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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Hiking Britain’s oldest road, Icknield Way

The Icknield Way is probably the oldest road in Britain and as someone who is interested in Geography and is a Cartophile (Cartography is the study and practice of making and using maps), and loves hiking, this trail path has been on my list of things to do since I was a child. The road first appeared in Neolithic times about five thousand years ago when man was first learning how to grow food and keep animals. It is part of an ancient trading route that followed the chalk ridge across southern England, from the Norfolk coast across East Anglia, on to the plains of Wiltshire and then down to the coast in Dorset. Today you can make this journey by following four recreational routes - The Peddars Way National Trail, the Icknield Way Trail, the Ridgeway National Trail and the Wessex Ridgeway.

Icknield Way

Commencing (or finishing at whichever way you see it), on the outskirts of Thetford, Norfolk at Knettishall Heath on the eastern end of the path, the route heads southwest through Linton, Great Chesterford, Royston, Baldock, Letchworth Garden City, north of Luton, around Dunstable and finishing at Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chiltern Hills. Most of the route is on bridleways or trail paths across fields and some of it goes through woodland as well as following the route through towns (mainly in the Hertfordshire section in Letchworth, Baldock and Royston). When I did the hike, I mostly walked it however certain sections but other parts I did run it. I did the hike in sections and didn’t complete it in one go.  

Icknield Way
Route map of the Icknield Way

April 3rd 2021: Royston to Baldock

Long steady slow run today with plenty of stops. Today saw me tackle part of the Icknield Way for the first time ever, so I did the section between Royston and Baldock (Hertfordshire) and went off road passing through the villages of Therfield, Sundon, Watlington and Clothall.

Got lost at Therfield Heath as the signage was non-existent and landed up going across a golf course. This added on an extra mile. But from then on, it was a great run out, heading to all the different bird sounds and looking at the beautiful countryside. A bit nippy out there and was feeling a bit tired towards the end.

Today's stats: miles: 13.55 km: 21.81 time: 2:11:28

April 5th 2021: Baldock to Wilbury Hills

This is probably the most boring part of the Icknield Way and I was so glad to get it done before breakfast today. The route through Baldock and Letchworth has no original trace of the trail path as the two towns have expanded over the last 130 years but the official route took me along roads where the original road once laid. Running from Limekiln Lane in Baldock, along the High Street, Church Lane, Pond Lane, over the A1(M) motorway into Letchworth Garden City, the world’s first garden city and home to the UK’s (and probably the world’s) first roundabout. Through the industrial estate (yes, that was exciting for views), along the Icknield Way into the town centre where I saw the famous Spirella Ballroom buildings. Along the side here is a trail path which goes between the building and railway tracks which was a nice (just to get off the tarmac) and took me up to Spring Road which lead me back onto Icknield Way and took me through the Wilbury Estate to the very outskirts of town where I finished up at Wilbury Hills and had beautiful views of the hills and countryside looking out towards north of Hitchin and Ickleford. Then I turned around, retraced my steps all the way back to Baldock. Good training run, stopped for a few photos (but not many) and didn’t like the cold wind. I was frozen afterwards.  

Today's stats: miles: 8.08 km: 13 time: 1:14:13

April 7th 2021: Wilbury Hills to Ickleford

Third day on the trail this week and this time I did the short hike with Kiddo, one of my best friend called Ollie and his daughter, Mel from Wilbury Hills to Ickleford. Very nippy out there but had a good couple of hours out with food. Ickleford is a village located north of Hitchin and takes its name from the Icknield Way and the ford where the path crosses the River Hiz (Hence: Ick + Ford = Ickleford). Apart from the 12th century church located in the centre, the other highlight for this part of the trail was remains of an old railway bridge which is located on the trail at Gerry's Hole. There used to be a railway line which ran from Hitchin to Bedford via Shefford. The line closed in 1964. (If anyone is interested, passenger trains stopped at Henlow Camp, Shefford, Southill, Cardington Workmans Platform (for the nearby RAF base), Cardington and Bedford. 

April 8th 2021: Ickleford to Pegsdon

Fourth day on Britain’s oldest road and it was back to running along the trail. Started after sunrise (and before breakfast) from Ickleford Recreation Ground and headed westwards (crossing the A600 Bedford to Hitchin road). This part of the trail is a long stretch for about two miles across fields before hitting the village of Pirton, my first visit here in around 20-odd years. I used to come to this village a lot as I had a school friend called Sam Barton, but he seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, never even turning up for his GCSE exams at school I believe. The village is expanding now as I saw a new housing estate being built on the eastern side of the village. The main highlights here is Saint Mary’s church. This was rebuilt in 1877 however the tower is the only part of the original building which has stood here since the 12th century. Next to the church are the remains of a castle and a bailey which is known as Toot Hill. These days it's just a huge mound. 

