He might have skipped from the deliberately spartan fence – a sturdier barrier would have spoilt the view – down the narrow track to a shallow valley of oak, hawthorn and sycamore. He could have picked elderberries, cobnuts, even sloes, or scrambled to the crest of the adjoining slope to be beckoned by the tumbling eastern foothills of the Chilterns.
Such was EM Forster’s love of the floating carpet of countryside stretching north from his childhood home in Stevenage, that he described it as “the loveliest in England”. Here, he was inspired to write the masterpiece, Howards End: he lived at Rooksnest, the setting for the book.
Our walk is in two sections, starting at St Nicholas Church, where there is some parking. This Norman construction links the area dubbed Forster Country by The Guardian newspaper in 1961, with The Avenue, admired by Margaret in Howard’s End. “She strolled slowly, stopping to watch the sky that gleamed through the upper branches of the chestnuts…”
Follow the gravel path through the churchyard with the church on your left. Before the large Barclay monument, turn left alongside a row of beech trees. Margaret would have walked straight on to reach Rooksnest (nowthe privately owned Rooks Nest House).
Next to a kissing gate is a sculpture celebrating the words ‘Only Connect’, the subtitle of Howards End. This Derbyshire stone tribute was sculpted in 1994 to mark the Government’s decision to include Forster Country within green-belt boundaries.
The view here will stop you in your tracks. Fields of ripening crops topple over one another broken only by sparse hedgerows and the tramlines of farm vehicles. Poking at the sky are huge pylons which Forster called “naked ladies”. Stroll downhill and the vista expands to include Rooks Nest Farm, which neighbours Forster’s former home. The author enjoyed exploring farm buildings that were “always in a state of chaos and dirt”.
Turn right at the bottom of the hill following another wide track between a break in the hedge. The path bends left by a pylon. Climb briefly and turn right. Continue gently uphill, look right and, through a gap in the hedge on the hillside, you will spot the chimneys of Rooks Nest House. Continue by a dense woodland full of bluebells in spring.
Bank of wildflowers
Turn left on to a narrow lane, walking steeply downhill. After woodland, Graveley church becomes visible. Beyond a bank of harebells, scabious and other wildflowers, a dry valley stretches to your right. Wind between houses and leave the road at the signed footpath on your left.
Bank of wildflowers
Turn left at the first junction marked Stevenage and climb steadily. The spire of St Nicholas Church appears.
At the T-junction, turn right on to your outward track. Take a right-left dogleg through a plantation of pines and continue to houses. Turn left at their boundary and continue to rejoin the path to the church.
Look back for a final view of Forster Country, which, despite its green-belt status, may soon be bulldozed for housing. To complete the walk, follow Rectory Lane downhill switching to a signed path at the first bend. Carefully cross the dual carriageway and continue along ‘the chestnut avenue’ to Stevenage High Street.
Take a break
There are ample pubs and cafes to savour before retracing to St Nicholas’s.
HOW TO GET THERE
St Nicholas Church, Rectory Lane, Stevenage SG1 4DA. From London, take the A1 and A1(M) 30 miles north to J6 for the A602 then A1072. The train from Kings Cross to Stevenage station takes a little less than half an hour.
FIND OUT MORE
Stevenage Tourist Information
Stevenage Central Library, Southgate, Stevenage SG1 1HD
Stevenage Outer Orbital Path North Herts Ramblers Group
Our Mutual Friend
Broadwater Crescent, Stevenage SG2 8EH
Home-made lunches are offered on weekdays. The main attraction is a range of real ales, beers from local breweries and locally produced cider and perry, plus regular lively beer festivals.
Cromwell House Hotel
High St, Old Town,
Stevenage SG1 3AZ
0844 855 9130
Once home to John Thurloe, secretary to Oliver Cromwell,
now a smart Ramada.
Redcoats Farmhouse Hotel
Redcoats Green, Hitchin,
Herts SG4 7JR
Three miles from Stevenage. Parts of the building are 15th century, and the family-run hotel feels cosy. The restaurant has earned an AA Rosette.
OS Explorer 193
Grid reference: TL 249 242