Monday, 23 February 2015

OK, I give up.

Before the age of supermarkets, grocer's shops along Hatfield Road painted their names above the door and that was that.  Occasionally, one family owned two shops and, naturally, the same signwriter was employed so that both shops sported the same sign design.

Then the franchises arrived, with plastic signs indicating SVG or some other wholesaling company.  The big brands failed to make their mark in Fleetville until the Co-operative Society closed their local shops and built a big store on the ex-Ballito site.  It still seems rather unusual to see a Tesco Express in the run of shops near St Paul's.

In place of the Co-operative store another brand now occupies the heart of Fleetville, and that is William Morrison.  But I've spotted something unusual; something which has changed.

If you Google Morrison's on its images search box, you will discover plenty of examples of its stores around the UK.  They all look the same without being the same; some of the earlier stores do not yet display the huge M disc above the entrance, for example.  At Fleetville the M disc is there, slightly backward facing as is intended.

Something appears to be unique about the Fleetville store, and it hasn't always been this way.  Every other store has large illuminated signs identifying MORRISONS (of course, without the apostrophe) gleaming out in yellow.  Everyone of them!  Except at Fleetville where both examples of the sign stand out in white.

To prove it, the first photo was taken a few years ago – YELLOW.  The one below it was taken this week – WHITE.   The change must have taken place for a reason.  We will wait for a response from the company, but in the meantime, maybe a reader will have the answer.

The fate of East Lodge

In recent years East Lodge, in Oaklands Lane, had retired from the world, as if unhappy to show its face.  Surrounding trees had held a shadow over the property at the eastern end of the Oaklands estate's East Drive.  The last occupants had moved out and the windows were boarded over.  Rather odd, therefore, to see a satellite dish standing freshly out.  For some time the Lodge was crying out for some TLC, and a plan to set the lovely structure off in its immediate landscape, restricted as than might be.  Even the utility-styled vehicle barrier is off-putting, in a colour which might be called flaking blue.

East Lodge looks even more forlorn since the recent fire and the inevitable arrival of a barrier of HERAS fence sections.  What, I wonder will be the fate of this interesting little building?  Structurally, the walls appear sound, and the beautifully crafted chimney stack seems fine.  The front fascia timber work is still untouched by the blaze.  What a wonderful opportunity to bring this sentry home back to life.  Even if the college does not require it, the Lodge would make a Smallford home for a family.  Has anyone heard of a plan?

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Thoroughly British restaurant

The land which St Albans City Council acquired after the Grimston Road prison had remained empty for some years, included, not only the buildings but some open space surrounding it.  In 1930 the Parks Department had made good use of it, presumably as a nursery.

Since the Council had committed to rehousing a number of families from sub-standard properties in the city, it intended to build 54 houses in a new road, Shirley Road.  This number would have fitted nicely into the looped road proposed, except that the Parks Department objected to the loss of its space.  As a compromise, it was left with a parcel of land on the west side and 37 homes went up instead of 54.

During the Second World War the Council operated a very effective British Restaurant (later renamed Civic Restaurant) at the former Market Hall, which was behind BHS in St Peter's Street.  A two-course meal plus drink could be purchased for one shilling (5p) without producing your ration book.

Newspaper photocopy of the former Shirley Road Civic Restaurant.
So successful was this venture that a second restaurant was planned, but the only suitable land the council claimed to have available  was the Parks Department nursery in Shirley Road.  So a concrete sectional building was erected in 1948, and at times it was busier than the Market Hall.   I can recall my mother taking me to the Market Hall restaurant, probably on Wednesdays, which helped spread the family's ration books values slightly more generously.  It is possible that one or both of the restaurants also served school dinners where no other facilities were available.

If you visit Shirley Road today you will discover no building; the land has been turned into a car park serving the developments along Charrington Place.  And because I had never retained a recollection of what the restaurant building had looked like – probably never saw it – I sent a call out for photographs.  There may have been a very good reason for the nil response, as the structure was not exactly a glamorous building.  Just a plain utility concrete, flat-roofed box.

The Herts Advertiser, though, came to the rescue, as an article in a 1973 issue included a photograph (above). The resulting photocopy makes it look rather worse than I described it!  I will attempt to obtain a rather better version.

The site today is a car park serving Charrington Place.

The Mayor in 1948 declared that the building was a "very handsome building".  Yes, well, that's what mayors are supposed to say.  Maybe the residents of Shirley Road had a view on the matter, since some of them also had a view of the building.

Eventually, the restaurant closed and it was put to other uses.  It became an annexe to the St Albans School of Art when the premises were in Victoria Street.  Eager to vacate to its new premises in Hatfield Road the restaurant lay empty  and was then leased to the Hertfordshire Association for the Physically Handicapped, as it was then known.  The workshop facilities provided valuable skills in workplace-type workshop environments.  Although the building was then in poor condition, no doubt its value was with the activity going on inside it.

