Loose yourself in the stockbroker belt of Hertfordshire.
Stevenage is just 20 minutes by train from London but it’s also not much further – albeit by bike – from Ayot St Lawrence, a village packed with history and intrigue.
Don’t go straight there, though, as there are other spots worth exploring. The first of them, Preston, is a complete contrast to its northern namesake. On my visit all I could hear was the crack of gunfire from someone out shooting, the buzz of a chainsaw and the clip-clop of horse’s hooves. The stockbroker belt does not get much more desirable – or accessible – than this.
Freewheel down the wooded St Albans Highway (which is anything but highway-like) to St Pauls Walden. The Queen Mother was born at a house close to the village. It is not ordinarily open to the public but you can still nip into her local, The Strathmore Arms, named after the family of her father, the Earl of Strathmore.
A good spot to rest outside is the green in Kimpton which is hidden away behind the main street next to the church. In common with Whitwell, the village has several pretty half-timbered cottages in a style more associated with the eastern counties.
A narrow lane brings you to Ayot St Lawrence. It’s easy to see how the village inspired its most famous former resident, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s Corner, as his house is named, is closed for winter until March 20 but there is plenty to enjoy that is always open, not least a pair of folly churches.
A former Lord of the Manor built the Grecian-style church with colonnaded wings as an eyecatcher viewable from his house. He also set about demolishing the original church before being halted by the local bishop. It remains in ruins. Two of the village’s other notable properties are Ayot House, once Britain’s only silk farm which produced silk for royal vestments, and the Manor House, where Henry VIII supposedly wooed Catherine Parr.
On the final leg of the journey look out for the Node Dairy at Drivers End. At the time of its construction in 1927 it was reputed to have had the largest thatched roof in the world. A thatched tower looks like something out of a fairy tale but is actually a silo.
If you follow this route anti-clockwise you can fill any spare time before your train home exploring Knebworth House and Country Park which opens from the spring. It’s only three miles to the station from here. Old Knebworth with its row of almshouses next to The Lytton Arms provides another perfect place to pause.
Start and finish: Stevenage station.
Distance: 24 miles.
Time: Allow 2½ hours excluding stops.
Brief directions: Stevenage – Todd’s Green – Titmore Green – Little Almshoe – Preston – St Paul’s Walden – Whitwell – Kimpton – Ayot St Lawrence – Codicote – Driver’s End – Old Knebworth – Stevenage. To avoid traffic when entering the town follow the signs for cycle route 12 which you pick up on the left just after passing under the railway and lead you back to the station.
Conditions: Country lanes and with only two significant hills.
Eating: The Brocket Arms, Ayot St Lawrence (tel 01428 820250; http://www.brocketarms.com). Ivy-clad 14th century inn with garden. Other pubs in Preston, Whitwell, Kimpton and Codicote.