Nearly a week after the snow arrived and it was still lying on the ground in some places. It has been well below freezing for several nights which is enough to have frozen most of the mud and standing water. The forecast is for temperatures to stay below zero all day with strong easterly winds. So a day to wrap up warm (hat and two pairs of gloves to start with) and get on with it.
We managed to fond a convenient parking space on Ermine Street. Strangely for a Roman road it does almost a right angle here but this seems to be associated with crossing the river. First stop was St Mary's Church which we had hurried past last time. This required a climb further up the hill and turned out be a relatively new church by the standards of what we have seen elsewhere, having been built in 1853. After the mandatory photo stop, which captured Helen already looking distinctly chilly, we set off down a long set of steps to reach the path junction where we ended the last leg.
The path led eastwards through the River Rib valley passing under the A10. We soon reached a moated area of woodland that included the remaining tower of Thundridge Old Church of All Hallows and Little Saint Mary. This is still surrounded by gravestones amongst the trees.
Continuing along the valley the first red kite of the day appeared. We probably saw more kites today than on any other leg which was somewhat surprising. I was assuming that they were still gradually migrating east from the Chilterns, but they have definitely reached here in large numbers. The bird life continued with a noisy rookery. The group of houses off to the south was Cold Christmas and we could certainly see why. The wind was blowing strongly and was extremely chilly.
Somewhere along this path we crossed the Greenwich Meridian. There is a small stone monument on the road near here but that would have added an extra 500 metres to the day and seemed a little excessive. Instead we tried to stick to the proper route, although the diagonal path across a ploughed field didn't seem to have been walked recently so we stuck to the field edge. We climbed away from the River Rib to Timber Hall and started off across more fields and blocks of woodland. For some reason this was a day for fieldfares and they started appearing in the hedges, much more so than on previous legs where it had been redwings that dominated.
The muddy paths in the woods were frozen solid. This had the advantage of keeping your feet dry but the disadvantage of making it quite hard to run since the mud had been so churned up before freezing and every step left your foot at an odd angle. Coming out of the woods we could see the tower of Holy Trinity Church in Wareside although we never got much closer to it. There was another missing diagonal path across a ploughed field and then quite a lot of confusion about exactly how to get through the village. Eventually we went quite a way up a road and then back down the path on the other side of the hedge but eventually we worked out where we needed to be and set off along Nimney Bourne to the River Ash.
We reached the Ware, Hadham & Buntingford Railway that we had last seen on Leg 22. For some reason the route did two sides of a triangle in a grassy field rather than following the railway itself. This did give good views down the valley and also allowed Helen a chance to refold the map. Quite why she chose to do it on an exposed windy hillside I don't know but I gallantly offered to help. Although that was after making sure I had the photographic evidence, by which stage she didn't seem to need any help. I decided that I could take my hat and one pair of gloves off but two minutes later I worked out that was the wrong decision and they went back on.
Back on the old railway we got a first view of the spire of Widford church on the horizon. From this angle it appeared to be crooked, but from various other angles that we got throughout the day it looked more upright. The path went along the top of a very deep and very steep cutting that the railway used to run in, all of which would have been dug by hand which looked quite a big job. Then the path dropped down to the river and we came out into the meadows below Widford. A steep ridge runs along the river with Widford on the top to the left and Widfordbury off to the right.
We got to a path junction by the fence around the sewage works and set off on a triangular lap around the villages. Fieldfares flew around on the flattish grass in the valley bottom and a distant white blob was indeed a plastic bag this time. A short sharp climb took us up to a row of very large buildings on the skyline with the old rectory, the church, a large farm house and two very large barns. Helen decided she wanted a closer look so we ended up running through what turned out to be old farm buildings now converted to offices and workshops, although they may be waiting some time for people to move in.
The sunshine glinted off the spire of St John the Baptist church as we ran past and Helen stopped to receive the vital news that Peter was now up and having breakfast. Elsewhere there was evidence of the real temperature with large icicles hanging off the roadside vegetation where water had been splashed up by passing cars. We reached the centre of Widford and took a narrow path down the side of a thatched cottage to drop back down through houses and fields to the river. It seemed a surprisingly long way down, and then for the last 50 metres we hit the only really wet and muddy stretch of the day where the sun had been warm enough to melt some of the ice.
