Sunday, 25 June 2017

Chalet Shops

Most railway stations are abuzz with activity aside from the coming and going of trains.  The platform leading to the exit, if it wasn't in the booking hall, inevitably has a newsagent, and there are purveyors of snacks by the thousand (snacks, that is, not their purveyors).  It has always been so.

Another trader was often to be found too, and that was the local coal company.  These have now disappeared but often their trading posts are still in place.  At St Albans City Station, when the station and its forecourt was off Ridgmont Road, Charrington's had a little brick building at the foot of the steps leading from the bridge down into the space where taxis pulled in and buses sometimes turned.  The delightful building is still there, but, as with many other coal merchants their businesses have burned out with the universal arrival of gas and oil central heating, and better insulated homes.

Charrington's, however, was not the only coal merchant in St Albans.  Until the 1960s Kendall's was based at the Fleetville Siding, and clustered around the City Station there were several other firms, generally arriving in the 1930s.  Previously they might have each had their own section of the station goods yard, with their ordering counters in various of the town's shops.

Shops with flats above had climbed Victoria Street from Beaconsfield Road towards the railway bridge by the turn of the twentieth century, but in the space between them and the edge of the railway cutting, someone decided to add yet more.  This was probably, though I can't confirm it, railway land.  Two flat-roofed single storey shops, the left one being occupied first by an optician and then by an enterprising estate agent called Graham Barnes.  The right shop was rather better known after its first occupier, a jeweller, left, because it became Tominey's Chocolate Box shop, where later the family  owned its Vaudeville Cafe.

Next to this pair was a "flat-packed" chalet with a pitched-roof, wedged into the remaining space before the edge of the almost vertical drop down to platform one (today number four).  This was for coal merchant Brentnall and Cleland.  Today it is an estate agency.

Across the road and at the top of the steps referred to above is a small chalet perched on stilts, such is the lack of solid level ground.  From memory this tiny shop was the home of Lockhart coal merchant, and later became the home of a local driving school and later still was Yeoman Antiques.

Fortunately these little former coal merchant chalets are still standing.  Not so the third building, having been removed when the station was rebuilt, in the 1970s, to the other side of the tracks, and the former coal yard access road opened up to make Station Road.  Right on the curved corner was a chalet used for a time by Martell coal merchants and Hichcliffe's.  As with the others, this chalet arrived in the 1930s, and I can recall calling in to pay for the previous delivery of coal and, because it was often possible to gauge how long five hundredweight would last, order the next five sacks.  There were times when coal could not be delivered when we wanted.  Harsh winters, miners' strikes and shortages caused by priorities being given to power stations and hospitals, all formed part of the logistics of timing we might expect something to keep us warm.

I have been searching for some time for photographs of Hinchcliffe's chalet without success.  So the call is out for anyone who possesses an image of the chalet which disappeared

!  We will see how long it takes before it turns up on this blog, or on the website.  The clock is ticking!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Portsmouth Ahoy

In the 1950s Beaumont was just an ordinary Secondary Modern School.  There were none of the modern buildings that spread around the site today; just the original brick structure, and three temporary ROSLA classroom buildings put up in preparation for the Raising Of the School Leaving Age – to fifteen.  A few students were, even then, encouraged to remain until they were sixteen, taking GCE exams.

Among the most remembered events were the school journeys.

I suppose, as a boys’ school, as it was between 1954 and 1960, it was inevitable that there would be connections with the armed services.  There had been the Sea Cadets which had met and trained at the school before removing to HMS Verulam at Westminster Lodge.  But post-war there must have been a constant requirement for youngsters to “join up” in order to replace those who had been serving in the lean years immediately after the war.

In 1959 Mr Arthur Coxall, who taught woodwork and lived in Elm Drive, organised a Monday-to-Friday school journey  to Portsmouth where our accommodation was HMS Vanguard, a battleship which was laid up in the harbour and was used, as far as I can recall, as a training and recruitment ship.  There were about twenty or so fourth years (year ten) who went with Mr Coxall and the newly appointed headmaster, Mr George Humphries.  

