Sunday, 28 January 2018

Playground Closed

It's been going on forever; someone buys a piece of ground on which to build a house – or something else – and brings the materials and tools for the building.  At the end of day one he leaves for home, and then returns for day two.  The process continues until the structure is finished.  From time to time people pass by, show an interest or stop to chat, and then move on.  Occasionally a piece of wood or metal which has been discarded as waste will lie nearby, and an informal permission will be obtained for its removal to be used elsewhere.

Before WW1 part of a field in Fleetville was stacked with bricks brought for use in nearby house-building.  A number of children who were swiftly populating the district used the space around those brick piles for informal games of football; maybe even borrowing a few bricks for temporary goal markers.

In the 1930s, married couples in search of a new home wandered the building estates on Sunday afternoons, entered the partly completed homes through spaces which would later become front doorways, and assess the possible suitability for them and their growing family.

Families who had come from London at the end of the Second World War, and whose children had become used to playing on bomb sites, saw the partly finished Fleetville homes as just another playground site; and so we all discovered the joy of exploring, climbing, jumping and leaping, making inventive use of the levels, spaces and materials at hand.  No-one was given permission, but on the other hand, no-one told us not to, or if they had we had  discovered the art of selective hearing!

Open building site at Jersey Farm
Naturally there were occasions when an accident occurred and a child returned home with a cut knee or even a fractured arm; and there were Monday mornings when the builder called the local police station to report a door missing, or a couple of planks of wood that had been present the previous Friday.  No doubt the police would have advised the builder to lock items away, and almost certainly the retort would have included the phrase, "it's a building site, not an occupied house."  

It probably did not happen quickly, but there began a time when building sites were found with chain link fences around them, and wide gates with padlocks.  Possibly under pressure from insurance companies.  Then signs warning of hard hat regulations.  More recently one or more people  on site did no building at all; this was the security department; no-one passed in or out except via security and their signature forms and walkie-talkies.  All very efficient, but children's adventure was denied.

Marketing panels in Sutton Road.
But have you noticed?  Many building sites have become artistic marketing devices for what is being constructed, whether for apartments, offices or shopping opportunities.  The old-fashioned chain link fences are now replaced by solid – and often higher – panels with colourful designs, pictures or sales advertisements.

Night watchman.
Everyone is shut out; safe and healthy has become health and safety.  Even the old-fashioned night watchman and his hut and brazier has disappeared.  Youngsters out in the early summer evenings, or walking back from friends or events might have stopped to talk to him.  But there are now far fewer of us who remember such transitory individuals occupying our neighbourhood.  Every building site is now most definitely a no-go zone.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Travelling East

A January walk along country lanes and footpaths can be bracing in the windy sunshine on biting cold days.  Yes, really!  As we pass by or across field after field we are not necessarily aware which farm or farms manage each patch of land.  After all, there's no sign to inform us.  Once former farms have become part of the urban landscape we are even less certain, as there are no clues left to former fences and hedges.

One farm boundary had been near the top of the rise just eastwards of Beechwood Avenue.  Unless we had an old map to hand we would not have known; the land to the south of Hatfield Road from that point eastwards until reaching the industrial estate on the other side of Oaklands, belonged to Hill End Farm.  Until around 1920 it was owned by the hospital authority of the same name, but being far from the hospital buildings it had no use for the fields sandwiched between Hatfield Road and the former branch railway.

Detached homes along Hatfield Road between Oaklands and Butterwick industry.
Houses had already stretched out of the city along the main road towards Beaumont Avenue in the early 1920s and Hill End's opportunity came to sell plots for housing development.  During the next fifteen years a variety of people chose their plot and built their house or bungalow.  There was no sense of creep along the road; plots were built on randomly, with sometimes large spaces of overgrown grasses and shrubs between, at least for the first few years..

One difficulty was the depth of land between the road and railway, which was too long for a house and garden, leaving some awkward backland behind, which was not easy to access.

