddy bank down to the flooded valley. After dodging the barbed wire fence at the bottom we could set off along the river again, admiring the vast expanse of ice covering the field and stretching back to the three subways.
We were now pretty much done. A short run up a very narrow road brought us to the small village of Chapmore End which turned out to be very pleasant. Mallard skated on the ice on the pond and a fieldfare landed noisily on a tree next to the pond as I was changing the camera battery. After that is was muddy paths through old gravel workings and we had made it back to Waterford Heath.
A slightly longer day than intended, but there was just enough sunshine to make it enjoyable. The birds had mainly stayed hidden but I did spot a buzzard and a kestrel on way home.