diamond geezer

 Monday, July 11, 2016

Beyond London (13): Welwyn Hatfield (part 2)

[11 Welwyn photos] (yesterday)
[15 Hatfield photos] (today)
[26 Welwyn Hatfield photos]

Somewhere historic: Old Hatfield
For a New Town, Hatfield has an impeccably long term history. The Bishop of Ely built a residence here in the 10th century, attracting royalty to visit, including Edward III who stayed for Christmas 1336. Henry VIII bought up what was by then a palace in 1538, but the most famous resident was Elizabeth I who spent most of her childhood here, right up to the moment she was told her elder sister was dead. James I was less enamoured and gave the place to Elizabeth's confidante Robert Cecil, who knocked almost all of it down and built Hatfield House instead. That still stands, and is a big player on the heritage circuit, but a £16 ticket isn't ideal on a day you're trying to tour as much of the borough as possible so I gave it a miss. A brief glimpse of the turrets from the station footbridge, and memories of a school trip when I was ten, had to suffice instead.

Instead I wandered around Old Hatfield, hemmed in on the hill between the main road and the House walls, a small enclave it's now very easy to miss. A handful of narrow streets survive, the most impressive of which is Fore Street, rising steeply from pub to church as it has since medieval times. The pub is the Eight Bells, most famous for something that didn't happen here, the flight of Bill Sikes after murdering Nancy in Oliver Twist. A plaque on the whitewashed exterior welcomes Lovers of Charles Dickens, while chalkboards list upcoming gigs and real ales in residence. Fore Street's residences range from crooked cottages to Georgian townhouses on the ascent, with more than a few personalised numberplates parked outside, resembling more a West Country idyll than a Home Counties bolthole. It's astonishing to imagine the Great North Road once passing this way, with horses and coachmen clopping down the slope, or turning off through the arch into the Old Palace.

St Etheldreda's has a 15th century tower, and various family tombs inside, but on Saturdays keeps its doors closed to visitors. Half-timbered Church Cottage looks much as it must always have done, bar better flowers and a surfeit of TV aerials. But the bubble is easily burst, stepping into Salisbury Square where takeaways and a job centre intrude, and a modern Catholic Church squats on the green like it's just landed. The interface with the remainder of Hatfield is somewhat brutal, but deliberate, the New Town's planners choosing to site their brainchild on the western side of the railway where there was hugely more space. If you're ever heading for the House across the Great North Road remember there's more to be seen behind the modern façade, in an area long considered Old Hat. [4 photos]
by train: Hatfield

Somewhere else historic: Hatfield Aerodrome
What kickstarted Hatfield's growth was aeroplanes, and a lack of space in London. The de Havilland Aircraft Company had been based at Stag Lane (between Queensbury and Burnt Oak) but in the early 1930s migrated to open Hertfordshire farmland west of Hatfield. As well as building planes like the Tiger Moth and the Mosquito, a training centre for pilots sprang up, and an entire industry alongside. After the war production switched to jet aircraft such as the Vampire and Comet, and the company was taken over by Hawker Siddeley, later British Aerospace. Inevitably orders declined and in 1993 the last plane was built, leaving an enormous area ripe for development. Over the last couple of decades this has been transformed into a business park, a university campus and housing, summarily wiping away most traces of what went on. But a Heritage Trail has been set up to guide round anyone interested enough to go look, which of course I was, and was pleasantly rewarded.

The trail starts off at the entrance to the University of Hertfordshire, where a lighthouse beacon from the former aerodrome takes pride of place on the lawn outside, and the first of ten information boards appears. You're supposed to be able to collect a guide from reception, but after the end of term that doesn't work because reception's locked, so it pays to have downloaded the whole thing before you arrive. A four mile hike follows, unless you pick the slightly shortened route, with board two round the back of the de Havilland Club where students buy their cheap beers. For board three you enter Ellenbrook Fields, where the runway used to be, while board four is out at the Technical School, now private flats and hence skippable.

Board five overlooks a landscaped pool, the kind of thing they tend to have on business parks, though it's far less usual that intercontinental ballistic missiles were once tested here. Boards six and seven have only maps to show and tales to tell, whereas eight delivers a whopping great art deco building, the former Administration Block. The front looks somewhat tired but the end reveals the surprise that this is now Hatfield Police Station, while the squat curved gatehouse (nine) has been turned into what must be the country's most tasteful KFC. The trail ends at the aircraft hangar where the Comet was tested, once the largest aluminium building in the world and wildly impressive, but now a sports club. The interior's off limits, but you can wrap up with a drink at the iconic The Comet pub on the Comet roundabout, or simply download all ten boards and imagine reality to save all that traipsing. [6 photos]
by train: Hatfield

Somewhere retail: The Galleria
Hatfield's postwar planners alighted on a plot of land beside the St Albans Road to build their town centre, with a linear shopping parade and a bold central square. For years the people came, attracted by big stores and a market, and then the A1(M) came knocking. By the early 1980s, Comet Way through Hatfield was the last remaining stretch of single carriageway on the provincial A1, and major delays to traffic were commonplace. A motorway-standard tunnel was planned, three quarters of a mile long and built by cut and cover, opened by the Duke of Kent in December 1986. Little of great substance could be positioned immediately above so a shopping mall was mooted, named The Galleria, perched like a spider above the southern portal. Customers proved hard to attract and the scheme soon went into receivership, but reopening as an outlet mall proved an inspired move, and the last 20 years have been rather more successful.

The main hangar's airy but mostly empty space, with very little in the centre and approximately sixty shops laid out on two levels to either side. The medial strip sits directly on the tunnel roof, which is why the escalators don't start on the ground but a couple of feet higher to accommodate the machinery. The Galleria is the place to come for cut price Le Creuset, Cadbury misshapes, bargain Nike and up-to-70% off French Connection, with a big adventure playground to help prevent smaller offspring from getting bored. Out back is mostly car park, with a long bridge of chain restaurants linking to a cinema at the far end, attracting the evening crowd more than at lunchtime. For those who love carbonara, ceramics and mass tailoring this is heaven, or would be if only the parking charges were lower. I attempted to take a picture inside but was told by an apologetic lady on the desk that this is forbidden, so if I sum the place up as a joyless consumer drain, I'm afraid there's no photographic evidence to prove otherwise.

Half a mile away, back in the centre of Hatfield, the retail offering is now more subdued. Peacocks, New Look and ShoeZone are among the main draws, according to a proud boast on the Town Centre's website, along with a huge Asda which keeps all other supermarkets at bay. The Arcade feels very tired, while the Market Place is now stall-free, watched over by charity shops and salons and a very-Fifties copper-roofed pub. A reduced offering of veg, wool and clothing plays out beneath blue and white awnings along the central boulevard, while even on a Saturday only pigeons and the occasional bag carrier trouble the main piazza. The authorities recognise the challenge, which is why there's free parking, and why half of White Lion Square is under wraps for redevelopment as 750 more homes are squeezed into the CBD. But the Galleria has already taken the crown, for shopping as event rather than shopping as necessity, perched above the abyss on the Great North Road. [5 photos]
by train: Hatfield

So far: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks, Three Rivers, Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield

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