Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Home of Our Own

In 1835 the city boundary dribbled a little south-east of Marlborough Road to take in some new developments in London Road.  Because the arrival of the Midland Railway had prompted more houses in New Town the boundary was moved further east to Albion Road in 1879.  Then in 1913 a  revised boundary was set at Winches (Oaklands), "well beyond" the, then, housing development at Castle Road.  There have been further extensions since.

"Development opportunity"
Families who would picnic at Laurel Bank (the present Crown district); watch from a gate as cows grazed where Fleetville Junior School is situated today; or make splashes with the ducks on ponds at Marshalswick and Newgates farms, gradually found their views and activities moved further out of town.  There was at the time, of course, nothing that could be done about it; there were fewer controls over development.  Farms were sold as uneconomic and house-building took over.  Families grew up and started families of their own; renting, or eventually purchasing homes of their own.  Families also arrived in pursuit of welcome employment at the many firms which had settled here and contributed to the city's economic wealth.

The former Cherry Grange site,
Camp Road
So, as children, we made many new friends, from our neighbourhoods and the schools we attended.  We used the great outdoors beyond our doorstep – and the building sites we grew up with – for our personal enjoyment.

I remember when our road was facing the edge.  Our front windows had an open view towards Hatfield; there was nothing in between.  It didn't last that long; eventually someone else had the benefit of living on the edge; and later still, yet another generation.  I suppose we just accepted that we did not own the edge; it was not ours by right, no more that the fields beyond where we picked wild flowers, or bagged potatoes, or walked with the family on Sunday afternoons, or ...

The former Newgates Farm
Friends' families sometimes moved on, to other districts of the city, to nearby towns where there were better jobs, or places seemingly on the other side of the world: Leeds, for example!  New families moved in and there were usually new friends.

Occasionally, such regeneration still occurs, such as at Highfield; or on a much smaller scale at the Radio estate.  But today the growth is more likely to come from pulling down large houses on expansive plots, and constructing several "units" in their place.  Cherry Grange, in Camp Road, is a good example.  Or former industrial sites in Sutton and Hedley roads.

Such piecemeal growth does not, on its own, do much to help all those who need a home here, to own or rent; at least not at a price they can afford.  Shortages always put up prices.  It is true of houses as it is, at times, of petrol or carrots.

Field on the Sandpit Lane side of Oaklands, Oaklands College

Is there a solution?  In May there will be an inquiry into a proposal to construct houses on a field at Oaklands; 348 of them.  That would help.  So too would similar proposals for even more homes at Coopers Green and Ellenbrook.  Several other locations have also been identified.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if those who want or need a home here, were able to settle at a price they could afford?  So, will it be possible?  The odds do not at times look good, but we will know where the barriers lie during the eight days starting on May 10th.  Lots of people will have their fingers crossed. but not all for the same reason.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Chestnut Hut

The farm which became the Beaumonts Estate was developed from 1929 and was not completed until the early 1960s.  Most of the roads were laid out straight away, and a number of house builders had bid for groups of plots and begun their building operations in 1930, usually in five or six semi-detached pairs at a time.  By 1939, as war was declared, almost none of the estate north of Central Drive had been started.  The exception was Beechwood Avenue, and even in this road there were several empty plots.  Most roads were not paved or made up, and there was very little street lighting.

At the junction of Beechwood Avenue and Chestnut Drive – still open space with allotments at the far end – was a Nissen hut.  From memory it had been pitch-coated at some time, although the ends were possibly painted green. The question of when it had arrived is still open, as it appears on no Ordnance Survey maps.  Nissens were first produced cWW1, and it is possible that the Chestnut Drive building was erected around that time to service the needs of nearby Beaumonts Farm, which was managed from a more distant Oaklands Farm.

All I can recall is that builders Tacchi & Burgess (T&B) made use of the distinctive structure for parking its orange trucks and machines during operations to construct houses in Chestnut Drive from 1949 onwards.

