THE WESTERN END of Oxford Street is at Marble Arch. Beyond the latter, its continuation becomes Hyde Park Place and then, after 620 yards it becomes Bayswater Road, before reaching Notting Hill Gate, and then Holland Park Avenue. Oxford Street and its continuation westward follow the probable course of a road or track named by the Romans as Via Trinobantia. It ran from Colchester via London to Silchester (in Hampshire), which was a capital of the Atrebates tribe. According to Ralph Merrifield in his “Roman London” (published 1969), the Roman thoroughfare ran due west from Oxford Street, along what is now Bayswater Road to Notting Hill Gate. After that, it changed direction so that it headed directly to what is now Staines. Merrifield wrote that its course:
“… is closely followed by Holland Park Avenue and Goldhawk Road, until the latter turns sharply towards Chiswick. The Roman road is then followed by two lesser modern roads, Stamford Brook Road and Bath Road, and crossed Acton Green where it has been obliterated by the railways. Half a mile further west it is represented by Chiswick Road, which leads to Chiswick High Road…”
On a map drawn by Ralph Agas (c1540-1621) in the 16th century, the part of the Roman highway known now as Oxford Street was marked “The Waye to Uxbridge”. At that distant time (1561), the western edge of London was as far east as Farringdon, which follows part of the now lost Fleet River. This was the case except for riverside strip of buildings along the north bank of the Thames to Westminster. Oxford Street, so named in the 18th century, has had other names such as the ‘Tyburn Road’, ‘Uxbridge Road’, and ‘Oxford Road’.
A sign on a lamppost on Bayswater Road near to Lancaster Gate Underground station reads “A402 was A40”. The road running along the northern edge of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was designated in 1923 as ‘The London to Fishguard Trunk Road (A40)’. After the A40 was re-routed, part of it running along the elevated Westway (completed in 1970), the section of the original A40 (and much earlier the Roman road), which ran between Marble Arch and the westernmost end of Goldhawk Road was re-designated the A 402.
Until the early 19th century, what is now Bayswater Road and its western continuation ran through open country, passing Hyde Park, a royal hunting ground established by King Henry VIII in 1536 (and opened to the public in 1637). Before the park was established, the journey west of what is now marble Arch would have been through a rustic landscape and travellers would have been at risk from attacks by robbers, Today, the greatest risk faced by users of Bayswater Road is delay caused by traffic congestion.
SEEING A VINTAGE London bus today (20th of March 2022) brought back some memories from the early 1960s. In those days, my best friend was the son of a medical doctor who worked for London Transport. Nick and I were about 10 years old when we became keen bus spotters. This involved loitering in the open-air bus station at Golders Green station with pencils and notebooks at the ready. As buses arrived in the forecourt, we noted down their serial numbers, which are visible on the sides of the bus or, in some older models, on their engine covers. These differed from the vehicles’ registration numbers. The serial numbers of different models of bus consisted of 1 to 3 letters and up to four numerals, e.g., RF 645 or RLH 24. Routemaster buses, which were replacing older models in the 1960s had serial numbers that began with ‘RM’ or in the case of the extended versions ‘RML’. The double-decker RMs were gradually replacing their predecessors, the RT models (which were in use in London from 1939 to 1979). Although we recorded every bus that passed us, certain examples, e.g., RT5 and RM1, were rare and exciting observations. The two of us and my friend’s younger brother formed the short-lived ‘OBC’, the Omnibus Club, of which we were the only members.
Now in 2022, long after the OBC disbanded, the Routemasters have largely disappeared from London, having been replaced by newer models. So, it was with some surprise that I spotted a RT bus in pristine condition parked in Notting Hill Gate today. For those bus spotters reading this, the vehicle bore the serial number RT1705. It was carrying the route number 28, with its destination board showing “Golders Green”. Today, route 28 still exists, but no longer runs from Chelsea to Golders Green (via Notting Hill Gate and West Hampstead) as it did in the ‘60s. In those days I had a friend who lived in Notting Hill Gate and used to visit him from Golders Green, using that bus route. Today, the same journey can be made using a bus on route 328.
The RT, which I saw today, was being used for private hire. As we were about to travel to West Hampstead, my wife asked the driver if he was going there later. He said he was, but he was not insured to take passengers who were not members of the party which had hired the bus. That was a pity, but as a former bus spotter, who gave up the hobby many decades ago, I was excited to see an RT still working on a London street,
PARKWAY LEADS GENTLY uphill from Camden Town Underground station to a short road called Gloucester Gate, which leads to the Outer Circle that runs around Regents Park. Much of Gloucester Terrace runs along what looks like a bridge, which is lined on its north side by red-coloured, decorative stone parapet.
