This is the furthest north I'm going on my orbital jaunt. It's also the only one of the seventeen districts round London you can't get to with Oyster, providing a bit of a transport challenge. Thankfully the East Coast mainline runs up the middle, joining the two New Towns that give this borough its name. So yes, I got all over, starting up north in the Welwyn bit, before moving on to the Hatfield chunk. [11 photos]
Somewhere famous: Welwyn Garden City
Not the first garden city but the second, founded in 1920 by Sir Ebenezer Howard after his pioneering start at Letchworth. The plan was to create a town just big enough to provide everything for its inhabitants, notably housing and industry, intertwined with and surrounded by healthy greenspace - the perfect blend of city and nature. Welwyn Garden City would have gardens and jobs for all, and broad sweeping avenues, and one big store in the centre of town to buy everything from. Howard eventually backtracked on the latter, but the rest worked out well, and fifty thousand now live across his creation.
To guide me round the best bits I followed the Welwyn Garden City Town Trail, downloadable here, which is the sort of thing more civic authorities should produce if only they were interesting enough. This starts off on Guessens Road where Howard lived throughout the Twenties, then heads for the tiny hamlet of Handside which formed the nucleus of the original build. Five of the original cottages remain, at the top of a lane transformed from farmland to residential spine. Wandering through the early estate the houses remain varied and desirable, not quite so relentlessly attractive as Letchworth, but highly aspirational all the same. Many have hedges out front for that added green feel, and roofs that gently angle in at first floor level to minimise wasted attic space. At the time no garages were necessary, but front gardens are large enough that cars don't unnecessarily dominate, and leafy curves avoid any sense of pre-planned grid.
One unusual corner is Meadow Green, formerly the Daily Mail Model Home Village, opened for three months in 1922. A few dozen houses were knocked up to showcase different building methods and housing styles, incorporating the very latest hot water systems, cooking appliances and interior fittings. And the public lapped it up, in much the same way as the Ideal Home exhibition captures the imagination today, but for real. After the event they were all sold off, and today you can walk around the crescent and up the cul-de-sac and imagine these houses as buzzing showcases rather than family homes with better than average architectural panache. According to the plaque on Meadow Cottage the founder of the YHA lived here for forty years, and there is a touch of "well yes, why would you ever move out?", especially now that only a trickle of camera-toting visitors ever pass by.
The centrepiece of Welwyn Garden City is Parkway, a broad stripe of floral lawn edged by one-way avenues, tumbling gently downhill from the council offices for about a mile. Further housing runs off to each side, and several churches of various denominations too, because places of worship were once an important part of town planning. A coronation fountain has been added at the junction with Howardsgate, where a copper memorial disc displays Sir Ebenezer complete with large bushy moustache. This wide boulevard was once the main shopping street, and still sort of is, but has since been downgraded by a large 1990s mall adjoining the railway station which anywhere else in the Home Counties would look perfectly normal but here strikes a subtly jarring note.
Immediately across the railway the tone changes, this being Ebenezer's industrial zone, or at least was. A rusty iron footbridge reaches out into a demolition zone, where the only buildings to survive look like being those that have been listed. Uppermost amongst these is WGC's commercial pride and joy, the Shredded Wheat factory, designed by the town's planner Louis de Soissons and built in art deco style. But Nabisco ceased production in 2008 so the entire building stands empty, indeed I watched security teams going round sequentially boarding up the windows, in readiness for a new development currently at the planning stage. Some of the famous silos would be retained and turned into boutique hotel rooms, topped by penthouse apartments, while the rest of the site becomes a mix of 800 flats around a linear park. Elsewhere, standard fare, but in Welwyn Garden City not really in the spirit of what was originally intended. Planners estimate that the development will save 50 acres of Green Belt, and yet it's Ebenezer's houses on what were once fields where I suspect we'd all prefer to live. by train: Welwyn Garden City
Somewhere random: Welwyn Roman Baths
Before Welwyn Garden City there was plain Welwyn, a settlement since the Iron Age, about a mile to the north. It's now an attractivevillage, with twisty high street and a fine selection of medieval pubs, or at least it is now that all the through traffic's gone. The Welwyn bypass was one of the UK's first, driven through in 1927, and by the 1960s in need of further upgrade. Bear with me, this is relevant. Meanwhile, in fields by the River Mimram, local archaeologistTony Rook came across an old Roman tile, and started a dig with friends which revealed the existence of a 3rd century bathhouse. This exciting discovery was tempered somewhat by news that the A1(M) was to be built straight through the site, and imminently, destroying the lot. So Tony whipped up a campaign to cunningly preserve the foundations by wrapping them in a corrugated steel cocoon and having the motorway engineers build their embankment over the top. It really shouldn't have worked, but tenacity and a dash of good luck meant it did, which is how a place of pre-Dark Ages entertainment survives underneath Junction 6 of the A1(M).
