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12 August 2017: Letchworth: farms & parks

Event led by Jez C
Attendance: 17 men
Distance: 9.6 miles
Time: start 11:08, end 15:33, lunch 30 minutes
Terrain: mainly on hardstanding, some grassland and woodland track
Elevation: start 61m, high 101m, low 59m
Weather: dry, mainly overcast with some hot sunny spells, slight wind, 18°C (with wind 15°C)

This was a 9.6 mile circular walk from Standalone Farm, Letchworth Garden City, SE into Letchworth town then onto the Letchworth Greenway, then clockwise on the Greenway to the start point.

This was our first visit to Letchworth since our guided tour walk of 10 January 2010 (repeated on 31 October 2010).

The walk started at Standalone Farm.  The farm is designed to be an experience for children, exposing them to animals and teaching the basics of animal husbandry.  For our purposes, it had a free car park and a café.  It is run as a charity by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (the Foundation itself was originally incorporated as an industrial and provident society).  The farm benefitted from investment in 1980, when the Foundation started to make a profit.

We walked through Norton Common, alongside Pix Brook - a stream - and, after a brief stretch of road, into Howard Park & Gardens.  The park and gardens were refurbished in 2015-2016 and include a number of amenities for families with young children, including a large shallow pond with variable water fountains installed in its concrete base.  The park includes a statue of Sappho, the archaic Greek poet from Lesbos, a modern “patron saint of lesbians”.  According to the Foundation, nobody knows why Sappho appears in Howard Park, but suggestions are set out on a flyer for a competition (!) run by the Foundation in 2017.

The remainder of the walk took the route of the Greenway, a hard-standing route totalling 13.6 miles around Letchworth Garden City, created in 2003 from a vision outlined in 1996, occupying the zone between countryside and town (and thus meeting one of Ebenezer Howard’s key visions for a garden city).  The Greenway offers some amazing views of the countryside.  This area of Herts is rolling countryside, within the Chiltern range of hills.  On arrival at the Greenway, we saw a side of the Weston Hills.

We lunched at the Willian Aboretum.  The precise origins of the aboretum are unprovable, but it looks like the arboretum was planted from 2003 onwards as part of the plan for the Greenway.  The result was the planting of 30 different trees which accepted the damp acidic soils of the area.  We lunched at location #9 on the local map.  Some of us speculated about the age of the trees around us, because they were rather tall and looked older than 20 years.  It turns out that the picnic area was created in 2008; the Ordnance Survey maps of 1880-1986 show that the area was fields, not forest.

The aboretum holds a sculpture of Telford Morton, a Letchworth resident of 1916-2001, who loved the countryside.

We saw a combine harvester at work.  This gripped everybody’s fascination, in particular the teamwork between the two drivers, one of the harvester and one of a tractor hauling a trailer.  The harvester used the output chute as a signal to his colleague that he needed to disgorge his harvester’s store.  The tractor driver then waited until it was the correct time for him to move alongside the harvester, to locate his trailer precisely underneath the harvester’s output chute.  The flow of grain started; every single grain fell into the trailer.

Our group shot was on the Greenway looking WNW towards Hitchin, Pirton and Ickleford.  The location is on the top edge of the River Hiz Valley.  The high point on the other side of the valley was marked by the water tower at Pirton.  The view was a mix of industrial, transportation, agricultural uses, with just a smidgen of residential use.

Of some interest to the group was the railway, and the unusual loop of the railway’s route that was clear to see.  This is the Hitchin Flyover, a bridge of a railway over another railway.  It opened in December 2013 to allow trains from London-to-Cambridge to cross the mainlines London-to-Edinburgh without obstruction.

The surprise of the walk was a small estate of prefab buildings on Campfield Way.  It turns out that these buildings have quite a story behind them!  The estate of prefabs comprises sixty dwellings of bungalow model type Hawksley BL8D, designed by AW Hawksley Ltd to be permanent structures, built between 1949 and 1951.  They are timber-framed buildings with aluminium external walls, plasterboard internal walls, lined with fibreglass insulation, and stand on substantial concrete bases.  They are 3-bed semi-detached homes, with fairly efficient internal design/use-of-space.  Their role was to accommodate key workers for local industries, and some of the original residents are said to still live there.

In early 2006, the social housing housebuilder North Herts Homes (“NHH”) sought to have the prefabs demolished and replaced with 99 dwellings, of which 89 were for “affordable rent” and 10 were for “open market” rent-or-buy.  The basis of the application seems to have been that the design of the prefabs were incompatible with modern building standards and then-likely future standards relating to energy efficiency.  NHH took the view that to demolish and rebuild would be better value for money than to adapt the existing properties beyond their original design brief.

However, as with all planning matters, it seems that emotion took over.  Readers’ letters to the local newspaper, the Comet, in April 2006 reveal the extent to which “Tin Town” was used as a pejorative term for the estate, with NHH accused or perpetuating falsehoods about the nature of the buildings.  Two readers’ letters suggest that, had the buildings been cladded with bricks, no-body would have noticed a difference relative to the norm to denigrate (effectively an appeal of “architectural racism”).

The Highover and Campfield Residents' Association (supported by the then town council of Letchworth Garden City, a short-lived body between 2005 and 2013) applied in September 2006 to have “Tin Town” listed, in spite of the consequential difficulties of improving the buildings, to protect them from NHH’s proposals of demolition.  The application was contrary to the residents’ preferences, according to the Campfield and Highover Pro-redevelopment Group, whose survey found half of the residents against the proposed listing.  The pro-development group also lodged a complaint about the town council on the grounds that it rushed to a decision without stopping to take in all of the relevant facts.  English Heritage rejected the application in January 2007.  North Herts District Council rejected NHH’s application for planning permission to demolish-and-replace “Tin Town” on 16 October 2008.

In 2017, one of the buildings was sold.  The asking price was £200,000 (an older sale of a comparable freehold building was £60k in 1999).  The sales literature suggests that the property would benefit from gas central heating, uPVC double-glazing and some modernisation.  The sales literature spelt out in capital letters that “due to the construction of the property, it would be ideally suited to a cash buyer.”

As at August 2017, we found that the buildings were visually in good order and many had very well maintained gardens.  It all seemed quite pleasant, and not a hint of the planning troubles of 10 years earlier!

We ended the walk with tea, coffee and cake at Standalone Farm’s tea shop.

Pictures as marked.  Words by Martin Thornhill.

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