Battle of Berkhamsted Common Walk

Start
Start at car park ‘Dick’s Camp’ on the east side of Northchurch New Road, just south of the turning for Aldbury. © OpenStreetMap
Walk
Walk route with audio points. © OpenStreetMap

Introduction: The walk is about two miles long and pretty flat. The walk instructions are not comprehensive so a map, e.g. OS Explorer 181 Chiltern Hills North, is advised. A phone signal cannot be guaranteed, so downloading a digital map, if you have one, is sensible.

I haven’t walked the route this year (2020). The only bit that is tricky is the way back to the car park from the wide track by the park palings (after point 6). If you reach the New Road before finding the possibly indistinct path to the left, don’t worry. The enclosure fence ran along the line of the road, so if you head in a general southerly direction on any path, you should reach the car park – and you will have explored a bit more of the 1866 ‘battlefield’ into the bargain.

Waypoint 1. Start. (No audio)

[i] Almost immediately to the north of the car park you come to a tree-lined trackway.

Waypoint 2. Old Trackway: Background to the Battle.

[i] Head right (east) along the line of the trackway until you reach a clear crossing path. Turn left to follow this path (which has come from the car park) north to Waypoint 3.

 Surveyors Drawing (Detail) 1806.
Surveyors Drawing 1806, detail from Hemel Hempstead (OSD 150) online at commons.wikimedia.org.

Waypoint 3. Silver Birches. (No Audio)

This is a surveyor’s drawing from 1806. This was a precursor to the ordnance survey map. It clearly shows two roads or trackways running west-east along the top and bottom of the common. Both of these were blocked by Lord Brownlow’s fences in 1866. We’re standing near to the bottom one, which ran round the common at the edge of the fields. This was the old road to Dunstable, from Berkhamsted, before Northchurch New Road was built. We’ve more to say on roads at Waypoint 5, but here’s an interesting thing. The seventeenth-century enclosure gave the common its distinctive arc or horseshoe shape. Our ancestors, focussing on the shape of the enclosure rather than the common, referred to this part of the route as ‘Bowfield Corner.’

The silver birch trees you can see today, show that this is a relatively young wood. This part of the common would have been a gorsy heath in the nineteenth century – and for several hundred years before that. Commoners, harvesting wood and gorse for their fires, and grazing animals, kept the landscape open. We’ll look at this in more detail at our next stop.

[i] Follow the track in a south-easterly direction. Toss a coin at the fork, the paths will meet up before becoming an access drive. At a crossroads of tracks and footpaths, turn right to enter Coldharbour Farm meadow. We are now in the area taken out of the common in the early seventeenth-century enclosure.

Waypoint 4.1. Coldharbour Farm Meadow

[i] After listening to 4.1, please follow the footpath past the pond, into the next field.

Waypoint 4.2. Coldharbour Farm Furze Field

No. 4 Form of OATH. Piddston in the County of Buckingham

I Thomas Cox do make Oath, that I am by Trade a labourer and to the best of my Knowledge and Belief was born in the Parish of Piddston in the County of Buckingham and that I have no Rupture, nor ever was troubled with Fits, and am no ways disabled by Lameness or otherwise, but have the perfect Use of my Limbs, that I am not an Apprentice, and that I do not belong to the Militia, or to any other Regiment or Corps, or to His Majesty’s Navy. As witness my Hand at St Albans the Twenty Sixth Day of March one thousand eight hundred and five.

Sworn before me at St Albans the Twenty Sixth Day of March one thousand eight hundred and five.}

The X mark of Thomas Cox {Signature of Recruit.

Jeremiah Lowe {Signature of Magistrate} Jno Milligan, Sergt {Witness Present}

Transcript of detail from Thomas Cox’s attestation document in the National Archives, Ref: ADM 157/2/187

Thomas Cox’s memorial in Little Gaddesden Church.
‘IN MEMORY OF THOMAS COX WHO FOUGHT AT TRAFALGAR DIED DEC XI MDCCCLXXV AGED LXXXVII’

[i] Retrace your steps through the meadow and follow the hard access road north to Woodyard Cottage.

Waypoint 5. Woodyard Cottage: Road Capture

[i] Follow the westward path around the southern perimeter of Woodyard Cottage.

Waypoint 6. (No audio) This is a good place to see how the old road was taken out of action by gravel extraction and the building of the woodyard and cottage. At the point the old road reaches the western boundary of the woodyard, the modern footpath swings to the right, uphill. It’s not a big deal for a walker or mountain biker but may have been viewed differently by a horse pulling a loaded cart. One of the witnesses, John Butterfield, helped to move the estate fences out onto the common.

‘The woodyard was formerly part of the common. The road under the park paling used to go over the land which is now the woodyard. The effect of making the woodyard was to stop this road because it was necessary, after the woodyard was made, to go round by the houses which were built, and then they had to go up such a hill that no one would go that way, and everybody afterwards went by the way which was over the middle of the common. [The Broad Green Drive]’

[i] Continue west along the tree-lined track. The banks either side of the road are the remains of the medieval park pale – the original boundary of Ashridge deer park with Berkhamsted Common. After the meadow runs out on your right continue ahead looking for a path heading off to the left (south) in the direction of the car park.

Battle of Berkhamsted Common Walk for Heritage Open Days 14 September 2019
Battle of Berkhamsted Common Walk for Heritage Open Days 14 September 2019

(c) Richard Shepherd, 2020