A final kilometre along the river and we reached the road at Hadham Mill and could head for home. The narrow road up towards Much Hadham wasn't great to run on, but we soon turned off on a side road. The automatic gates on a long driveaway started opening as Helen ran past with no car in sight, but we passed up the chance to investigate and kept going under the old railway bridge. A muntjac was standing in the sunshine on the edge of the field and stayed just long enough for me to get a sensible photo revealing slightly more than the brown dot we had seen previously.
Helen decided she was getting hungry so we broke out the snacks as we ran up the road and then started off down a long driveway to Barrow Farm. The farm had a very well tended ornamental garden in front of it. The fields here were beginning to get bigger and more exposed. The mud was frozen solid, with thick ice on all the puddles and patches of snow. There is obviously a large deer population around here with prints everywhere. The larger ones were presumably fallow deer and the very small ones were definitely muntjac. Behind us there were still views of the spire at Widford.
We set off along a steep wooded valley and dropped down into it to cross Nimney Bourne. A large wooden bridge had recently been installed in what felt like the middle of nowhere. The water was still just about flowing but there was a lot of ice under the bridge. The next field had a long row of beehives along the hedge and then we crossed the road and set off across even bigger and bleaker fields to Sawtrees Farm. The next path ran straight through the middle of a field and led to an area of coppiced woodland. The second muntjac of the day trotted across the path in front of us and disappeared up a muntjac-sized tunnel under the brambles.
The path dropped to a road which led to Barwick Ford. Water was running over the road and cars splashed through although the depth gauge seemed to indicate the river was nearly empty and was marked for six feet of water. At that point it would have been well over the footbridge that we took to keep our feet dry. The farm buildings on the far side of the river were part of the Chaldean Estate and various smart signs were scattered around to advertise the fact. Three buzzards circled over the next block of woodland to keep the red kites company and Helen spotted a distant muntjac, the third of the day, scampering into the woods.
We now started to find signs marked Harcamlow Way. This is a figure-of-eight route around Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire and we will follow more of it in the remaining legs. Today it led us to a surprisingly green area of well-tended grass that is High Cross airstrip. Facilities were a single large metal shed and a wind sock, and, apart from the grass, it somehow reminded me of the airstrips we had seen in Botswana.
A last muddy path across a ploughed field littered with small pieces of broken brick and tile and we entered the parkland around Youngsbury. Unsurprisingly it has associations with Capability Brown, althoughe is alleged to have said that there was little he could do for it. The large house in the middle was covered in scaffolding and clearly undergoing a major restoration. We ran down through scattered trees with views to the River Rib and Thundridge Old Church and then turned to go under that A10 again. Looking back I spotted the fourth muntjac of the day on top of a small hill. Just before the A10 tunnel a kestrel hovered and then dived down to perch on the fence at the edge of the road.
We had now made it back to Wadesmill. Careful planning meant that I had two specific photos left to take on the way back to the car. First was the Toll Cottage for the Wadesmill Turnpike, the first toll road opened after the Turnpike Act of 1663. The road had heavy traffic from wagons taking barley to the many maltings we had seen around Ware, and the tolls paid for repairs. The cottage itself is only from the 19th century but has the plaque on and now I have the photo to show we found it.
Then it was back over the bridge we had crossed on the last leg. This time I knew to pay a bit more attention which required a short detour off the edge of the road to river level to get a view under the bridge. This revealed six Doric columns supporting the central span. This is not a common design and one reason may be that it is not as strong as more solid options. Several of the columns had large metal bands holding them in place. But it has lasted since 1825 so it can't be too bad an option.
The final red kite of the day appeared above the church on the hill behind us and I pointed out that we now only had 100 kilometres to go. With any luck the remaining legs will be slightly warmer if nothing else. Driving home we went back along the Hatfield Road and found the road littered with parked cars and people taking photographs of the icicles in the hedge where the road floods. The next day I discovered three people playing ice hockey on the pond on Smallford Common. But after a weekend when the temperature never got above zero the weather forecast now says it will be 15 degrees warmer next weekend. We shall see.