Sunday, 29 May 2016

Striking Camp

The Old Camp House at Camp Hill

We used to have a really enjoyable time at Scout camps.  New places to experience, new skills learned, bad old jokes we'd laugh ourselves silly over.  And if we didn't return home thoroughly dirty, nobody would believe we had actually been on camp.  That was true in another way too.  At the end of camp and the final campfire singalong, we would share in the task of striking camp, until there was nothing left of the site to prove we had been there, except the memories.

A thriving Camp PH
Soon that will be the case with The Camp public house.  Just the memories, and of course the photos. Not just the pictures of the demolition, but of the social events which were based there in its heyday of the 1920s and 30s.

The pub's beginning began a few hundred yards along the road in now-demolished premises in what had been ambiguously called, until 1914, the Old Camp (Beer) House – was it the Camp, the beer or the House which was old?  When McMullen's purchased it from Adey & White (who had acquired it from Thomas Kinder and who knows who before that) the building was in a decrepit state.  It was purchased by McMullen's specifically to have a license in place with which it could serve the new and growing Camp district.

Demolition begins.  COURTESY VIC FOSTER
Purchasing a portion of the Oaklands Dairy land a fine new building was erected.  Although the sign mistakenly assumed the name Camp referred to a Roman temporary settlement, the public house came to be a focus for the maturing district.  Even the library van pulled up on its courtyard each week.

However, the heyday came and went, and in recent years trade has limped along.  Given the distance to other pubs good organisation might have  re-invigorated good atmosphere once more and re-grow  a quality business.  Surely that would have been worth saving a fine building for.  A local group, though, did not stand a chance through the Community Asset route; there was just no time.

The machinery is on site, floorboards have been removed, presumably for onward sale, and gradually evidence for a century-old local pub will disappear.  It will, of course, require much more striking (of hammers and machines) than we did at other camps, but eventually there will be nothing left, nothing to remind us of its presence.

Arriving in its place will be a three-storey mass containing two dozen flats.  Should we be concerned?  About the loss of a quality building, yes.  Would it have been suitable for conversion?  Possibly.  About the loss of a location for people to meet?  Most definitely.  But there is a record of photos and of memories, so that is something.  Time moves on and we have to accept people need homes.  Perhaps, the new development will have a name which reflects its past in this place.  In such a  transition period the site will deserve that at least.  Any ideas to offer the development company?

What is coming?   Will there be a name?

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Sand Pits Lane

The road which many car and van drivers make use of as an informal bypass from Hatfield Road was, until the 1960s, called Sandpit Lane continuously from Smallford crossroads to Stonecross.  Today the section from Smallford to Coopers Green Lane is Oaklands Lane.  But it seems to have been used as a bypass even before the 1930s, when the St Albans bypass (A414) was constructed.  And is being used for the same purpose today to avoid renewed congestion between Fleetville and the railway station.

Sandpit Lane Wastes between Clarence Road and
Sunderland Avenue.
We can probably trace the origin of Sandpit Lane back to Roman occupation, given that there was a minor road between Verulamium and Welwyn – this seems to follow the approximate line of the Lane – and there has been suggested occupation evidence even before the 19th century cottages on Hall Heath.

Hall Heath extends from The Dell, where there is an incline across broadly flat  topography, until a descent at Newgates, where Verulam School playing fields are located.  The Hall undoubtedly refers to a medieval manor house within a moat at Beaumonts (at the junction of Woodland and Central drives).

Sandpit Lane near Newgates.  Mid-19th century
painting by John Buckingham.
Before the 20th century only two structures existed between Sandridge New Town and the edge of town: the former railway bridge (not the version we drive over today) and the nearby cottage.  For almost the whole of its length between the clapboard cottages near Stonecross  and Hall Heath was – and still is for most of this distance – a landscape of 'wastes' on both sides of the track.  Effectively, these wastes were common land, which created difficulties for the owners of the first homes which were built, as there was no automatic right to drive vehicles across the wastes to reach the boundary of the homes.   In 1914 the Council, who managed the wastes, decided to carry out drainage works, which suggested there was seasonally excessive water standing across the lane.  Not surprising really, given that similar issues were prevalent along stretches of Hatfield Road, undoubtedly from the same chalk springs coming off the upper heathlands.