Quite why I became part of the group I am not sure, since I knew I had no intention of joining up as a career – even though they got you anyway at that time through the National Service route.  Nor was I a particular fan of the water.  It was one of those moments when, if your friends said they were going, that's what you told your parents, and they were supposed to agree.  Fortunately, they did, but with one caveat.  Whatever it cost I had to fund it.  So that would be another raid on my paper round income.

I cannot remember as much as I probably should for such a unique experience, but found myself enjoying the novelty of sleeping in hammocks, which were amazingly comfortable, until, that is, the ridiculously early wake-up call by the sailors who were in charge of us.  I wonder whether the teachers were in hammocks, or or whether they were afforded the luxury of a cabin?  

Naturally, we were given a tour of the the dull grey ship, and we joined in many of the mess activities: some of the best basic meals I can remember – there always seemed to be seconds available if we wanted them. Just as the sailors benefited from down-time, we also enjoyed games room activities; and instruction sessions on various topics I have long since forgotten.  Oddly enough I can recall a film night; a black-and-white feature film called Twelve Angry Men.  I imagined ships always possessing a constant background throbbing noise from its engines, but this was absent from HMS Vanguard, instead, being attached to mainland life by a cable!

Every day we skitted around the harbour in a little naval launch to various places.  There was a visit to HMS Victory, and a gunnery simulation building where we were able to score our ability to shoot simulated cannons at ships, and simulated guns at aircraft, with the winning team being awarded some kind of prize.  The Royal Marines hosted one day but I am not certain what we did with them.

I have to admit that the week was thoroughly enjoyable.  Who else went on this trip?  It will have been others who were also 15 in 1958.  Did it only happen once or was it a regular feature of the Beaumont programme in the 1950s?  What is almost certain is that the Vanguard week was the last one.  The ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1960, news which very much disappointed me.

I know, you are dying to know whether the experience changed my mind about the armed forces!  Well, no, it didn’t, and by the time I was 17 the government of the day stopped compulsory National Service, thank goodness.  I am sure that school journeys at Beaumont School have become increasingly adventurous, but we tend to remember the ones organised just for us.  It's just a shame I didn't take a camera!

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Some people like barley-sugars ...

Possibly one of the most beautiful roads leading from the town of St Helier in Jersey is the one through wooded St Peter's Valley.  But its splendour could only be appreciated when driving a car along the road; and many of those drivers were becoming more irritated as an increasing number of cyclists slowed traffic to a crawl in the uphill direction on what is a narrow roadway.  Recently, the States of Jersey has begun to make improvements; a separate foot (there was none before) and cycle path now winds its way beside the road, but separated from it by granite walls or rough timber fencing.  An aggregate or all-weather surface enables more residents and visitors to enjoy the managed woodland through shade, dappled sunlight or the muted light of the woodland edge.

Open Space at The Wick.
The former branch railway which thousands of us know as Alban Way has been walked ever since the tracks were lifted in the 1960s.  The ground on either side of the line had previously been open, managed by the railway company to ensure nothing overhung the track.  Gradually, seedlings became saplings, which became young trees, and until recently trees as old as fifty years jostled with shrubs, grasses and other ground cover until the latter were largely crowded out by the large trees, which in turn made continuing to walk the dark path less attractive for many of us, especially in the evenings when an early dusk enveloped us.  Recent work to managed the trackside was, inevitably, criticised by some walkers who had become used to the prevailing conditions.  But now that we have restrained ourselves for a season nature has painted us a new version of the canvas.  Light, has been given the chance to reach the woodland floor as a result of thinning, and the woodland floor has responded with new ground cover species probably not seen there since the 1970s.  The walkway, which had deteriorated with increased passage of feet and cycle wheels, has been resurfaced.  There has been less talk of official vandalism and more talk of a pleasant, enjoyable and even stimulating walking route, providing a quiet way to and from our city.

