It could have been the Cotswolds or the Peak District, over the August bank holiday weekend, for our first attempt at wild camping, but an unavoidable work commitment on the Saturday meant a change of plans.
While Harlow, an Essex new town close to the Hertfordshire border, may not sound the sort of place from which to start a two-day hike, I was determined to find an interesting route. Looking at the possibilities I decided to include the Harcamlow Way (a horrible mouthful of a name - one stretch includes part of the Three Forest Way) and the recommended day-two of the Hertfordshire Way. In it's favour the town is on the main line from Cambridge/Kings Lyn to London Liverpool Street (and some Stansted Airport express trains stop here too) and a Travel Lodge.
So, it was on with the backpacks and out the front door, a mere mile and a half from the planned "offical" start: Harlow Town railway station.
The route begins and ends with stretches of towpath along the Stort, and while the path itself is relatively quiet the river is buisy with narrow boats, both short and long, navigating the nine locks within this section. Three of the locks are in use as we pass.
A short distance from the station we turn into the road safety centre onto the path towards the zig-zag bridge over the railway, and the most taxing part of your morning's walk! Turning left directly on reaching the other side, we pass the back of the railway station, heading for our first lock, and cross over the river on the road, with the outdoor pursuit centre to your left on the opposite bank.
From there it's river bank until we reach Roydon Hamlet. At this point - as there's always something I forget - I leave my backpack with my wife, Liz, and jog up to the local village store to grab a pack of triple A's for my ailing digital camera, avoiding the lure of the three pubs (although we do rest up and eat some prepared sandwiches).
From here we leave the river. However, one look at the ovegrown path convinces us to take the Briggens House Hotel avenue, getting some odd looks from the golfers and adding a good quarter mile to the Harcamlow route. As we get back on track we briefly stop to desert on huge and tasty wild blackberries. It's worth remarking here that the OS 197 map suggests a straight route to underpass the A414 whereas we need to follow the field round to the left. There is a tempting underpass at the back of a well-hidden fencing retailer but it's a red herring.
The whole walk is relatively flat but as we come under the road there's a long slow climb around the field's edge, and it is fields and the edges of woods for the next hour or so before we branch off the Harcamlow Way for a half-mile stretch to the Hertfordshire Way. We discuss the moat in Moat Wood wondering if it's similar to the one in Sussex.
Resisting the temptation to branch off the few hundred yards to Wareside (for a pint), we follow, instead, along the remnants of Beachum's rail closers back in the sixties, wondering why more isn't made of these dismantled railways
A valley, more reminisent of sheep-chewed Cumbrian moorland - though cowpats say otherwise - takes us across and back to the track though here we look down into a deep cutting before reaching what was the old Widford and Hunsdon station.
After sheltering from a sudden downpore, overlooked from the hill above by Widford's church and being amazed by the biggest mushroom we have ever seen, we follow the route to where it circles Widford village but chose to push on avoiding the detoir around the village. It is here we are unlucky enough to have to cross the corner of a cow-filled field with as many calves as mothers. Liz refuses to budge from the footbridge that preceds the stile into the field so we wait a good five minutes before the nearest cow chews her way passed. I take the plunge, else we'd still be there, and bravely walk ten metres into the field before turning to encourage my wife who eventually follows. Just before we reach the exit stile I take a quick look round to see every animal still staring at us.
With a deadline of six o'clock to start hunting for a camp site, and a personal concern that we just aren't going to find one, we stumbled on an area as we hit the outskirts of Much Hadham that shouts "camp here". It's just after five, but we wander on into some woods, more to avoid our obvious intentions from a couple walking there dog than to find another site, and return not long after.
We set up our tent and order a meal in The Jolly Wagoner by seven, enjoying a couple of pints of Hertford's McMullens' ale in the process. While we are there the heavens decide to open up but, it dies down and stops before we are back in the tent. When you live in a town, in a house with double glazing, you don't appreciate what goes on at night and a couple of nearby owls bother us for a while as do the screaming bark of what I assume are foxes, not to mention numerous other wildlife sounds.
During the night we both need to take a leak and on unzipping the tent Liz exclaims that it's morning already, but she's fooled by a full moon, which means, back in the tent, I wrap myself up in the sleeping bag wondering when the werewolves will rip open the sides. OK, so I exaggerate, but it does cross my mind, paricularly as we have set up in the middle of a perfect circle of silver birches.
In the morning we find the eggs Liz wrapped are still intact and the bacon still fresh, though the pre-buttered rolls could be softer, so we start the day with a solid breakfast and fill our flask to have a coffee break later that morning.
We pack up and double check we've left no litter, leaving what we had in a nearby skip and head of with lighter, though it doesn't feel like it, backpacks.
Shortly after we start our second day the route takes us up a fairly steep hill, probably the hardest of the route but it's well worth it, not so much for the scene but that it brings us to the back of the Henry Moore Foundation. With many of his sculptures springing up in the surrounding fields and the foundation's grounds it's a wonderful surprise.
Fields and woods predominated the next section to Thorley Church where we releave ourselves of the backpacks for the premade coffee and the last of our Jordan bars as we sit on the bench, watching people arriving to visit a display of local fare in the adjacent hall, some of whom stop to chat with us.
We deviate slightly off the Way to reach the river and are caught in a cloud burst that soon blows over, but others threaten. This section of the Stort is no less busy than the preceding day and we eventually stop to sit on some steps by Sawbridgeworth Lock to eat our experimental Wayfarer's lunch, mine a Chicken Caserol, Liz's a Spicy Vegetable Pasta. While they might not be the lightest of foodstuffs to backpack with (you can eat them hot or cold as they are fully precooked) we persevere with the gas stove, in a second downpore, and they are deliciously worth the drenching.
We must have looked a sight with Liz's waterproof draped over our heads, huddled around the stove, giggling at what we were trying to do. But we both agree the food is well worth waiting for as long as you're not shy of E preservatives. Surely with a sell by date of 2007 this can be forgiven?
We detoure off the river route through Pishabury Park grabbing some damsons, bitter but refeshing, and along behind the back of Beckenham Palace, and although we pass a couple of photographers with hefty telephoto lenses I don't think David and Victoria are at home although there seems to be a kids' party going on.
We are back at the starting point by 5.30 pm so we'd probably managed about 25 miles over the two days
The route is riddled with pubs either directly on the route or a small way off. I was just so pleased that we found a decent place to camp. That it was so close to somewhere we could eat (and save our Wayfarer meal to lunch the next day) was an added bonus. Thankfully there aren't too many stiles but lots of love gates that I could barely squeeze through, the former a nightmare when you've got a heavy weight on your back, the latter just awkward.
All in all an enjoyable and successful trek, which just proved to me that there's always going to be a walk on your doorstep, and maybe one worth sharing with others.
Copyright Terry Martin, September 2004