Running southwards away from the centre of the village and a lot of pretty cottages, the trail goes through fields but at this point, trees are covering a lot of the trail so plenty of shade from the sun if needed. The trail starts going uphill here now and I turned around once I got to the main road which runs from Hitchin to Barton-le-Clay. At this point I am now in Bedfordshire and I will continue on hopefully tomorrow from Pegsdon Hills. The village of Pegsdon however is further down on the road and is not on the trail. The village itself is 80% surrounded by the county border of Hertfordshire but lies in Bedfordshire.

Today's stats: miles: 7.58 km: 12.24 time: 1:13:03

April 9th 2021: Pegsdon to Streatley

Fifth day on Britain’s oldest road and loved the morning jog after sunrise and breakfast. Today's leg started off at Pegsdon Hills in Bedfordshire which I know too well after my vertical challenges a couple of weeks back, however I didn’t run along the Icknield Way in this area. The trail does go uphill at first but not as harsh as Deacon’s Hill which is the high hill to the right hand side when running south. The trail goes on the top of Telegraph Hill before heading down hill and across the Bedfordshire countryside until the Warden Hills are reached which are located just north of Luton. Fantastic views from up here. The trail then goes through South Beds Golf Course before reaching the A6 (Luton to Bedford road). I found this a bit boring as the trail goes alongside a housing estate before reaching Bramingham Park but so glad to be back on the trail path from there which then heads northwards away from Luton. Thankfully that is all I had to do with Luton on this trail as the Icknield Way goes north and then westwards before heading south passing Dunstable. Makes me wonder if this part of the Icknield Way is still following the original route or is it a bypass to get past Luton?

Heading northwards, across fields, through small woodland before I reached the village of Streatley. Nice little cottages here and the main highlight is the Anglican church of St Margaret which has been here since 1250.  

Today's stats: miles: 11.3 km: 18.28 time: 1:45:00

April 13th 2021: Streatley and around the Toddington Loop

Sixth day on Britain’s oldest road and today was another hilly day off-roading at the northern end of the Chiltern Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty in the UK (however, it is not a national park). Started off in Streatley and straight away was going uphill for the first few miles. This area belongs to the National Trust and has beautiful locations such as the Sharpenhoe Clappers, Moleskin and Markham Hills and Sundon Hills, to which I was running through today on the Icknield Way. The first area I ran through is the Sharpenhoe Clappers which is known for its network of rabbit warrens (and this term came from the Normans, Clappers coming from the French word ‘Clapier’). The rabbits around here were used for meat, leather and fur, so this made a lot of money to the local economy. There is also a Iron Age hill fort in this area but probably covered in grass and mud now, I didn’t see it. 

The path leads me into the heart of Sundon Hills and the views to the north are amazing. I love running through the woodland here on this cold Spring morning. It's here where the path splits, there are two Icknield Way trails around the Toddington area before rejoining as one to the west of the hamlet of Chalgrave. I took the northern trail path first and was tough in places, going across fields, narrow footpaths and sharpest hills. The railway line came and went as well as the M1, the stunning Toddington Services was in sight. However, with no time to pop in and eat the junk food, I carried on until I reached the green at Toddington.

I can’t remember if I have been to Toddington before but the village has a lot of beautiful timbered buildings and thatched roof cottages. Congar Hill fort can be seen but is just a mound now, however I am told that local children would listen (but not watch) to witches making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday here. The Church of St George overlooks the green. It was peaceful. I like this big village. The only thing I remember about the place is that the child actor Jack Wyld spent his last years here before he died in 2005. He was the Artful Dodger in the original Oliver Twist film in the early 1960s. Then he became a drunk and got cancer from the drinking and before he died, he had his voice box and tongue removed. Ouchies!

The trail took me south-east out of the village, on the way I saw a special Icknield Way signpost, saying its 100 miles (160km) to Overton Hill via the trail and the connecting trail path, The Ridgeway. Also a sign saying Hunstanton on the Norfolk Coast. Not sure what that is all about. An interesting sign I thought. Along the path, through woodland before running across fields with cows and bulls. Back over the M1 and the Midland Mainline before entering Sundon. Didn’t see much of it as before I knew it I was back at the junction where the trail splits at the eastern end. Then it was a gentle jog back to Streatley. 

