diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 22, 2016

Beyond London (12): Hertsmere (part 1)

The Greater London boundary skips Watford to reach Hertsmere, a 1970s construct to the northwest of the capital. Its forty square miles are mostly Green Belt, and mostly inside the M25, from Bushey in the west to Potters Bar in the east. It's pleasant enough, although you wouldn't come for the scenery, Hertsmere's more the kind of place you travel through. And you wouldn't come for a day trip either, so I did exactly that, to search out four of the more interesting corners. [14 photos]

Somewhere famous: Elstree Studios
So many famous films have been made at Elstree, from Blackmail to Star Wars, and a heck of a lot of top drawer television too. But not actually in Elstree, the action's all been in neighbouring Borehamwood, it's just that Borehamwood wasn't particularly large or important 100 years ago. The Neptune Film Studios opened here in 1914, on cheap land well connected to central London, but far enough out to be unpolluted. Its purpose-built facilities were bought out a number of times over the years, and impressed enough to be nicknamed Britain's Hollywood, attracting a number of other players to set up close by. Some made blockbusters, others made B movies, with Elstree's film heyday lasting from the introduction of the talkies until the Fifties, when television nudged in and shared the honours. And while a lot of the old studios have now been built over, this is still where the recent Paddington Bear movie was made, and where you come to sit in the audience for Pointless.

the crash location, beneath the bridge, east of St John's

Recognising their nationwide claim to fame, Elstree and Borehamwood council have set up a Film and Television Heritage Trail along the high street and beyond. What they haven't done is make it easy to follow, but if you walk through the town you can't fail to stumble upon several informative plaques. They kick off outside the railway station, close to the former site of Gate Studios, with a summative black and white mural (and a useful map if you think to walk round the back). The first plaque is for Barbara Windsor MBE, whose Borehamwood film credentials are embarrassingly sparse, but nevertheless her cockney landlady persona came along a few years back to launch the trail. An eclectic collection of big star names follow, from Sir Cliff to Sir Christopher Lee, scattered outside the shops or by some former place of work.

Perhaps the oddest pairing is outside Elstree Studios themselves, in a small garden paid for by the local Rotary Club, where Sir Roger Moore KBE sidles up to Simon Cowell. Roger is here not for Bond but The Saint, while Simon turns out to be the only local boy in this Hall of Fame, having grown up down the road on Barnet Lane and getting his first showbiz job here as a runner. Elstree Studios isn't much to see from the road, more a series of offices and sheds. It used to be considerably bigger, but the backlot where Star Wars was filmed was sold off to Tesco in 1988, and now forms the focal point of retail activity hereabouts. While the George Lucas Stage still looms over the car park, the majority of what remains is mostly screened behind a hedge, with the Big Brother House right at the back where only housemates and eviction audiences get to see it. But a couple of Oscar-type statuettes can be spotted on one front roof, while outside (by the litter bin) is the legendary "All Audience To Start Queue From Here" sign where the Strictly crowds assemble.

The other survivor is on the other side of the high street, up Clarendon Road. Still on the original 1914 site, these are now the BBC Elstree Studios, and you won't be getting in. A watchful security presence exists at each gate, with barriers and 'No photography' signs, should you wish to enter the island site. But stare down towards the end of the terrace and you'll spot a railway bridge that shouldn't be there, and a short row of houses that have a front but no back. This is the outdoor set for Albert Square, or at least one corner of it, tucked away at the far end of Auntie's lot. A ten minute hike via the Borehamwood Shopping Park will get you round to the other side (who knew there was an M&S Food Hall quite so close to the Minute Mart?), confirming that no, you really can't see much from over here either. But a few fake chimneypots, hollow roofs and sham terraces are vaguely visible, and I wonder whether those with adjoining gardens ever catch wind of any EastEnders plot twists before the rest of us.

For a less happy ending, head east towards the drably commercial end of Borehamwood. Pizza Hut and the Jehovah's Witnesses are amongst those with an administrative base behind drab façades along Elstree Way, and one more recent development means there's still (thank goodness) a big cinema in town. Another commemorative plaque points out the location of MGM British Studios, a big player between 1937 and 1970, where Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen and The Prisoner were filmed. It's said that Stanley Kubrick took so long to make 2001: A Space Odyssey that he bankrupted the place, and the entire facility was swiftly demolished (although the white clocktower survived until 1987). A road called Studio Way now curves through the site, mostly covered by housing along cul-de-sacs with appropriately cinematographic names. They're still squeezing new homes in where possible, and in perhaps the ultimate ignominy a Travelodge and Toby Carvery form the major entertainment option on site. Bring your tablet and you can stream a classic.
by train: Elstree and Borehamwood   by bus: 107, 292