No doubt there are a few people who would still prefer the increasingly dark route and the adventure of donning wellington boots each time they venture into the wilds of eastern St Albans.  But then, some people like barley sugars while others prefer mints, or no sweets at all.  We all have our tastes in life.

The woodland floor may hold many secrets.
Which brings us to the subject of The Wick; a small patch of unmanaged woodland in the middle of residential Marshalswick.  It had been at serious risk of being obliterated altogether in the encroachment of the housing estate of old Marshals Wick.  However, it was rescued following a sustained campaign largely led by the local Scout movement who used The Wick for regular activity evenings.  Finally, it was acquired by Sir Arthur Peake of Wickwood House, opposite The Wick, and was given by him to the city.

When a space or a building is gifted in this manner there is an ongoing cost to the recipient.  Buildings have to be kept in good repair, open spaces have to be mown and woodland needs to be managed.  Peeling paintwork, overgrown and weed-infested open spaces and dark unchallenged woodland indicate that the gift is being neglected.  The Wick is also an ancient site and some of its ground surface shows evidence of former occupation.

To be utterly responsible for the care of the woodland, it is sensible to allow a number of specimen trees to grow more strongly, thinning unlikely survivors around it in the process.  Have you seen the extensive plantings at Heartwood Forest?  The density of the planting will ultimately result in thinning of a proportion of the trees to permit others to grown on.  Those it is proposed to thin at The Wick are non-native or invasive species which randomly arrived at some time in the past.  And as at Alban Way, ground cover species not seen in decades will undoubtedly colour the woodland floor according to their season.

There, of course, remains the question of the path.  Vehicles have required access to the open space since it became a public area; we used to watch as the gang mower trawled up and down the field, interrupting our games of cricket or football.  Its visits, and those of other council vehicles were not frequent, but presumably they were necessary.  However we think of The Wick, it is a managed space.  Public toilets, children's play area, shelter, scout hut, emergency wartime warden's post – and some residential encroachment – have all played their part in how The Wick has been used.  An aggregate or other prepared pathway winding its way from one end to the other may not be a huge priority in the entire scheme of council spending, but since it has been proposed and offered, why would we not take advantage?  Like many similar additions, they stand out boldly when new, but the path will surely blend into the landscape within a short time.  Let's continue to enjoy The Wick for what it is, a wonderful little public space which everyone can use in their own way.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Lanes That Move

Those 19th century paintings of leafy lanes show something that has always been there; we have the feeling that had we discovered an 18th century painting of the same lane the view would have been much the same.  But is that true?

Not always, and there are many examples: Camp Road in the vicinity of the blue bridge was a new line for the road when the little railway was brought through the district.  George Marten, in the 1850s, thought that his private drive, now Marshals Drive, should be reserved for his family and guests.  Unfortunately, many "ordinary people" used it as a short cut between Sandpit Lane and Sandridge Road.  The impertinence of it!  He decided the most realistic solution would be to build a public lane beyond the edge of his property.  The new road began life as New Road but was later changed to Marshalswick Lane.

Railways have been known for other diversions as well.  The same little railway, between St Albans and Hatfield, had to cross a lane near Colney Heath Lane at a steep angle; carts and pedestrians need to see oncoming trains, so a crossing point needs to be perpendicular.  In the 1860s the railway company therefore diverted a short length of road in Hill End Lane far enough to build a safe crossing at right angles to the line.

The original line of Hill End Lane (red broken line) meandering across this map, now Highfield residential district.
Another lane (brown broken line) connected with the former The Ashpath, now Ashley Road.  The later route of
Hill End Lane (yellow) was laid around the boundary of Hill End Asylum.

This footpath passes behind home to reach Ashley Road and
was formerly known as The Ashpath.
But that was not the only meddling with Hill End Lane.  Thirty years later,  Hill End Asylum was constructed near the railway line.  Unfortunately Hill End Lane, which meandered between the fields separating Hill End Farm and Beaumonts Farm, was in the way.  The asylum planners tidied things up a bit and constructed a much straightened lane along the hospital's boundary from its junction with Hixberry Lane and its junction with Camp Road and a track many locals came to know as The Ashpath – part of that track is still there behind the Camp Road houses and next to the Ashley Road businesses.

