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Sue Armstrong travels to Hitchin to see what attracts so many people to this town in the north of the county
HITCHIN is a friendly and welcoming town at any time of year and on sunny market days, it takes on a vibrant, continental feel. People sit outside trendy cafes and traditional tearooms enjoying their cappuccinos and home made cakes, street musicians and artists show off their talents and the banter of stallholders attracts throngs of shoppers.
At regular intervals the bells of St Mary's parish church join in the melodies filtering through the streets. With its riverside frontage, the beautiful 13th century church sits in the centre of Hitchin alongside clusters of attractive buildings and inns dating back to medieval times. And just beyond, Windmill Hill provides panoramic views over the town and countryside.
Narrow lanes lead to an exceptional selection of specialist shops, alongside many well known high street names and family run stores, some having traded here for more than a hundred years. In fact, King George II was still on the throne when watch and clock maker, James Gatwards, first opened his doors for business in 1760. Today, Gatwards of Hitchin is in its seventh generation, making it one of the oldest jewellers in England.
This country town also has one of the finest collections of music shops in the whole of East Anglia, attracting visitors from as far away as Scotland, Wales, and Europe. Violins, woodwind and brass instruments, guitars and pianos can all be bought, restored or repaired.
There are plenty of interesting places to visit here and, within a short walking distance of the shops, Hitchin Museum is one of them. It features displays of local industries and domestic life and has a fascinating costume gallery. Close by, the British Schools Museum tells the story of elementary education in Britain from 1810 until 1945. Group tours can be organised for adults and children with the opportunity to step back in time, sit in the classroom and take part in a lesson, Victorian style. Wooden desks, inkwells, dip pens and very strict teachers are the order of the day.
Hitchin's modern day schools enjoy an excellent reputation, making it a popular place for families to settle. The leafy roads surrounding the town centre and pretty neighbouring villages add to its appeal along with good road and rail links to London, Cambridge and Luton airport.
Keith Hoskins, manager of the Hitchin Town Centre Initiative, says, 'Behind the scenes, great care is taken to ensure Hitchin continues to prosper and embrace the future. The Initiative works in partnership with the council and community groups to safeguard the town's heritage and to ensure it remains an attractive, clean and accessible place for residents and visitors alike. We encourage events and activities and support businesses in Hitchin and the rural areas through networking, training and mentoring.'
That care and community spirit is evident all around this distinguished town. Numerous activities and entertainments take place here throughout the year, including the ever-popular annual Hitchin Festival during the summer. This is an arts festival for all the family, which makes the most of warmer days and lighter evenings. And if a special outfit is needed for the film festival, a garden party or one of the many concerts included in the programme, then Hitchin is the ideal place to find something original, along with the accessories to match.
LAVENDER led the way to world fame for Hitchin when Edward Perks started cultivating and distilling it commercially in 1822. The town became one of only two major lavender growing areas in the country and 100 acres were planted. Each lavender field could produce abundant crops for five years before they needed to be uprooted and burned, blowing a perfumed aroma for miles around.
Hitchin Lavender has recently revived this industry and now cultivates and distils five different varieties of this fragrant plant at Cadwell Farm, in nearby Ickleford. Zoe Hunter runs the business with her husband and says, 'We have a small arable farm, with a few horses, and this has diversified into growing 12 acres of lavender on the chalky hillside.
'The lavender looks at its best in late June and July when we get quite a few visitors. The view from the top of the hill across the lavender is breathtaking and walking through it is an experience not to be missed. We do arrange walks and talks on different days during the summer but they are very popular and are already fully booked this year.'
Mr Perks' original method of producing lavender oil is still used by Hitchin Lavender, by cutting the heads off the plants and distilling them. But much of the labour intensive work has been removed, as Cranfield University has designed a special harvester, which strips the flowers from the stems.
A visit to Hitchin would not be complete without discovering the Perks and Llewelyn's charming Victorian chemist shop, which used to sell lavender water, lavender bath salts and other specialities. The store opened in 1790 and traded in the High Street until 1961. The last pharmacist to work there, Violet Lewis, bought most of the stock and fittings. Initially she reconstructed the shop in a purpose-built extension to her home and opened the display to the public. Since then it has been moved to Hitchin Museum and the original mahogany furniture and colourful bottles give a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Pay a visit
The farm at Hitchin Lavender will be open to visitors from June 8 to August 3. It is free to enter the farm and there are public footpaths but if people wish to walk through the lavender and pick it a programme/guide can be provided for 3 per person or 6 per family. There is also a shop on site selling lavender goods.
Cadwell Farm, Ickleford
The British Schools Museum
41/42 Queen Street