A visitor's guide to Hitchin
PUBLISHED: 16:47 17 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:47 17 January 2020
Londoners have flocked here in recent years, pushing up house prices to extraordinary levels. It's gentrified, yes, but its strong, almost defiant character means Hitchin has a vibrancy all of its own
Surrounded by farmland and villages, Hitchin sits in one of north Hertfordshire's most beautiful areas. Easily within the London commuter belt, it has boomed in the past decade as classy couples and young families have moved here for its abundance of amenities, great schools and its close connections to nature.
With notable history, Hitchin is perhaps the classic market town. Once reliant on the wool trade, thanks to conveniently placed trade routes, today Market Place - a lovely jumble of architectural styles around a central square in the heart of the town - still holds time-honoured events and more modern gatherings (the Street Food Monthly and French Market events get packed). A traditional market under striped blue and white roofed stalls also takes place in a dedicated neighbouring space by St Mary's Church.
The most vibrant areas of the town centre can be found from Bucklersbury and Sun Street over towards Bancroft and Hermitage Road, encompassing Market Place and the little alleys around St Mary's. There's a healthy mixture of independent stores and high street chains, with plenty of hip and trendy hangouts in between. Retro emporiums are popular browsing destinations, coffee shops seem to spring up wherever there is space to let; chain eateries neighbour independent establishments and you're never far from a home accessories store (or hair salon) no matter which side of the town you wander around. Its vibrant and independent nature is reflected in the town being selected as a finalist for the Great British High Street Champion Award 2019.
The perfect spot to begin a history trail of the town centre, Riverside Walk, following the river Hiz, takes you straight from the market towards St Mary's. You'll either walk down or past the stairs that adjoin St Mary's Car Park, and when you do, stop and turn. Look closely and you'll see the worn lettering commemorating the site as that of the old slums.
Continue on to the church, dating from the 13th century and owing its grandeur to the wool merchants who poured money into it, it is one of the largest and most impressive parish churches in the county. The narrow streets on each side of the church are home to ancient buildings; you're never far away from a blue plaque. A mixture of Tudor and Georgian architecture is juxtaposed with more modern additions, timber framed buildings are hidden behind brick facades and cobbles underfoot join them all together. This area oozes charm.
Hermitage Road, with a view up to Windmill Hill overlooking the town, may have lost its large furnishings store in the impressive corner building but in recent years it has gained several cool cafés, a gorgeous deli (the Hertfordshire Life Food & Drink Award-winning The Little Deli), a tattoo parlour, ale bar and homeware stores.
Hermitage Rd & Co, next to its sister café and restaurant (in the former Hermitage Ballroom, where a who's who of 60s and 70s bands played), has an eclectic mixture of home furnishings, gifts and interior inspiration with a boho chic vibe. With the café seating inside the shop, you'll probably start with a cappuccino and leave with a candle. Oh well. It happens. Treat yourself.
Harvest Moon on Bucklersbury is Hitchin's remaining hippy shop and a rare find. A large space filled with incense and dreamcatchers, it does wonders for instilling a sense of inner peace. Just down the street is Jolly Brown - a Hitchin institution for pre-loved and vintage clothes for men and women.
Mint Velvet might be on your radar for women's fashion but you won't find it on the high street as frequently as you'd like. One of only a handful of Herts-based stores, on Bancroft you'll get the full immersive experience. We all know stockists aren't as much fun.
If you have little'uns or know someone who does, then there are two very cute independent baby and toddler shops to visit stocking clothes and much more. In The Arcade is Hooray & Co and on Bucklersbury is Mini Mench. There's also a branch of JoJo Maman Bébé on Bancroft.
For lovers of antiques and vintage, head to Lifestyle Emporium on Churchgate, where traders fill a large corner building upstairs and down with intriguing finds. Walk around the corner to the other side of St Mary's and on Churchyard Walk is Vintage Bay, a little shop, which as its name suggests, is packed with vintage and vintage-inspired homewares.
For jewellery, watches and special gifts, it's hard to beat Gatwards. In a gorgeous old building on Market Place, this is the UK's oldest family jewellers, trading since 1760. It won the East and East Anglia Retail award in the Family Business of the Year Awards 2019.
EAT & DRINK
Hitchin is renowned for its eateries, becoming very busy at weekends with locals and visitors dining out. CHIA Naturally Healthy is a great little vegan restaurant. Visit the new larger premises just opposite St Mary's and indulge in delicious treats that might be considered ever-so-slightly less naughty. You can also get food to go.
On Bucklersbury, find the excellent Los Reyes in the former Three Kings pub. It's a great little tapas bar with passionate owners who really know their dishes. Nearby is Kite at the Red Hart, a reimagining of one of the town's many former coaching inns. Run by the young guys behind The Groundworks, a popular Scandi-looking café by the church, it offers modern British cuisine at a high level and has a real flair for drinks.
On Sun Street is a branch of the Herts-based fish and grill specialists Lussmanns. The smart restaurant chain is a multi-award winner, driven by founder Andrei Lussmann's passion for sustainable food. For Turkish cuisine, head to Mevan, also on Sun Street. Housed in a large long-standing former furniture store, redesigned to look like a rustic Turkish farmhouse, expect expertly cooked simple dishes.
In a beautifully wonky tudor building by St Mary's is Halsey's. Primarily the kind of traditional deli you dream of, it is now also a cosy café with tables inside and on the cobbles outside too. Sample craft beers on tap at the Beer Shop on Hermitage Road, the larger of two (there's a sister site in St Albans), with a tasting room and communal benches perfect for bigger groups or to chat to neighbouring ale lovers. I know it's January but at the first sight of sun - you know what Brits are like - think Fabio's on Hermitage Road. With fun and funky ice-cream flavours, and extra special ones around events and holidays, there's always something different to try. It may not be summer, but take in the views from the top of Windmill Hill, gelato in hand.
North Hertfordshire Museum is housed in the town hall and a modern extension. This contemporary museum tells the story of the area through a wide range of interactive displays. It's simply, yet very cleverly, done and there's a rolling series of art exhibitions in the gallery too.
At the British Schools Museum discover how education was done in the original Victorian and Edwardian school buildings on Queen Street. Sit up straight!
Put a date in your diary - from June the neighbouring village of Ickleford is home to a sea of purple. Hitchin Lavender at Cadwell Farm draws visitors from far and wide and is a beautiful wedding and events venue. Evening movie screenings, sunflower fields and pumpkins are all things to look out for, plus the craft shop and café in the beautiful old barns.
The surrounding villages of St Ippolyts, St Paul's Walden, Great and Little Wymondley, Offley, Kimpton and Charlton provide ample grounds for exploration. Scenic walks, beautiful gardens and country pubs abound. On the way to neighbouring Letchworth, take a right and head to Willian - a great place for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. There's countryside, a village pond, an arboretum and watering holes for when you're finished - the contemporary Fox at Willian and the more traditional Three Horseshoes.