It's hard to see the cars on the embankment, but you can hear them up top, just above the tunnel that burrows deep inside. Follow this as it curves down, past a selection of bathing-related information boards, and you'll reach the desk (and mini gift shop) where the member of staff sits waiting to take your £3.50. The entire site is visible immediately beyond, under a curved metal roof that's been holding up the earth for 45 years, with a raised walkway leading all the way around. This is an almost perfect example of the simplest Roman Bath - think bottom of the range spa pool for the modern equivalent - with a sequence of three tiled rooms heated underfloor to hot, warm and cold. The floors are missing, but Tony's made a small model that brings the original layout to life, and proper sculptures of Tony and his wife in togas have been used to bring the real thing to life. The surrounding displays are good, particularly at keeping children occupied, and also in explaining how a random discovery was protected by an accidental line on a map. You really can never tell precisely what's under your feet, or in this case under your wheels.
Somewhere pretty: Digswell Viaduct
The longest viaduct on the East Coast mainline between London and Edinburgh is near Welwyn. Opened in 1850, this aqueduct-style wonder is about half a kilometre long and thirty metres high as it passes across the valley of the piddly River Mimram. Engineers had wanted to take a gentler streamside route but local landowners disapproved, hence the creation of a forty arch brick monster, and a 21st century headache. For a brief spell the nation's main north-south railway is cut down to twin tracks, across the main span and through tunnels beyond, creating a bottleneck no amount of timetabling can neutralise. The problem is exacerbated by Welwyn North station being located at the head of the viaduct, and the near impossibility of replacing a listed structure with something uglier but more functional. The best view is from Digswell Park Road, which slices across grazing meadow between arches 30 and 31, and where trainspotters gather if anythingsteamy is expected to puff over the top. Travellers aboard passing trains are unlikely to notice, however, except perhaps to wonder why they've slowed to a crawl. by train: Welwyn North
Something golden: The 724 bus
A very special mention for the Green Line 724 service, which celebrates its 50th birthday today. The route's changed over the years, but remains essentially Beyond London Orbital (North), striking out from High Wycombe to Romford on 10th July 1966. The western starting point was switched to Staines in 1972, meaning the bus now served Heathrow Airport, which is probably why it's still running, and in 1978 Romford was removed in favour of terminating at Harlow. The full journey takes over three hours, with a layover in St Albans to change drivers, an epic trek I've only ever made in full once. But the 724 express was a staple of my childhood, whisking me from home in Croxley to see family over Hertford way, so I was delighted to get the opportunity yesterday to make an almost-anniversary trip. Impressively the green bus turned up on time, which isn't bad for an hourly 57-mile long service, and sped me between Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield in 20 minutes flat. Along the way the driver jumped a red light, paused in Roe Green to get out and move two traffic cones onto the other side of the road, and skipped merrily past passengers attempting to flag the bus down at points where it doesn't stop. No foreign-bound suitcases were in evidence, just as I suspect there'll be no balloons and presents today, but hurrah for the half century all the same. by bus: 724