diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 13, 2016

Beyond London (11): Three Rivers (part 1)

Three Rivers is the none-too inspiring name of the southwestern chunk of Hertfordshire, curling around Watford like a protective shield. The three rivers in question are the Colne, the Gade and the Chess, which meet at Rickmansworth, which is the main town hereabouts. Three Rivers is also my home district, it's where I grew up, so you might think I'd know it quite well. Not so, it turns out. I therefore decided I'd try to visit bits of Three Rivers I'd never visited before, of which there were several, and have devoted two days to travelling around and visiting them. Altogether I walked 26 miles, which is clearly madness, but that's what going home does for you. Let's start at the very northern end, in a village with a surprising claim to fame. [9 photos]

Somewhere historic: Bedmond
Barely a thousand people live in Bedmond, which is located in open country roughly where the M1 meets the M25. Far fewer lived here in the 12th century, and yet one of their number rose to what was then the most important office in the world. For Bedmond is the birthplace of Nicholas Breakspear, better known as Adrian IV, the only Englishman ever to be made Pope. Born on the family farm around 1100AD, young Nicholas went to school up the road in St Albans before becoming a canon and then abbot of a monastery in the south of France. Further European travels followed, including a successful spell in Norway, after which Nick returned to Rome and was elected Pope. He served a mixed five year term, rife with diplomatic wrangling and religious division, and was in the middle of an excommunication row with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1159 when he suddenly died. Some say he was poisoned, tradition says he swallowed a fly, but more likely from complications with tonsillitis. No Briton has held such religious power for nine centuries since.

Breakspear's Farm is long gone, off the Bedmond Road on the southern edge of the village, where a row of half a dozen desperately ordinary detached houses now stands. And on the verge in front of the shared drive is a small stone plaque, easily missed, or would be were it not surrounded by a halo of bright spring flowers. I was fortunate to catch it with dwarf daffodils and grape hyacinths ablaze behind, clearly lovingly tended by some village group. How proud must they be? Just up the road is The Bell pub, reputedly 15th century, and a row of attractive not-quite-so old cottages. Village needs are satisfied by a hall, a shop, a garage, and a particularly unusual church. Bedmond's 'Tin Tabernacle' was prefabricated with the intention of being used abroad, but the corrugated church proved surplus to requirements and was bought up by villagers in 1880. Somehow never replaced, it's now one of only two such churches in the country. Small and painted brilliantly white, it even has its own spire and a stained glass window, and is still used for services a couple of times a month.

The main parish church is down the road in Abbots Langley, an equally old village that's grown to become a significant suburban settlement. Avenues of substantial homes thread across several hundred acres, mostly early 20th century but with some much older stock around the church, and a rare Prince Albert's Model Cottage on Tibbs Hill Road. The shopping parade is blander but retains an independent air, including an Underground Barbers which ought to grace Annie Mole's esteemed collection of appropriated roundels. Close by are Breakspear Road, Popes Road and Adrian Road, because they're proud of their famous son round here. But it took until 1924 to erect a plaque inside St Lawrence the Martyr, on the wall by the porch, despite the fact this flinty church dates back to the very decade that Adrian IV became Pope. He never came home to see it, obviously, the Bedmond boy having far more important work to do in Rome.
by bus: 320

Somewhere random: Leavesden Hospital
In less enlightened times, specifically the 1860s, London's mentally ill were hidden away from public view. The Metropolitan Poor Act kickstarted the creation of two huge asylums for "quiet and harmless imbeciles", both far beyond the edge of the capital, one in Caterham and one in Leavesden. Each was built to the same specification - a central administrative block with ladders of dormitories to either side, with men kept specifically to their half and women to the other. Nearly two thousand patients were crammed into these austere high-ceilinged wards, and many saw out the rest of their lives here. A strict regime of work and recreation was established, for those deemed fit enough to take part, with 250 nurses on site to care as best they could. Across the road the St Pancras Orphanage was built, later appropriated and extended as a hospital for pilots and aircrew injured during WW2, there being a large airfield nearby (and we'll come to that).