The bridge traverses a grassy dell that does not appear to contain any kind of watercourse. I wondered why such an elaborate bridge had been built to traverse what appears to be merely a grassy hollow. Well, when it was built, it did cross a waterway, the Cumberland Market Branch of the Regent’s Canal known as ‘The Cumberland Arm’ (www.londonslostrivers.com/cumberland-arm.html). This waterway, built in 1816, ran for about half a mile from the Regents Canal to a basin near Euston Station, running for most of its length parallel to Albany Street. During WW2, the Cumberland Arm, which had up until then been used to transport freight, was used to supply water to firefighting appliances. By the end of the war, the canal had been filled with rubble from buildings destroyed by bombing and then covered with topsoil. All that remains of the Cumberland Arm is a short blind-ending stretch of water near Regents Park Road, on which there is a large floating Chinese restaurant and a few moorings for narrow boats.
The Gloucester Gate bridge with its decorative parapet and elaborate cast-iron lampstands also includes two interesting memorials. One of these relates to the fact that the bridge was constructed by the St Pancras Vestry, the then local authority governing the area (www.andrewwhitehead.net/blog/the-most-pointless-bridge-in-london). There is a bronze bas-relief depicting the martyrdom of St Pancras. It was a gift of William Thornton and sculpted by the Italian Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (c1836-1884), who died in London. St Pancras (c289-303/4) was born a Roman citizen. He converted to Christianity and was beheaded for his beliefs when he was 14 years old (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancras_of_Rome). The bronze relief on Gloucester Gate bridge shows a young man being mauled by an animal, possibly a lion. Why this motif was chosen when the saint was beheaded puzzles me.
Near the St Pancras panel, also on the bridge, there is an old but elaborate drinking fountain. A metal plate attached to it has faded letters that read:
“Saint Pancras Middlesex.
This fountain and works connected therewith were presented to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association on the (?) day of August 1878 by
The fountain, known as ‘The Matilda Fountain’, is part of a miniature cave made with granite boulders. A sculpture of a milkmaid stands above the cave. At her feet, there is a wooden pail with two handles. The girl with a rich crop of hair on her head is depicted shielding her eyes from the sun with her right hand as she stares into the distance. Cast in bronze, the female figure and the pail were sculpted by Joseph Durham (1814-1877). Matilda might possibly have been Richard Kent’s wife, but the plaque does not specify this. The sculpture is not unique; several other copies of it, all by Durham, exist. One of these, dated 1867 and called “At the Spring/Early Morn”, can be seen in Blackburn’s Town Hall (https://victorianweb.org/sculpture/durham/1d.html).
Today, the bridge is redundant since the canal was filled-in long ago. However, it is used by many people walking to and from Regents Park and its zoo and a steady stream of vehicular traffic crosses it. Although it has outlived its original purpose, the bridge serves as a reminder of a once important element of London’s continuously evolving transportation system.
RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.
I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.
The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.
During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.
Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.
Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.
In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley. What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.
I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.
ON A TERRACE that overlooks the River Thames at Richmond there is a curious souvenir of the past. The so-called Fish Marker Stone was dug up in the 20th century. It is named thus because there is a carved fish or sea creature on top of it. Now no longer visible because it has worn away, the stone’s inscription bore the words “To Westminster Bridge 14 3/4 miles”. The stone is believed to have marked a fare stage for boatmen carrying passengers along the river.
THERE IS A FASCINATING pair of railway viaducts at Chapel Milton, near Chapel-en-Frith in the Peak District. Constructed in about 1860 and then 1890, the viaducts support a place where two railway lines diverge. The viaducts, which join each other at a bifurcation were built at different times as the dates suggest. One of the arcades consists of 13 arches and the other of 13.
Allow Wikipedia to explain:”The Midland Railway opened a new line via Chapel-en-le-Frith Central and Great Rocks Dale, linking the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway with the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, in 1867, giving it an express through route for the first time between Manchester and London … The eastern section, essentially a second, mirror-image viaduct in an identical style, was added in 1890 to allow trains to travel between Sheffield and the south via Buxton and the Midland’s own line.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapel_Milton_Viaduct)
DOLLIS BROOK IS one of the two main tributaries of the River Brent, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames, which it enters at Brentford. Dollis Brook rises near the A1 dual-carriageway at Mote End Farm and then flows southwards towards Brent Park, where it is joined by another stream, Mutton Brook. Both brooks are lined with pleasant green spaces containing footpaths that follow the streams. Thus, they are lovely green corridors providing much-needed rustic relief from the relentless built-up suburbia through which the streams flow.
