Thursday, 26 September 2019

Cunningham Avenue

As with many areas of St Albans their boundaries are difficult to fix, and the limits of St Albans' Own East End have always been considered flexible.  But stand in the vicinity of the former Cunningham Hill Farm and walk south-westwards, down the sweep of the open space that was home to many territorial camps in centuries past, we encounter an allotment garden few of us are probably  aware of.  Faded green railings separate us from a quiet road of homes which lead us to the busy London Road.

This is Cunningham Avenue which, before the 1920s was not even a farm track, unlike its immediate neighbour Cunningham Hill Road which had enabled an access to early agricultural shows.  The lower slopes of Cunningham Hill Farm were still being farmed, and   there is an echo of former use in the allotments as a large swathe of sloping ground was in use during the First World War as emergency allotment gardens.  

Building companies, the 1920s versions of which were minnows compared with today's combines, are constantly searching for new opportunities to continue their operations, and a connection seemed to have been made between the land owner, Earl Verulam, and a well-known builder and brick maker at the time, William Bennett.  The result was the acquisition of a parcel of land which became Cunningham Avenue and its attractive homes, all built in the 1920s and with no evidence of later infilling or unsympathetic adaptations or re-building.  

The fact that the road is a cut-de-sac may lead us to suggest fewer local people will have explored the road than would be the case if there were onward connections for vehicles.  But it does make a fruitful circular stroll from the farm, walking along the avenue, the short stretch of London Road and up Cunningham Hill Road returning to the former farm at Cell Barnes Lane.

Whether Bennett constructed each house for a specific owner is uncertain, but it is clear that, although there are features or designs common to many of the homes, each has its distinctive face to the road.  Red brick, tile-covered porches, gable timber facings and other embellishments were incorporated into almost all of the dwellings.  The garages, many of which were probably added later, have been designed to complement the design of the main structure.  The front gardens remain planted and few have been opened to the street by boundary wall removal and covered in tarmac or blocks.

It therefore seems likely a number of covenants remain in place and  the road does benefit from being within a Conservation Area.  Cunningham Avenue is one of this city's delights.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Engaging With Our Locality

Whenever families, individuals, classes at school and visitors to the district, are able to share in some of the history of their home district, the experience is always positive.  More than that, what we discover is quite joyous.

Heritage Open Days have proved the point once more, although other casual meetings throughout the year have a similar effect.  September and October is also the period of time in the school curriculum when children explore their home patch, both the school itself and the shops and homes, where we and our friends live and what we can buy at the shops.  It is therefore a delight to meet the children as they find out how the school day was conducted, how children behaved and the playground games they may have played fifty or a hundred years ago.
Fleetville School playground in the 1930s.

Throughout the year members of Fleetville Diaries carry out deeper explorations in the form of projects.  St Albans had been the home of Frederick Sander and his renowned orchid nurseries in Camp Road, and this formed the basis of a major project last year.  Its culmination was to share our findings in a glorious celebration with members of the Sander and Moon families today (Henry Moon turned Sander's orchids into exquisite watercolours).

This year the organisation has taken Beaumont Avenue as its next subject in the series Right Up Our Street; and to focus on the former hosiery mill, Ballito, which grew on the site now occupied by Morrison's, where thousands of local men and women came to work, both in peacetime and war.  Although largely based on recollections it has been important to understand how the factory came to Fleetville in the first place.

Heritage Open Day on Saturday 14th September was an appropriate occasion to bring people together, to view three exhibitions and chat with the project leaders, to do so in a building (Fleetville Community Centre) first erected in 1942 as a nursery for the young children of women encouraged to work at the Ballito works that had been turned over to making shell casings for the war effort.

Factory managers' houses in Woodstock Road south
It comes as a surprise to many that competitive circumstances dictated the original Fleet Ville did not realise its full potential and which may otherwise have become a good deal larger.  The fact that it did not enabled one of this city's major benefactors, Charles Woollam, to acquire the field left over for the recreation and enjoyment of the people of Fleetville in the form of the Rec, or as many people refer to it these days, Fleetville Park.

Summer view of The Alley.
We then take a short guided walk around early roads; are amazed that Fleetville had a unique cinema – where no-one was fortunate in watching a film there; stood on the spot where several WW2 spies were charged, discover the homes built for the factory employees in one road and those built for its managers in another; and the function of The Alley which most Fleetville folk claim never to have walked along.  There are parts of Fleetville, too, which are more ancient than the Cathedral, and a stream to cross without getting our feet wet!

People love to ask questions and are often amazed by the answers; almost always a conversation ensues.  We are all part of a community and feel a personal responsibility to learn more about it.  And it matters not whether you are a 9-year-old who has already made sense of where he lives, or an adult who has lived here for three times as long and come to realise it's no longer sufficient to take local history for granted.

One way or another we all yearn to become more involved.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Does the shoehorn actually work?

There appear to be two related definitions of the term shoehorn: it is a curved tool to help ease our feet into a tight-fitting shoe, probably an early indicator that a larger shoe size might be appropriate.  Used as a verb, it can also describe forcing something into a space which is really too small.

The north side of Hatfield Road, when first laid out, was a mix of small houses and then increasingly shops.  Living accommodation for the shop owners was in the form of an upstairs flat; house occupiers had a tiny front garden, and both groups enjoyed a small private rear garden.

In time the rear gardens were lost to rear extensions, preparation buildings and stores.  Where possible vehicle access was squeezed in from the side roads.  Even in a nearby residential road a corner property owner has foregone a rear garden in favour of building three accommodations.  Recently, it was revealed that a property in Hatfield Road undergoing alterations was about to add a  similar number of one bed accommodations on the first floor, shoe-horned into  space too awkward and inadequate for the purpose.  And our  residential districts are littered with examples of a jarring streetscape created through unsympathetic and over-sized extensions intended to overfill the plot.

A variety of well-proportioned homes form a backdrop to the open spaces of Clarence Park.

This week St Albans celebrated the publication of a delightful little book about one of the district's foremost architects, Percival Cherry Blow (1873 to 1939).  The book launch was held in one building which he had designed – Thomas Oakley's grocery, now Waterstone's – and followed up with a meal for some at another of his buildings, Ryder's Exhibition Hall, now Cafe Rouge.

A Percival Blow designed house in Clarence Road.

While most of Blow's residential buildings were substantial in size and on good-sized plots, it appears that the architect was as concerned about how the proposed dwelling would sit in the street scene, and so space was as important as the physical structure.

One suspects that if Blow had been called back to add something to  one of his houses he would have given it the same meticulous attention as the original, and would know the limit of what was aesthetically possible on any plot.

Elements of the previous building on the site are captured in the red brick
Rats' Castle public house in Fleetville, designed by Percival Cherry Blow.

In the eastern districts of the city there are examples of his domestic work in Brampton, Blandford and Stanhope roads, and a range of semi-detached and detached houses in Clarence Road.  If such detailing attention is paid to the building elevations themselves it would seem natural to apply the same attention to the street boundaries.  Of course, today this is difficult to achieve as the imperative seems to be to get cars off the road at any cost, a requirement not foreseeable in the period when Blow was practising his profession.


All of us would benefit from a read of the new book, St Albans' Architect Percival Blow, published by St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society.  As we do so we will discover so many more buildings Percival Cherry Blow was commissioned to design; our streetscape is the richer for his endeavour.