Jul 2010

1920s travel guide – Chilterns to Fens

One of the things my grandfather gave me before he died, was a fantastic book called “Through the Chilterns to the Fens”.

The premise of the book is a simple one – to give a guide to the towns in the corridor from the Chilterns to the Wash near Lincoln, inexplicably including a chunk of modern London and Hertfordshire.

The problem is that the book really isn’t a big book – A6 size, and barely 160 pages – and there isn’t a lot of space to give detailed descriptions of all the locations the author wanted to cover.

In a stroke of genius, instead of leaving towns out, he just gave fantastically brief descriptions. Others get incredibly involved, but are humourously out of date.

These are a few of my favourites…

Rickmansworth. Here the old village has grown somewhat in recent years, but it is still picturesque with time-warn houses on either side of the old streets. It has many advantages as a place from which to begin or bring to an end an exploration of the Chilterns.

No, really, that’s everything the book has to say about the town he suggests you start your tour from. My wife, who went to school in Ricky, may have laughed. Loudly.

In South Herts, lets take a quick trip to a couple of places from my childhood – the towns of Broxbourne and Hoddesdon. Their 35,000 inhabitants cluster round the old A10, trapped between the new A10 and the River Lea. They made their money from beer, and Hoddesdon was famous for its beer and its hop market…

Hoddesdon has a broad street, and still retains something of the atmosphere of coaching days; but Izaak Walton’s old “Thatched House” has disappeared, and the church is a Georgian one, built in 1732.

Broxbourne. In the church one may see the monument to Sir Henry Cock, bearing a fine alabaster effigy of the king’s host. The building contains other features of interest, including a Norman font, while it’s position near a lock of the New River is singularly pleasing.

I know that you’re itching to know who Izaak Walton is, so I found out. According to Google, he wrote a book called The Compleat Angler. In 1653. Yeah… a 300 year old J R Hartley…

Next, we go up the A10 towards Buntingford – what our guide calls “The Margins of the Fens”. The only thing I’ll say is that Buntingford is at least 25 miles from the Fens – not bad considering the entire range of the book is just under 100 miles…

Buntingford has a terminal station of the branch-line which comes up the valley of the Rib. It has many picturesque cottages, and has an air of antiquity greater than many places with roots that go far deeper into history. Not mentioned in Domesday, it appears to have come into existance at some later period, and its church only dates back to the time of James I

After living there for 10 years, there’s only two things I know about Buntingford: that the railway line was killed by Dr Beeching; and that the church was built by the Victorians…

Lets go West down the A507 to Baldock, Letchworth and Hitchin.

Baldock is famous for its Tesco store (which was built as a film factory), its Bread Riots, and its huge number of pubs. Letchworth was the world’s first Garden City, a Quaker town which only had two pubs when I started drinking. Hitchin, which is probably famous for something. The only noteworthy thing I can think of is that the swimming pool has an overflow carpark…

Hitchin. The little town covers a considerable area on ground sloping towards the river Hiz. In the XVIth century the place was famed for the vast quantities of malt which is produced, and brewing still remains an important industry. It is an old town, perhaps very old indeed, for not only have Roman objects been discovered, but the neighbourhood has also produced implements of the Palaeolithic period.

Baldock. The old town of Baldock is on the Icknield Way, which here runs at the foot of the Hertfordshire hills in a north-easterly direction. In between it and Hitchin is the garden city estate of Letchworth, which begins to show signs of becoming a very pleasant combination of ideal factories, with well-designed cottages and small houses, each with ample garden space.

Our guide talks a little more about the church in Baldock, but that’s just so that he can tell us about Samuel Pepys.

Lets leap past a collection of informative (and therefore boring) entries about Cambridge, Newmarket and Godmanchester, and head towards St Ives, where our guide gets strangely lyrical…

St Ives. This half-forgotten little town is charmingly placed at a bend of the Ouse, and its church with a tall tower and spire, rises gracefully above a group or poplars, beautifully placed by the riverside, in whose surface the picture is reversed.

On calm Sunday evening, when the hour of the services in the surrounding village churches is approaching, the sound of the bells is graded away into the distance so that one almost realises a perspective of sound with the bells of St Ives in the foreground. Listened to in this manner there is a sweetness and a mellowness about these old bells of Huntingdonshire which is particularly pleasing. There are, indeed, a few places in England where so many carillons can be heard pealing at the same time as here in the great stretch of Fenland.

St Ives has preserved four of the six arches of the XVth-century bridge, in the centre of which stands the chapel, now supporting a plain super-structure of brick, added shortly after the fire which destroyed the upper part of the house in 1689, when a great part of the town was also consumed. The place is not on that account without picturesque in its streets, quaint corners meeting one here and there, especially near the market house. One of the inns bears that most curious of names, “The Spare Rib”.

One of the most quaint bequests to be found in England is that of Dr Robert Wild who, at his death in 1678, bequeathed a sum of money, from the interest on which six Bibles were to be purchased annually, and six boys and six girls of the town were to cast dice for the possession of these Bibles every Whit Tuesday on the alter of the church.

This is a town, you’ll note, with a river which is not only reflective, but which created reflections which are mirror images. And it’s picturesque too. I think we can assume that the author got laid in St Ives…

This book was printed in the early 1920s, and I’m assuming that the book is now out of copyright. If you are the copyright holder and can prove otherwise, please tell me.

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  • 1

    Fri 23rd Jul '10
    15:01 UTC

    Oh I loved this entry!! I join in with the laughter about Ricky – there must have been more to say about the town – was Watford mentioned at all, or has that sort of faded into the 1920 woodwork in some n-space way? Or is it L-space? I can never remember so I just say “Ook!” instead – oh go on, it’s a long Friday afternooon :)

    As well as getting laid possibly, I do wonder rather cynically if the author had any business interests in St Ives, or knew someone who did who might be grateful if more visitors were attracted to the town.

  • 2

    Fri 23rd Jul '10
    23:05 UTC

    Nope, nothing about Watford at all. Not even in passing.

    But I have possibly just found my favourite snippet of all. Talking about St Albans (upon which he lavishes 5 pages)…

    “During the revolt of the Iceni under Boudicca in AD 61, the town was destroyed; but rising from its ruins it resumed its old importance, although possibly its development may have been to some extent retarded”

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