The former meandering lane was almost lost, but survived when the railway siding into the hospital grounds was built on the firm road bed in one section; and the only part to survive until today is the new Bramley Way.

There is another former remnant about which all of us will be quite unaware.  From one of the junctions with the old Hill End Lane (now under houses along part of Sovereign Park) there was another lane striking out westwards.  Today any remains lie under a warehouse and then under the access road of Brick Knoll Park, nearly opposite Cambridge Road.
Bramley Way is the only part of the earlier Hill
End Lane which is part of today's road network.

Anyone who recalls Ashley Road (The Ashpath, or Cinder Track as it was also known) in the 1950s, will remember the old clay pits being fenced off.  Part of the fencing was a tall wide (at least it was tall and wide to a ten-year-old) double gate, next to which were the brick workers cottages.

So this un-named and forgotten lane, probably always a very narrow private one, finally achieved some recognition when it was awarded the name Brick Knoll Park when the warehouses and other businesses arrived in the 1970s.  Maybe the footpath behind the Camp Road houses towards the former hospital entrance, became the public pedestrian access to Hill End Lane to prevent public use of the private track.

Of course, that is only one explanation, but without a close study of a wide range of available maps no-one would ever know that the existence and layouts of some our lanes had been altered with time.

While the 1860s are rather early for photos of the former route of Hill End Lane, it is a pity that that no-one thought to take photos of The Ashpath, a wide track which many of us keep in our memory.  If I am wrong, and there is a photo lurking somewhere, hopefully including the brick workers cottages, do please email.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

You'll Never Guess What, Mum

One hundred years ago my grandparents walked with their daughter eastwards from their home near College Road.  They, like many others, were engaged in an afternoon walk into the countryside.  They passed the school on the right, which Winifred attended. A couple of side roads on the left had been prepared but only sparsely built along.  From there the family walked along the hedge-lined fields; the recently-sold Beaumonts on the left, and Little Cell Barnes and Beastneys farms on the right.  There was no Ashley Road then, nor Drakes Drive, although the family could see smoke from the chimney of the brickworks in the distance, and there may have been a farm worker busily occupied in one of the fields.
The former entrance to Hill End Hospital today; the gates have
gone but the Lodge to the right.

Eventually they arrived at the junction with Hill End Lane.  Both of these roads were covered with crushed roadstone to fill in the wheel ruts and pot holes.  If it had been a summer day a passing cart or motor car would have thrown up a cloud of dust, but on this early spring lunchtime the damp road surface clung to their shoes.

Had they not been locals, my grandparents might have been surprised to come across a vast constructed site ahead known as the Hill End County Asylum, but they had watched its buildings  grow out of the ground for the past ten years, and new ones were still appearing.

To the right of them was the lodge building, the home of the site engineer for the asylum.  This impressive little dwelling still exists, of course, though it has undergone one or two less sympathetic alterations.

The asylum entrance one hundred years ago, the lodge to the right.  Courtesy ANDY LAWRENCE COLLECTION

Beyond the striking entrance drive and its globe-topped gate pillars – one of them ivy covered – it was possible to spot Hillside, the home of the hospital clerk or steward, and behind that Keeling, where the medical officer lived.

The family did not enter the asylum grounds, but watched respectfully as a photographer placed his camera-topped tripod in the roadway and studied the scene ahead.  His subject was no series of structures thrown up quickly and cheaply.  The walls were sturdy and capped with stone, the property protected with tall railings, and electric lamps powered from the establishment's own generators.  No other street lamps had been installed within half a mile.

At that moment along the road from Tyttenhanger Green came three young boys who attended the same school as Winifred.  One might have expected that on their own adventure in the locality the youngsters would have been boisterous, chatty, welcoming the opportunity to show off in front of an audience.  But this event was different.  They knew that, given a chance, they could pose in the scene and see themselves in the local shop later as picture postcards were sold.  Mum, you never guess what.  We were walking round by the asylum and we got our photograph taken by the man in charge of the postcard camera.