Nether Street is road running west and downhill from Finchley Central Underground Station. After reaching a small roundabout, it continues as Dollis Road. The latter descends ever more steeply until it runs under a tall brick arch, part of the Dollis Brook Viaduct (also known as ‘The Mill Hill Viaduct’). The road runs beside a stretch of Dollis Brook, which at that location is only a few feet in width – rather a miserable little stream. However, the viaduct with its 13 arches, each with spans of 32 feet, traverses a veritable steep sided gorge, maybe created over time by the waters flowing in the humble Dollis Brook, or, more likely, by glacial drift (“Nature”, 9th of November 1871: http://www.nature.com/articles/005027c0.pdf). This amazing viaduct, a masterpiece of brickwork, carries Underground trains on a spur of the Northern Line running between Finchley Central and Mill Hill East stations.
Designed by John Fowler (1817-1898) and Walter Marr Brydone, who was Engineer-in-Chief for the Great Northern Railway (‘GNR’) from 1855-1861, the viaduct was constructed between 1863 and 1867, when the first train ran across it. The line that now carries Northern Line trains over the viaduct was originally built by the GNR, as was the viaduct. As trains traverse the viaduct, they are at one point 60 feet above the ground. This point must be close to where both Dollis Road and Dollis Brook pass beneath the arches,
We have often driven beneath the viaduct, but it was only in August 2021 that we decided to park near it and examine it as closely as we could. We had recently visited the impressive granite railway viaduct near Luxulyan in deepest Cornwall and been amazed by its grandeur. We had not expected to find a bridge in north London that is almost as awe-inspiring. As I gazed upwards at its tall arches, I admired the Victorian bricklayers, who must have had to work at ever-increasingly dizzying heights as they constructed it. The viaduct is certainly a sight worth seeing, and whilst you are in the area, much pleasure can be gained by taking a stroll along the paths that run close to Dollis Brook.
THERE ARE NO MORE trains running to the picturesque town of Clare in Suffolk. Between 1865 and 1967, trains running on the Stour Valley Line between Marks Tey (in Essex) and Shelford (in Cambridgeshire) stopped at Clare Station. In 1961, you could leave London’s Liverpool Street Station at 8.30 am and reach Clare at 10.44 am (www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clare/).
On a recent visit to Clare in August 2021, we decided to take a look at what remains of Clare Castle, which was built shortly after 1066 by Richard fitz Gilbert (1035-c1090), who took part in the Norman invasion of England (1066). To reach the remains of this structure, we walked across a large car park, at the far end of which is the attractive Clare Castle Country Park. The north side of the park is occupied by a tall conical mound, the motte of the former castle. On top of this, there is a short length of ruined, curved walling. Running east from the base of the motte, is a length of wall with one archway, presumably a wall that formed part of the castle’s bailey. These features are all that can be seen of the former castle. Exciting as this might be for historians, the park contains some other structures of historic interest. They are not as old as the castle, but fascinating, nevertheless.
The Country Park contains the platforms, station buildings, and the goods shed of the former Clare Station. These have all been preserved well and employed as leisure facilities for visitors to the park. The main station buildings on platform 1 contain a waiting room with its old fireplace and ticket office. Built in 1865 to a standard design used in 30 Great Eastern Railway stations, this building now serves as an eatery and café. Across the grassy strip, where the tracks used to be laid, is platform 2, with its own waiting room, now used as a visitors’ centre and souvenir shop. A short distance away from the old platforms, the former goods shed still stands. With an old-fashioned goods crane outside it, the shed contains toilets and other facilities for visitors. Clare’s signal box no longer exists as it was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.
The line that used to run through Clare was closed in 1967 as part of a plan devised by Dr Richard Beeching (1913-1985), who became Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961. Beeching was instructed by the British Government to devise a plan to increase the efficiency of British Railways. This was eventually executed and involved the closure of many stations, including Clare, and of many miles of track, including the Stour Valley Line. The last passenger train to stop at Clare was on the 4th of March 1967. Although trains used the line for a short time after this, none ever stopped at Clare again.
