Concluding the tour of my home district of Three Rivers, SW Herts, I'm visiting ten places I've somehow never been to before. [24 photos]
Somewhere to begin: Three Rivers Museum
The Three Rivers Museum is located in Rickmansworth's civic heart, between the library, the council offices and the town's theatre. It's also an exhibit in itself, in that the collection is kept on the lower floor of Basing House, once home to Ricky's most famous son. That's William Penn, whose name might not mean much to Brits but is the founding father of Pennsylvania. Admittedly he wanted to call it simply Sylvania but Charles II insisted on adding Penn's name. Admittedly he only lived in Rickmansworth for five years, and all of this was before the King gifted him several thousand square miles of the New World. And admittedly there's little more than strong circumstantial evidence that he ever lived in Basing House, but William Penn was a great American pioneer, and it would be a shame if the only building in the High Street to commemorate him was a Wetherspoons.
The museum fills three rooms, with a compact collection of glass cases, shelves and ephemera in each. With such a sprawling district to cover, it's pleasing to see that every corner seems to get a mention, from the gravel pits at Maple Cross to the Ovaltine Model Farms. The Croxley Green section, for example, has a heavy focus on the village's Great Barn (tours to which are organised in summer on the last Saturday of the month). Most striking is the sense that the museum is a centre for local heritage and historical information, with books and photos and catalogues lined up for easy reference, rather than some pristine temple filled with plastic keyword panels. The clued-up volunteers are also key to its appeal, maintaining a daily presence (Sundays excepted) and taking a keen interest in the composition of the displays. But then I expected nothing less from a museum founded by the husband of my primary school teacher, whose enthusiasm for local history has clearly rubbed off. by train: Rickmansworth
Somewhere chilled: Valley Road
In meteorological (and horticultural) circles, Rickmansworth is notorious for its frost hollow. Indeed the town held (I think still holds) the English record for the highest diurnal range of temperature: from 1.1°C to 29.4°C in 9 hours on 29th August 1936. Three factors came together to create this chilled statistic, the first of which is the landscape hereabouts. A dry chalk valley runs though the town's northwest suburbs, narrow but with surprisingly steep sides, doglegging south towards the River Colne. On calm clear nights the surrounding air sinks down and is slow to drain away, specifically aided and abetted by reason number two, the Metropolitan railway. A viaduct was built here in the 1880s, crossing the neck of the valley before following high along one side, and the embankment's dam-like qualities helped to create a deep 'pond' from which chilled air found it hard to escape. [topographic map]
Reason number three is a man, namely Eric Hawke, one-time secretary of the Royal Meteorological Society. He deliberately moved to this corner of Rickmansworth because of its intriguing climate, and spent thirteen years taking painstaking temperature readings, including the record breaking day. Hawke's research revealed that only two of the 156 calendar months from 1930 to 1942 passed without frost on the valley floor, that overnight ground frosts were experienced for over half the year, and that air frosts occurred even in July and August. He also noted that temperatures in the frost hollow could be up to 15°C lower than in central London. And his conclusion, somewhat surprisingly, was that Rickmansworth's night-time climate was almost exactly similar to that of the Aberdeenshire plateau, one of the coldest inhabited regions in the British Isles.
The main thoroughfare along the floor of the frost hollow is Valley Road, a mile of speculative Metroland development. One end rises sharply to the Chorleywood Road, while the other fades out into woodland where the M25 crosses via a lofty concrete span. Valley Road's detached homes go for a million plus, interwar-gabled behind trim hedges, immaculately painted, and often with a small fleet of cars parked outside. Conifers and hardstanding are easy to manage when the nights are chilled, though one resident had the landscape gardeners in as I walked by, and a bed of fresh spring flowers sparkled in the raised bed by the drive. More recent meteorological research suggests that the frost hollow effect has diminished somewhat since the 1940s, probably due to increasingly warmer air feeding in from outer London, while neighbouring higher avenues aren't so badly affected. But the privileged residents of Valley Road still get their own personal TV weather forecast when the nights are cold, and here much colder than most. by train: Rickmansworth
A nursing home overlooking Chorleywood Common holds a very special, but not entirely celebratory, place in the history of British food. Years before the old folk moved in, back in 1961, this was the headquarters of the British Baking Industries Research Association. And it was here that scientists perfected what's now known as the Chorleywood Bread Process, a recipe for dough-making which now generates 80% of the UK's bread. CBP's first big advantage is that it works with low-quality wheat, which most domestic production was at the time, and the second is that it uses high speed mixers to drastically reduce processing time. The end result might be cheap, filling, soft and long-lasting, not to mention easy to regularly slice. But it's also less tasty than proper slow-baked bread, you know it is, and has ousted the quality loaf from many of our lives. And I suspect it's what residents of the Beaumont Care Home are served up, at their "Bar/café" during "Flexible mealtimes" or on the "Night bite menu". Peering down the privet-lined private drive, it's not impossible to imagine that that culinary purgatory originated behind the bland white façade. by train: Chorleywood by bus: 336
Somewhere secret: Northwood Headquarters
Growing up in Three Rivers during the Cold War, I was very aware that in the event of a nuclear war we'd be first to fry. The Russians' target would have been HMS Warrior, the suburban military base inside which Britain's red button would have been pushed. Our purpose as local residents was to act as collateral to make the enemy think twice before firing, and our saving grace was that at least we'd die quickly. Ah, they were fun times, the 1970s and '80s. Now known as Northwood Headquarters, the base is actually in Eastbury (covering the former grounds of Eastbury House), and is the multi-service HQ from which all overseas military operations are planned and controlled. 2000 personnel work on site, at the heart of which is the concrete bunker from which the deployment of Trident missiles might still be coordinated.
Approaching from Northwood station, you'd never guess what lay ahead. The avenues are well-to-do, the houses and apartments marginally upper middle class, the gardens often gated. Then come more austere sidestreets lined by the unmistakeable ordinariness of Forces homes, accompanied by signs warning Pass Holders Only, No Site Visitors Or Site Deliveries. But the full military impact isn't apparent until you reach Sandy Lane, facing the silence of Oxhey Woods, where high metal security perimeter meets pavement. A repeated cluster of notices warns This Is A Prohibited Place, Danger Guard Dogs On Patrol, Warning Razor Wire, CCTV In Operation. Motion-sensitive cameras watch the top of the fence at very regular intervals, and the occasional guard walks the inner perimeter, to be doubly sure. The main gate has no permanent sentry point, and affords a view inside towards a motley collection of buildings of various shapes and heights. I hesitated before taking a photo, not because this appeared to be banned but because it'll no doubt place me on some watchlist for the rest of my life. In which case Hello Northwood, it was reassuring to see you, and I don't feel quite so scared about your end-of-days operations any more. by train: Northwood by bus: 8