Today was slightly delayed since it turns out that I am now old enough (56 and over) to book a Covid vaccine. Finding my NHS number was problematic for a while but eventually I managed to get an NHS website to text it to me. After that it was easy to book a first vaccine at a pharmacy near St Albans station in two weeks and even a second one in May. After that we set off for Patmore Heath. Three red kites floated over a distant woodland as we got changed. We'd see a lot more later.
A short distance down the road we came to the Catherine Wheel pub in what appears on the map as Gravesend, although confusingly the village signs we found seemed to think we were still in Albury. Dropping down through the first large field of the day we go to the first crossing of the River Ash. A flock of fieldfares scattered as we approached the bridge but there was no water running under it. We'd see the water later.
The path led upward past woodland and fields that got larger and larger. We passed Kitchers Pond and the large house next to it and then set off north. The open fields gave 360-degree views, with the view to the north east dominated by the electricity transformer station at Stocking Pelham. I took a lot of photos in the hope that one might make an acceptable banner picture since I was dubious about seeing anything else more interesting later on. Luckily, I was being overly pessimistic.
We both agreed that we could probably put up with living in the new white house with large windows at Little Mead or the older farmhouse at Patient End. And then pressing on across the fields we rounded the corner of a small wood and came across a herd of fallow deer about 150 metres away on the edge of the field. They obviously heard us coming and were standing in a long line all staring in our direction. We walked slowly along the path and they stood and stared back. I have counted at least 95 in the many photos I took. The herd included four white deer as well as four males with large antlers who stood together in the middle. The size and make-up of the herd was very similar to the one we had seen in Therfield about twelve kilometres away on leg 1 so I guess it is possible these were the same animals.
The deer were still watching us as we ran around the farmhouse at Rotten Row and decided that this would be yet another very acceptable residence. The big farm complex at Mutfords was visible from some distance away, its large green barns dominating the skyline. Just past it we found a yard full of old cars and a Routemaster double decker bus displaying Route 19 (Sloane Square) which I had quite possibly travelled on at some time in the distant past when I was working in Farringdon for ten years. We crossed Little Hormead Brook and climbed up the hill towards Little Hormead. There were views of St Mary's Church on the hill ahead and the row of houses along the road on the far side of the valley in Hare Street.
We headed through the churchyard and set off across more fields down to the River Quin. A gas-powered bird scarer went off with a loud bang just after we had passed it although there were no birds in sight to be scared off. A grassy field ran along the river to a rusty water pump next to the road bridge on Worsted Lane. An iron sign on the bridge was dated 1899 and declared that "persons in charge of locomotives, and all other ponderous carriages, are warned against attempting the passage of the bridge".
Five red kites had been circling over the river and as we crossed the road another six were over the village ahead. The road through the village revealed several old buildings including the half-timbered Oak Cottage with a sign saying "circa 1480". As we turned right off the road and back down the hill towards the recreation ground I pointed out that we had now started Leg 14, the final leg of the official Hertfordshire Way as described in the book. A footbridge took us back over the River Quin and into a large field of wheat. Eleven red kites were spread across the field ahead, presumably looking for worms. Groups of three or four would take off, wheel round in a short flying display and then resettle.
Leaving the kites behind we headed east up the hill and it became apparent that there was quite a strong and cold easterly wind blowing. A large pig stared at us as we ran past Great Hormead Bury, and then a right turn took us between high fences to St Nicholas church. This proved a convenient place for a snack stop on a bench. It also proved to be the most densely signed stretch of the Hertfordshire Way with at least four signs within the churchyard directing you along the path to the gate in the far corner.
The path away from the church took us across a field and down towards Great Hormead village. A sign on a tree advertised "The Old Cesspit" and this was to be the end of the Hertfordshire Way for today. We did a small tour of some houses to look at possible parking places for the next leg and then found a footpath out through some garages that should have taken us across the field. The diagonal path marked on the map had obviously not been walked for some time and was completely invisible so instead we stuck to the edge of the field and were soon setting off down a long straight green lane towards Great Hormead Park woods.
The lane was scattered with an assortment of abandoned houses, cars, farms and farm machinery. A Saab that had been overwhelmed by the hedge had an A registration prefix meaning it was from 1983 to 1984. Further on some rather older rusty farm equipment included what remained of a threshing machine and two wooden carts. A distant dark blob on the edge of a field turned out be a muntjac when we got closer, but we are now experts on identifying distant dark blobs so this came as no surprise. It stood watching us for a while before trotting off into the woods. We had now reached Great Hormead Park woods which had some very nice sections of runnable oak and hazel as well as quite a lot of mud on the path still, despite the sun and wind of the previous week.
Coming out of the woods we got to an area of scrubby grassland and woodland which concealed a large moat and the remains of another abandoned farm. Three green woodpeckers flew up from the grass as we approached and the trees were full of birds including yet more noisy fieldfares. A large lump of puddingstone lay by the side of path although there was no indication how it had got there.
At this point we needed to decide whether to take the shorter way back straight to Furneux Pelham or the slightly longer route via the ford in Violets Lane. Wikipedia says that the village is known for the ford and this was intriguing enough for us to take the longer option without really knowing what to expect. Both of us only really knew Furneux Pelham as the location of a notorious murder in 2004. And in case you are wondering the recommended pronunciation is "fur-nooks pell-um".
So after following a farm track for a while we got to the farm and set off down the driveway towards the River Ash at the bottom of the hill. The surfaced road ended here but the track heading off south was essentially a three-metre wide river bed surfaced with sand and gravel set in a small cutting with earth walls of one or two metres each side. The first few hundred metres had a trickle of water running down the middle. Larger and larger puddles started to appear and we joked that we might get wet feet. The puddles merged and filled the whole width of the path. We debated about climbing up the bank and going along the edge of the field. But we hadn't come this far to miss out on the complete experience. And so we set off into what later turned out to be the longest ford in Great Britain or possibly Europe.
Pretty soon it was over Helen's knees and not much after that it was over my knees as well. Hundred metre stretches of hard wading were interspersed with shorter shallower or even dry stretches. The water was crystal clear until you stirred up the mud and silt. And it was also absolutely freezing cold. This is as close as you are going to get in Hertfordshire to the Zion Narrows that we had waded up as a family when touring American National Parks in 2012, even if it doesn't have 1000-foot cliffs on each side.
The technique was to stick close to the bank with a hand ready to grab a tree if you suddenly found a deep spot. After well over a kilometre of wading and several false alarms we eventually reached the end of the standing water and got onto the drier if still muddy path at far end. A sign indicated "River Ash No through route" presumably for people who were tempted to follow the remaining water into the hedge next to the path.
Once the road had dried out we came to the old brewery, now nicely converted to houses and offices, and then to the road in Furneux Pelham. After more debate we decided to take the slightly longer option again and go through the village. This revealed several more nice houses as well as St Mary the Virgin Church. The clock on the tower has "Time flies, Mind your business" picked out in gold lettering.
Leaving the village through a small wood we followed a ditch along the edge of fields. A flock of sheep decided we might have food and jogged over to meet us. A quick double back on a road and we did the final crossing of the River Ash for the day before climbing up through a muddy ploughed field back to Patmore Heath and the car. As we drove out down the single-track lane back to the road we were confronted by a large car coming the other way. This was obviously a local since they drove at speed up onto the bank leaving us just enough space to squeeze past with two wheels up the bank on our side.
A much more interesting day than I had been expecting with good views, good wildlife and the added and completely unexpected bonus of Violets Lane. And I can now declare that we have completed our antepenultimate leg, so there are only two more to go.