One of the Home Counties, Hertfordshire borders London to the north and its recent history is anchored in its proximity to the capital.
“New Towns” like Stevenage and pioneering Garden Cities like Welwyn and Letchworth popped up in the 20th century, all to give people the joint advantages of the city and countryside.
But what is most inspiring about Hertfordshire is the profusion of oddities: Medieval caves with indecipherable carvings, a massive taxidermy hoard owned by a Victorian eccentric, and a huge fairytale grotto created by a Quaker poet.
For more mainstream history St Albans and its Roman heritage is an essential first step towards the south of the county.
1. St Albans
Known as Verulamium to the Romans, St Albans was the second city in Britain after London 2,000 years ago.
And today this market town has its share of ancient sites and artefacts.
Go straight to Verulamium Park, where traces of a spa were excavated in the 1930s, revealing a wondrous mosaic and hypocaust.
Just by the park is the Verulamium Museum, with yet more mosaics and display cases full of coins, ceramics and even a soldier’s helmet and mask discovered in the theatre, which makes up the museum’s exterior.
Elsewhere, contemplate the 15th-century clock tower, a logo for St Albans, and unusual in England for being a belfry unattached to any church.
Slotted into a gap in the Chilterns is the sweet little market town of Tring, which has gorgeous 19th-century architecture and a branch of the Natural History Museum.
Lionel Walter Rothschild is the man responsible for this, as he was obsessed with zoology, and even rode around the town in a carriage drawn by zebra-horse hybrids.
So now, in a delightful Victorian hall that he built for his many taxidermies there’s a creepy if informative assortment of mounted stuffed animals, among them extinct species like thylacines and quaggas.
Ending at the marvellous Ivinghoe Beacon hill a couple of miles from Tring is the Ridgeway National Trail, which follows the Celtic Icknield Way from Avebury in Wiltshire over the North Wessex Downs and the Chilterns.
If you’re a student of Elizabeth I Hatfield House will be a treasure trove as it has a variety of things that are connected to the queen.
Although the building was altered in the century that followed, Hatfield House was where Elizabeth spent a lot of her childhood and it was her preferred residence as an adult.
There are gloves and silk stockings belonging to her, as well as the original of the famed Rainbow Portrait from the turn of the 17th century.
Another British icon tied to Hatfield is the defunct de Havilland aircraft manufacturer, which was based here for much of its life.
Ten minutes in the car and you’ll be at the great De Havilland Museum at London Colney, with some of the earliest jet planes ever made.
4. Welwyn Garden City
The city planner Sir Ebenezer Howard developed his utopian idea of a Garden City in the early-20th century, as a town with good transport links to London but all the peace and greenery of the countryside.
And nearly a century after Welwyn Garden City was completed it’s still a very liveable place.
If you’re into things like town planning and urban design you could entertain yourself just by poking around for a couple of hours or taking some time out by the water at Stanborough Park.
Towards the north of Hertfordshire, Hitchin is a delightful town, made to be seen on foot.
Especially pretty are the cobblestone streets around Market Place, hemmed by characterful old houses and St Mary’s Church.
This building is an archetypal Wool Church, built too large for what would have been a small-ish town in the middle ages, but funded by wealthy wool merchants.
St Mary’s was built over a 7th-century basilica from the earliest days of Christianity in England.
Come around July and August, when the undulating lavender fields outside the town are at their most vibrant.
Hitchin Lavender is a farm that lets you pick your own for a small fee, and also sells a range of giftable fragrant soaps and candles in its shop.
As the world’s first garden city, no building you see in the centre of Letchworth is older than the 20th century.
You may be fooled by the historical design of much of the architecture, which owes its appearance to the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Like Welwyn, Letchworth is an Ebenezer Howard-designed, pre-planned town with lots of green space, easy access to the countryside and industry kept apart from residential areas.
A perfect expression of the Arts and Crafts style can be seen at the Spirella Building, a listed former factory for a corset-maker, which, true to the spirit of the town, provided its workers with a library, gymnasium, baths and even a cycle repair centre.
Hertfordshire’s county town is modest in size but brims with history, and there’s a few low-key sights to tick off on a saunter around these old streets.
The Grade I-listed Shire Hall is a magistrates’ court built in 1789 and conceived by Robert Adam, who was one of the era’s foremost architects, active across Britain.
The marvellous gothic house at Hertford Castle replaced a Norman fortress in 15th century and was a childhood home for Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century.
You can dip into the tales behind these buildings at Hertford Museum, which itself is set in a 17th-century house.