I visited once, in the early 1980s, when my school choir came to Leavesden Hospital on carol singing duty. I remember standing in the lofty recreation hall opposite a horseshoe of patients making appreciative and involuntary noises, before being taken off to one of the wards to perform to a much smaller group there. At the time I thought the visit was for their benefit, but the look in the RE teacher's eye now suggests his motives were just as much about awareness as festive celebration. The hospital continued in use until 1995, after which it was closed and the majority of the buildings levelled. Only the front of the administrative block and the chapel remain, the latter now used by a disabled charity, the remainder converted to flats. The remainder of the hospital site was also turned over to housing, fanned out along several cul-de-sacs of unremarkable stature, or else retained as parkland.

Leavesden Country Park is the end result, split in two across College Road. The southern half is more ornamental, with an impressive central tree-topped ridge (reputedly containing the tallest monkey puzzle in Hertfordshire). To the north, behind the asylum's original iron railings, a less formal note is struck. Broad lawns lead off towards interlinked woodland, plus it's possible to access one of the cemeteries where many of the hospital's longer term patients were laid to rest. Local people with small dogs or small children to exercise appear to be the main target audience, along with folk visiting the jarringly modern YMCA by the car park. There might be Private Keep Out signs around the surviving buildings, but Leavesden's a much happier place today. [a great history here]
by bus: 320

Somewhere famous: Leavesden Studios
...or, as you'll know it better, the Harry Potter tour. Advertised as being in Watford, in fact the studios lie fractionally outside, hence fall into the remit of my Three Rivers safari. The site began life as playing fields, requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence in 1939 for the construction of a large aerodrome. de Havilland used Leavesden for the construction of Mosquito fighters and Halifax bombers, filling its hangars with aircraft overspilled from its Hatfield HQ, and by the end of the war this was reputedly the largest factory in the world. The facility was then handed to Bristol Siddeley Engines, with helicopters the main focus, before being merged with Rolls Royce who were the final aeronautical owners. Production ceased in 1991 with flights continuing until 1994, at which point the James Bond team took over. Leavesden's empty hangars proved ideal for the filming of GoldenEye, Pinewood being fully booked, with the first film in the rebooted Star Wars franchise following soon behind. Next came Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the unexpected blockbuster hit of 2001, and the rest is cinematographic history.

I did consider taking the Warner Brother Studio Tour myself, for the purposes of completeness, but was aghast by the cost of the tickets. £35 is now the going rate for the experience, which perhaps isn't bad assuming you're a big Potter fan and take the recommended three hours to look round. But evidence of tourist-milking is everywhere, from the extra fiver they want to charge you for a 'digital guide', to the £4.95 price of a cone of Butterbeer ice cream, not to mention the inordinate expense of the official coach package from central London (seriously, £61 per child?). Nevertheless, judging by its international allure, the Harry Potter tour is easily the biggest attraction in the northern Home Counties. It's also a bit of a fortress, accessible only to those with pre-booked tickets, as you'll discover if you ever wander by on foot. A commissionaire waits at the entrance to the car park to check your paperwork, while nobody boards the purple bus from Watford Junction without accreditation. Passers-by must content themselves with a squint through the fence, where soundstages J and K are plastered with scenes from the films, and the two upper decks of the Knight Bus rise above the staff car park. There too is the cottage at Godric's Hollow, and the backs of the permanent set of Privet Drive, not that they look particularly photogenic from this angle.

Signs on the fence warn that this is a No Drone Zone, with over-flying forbidden because the studios are still in production. The backlot is enormous, over 100 acres in size, its key feature being a clear 180 degree horizon. Somewhere out in the wilds I spotted a medieval castle and some abbey windows, presumably for the upcoming Knights of the Roundtable movie which completed production last summer. Meanwhile the northeastern corner of the former aerodrome has been redeveloped into a mixed use zone for light commercial and residential use, with blandly designed boxes lining both sides of a sweeping open boulevard. It's a rare 21st century intrusion, the vast majority of Three Rivers housing stock having been built between 50 and 150 years ago, with the unmistakeable feel of a community that hasn't yet taken hold. Indeed, staring at the rows of brick boxes across half-laid lawns, I was struck that this was Privet Drive made real, only without the tourists taking selfies outside.
by bus: 8, 311, 318

(part 2 tomorrow)

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