While in town, make sure you pop into the Elstree and Borehamwood Museum on the main high street. You'll find it at number 96, a "new, iconic, multi-purpose community centre", which is basically a modern take on a library. The museum hasn't been given much room, indeed the tiny circulation space on the second floor looks like it's only the foyer until you realise nothing else leads off from it. And only a fraction of this is the permanent display, a rattle-through the history of the town and its neighbouring village, while the majority is given over to temporary exhibitions, generally an excuse to display a tiny fraction of the collection the museum has amassed over the years. Currently that's photography, which means lots of old cameras and a snappy history of imagery, but soon they'll be switching over to shops, reminiscing over the days when Shenley Road wasn't a string of salons, cafes and charity shops. For best value, talk to the volunteers on the desk, they have the best stuff tucked away out of sight.

Somewhere random: Aldenham
Aldenham is a tiny village slightly to the east of Junction 5 on the M1. It's lovely, I went through it on the bus. A leafy lane bends off the main road, curling up to and around 13th century St John's church, linking various listed buildings to the golf club and the village green. But Aldenham hits well above its weight, by merit of being the oldest settlement hereabouts, so has somehow managed to give its name to several features some distance away. For example its parish is now so dominated by the commuter town of Radlett that it's had to be split into two administrative regions, with Aldenham East reputedly the least deprived ward in the whole of England. I went through that on the bus too, and although it's no Little Chalfont or Ascot, I can see what they mean.

Then there's Aldenham Reservoir, an unexpectedly old affair, built by French prisoners in the 1790s to help keep the River Colne and Grand Union Canal topped up. That's a couple of miles from the village, considerably closer to Elstree, and now surrounded by Aldenham Country Park. This is the main recreational bolthole for Hertsmere West, particularly for anyone with a dog or small child to exercise, or a boat to sail. The path round the edge of the reservoir is the perfect length for a minor stroll, allegedly "a leisurely hour", although definitely possible in a concerted thirty minutes. Most of it's in woodland, with occasional breaks to see water lapping against the shore, and one long section (with ducks and swans) along the top of a dam. The park has gone all out to attract young visitors, with a small farm to visit and proper pony rides, each for a fee. Or for nothing there's the excellently realised '100 Aker Wood', where the world of AA Milne can brought to life using a bit of imagination. Cut-outs of Winnie the Pooh point the way around a special trail, passing simple wooden constructions cleverly labelled, including a heffalump trap, the North Pole, Pooh's Bridge, and the houses of Rabbit, Piglet and Wol. Older visitors may prefer the Aldenham Sailing Club, the reservoir's dinghy racing collective (who are holding their annual introductory session for novices this afternoon).

To the south of the reservoir, now more than two miles from the village of the same name, there's Aldenham Works. This was London Buses' overhaul centre, a vast steel shed on an industrial scale which used to strip and refit 50 buses a week. You'll know it best from the film Summer Holiday - Cliff Richard and his friends were supposedly employees here - and the opening scenes that show them busy at work were filmed during the Works' summer break. Of course it no longer exists, the operation lasted only from 1956 to 1986, with the decaying building completely demolished ten years later. In its place is Centennial Park, a sanitised collection of sixty-or-so business units behind a security gateline, plus a hotel/gym/spa complex to feed the needs of upmarket leisure users. It's unwelcoming and bland, but busy, and I did spot the Leicester Tigers team coach slipping out yesterday on its way to a Saracens thrashing.

The reason Aldenham Works existed is a fascinating one. The site had been intended as sidings for an expansion of the Northern line, the plan being to push out beyond Edgware to kickstart house-building up the A5 corridor. Three new stations were planned, the first at Brockley Hill, then Elstree South and finally Bushey Heath, each surrounded by large areas of undeveloped land that might swiftly be turned into suburbs. Elstree South, as the name suggested, would have been just to the south of Elstree, pretty much exactly where the entrance to Centennial Park now stands. The terminus at Bushey Heath would have been one road junction further west, approximately parallel to what's now the M1 motorway, where the A41 crosses Elstree Road. And of course none of this got built, because WW2 intervened and then the Green Belt was imposed, which means the entire area remains mostly fields. Today horses graze the intended site of Bushey Heath station, beside a busy roundabout barely troubled by pedestrians, and only the clientèle of the neighbouring luxury dog hotel and grooming spa are truly missing out. It's too late to complete the extension now, because houses cover the intended line through Edgware. But in a world of "what if", this rural backwater could easily be home to fifty thousand people, with shops and schools and employment opportunities around three glorious Charles Holden station buildings, up the Aldenham branch of the Northern line.
by tube: Bushey Heath, Elstree South   by bus: 107, 306, 602

(part 2 tomorrow)

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