Today was March 21st. Census Day. World Down Syndrome Day. A year to the day since the British Orienteering Championships 2020 that weren't. 166 days since we set out from Royston on our tour around Hertfordshire. Five days since I got my first Covid vaccine. And time for our final leg.
We had worked out that doing this the normal way, starting from Barkway, running to Royston along the Hertfordshire Way and then back to Barkway by some other route was going to be a bit of an anti-climax. So instead we decided to reverse things so that we could get to the Roy Stone and stop rather than face 10 kilometres back up hill. This meant a trip up the A1(M) for the first time since Leg 5, past many familiar sights from the early legs plus two buzzards and a kestrel, and then a chance to park on Therfield Heath in exactly the same space as for Leg 1.
The heath was busy with people walking everywhere you looked, even though it was slightly overcast, slightly windy and slightly cold. I had tried to select a route out of Royston that avoided the main roads and handily the orienteering map covered just enough of the housing estates on the south side of the town to allow us to pick our way through and across to the east.
We managed to jog to the top of the first short steep hill and had a brief stop to take in the views out across the heath and then round to the north and across into Cambridgeshire. Then it was straight back down into the next valley, up to the top of the next hill to a covered reservoir and then back down to cross Ermine Street, which at this point is the A10. A runner coming the other way warned that there was quite a strong wind which we would be running into on the way back.
After a short section along the A10 past Royston Hospital we turned off around the edge of a housing estate and into some quite nice woodland in Green Walk Plantation. Helen was not convinced there would be a way across into the next estate but one turned up just as expected. We took the orienteer's route across the estate by joining up a series of narrow alleyways and a gap between two long lines of garages and a steep flight of steps down into yet another valley. We'd be back here two hours later since this was the Hertfordshire Way running down the valley and into Royston. For now we scrambled up the steep grassy bank the other side of the path and ran through the next housing estate. The road took us past a new development of large black boarded barns, which I had found when investigating houses for sale around Royston, and then finally to the start of the fields leading out of Royston.
There were good views all around and we had already spotted the hangar at Duxford and various large buildings around Cambridge. Dominating the skyline to the south was the radio mast just outside Barkway showing where we were heading. Much nearer, at the edge of the field we were running through, was the cottage that I had also found for sale. Off to the left was Halfmoon plantation, a large copse in the middle of the field. Crossing through a line of trees and then a gap in the hedge we reached the start of the fenced paddocks of Newsells Park stud. This covers 1200 acres and is by far the biggest and most well-kept of the many horsey establishments we have run through. At the bottom of the valley was a large complex of buildings that would have been big on their own but were just the first of four or five such groups of buildings, all to the same design, that we would be running past. The fields were all fenced and labelled and had wide grassy strips between them.
In theory the path was meant to cut across several of the fields but there were notices up notifying of diversions and so we followed the new signs down between two fields at right angles to where we really wanted to be to find out where we would end up. Two young colts came across to say hello as we ran past the first building but we pressed on past small blocks of woodland and between yet more buildings and fenced fields in roughly the expected direction. Eventually we emerged at a road and crossed into the next section of Newsells Park.
From the bottom of the valley we climbed up past Fox Cottage to remind us that we still hadn't seen a fox. We passed the Newsells First World War memorial and then set off up a muddy track towards the main house on the estate. A very large walled garden was partially hidden beyond the trees and then as we reached the top of the hill an obelisk appeared out of the trees. This was erected in the late 19th Century by Field Marshal Lord Strathnairn in memory of a horse he had ridden in the Indian Mutiny.
By now we were level with the radio mast which we had been aiming for and which was now only 500 metres off to the west. The path emerged in Barkway past a new housing estate that hadn't made it onto the map yet, and we set off down the main road. This was lined with a sequence of old houses of a huge variety. We passed the war memorial at the road junction next to a very narrow half-timbered house. Then there was a chapel. A house with a large plaque showing the head of Peter Paul Rubens. A milestone giving distances to London, Ware and Cambridge. More thatch. More brick. More half-timbering.
