Ermine Street greenlanes
START FINISH 1.7 MILES
London to Peterborough away from tarmac
Ermine Street was once the main road heading north out of London. Neil Watterson explores it, and the greenlanes around it, to Peterborough
Television commercials promoting Peterborough as the place to live and work in the 1980s saw Roy Kinnear dressed as a Roman centurion, learning about the so called ‘Peterborough Effect’, complete with Roman-style lettering.
With that in mind, it’s curious that the expansive Roman settlement to the west of the city now warrants nothing more than a board in a layby beside the A1.
But we’re not there at the moment – we’re just outside London’s orbital motorway, the M25, picking up Ermine Street, a route that Roman centurions would have trodden two millennia ago.
Strictly, we should have started our trip at Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street in the City of London. Bishopsgate was one of the seven entrances to the Roman city of Londinium, and the modern-day A10 follows the route of the old Roman Road. Why haven’t we started there, in the shadow of the Gherkin and the monument to 1666’s Great Fire of London? Well, there are no greenlanes within the M25 – and I much prefer driving greenlanes than sitting in traffic jams.
So we’re starting off in Cheshunt and there’s the promise of a far more pleasurable driving experience ahead.
I’m driving my 1998 300Tdi Defender 110 and I’ve been joined by Ian Linford in his much-modified 300Tdi Defender. Ian is probably best known for winning the Freelander Challenge a few years ago
and subsequently competing in Wales Rally GB – an event he’s planning to return to this year. Both Ian and I were members of the Lea Valley Land Rover Owners’ Club in the 1990s and, as if to prove how small a world the Land Rover scene is, we’re joined by Katie Anderson, who’s with us on work experience. Her dad and grandad are current members of the LVLROC...
Ermine Street south of Hertford is a Restricted Byway, so is closed to vehicles, but there are other byways we can drive, the first taking us past Ponsborne Park Hotel. Initially tarmac, it turns into a track; I’ve driven it in a multitude of vehicles over the years, as it used to be part of my commute! We squeeze along a couple of overgrown woodland lanes, before picking up greenlane 4 (map above).
Take the right fork
This green road starts off fairly firm, but you reach a ‘private road’ sign after 100 yards or so. A small Byway sign points to the right – the Byway runs parallel to the new road and is considerably narrower. The roof tent on Ian’s 110 takes a battering. We reach a junction on the lane and turn left along another byway – firm, but little used.
There’s no way of heading north without driving through the county town of Hertford, or the adjoining Ware, both sitting in the Lea Valley, but we’re soon out of the urban restrictions and on to country lanes.
Another tree-lined byway near Bakers’ End takes us towards the River Rib and a series of fords zig-zagging across it.
‘I’ve driven this in a multitude of vehicles over the years – it used to be part of my commute!’
The first is on tarmac and signs warn cyclists to use the footbridge. Driving it, I can see why – the base is as slippery as a Teflon frying pan.
We drive north and on to an Other Route with Public Access (ORPA) to Latchford, crossing the Rib again – and again at the hamlet itself. Fortunately, it has been very dry for a while and the water levels are low, but the legacy of higher water levels can be found at the ford at Standon.
Ian had mentioned that the western exit was muddy, so it’s best to drive west to east, but when we arrive it’s awash with flood debris. With nowhere to move the logs to, we turn around and cross the river on the A120. This takes it towards Bishop’s Stortford, before we turn north again at Little Hadham – after waiting what seems like an age at the staggered traffic lights in the village.
We drive through pretty Patmore Heath and pick up a dry and dusty part byway/part ORPA between the cereal fields back towards the River Ash and Furneaux Pelham. Those who have been greenlaning for a while will immediately know where we’re heading for – Violets Lane, the longest ford in the UK.
There are times when you wouldn’t want to drive this road because the water is too deep, but because the area has seen very little rain for months, we should be okay.
Both of our 110s are equipped with properly fitted raised air intakes anyway – something we’d definitely advise for this lane – and although Ian hasn’t driven the lane for a few years, he knows the road well.
Clearing the way
The silty ground is almost bone-dry as we make our way along what many people would think is a sunken lane, but we’re soon stumbling across the detritus of previous greenlane runs – a torn-off mudflap here and a Discovery side step there. We know areas have problems with flytipping (see Club Zone, p194) and we shouldn’t be adding to it, or giving councils any reason to exclude vehicles from unsealed roads. I appreciate that mudflaps can fall off with little warning, but surely you’d notice that a side step is about to part company with its host vehicle?
We pick up some of the scrap to dispose of it properly, lobbing it in the back of my 110 – which has spare space in the back. Ian’s Defender was just a standard County Station Wagon when he bought it three years ago – now it’s a full-on expedition vehicle, used for greenlaning around the UK, and has storage lockers, second bulkhead, onboard computer, Wifi and GPS installed. All very well, but they eat into impromptu carrying capacity.
‘Don’t let the lack of water here lull you into thinking there won’t be any,’ Ian calls over the CB. ‘Some of the holes can be very deep and hold on to the water for ages.
‘The lane floor is interesting too,’ he continues. ‘The upper stretch tends to be stony, but the silt gets washed right down.’
