Hertford and the living is easy
PUBLISHED: 11:22 12 May 2014
Patsy Hudson takes a trip to the county town where she finds history, festivities and a sense of easy-living
That first easy-platform access – which any newcomer arriving via the Hertford North railway station has – makes life less hassled, especially for buggy or stick-users. As does the covered bus-stop with proper seating just across the road, and the cheap commuter-parking behind the pub. Then there’s the ‘drop-off-the-kids-en-route-to-commute’ facility at the architecturally-celebrated Hertford East station.
The easy feeling seems to permeates the place locals pronounce Har’ford.
Residents even enjoyed the magical mystical experience of being driven by a bus-driver-under-instruction during deviations and detours to avoid men mending a gas-pipe leak. And that commonly-criticised chattering class – school kids bussing home – removed their earphones to talk about why those daily commutes from Stevenage or Watton-at-Stone are worthwhile.
It’s as though the town’s motto – Pride in our Past, Faith in our Future – were tattooed on everyone’s forehead.
For those considering a move here, or just a day trip, why visit the town best-known for the castle William the Conqueror built, and where the Saxon Church of England Synod met?
For starters, if you don’t live with a view of narrow boats a Hertfordshire pudding stone’s throw away from cute cottages with their own al fresco dining patios – that’s your first port-o’-call from the bus-stop.
Hertford also abounds in meeting and eating places and pubs with unusual and historical names. As former British Army officer turned CandyCane sweet shop owner Gary Palmer, put it: ‘For a town known for its beer-brewing background, we now brew a lot of coffee here!’
Most first-time visitors head straight for Hertford Castle – following in the footsteps of England’s royalty between 1304 and 1603. What you see today however is only a remnant of that place. In 1608, King James demolished the castle. What now stands is the still-imposing gatehouse (pictured on the opening page), now used as town council offices.
The castle has its first open day of 2014 this month (May 11, noon til 4pm) when visitors can tour the Grade I listed building and its grounds, as well as browse a craft market and have afternoon tea as part of a wider town art festival. There will also be a children’s build-your-own-castle competition and art taster sessions for adults.
Even when the county town is not en-fete, there is much else to absorb. Head for the museum and its famous dwarf box-plant Knot Garden, with its sundial celebrating French and German twin towns Evron and Wildeshausen. And don’t miss the cabinet of curiosities and the adjacent ‘mummified human head’ that turned out to be an ibis when x-rayed by the Hertford County Hospital in 2007.
Follow the signposts to the tourist information centre. You missed the exhibition by the town’s celebrated gay artist Ronald Wright – ‘a brave step for Hertford,’ is among the guest book comments – but you can join the town’s many skateboarders at the new family-friendly On the Move from Skates to Scooters display at the museum.
If you thought the former Richard Hale School pupil Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame introduced the town to witchcraft, meet Jane Wenham, who was tried and condemned here in 1712 for practising the dark arts (she received a royal pardon and lived to a ripe old age). Richard Mangan, a former pupil at Haileybury School at Hertford Heath, joins Grint in the forthcoming Postman Pat movie.
‘We are as proud about having educated our present celebrities as we are of those like Biggles author Captain Johns and natural selection giant Alfred Russel Wallace whose careers began here,’ says the man everyone calls Mr Hertford – Peter Ruffles.
He has lived in the same Hertford house for 70 years and been a town councillor for 38 years and twice mayor. His family boasts a 300-year residency in the same Hertford road.
The former English master has fronted three DVDs on Hertford – for those who do prep. So he merits the last word – a description of the place of ‘the fords where the harts drank’: ‘She is intelligent, well-connected, vivacious, sociable, sympathetic, compassionate, tolerant and warm. She engages with all age groups, understands the local past to accommodate modern social ways in a quality historic space and places a high value on education. In one word – quirky!’