Health, wealth and happiness in Harpenden
PUBLISHED: 14:16 10 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013
Open spaces, peace and quiet and a healthy way of life are for the taking here, as Sue Armstrong explains
THE trees marching in line along Harpenden High Street have by now shed most of their autumn glory but this town, with its distinct village feel, still retains its charm. The pavements are bordered with wide grass verges, period cottages are dotted in-between shops, restaurants and inns, and small greens are set back from the shopping streets, providing quiet corners to sit and watch passers-by.
Halfway between St Albans and Luton, in the Chiltern Hills, Harpenden is a relaxing place to return home to for many commuters. With a population of more than 30,000, this is a thriving town with a growing number of businesses and a great community spirit.
Adding to that country atmosphere is Harpenden Common, stretching almost two miles southwards from the centre of town. A variety of events are enjoyed in this vast open area, including fairs, exhibitions, and an annual motor rally, as well as numerous sports and recreational activities. The Common is also home to many species of plants and wildlife and a stroll along the nature trail may provide the delight of spotting muntjac deer or a kestrel hovering overhead. This year, for the second time running, the Common has won a prestigious Green Flag Award and is listed as one of the best parks and green spaces in England.
The Common is the largest of Harpenden's open spaces but residents and visitors also have Lydekker Park and Rothamsted Park to choose from - each have their story to tell.
Lydekker Park originally formed part of the garden of Harpenden Lodge, built in 1803 and home to the Lydekker family. Hilda, the last surviving member of the family, lived to the age of 101 and it was her wish that the gardens be left to the people of Harpenden and that they become a lasting memorial to her two brothers and her fiancé, who died in the First World War. The park opened ten years ago and is set in two-and-a-half acres with mature trees and shrubs, a wild flower meadow and a large pond. The peaceful setting provides a haven for ducks, coots and other wildfowl that select this as their nesting place and bring up their offspring here.
Not far away, Rothamsted Park has a grand entrance, with an elegant avenue of lime trees. It's the ideal place for walks and picnics, when weather permits, and a hive of activity with a sports centre, indoor swimming pool, putting green, tennis courts and cricket and football pitches. The park once formed part of the Rothamsted estate owned by Sir John Lawes. Sir John initiated agricultural experiments in 1843, which led to the founding of the nearby and world famous Rothamsted Research Centre, where scientific research focuses on sustainable land management and its environmental impacts. Acknowledged as 'the father of agricultural science', Sir John's early field experiments on Hertfordshire farms led to the development of the artificial fertilisers on which most modern farmers now depend.
A campaigning community
In past centuries, the road through Harpenden was never a main highway and the village, as it was then, grew slowly. Consequently, when railways were being developed all over the country there was little reason for a route through Harpenden. But the people of nearby Luton campaigned for a railway connection and a branch line was opened in 1860, passing through Harpenden. A few years later the Midland Railway opened its main line extension from Bedford to London. Many of the workers on the railway lived in Harpenden, which with its neighbouring hamlets of Hatching Green and Batford, justified a station of its own. This direct link with the capital together with the sale in 1882 of an estate of over a thousand acres of land for building, started Harpenden's development.
The Nickey Line
The Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead branch line was built to link the straw plait trade in Hemel Hempstead with the hat makers of Luton and to provide a local passenger service to connect with the main line trains to London. This branch line, of some eight miles, became known locally as the 'Nickey Line'. There are a number of explanations for this name - some say it refers to the knickerbockers worn by the men who built the railway, others say it relates to the parish of St Nicholas in Harpenden.
As the straw plaiting trade declined and passengers and industries turned to road transport, by 1979 the branch line became redundant. It was bought by St Albans District Council and Dacorum Borough Council and in 1985 the Nickey Line was opened again, this time for walkers and cyclists to enjoy the peaceful, mainly level, hedge-lined route, with many sections now suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs too.
Healthy eating in Harpenden
Like many towns in Hertfordshire, Harpenden has a regular Farmers' Market. On the fourth Sunday of every month, more than 50 stalls line up along the Lower High Street offering an extensive selection of produce from local growers and producers.
An obsession with locally sourced food is sweeping the nation and the Farmers Markets that come to Harpenden allow people to do just that. Buying apples grown in Hertfordshire must be better for the planet than transporting them all the way from New Zealand! Although tender vegetable crops are disappearing at this time of year, the November frosts bring out the sweetness of parsnips, swedes and Brussels sprouts and it's time for chestnuts and cranberries to make a return appearance - the perfect opportunity to try out some new recipes. Cabbages, cauliflowers, potatoes, carrots and leeks are still available, so there's plenty to choose from.
More and more people are growing their own fruit, vegetables and flowers and allotments are becoming increasingly popular and fashionable. Harpenden Town Council provides allotments at 15 sites throughout the town but demand is high, so any would-be allotmenters need to act quickly to secure any available plots or add their names to a waiting list. There's plenty of help and advice available to new plot holders and apart from the benefits of exercise, fresh air, healthy eating and savings on food bills, it's also a really satisfying and sociable hobby.
Allotment enquiries to Harpenden Town Council, 01582 768278.