A visit to Clare is worthwhile because it is small town with many historic buildings and an attractive parish church. We visited recently on a Saturday morning when a small street market was in full swing. The town has several shops selling antiques and a few cafés, apart from that in the former railway station. We had visited Clare several times before, but it was only on our latest visit that we came across the old railway buildings. In this period when there is great concern about global warming and ‘saving the planet’ seeing the station and its platforms reminds us that Beeching’s plan to close so many lines was short-sighted because a good network of mass rail transport could contribute to reducing the current dependence on road transport and might reduce pollution. Thinking back to the 1960s, the time of Beeching’s plan, I do not recall that there was much concern about the future of our planet in those days.
BEFORE THE ADVENT of railways, transportation of goods across England (as well as Wales and Scotland) was heavily dependent on an extensive canal system constructed mostly in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Freight was carried along these canals in the holds of long narrow barges, more correctly known known as ‘narrow boats’. They had to be narrow enough to negotiate some of the narrower canals that formed part of the canal network. Prior to the development of steam and other kinds of engines, and even for some years after these became available, the narrow boats were towed by horses. These creatures walked along paths known as ‘towpaths’ that run along one or other side of a canal, except when a canal passed through a tunnel. In the tunnels there were no towpaths, and the boats were propelled by the feet of men lying either above the load on the boat or sometimes on planks projecting from the sides of the vessel, a process known as ‘legging’. The boatmen’s feet literally walked along the tunnel walls, thus moving the boat. Meanwhile, the towing horses walked over the hill through which the tunnel passed. All of this interesting but becomes even more so if you can experience a trip on a canal in a narrow boat.
Several companies offer canal trips between Little Venice (near London’s Paddington) and Camden Lock, east of it. We chose to travel on “Jason”, a narrow boat built in 1906 and one of the last of its era, which is still in use. “Jason” has been little modified compared to others that ply the route along the Regents Canal, a branch of the Grand Union Canal system. “Jason”, which was originally horse-drawn, has been fitted with a diesel engine that occupies part of the small rear located cabin that was once the home to a boatman and his family. Passengers sit in the long, narrow freight hold of the boat under an awning that was added when “Jason” was converted from a freight carrier to a tourist vessel, which has been doing the tours since 1951. Unlike most of the other tourist boats, there are no windows separating passengers from the exterior. This provides for great viewing along the route without the hindrance of sometimes not too clean glass, which might be encountered in other vessels.
The tour starts from a landing stage next to Blomfield Road, close to the cast-iron bridge that carries Westbourne Terrace Road over the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. At the other end of the trip, passengers disembark or embark next to the popular (not with me) and rather ‘tacky’ Camden Lock Market. The cruise between the two landing stages takes 45 minutes and is highly enjoyable. Travelling eastwards from Little Venice, we were given an extremely clear and intelligent commentary by a lady called Sarah. Various things she told us made a strong impression on me.
The Regents Canal that links Paddington Basin to Limehouse Basin in east London, where it leads to other canals, used to carry a wide range of goods, from coal to cocoa. The waterway passes under both rail and road bridges. Many of the latter have curved arches over the canal; are made of stone; and look older than the rail bridges, most of which have rectangular arches with roofs consisting of metal plates screwed together. Over the years, the tow ropes drawing the narrow boats have cut grooves or notches in the corners of the bridges next to the towpath. Some of the bridges have been protected from this damage by iron brackets placed so that the ropes passed over these instead of the masonry of the bridge. These metal protectors, which were easily replaceable, can now be seen to be notched where the ropes have abraded them.
“Jason”, like most other narrow boats, has a flat bottom and a shallow draught. This is because the water most of the canal system is quite shallow, usually not more than 6 feet deep. The bottom of “Jason” is made of wood (probably elm) and iron, a combination known as a ‘composite’ construction. Few narrow boats with this kind of construction exist today.
The most fascinating thing that Sarah told us related to the history of Lord’s Cricket Ground. In 1787, Thomas Lord (1755-1832), a professional cricket player, opened his first cricket ground in what is now Dorset Square (close to Baker Street Underground station). In 1809, Lord shifted his cricket ground to another location because the rent at his Dorset Square site became too high. The new location was on some disused ground just south of the present Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was where today the Regents Canal emerges from the eastern end of the 272-yard-long Maida Hill Tunnel. Let me explain.
In 1813, Parliament altered the route of the proposed Regents Canal so that it passed right through Mr Lord’s recently relocated cricket ground (www.lords.org/lords/our-history/timeline). Mr Lord was unhappy about this and was not prepared to give up his ground without first going to court. According to our guide, Lord struck a deal with the government. He agreed to move to a new site providing he was given all the earth that was excavated during the construction of the Maida Hill Tunnel. He used the vast amount of excavated earth to lay out the ground on which the present Lord’s Cricket pitches are now located.
