This is the place from which to explore the north-eastern extremities of the Chiltern Hills as they merge into the flatter landscapes of Bedfordshire. You'll want to spend time in Hitchin: with its medieval layout, historic buildings and traditional cobbled streets, the town is something of a gem. Pick up a copy of Speciality Shopping in Hitchin from the Town Centre Initiative Shop at 27 Churchyard to find where to spend your time and money, from the antiquarian bookshop to Hawkins of Hitchin in Bucklersbury, an independent department store established in 1863. Hitchin Market is currently open on Tuesdays and Saturdays selling a large selection of the usual market wares. On Fridays, an antique market takes over the stalls.
What to see in Hitchin
St Mary's Church – set in a green space in the centre of Hitchin, on the banks of the River Hiz, the church is a central focus for visitors to the town. Built with money from the wool trade, this is largest church in Hertfordshire, second in size only to the cathedral at St Albans. Young visitors like to look for the Thompson Mouse on the altar rail, a hallmark of the famous wood carver Robert 'Mousey' Thompson which appears in Westminster Abbey, York Minster and numerous churches throughout the country.
The British Schools Museum is located in the unique set of school buildings that have developed on the site over 200 years. Furnished classrooms follow the story of education from 1810 to the late 1960s, giving all sorts of fascinating insights from how children learned to write in sand trays to how one master taught 300 children in the large Schoolroom. Children can dress up in Victorian costume and adults can try some long forgotten skills, such as writing with a spluttering, dip-in pen and ink.
Hitchin Lavender – wander for up to 17 soothing and aromatic miles between rows of lavender planted on 12 acres of the farm. The fields are a great spot for photographers and artists and children love the freedom to run up and down the rows and pick a bunch of lavender to take home. There are sweeping views from the footpaths that surround the fields. Several varieties are grown on the farm, with dozens more in the seated display area. Refreshments are available in the 17th century barn and the gift shop sells a wide choice of lavender plants and products.
In the countryside
Car Free in the Chilterns provides a car-free itinerary walking and cycling in the Northern Chilterns and Hitchin. The Pegsdon Hills, Barton Hills National Nature Reserve and Sharpenhoe Clappers are the gems of this area, swathed in wildflowers in spring and summer. They also provide stunning viewpoints over the rolling hills. This itinerary includes several circular walks easily reached by bus from Hitchin and starting from the picturesque villages of Pirton and Offley. Hitchin station is regularly served by trains from London.
Barton Hills National Nature Reserve is mainly chalk grassland, that is typical of the northern Chilterns, with some woodlands of beech and ash-maple. The grassland is grazed in autumn and winter by a small group of Dartmoor Ponies to encourage wildflowers such as the rare pasque flower, in bloom between April and early June. Chalkhill blue, marbled white and grizzled skipper butterflies also thrive here.
Sharpenhoe Clappers – Reputedly haunted, Sharpenhoe Clappers is a classic chalk escarpment, standing out as a landmark against its flatter surroundings. It is crowned with traces of an Iron Age hill-fort and an impressive beech wood.
Walks from village pubs: The Three Springs Walks all begin and end at the Red Lion, in the village of Offley, exploring tranquil landscapes of ancient hedges, sunken lanes and small woodlands all the way. The Chalk Hills Walk in Lilley gives the choice of a 2 or 5 mile walk, starting and finishing at the Lilley Arms, a 300 year old former coaching inn.
What to head for further afield
Knebworth House – 9 miles from Hitchin. This beautiful Gothic mansion is internationally known as Britain's largest music venue, and the British home of classic rock. The romantic exterior of turrets, domes and gargoyles hides a red brick house dating back to the Tudor times, furnished with heirlooms (and anecdotes) amassed over 500 years. The present gardens date from the Edwardian era and include a maze and Dinosaur Trail, where 72 life-sized dinosaurs graze amongst the rhododendrons and the redwoods. Knebworth's 250-acre park provides a quite refuge for country picnics and dog walking and still leaves plenty of space for the children's adventure park.