The first floor dedicated to the town, while the remainder of the museum has anything from samurai armour to fossils.
The history of Berkhamsted begins in the very year of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Not only that, but William the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert of Mortain was most likely responsible for building Berkhamsted Castle, and most definitely lived there in the 11th century.
The castle is now an atmospheric ruin, and with intact earthworks and large chunks of the curtain walls still standing, it’s easy to see where the keep would have been.
On sunny days the green towpath of the Grand Junction Canal is ideal for a reflective stroll by the water.
Visually-speaking, Watford might not be as prepossessing as Hertfordshire’s more rural towns and villages.
But all the same, it’s a clean and well-off town with a few things to keep you occupied.
The placid Cassiobury Park was once the grounds of a country estate, and is now a sizeable nature reserve a brief jaunt from the town centre.
There are two country houses to visit nearby, one of which, Bhaktivedanta Manor is a half-timbered Tudor building converted into a Gaudiya Vaishnavism temple.
A tad more conventional is Cheslyn House and Gardens, a haven of peace with gardens that are a riot of colour in spring.
Watford also have a Premier League football side, nicknamed the Hornets and playing home games at Vicarage Road from August to May.
Another one for the urban planning historians, Stevenage was England’s first “New Town”, laid out in a matter of a years after the Second World War.
The population exploded from just a few thousand at the start of the 1900s to more than 80,000 today.
The old town is still intact, with the pubs and half-timbered houses on its typical country high street, and the Church of St Nicholas which dates to the 12th century.
Pop historians on the other hand will have heard all about Knebworth House, where bands like Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have played to enormous crowds.
The gothic-revival house and grounds are open to the public, and there’s a dinosaur park for kids in the park’s woodland.
11. Bishop’s Stortford
Convenient to Stansted Airport without being too close, Bishop’s Stortford is a quintessential country market town dominated by a neoclassical late-18th-century Corn Exchange.
Friday and Saturday evenings in the summer are a fine time to be in the town, when its residents who work in London are back in the town and filling the pubs and restaurants.
Right up against the centre of the town is a park containing the unmistakeable earthworks for a Norman fortress.
At the top of this mound are the ruins of Waytemore Castle dating to the 1100s, which later became a prison but was torn down in the 1700s.
There’s a man-made cave directly beneath the centre of this town at the very north of Hertfordshire.
Royston Cave may not be well-known but if you’re in the area you have to check in for a tour.
This eight-metre-high chamber has eerie carvings on its walls, which are most likely from the late-medieval period.
The cave was sealed up and rediscovered in 1742, and despite being studied for more than 250 years nobody has put a definite date to these sculptures.
The Icknield Way that passes through Tring continues on to Norfolk, and comes right by Royston.
You needn’t go that far, but for an hour or two you can navigate the local chalk hills on a path beaten by pre-Roman tribes.
One of the many great things about Ware is the River Lea.
The banks are adorably quaint and picturesque, thanks to the old buildings on the waters’ edge.
These include former “maltings”, which were part of the beer-brewing process, where grains would be soaked in the river’s water to produce malt.
You’ll also find twee old gazebos, with tiny wharfs where boats can be moored.
An astounding monument in Ware is Scott’s Grotto, fashioned by a John Scott a gardener, and Quake port: This building is partially dug into the hillside, with six different chambers, each with walls covered with glass, fossils and glass.
The structure is from the 18th century and we’re sure you won’t have seen anything like it!
14. Much Hadham
A famous former resident of Much Hadham is the 20th-century sculptor Henry Moore.
His old house is the site of the Henry Moore Foundation, and a unique chance to see many of his works on show in one place.
Though not blessed with shops, the parish village of Much Hadham is chock full of imposing old buildings, partly because it was also a stopping point on the road between Cambridge and London.
In this one place there are four Grade I-listed buildings, including two spectacular Georgian country houses.
After hot-footing it around the village you could drop by at the Old Bull Inn for a pint or meal.
For the traditional pleasures of an English country town, Wheathampstead on the River Lea merits a detour for a pub lunch and a wander.
There are Georgian townhouses and older wattle and daub buildings on the high street, and the leafy banks of the Lea are exceptionally pretty, with benches where you can pause for a minute or two.
The attractions in and near Wheathampstead are all quite modest, but it’s the scene and ambience of the place that makes it worthwhile.
Nomansland Common is just southwest of the town and in old times it was a venue for banned sports like bare-knuckle boxing, set away from the reach of the authorities.