Hitchin history walks
PUBLISHED: 18:49 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 18:49 13 October 2014
A walk through Hitchin will take you back centuries and in the footsteps of royalty, inventors and reformers. Sandra Smith meets two town guides passionate about its history both ancient and modern
The roots of a town and how its history is preserved and portrayed is not only a measure of its past, but an indicator of the importance residents today regard their heritage. Acknowledging the role people have played in the community, industry and education, and conserving architecture helps shape the current townscape and attitudes. At the very least, recognising local history is informative, entertaining even. In the ancient market town of Hitchin there is a wealth of social and economic legacy upon which to draw. Hence the popularity of its history walks.
Town historian and former local newspaper editor Terry Knight’s tour begins at the ancient and imposing St Mary’s Church in the centre of town. ‘The first church burnt down and the second had a number of disasters but the present one was built on the proceeds of the wool trade,’ Terry explains.
One of the country’s most influential conductors, Sir Henry Wood, having been taken ill during his tour of provincial cities in 1944, died in Hitchin Hospital and his funeral service took place in the church.
From the church Terry guides visitors through Market Place, a square lined with a wide range of architecture ranging from the Tudor Rose and Crown and Gatwards jewellers shop to the Victorian Italianate former Corn Exchange, then down to the narrow and winding Bucklersbury and Tilehouse Street where there are buildings dating back to the 16th century. ‘This is the medieval centre – the town grew from here,’ Terry says.
Turn up Bridge Street and you will find the former Carmelite Hitchin Priory, which dates to the 14th century. The Radcliffe family took up residence upon the dissolution and establishment of the Church of England in Henry VIII’s reign. They bought the Priory Estate in 1548, remaining there until 1965 during which time the family played an important part in the social and cultural development of the town. Today the building is a hotel and events venue.
Moving away from the medieval heart and up Bridge Street over the River Hiz (a stream at this point now almost hidden by buildings), the walk takes in the Lord Lister Hotel. This was the site of a school attended by Joseph Lister, who went on to develop antiseptic surgery (the county’s main hospital in Stevenage is named after him). The frontage is a fine example of early 19th century architecture and a traditional coach archway is evocative of its former years.
Terry points out the nearby British Schools Museum, explaining its educational significance: ‘Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker interested in education. He gave a lecture in Hitchin and a local solicitor, William Wilshere, liked the idea and erected a school in 1837. Lancaster had the idea of educating a lot of children by one master. This became known as the Lancasterian method.’
Another town resident who conducts walks in the area is Audrey Stewart. She leads a Hitchin Triangle Walk covering an area developed with the coming of the railway in 1850 around Walsworth, Nightingale and Verulam Roads near the station.
The Church of the Holy Saviour, designed by Victorian Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield, is the starting point for these tours. Surrounding buildings include almshouses as well as the old school and orphanage, both of which are now residential accommodation. A walk along Walsworth Road, the main thoroughfare into town, reveals Victorian villas which once housed managers and railway bosses.
‘There were two temperance hotels along here,’ Audrey points out, ‘And this is where one of Hitchin’s big family businesses – Brookers hardware shop – started.’
Dacre Road, she says, may be mostly humble terraced cottages, yet it boasts a royal connection. ‘The late Queen Mother attended a small day school in this road with her younger brother. She was about four or five years old. Her family home was at nearby St Paul’s Walden Bury.’
The tour then crosses over into Nightingale Road which runs alongside a large recreation ground, the open area was given to the town for leisure use in 1927 by the Ransom family.
Verulam Road, once part of a large estate at the end of the nineteenth century, became a residential area in the early 1880s. Audrey remarks on other past landmarks such as the British Bacon factory located here at the beginning of the last century. ‘For about 100 years this area was self-sufficient with businesses, small shops, schools, hotels, places of worship and a market garden.’
Several eateries and pubs still cater for the community including the Radcliffe Arms, built in red London brick and originally owned by local brewers, Hall and Hall.
There are many more layers to Hitchin’s history, hinted at in the many blue plaques in the town. One is dedicated to William Ransom, founder of the UK’s oldest independent pharmaceutical company who lived at Bancroft, the family farmhouse. Inventor Sir Henry Bessemer, who patented a method of producing cheap steel, resided in the neighbouring village of Charlton. While Girton College (now a nursing home) was established in 1869 at Benslow House as a college for women and began with a handful of students. Its position was considered to be an acceptable distance both from Cambridge and London as not to distract the female students.
Architecture, famous people or culture, whatever stimulates your interest, Hitchin has much to offer. So take the opportunity to absorb its history. The town has much going on behind its doors.
Terry Knight’s monthly Sunday walks can be joined by calling Hitchin Initiative on 01462 453335.
Audrey Stewart’s walks are arranged at dates and times to suit groups. Call 01462 453353.