Today's stats: miles: 21.32 km: 18.28 time: 2-26-05

April 14th 2021: Chalgrave to West Dunstable

Seventh day on Britain’s oldest road and this time I started at the western end of Dunstable at the roundabout of West Street and Green Lane and then headed north to the Toddington Loop and ran back to Dunstable to complete this leg of the trail path. Another beautiful Spring morning awaited me and it was not as cold as the last few days. The trail path along Green Lane is a gravel path which goes alongside the western outskirts of the Beecroft estate and the pace was really quick along here. Looking westwards I could see the high hills of the Dunstable Downs and for a moment, did I see the hill with the Ivinghoe Beacon, the western end of the Icknield Way? Surely not. Maybe? I will see.

Away from Dunstable, I ran through a beautiful small village called Sewell. The cottages and farms here are beautifully decorated and the views of the Chalk Pits surrounding here was actually quite a sight. Now I was running around the northern side of Dunstable and went through the village of Chalk Hill where I had to climb a lot of steps to get up to the main road known as Watling Street. This street is built on the former Roman Road which runs from Dover in Kent to London and then northwards through Dunstable, Milton Keynes before finishing up in Shropshire. Maybe I will run that one day. However the thought of running alongside a major road doesn’t appeal to me. 

Now I was running on the northern side of Houghton Regis and the path had a slight diversion as there is a new housing estate being built at Thorn. However the developers here have tried to keep the trail path untouched and I think it's only 400 meters which has been built on. Not like the developments in Baldock and Letchworth where the original trail path was built on. Across fields, I entered a nice small village called Wingfield. Nothing much to say but the look of the building where The Plough public house does look appealing for a pint right now! Across more fields and I eventually landed up in Chalgrave. Here at the top of the hill is All Saints Church and I am just loving the architecture of this building, with the tower being more squarer than usual. Further north alongside the golf course, I went through woodland before hitting the road where the trail goes into the Toddington Loop (as I called it). Time to turn around and head back in the lunchtime sunshine. A good run out, feeling a bit tired towards the end but still enjoying running this trail and learning about the history along the route.  

Today's stats: miles: 14 km: 22.53 time: 2-22-29

November 8th 2021: West Dunstable to Ivinghoe Beacon

Eighth day on the trail path as I conquer the Icknield Way. It's my eighth day on the path however, day seven was back on April 14th this year! Bloody hell, have I left it that long? So back to the outskirts of Dunstable where I left off and the plan was to finish the western end of the trail end. Straight away after leaving Dunstable, it was time to hike a hill which would eventually lead me into the Downs. Well, the views from the top were just amazing and where to keep to my right whilst I walked along the top of the ridge. Eventually it was time to head into Whipsnade, famous for its zoo. However on the trail path there is the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral.

This place was created by Edmund Blyth who served in the infantry in World War I and suffered the loss of dear friends Arthur Bailey and John Bennett, who died in the March retreat of 1918. He wanted to create a lasting legacy for his comrades-in-arms who were no longer with him. Eventually after the Second World War, the tree cathedral was completed. (See my photo for the one with the diagram, from above, it looks like the trees are used as walls and has the layout of a cathedral).

A long loop around the Zoo was probably the fastest part of this trail and then it was the long march across fields and through the village of Dagnall before going through beautiful woodland and then up the hill to the Ivinghoe Beacon. I touched the beacon which means I have finished the western end of the trail. I have walked and run the trail path from Royston in North-East Hertfordshire, down through Baldock, Letchworth, Luton, Dunstable, a loop around Toddington, Whipsnade to Ivinghoe. Now I just need to get back to where I started in Royston and head eastwards along the trail path to the eastern end in the Thetford area.

Today's stats: miles: 8.83, km: 14.2, time: 2-56-14.

November 10th 2021: Royston to Great Chesterford

Ninth day on the trail path as I conquer the Icknield Way and back to where I started it all earlier this year, Royston. Before today I have done every single step from the western end in Ivinghoe Beacon, Bucks to Royston, Herts. Now I head East to finish the trail path.

A soggy start wasn't going to put me off. As soon as I left Royston, I crossed the GMT line and into Cambridgeshire. 7km of slippy muddy paths awaited me which slowed me down before entering Essex which was a lot kinda to me. Beautiful villages with its thatched cottages, trail paths and just the sound of nothing was amazing. This section is a lot flatter than I have come across, so it didn't take long to go over the M11 and into the village of Great Chesterford. Bring on day 10, whenever that will be.

Today's stats: miles: 13.55, km: 21.8, time: 4-28-32.

