Greens and a chalk stream in the history of Hertfordshire

Toby Shelley

Lockdown in Roe Green, summer 2020
Toby Shelley
The Mimram at Digswell
Toby Shelley

Two jewels of Hertfordshire are its greens and its chalk streams, both key to the social history of the county. The greens were cut out of forest from Saxon times onward. Typically, they began as solitary farmsteads with cleared land embraced by the arms of a Y-shaped meeting of tracks. Today, some retain that form, others are pretty hamlets, some are engulfed by towns, and others are a folk memory sustained by name on a map, or a junction of rural byways. Traipsing through many of Hertfordshire’s (purported) 159 greens with a camera and a dog, I tried to capture their atmosphere, historical, social and topographical. History is today as well as yesterday and a number of photographs reference the past year of pandemic.

Not only does Hertfordshire reputedly have more greens than any other county, it also has more than its fair share of globally scarce chalk streams like the Mimram. With teeming wildlife and meanders through meadows and bottoms what could be more natural? In fact, the 12 short miles of the river are an etching of human endeavours over the centuries. The Mimram has been channelled for water mills and country estates, water cress farms and medieval fishponds. It has been exploited for gravel. Weirs were added to power water pumps for mansions. Even now it contributes to the local economy. We walked all that is accessible and sought to record the interplay between river and people in the history of one small slice of Hertfordshire.

This page was added on 22/02/2021.

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  • Yes, as a youngster, I loved the streams and ponds around Hitchin which lead to a long career in environmental sciences.
    Today, many have gone through deliberate destruction, drying up of springs or have been “managed” out of recognition.
    Some of the nicest parts like the paddling lake in Bancroft Recreation Ground have probably died a death at the hands of the Health and Safety crowd.
    Oughton Head was a favorite, and Fishponds Road might suggest some fish farming activity.

    By Philip Slater (24/05/2021)