We turned down Church Lane and arrived unsurprisingly at the church and the nominal start of today's last leg. Next to the gate was a long thin pond with grassy banks leading down to each end which apparently suggest that this used to be a cart wash. The churchyard had a convenient bench for a final snack. I investigated the gravestones and found one for a doctor from the Crimean war. Peter chose this moment to ring and discuss things that he could do for World Down Syndrome Day even though, as Helen pointed out, he had left it a bit late.
And then it was time to set off again with the prospect of less than ten kilometres to go, most of which would be downhill. The first track was familiar from the previous leg but we soon reached the crossroads and could turn right to set off around the edge of the solar farm towards Reed. Each small block of woodland we passed seemed to conceal earthworks or a moat of some form. Somebody had been busy maintaining the signposts and we spotted several shiny new Hertfordshire Way markers. After negotiating two narrow paths trodden through the newly ploughed fields and a bridge over a ditch where we arrived just as two other walkers and a dog were trying to get across,we came out into the churchyard at St Mary's church.
From the church we turned back on ourselves and ran through a grassy bumpy field with more hints of ancient earthworks. Then it was along the road through the village and back out into the wide open fields. A slight rise got us to the top of the ridge and revealed the views out into East Anglia as well as the cold northerly wind we had been warned about earlier. All around the skylarks were singing from high above the fields.
A very large complex of farm buildings lay at the bottom of the valley. We skirted round them and found a large flock of chaffinches in the trees along the path. They scattered as we approached and flew over to the woodland on the other side of the path. Two large and isolated houses lay just beyond, one obviously quite old and the other very new. In the distance beyond them was a large tower that I initially thought was going to be an extra church for our list, but which turned out to be the remains of Mile End windmill, now converted into a house.
By now we had got back to Newsells Park stud and the familiar buildings and fenced paddocks reappeared. A loop to go round another large old house took us very close to the fields we had passed through on the way out, and then we set out into a small wood on the start of the final hill. As we got to a path crossing a helmeted and masked figure appeared riding what was essentially a motorised unicycle. He had a board to stand on (or at least wobble on) and a single large rubber wheel in the middle of it driven by an electric motor.
We ran past the other side of Halfmoon plantation and Helen put in a final effort and managed to run all the way up the final climb to the top of the ridge above Royston. And from there it was all downhill. Down through the woods past the large white cat thinking it was hiding in the bushes. Down the valley to the housing estate where we had crossed over earlier that morning. Down the road towards the centre of Royston. Down past the old police station and Magistrate's court which weren't quite where the book suggested. And then it was into Priory Gardens and on to the final church of our tour. It was hidden behind a large and distinctive holm oak as we approached, and it would have been much better if it had stayed hidden. Instead we found it covered in scaffolding and jammed into a small corner of the gardens.
All that was left was a short stretch along the road past the sign to Royston cave with its associated shop, and suddenly we were at the Roy stone and the Hertfordshire Way was complete. I took a few photos to record the event and then revealed the prop that I had spent most of the previous day putting together. This was a twenty centimetre high signpost that I had made out of an old plywood filing box. It had been quite an effort to get it into the rucksack and keep it hidden for the whole leg. After removing several large bulldog clips and extra sheets of plywood that had been necessary to stiffen it and stop it breaking as I ran along, I spent quite a long time trying to get suitable angles, lighting and backgrounds. We even managed a couple of photos on the timer which will be my only recognisable appearance in any photo from the whole expedition.
With the photos done we could repeat the start of Leg 1 by running up the hill towards the golf course on the edge of Therfield Heath. The Morrisons supermarket that had been open five months ago when we ran past was now boarded up but everything else felt very familiar. The last feature of note was the Queen Victoria memorial "erected by public subscription 1901". But strangely we had seen no red kites throughout the whole day: only the second time in thirty legs that we had missed them.
And then we were back at the car and it was done. There will be time for reflections on what we had seen later. For now the question was what next? And it seems that the answer is the Chiltern Way.