Although one or two attempts were made to fill in this backland before World War Two (the Willow estate and at Longacres), solving the backland issue began in earnest from the 1960s.  This included developers purchasing the bottom ends of long gardens, such as at Pinewood Close and Gresford; or purchasing and then demolishing one or more pre-war homes to provide access to the land behind where new closes were erected.

Oakdene Way still has an open end, laid before Longacres Park filled the backland gap.
Recognising the size of the very large plots on which a single house had been originally built there came the chance to pull down and erect modern homes on more compact plots.  

Today, there is no spare backland left between Ashley Road and Ryecroft Court, the latter marking the boundary between Hill End and Butterwick farms.  You could say Hatfield Road east is full.  But who would bet against a developer or two stepping forward in the next few years, purchasing a pair or two of original homes and bringing a small collection of new-builds to the south side of Hatfield Road.  There will probably be no development on the north side so those new homes would be blessed with open views to the north.

A detailed investigation into the modern changes along Hatfield Road east can be found on the website.  It is called Hatfield Road East.  Navigate from the Topics link on the Welcome page.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Year's Worth of Delight

Well, that's another year wrapped up, and as far as this blog is concerned we have all been able to share 34 posts on a variety of topics, all related in some way to the eastern districts of St Albans, now known informally as St Albans' Own East End, after the two books of the same name.  The blog on the current platform has been thriving since 2012 (two years before that on the old platform, still accessible on the website's Archive pages): 284 posts in total.  

Throughout 2017 I have enjoyed – and found necessary – consulting the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall.  Consulting is probably making it sound too serious an operation.  The essential bits, of course are the dates, which act as reminders and scribble points.  Most calendars – and the main reason why they are often given as Christmas presents – contain an image for each month.  A calendar is still a calendar without them, but it is the pictures which engage us.

Mine for last year was titled simply St Albans 2017, with image designs by a local business: Hannah Sessions Design   (  The drawings are delightful impressions of their subjects; not, perhaps, everyone's cup of tea, but I consider them to be joyful works of art, and if you want a day to begin well, a few seconds fixed on the current month's picture while you wait for the kettle to boil, is enough to start the morning on a buoyant note!

Here were the twelve subjects for 2017: Abbey Gateway, NSBC Bank, Town Hall, Clock Tower, Ottaways, Lloyds Bank, the Cathedral (two images plus another on the cover),  the Bat and Ball, Town Hall Chambers, War Memorial, and Jones Shoes, St Peter's Street.  

Quite a range of locations in the centre of St Albans.  Now ask twenty residents to suggest 12 (or thirteen) buildings in St Albans (note: not in the centre of St Albans), most lists would specifically include six or seven of the above, and more if it is specified that each picture must show a different building.  And overwhelmingly the inclusions would be constrained by our idea of the centre of the city – with the possible exceptions of the Fighting Cocks and Sopwell Hotel.  Of course, in St Albans we are spoiled for choice, and could have included the Peahen, Waxworks, St Peter's Cottages, Ivy House, Holywell House ... and so on.  Then we should ask whether modern buildings which contribute to the streetscape could be included.

Opposite the cemetery gates is St Paul's Parish Church

Now we could also ask the question, what would be your list if the theme is St Albans' Own East End; in other words, 12 (or 13) photographs of buildings eastwards of the City Station.  Here is a baker's dozen to begin with:  Three Horseshoes, Fleetville Institute, St Paul's Church, Nicholson's Coat Factory, Beech Tree Cafe, Cricket Pavilion, Victoria Square, Beaumont School, Queen's Court, Cemetery lodge, Hill End surviving ward block,  Nashes Farm, Hall Heath Cottages.  
We've passed it hundreds of times: Three Horseshoes
at Smallford.

Without even including street scenes or smaller scale domestic buildings the above full dozen is by no means exclusive.

One feature of Hannah Sessions' drawings is that they are engaging; they encourage you to think about the subject (well, that's two features, but never mind) comparing what you see with what you know.  But Hannah's subjects are already well known.  When we engage with images in the East End collection many residents, even some who have lived here for decades, might have little idea of some of the locations.  So in this collection we are encouraged to engage in a different way: by exploring.

So, what would your list for a future calendar include?