Monday, 26 September 2016

Roads Which are Part of Us

September may be the tail end of the outdoor activities season, but it surely is the best time to review what you have achieved during the Spring and Summer months.  As with five summers before 2016, the local history group, Fleetville Diaries, has arranged a number of guided walks around many of the roads in the Fleetville district.  Also part of the programme have been story walks meandering around Hatfield Road Cemetery.

Walks attract a fair number of guests, but fortunately not too many, given the limited amount of standing space at key stops such as junctions and narrow footpaths.  The maximum the organisers can accept for street walks is 25.  One guest's dog has also joined us on several occasions and appears to have taken a keen interest in his surroundings, if not to the speaker.

Wellington Road in c1954
The most recent addition to the programme was walked for the first time this week as an impressive number turned out to discover more about the Camp estate, particularly Cambridge Road.  This is not simply an opportunity to peer into people's front gardens and how they cope with cars and bins.  It is a trace through time, from when the streets were fields with hedges and streams, locked into the annual cycle of producing food for the table.

So is revealed the origins of at least some of the street names (we are still considering Wellington and Beresford roads), the many styles of house design helping us to locate where early gaps were later filled with newer homes.  Being a residential road well back from Hatfield Road's shopping mile, we can marvel at the number of shops which opened here in the first half of the last century; most no longer open for business

Guests are usually given location maps and laminated photographs to compare an earlier scene with the present day.  Such afternoons or evenings are a pleasantly social experiences, where talks become meaningful discussions.  Everyone has something to offer, and everyone goes home with a newly recalled memory or fresh information.
A story walk in the "Laid to Rest" series,
Hatfield Road Cemetery

As for the story walks, the organisers are frequently surprised by the number of guests for which this would be their first venture beyond the splendid main gates.  Among the thousands of burials in such green and peaceful few acres, stories about a small number have been researched and presented.  Of course, most people lead private lives and their stories are unknown to others.  But if we are to include those which Fleetville Diaries members will be working on during the coming winter, there are nearly fifty stories, told a dozen at a time.

Local history comes in many forms and a tramp around the streets is no bad way to discover more about our patch.  After all, these roads, and the people who live or work in them, are part of us, and we are part of that same community.

Monday, 19 September 2016

A story with gaps

Recently I was reminded of a story I had been attempting to follow up for a number of years.  It concerned a school known as St John's Preparatory.  I have notes on over thirty private schools operating in the city during the late 19th century through to the 1950s, though not all at the same time.  But those about St John's are extremely brief.

St John's was one of a very few on the eastern side, at least east of the railway.  And it may have begun elsewhere before re-locating to St Albans.

Let's start from the year, 1899, when the first part of Beaumonts Farm was sold off for development.  Mr H Adey, of the brewing family, had acquired the brewing interests of Mr Thomas Kinder, and when the late Kinder's trustees sold some of the farm land Mr Adey was first to move in, having a large house built at the north end of Beaumont Avenue.  The name was Avenue House, but by the time the Misses Blackwood moved in its name had changed to St John's.

Beaumont Avenue, northwards to Hall Heath.
Avenue House shown as the only house in 1915 between
Salisbury Avenue and Sandpit Lane.
Sisters Emma Mann Blackwood and Elizabeth Stewart Blackwood were born in Edinburgh and appeared to live much of their lives in Lothian.  Unmarried, both moved to St Albans and set up (or continued) a school in the Beaumont Avenue house which they purchased.  The sisters were both approaching seventy when they purchased the house.

Elizabeth died in 1932, aged 86, and Emma in 1933, aged 83.  One-time councillor and mayor William Bird then became the owner. In 1934 a new house built in Jennings Road, later becoming number 75, was named St John's and then St John's Preparatory School.  Living there was Mr R Pritchard.  Why, we may ask, might the school have pitched up in a new home?  It is possible that Mr Pritchard was assisting with the administration or specialist teaching under the Misses Blackwood in Beaumont Avenue.

