Hertfordshire’s county seat is a small but well-preserved market town at an ancient crossing on the River Lea.
The English church’s first general Synod happened in this place in 673, when the date for Easter was decided on.
Not long after, the Anglo-Saxons identified Hertford as a strategic site at the confluence of four rivers, and Edward the Elder built defences over the Lea’s ford.
One of these would evolve into Hertford Castle, a royal palace up to the reign of James I and with riverfront gardens open to the public.
Among Hertford’s many small but interesting sights are the oldest purpose-built Friends Meeting House (1670), the house that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace grew up in and lots of 17th-century and Georgian architecture.
1. Hertford Heritage Trail
To show just how many curiosities await you on Hertford’s streets, there are more than 41 stops on the town’s Heritage Trail.
In the shadow of the grand Georgian Shire Hall, Fore Street is extremely pretty.
The entire length of the street merits a look, but the western end is a joy for the rare pargeting (decorative stuccowork) visible on the Salisbury Arms (1570) and the terrace of mid-17th-century houses at 3-13. Wallace House at 11 St Andrew Street is obligatory.
This was the childhood home of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), who travelled to the Amazon Basin and Malay Archipelago and independently came up with a theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin.
2. Hertford Castle
Straddling the River Lea, Castle Gardens is a beautiful place to pass an hour or two.
These are the grounds of Hertford Castle, on a site first fortified by the King of the Anglo-Saxons, Edward the Elder in the early 10th century.
This was turned into a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in the 11th century, and that earthwork mound can still be seen beside the Lea.
The castle was rebuilt in stone by Henry II in the 1170s and over the coming centuries was a royal residence, often used for important prisoners like Knights Templar, and King John II of France and David II of Scotland during the Hundred Years’ War.
In 1563 Parliament met at this very building during an outbreak of plague in London.
This was the castle’s high point before a long decline.
Along with Henry II’s flint and stone wall, the main surviving structure is the gatehouse, remodelled in a Gothic Revival style in the late-18th century.
This is a private building for weddings, but can be visited during Heritage Open Days in September, while the gardens are always open to the public.
3. Hertford Museum
The Hertford Museum dates back to 1903, and was founded by a pair of businessmen, the Andrews Brothers, calling on their own collection.
The current location is a 17th-century townhouse, and the museum was given a Heritage Lottery makeover a decade ago, reopening in 2010. There are more than 100,000 objects in the collection so only 5% of this sizeable reserve can be shown at one time.
As you’d guess, the exhibition jumps from topic to topic, covering fine art, geology, ethnography, archaeology, ceramics, photography, the Hertfordshire Regiment and local ephemera to give a sense of the day-to-day in Hertford over the years.
Always on show and not to be missed is the Roman corn-drying oven (for beer), dating back to the 4th century and weighing 20 tons.
There has been no equivalent find in the UK.
4. Riverside Trail
You can get a feel for Hertford and the River Lea on the Riverside Trail, which guides you along to the neighbouring town of Ware, and then back to Hertford on a Figure of Eight.
This easy stroll is just under six miles and carries you over the Lee Valley floodplain, past the Hertford and Ware locks, waterside gazebos, the remnants of 18th-century watermills and a historic pump house.
At Chadwell Springs you’ll see the “New River”, a manmade waterway from 1613, intended to supply London with drinking water (London still gets much of its water from the Lea). The King’s Mead, also just outside Ware, floods over in winter to provide a feeding ground for migrating and overwintering birds like teals, gadwalls and shovelers.
5. Scotts Grotto
If you take the walk to Ware on a Saturday, you have to make the short detour to Scotts Grotto, a set of interlinked chambers lined with flint, coloured glass, shells and fossils and extending 20 metres into the chalk hillside.
The Grade I-listed Scotts Grotto used to be part of garden of Amwell House and was ordered by the Quaker poet John Scott (1731-1783). This complex would have taken several years and cost as much as £10,000 to complete, an astronomical sum at the time.
It is though that Scott just wanted somewhere to write, although the word “FROG” in the main “Council Chamber” is a tribute to his wife, Sarah Frogley.
The estate has since been redeveloped, but the grotto remains and can be visited on Saturdays (14:00-16:30) between April and September.
6. Quaker Meeting House
At 50 Railway Street stands the oldest purpose-built Friends’ Meeting House in the world to have remained in unbroken use.
The first Quaker preacher came to Hertford in 1655 and practised in private houses until this building was completed in 1670. If you’re interested in seeing the typically low-key but atmospheric interiors there’s an open day on the second Sunday of the month between May and September.
7. All Saints’ Church
Aside from St Albans Cathedral, Hertford’s All Saints’ Church is the largest church in Hertfordshire.
