Historical Maps Online – Hertfordshire – History of Hertfordshire
It is impossible to write of the shire without reference to Charles Lamb’s epithets, evoked by his famous visit, accompanied by his sister, to Mackery End and Wheathampstead. His “hearty, homely, loving Hertfordshire” staid put, at least as to the first two, as the farmhouse he visited and the lovely Elizabethan country house beside it remain. The first adjective is doubtless one of Lamb’s favourite puns, and “homely” is the more appropriate. It is in a particular sense a county of homes. No other county of a like acreage (Hertfordshire covers only six hundred and thirty two square miles) contains anything like so many old and lovely country houses, from such palaces as Hatfield, to the manor house and the smaller historic homes, like Lilley Loo or Lamer. The greater ones begin to loose their original purpoe. Cassiobury is the municipal park of Watford, the biggest urban concentration in the county. Kimpton Hoo, where Viscount Hampden lived, was bought by the Nuffield Trust, and became for a while a railway headquarters; one large and lovely old house became a preparatory school; Rye House for a time a grossly neglected ruin and now lost, the Letchworth Garden City has converted a glorious Jacobean manor house (once owned by the most freakish of Hertfordshire worthies, so called, the Reverend but un-reverend Alington) into a hotel and its farmland into a golf course Tewin Water House, now owned by the City Council, has become a special school for deaf children.
HOUSES GREAT AND SMALL
Such changes multiply; but almost all the smaller houses remain, and indeed increase, especially along the Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire borders, though Water End by Ayot is a good example of restored glory. We may hope, too, that the very greatest and most pleasing will survive. Hatfield House is supreme on any account. It has remained in one family since the days of the first Lord Salisbury, son of Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, who was induced by James 1 to exchange it for Theobalds, which he preferred. The Jacobean house which he planned has no architectural rival of the period; and the old hall and buildings beside it are relics of the very finest Tudor architecture. Nor can a successful rival be found to its internal decorations and gallery of pictures. Those who attend the yearly agricultural show in the vast park have to walk very few yards to see the oak under which Queen Elizabeth was found, so the story goes, when the news was brought of her succession to the throne. Again Panshanger – of which Lord Desborough was peculiarly fond – as a park in some ways more pictorial than Hatfield Park, and within the house the priceless pictures are a memorial to the great day of the English country house, where, as a much travelled Dutchman said, the highest point in civilization was reached. To give one more example, the descendants of Bulwer Lytton still inhabit Knebworth; and time has added virtue to the intricate flamboyance of the too -imaginative architecture of the house.
A curious example is on record. A signpost once stood at the corner of a Hertfordshire lane leading to Hatfield, and one arm bore the legend “The Way to Yesterday” – so Lord Salisbury told me. It was alleged later that the post bore a second arm pointing north to Welwyn Garden City, and on this was written “The Way to Hell”. No one has gone bail for the historic truth of this gloss. Anyway, to make the antithesis quite crisp as well as true, that northern arm ought to have given the direction “The Way to Tomorrow, for Tomorrow was the first and whole title of Ebenezer Howard’s epoch – making book, later called Garden Cities of Tomorrow, which created the Garden City movement. Yesterday and tomorrow may be said to have coalesced when Howard founded Letchworth in 1903; the change was confirmed when the owners of Hatfield sold – for a very moderate sum – the site near Welwyn of a second Garden City to a group, again inspired and represented by Sir Ebenezer Howard. In no shire in England does tomorrow so obviously threaten today. At Stevenage, between the two garden cities, and not far from either a satellite town of thirty thousand inhabitants has been built; Hatfield and Boreham Wood have also grown enormously.
