diamond geezer

 Monday, March 14, 2016

Beyond London (11): Three Rivers (part 2)

Continuing the tour of my home district of Three Rivers, SW Herts, visiting places I've somehow never been to before. [18 photos]

Somewhere retail: The Ovaltine Factory
Originally called Ovomaltine, and originally from Switzerland, the malted drink Ovaltine arrived in Britain in 1909. The UK factory was built at King's Langley, north of Watford, where barley, fresh eggs and milk were in plentiful supply, and where the Grand Union Canal provided water and crucial transport links. To begin with only thirteen people were employed but, as Ovaltine became more popular and sales ramped up, a new Art Deco factory was built overlooking the canal. In 1929, to safeguard production, the company bought up two local farms and transformed them into beacons of wholesome living. One was the Model Poultry Farm, an egg-based facility laid out with a degree of Wonka-esque theatre, and the other was the Model Dairy Farm, its thatched buildings deliberately mimicking Marie Antoinette's Versailles smallholding. Tours were laid on for the public, with Women's Institutes particularly welcome, and a health resort for disadvantaged children was established alongside. The Ovaltine Milk Maid became a symbol of healthy nutritious living, and from 1935 the brand's publicity included the weekly We Are The Ovaltineys show on Radio Luxembourg.

A slow decline set in during the 1980s. Construction of the M25 carved through both farms, though not their main buildings, which lay derelict for a while before being sold off. The Egg Farm is now owned by a renewable energy company, who've plonked a giant wind turbine in the grounds, while the Dairy Farm was given over to residential development. I didn't realise this when I walked past the latter on the way to Bedmond, unexpectedly entranced by a turrety painted sign at the end of 'Dairy Way', and two thatched Arts and Crafts cottages enclosing the former entrance to the site.

But it's the factory you'll most likely be familiar with, if you've ever looked out of a train window a few minutes north of Watford. Production ceased here in 2002 when the brand's new owners switched manufacture to Switzerland, and the building was converted into luxury flats and duplexes, retaining the big blue lettering and the beaming milkmaid on the façade. Meanwhile between the factory and the canal a warren of lowrise housing has been squeezed in, this of less inspiring architectural heritage, and the whole place bristles with unfriendly Private Property notices. Passers-by can stare, but don't expect to be welcomed if you poke too close, and the best view is probably still from the train.
by train: King's Langley

» King's Langley does indeed have regal roots, specifically in the Plantagenet era. The first Duke of York grew up here, and King Richard II was originally buried in the church - indeed Act 3 Scene 4 of Shakespeare's King Richard the Second is set here. [LANGLEY. The DUKE OF YORK's garden. Enter the QUEEN and two Ladies]
» The most obvious feature hereabouts is the M25 viaduct flying on concrete stilts across the Gade Valley. It's perhaps best seen from the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, close to the site of a former royal hunting lodge.
» To the south of King's Langley, nearer Hunton Bridge, the main West Coast railway line vanishes into the Watford Tunnels. Somehow the land above the western portal remains undeveloped, a hump of arable ground crossed by the winding path of Gypsy Lane. I loved the solitude of the narrow meandering track, and the views afforded, broken only occasionally by a Virgin whine in the cutting below.

Somewhere pretty: Sarratt
The northwestern quarter of Three Rivers is relentlessly rural, a patchwork of fields and woodland with the M25 carving through. Largest of the villages is Sarratt, if a thousand residents counts as large, situated on a ridge of land above the River Chess. It's also the next village beyond Croxley Green, where I lived for twenty years, so it's unforgivable I've never properly visited before. One reason is that there's not much there, another that I was too young for a pub lunch, but mostly it was the prospect of the three mile walk. Direct footpaths are thin on the ground, and the narrow country lanes no place for anyone on foot. Even on my bus journey out the driver had to repeatedly scrape the hedgerows to get by as a series of Landrovers squeezed by. It's quite a Landrover-friendly village, is Sarratt.

The main village is centred around a long broad undulating green, with a duckpond at one end and an old water pump at the other. Amongst the many buildings facing the green are period cottages and several former businesses such as The Old Forge and Ye Olde Village Sweet Shop, the latter now two narrow houses. The only current retail outlet is Sarratt Post Office Stores, a cramped but well-stocked pantry, bustling inside, where the top shelf magazines are of the hunting, shooting and fishing variety. There are also two pubs, The Boot (1739) and The Cricketers (1849), both of which double up as restaurants and both of which looked busy during my weekday visitation. One there isn't is an MI5 training school - the Sarratt 'Nursery' featured in John le Carré's George Smiley novels is purely fictional... or extremely well hidden.

To reach the third pub in the village, and the parish church, requires walking a mile south towards the river. I hoped I had just enough time to fit in a return trip to Church End before the next bus came, then made the mistake of taking what looked like a direct footpath but ended up wading across a muddy field watched by cows. Somewhat browner than I started, I was pleased to find 12th century Holy Cross unlocked, and slipped inside to admire the interior. The church has what's said to be the smallest transept in England, was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott, and boasts a very rare transverse saddleback roof. Outside is a row of almshouses, and The Cock Inn (16something), and the driveway to Goldingtons - a Georgian manor house best known as the location of the first reception in Four Weddings and a Funeral. From the neighbouring field the valley drops swiftly away to the watery Chess, but I had no time for such pleasantries, and should I return to Sarratt I'll be sure to leave more time for a liquid lunch. [12 Sarratt walks]
by bus: 352

Somewhere historic: Croxley Windmill
As I planned my safari of unvisited Three Rivers locations, I realised there was even one place in my home village I'd never seen. That's Croxley's windmill, which you might think unlikely, but the building has no sails having been converted to housing several years before I was born. Indeed the sails blew off in the 1880s after only a couple of decades of operation, the mill surviving on steam power for another couple before being demoted to saw mill, then chicken house, then pigeon loft. A housing estate grew up around the mill in the 1970s, which I walked round for the first time last summer searching in vain for my prey. It turns out I should have come in the winter, because with no leaves on the trees the top of the mill instantly stood out. I wasn't overly impressed by the attached house, which clings uninspiringly to the outside, but a friend assures me the interior is rather nicer. I left Windmill Drive swiftly, before the Neighbourhood Watch signs translated into outright suspicion, but it just goes to prove that sometimes there's no need to travel far, there's something fresh almost on your doorstep. [Croxley Green history]
by train: Croxley

(part 3 tomorrow)

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