This Grade II* building is newer than it seems, having been completed in 1905 after the previous church was destroyed in a fire in 1891. The design is Perpendicular Revival, in a Northern style, using red sandstone from Runcorn.
Although little is more than 100 years old, the degree of workmanship is high, on the stained glass windows (east window by Charles Eamer Kempe), polished limestone font, pulpit, sedilia and piscina in the chancel and the three-manual organ (1900) by Henry Willis & Sons.
Among the memorials are pieces of brasses dating back to the 1400s rescued from the previous church.
8. Hertford Theatre
This modern complex at The Wash by the River Lea is Hertford’s main performing arts venue.
The Hertford Theatre is handy if you want to sample local productions (the Ware Operatic performs here), classical music, as well as touring musicians and comedians, and talks by cultural figures and politicians.
The theatre doubles as a cinema, showing Hollywood blockbusters and more obscure independent films.
Also on the programme are screenings from major cultural institutions like the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Society productions.
9. Panshanger Park
The picturesque country estate on Hertford’s western fringe is actually owned by Tarmac, which bought the land for sand and gravel extraction.
And while the Gothic Revival house might have been demolished in the 1950s, a lot of the land has been kept as a nature reserve.
Some 200 acres were opened to the public in 2014, comprising a tapestry of habitats including grassland, wetlands and reedbeds.
Ospreys, kingfishers and a variety of wildfowl have been recorded at the reserve.
Traces of the historic estate, like the orangery, stables and nursery garden wall, remain, while the park grows the country’s largest maiden oak (girth of 7.6 metres), and a tree planted by Winston Churchill.
The remainder of the estate will be opened to the public when the quarrying comes to an end.
10. Shire Hall
The head-turning monument on Market Place and Fore Street is the Grade I-listed Shire Hall, an 18th-century construction by James Adam, son of the famed Robert Adam.
Dating to the late-1760s, the Shire Hall was built to house the Corn Exchange (up to the 1850s), as well as courts, a council chamber and assembly rooms.
This imposing building has four storeys, composed of bricks, as well as dressed Portland stone for the arcades, window arches, ledges, garlanded frieze and Ionic columns.
Shire Hall is currently used as a family magistrates court, but is worth a second glance as you wander the town.
11. Hartham Common
Bounded by the Rivers Lea and Beane, Hartham Common is a green space to the north of the town centre, first mentioned more than 1,000 years ago and left unsown.
Once a site for jousting contests and archery competitions, the common is crossed by public rights of way, and you may see cattle grazing in the meadows.
A few sports clubs, like the Herts Canoe and Hertford Lawn Tennis Club are based on the common.
For public facilities, there’s a fenced children’s play area, a skate park and a cafe.
Hartham Leisure centre is here on the south side, and has a pool, tennis courts, 3G and grass football pitches and an 85-station gym.
12. Bayfordbury Observatory
Taking advantage of the sparse countryside south of Hertford, the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory dates back to 1969 and is one of the biggest teaching observatories in the country.
The facility has seven optical and four radio telescopes, the largest being a 20-inch J.C.D Marsh Cassegrain Telescope.
If you’re around between October and March you can sign up for an open evening, normally held around once a month.
For amateur astronomers this is a privilege, including the chance to look through one of the seven optical telescopes, study the night sky live at the planetarium, meet researchers and students to discuss their work, attend talks and watch demonstrations by experts.
13. Corn Exchange
This grand Neoclassical hall on Fore Street was opened in 1859, and in the 20th century became a live music venue.
The likes of The Kinks and The Who played the Corn Exchange before it lay empty for 30 years, to be revived in the last decade.
The Corn Exchange books lots of live music, from cover acts to well-known touring artists.
There’s also lots of stand-up comedy, and a diversity of club nights, centred on anything from ska to drum and bass, Argentine tango, 80s disco and soul music.
14. Charter Market
Trading on Salisbury Square, Maidenhead St, Railway St and Bircherley Green, there’s a retail market every Saturday in the centre of town.
You can peruse these stalls for fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, fresh bread and pastries, eggs, flowers, fashion accessories, homewares and lots more.
On Market Place on the second Saturday of the month there’s also a Farmers’ Market from 08:30 to 13:00 selling poultry, dairy, fruit and vegetables, bread, cakes, honey and all manner of homemade condiments from local farms.
15. Lee & Stort Boat Co
A slightly confusing thing about the River Lea is that the navigable arm of the river is called the “Lee” Navigation.
Well, from Easter to September you can make the idyllic journey from Hertford to Ware on the Lee, via the Ware and Hertford Waterbus.
On a wide barge that can be modified according to the weather you’ll float through the nature-rich floodplains for about 90 minutes each way and navigate the Hertford and Ware locks.
Services depart on Saturdays and Sundays, from Bircherley Green Shopping Centre in Hertford.