On that day the story was made by these three young boys.  Courtesy ANDY LAWRENCE COLLECTION

Of course, one hundred years later, I don't know whether the family did encounter the photographer and the boys outside the hospital; we don't know whether the boys came from Tyttenhanger Green; nor do we know they attended Camp School.  We know nothing about their demeanor, and of course we have no idea of their names.  The opportunity offered to them on that day enabled all three to appear on every copy of that postcard sold – and even on this blog version across the internet in the 21st century; it is a little personal publicity they would not have dreamed possible.

However, the quality of the negative does mean that a family somewhere might recognise a relative.  We are presented here with three boys of around twelve, ten and eight years old.  They might have been brothers, relatives or friends.  On that day they made a story – this story – which they are certain to have passed on to their parents, their class mates or their teacher.  If they had any sense they will have persuaded their parents to buy them a postcard – just to prove to whoever challenged them in the playground that they weren't telling a fib! Honest!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sixty is a Memory

We might celebrate it as a diamond jubilee of events which occurred sixty years ago – 1957.  Some of us were elsewhere then, too young, or not born, to recall, others not here today to remember that year they were a part of.

If you were aspiring to purchase a home in 1957 and desired Marshalswick as a location, new homes on the Nash estate would cost you £2,500.  You would apply at the farmhouse on the part-complete estate.  This was the final full year of the historic farmhouse, before work began on clearance for the high-density developments of flats and The Quadrant shopping area.

A crowd-attracting event for supporters of St Albans Cricket Club and for Clarence Park, was a July benefit match against Surrey CC.  The benefit was for Surrey's David Fletcher, and the boundary was lined with enthusiasts on what turned out to be warm and calm weather conditions.

Sponsored by Interflora

St Albans residents were treated to a colourful advanced view of a parade float sponsored by Interflora.  It consisted of dahlia blooms from the nursery of Ernie Cooper, who had his trial grounds where Longacres Park is today.  Just imagine seeing this photo in glorious colour.

We have grown so used to the road layout as we approach Hatfield that we have no idea what it was previously like; to pass The Comet Hotel on the right; join the North Orbital Road (now Comet Way) at traffic lights; immediately join the right lane and wait for the green to enter St Albans Road at The Stone House (Galleria car park today) en-route to Hatfield centre.  In 1957 we had an additional obstruction: the contractors building our now-familiar Comet roundabout.  Cavendish Way was being constructed towards Bishops Rise – and just look how many trees are still visible.

Comet Roundabout under construction

We can't really call the section on the right Old London Road, but that is
what it is.  The print from the other side of the newsprint page shows through.

Another new road was being carved out of the fields to divert London Road, near the cemetery, towards a new London Colney Roundabout and then a new A6 bypass for the village.  Today we can still use the section where the lorries in the photo are, but it leads nowhere.  That was in 1957 too.

Now, the big news.  Well it was for some residents of south Hatfield.  On a November night a number of new houses in the district lost their roofs in the strong winds which swept the county.  Their occupants, after recovering from the shock, were found emergency accommodation, and the dreadful event was a major feature of the national news.

The scene in Shallcross Crescent, Hatfield, the following morning.
The City council announced early in 1957 that the unmade lane which was still the country route called Marshalswick Lane, was to be constructed as a proper road – but only from Sandridge Road to Furze Avenue, that part being alongside the council's own housing estate.  No further.  It would also improve the six-ways junction at the King William which had some nightmare joining and turning hazards.

A new term was launched in the district, especially among families with employees at de Havilland.  Firestreak.  This related to work being undertaken at the Hatfield site on its new guided weapons system.  That was quite a jump from the "Wooden Wonder" Mosquito war plane production line of fifteen years earlier.