The rural calm of Hertfordshire has persisted for centuries in spite of the neighbourhood of London, in spite of the passage of the Great Northern and Midland railways, in spite of the Great North Road in its centre and Watling Street on the west. One carries a signpost “To the North” and the other “To Holyhead” and the throughfaring leaves Hertfordshire’s peace almost undisturbed: indeed, less disturbed than when Dick Turpin frequented Ermine Street, especially at its approach to Royston. Only over a narrow strip on the south, by Barnet and Watford, has London conquered and the built-up area superseded the farm. But even Watford has a core of antiquity and a lovely park, and Barnet still celebrates its fair with much of the old gusto. The unhappy prospect is that the green belt, of which an arc crosses the county to the south of these, will be no more than a temptation for new towns to leapfrog over it. Nevertheless let it be put on record that until after the Second World War not only its villages, but its dainty little towns – Hertford itself, with Ware, Hitchin, Buntingford (which still seems a village) indeed, in some aspects St. Albans savoured of the deep country. Will the new towns or the enlarged villages such as Harpenden, where the famous Rothamsted Research Station was founded by Gilbert and Lawes, acquire as pleasing a savour. It may be said that all the towns, except those on the Middlesex border, still retain a sort of rural flavour, like the hundreds of villages and hamlets which remain “wrapt from the world”
PAST AND PRESENT
It is likely to remain a true verdict that there are few shires where past and present jostle one another in so friendly and palpable a manner. The county town itself, though many of the streets are urban in the ordinary sense, gives a good example. The old castle of Hertford, where King Arthur checked the invasion by the Danes by manipulating the navigable waters of the Lea, today provides some charming municipal offices, and its surroundings are as pleasant a public playground as can be found anywhere in the Southern Counties. Again, St. Albans has suffered a number of new additions that are not of the loveliest, if we except the architecture of the new post office; but you slip out of the main street straight into the precincts of the cathedral famous for its possession of the longest nave in England – and at its side the yet older gateway, which is now part of St. Albans School; and this claims to be older, even by several hundred years, than the oldest of our public schools. It was a happy idea of the restorers of the magnificent screen in the cathedral to include the figure of Nicholas Breakspear, the only English Pope, who took the title of Adrian IV. He was a Hertfordshire man, born at Abbots Langley; his family name is perpetuated in Breakspear Farm. When you leave the cathedral and wander down the green slope towards the River Ver, you presently pass the Fighting Cocks, perhaps the oldest house used as an inn in England; and over the river you are in Verulamium proper, with its eloquent relics of old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago. Battles in and about St. Albans have been many and fierce ever since the days of Queen Boadicea and Cassivelaunus. In the centuries that followed the Roman victories, successive invasions by northern and western tribes seem almost to have wiped out the imported civilization. Verulamium itself was utterly destroyed, probably by the Angles round A.D.500. A more or less peaceful period succeeded in which King Offa, as the tale goes, found the bones of the Christian martyr, St. Alban. His cathedral was partly built of the stones and the tiles of Roman Verulamium, whose destruction was thus completed. Battles were resumed at the Norman Conquest (when peace was made at Berkhampstead), and then was a pause until the Wars of the Roses, when the opening battle was fought at St. Albans, and yet a bloodier battle six years later on the way to Harpenden, after which Queen Margaret’s borderers were said to have ravaged the city, including the Abbey. The war finished as it began in Hertfordshire, at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. The chief victor of the earlier battle was the Earl of Warwick, and the tomb of unnamed members of his family is to be found in Flamstead Church, where the medieval wall paintings are of particular interest.
Since those Civil Wars Hertfordshire has not only cultivated the arts of peace, but restored evidence of the Roman civilization. Almost where Boadicea and Cassivelaunus and the British tribes fought bloody battles with the Romans is now shown the beautifully preserved outline of a Roman theatre, which is unique in England, and the museum near by is an archaeologist’s feast. A little to the east, ivied ruins recall that famous lady, Juliana Berners of the Sopwell nunnery, who wrote the earliest of our books of sport and anticipated Izaak Walton as an authority on fishing by several hundred years. However, before turning east to the nunnery, those who take such a walk should have visited the old and beautiful church of St. Michael, built at the very centre of the Roman Verulamium. Apart from the many architectural charms of the church, an unusually artistic monument stands over the tomb of Francis Bacon, whose views on gardening, given in a charming essay, were acquired at his home of Gorhambury, close by.
