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12 March 2016: Historic Stevenage

13 Mar 2016 | Hertfordshire Group

Event led by Roy L with contributions from Charles, Martin T and Peter O; route planned in 2015.
Weather: Mostly sunny and warm, 11°C, winds <2mph.
Attendance: 17 men
Distance: 7.9mi
Time: start talk 11:05, start walk 11:17, end 15:46, lunch 29 minutes
Terrain: Hardstanding nearly all the way with some woodland and grass
Elevation: start 139m, high 139m, low 89m
Number of listed buildings on the route: 89

This was a circular route of 7.9 miles around Stevenage, showcasing some of its history including its Saxon origins, historic buildings, how it became the world’s first New Town, and its engineering story.

Having done guided tours of four towns of Hertfordshire in the past, Stevenage was next on the list.  This route was viable for a guided tour, but ended up with more history than we could present on a short walk.  Much of New Town’s history is actually the amazing quality of its civil engineering, yet there is very human limit to what one can talk about when pointing to a drainhole cover.  Consequently, we chose to keep the stops to a minimum and keep the stops relatively short.

We started off in Hampson Park with a (thankfully) brief background to the two origins of Stevenage (documented in Wikipedia as New Towns Movement and Modern Stevenage) and its remarkable engineering legacy (thanks largely to the undocumented Eric Claxton).  Hampson Park was originally the location of the hamlet of Pin Green and Highfield House, the birthplace of Elizabeth Poston. The buildings were demolished during the building of the new town and the park was named after Tommy Hampson, Olympic 800m gold medallist at the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, who moved to Stevenage in 1954 and became Social Relations Officer at the Stevenage Development Corporation.

After leaving the park, we were able to see one of the best examples of 'Radburn' style of building placement, whereby a house's front door faces a pedestrianised area, and the house's back door is the direct route to the car, the garage and the driveway.

Our first historic site was St Nicholas’ Church, the tower of which is the oldest building in Stevenage, dating to c1120. This was the site of the first settlement of Stigenace or Stithenace. The settlement substantially re-located away from its parish church to straddle the Great North Road during the coaching era, to make money from the hostelry trade. We walked down a pathway called The Avenue, which links the church to the High Street, which would have been used for hundreds of years as a primary route for churchgoers. From where we could see the Barclay School, the first purpose built secondary school, built in 1950.

At the end of The Avenue is Stevenage’s oldest school, now the Thomas Alleyne Academy, founded as the Old Grammar School by the rector Thomas Alleyne in his will of 1558; the building was enlarged by the Victorians and the site is now one of the town’s many secondary schools. From here, we walked to the Bowling Green, where many old coaching inns stand, including one originally called the White Swan, whose earliest mention is in 1530. The inn catered for wealthy travellers including the likes of Samuel Pepys, who stayed in 1667. It was sold in 1850 when the railway arrived in Stevenage, and became a boarding school called The Grange. One of its students was a young E. M. Forster, who was sadly bullied there. It is now private apartments.

We then walked to where the railway station used to be, now railway lines and industrial buildings.  This was the station that became “Silkingrad”.  Lewis Silkin was the Minister who commissioned Stevenage New Town in 1946.  The way in which Silkin did this so enraged residents of the old town, that they barraged him with abuse; vandals changed the signs on the railway station’s platforms to read “Silkingrad”.

We crossed the High Street to the road to the east of it, Church Lane, which includes some classic Arts & Crafts architecture, and a set of almshouses, founded in 1501 by the will of rector Stephen Hellard, who said that three poor souls could live there rent-free so long as they commended his soul to God, said three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys and one Creed, every day for the rest of eternity. There are now four dwellings there but we are not sure if the fourth occupant gets away it.

We then walked down the rest of the High Street, where the majority of the town’s listed buildings are, though nothing especially of note to us that day. A farmers market was taking place; Stevenage was first granted a weekly market in 1281. At the southern end of the High Street, there are three buildings of interest. Southend Farmhouse dates to 1500 or earlier, and the Tudor House has an interesting history including the time between 1724 and 1835 when it was the parish workhouse, and 1855 to 1933 when it was home to the Stevenage Gas Company; it is now offices. The third building is the Holy Trinity Church, built in 1861 as a chapel-of-ease for the residents of the expanding town who had walked the long path to St Nicholas to find there was nowhere to sit. However, as soon as the church opened, it was already too small, so an extension was built in 1881, more than doubling its size.

On leaving the Old Town area, we had lunch in the Town Centre Gardens, where we watched swans chasing geese and pigeons chasing other pigeons, presumably for different reasons. Then we headed into the new town centre - drawing attention to Hertfordshire’s only Korean restaurant, Gangnam, and the subtle design features to prevent rainfall flooding the shops and the breaking of stiletto heels (meaning we could point to a drainhole cover - yay!) - and had a look at the Clock Tower, completed in 1959, carrying one plaque to commemorate the Queen’s opening of Britain’s first pedestrianised shopping centre, and another plaque to commemorate Lewis Silkin.   An elevated platform hosts a bronze sculpture called Joy Ride, by the Czechoslovakian sculptor Franta Belsky, which depicts a mother carrying a child on her back. We thought this was an appropriate place for a group shot.

Our next stop was the church of St Andrew and St George, which was built between 1957 and 1960. It is the largest parish church built in England since world war two, and its foundation stone was laid by HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It became the main civic church for the town, and the ancient St Nicholas’ was casually demoted, leading to sarcastic comments that the daughter was older than the mother. In 1970, Stevenage was divided into seven parishes, so St Nicholas’ regained its former status, the Holy Trinity became a parish church for the first time, and St Andrew and St George’s was no longer supported financially by Stevenage’s other Anglican churches, so the town’s museum moved into its undercroft, mutually benefiting both church and museum. Moving away from the church, we learnt a brief overview of the design objectives of Stevenage’s cycle ways and street lighting strategy.

Our next stop was the Six Hills, which for the largest surviving Roman barrow group in England.  Legend has it that the hills were the work of the devil, but in reality they date to around 100AD.  Not much has ever been found there.  The walk continued past a retail centre, a flood meadow and into Monks Wood, where two ponds were highly active with frogs going about their business - Spring has arrived about on time in Stevenage. The final leg of the walk was through Fairlands Valley Park, former farmland where a number of lakes were created to form a large recreational centre.  The original Fairlands Farmhouse, built in the 17th century, survives to this day. It is currently owned by Stevenage Borough Council and has been let to Digswell Arts Trust since 1993, but its future is currently being considered. From here we returned to Hampson Park to end the walk.

We visited the Almond Tree pub for a quick drinkie in the customary manner.

Group shot by Joy Ride sculpture, Clock Tower in background
St Nicholas' Church
Alleyne's School, original buildings
Former White Swan/Grange
St Andrew and St George's Church
Three of the Six Hills
The Almond Tree

Words and pictures by Peter O'Connor.

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