Sunday, 24 March 2019

On The Towpath

When you plan to take a peaceful walk in the countryside, the railway station in Harlow New Town is far from the most obvious place to start, but that's where I found myself on Saturday morning.

It is handily placed to access the River Stort though, which can then be followed back upstream to Bishop's Stortford. There's a riverside path all the way. Except that it's not, strictly speaking, a river any more.

The towns of Ware, Hertford and Bishop's Stortford were competitors in the trade of supplying agricultural produce to the ever-growing population of London. The most profitable of these products, back in the eighteenth century, was barley malt for the brewing industry. Ware and Hertford had rather stolen a march on Stortford by making the River Lea navigable so their produce could be moved by barge, rather than having to rely on the poor roads of the time.

So in 1759 an Act was passed in Parliament allowing similar works to be carried out on the River Stort. So it should be called the "River Stort Navigation" rather than just the River Stort. The path we're following today - along with early morning dog-walkers and keen joggers - is the path that was once used by the horses that hauled the barges up and down the waterway, until the advent of steam-powered boats.

Today all the traffic on the river is for leisure, though a lot of people live permanently on boats too.

But making the river navigable involved a lot more than simply digging it a little deeper here and there. The upper section of the river was not wide enough nor deep enough so, in order to hold the water back, lock gates were built at about two-mile intervals. In places the river needed straightening to allow barges through. Elsewhere there were water mills that had to be by-passed while still allowing the mill to have enough water to power its grindstones.

This all makes for an interesting walk as there is constant alternation between man-made sections and more natural stretches of water. Sometimes its a hive of activity as boats make their way through the locks, while elsewhere all is tranquil with just the song of the Chiffchaff and the hammering of Woodpeckers for company.

Many of the boats are painted traditionally - but this is not one of them!

I'm off to get a spot of lunch and to have a look at the little town of Sawbridgeworth now. I'll see you soon.....

….and a little farther along we'll be greeted by this rather cute "sea dog", clearly desperate to go for a walk.

More livestock! Not the sort of beastie you'd be expecting to encounter around here.

They also had to construct wide turning-basins where boats could be turned around if necessary.

There were plans at one time to continue with the project as far as Cambridge and thence to Kings Lynn. The most obvious route passed close to Audley End House, home of Lord Howard de Walden, who opposed the scheme. By the time alternative routes had been surveyed the scheme had lost impetus and was never built.

Time to get arty with some distorted reflections of reeds.

This boat owner must also have some artistic leanings to be mooring his bright red boat directly beneath these Forsythia bushes.

And so we come at length to the town of Bishop's Stortford, from where I can catch a train homewards.

Walker's Log:

     Start: Harlow Town station, Essex 10:30
     End: Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire 15:20
     Distance walked: 10.8 miles (17.3 Km)
     Total ascent: negligible - though I was going upstream! 
            Notable birds: Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Buzzard.
     Churches: Sawbridgeworth (open).
     People with dogs: 5
     People just enjoying a walk: 3
     Joggers: 4 
     Cyclists: 1
     Horse riders: 0

Take care.


  1. It's a substantial distance and I am sure that every step of the way was interesting in ine way or another, and the walk itself seems quite idyllic.

  2. Another fascinating excursion, John. I cannot imagine life on a boat and not at sea.

  3. River and canal towpaths are great for exploring

  4. I've always thought some time on the canals in a longboat would be fun!

  5. I enjoyed your sharing the views of such pretty boats. And that wrought iron piece of art at the beginning of the path was a beauty too. Are all the boats kept up so well? Is there a dry-dock anywhere that helps them care for them?

    1. Yes, boats can be lifted out of the water to be worked on in several places. Most of the leisure craft are well maintained but there is a growing problem of people buying them to live on and not being able to afford the cost of upkeep. A friend of mine owns a canal narrowboat and is constantly spending money on repairs.

  6. A lovely and colorful walk there.

  7. Idyllic views and boats.

    The dog is cute, and the cow is so different from what we see here.

    1. Those Highland cattle are becoming more and more common here. They can live on very poor grazing indeed and I'm told the meat is very tasty and lower in cholesterol than ordinary beef.

  8. A wonderful walk with lots to see and enjoy. Some of those boats were pretty unique. The dog looks like he just woke up and was ready to join you. :)

  9. Hi John - wonderful trip ... I love the iron gate - beautiful. Great walk and apparently so rural amongst no doubt the life of today around you - eg the pub - a necessary essential to life. Cheers Hilary

  10. I am always fascinated by those boats....I would love to be able to be on one. I had to look up the chiffchaff...had never heard of it that I remember.

  11. John - I was only reading about Highland Cattle here yesterday.

  12. A great walk and all those lovely boats too. I like the fact that waterways, once places of hard work, are now places of leisure. I love the little dog on the back of the boat:)

  13. what a good long walk! So much to see -- and that little dog is terribly cute. I love to see all the boats, though wouldn't living on them be a little damp? It's a romantic idea which may not live up to its potential.

    I appreciate these walks you take, so much. I've never been to England though it is the land of my ancestors (that, and Ireland in Cork). I hope someday to visit. I'll use your posts as a guide!

    1. You're quite right, there are a lot of problems living on a boat, not least the amount of repairs and regular maintenance that has to be done (and paid for). There's a folk singer from Cork called Jimmy Crowley.

  14. What a lovely walk John, always a pleasure to join you. Looooved the salty little seadog, so cute sitting there. The Highland coo is pretty impressive too. That was a fairly long walk, you would've slept well that night ✨


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