Adjoining Greater London’s northern border the county of Hertfordshire was originally a stone-age settlement, later occupied by the Romans and subsequently invaded by the Anglo-Saxons (who named the area ‘heort ford’ – ‘deer crossing’ in modern English). Today, Hertfordshire is primarily an agricultural county thanks to its largely flat landscape, but for the Hertfordshire visitor there is a wealth of charming villages and market towns to explore, many sites of historical interest taking in everything from the Roman occupation to the Wars of the Roses and beyond, a selection of magnificent stately homes and public gardens and more than a few surprises.
Much of Hertfordshire’s Roman past is in evidence in the vibrant cathedral city of St Albans, to the west of the county. St Albans cathedral, with its mix of architectural styles and remarkable stained glass windows is an attraction in itself, but history buffs should also take in the Verulamium Museum which interactively charts the area’s Roman occupation, and the Museum of St Albans which looks at the history of the city following the Romans’ departure. Whilst in St Alban’s take a look at two features unique in the British Isles; a mediaeval clock tower which can be climbed to gain panoramic views of the city, and the Roman Theatre – the archaeological remains of an arena, Roman Villa and shrine dating back to 140AD.
Lovers of the English countryside, outdoor pursuits and nature won’t be disappointed by Hertfordhire’s rich selection of country parks and nature reserves. Ashridge Estate, near Hemel Hempstead in west Hertfordshire offers a network of trails to follow through bluebell-carpeted woodland and over rolling chalk grassland. Besides providing stunning views of Hertfordshire and neighbouring Buckinghamshire, Ashridge Estate rewards the observant with glimpses of wildlife such as red kites, woodpeckers and fallow deer.
On the eastern side of the county, the award-winning Lee Valley Country Park in Ware runs alongside the River Lee for an astonishing twenty-six miles into neighbouring Essex, and accommodates just about every outdoor pursuit you could wish for including cycling, walking, fishing and canoeing. The less energetic can explore Lee Valley Country Park’s many other attractions including landscaped gardens, nature walks and bird watching.
Hertfordshire is blessed with some of Britain’s finest historic houses and estates. Now world famous for the annual summer music festival held in its grounds, Knebworth House is a magnificent gothic stately home located in Stevenage and has been owned by the Lytton family since 1490. Knebworth’s twenty-five acres of beautifully maintained gardens include a dinosaur trail featuring twenty-five realistic and life-sized dinosaurs, a maze and a herb garden. The house itself is exquisitely decorated and furnished, and contains heirlooms and antiquities collected by successive generations of the Lytton family.
The Jacobean Hatfield House is the family seat of the Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury and features intricately carved wooden features, fine tapestries, a library containing books dating back to the sixteenth century and many other examples of period furniture, elaborate craftsmanship and fine artworks. Hatfield House is set in extensive and picturesque wooded parkland which can be explored via three dedicated trails, and there is also a working farm on the site which can be visited. The luxury Hertfordshire hotel at Luton Hoo is something of an architectural masterpiece in its own right and makes a great base for exploring the best of the county.
For sheer curiosity value, the Grade II listed Scott’s Grotto in Ware, a short distance from the county town of Hertford, must be worth a visit. Constructed in the eighteenth century by poet John Scott, the grotto is a series of chambers connected by tunnels that extend for sixty-seven feet into a chalk hillside. The aspect that makes this grotto unique is that the chambers and tunnels are entirely lined with hundreds of thousands of small seashells and pieces of flint, fossil, mineral and coloured glass.
Elsewhere, if perfectly preserved stuffed animals are your thing the Natural History Museum at Tring offers an extensive and fascinating journey through the animal world through six separate galleries of exhibits, including examples of extinct animals and birds such as the Dodo.
Hertfordshire has much to offer visitors, whether they like exploring charming and historic market towns like Bishop’s Stortford and Waltham Cross, browsing fine country estates and stately homes, enjoying the great outdoors in a selection of country parks, municipal gardens and wildlife reserves or seek family fun at theme parks, zoos or outdoor activity centres. A true county of contrasts and surprises, the only problem that Hertfordshire poses is: how will you fit it all in?
Knebworth house image by foshie