Sparky's Hitchin View: The valley of the dinosaur, the haunted chapel and a rusty gun

  Posted: 21.11.20 at 10:12 by SPARKY

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So, read on for Sparky's weekly Nub News column


The valley of the dinosaur, the haunted chapel and a rusty gun

What is this? The plot of a Scooby Doo episode?

I’m afraid not- these are just some of the highlights of the rather prosaically named ‘Hitchin-Stevenage Gap’, a technical label that hardly does this special place any justice, but it will be better known to many of us as simply the route of the B656 to Codicote.

This popular road follows the route of a long and gentle valley and gives us access to the fine villages south of the town and also offers an infinitely more attractive route to London by joining the A1(M) at Welwyn rather than a Stevenage.

But there is even more to this broad and handsome valley than meets the eye and it is certainly worth abandoning the car on occasion to explore it further.

You can see our town nestling in its 'sleepy hollow' in the Chiltern Hills as you descend Rosehill from Letchworth’s slightly raised position to the east.

This approach also emphasises the beautiful backdrop of the high hills around Offley ranged behind: a foreshortened view of the higher ground to the west that you simply cannot appreciate from the streets of the town itself.

Our town is at the northern end of the Hitchin-Stevenage Gap where the flanking hills are already starting to get wider apart.

And the valley becomes even less distinct as you head further north where the higher ground on either side starts to melt away and you travel into the plains of southern Bedfordshire.

But today we are going to focus on the six or so glorious miles that stretch south from the parkland at St Ibbs (pictured) to the lone dinosaur that guards Knebworth Park near the castellated gatehouse. Curiously, this dinosaur was once decapitated, with its head turning up some time later in a Hitchin park. (Bizarre fact of the day. But I digress.)

Enough of this. Let’s get back to the Hitchin-Stevenage Gap, or should I say the ‘Langley Valley’, it’s alternative and far more attractive name.

Throughout our country such gaps that cut through higher ground are often exploited by lines of communication.

However, unlike that best known example, the Watford Gap near Daventry, we have don’t have a canal, a motorway and a mainline railway jostling for precedence; our own notch is on a much less grand scale.

Yes, we have the east coast mainline, but with no canal and the nearest motorway running parallel a mile or so to the east all we have is a ‘B’ road heading in from the south and an ‘A’ road heading out to the north. But hey, this is our gap, our valley and that suits us just fine I’m sure.

All of Hitchin’s underlying rock is chalk, as we know, but what really excites students of geology are the deep layers of 'drift' that overlay this familiar soft white bedrock of ours, especially in the valleys.

Drift is the mud, clay, rocks and gravel that was washed-out from local ice sheets and glaciers over successive ice ages, the last one of which only ocurred some 10,000 years ago.

The renowned Hitchin geologist E.F.D. Bloom (him again) stated that this gap would have existed well before the last advances of the ice and would have been excavated even further during each period of glaciation to 'an astonishingly greater depth than then present valley floor'.

Yes, it was once much, much deeper, but has been filled-in over time.

Glacial drift attracts the interest of geologists as it can tell them where our local glaciers and ice sheets travelled from: for example, previous studies of the gravel and pebbles from our local pits have provided rock samples from the Midlands, East Anglia, the Lake District and even Scandinavia.

And this geology has not only shaped the landscape but also the subsequent agricultural and economic history of the valley and the surrounding hills.

At one time there were numerous working sand, gravel, brick earth and chalk pits here and to this day the covering of the deep brown ‘clay with flints’ soil supports large arable fields interspersed with lush pasture and woodland.

The Langley Valley does have yet another feature of national importance up its sleeve, too: it is the local dividing point between the catchment areas of the River Thames to the south and those rivers ultimately bound for The Wash in the north.

The River Mimram rises in Lilley Bottom, just three miles to the west, and flows via Codicote in the south of our valley to eventually join the Lea, The Thames and then the sea.

Meanwhile, a couple of miles up the valley, Ippollitts Brook is born at St Ibbs (pictured) and flows north to join the Hiz and ultimately The Wash via The Great Ouse. Two rivers in one valley- one heading north and one heading south. Isn’t that great?

What a fascinating and beautiful local feature this valley really is. But it is not unthreatened: Stevenage has fought for many years to expand west over the motorway and now has sign-off to build over 1300 homes on the hills overlooking Rush Green by 2031.

There are also new plans to build over 60 houses west of the London Road in St Ippollitts. All would agree that we do need more houses but some of the valley’s uninterrupted views and other green spaces will soon be gone forever. Enjoy them while you can.

If you want to explore this area further, the Hertfordshire Way footpath crosses the valley on its way from east to west via Almshoebury and Chapelfoot (en route to the ‘haunted’ Minsden Chapel) and there are many other rights of way on the higher ground on either side.

Why not stroll on the tops to the tinkling accompaniment of hardy skylarks before descending to the perfectly positioned Rusty Gun pub on the valley floor for a well-earned refreshment? Post lockdown, obviously.

What a fine way to spend a day, even in the winter- I was walking there this week. But without the rewarding pint of draft ale at the end, unfortunately.


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