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What to do with a weekend in Watford

PUBLISHED: 10:34 21 August 2017

Continental dining on the High Street (photo: David Parker)

Continental dining on the High Street (photo: David Parker)

Copyright Dave Parker Photography

Shrugging off its one-time rough image, Watford is now a destination with a revitalised can-do spirit and much going on. Bianca Wild gives a guide to some of the best events and places to visit

Fun and games in Cassiobury Park, a public space and nature reserve twice the size of Hyde ParkFun and games in Cassiobury Park, a public space and nature reserve twice the size of Hyde Park

CULTURE

Theatre

If you want to see a first-class show but don’t want the hustle and bustle of the capital, you’re in luck – as Watford has three much-loved venues each filling a different niche.

Built in 1938, Watford Colosseum is a 1,392-seat venue in the heart of the town. Reopened after a £5.5m restoration in 2011, it’s renowned for its acoustic qualities which draw in a host of well known musicians and entertainers, as well as being home to the recording of many film scores.

Big Screen on the BeachBig Screen on the Beach

Half a mile away, the 600-seat Watford Palace Theatre is an Edwardian building hosting new works in theatre, dance and digital. The theatre commissions and produces plays from a range of new and established writers, so you are likely to come across something truly special.

The Pump House (not surprisingly, a former pumping station) is a more intimate space (124-seats) offering a vibrant menu of theatre, music, comedy, dance and art.

Film

The �18m extension to intu Watford is due to open next yearThe �18m extension to intu Watford is due to open next year

Have you heard there’s a beach in Watford? Unlikely as it might seem, during the summer and bang in the middle of town on The Parade, there’s a real sandy beach for bucket and spade fun and fairground action with the kids in the morning, while from 2pm you can sit back in a deckchair and sink your toes into the sand as you watch a big movie on a big screen. Running for a month from Friday July 28, there are three films each day ranging from animated fun to blockbusters and classics. And from 7.30pm each day, the cocktails come out so you can enjoy your evening film with a cool Sea Breeze or Tequila Sunrise. Thanks to the local council, it’s all free.

Mayor of Watford Dorothy Thornhill said, ‘The Big Screen on the Beach was a huge success last year - the town centre was full of life and the atmosphere was great.

‘I’m very excited about the films and activities happening this year. It’s going to be even bigger and better.’

Watford Brass Band and Voyageurs Ambassadors of Music - part of last year's Big Bandstand series in Cassiobury ParkWatford Brass Band and Voyageurs Ambassadors of Music - part of last year's Big Bandstand series in Cassiobury Park

Music

Get in the swing at Cassiobury Park at one of the UK’s largest free jazz events. Big Jive Swing Festival, featuring internationally-acclaimed musicians, bands and dancers, takes place on the afternoon of Sunday July 30. As well as the music, there’s cabaret, dance classes for all ages and a vintage photo booth, all for free.

The park’s Victorian bandstand has recently been restored and returned to its original home and the Big Bandstand series features live performances every Sunday from 2-4pm until September 24. On the line-up are brass bands, choirs, US touring groups and ukulele bands.

The river Gade runs through Cassiobury ParkThe river Gade runs through Cassiobury Park

History

For history buffs, Watford Museum tells the story of the town at the former Benskins Brewery mansion. Throughout the summer there’s a programme of free activities for families, including a First World War Watford exhibition. And for Hornets fans there’s a permanent Watford FC display.

From September 7-10 the museum will co-ordinate Heritage Open Day activities across the town.

Children's workshops at Watford MuseumChildren's workshops at Watford Museum

ACTIVITIES

Sport & spa

If you can get a ticket, there’s Premier League action at Vicarage Road, where Watford have played for nearly a century. The Hornets returned to the top flight in 2015 after an absence of eight years, finishing 13th last season. They now have new boss Marco Silva at the helm. The first game of the new season is against Liverpool on August 12.