The only remaining searches are, for an approximate date then the workshop removed to another location, and when the building was finally demolished.  Did it really last until the recent office developments?  Surely not.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The clearances

On visiting my allotment this morning for the first time since the onset of winter I discovered that someone had, during my absence, taken on a plot which had remained unused for some years.  I knew because the new openness of the ground was as clear as if a sign had been erected, stating, "Look, something is happening."

Similarly, just along my road a huge overgrown front garden was cleared overnight, and the tell-tale yellow notice on a nearby lamp post suggested redevelopment was afoot.  When you become used to the way things are along the street – at least for all who do not have their heads resolutely bowed, looking at their mobile phone screens – any small change from day to day is immediately spotted.

Before the clearances
Photo courtesy Jon Brindle
If you use Alban Way for regular rides, jogs or walks and if you pass the former Smallford Station, you will have spotted the clearance on the platform of its emerging and energetic undergrowth, shrubs and small trees.  You can now almost imagine standing on the platform and looking into the distance for the next train to arrive.

The train won't arrive, of course.  The last passenger train called in 1951, and as you will realise, there are no tracks!  There is no prospect either, of trains returning.  But Alban Way (formerly Smallford Trail) is certainly popular, and it is that popularity which has, at least in part, prompted the platform clearances.

After the clearances
Photo courtesy Jeff Lewis
When the work, being undertaken by Countryside Management Service, is complete, the station and halt platforms will all have been cleared and the surfaces restored.  The Smallford Project would also like to treat the platforms as opportunities for rest or discovery, revealing more about the history of the route they are traversing.

The work is not a one-hit task, but will be undertaken gradually, as the funding allows.  I could imagine myself walking up the platform ramp, relaxing on a bench seat and watching the post-railway world pass.

The members of the Smallford Project have been keen to point out that 2015 will be one of those important years in the railway world.  One hundred and fifty years ago, and with the line just laid, Smallford Station was opened.  It was known as Springfield Station then, but that's beside the point.  One hundred and fifty years, folks!  Doesn't that sound like a reason to celebrate?  And when celebrating, don't we cut cakes and raise glasses?  I should say so.  Watch this space – or rather, watch the space on    And may I be the first to say to the station (for it IS still there) : happy birthday !

Monday, 2 February 2015

A ton of memories

Very nearly one hundred years ago one family of children were among the early attendees of Fleetville Schools.  Their name was Chinery.  We know this because 31 years ago George Chinery recalled some of his early memories of Fleetville, while Tony Haynes, of the St Albans Review newspapers listened, subsequently publishing his article.

While George remembers many of the details that have become well-known – about the printing works, the Institute, the houses and shops clustered around the hamlet Thomas Smith founded – he also mentions memories which are quite specific to himself.

George Chinery
Photo courtesy Review Newspapers
On the spare land which separated St Albans from Fleetville there were allotments.  "On these the local greengrocer grew his rhubarb.  By the rhubarb patch they erected the Conservative Club.  It is now the premises of Calverstone Ltd, cap makers, [for] servicemen."  Time has further moved on since George's interview, and the Conservative Club which became Calverstone's, is now Papa Johns Pizza house.  So that tells us where the rhubarb grew!

"Next to the Club was White's Garage, long since demolished.  Old Mrs White was the best mechanic in St Albans.  She could put a Ford T on the road quicker than anybody."  Talking about her husband: "Old Whitey never used to put overalls on.  He always wore a trilby hat.  Greased up to the eyebrows he was."  Today, you will have to stand outside the Methodist Church, look across to the flats with a curved roof, and imagine Mr and Mrs White standing outside their white-painted garage with a single petrol pump standing within ten feet of the phone kiosk.

George saw the cows grazing between the garage and Smith's printing works [Morrison's today] and the milk being sold to Henry Sear's dairy, close to where he bought his first radio at a shop which became Townsend's cycle and electrical shop [today opposite Grimsdyke Lodge].

George remembered the shop where he bought sweets, where the Rats' Castle is, and has been since 1927!  The owner wore a straw hat and white plimsolls.

Former Conservative Club, then Calverstone's.  Former White's Garage, now
flats, is on the right.
"'Johnny-Get-Your-Gun' delivered second-hand furniture on a hand cart.  He was a little humped-back man who always wore a cap and had a runny nose.  Us kids would shout: Johnny-Get-Your-Gun, you're a lying in the sun, and he would chase us down the street.  Ma Gammer would stand on the hill by the station and play her old gramophone, known to passers by as Gammer's Organ.  The spring was no good and she had to keep winding the handle.  When there was no music she would hum instead.  We used to call it Music In Lumps."

"A tramp who lived locally walked with great difficulty.  He was known as Two Sticks.  An avenue of elms used to stretch from the end of Sandfield Road to Sandpit Lane.  Some got blown over in a blizzard in 1917.  Two Sticks made his home under one of these."

And so the memories continued.  The places have changed; those specific people have gone; and many of the activities and roles people played have also disappeared.  Such as the night-watchmen whose function was to keep warm in front of a brazier overnight in a tin hut, looking after a hole in the ground being dug for pipework or other works.  Night watchmen?  When they disappear, I wonder.

Thanks, George, for your memories.