It is difficult to imagine a change more pleasantly abrupt than the passage from the busy street under the shadow of the spreading cedar by the east end of the cathedral. A pleasant throw-back to a later antiquity is to be found in the yet busier and broader part of the street to the north. Here an old barn from Waterend House (favourite home of the Duke of Marlborough) has been re-erected as a modern restaurant. “Great is juxtaposition” – and there are few of the little towns that do not acknowledge some such obvious and agreeable touch with a distant past. Berkhampstead, a market and residential town, will seem to the motorists one interminably long stretch of no very particular charm except perhaps for an odd house or two.
CASTLE AND COMMON
The castle where the Black Prince lived and played the beneficent lord of the manor is a much less conspicuous object than the railway station beside it, but on the north side you find yourself almost instantly on a glorious common, famous for the fight for its preservation between Mr. Smith and Lord Bridgwater. Alongside it is Ashridge, one of several places in the shire owned by the National Trust. The vista of the fine avenue excels even the chestnut avenue at Hertford. Behind are such gems as the two Gaddesdens and Nettleden, and a little to the west spread out a view only less spacious than those from Telegraph Hill, near Lilley Hoo, or the northerly view from the bare downs above Royston, where James 1 loved to hunt, when he was not hunting at Theobalds (or “Tibbies”). On the whole the shires of Bedford and Buckingham give rather wider and richer views than Cambridgeshire and Essex. Just one town in the shire is associated with a comic past. Cowper, who was at school for a while at Berkhampstead, made Ware the bourne of the most facetious of holiday rides; and long before John Gilpin’s expedition, the Great Bed of Ware, some eleven feet square and seven feet high, built of carved oak, became a popular jest, used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. It is a deprivation that after several migrations from inn to inn it has been removed to South Kensington. Ware should be appreciated for other than comic reasons.
WARES MALT HOUSES
The waterways, increased by Sir Hugh Myddelton’s canals, cut for the sake of London’s water supply, make the lower part of the town a sort of Venice. Navigation is busy, and one line of dwelling-houses on the waterside makes a delightfully unexpected picture. Behind the most attractive of its hotels rise malt houses which here, as at Bishops Stortford, indicate an important county industry, still in being after a long and flourishing past; and their presence truly suggests that the farms round about produce as good barley as Norfolk itself. Malting has played, and still plays, a very large part of the industry of a wide area, especially along a line from the Bedfordshire boundary near Hitchin to the Essex border near Bishops Stortford.
No modern additions, though some are very unlovely, have actually destroyed the spirit of these little, merry Hertfordshire towns, in spite of such a “cautionary guide” as a preserver of modern England wrote of St. Albans. Many of the villages are unhurt. Charles Lamb could still fulfil his final ambition. “I had thought” – he wrote in 1822, “in a green old age (Oh green thought) to have retired to Ponders End, emblematic name, how beautiful! in the Ware Road, toddling about it and Cheshunt, anon stretching on some fine Izaak Walton morning, to Hoddesdon or Amwell, careless beggar; but walking, walking ever, till I fairly walked myself off my legs, dying walking.” Of all these places Amwell at any rate still remains a walker’s paradise, and there the source of the New River still makes a neat and unspoilt picture under the little old church and the famous memorial stones. While such villages as Westmill, Aldbury, Ayot, and Gaddesden are still in being.
Visit Ayot St. Lawrence where George Bernard Shaw sought serenity, or Aspenden or Nettleden. The old type of labourer is found in these hamlets as well as the craftsmen; but the craftsmen have changed, not their nature, but their methods. For example, in a village near the little gem of Ayot lives a blacksmith whose forbears have worked at the same trade for some two hundred years. He and other blacksmiths, at Hatfield and elsewhere, have of late years become experts of such artwork as fire irons and iron gates, and have had the eagerly accepted chance of studying traditional patterns at South Kensington. While engaged in such work the financial return hardly enters this smith’s head. He will work for continuous hours well into the night; and is so conscientious an artist that nothing in the world would persuade him to use a file instead of a hammer. I once saw him fall into a passion when he detected marks of a file on a piece of iron-work sent for exhibition at the County Agricultural Show. To correct bad hammer work with a file was in his eyes high treason against true art.
