Hertford: A link with the past

PUBLISHED: 11:10 25 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013

The Old Barge, Folly Island, Hertford

The Old Barge, Folly Island, Hertford

From 15th century grandeur to 21st century chic - Sue Armstrong takes a stroll behind the scenes in this important town

VISITORS to Hertfordshire's ancient county town, Hertford, have the opportunity to discover its rich history, spanning more than 1,000 years.
On arrival, painted statues catch the eye at the entrance to the old Blue Coat School and the elegant 15th century gatehouse of Hertford Castle can be seen close by. The castle no longer stands but it was once the residence of many kings and queens, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
A maze of tunnels is said to stretch from the site of the castle and run beneath the narrow shopping streets and alleyways. This myriad of streets is full of character buildings, each with a story to tell.
One charming example is St Nicholas Hall in St Andrew Street. This beautiful jettied and half-timbered Tudor building is one of the oldest in the town and it has been home to Beckwith & Son antiques for more than 100 years. The many individual shops here are irresistible, selling unique crafts and interiors, art and jewellery, and it is fascinating to see such a variety of architecture all around.
In the centre of the town, in Fore Street, a building with an Egyptian exterior stands out in the crowd. Built in the 1830s, it is reported to be one of only two properties of that style in the whole of the country - the other is in Penzance in Cornwall. At one time it was the meeting place of the secret society of the Knights Templar of Aquarius, now it is one of the increasing number of fine restaurants that can be found here.
Handsome, classical buildings stand in Parliament Square, an area created in the 1920s. It was named after Parliament Row, now demolished, where Parliament is said to have relocated from London following the outbreak of plague in 1563.
Details about that period of the town's history and much more is revealed at the Hertford Museum. Full of local treasures, it is in a 17th century town house. It also has a delightful Jacobean garden where cream teas can be enjoyed when the weather is fine.
Just a few minutes walk away is Hertford's island, Folly Island, approached across a small road bridge. This is a peaceful, mainly residential area, with an inviting pub, The Old Barge. The island can be explored by wandering along the riverside where pretty terraced cottages stand alongside colourful longboats and neatly tended allotments.
It is hard to imagine from this quiet scene that Folly Island was Hertford's port and noisy hub of commercial activity in the 18th century. Barges and sailing boats travelled from here to London carrying corn, malt, flour, vegetables and wool. Deliveries of grain arrived from America and were taken to the local flour mills. Cotton seed and linseed arrived from India and Egypt for crushing at the town's seed mills. But the coming of the railway in the 1840s brought the demise of the river trade and the focus of attention turned away from the island. The Victorian houses that stand there today were the vision of two brothers, Robert and William Andrews.
This county town is full of interesting surprises with the added bonus of two mainline stations to choose from - Hertford East providing commuter services into London's Liverpool Street and Hertford North, for travel into King's Cross and Moorgate.
Hertford has something for everyone to discover with its good mix of the old and the new, a growing café culture and films, shows and live bands to enjoy at Castle Hall theatre.

Back to our roots

MANY of us have good intentions of tracing our family tree, delving into the history of our home town or village or finding out who used to live in our house years ago. Well, for those people whose roots are connected with Hertfordshire, or even further afield, a visit to Hertford can lead closer to discovering the past.
Hertford is home to Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, which is based in County Hall. This fascinating, specialist centre has more than 6,000 archive collections, 30,000 books, 60,000 images, 10,000 maps and 200 newspaper and periodical titles. Visitors can see photographs and other printed and published materials in the Local Studies Library or consult original documents relating to families, estates, business, and parish records in the Archives Reading Room.
The staff at the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies are extremely helpful and experienced and Bonnie West is one of them. 'People come from all over the country - Kent, Cornwall and Scotland - to trace their family history,' says Bonnie. 'We also have visitors from as far away as Australia and America coming here to trace their ancestors. With our knowledge of search techniques and excellent internet systems, we can often help people overcome stumbling blocks in their research and put them on the right path to tracing details far beyond the boundaries of Hertfordshire.
'We provide exhibition materials for libraries, including copies of pictures and scanned images of documents and we also work closely with schools. One group of children visiting recently were amazed to find out what it would have been like to be a child in Hertfordshire in Victorian times. We showed them photos of children who worked as chimney sweeps and told them the story about one small boy, just ten years old, who died whilst cleaning a chimney. Sadly, he fell face down in the soot and suffocated. We were also able to show them a photo of a descendent of the young boy's family, a gentleman who still visits us today. They were fascinated!'
There is no charge for consulting the records. A range of different documents and photographs can be copied for a fee, subject to their condition and copyright restrictions. The centre also offers an enquiry service for those people who are unable to visit personally or carry out their own research.


Hertfordshire Archives
& Local Studies
County Hall, Pegs Lane
01438 737333

Hertford Museum
18 Bull Plain
01992 582686

Castle Hall
The Wash
01992 531500

Hertford Town &
Tourist Information Office
10 Market Place
01992 584322

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