We’re both running all-terrain tyres – Ian has a set of BF Goodrich AT KO2S he picked up for a bargain price, partly in lieu of some work he’d done, while my 110 is on the standard-fit Continentals lifted from the LRO TDCI 110 –
ironically I had swapped my set of BFGS with them a couple of months back.
We reach a corner and water stretches out ahead of us. I ease the 110 in and the tyres stir the water up, releasing a fetid stench. The nose of the Defender plunges into a hole and the tyres bite into the silt, sending the Land Rover lurching from one side to the other before pulling the 110 on to dry land.
The dip is certainly deeper than it looks, and because the banks of the river prevent the bow-wave from spreading, the water level is higher than it would usually be, so it has flooded into the cab, soaking the mats.
The rest of the depressions are shallower – and just as Ian said, it changes from silt to stone, getting rougher as we reach tarmac.
Fun is a straight line
We’ve veered slightly further off the line of the Roman road than I would do normally, but it’s worth it to drive Violets Lane. The next byway from Barkway gets us back on track and takes us past a structure that Ian assures me is the Blackpool Tower. I’m not convinced.
We rejoin Ermine Street, which apparently was originally Earninga Straete in old English, named after the Earningas tribe who inhabited the area between Royston and Huntingdon, the area we’re about to enter.
We say farewell to Ian, who has to head off and do some ‘real’ work, and continue our journey with a short section of the Harcamlow Way. Much of this long-distance path is byway, but some of it has vehicular use restricted by Traffic Regulation Order (TRO). The section between the A10 and the A1198 – which is what Ermine Street has now become – should be open. We drive it from the western end, but find the gate closed by the A10. There’s a padlock in the catch but it’s not locked, so we let ourselves out. It’s unclear why it is gated.
Scooting back round to the A1198 Ermine Street, we continue north. Wimpole Hall sits to the east of the road, with a near-two-mile-long avenue of trees leading up to the building. It’s one of those things you can’t see from the ground, but looks impressive from overhead – and there are footpaths that cross it.
The benefit of TROS
A little further on, a pair of byways spur off the road, forcing us to do a little loop to include them. We’re firmly in seasonal TRO territory now – these two are closed over winter, and when ground conditions dictate they shouldn’t be driven.
We turn west off the road and it’s evident that the TRO works – it’s a wide greenlane flanked with hedges and populated by long grass. It’s clearly used – the grass is flattened where vehicles have driven it – but the surface isn’t damaged. It’s a far cry from how it used to be, prior to being managed with the TRO, and shows how a little management can make green roads better for everyone.
A quick stretch of tarmac takes us back round to where we’d just been and we take the byway east this time – a long woodland ramble, again closed over winter.
Most of us love driving through fords, and there are a few in this area, but they are bone dry – typical! – so we don’t even get the wheels wet at Bourn or Caxton.
New roads for old
There is plenty of road building work going on in this area, upgrading the cross-country route of the A14 to reduce congestion.
This work cuts across Ermine Street south of Godmanchester (the Roman town of
Durovigutum) and the Wood Green animal shelter and will be completed in 2021.
Godmanchester has some lovely timberframed Tudor houses along the main streets and is where Ermine Street crossed the River Ouse, the gravel river bed in the area making the crossing relatively easy. Now the river is crossed by the old bridge and the A14 high above, on a viaduct.
We use the old bridge and negotiate Huntingdon’s ring road before escaping into the Stukeleys and getting back to the A14.
But we’re not joining it – we’re driving alongside it on a byway for a short while before veering off and between fields. This byway doesn’t appear to be driven much and we resort to the gardening kit to cut some of the branches down to allow passage. The lane finishes under the A1 at Alconbury – and the A1 now follows Ermine Street north.
Alconbury Weston (just to the west of Alconbury, as you’d probably have guessed) has a couple of small fords – both dry – so we continue along to the Bullock Road.
This is another greenlane with a seasonal TRO and is in three sections as far as greenlaners are concerned – but the most southerly third is only byway for threequarters of its length – the rest is bridleway. So we pick it up at Hill Top Farm.
The harvest is in full swing, with combines and tractors bustling about as we trundle along the field-edge track overlooking the A1. This was a livestock route centuries ago and the final third is a wide, hedge-lined green road. Again, the winter TRO has helped maintain the surface.
Our final lane of the trip at High Holborn doesn’t have a TRO at the moment, but it probably will do soon, if inappropriate use continues. Running along the border of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, it’s normally muddy, but is dry as a bone now.
We’re not far from Peterborough – the Roman town of Dvrobrivae, and home to the LRO Show in September. A short tarmac drive gets us there. This is a definite summer route – enjoy it while the sun shines!
‘The Traffic Regulation Order shows how a little management can make green roads better for all’
Kicking up the dust north of Patmore Heath
Roof tents and low branches. It’s only going to end one way...
Ian’s Defender emerges into the glory of harvest time Grid ref TL 396174
LANE 14 OS Landranger 153 & 154
Neil and Ian hit a log jam at Standon
Violets Lane is neither violet nor lane for much of its length Okay for Land Rovers, though... Watty proves he’s a bit of a prune
Beside the A14. What’s the rush? Seen and herd: wide, grassy Bullock Road