March 14th 2022: Great Chesterford to Stretchworth

Tenth day on the trail path as I conquer the Icknield Way and first hike of the year. Back on the trail path for the first time since November. Took the train from Stevenage to Great Chesterford with a change in Cambridge. Lost thirty minutes before I even started as my train got caught up in signal failure near Royston. I managed to slow run 21km (13.1 miles) of the route today and hike the other 9km (around 5 miles). Hit the low lying hills early one once I left Great Chesterford. Eventually crossed the county border from Essex into Cambridgeshire and arrived in Linton, famous for its zoo on the southern outskirts of the village.

More rolling hills were to be had as well as running across fields, reaching the villages of Balsham, Willingham Green, Brinkley, Burrough Green before arriving in Stetchworth. Just before the last point, I must have done about 3km of hiking through boggy mud. I just couldn't avoid it and slowed down the pace a lot. Was not impressed. After Stetchworth, I had another two mile (3.2km) hike to Dullingham station where I caught a train back to Stevenage with changes in Newmarket and Cambridge. 

Today's stats: miles: 20 km: 32, time: 4-29-04.

April 21st 2022: Stretchworth to Kentford

Eleventh day on the trail path as I conquer the Icknield Way. Today I ran. Ok, a few stops were needed as I am battling for fitness but really pleased with the effort I put in.

Back to where I left off in Stretchworth (I had to do 2 miles - 3.2km from Dullingham train station to get to the trail path), and off into the fields with beautiful shade of yellow everywhere. Because of this I went off the trail path through woodland and landed up running an extra mile.

Not many villages passed, but I did love the name of Woodditon. So rural English that. And the village of 'Ashley'. Just reminded me of my brother but the village green is pretty. Walked past a lot of horse stables and racecouses as the route bends round the south and east of Newmarket. Will be back within the next 3-4 weeks to finish the last part of the Icknield Way, from Kentford to Knettishall Heath, south of Thetford, Norfolk. That will be a long day, something like 32-36km to hike or run or both. Whatever the case, it is going to be an interesting one. Bring it on.

July 4th 2022:  Kennett to Knettishall Heath

After canceling this day twice over the spring, I managed to complete the last leg of the Icknield Way today! What pleasure. As there were quite a few miles to get in, I decided to run as far as possible until my legs gave up and then reverted back to hiking. This also meant an early start, traveling up from Stevenage to Kennett train station via Cambridge where I started the run just after 8 o'clock.

It took me about two minutes to go over the county border from Cambridgeshire into Suffolk and into the village of Kentford where I was running eastwards towards where I left off the Icknield Way before the A14 junction. I hated running this short distance, the road was packed with rush hour traffic heading into nearby Newmarket and just reminded me of running through London at any point of the day. Onto the path and straight away I was running past an asphalt plant. It took nearly 5km before I got away from stinky smells and passing trucks and cars. But then I started running through pig farms. At least their smell is better than trucks and asphalt I suppose. 

I am going to be frank, the trail path route is alright but nothing spectacular. The villages of Herringswell, Tuddenham and Icklingham came and went with nothing going on. Most of the trail was hard mud with soil like sand on top. This made my running slow down quite a bit and I was made to work a lot harder. This would be the theme for most of the route. I gave up running after seventeen miles because of this and walked the rest.

A forest came and went, then the village of Euston and the Euston estate. This part of the leg just dragged on and on until I came into the final mile. The Icknield Way went from a public bridleway to just a plain old footpath. The excitement was there, I knew I nearly finished the path, step by step, the finish line was closing in. Then I made it! I made it to a car park in the middle of woodland with just a signpost. A signpost! That was it! Knettishall Heath is a major junction of trail paths which all merge here in this car park as a junction. Honestly, I felt it was a major anti-climax. After tackling this path in sections since early last year, it led to this. However I was pleased that I have tackled the path but I wish I started here instead of working my way up from Buckinghamshire. 

Where do I go next? Well, I still want to tackle Britain's oldest road, to which the Icknield Way section is done. There is the Peddlers Way which starts here in Knettishall Heath and goes up to The Wash or I could go back to Ivinghoe Beacon and start tackling the Ridgeway. Who knows?   

The only snag about starting or finishing here and coming from nearby Thetford which is five miles away, there is no bus service. Its about five miles from the train station, so apart from walking, the only option is getting a taxi. I walked to Thetford from Knettishall Heath and I don’t recommend it. The main road is dangerous and there are no paths. There is another route which is two miles longer via Shadwell and Kilverstone and I wished I took that route instead. 

Today's stats: miles: 30 km: 48.27, time: 6-47-29.

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