Hidden in a suburban estate south of the historic town of Ware lies a lost world created by the 18th-century Quaker poet John Scott, whose landscaped gardens vanished under urban development. The grottoes are six enchanting underground chambers linked by passageways and lined with shells, fossils and minerals, above which stands Scott’s delightful octagonal summerhouse.
1. A GROTTO START
Enter via an innocuous gateway in Scotts Road. Scott inherited Amwell house in 1768, and set about landscaping its grounds in the fashionable Picturesque style. Gothic and Romantic tastes had made grottoes all the rage, and no estate was complete without dome-roofed caves lined with sea shells, glass and broken plates. Scott clearly enjoyed contemplating the mysteries of the universe and excavated his “fairy halls”, as Dr Johnson called them, 21m (69ft) into the chalk. When he and his companions tired of their melancholy contemplations, they would ascend a winding path to the summerhouse above to meditate on the views.
The site was nearly demolished in the 1960s, but fortunately the council bought it, and after restoration by the Ware Society, the grottoes reopened in 1991.
From the grottoes, descend and turn right to Amwell House, cross a level crossing and at the bridge in Ware go right onto the Lee Valley Walk. You are now on the towpath of the Lee Valley Navigation, part of the canalised River Lee.
2. HARDMEAD LOCK
The Lee Navigation runs south-east amid tranquil fields, passing Hardmead Lock with its mid-19th-century former lock-keeper’s house. Keep an eye out for herons, ducks, wading birds and warblers in the reeds and scrub alongside colourful canal boats. Leave the Lee Valley Walk at Bridge 59a and turn right, over a crossing by
St Margaret’s Station and turn right on to the New River Path.
3. THE NEW RIVER
The New River was an extraordinary project built by Sir Hugh Myddelton between 1609 and 1613 to provide London with fresh drinking water. A 20-mile canal, it flowed by gravity alone, falling a mere 13cm (5in) per mile. This section is still used as part of London’s water supply, and you pass Amwell Marsh Pumping Station, built in 1884 to draw water into the New River from deep boreholes.
4. WILLOW ISLANDS
Below Great Amwell’s St John the Baptist church, a couple of willow-covered islands sit in the river, home to an urn commemorating Sir Hugh Myddelton and a memorial inscribed ‘Amwell! Perpetual be thy Stream Nor e’er thy spring be less!’
Climb to the largely 11th-century parish church, passing through the steeply sloping ancient churchyard and noting Robert Mylne’s 1811 austere brick and stone Grecian-style mausoleum, before following the path back to the start.
4 Apr-26 Sept, Sat and BH Mon, plus 12-13 Sept, 2pm-4.30pm.
LEE VALLEY PARK
A natural corridor on London’s doorstep with nature reserves, industrial heritage and parkland.
The George IV
Great Amwell SG12 9SW
This pub serves excellent fish lunches. Try the bouillabaisse with red snapper, sea bass and scallops.
An exciting local museum, strong on the fascinating industrial past of the town
and its malting history.
RYE MEADS RSPB RESERVE
South of Stanstead Abbotts, this superb wetland reserve has wheelchair friendly trails and 10 birdwatching hides.