VALLEY OF GLASS
The shire has, in part, protected itself against urbanization behind the defences of the River Lea, especially towards the east along the reaches which Izaak Walton made famous. Few counties have enjoyed a more persuasive tribute than the opening pages of The Compleat Angler, when Piscator joined the otter hunt and foretasted the cheer at The Thatched House – now, alas, no more – in Hoddesdon. That defensive barrier changed its nature abruptly from the beginning of the century. Glasshouses began to spring up, and presently many miles of waterway between Cheshunt and Hoddesdon helped to create a veritable valley of glass. Within a few years the transformation of the scene became scarcely credible. Quick fortunes were made, employment multiplied, the kings of Covent Garden set up headquarters on the riverbanks – almost at the spot where the Rye House Plot against James 1 was hatched. It has been plausibly alleged that the value of the produce under glass now at least equals the value of the open-field output within the county, though the farms still retain their old reputation for barley and wheat. The example became infectious as well as contagious, and many isolated glasshouses sprang up.
A more pictorial industry flourishes by several villages higher up the valley. Agreeable springs bubble up in many places near the river, and these were found to give ideal conditions for the growth of water-cress. Its culture is singularly attractive. The first January harvesting may be a chilly performance, but an expert craftsman of my acquaintance could excel at his work of cutting the cress, as well as rolling and planting it. It is a village industry to be encouraged. Much more than a village industry is the manufacture of high grades of paper, carried out at Hemel Hempstead, at Apsley, and at Croxley Green, near Watford. Poultry keeping on a large scale is practised at King’s Langley.
Within the memory of living people Hertfordshire has lost a village industry, straw plaiting, that brought some wealth and much occupation to great numbers of poor people. For example, soon after the world-famous Rothamsted Research Station was started at the edge of the hamlet of Harpenden in 1843, a small boy of ten years old – the usual age at which boys went out to work in those days – was employed on the farm. In the course of years he rose to be farm manager and, on his retirement, under the wise encouragement of Sir John Russell I, the director, he put together a book of reminiscences, which gives a most engaging picture of village life just before the railway came. He preserves a number of racy words and phrases now half or wholly forgotten, the old beliefs or superstitions, and, what are most important, the old ways of thought and habits of life. The village folk were poor and worked very hard. The boys often began work at 4 a.m., and were boarded out on the farms for a good part of the week, taking a three or four days’ supply of food with them. Wages were miserably low, but poverty was relieved to some extent by payment in kind, by the keeping of pigs and general cheapness.
Throughout the account of such things as remembered most faithfully by Mr. Gray, the author of the reminiscences, straw plait runs like a thread. The women plaited straw almost continuously, the tiny babes learnt and practised the simpler patterns, and continual journeys to St. Albans, largely by Shanks, his mare, were concerned with the selling of the plait as well as the purchase of goods. This cottage industry, destroyed in part by the beginning of the twentieth century by cheap imports from Japan, was a godsend: and nothing has been found to take its place.
it is difficult in more expensive days to realize how cheaply life could be lived. Perhaps the most pleasing of all the smaller golf courses within the county was made towards the end of the nineteenth century and the bill for its construction is in being. Its burden is this: “To making golf course £8 16s.Od.” and it was credibly reported to me by the first secretary that the maker apologized for the size of the bill on the ground that he had been forced to hire a horse and cart! One of the earliest golfers was the son of a commoner, who fashioned a club for himself out of holly that he cut on the common. He rose to the distinction of a plus handicap and made a notable appearance as an amateur in the Open Championship. He used to say that everyone who played on this course ought to become a plus golfer, for it is so enclosed in ling and gorse, not to mention thorn and juniper and raspberry, that only the straightest hitter can survive. He might have added that at certain seasons your concentration is liable to be disturbed by the song of larks and nightingales!
