The Stort Valley: where Essex meets Hertfordshire

An oasis of calm... the Stort Valley

In recent weeks, we have been celebrating so much of what is wonderful about our extraordinary county of Essex. But of course all good things must come to an end… yes, Essex eventually stops and is replaced by something else. To the west, that something else is Hertfordshire and here, in the first part of a fascinating exploration, CPRE Essex supporter and retired civil engineer Jim McVie introduces us to the Stort Valley – the place two of England’s most beautiful counties come together.

The Stort Valley: where Essex meets Hertfordshire

The Stort Valley is an interesting feature in the local landscape that is well known and much appreciated by local people. Both Essex and Hertfordshire people call it theirs and are not excessively interested in the county boundary that runs through it. The River Stort itself rises in Langley village in north Essex and the flow is topped up from a stream in Clavering and further by the confluence of the Stansted Brook. It flows south through Bishop’s Stortford to Sawbridgeworth and then turns south-west towards Roydon before joining the River Lea at Rye Park near Hoddesdon.
This article covers the area of the Stort Valley that contains the elusive Essex-Hertfordshire border.
If possible, have a map in front of you. I used the online Essex Highways Information Map that also includes the exact county boundary, or you can even find a real paper map.

Stort Navigation between Harlow Mill and Sawbridgeworth

We all know the ice age stopped at Watford and it also reached our area as it on the same latitude. When the temperature dropped massively about 450,000 years ago and formed ice sheets about 200 metres deep, the ice and glaciers altered the landscape totally, even pushing the route of the Thames that once flowed through our area southwards to the alignment we now know. All this is not really within our grasp, but anyway it was the ice age that formed the local landscape.
When the ice melted about 400,000 years ago, rivers flowed in the valleys, further forming the landscape. The natural features in the valley would have been marshy ground with many small streams and rivers, along with trees on the banks and forests extending everywhere beyond. As the land warmed, plant life, animals, birds and other wildlife would have thrived. By about 100,000 years ago the area was occupied by early people who made clearings in the woods, built places to live, started farming and established a way of life. This was proved by the find of a few Bronze and Iron Age tools during building works and by metal detectorists. The river, although not large, would have still have been used by these people for travel and transporting goods. No proper roads in those days – only tracks through the woods.
It is a fairly shallow valley and some people would hardly call it that, especially if you come from Yorkshire. To really appreciate the environment and plant and wildlife, you need to walk through the valley and along the navigation towpath. This can be easily done from Bishop’s Stortford to Rye Park, in stages if preferred, and then you could tick off walking this section of the county boundary from your wish list.
You can see the shallow valley from the river, but if you are in any doubt it is a valley go to Pishiobury Park in Sawbridgeworth. From Oak Walk, look south-east and you can see across the valley. There is a steep incline that leads down to the river, proving conclusively it is undoubtedly a valley landscape. To see the valley, you need to walk it – a car is of no use. To see the River Stort north of Bishop’s Stortford, you would probably need your wellies.
Counties have always tried to utilise rivers as their boundary for simplicity and here the old Essex-Hertfordshire county boundary in this valley probably used the old River Stort, then the River Lea, further south. Most local people would say the River Stort is the county boundary in the area we are considering, but it is slightly more complicated than that. More of this later.

