Saturday, 24 August 2019

Yes, But Is It safe?

The city has many alleys, examples of former countryside public footpaths.  Some are well trodden; others come as a complete surprise when discovered.  They exist because they were rural community ways of getting about.  When a town encroached on the countryside, homes, gardens and residential streets had to be accommodated round the public routes already present.  Most are unnamed, such as the former track between Camp Road east and Ashley Road, between Breakspear Avenue and Vanda Crescent, or between Woodstock Road south and Beaumont Avenue.  Occasionally, as in the path between Marshals Drive and Marshalswick Lane, we find a name, Wickway in this case.

It is rare to find such an urban alley which does not have street lighting.  Sure, these units are not always appropriate for the task they are required to serve – very narrow paths between gardens, and often with dog-legs and blind corners – but at least there is lighting.

Farm Road, formerly "Muddy Alley"
A form of alley, in that it was a farm lane which failed to become a public road, remains unadopted.  It is Farm Road, between Beechwood and Beaumont avenues.  The responsibility for adding lighting is that of the owners of the formerly-named muddy alley, and presumably they feel it is unecessary, although, from memory, I think one householder has fitted a lighting column.

A well-known and lengthy track, Jersey Lane, which provided a link between the drive serving the old Marshals Wick House and one of its farms, had for centuries been unlit, except by the moon; it led to open country. Nowadays it is a recognised walking and cycling route passing through Jersey Farm residential area, and because we expect to remain out and about on occasions during the night-time hours it is equipped with street lighting, especially useful given the extent of tree cover.

Jersey Lane
Another well-used walking and cycling route, one which does not have a history in the same way as Jersey Lane, it being a former branch railway, is Alban Way.  This delightful and well-used route is a hybrid, being neither between the houses, nor beckoning towards the countryside.  Instead it serves as a kind of bypass around parts of the south and east of St Albans, parallels Hatfield Road in the unbuilt distance between Colney Heath Lane and Ellenbrook, before carving its way past the Hatfield residential areas towards its old centre.

Alban Way may be one of the busiest tracks of its type in the district and is certainly enjoyed.  But there are users who do feel unsafe; their experiences of walking along it tells them so.  There are others who presume it to be unsafe at times because others have told them so.  It does not help that the local press describes the Way as "the notorious crime-ridden pathway," even though anyone who has been a victim of verbal or physical attack will likely concur with the newspaper's headline sentiment.  There will undoubtedly be statistics to demonstrate the frequency and severity of incidents – it is probably for the newspaper to justify the accuracy of the wording used.

Alban Way east
However, it seems a precedent exists for whether or not tracks such as these are, or should be, lit.  Closed circuit television is another matter, but once the principle has been established, we also have to justify the spending of required funds on the basis of need and whether other paths have been similarly funded.  Where we go from here is another matter, but it would be a shame if we are genuinely put off from making use of this gem of an open space because we feel uneasy about being there.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Idyllic Dell

The Sandpit Lane boundary of the former St Peter's Farm remained much as it had done for centuries until the sale of the farm in the 1890s.  One imagines a hedge beside the lane between what today is Clarence Road and Woodstock Road north.  There were fields for grazing cattle, but one little area was always fenced against cattle intrusion and as early as the 1841 tithe map this pocket-sized copse was named The Dell, an apt label given that it was a depression in the landscape.  Today it is a fully mature circular area of mixed woodland.

Might it have been a growing medieval pit for sand extraction?  Or – and this will surely be on your mind – the result of a sink hole?  Whatever its cause, once trees had begun to grow a distinct ecosystem thrived.  There are sporadic reports that access by the public might have been granted to appreciate what had clearly been acknowledged as a very special environment.

Following the sale of the farm it did not take long before Thomas Grimwood purchased a substantial plot of land between the road and The Dell to build himself a house, appropriately named The Dell.  Whether or not Mr Grimwood realised at the time this was the one location along Sandpit Lane where the Wastes were absent with no additional permissions required to gain access to his plot of land.  The plot was in a commanding position right on the edge of the heath.

Before the 1930s Sear & Carter used the lower part of the plot beyond the house and gardens as one of their trial grounds supporting the Ninefields Nursery, now St Paul's Place.

Before and after the First World War others constructed their homes along this part of the lane.  Mr Grimwood sold The Dell  to Mr Fletcher, and he in turn passed it onto Mr Sykes.

Housing had crept closer to The Dell in the 1930s, but not from the lane.  Jennings Road and Churchill Road had been laid out, and eventually the rear gardens of a few of the resulting homes touched the edge of The Dell from the south and west.

But something different occurred in 1965.  The Dell and The Dell became a development opportunity.  Michael Meacher & Partners, architects, and Watford's Kebbell Developments produced plans for groups of flats and houses on the site.  There was never any intention to develop The Dell itself or its approaches.  This may have been for the laudable reason of open space protection in an environmentally special part of the site, but it was also convenient that The Dell was somewhat below the level of the district's sewer and drainage network, with the practicalities of making homes work in those part of the site difficult, if not impossible.

A later phase consisted of two ranges of two-storey homes, although three storey houses had been originally planned.  So the three-bed flats fronting the lane are the only three storey accommodations.

The two open areas are the treescape which can be seen along Sandpit Lane, and The Dell itself, although buildings press hard against its boundary.

Naturally, many nearby residents formally objected to the development scheme.  Perhaps they imagined something hideous, noisy, unsightly or unsuitable for the location.  Certainly the site, as with almost everywhere else in this part of the city, is far more intensively used than when Mr Grimwood was in residence, The Dell is in tact, and therefore the habitat enjoyed. by birds and mammals.  Just as in the centuries when it was part of a farm.