Possibly St Paul's (Chestnut Drive) Sunday School c1944 or 1945
Today, this delightful photo was given to me by a lady whose mum is in the line-up.  The children are smartly dressed – their "going out/Sunday best" clothes.  There is an indication may be a Sunday school class with the adults who were in charge of the children.  A further clue is that Ruth Benchley, the daughter of the vicar of St Paul's Church at the time, is standing at the right end of the back row.

It is therefore possible/probable that St Paul's Church decided to undertake some outreach Sunday school classes for the families of the unfinished Beaumonts estate.  The photo is thought to have been taken either in 1944 or 1945, but without further research we do not know when these classes began; probably not very much earlier than the photo.  The brick external stove appears quite fresh and new, and would have been constructed to provide winter heat for the sessions.

These homes were constructed on the site of the former
Nissen hut in Chestnut Drive.
I grew up on the estate and this is the first time I have become aware of the hut being anything other than a store.  Now if I had known there was a Sunday school so close to my home I would not have had to walk along Hatfield Road, passing two other churches, as far as Trinity Church in Beaconsfield Road!  This Sunday school must have been absorbed in the Blandford Road church building by 1949 so that T&B Builders could begin house-building.

So, the search is on for further information about this centre of Sunday activity on the Beaumonts estate.

Meanwhile over thirty children and their teachers in this picture need identifying!  If you are there, or know of others who were, do please comment, or email

Making tracks

Have you noticed?  A stranger in town might once have stopped a passer-by and asked, "Sorry to trouble you, but could you please point me in the right direction for finding the railway station?"  Today, we would warm to anyone who actually asked in that manner, but we sometimes have to make do with the oh-so-brief "Station?"  Maybe our smartphones would help us, but I have noticed that having map and direction-finding apps in our hands seems to reduce our innate ability to know where we are and to use clues in the streetscape.

Signs – as in metal plates on posts pointing us to places – are relatively new; a motoring age concept. Maps are barely much older, given the cost of early map documents.  So, pre 19th century we would have passed on our own way of finding information by word of mouth, and maybe scratched out a hand-drawn simple pencilled map on a scrap of paper or piece of waste material.

Stand at the junction of Hatfield Road and Beechwood Avenue.  There are also two other roads at this junction: Beaumont Avenue and Ashley Road.  It is a busy intersection where the traffic is managed by twin roundabouts and a minor left-turn-only restriction.  Turn the clock back two centuries or more and the same location would have been very different.  Hatfield Road was there, as the link between Bishop's Hatfield and St Albans; arriving in the town centre we would find ourselves adjacent to St Peter's Church.

Intersecting with Hatfield Road was a trackway, at this point part of Beaumonts Farm but part of a much longer and probably ancient cross-country route linking a number of manors.  Today the track is Beaumont Avenue and Ashley Road.

York Road, facing west
But there is another route.  Generations of children have known it as The Alley.  That too leads directly to St Peter's Church.  It crosses Woodstock Road South, but from that point it has largely been replaced by modern roads.  The northern boundary of Fleetville Infants School formed part of the track which then crossed the line of Burnham Road before following the line of Brampton Road and York Road.  The York Road bridge over the Midland Railway was required because the track was a right of way. The walker would then have crossed the field towards St Peter's Road, or more directly across the churchyard to the church itself.

If, in 1700, you were standing at that intersection between Hatfield Road and the ancient track (now Beaumont Avenue), and you had a cart or carriage, your obvious route to St Albans would have been Hatfield Road, although, of course, it was nothing like the road we use today.  On the other hand, if  you were walking, you could still have travelled along the same route.  So, why would you use the path across the fields to reach the same destination?  It wasn't actually a short cut, and there were no cottages that we know of en-route.  It seemed only to be a path which linked fields.

We love mysteries, and this particular one is to query the function of the original path across the fields.  Will we ever discover a conclusive answer?  Probably not, but who knows? Someone may have a plausible suggestion.  Over to you.