The lane was at its narrowest on Hall Heath itself as recently as the 1960s, where two vehicles could just pass on reaching Beaumont Avenue.  No footpath on the south side existed here either.  But at least the traffic frequency had been low until WW2 and pedestrians walking from Beaumont Avenue to visit The Wick could manage it in, perhaps, four or five steps, and could generally afford to amble.
Early 20th century at Hall Heath, but not much had
changed in the 1950s.

Today, congestion can occur anywhere from Woodstock Road North to House Lane, partly because the housing developments at Marshalswick, Newgates and Jersey Farm, but the attractiveness of the lane as a Fleetville bypass.  There is unlikely to be a solution on the horizon as several further housing developments are due to be launched in the next ten to fifteen years.  No-one has spoken of improvements to Hatfield Road, the ring road, or creating new diversionary roads, so presumably they won't happen either.
Newgates Cottages

Today there are traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and roundabouts, but otherwise Sandpit Lane is still attractive to walk along, if far more noisy than fifty years ago and with less clean air.  But we may be forced to accept highway improvements in the years to come, unless, of course, we all agree to drive less and cycle or walk more frequently.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Off to the Stores

Herts Advertiser
advertisement 1932
At one time two department stores in St Albans provided its citizens with a wide range of merchandise.  They were Fisk's in High Street, and Green's in Chequer Street.  Neither is extant.  But many shoppers observed that neither trader was a true department store as each had a restricted number of sections.  Nevertheless, if you lived within striking distance of Hatfield Road, you walked to the nearest stop and boarded route 341 or 330 towards St Peter's Street for Fisks (later Blundells, Greens and all of the other city centre shops.

Then, in 1939, something excited householders.  A large store – a new department store – was due to open its doors in Welwyn Garden City.

The first 'Stores' at Bridge Road west, near Guessens Road.
To step back for a moment, Welwyn Garden City (the Second Garden City Company)  had been formed in 1919, and for the next 20 years the company largely concentrated on laying out roads and building houses.  Yet it understood that for potential residents to be attracted to the formative town, shops would have to be provided.  Initially this was in the form of a company shop.  Welwyn Stores (technically incorrect as Welwyn was a separate nearby town) was quick to open near Guessens Road and in a mainly temporary structure.  The first Stores provided most (though not all) domestic requirements for residents.  The company even opened small branch shops on the early estates.  There were, of course, the usual complaints about lack of competition affecting prices, and lack of choice within the premises.

However, all that changed in 1938 when the foundations were laid for a significant new structure on a prime site opposite The Campus (where the original building workmen's huts had been located), and in June 1939 the new Stores, now renamed Welwyn Department Stores, was opened.  Even if you've never heard of that name you will know the business from its current title as part of the John Lewis Partnership.

New Stores opens June 1939.
During the first week of July 1939 special bus services to the Stores were laid on from St Albans.  But it wasn't the best of times for new ventures: in another month World War Two would be declared, emergency wartime trading arrangements would gradually be put into place, and normal bus services would be curtailed.

Gradually, after 1945, when life returned to normal and bus services resumed at or beyond pre-war levels, the route 330 bus was carrying a steady stream of passengers from St Albans to Welwyn Garden City.  Our family was among those passengers.  On reaching the Comet Hotel, we passed The Stone House, picked up passengers from Birchwood, passed Jack Oldings, Stanborough, Lemsford Lane and Valley Road.  The bus travelled around The Campus, and if not going on to the Hospital, the  rather attractively-named destination Welwyn Garden City Cherry Tree was shown at the front of the bus.  The Cherry Tree was a restaurant, pub and music venue.

Post-war bus on 330 route outside
St Albans Bus Garage.
Our visits always included some refreshment at the Parkway Restaurant on the first floor of the Stores (now it is The Place to Eat, but the original dance floor is no longer present).  We left the building at The Campus entrance, where the pillars are, and waited outside for the return bus to St Albans.

Clearly Welwyn Department Stores attracted many St Albans people away from the city's shops, and London Transport must have made a good profit, at least for a time, from its route 330.

Well, the two St Albans' department stores, are not part of the trading scene any more, but 'The Stores' in the form of John Lewis certainly is; and so is route 330, though today it starts from St Peter's Street instead of St Albans Bus Garage.  At the other end it finishes at Welwyn Garden City Station, which means Bus Station, which is opposite the former Cherry Tree, which is where Waitress now trades, which is owned by the John Lewis Partnership, which includes 'The Stores'.