When the school finally closed is so far unknown,  but fortunately I have been contacted by one former pupil from its time in Jennings Road.  He writes: "Thank you for providing some very interesting information  regarding this little-remembered school. I thought that all recollections of it were long lost in the mists of time.  I certainly remember attending this school in the early forties, at the end part of the war. We had mauve blazers , mauve  and silver horizontal striped ties.  Unfortunately it is here my memory fails me.  I didn't seem to be there for long, moving on to Fleetville School in 1944."

We therefore know that the school was in existence up to 1944; we know what the school uniform was like; and we know who ran the school, and where.  There may, though, be some personal recollections, a book or account – even a photograph – somewhere, if only it could be found! Until then there are, as can be observed, many gaps in the story.

In particular, I have never seen a picture of Avenue House, St John's.  It is, of course too late now, for St John's and its neighbouring property, The Grange, was demolished in the 1960s, being developed as St John's Court.

If you have a photograph of the old house, or know someone who has, you know what to do!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The democracy of desire

Every city, town and village has its own footprint shape, created as a result of  encroachment onto the undeveloped land around it.  You'll know what I mean as new housing on the edge avoids a river, old quarries, an outlier hill or protected green belt land. The boundary is irregular,  but the shape of the settlement is unmistakable to those who live there.

There is another unique footprint: the pattern of roads which enable us to get around (or pass through) our home town.  These veins, as a complete network, form unique patterns.  For the most part we don't need to know the names of those roads; the pattern they form is sufficient to identify where we are, or to pick out our town from any other.

There are road patterns, often associated with new towns or development towns, which have been largely designed into their place; superimposed on the landscape.  In many places, however, the road patterns, especially close to the town centre, appear disorganised, and it often seems impossible to tidy the pattern without the democratic opinion of residents getting in the way.  The great fire of London in 1666 did produce a grand opportunity to do just that – to start again.  Several plans were submitted in the years following the fire, all of which came to nothing, largely because there was no equivalent of compulsory purchase and land owners had no intention of giving up their precious plots for no compensation, just for a better road.  So today's City roads are not so very different from those before the fire, 350 years ago.

Footpath crosses a field near Smallford.
Former field footpath retained near Kingshill,

Now, let's move from the town streets to an ornamental park, or woodland, or even expansive open grassland.  The precursors to the town's muddled streets are here too.  Finger signs point us to footpaths, byways, bridleways and tracks, most of which have been worn through time to link settlements or individual dwellings.  While a proportion of them follow field hedges or lines otherwise fenced off, many ignore these boundaries, and some of the easier topography too.  Narrow routes have been democratically worn into the landscape over centuries and have now been accepted as a permanent part of the Ordnance Survey map.  Even where towns have spread and enveloped the muddied lines, they have been protected in the new developments as alleys (in some parts of the country known as ginnels, snickets or twittens).  They can't be obliterated or altered except through a very public legal process.

Aerial map reveals a network of paths across the former Butterwick Farm,
including a circular pathway around the willows and pond.

The most democratic of all these desire lines are worn by pairs of feet whose owners decide they will take the route they perceive to be the easiest, rather than the path that is intended they should use.  A community football pitch may, over time, also reveal where walkers between matches have crossed the field diagonally to reach a facility, or another route, on the other side.  Open parks with designed elements – mown grassed areas intersected with grids of prepared paths – will always show public use very differently as grass is worn along diagonals.  Angled paths nicely surfaced with red or green macadam are routinely ignored as grass, or even flower-bed corners, are worn with irregular use.  A short path of trodden soil or flattened grass reveals where casual users really wanted their path.

These tramplings are the most democratically created of all routes, where, as long as people are not trespassing or causing criminal damage, they decide their preferred route.  The decision made by that first pair of feet, is added to over time as yet another desire line across the landscape is forged.  Some will be short lived, but others may be reinforced over time, their status enhanced.  One day they may become a meandering city street and future generations may wonder why the road was not created straight!