Oh, and I made it to my teens.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Sutton Lakes

Topics for this blog are often prompted by a casual question asked during the course of a conversation or email inquiry.  And so it happened that Roger was puzzled that Fleetville had no station along the Hatfield and St Albans Railway which passed through the middle of the eastern districts of St Albans.  Good question, but as with many other historical questions the answer is far from straightforward.

We start with a date: 1899.  The railway had been here for more than three decades; trains passing through open countryside, using an occupation bridge to pass over a farm track which later became Sutton Road.  In 1899  housing and factory development began over a swathe of fields between Castle Road and The Crown.  Sutton Road was then on the eastern edge of this development.

Many new residents had asked for the trains to stop in the district, and the most obvious place was at a siding built to deliver coal to the factories in Sutton Road.  Station or no station; this was an issue which rumbled on for over three decades, 

In 1906 the issue became political – a nasty on-going battle between the Great Northern railway company and St Albans Rural Council (Fleetville did not become a part of the city until 1913).  Now that houses were being built and roads laid – though rarely properly surfaced – the Sutton Road bridge became a serious barrier because its very low headroom, though satisfactory for farm carts was quite unsuitable for modern traffic.  

"Sutton Lakes" before WW1.  The Lakes remained an irritating feature of
the streetscape until the road was levelled and bridge removed.
An unknown party had been given authority to dig downwards under the bridge to increase headroom, and in so doing reached the water table.  Flooding was a serious problem (it is from this period the sobriquet The Sutton Lakes aka the St Albans Lake District was invented).  The Rural Council instructed the Company to deal with the drainage problem and to widen the bridge, pave and make the road up on either side and under the bridge.  Widening in this case meant from single lane width to full road width. The company stated that in the 1860s it had been required, under the relevant Railway Act, to build and maintain an occupation bridge; after all, at the time it had been farmland.  

Every few months from 1906  the Rural Council repeated its instruction, and every few months the council failed to receive a response from the railway company, no doubt aware that these costs would be substantial for a railway which probably never ran at a profit.

By 1910 the company thought that a solution favourable to the company would be to get “the people” on its side.  It suggested that if the council would take responsibility for the drainage/flooding issue the company might look favourably on providing a station at Sutton Road in accordance with local wishes, and improve the bridge (it didn’t use the phrase “widen”).  By the word station we should probably understand it to be a simple structure with a basic shelter.  

Sutton Road, looking towards Hatfield Road, in 1954.
A sign shows a lineside site was being sold and would
become a caravan site.
There was a bit of an auction, with the council offering to pay 60% of the drainage costs; negotiations, such as they had been, stalled again.  In June 1910 company officials staged what we might today call a marketing exercise.  They boarded a train as far as Hill End, and then walked the track to Sutton Road.  Although  suggesting this was for surveying purposes, it seems clear that, because it was widely reported, it was intended to keep "the people" on-side and exert pressure on the council.

The impasse continued, nothing happened during the First World War, and there were some half-hearted efforts to pick up the issue in the 20s, including with the Ministry of Health.  The company's existing strategy then backfired.  It had been confident in selling a significant number of season tickets from Fleetville to London via Hatfield.  But that was before WW1 and the subsequent arrival of  bus services.  By the end of the 20s buses were running “frequently” along Hatfield Road to the Midland (City) Station.  The company must have realised that the people living in the homes most likely to be commuting to London lived nearer to the Midland Station and further from the proposed Fleetville Station. 

As they say, the business case no longer stacked up!   The company never mentioned the station again, but the new City Council kept plugging away, taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and by c1935 had referred the problem to the Ministry of Transport.  We are not to know, of course, the details of discussions or instructions between the company and the MoT, but a notice was finally published by the company asking for tenders to undertake certain works at the site.  This came to light in June 1939 ...

… just in time for the Second World War to stop the work dead in its single track, and as we know the post-WW2 period was a whole new world.  The locals had wanted a station of course – until something better turned up!  Why take the slow train to Hatfield and then a mainline train to the centre of Town, when a short bus hop gave you access to the direct line to St Pancras.  So, no station for Fleetville, and by 1951 the company had ceased to carry passengers on the line through Fleetville.