Concerning construction, Sarah told us that not only had the tunnels been dug by hand, but also the entire canal system. Most of the manual workers were Irish and were known as ‘navigational engineers’, or ‘navvies’ for short. The base of the Regents Canal is lined with compressed clay to make it watertight, a difficult process when the canal was built.
The cruise between Little Venice and Camden passes through a variety of landscapes, ranging from disused industrial to almost bucolic. The canal passes through the northern edge of Regents Park, where it is lined with trees and parkland. In this stretch of the canal, it is difficult to believe one is in the middle of a huge metropolis and not in the deep countryside. The waterway also passes through the London Zoo. On one side, if you are lucky, you can catch glimpses of African hunting dogs and the occasional warthog in their cages overlooking the canal. Opposite them on the northern bank of the canal is Lord Snowdon’s aviary, now devoid of birds and awaiting a new purpose.
The 45-minute cruise provides an enchanting view of several districts of London. The commentary provided by Sarah and what she pointed out along the route helps recreate in one’s mind the golden age of canal transport. We enjoyed the cruise in both directions and hope that many others will take advantage of the special experience that it provides. For booking details and other practical information, consult “Jason’s” website: www.jasons.co.uk/the-tour
KEEN READERS OF NOVELS by Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) will have come across the name ‘Hitchin’ in several of her stories. For example, in “The Foundling”, Belinda sighs, and then says:
“She went to a place called Hitchin, but I don’t know where it is, and I only recall it because it sounds like kitchen, and I think that is very droll, don’t you, sir?”
She receives the reply:
“But Hitchin lies only a few miles from here! I daresay no more than six or seven, perhaps not as much! If you think you would like to visit this friend, I will take you there tomorrow! Do you know her direction?”
Later in the story, there are frequent mentions of Hitchin and a ‘Sun Inn’ in the town. There used to be an inn with that name on Sun Street, where currently, there is a Sun Hotel. In another novel, “The Reluctant Widow”, Hitchin is the name of the landlord of an inn, ‘The Bull’ in Wisborough Green, a village in West Sussex.
It is only in recent years that I have begun to read the wonderfully crafted historical novels by Heyer, but I was aware of Hitchin even as a young child. In those now far-off days, when I lived near Golders Green in north London, I was a collector of bus and train maps and an enthusiastic observer of buses. One of the buses that passed through Golders Green and along Finchley Road was the Green Line route number 716 that travelled all the way from Chertsey in southwest London to … you have probably guessed … Hitchin, far north of London in Hertfordshire. It was only today (11th of May 2021) that I finally got to visit Hitchin. I had read that it has a picturesque historic town centre and what we found surpassed all expectations.
A 7th century document states that Hitchin was the centre of the Hicce people, ‘hicce’ being Old English for ‘the people of the horse’. By 1086, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Hitchin was described as a ‘Royal Manor’. The town’s name is also associated with the River Hiz (pronounced ‘hitch’ by some), a short stretch of which flows in front of the eastern end of the centrally located St Mary’s Church, which is mostly 15th century with an 11th century tower. Later, the town thrived because of the wool trade; vellum and parchment making; tanning; rope-making; malting; and its coaching inns, such as that mentioned in Heyer’s novel. Hitchin was a staging post for coaches travelling between London and what road signs in the south of England call ‘The North’. The town is not far from the current A1 trunk road. Many of the inns have long since closed, but their picturesque buildings, most of which look mediaeval, or at least pre-Georgian, still stand and can often be identified by the large archways leading from the street into yards behind them. Grain trading was another important activity in the town. Its former Corn Exchange still stands in the Market Square, but its use is no longer what it was built for.
Despite the 20th century improvements in transport links to London, making Hitchin into a convenient place for commuters, the historic town centre contains a remarkably high number of old buildings lining its mediaeval street lay-out. These old throughfares surround the lovely, large Market Square, which like many towns and cities in mainland Europe, was filled with tables and chairs for people to enjoy refreshments from the many eateries that surround it. A covered arcade leads off the square and provides a weather-proof place for refreshments. Nearby, there is a modern market area with stalls with conical roofs. We were fortunate to have arrived on a day, Tuesday, when this market is working.
Our first impression of Hitchin was extremely favourable, but because we had planned to do so much more sightseeing that day, we did not spend nearly enough time there. We hope to revisit this place again soon. I can strongly recommend the Hitchin to anyone who wants to get a flavour of ‘Ye Olde England’ without having to travel too far from London.