Tracks and Trails

You may have wondered how the Great Wood’s many Tracks and Trails evolved and been intrigued by the fact that while some meander across the wood, others are set out in a grid pattern. How did these paths arise?

Until the late 18th century, the Great Wood was not dense woodland as we know it today, but was open wood pasture common, rather like the New Forest. This map from 1777 shows this open land, part of Cheshunt Common. The map is not to scale and the Nyn Hall estate is slightly too large and set too far north. It has to be remembered that at this time neither Northaw Road East nor the Ridgeway existed. The main road from Cuffley to Northaw went straight over the hill (where St Andrew’s church now is). The area we now know as the Great Wood was roughly situated where the words Cucumber Oak and Lodge Hill are shown. The fact that two prominent oaks were named confirms the open nature of the land at that time. The track going North-West from Cuffley goes across where the Great Wood now is to join up with Grubbs Lane which meets Kentish Lane at Wildhill.

All this changed in the 19th century. Subsequent to the Enclosures Act, the Great Wood was sold off and the southern boundary was formed by the new Toll Road (The Ridgeway) built in 1811. The Wood became commercial woodland and by the time of the first Ordnance Survey (OS) the extent of the woodland was much as we know it today:-

To support the clearance of many of the then existing trees, to plant new commercial stock and subsequently crop it, a network of paths was built to provide access. By 1880, the paths in the Wood looked like this:-

Most of these North-South rides and Middle Way (running East-West) are familiar to us today. The entrance to the wood was somewhat to the West of where it is today, being part of the land which is now occupied by private houses. Quite when these paths were laid out is not clear, but they must have been in place by 1874 as the first major sale of 4100 Oaks occurred that year.

By 1898 the OS map suggests the paths looked like this:-

This seems to suggest that there were fewer paths then, but one shouldn’t read too much into gaps in the OS map. What is clear is that at this stage, no further paths were needed to support the activities in the Wood. Note that a large building has appeared at the entrance to the Wood.

In 1913, the situation appears to have changed dramatically. An extensive network of paths has been added to support the extraction of timber from the Wood, especially in the South-East and North-East parts of the Wood:-

The site around the entrance and where the modern-day car park is situated shows signs of considerable activity and the cottage also appears. Some of the paths familiar to us today appear for the first time. To the north of Cuffley Brook, Coldharbour Plantation can be seen, adjoining the much older Broombarns Wood, although this is probably a later alteration to the 1913 map as it is thought to date from just after the First World War. The two ‘stubs’ of paths in the NW part of the wood are not what they seem: above this the image is from a different OS map with a lower level of mapping detail.

The next (incomplete) OS map shows the path network in 1935, just prior to the Wood’s sale to the Council in 1937.

The present entrance drive is shown for the first time, the land to the west having been sold, as have several other plots along the Ridgeway and Carbone Hill.

The last clearance of Oak was made in the 1930s and this may well have been in the North-East part of the wood, adjacent to the Camp, as the 1930s Land Use Survey map shows this area and the Camp itself as heathland or rough pasture (yellow), rather than woodland (green):-

The Wood was closed in World War 2 and part of the Outer London Stop Line, comprising a ring of anti-tank defences and pill-boxes circling London, was built in the eastern part of the wood and surrounding area. The concrete path from the Carbone Hill entrance dates from this time. It appears that the local Home Guard exercised in the Woods as this wartime map of the Great Wood area shows Cuffley Brook renamed the River Somme, while Rowbourne Brook is called River Ancre (a tributary of the Somme which would have been well-known to soldiers of WW1 vintage). Also note that the junction of paths and the stream at what is now the bottom of the western Blue Ride, by the gate, is named “Clapham Junction”. A Well is marked within the private housing area and no doubt this is the origin of the current name of one of the houses (Monkswell). Hence the path north of here may well be the one described as Well Walk, see here.

After the war, the Wood was opened to the public, but little major development was carried out.

Just as today’s Ordnance Survey maps show the paths as they probably were in the 1970s, so this 1960s era map below seems to hark back to the 1930s and the wartime period. (Given that the paths are not public Rights of Way, it is perhaps surprising that the wood’s paths have been recorded in such detail by the OS.)

In 1966, Bryan Sage published his book about the Great Wood and Peter Chance drew a map of the then existing paths for this. Paths were designated as Principal, Lesser or Tracks, which have been coloured below for clarity. Some parts of Principal Paths no longer exist, while the tiny Track at the south of Hut Glade now forms a major part of the Red Trail. Click on the map to enlarge.

In the 1970s, the Ordnance Survey appear to have have resurveyed the wood and the maps from then until today show the following network of paths. Many of these have now disappeared or been re-routed, while others have been added.

In the 1970s, the three coloured trails were set out. This is the map included in the 1974 Management Plan and appears to show the original intended routes for the Trails, but it seems doubtful that these were implemented.

Note that according to this plan, the Yellow Trail did not go round the far western boundary of the wood, while its eastern arm followed the small brook – a track that has now completely disappeared – hence suggesting that this routing was never implemented. The original site map doesn’t show this routing, though it does show the Yellow Route using some of the bridlepath. On the 1974 map the Blue Trail also takes a slightly different route across ‘Brook Glade’.

This is the map from the leaflet produced by Welwyn Hatfield Council  showing the trails, with the familiar routings.

This is another map from a subsequent leaflet from the 1990s.

Another well-known map was the one on the second board which was in the car park until 2009.

In the late 1990s, changes were made to the Yellow and Blue Trails to divert them away from the North-West part of the Wood to create a quiet area for wildlife. However, the public continued to use the old Yellow boundary path and having the Blue and Yellow trails following the same routing for much of the way has led to excessive wear and muddiness of this section of the trails. Therefore, in December 2009, the Yellow Trail was restored to its former routing, except for its routing from Watersmeet Glade. The Blue Trail was also restored to its original routing on the eastern side after the glade widening. Changes have also occurred to the Red Trail to facilitate the clearance of rhododendron.

The coloured trails have therefore gone through several changes over the years. This is the original routing:-

After the major route diversions, late 1990s:-

After the rhododendron clearance, the Red Trail was diverted around the fenced off clearance:-

After the December 2009 changes which restored the Yellow Trail to its original routing:-

The current path network is shown below (click on it for larger image). This also shows the further minor re-routing of the Red Trail in winter 2009/10 after the removal of some of the deer fencing, plus the straightening of Middle Way at “Six Ways”. The pale shaded areas represent the glades or cleared areas.

Finally, the latest map is that commisioned for the new interpretation boards in 2010:-

Comments are closed.