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9 December 2017: Hemel Hempstead

Event led by Tom M
Attendance: 16 men
Distance: 12.8km (8 miles)
Time: start 11:06, end 15:34, lunch 27 minutes
Terrain: footpath, field, byway, road, towpath, pavement
Elevation: start 89m, high 165m, low 81m
Weather: cold, bright/clear, little wind, 5°C (with windchill 2°C)

This was an 8-mile circular walk from Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead, N to Piccotts End, NW to Water End, SSE to Fields End on the Chiltern Way, S to Pouchen End, Winkwell and the Grand Union Canal/River Bulbourne, E to Boxmoor and Hemel Hempstead's “Magic Roundabout”, and N to the start-point through Hemel Hempstead's Water Gardens.

From the start point, an ornate bridge took us over the River Gade and then to a memorial for babies at which we heard the briefest overview of the town's history.  We then walked to Piccotts End, where we found one of Herts' 109 grade 1 listed buildings, 130-136 Piccotts End.  This building is packed full of history: built probably in C13th or C14th, there are some very important murals of "heretical" Cathar beliefs depicting various saints in iconostasis, and two of Jesus.  The properties also feature a priest hole, an Elizabethan painted wall and a Tudor courtyard.

Behind the properties was the site of the first West Hertford Infirmary, which opened in 1827, but relocated shortly afterwards - in 1833 - to a large property in Marlowes when it was over-subscribed.  The over-subscription was largely caused by navvies working on the railway.

The West Hertford Infirmary was created by Sir Astley Paston Cooper, 1st Baronet, a name which recurred regularly throughout Hemel's history 1800-1900, mainly because there were three Astley Paston Coopers (!).  They, amongst others, formed part of the meddling middle classes of Hemel Hempstead.

Our route took us quickly from the picturesque village of Piccotts End into deep countryside.  Vast and elegant modern and ancient properties dot the countryside, punctuating modern wealth alongside old wealth.

We stopped at Rumblers Farm shop, where many of us succumbed to consumerism and bought at least a cake or two.  Plants were also on sale; thankfully, the group bought none of them, so we avoided the risk of walking with triffids.  This was the location of our group shot.

Our route southbound on the Chiltern Way gave us as astonishing view of a ripple in the Chiltern Hills.  A deep crevice in rolling hills eastbound with a low sun backlighting the valley sides offers a dramatic scene.  The valley is dry, and not apparently named.

We ate lunch - quickly! - at the walk's highest point, adjacent to a footpath that would have returned us to Hemel's suburbs.  Instead, after lunch, we followed a road southbound, Pouchen End Lane, to join the Grand Union canal at a swingbridge.

The towpath was our route back to Hemel.  This part of the canal is very peaceful, the smell of wood-fired stoves originating from narrowboats wafted alongside the water.

We left the towpath to walk along the edge of Boxmoor and entered Hemel's shopping centre via a walkway to the north of Kodak House (now KD Tower), a big blue office block now converted to residential dwellings.  A paved concourse, KD Plaza, boasts a large piece of street art, name unknown, but which depicts three rolls of film typically used in Kodak's cameras.

The concourse results in an elevated walkway to a bridge over the Leighton Buzzard Road that gave us good view over and at the Plough Roundabout.  This is a "magic roundabout" - a roundabout which comprises six mini-roundabouts - and is likely to have been the second such magic roundabout built in Britain (the first was at Swindon, 1972).

Descending the bridge, we walked northbound through a small part of the Marlowes shopping area, past the Riverside shopping centre, and through the newly refurbished Water Gardens, the centrepiece of civic amenity within the Master Plan of Hemel New Town, designed by Geoffrey A Jellicoe.  Today, the modernised park still bears design features true to its 1950s roots: even the proportion of the footbridges and their painted safety barriers look and feel like a 1950s new town, appearing similarly in other new towns.  The Water Gardens carry a number of street arts, some original to the 1950s and others which are brand-new.

A brief visit through the walled flower gardens next to the Charter House - the last remnant of a private dwelling, the Bury, built by Richard Coombes in C16th, subsequently demolished - followed by a walk past St Mary's Church took us into the heart of Hemel Old Town.  Refurbished in 1965, the old town has kept itself in good condition and is now a very pleasant environment in which to be, very different from its historic conditions.

The walk ended with an optional pub stop at the Old King's Arms.

Route by Tom Munn.  Photos by Peter O’Connor.  Words by Martin Thornhill.


Primary bibliography:

The walk was conceived on 26 February 2017, as a discussion between Tom and Martin, 400 meters away from the main boating lake of Milton Keynes on a walk run by GOC MK & Bucks.  The original idea was to find a route that replicated GOC Herts' previous attempts to learn the history of the new town.

Tom plotted the route; Martin studied the history.  The net result was: “zoiks!”

It turned out that Hemel has an astonishing history, which no single route through Hemel could reasonably capture.  Little heritage visible today gives much clue about the past.  For example:

  • the pleasant state of the Old Town today gives no clue about its torrid past, when drainage problems created bad water, slum areas and a local authority (of sorts) that didn’t really care.

  • a major part of the New Town’s history is the sequencing of its development, starting with the business case of what makes a town sustainable: its industrial sector.

Historic walks already published - either from Dacorum Borough Council, or Eve Davis’ “Hemel Hempstead History Tour” - focus almost exclusively upon the pre-New Town era.  This is important history, but insufficient.

History of Box Moor is relevant to Hemel Hempstead, but also separate, in spite of many players being common to institutions of both entities.

Recent developments are also of interest, and they have yet to be properly documented, let alone objectively documented and assessed for their historic context.

Therefore, for this walk, Tom’s route focussed on the glorious Chilternate countryside to the west of Hemel with a nicely presented slice of urban Hemel, taking in the notorious Magic Roundabout and the newly refurbished Water Gardens, still much like as Geoffrey A Jellicoe originally designed.  Which, as it turns out, was just as well.  The full history could probably have taken at least two hours as a radio presentation (!), which is quite incompatible with a walking group’s objectives for a cold December day!

The challenge remains to find a route that would interest a walking group for every step of its route, and would do justice to Hemel’s history.

Another challenge is to find a way that publishes Hemel’s history in an accessible way.

The making of the walk, "Hemel Hempstead"

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