In the earliest account of Hertfordshire, Michael Drayton, in his Polyolbion, concerns himself chiefly with the rivers and woods; and then Epping or Waltham Forest extended into Hertfordshire. To-day the villages and little towns are of more concern than woods and rivers, but the rivers, especially the Lea “Which oft doth lose its way”, remain important. Most of them have their source in the Chilterns, those lovely chalk ridges that begin to lose altitude, but to gain in richness of clothing, as they enter the western side of the shire. One of the few that has nothing to do with the Chilterns has its most attractive source in the old and famous village of Ashwell. Here, as elsewhere, the villages were first built along the valleys, sometimes for the sake of the mills. For example: the mill in Wheathampstead is in Domesday, and the old beams within are old enough to show the holes made for the reception of the iron spikes of the candlesticks, necessary for lighting its dark interior. It is a hopeful sign for the return of some measure of self sufficiency that after lying idle for some years, the old mill wheel revolves again for the grinding of chicken food from local grain. Most of the mills, which were once numerous, have ceased to be, but what is of more vital importance is that the rivers themselves are in danger of extinction. There was a large and famous mill on the Mimram by Codicote, which was turned into a singularly attractive country house. One owner, Lord Hampden, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, made a pleasant swimming-pool beside the house. Then, with small warning, the weight of water diminished, and in a few weeks you could walk dry shod across an ex-fishpond and the swimming-pool.
The failure of the water was due in part to London’s greed. Ever since Sir Hugh Myddelton in the seventeenth century doubled the water – courses of the Lea from Amwell southwards to fill an Islington reservoir, the demand for more and more water has grown, till it begins to exceed the supply. Loss of water is not the only threat to the rivers. Hertfordshire, as I have already said, is dotted from east to west with great country houses. A fine flourish has been set on a number of them, such as Luton Hoo, Tewin, Wormleybury and Brocket, by the formation of a wide lake made by holding up the streams; and these lakes have greatly added to the bird population of the county. When the war came it was felt that they were a guide-post to the German airmen, so the barriers were removed, and the rubbish accumulated over centuries in these lakes was decanted into the bed of the stream. Contamination ensued; and for various reasons effluents of a poisonous sort were caught up. On the upper reaches of the Lea the trout, with which the river was well stocked, died first; but not even the coarse fish could resist for long. Even the fresh-water crayfish (for which London hotels used to compete) at last perished. A robust fight for the purity of our streams should be joined by all dwellers in Hertfordshire.
Hertfordshire is as many ‘Fathoms deep” in history as Pevensey itself. When, for example, Mr. Kindersley, then Member for Hitchin, decided to have a tennis-court by his WeIwyn house, a workman struck into a nest of Roman relics. The Samian ware looked as good as new, and bore the maker’s mark, giving the precise date. Many of the buried urns were quite unharmed, so was one beautiful green glass decanter, and so would have been its pair, but for the too eager pickaxe of a reverend excavator. Most of these relics are to be seen at Letchworth – the first fruit of “Tomorrow”; and tomorrow has become of overwhelming present interest within the county.
