diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 16, 2011

Yesterday I went on a day trip to Britain's first roundabout. It's not in London, it's 30 miles north. It's not on a main road, it's in the middle of a housing estate. It's not huge, more a roundel of green with a bit of shrubbery. It's nothing simple, it's a six-way interchange. And it's rather refined, as you might expect in the middle of Britain's first Garden City. The town is Letchworth, in Hertfordshire. And the roundabout is Sollershott Circus.

The man who built Letchworth was Sir Ebenezer Howard. He wanted to create a new kind of settlement, one with all the benefits of town and country, where people could live and work in beautiful proximity. A company called "First Garden City Ltd" was created, and in 1903 they bought up a chunk of land between Hitchin and Baldock for the realisation of Ebenezer's dream. A series of new homes were built, some on grand tree-lined avenues, others in affordable cottages, and Letchworth Garden City slowly grew.

So, this roundabout. It first appeared on the drawing board of the town's architects, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, partway through the development of the new town. The estates had a junction where three roads crossed - Sollershotts East and West, Broadway, and Spring Road - so they decided on what was, for the time, a unique solution. Britain's first roundabout was a low circle of greenery, with a lamppost at the centre and a pavement around the edge. It wasn't created for motorists, more for the benefit of pedestrians to permit safe passage across the junction. There's no confirmed opening date. Indeed the only official records are two maps of 1908 and 1910, one with the roundabout and one without, hence the approximate opening year somewhere inbetween. Motorists, such as there were, didn't necessarily realise that progress around the roundabout was supposed to be clockwise, so in 1932 a "Keep Left" sign went up. The central circle also dramatically shrank in size, with road markings added to help marshal drivers in the right direction.

Today, a hundred and a bit years on, the roundabout takes its fame seriously [photo]. "UK's First Roundabout" says the sign, then adds "built circa 1909" (whereas "built round about 1909" would have been hugely funnier). The central circle's grown again, back to approximately its original size, now with carefully pruned shrubbery for decoration. The 1930s lamppost survives but the pavement's long gone, so only adventurous (or history-seeking) pedestrians now venture onto this hallowed turf [photo]. None of the roads are especially busy, at least not on a Saturday afternoon, this being the slightly posh side of town. Almost all of Letchworth's homes are lovely, having been built in that golden age of Arts and Crafts, and there's barely a duff note struck along any of the six exit roads.

Letchworth's road system still works well, with allegedly only one set of traffic lights in the town (near the station). This groundbreaking Garden City brought many other innovations to Britain - Green Belt, town planning, affordable homes, front gardens. Indeed I got the feeling while walking around that my suburban childhood home in Metroland owed more than a nod to Ebenezer Howard's pioneering utopian community. Jonathan Meades describes Letchworth as "a template for Britain", with its "legacy of cosy sub-urbanism", and "where modern England began". All that, and the art of driving in circles, kicked off round about here.

And also, in Letchworth...
First Garden City Heritage Museum: In the former offices of architect Barry Parker, this minor museum in a thatched cottage recounts the life and work of Ebenezer Howard. Two galleries, one of which is mostly text, but charming all the same.
Letchworth Museum: Incredibly retro repository, all stuffed animals and archaeological findings, looking like it was last updated in the 1970s, and due to close at the end of next year (to be swallowed up by a new place in Hitchin).
Broadway Gardens: Central civic open space with fountains, surrounded by municipal buildings, halfway between Roundabout number 1 and the station. [pretty photo]
Black squirrels: They're unusually common round here, these melanin-dominant rodents. I saw a stuffed one in the Museum, but a real one in the park.
The Settlement: Letchworth was built a teetotal town, and this was its only pub (serving dandelion & burdock et al), now an Arts & Crafts craft centre. [characterful photo]
The Spirella Building: Every Garden City needed industry, and Letchworth got this lovely-looking corset factory, now (obviously) given over to flats, office space and a gym.
David's Bookshop: As an example of the independent-friendly stores to be found in Letchworth's main shopping streets, this is a top-notch repository of words and music, plus cafe, and just what any medium-sized town needs.
The streets of Letchworth: Cream painted terraced cottages, rustic detached villas, hedge-fronted gardens, and not a tower block in sight. Give that Ebenezer Howard a round of applause, his Garden City is gorgeous.
» brochure » town walk » town & country walk » Greenway

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