For golfers and those with pampering in mind, there’s The Grove, a hotel and spa complex that’s home to the championship golf course on which last year’s British Masters was held. The hotel’s luxury Sequoia facility offers spa days with lunch, afternoon tea or supper in tranquil countryside surroundings.

Film sets

Hogwarts fans should make a quidditch ball line a short drive away to Leavesden for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter. Walking in Harry’s footsteps on the real sets really is magical.

The site was acquired by the Ministry of Defence in 1939 as a production base for thousands of aircraft including the Mosquito and Halifax. In 1994 it began a new life as a film studio. Goldeneye, Star Wars Episode One and all eight Harry Potter films were shot here, while recent productions include The Mummy and Alien Covenant. And it’s no wonder – with a collection of some of the largest soundstages in the UK spread over about 500,000 sq ft the site is able to accommodate the most ambitious director’s visions.

Parkland

Even when it’s not hosting music festivals, Cassiobury Park – Watford’s most historic beauty spot – is still the place to be. It’s twice the size of London’s Hyde Park and was once part of the grand estate of the Earl of Essex. It has been restored as part of a £6.6m project funded by Watford Borough Council and the Heritage Lottery and Big Lottery funds. There have been improvements to the nature reserve and waterways (the Gade and Grand Union Canal run through the park). There’s also a new £2.8m water play park with 30 state-of-the-art splash pads, water jets and fountains and two restored paddling pools – icons for generations of Watford residents. The free-to-access pools opened on July 1 alongside a new community hub that includes Daisy’s in the Park café, a community and exhibition room, and education space. Regular educational events are open to everyone.

Walk & bike

To cap off exploring the area on foot or by bike, the Ebury Way is a 3.5-mile former rail line ‘green trail’ leading to Rickmansworth. The route crosses three rivers, the Colne, Chess and Gade as well as the Grand Union Canal, so there will be plenty of wildlife to see.

Shopping

The intu Watford project has transformed the former Harlequin shopping centre since 2013. Major draws are John Lewis, H&M, Zara and Marks and Spencer.

The latest part of the ongoing project is a £180m extension to the centre with a dramatic glass-roofed public space for events, due to open in autumn 2018. It will transform the centre into a 1.4m sq ft retail and leisure destination with 16 new major retailers, 10 restaurants and a cutting-edge nine-screen cinema multiplex.

FOOD & DRINK

Restaurants

There are a variety of dining experiences at The Grove. Head to The Glasshouse for ‘food theatre’ as you watch the chefs prepare each dish across nine different stations – including wok, seafood and tapas. The Stables is in the estate’s original stable block, once a hang out of celebrated equine artist George Stubbs. The restaurant has an unstuffy but decidedly country chic feel. Head to The Grove’s Collette’s for cosmopolitan cooking. Head chef Russell Bateman said the restaurant prides itself on using the finest and freshest produce possible. ‘We can often be found picking the freshest fruit and vegetables grown on site at The Grove’s very own walled garden. This is long established and lovingly cared for by our amazing gardens team.’

Cafés

For something a bit different, head to the cool d20 Board Game Cafe on Queens Road - the first of its kind in Herts (the name comes from a 20-sided dice used in Dungeons and Dragons). Here hot and cold drinks (including alcoholic), a funky menu of nachos, jacket potatoes, pizzas and sandwiches and delicious cakes are served up alongside a vast choice of board games to play.

The café was set up by avid boardgamers who crowdfunded to turn their dream into a reality. It has a strong following around town and beyond.

For artisan coffee and eclectic music, head to the LP Cafe on The Parade. As well as serving great coffee and a continental menu, it’s a shop selling vinyl records and merchandise, as well as the home of a record label, and on Sundays the team broadcast a live radio show playing alternative rock ‘n’ soul, new releases and local acts. A total gem.

Useful websites

watfordbigevents.co.uk

watfordmuseum.org.uk

watford.gov.uk/cassiobury

watfordforyou.org

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