A town guide to Hemel Hempstead
PUBLISHED: 09:38 04 October 2016
From Tudor market town to post-war New Town, Hemel Hempstead's two very different centres are being united and enhanced thanks to a £30m regeneration plan. Luisa Clarke looks at an ambitious project that could lead the way for tired New Towns everywhere
Most of us think ‘New Town’ when Hemel Hempstead is mentioned, and its earlier history often comes as a surprise. Redesigned and expanded to give bombed-out Londoners a new home after the Second World War, the town has been around for much longer.
Roman remains from the first century AD were found in Gadebridge Park next to the Old Town and the first recorded mention of the town is in 705, when Offa, King of Essex, granted land at ‘Hamaele’ to the Saxon bishop of London.
By 1086, ‘Hamelamestede’ was enshrined in the Domesday Book as having about 100 inhabitants and further growth started to take off in 1539 when King Henry VIII awarded the town a royal charter which granted it permission to hold a market.
Today, around 100,000 people now live in Hemel, and the town has been given a boost by the reconnection of its historic centre to the north with its 1950s’ nucleus.
When Dacorum Borough Council embarked upon an ambitious £30m ‘Hemel Evolution’ regeneration programme in 2014, it chose the Old Town as its starting point.
The subtle update has meant the conservation area’s character has been preserved while attracting new businesses, such as shops and cafés, and, continuing the tradition of the royal charter, a flourishing market on the first Sunday of every month selling fresh produce and crafts.
York stone has been used for the pavements and granite setts line the road, while period-style lanterns and benches blend with the historic architecture.
Special meaning is attached to the bespoke wrought-iron gates that now announce the entrance to the Old Town. Designed to capture its heritage, they depict two local landmarks – the Old Town Hall theatre and arts venue and St Mary’s Church, one of the finest Norman parish churches in the county, built in 1140.
With the first part of its programme completed, the local authority moved its attention to the 4 neighbouring New Town. The river Gade forms a natural link between the two centres, and a riverside walk and cycleway are planned.
Major developments are already reshaping the landscape. West Herts College is building a new campus, while the council is co-ordinating the construction of the Forum, a modern shared-services hub together with a state-of-the-art library. New riverfront homes have also been given the go-ahead.
A little further south, the Hemel Evolution project can be seen again. Passing through the open-plan new bus interchange (handy for getting into the centre of town), you arrive in the main pedestrianised shopping area, where the tired post-war infrastructure has been transformed and a café culture has emerged.
Home to two shopping centres, Marlowes and Riverside, New Town Square now provides another focal point, featuring a striking glass-roofed Rainbow Stage and a big-screen TV which featured children’s favourites throughout August. Carrying on the rainbow theme, four brightly-coloured playgrounds are spaced at intervals so families can ‘play on the way’ while shopping.
Perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser (especially for children) is the 24-jet fountain. From mere bubbles to two-metre high spouts, the water forms patterns synchronised to lights and music. It’s at this point that you find another tribute to the town’s heritage. Etched on a polished granite plinth encircled by the fountain is the story of landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s original ‘city within a park’ concept for the New Town.
The plans included the Jellicoe Water Gardens, which were completed in 1962. A short step away through Bank Court piazza and running parallel to the high street, the gardens were reputed to be Jellicoe’s favourite project.
Some 60 years on, the cutting-edge, modernist urban retreat had become scruffy and unappreciated. Now, thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund topped up with Dacorum investment, it is undergoing complete restoration, due for completion this autumn. The drift-pattern planting scheme in the Flower Garden devised by Geoffrey’s wife Susan will be recreated, while exact replicas of the original seven bridges will span the serpent-shaped canalised section of the Gade. The terrace is being widened and the lime-tree avenue restored, and a children’s area created by the Stratford Olympic Park playground designer and a community building for volunteers and school groups added. Wildlife will benefit from bee-friendly planting, an ivy screen, marginal river plants and de-silted water.
Combining a shopping trip with a visit to an English Heritage-registered oasis will be possible.
Next on the list is the regeneration of Gadebridge Park, featuring a contemporary splashpark and an interactive heritage attraction.
It is hoped by the council and all groups involved in Hemel Evolution that it will kick-start a new era for the town, laying foundations for 21st-century living while resisting the ‘out with the old’ urge. As Dacorum Council says, ‘Once more this town of two halves is bustling and full of life, in a position to celebrate its rich history while encouraging the next generation to reach for new heights.
‘It’s worth rediscovering.’
To find out more about the project, visit dacorum.gov.uk/hemelevolution