The first of the satellite towns organized by the planners of the New England, with Hemel Hempstead as second, was ordered by the Government to be built around the old village of Stevenage, hitherto distinguished mainly by its grammar school, four centuries old, and by a row of ancient Danish barrows. As the first of the new towns which were to absorb some of London’s teeming millions, the development of Stevenage became at once a cockpit of opposing interests. It was designed to take a population of sixty thousand, to be self-supporting, to have its own community centre, modern schools, libraries and cultural services; and at the same time was to attract such light industries as would provide work for its people without upsetting the semi-rural amenities. On the other hand, these changes necessarily involved the uprooting of much that was old and cherished among the existing inhabitants. Land had to be compulsorily acquired, sometimes at prices which to the vendors seemed utterly unjust. Unsightly mounds of earth, rows of drainage trenches, unmade roads, all the flotsam and litter of streets of “council houses” in the making, disfigured the landscape. There were many protests and public meetings; and farmers especially complained that land, which they had brought to a high pitch of fertility, was now being wasted on bricks and mortar. Nevertheless the growth of Stevenage went ahead. The town can now muster about 25,000 inhabitants (79,724 in 2001 Ed.) and it has, besides, fifteen or sixteen factories, which are in by no means unsightly surroundings; but the town centre has yet to be erected. Hemel Hempstead, in fact, has far outstripped it, though of course it was originally much larger, and now numbers some 45,000 (now around 80,000 Ed.) people. It was a rather surprising fact that in the more westerly part of the shire two existing centres of population, St. Albans, a considerable town, and Harpenden, still desirable as a village, suggested through their representative that they should each be increased by another ten thousand or so, in preference to the proposal that a brand new satellite town should be built near Redbourn. Apart from such considerations, it has been the general feeling in Hertfordshire that its nearness to London has been wrongly exploited. The new towns, instead of freeing London from factories have partially served to house London workers. Why should the bulk of satellite towns and the first experiments be tried out so near London, against which the county has fought so valiant and successful a fight for centuries?
Yet, in spite of the threats of the new planners and the necessities of so-called development, the native scenery of the county holds out. Rupert Brooke might still take pleasure in –
The Roman Road to Wendover By Tring and Lilley Hoo.
From the charming manor house at Lilley Loo over one little reach of the Icknield Way (which is pre-Roman) to Telegraph Hill, you may still lose yourself, and find no one who can put you on your way. Village cricket flourishes both at Noman’s Land and in fields by country houses. Were those Lamb epithets of hearty and homely ever more pleasantly illustrated than at St. Paul’s Walden in the days when our Queen Elizabeth as a girl helped her sister to score, while her father upset the wickets of the team of the neighbouring village with his slow, leg-breaking deliveries? The cricket, at which most of the family of Bowes Lyon excelled, keeps its zest and simplicity in the same villages; and country house and cottage, to the satisfaction of both, enjoy a mutual and most English relation. At the yearly ploughing matches one-furrow horse-drawn ploughs compete in the company of five-furrow ploughs drawn by tractors; and on such occasions I have heard street-Arabs on holiday from London express their desire to be laughers – a rare omen.
A large number of local words survive, though many are dead. When the time comes for hedging and ditching, the labourers still make their own “mollies” (mallets) out of hedge timber, preferably hornbeam. The villagers express their dislike, in true Shakespearean idiom, for the “hugger-mugger” work. When we see great changes – factories in village, schools in country houses, satellite towns, green but urban belts, ribbon developments and over mechanized farms – we may still have good grounds for nursing the hope that the more it changes, the more it remains the same thing. Since only a few bits of the county belong to the National Trust, and so are saved “in perpetuity”, – the rest must be preserved by native watch-dogs, who will not allow the rivers to be polluted, or the commons invaded, or the half-year land forgotten, or the hedges destroyed, or the spirit of the village to be contaminated and its cottages made ugly or left unsanitary. Tomorrow, however different, may keep the essential quality of yesterday throughout the length and breadth, while it grows in comfort and vitality. The glory of the old village was its local self-sufficiency, and to this ideal we see some signs of return in the Village Produce Guild (which has its headquarters in Hertfordshire), the activity of Women’s Institutes, where flourish greatly the revival of spinning, as of the Country and Agricultural Societies and, above all, the pride of Hertfordshire, its craftsmen.
Adapted from an article by Sir William Beach-Thomas Circa 1950
THE TOWNS AND VILLAGES OF HERTFORDSHIRE
|Abbots Langley |
Ayot St Lawrence
Ayot St Peter
Brick House End
Chalfont St Giles
Chalfont St Peter
East End Green
Further Ford End
Hatfield Broad Oak
Hatfield Garden Village
Mark Hall North
Nazeing Long Green
North Brook End
| Nup End|
Old Hall Green
St Paul’s Walden
Standon Green End
Watton At Stone
Welwyn Garden City
Wormley West End