Monday, 14 March 2016

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  It crosses Woodstock Road South, but from that point it has largely been replaced by modern roads.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.

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