Stort Navigation bridge with wrought-iron parapet at Harlow Mill

The Navigation
Before we look at the county boundary line, we must talk about the River Stort Navigation. Thomas Adderley, who was landlord of The Crown Inn at Hockerill, saw that Bishop’s Stortford needed waterway access to London to compete in the malting industry. Hertford and Ware already had river access to London via the River Lea to market their malting products. Adderley’s Act of Parliament in 1750 failed, but George Jackson, who lived in Bishop’s Stortford, saw the potential and promoted the scheme again.
Jackson was a senior civil servant in the Admiralty and had many contacts and he now proposed a further Act of Parliament. Road transport was poor in those days, as we were told at school – they were even worse than today’s!
The proposal was to convert the River Stort to a canal by enlarging the river, straightening out any excessive bends and using locks to maintain a constant water level throughout.
Jackson’s proposal would give a navigable waterway from Bishop’s Stortford to the River Lea complete with locks, docks, cranes and wharfage. This was an era of canal building and the technology was there to do just this.
When the surveys were completed, levels taken, drawings prepared, landowners convinced, money raised, Act of Parliament passed, they started work and opened the Navigation in 1769.
Do go and see the stone monument to commemorate the Navigation that is set into a wall near the old Bishop’s Stortford canal basin next to the Port Jackson public house. You have to hunt for it as it is set in a wall on the side not usually visible – something to do while the other half goes shopping. While here, you have an excuse to go into the Port Jackson Wetherspoon public house, of course named after George Jackson. Inside there are pictures and wall plaques describing the Navigation project.
The centre of Bishops Stortford near the river is about 195 feet above sea level and in the 14 miles to the River Lea at Feides Weir Lock there are 15 locks with a total drop of 90 feet. For those mathematicians among us, this leaves about 105 feet for the 19 miles of the River Lea from Feides Weir Lock to the Thames with 18 locks.
At this time the River Lea was also being made navigable. The new Stort Navigation seemed a perfect answer to propel Bishop’s Stortford into the 19th century – what could possibly go wrong?
The Navigation was planned to take cereal crops, flour, timber, malting products and minerals such as limestone to London and bring back coal and other manufactured products. There are several maltings in this local area, including Sawbridgeworth, where barley grain was needed.
Despite a promising beginning, tonnages of cargo were for some reason low and maintenance works cost money, hence the economics of the Navigation were iffy from the start. An unusual feature was that some locks just had turf sides with brickwork walls at the lock gates, a cost-saving feature. Soon these had to be rebuilt to proper complete brickwork locks with which we are all familiar.
One reason for the low receipts is maybe that the roads were not as bad as they say. Certainly the main roads would have been turnpiked in the late 18th century. This meant the roads were levelled out and the surfacing maintained, albeit with payable tolls. You sometimes see historic roads as you drive around that are in cuttings or are on embankments – these often come from the turnpike days. Look at the south end of Sawbridgeworth where the road is in a slight cutting.
From the 1840s the barge traffic further declined due to competition from the new-fangled railway. Things go round and from the mid-20th century trains then lost freight traffic to lorries and the improved roads.
The Navigation unfortunately never made money for the proposer or subsequent owners, and over time the asset was sold on several times until the British Transport Commission took over in 1948 during the post-war nationalisation period. British Waterways took over in about 1962.
It is now the responsibility of the excellent Canal and River Trust, which the government set up in 2012 in the recent denationalisation period.
The last commercial traffic on the Navigation ended in 1972. Nowadays the waterway is used by house-barge owners, leisure boating and anglers. But, of course, the towpath survives and is the main walking route in the valley for nature lovers, runners, joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. Boat use on the Navigation is important in as much as the opening of the locks creates flow in the waterway and helps to keep the water flowing and fresh.
It is worth noting that the original proposal also planned a waterway north from Bishop’s Stortford to the River Ouse and so to extend to The Wash by linking up with the River Granta, River Cam and other rivers en route. One of the landowners refused permission for this canal on his land, so a huge curve around it would have been necessary.
The proposed scheme had funding problems and would have had water source issues with keeping water levels sufficiently high. This proposal never got off the drawing board as it was uneconomic and had technical problems – these reasons have not stopped some modern schemes, though.
While in Bishop’s Stortford it is worth noting that the town did not take its name from the river – it was the other way round. Early map-makers thought the name of the river was the Stort after the name of the town and put this name on their map. Actually, the river’s name was the Stour. Those of you with O-level geography will know we have loads of rivers called Stour, so map-makers decided to keep the name of the River Stort on the maps and everyone accepted this – so a win all round.
The Stort Navigation sometimes enlarged the existing River Stort and sometimes bypassed it, as it wanted to reduce the curvy bits in the river and straighten it out where possible to help with the water flow and levels.
Anyway, the old River Stort sometimes had several small streams, lakes and tributaries that had to be avoided. There are many places where the old River Stort remains and can be easily seen. It is a surprisingly small river. When the canal was finished, it must have taken an age to fill it with water using the flow from the River Stort.
It is clear the boundary has tried to keep to the old River Stort and the Navigation, but it has been modified of course by the necessity of the modern age.
Before we look at the boundary line in detail, the best examples of the boundary being the old River Stort and not the Navigation are at Harlow Mill and between Harlow New Town and the Eastwick roundabout. There are separate bridges for the old River Stort and the Navigation bridge. The Essex and Hertfordshire county signs are surprisingly in the right places. At each location, while waiting for traffic lights to change or traffic jams to clear, look out for the two separate waterway bridges not far apart.

  • You can read the second part of James’s discourse here
Stort Navigation at Harlow Mill showing the overflow channel to the River Stort