Letchworth: A town ahead of its time
PUBLISHED: 17:10 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013
Sue Armstrong takes a stroll around Letchworth Garden City and discovers its fascinating history and hidden gems
As the visitor arrives in Letchworth, its distinct character immediately unfolds. Wide tree lined avenues and gloriously planted roundabouts lead the way to the town centre. Rows of cottages sit quietly, almost obscured, behind hedgerows and wide grass verges, with green open spaces appearing around almost every corner.
This is the world's first Garden City, the inspiration of the great social reformer, Ebenezer Howard. His vision was to end the poverty, pollution and slum conditions he'd witnessed in Victorian industrial cities and instead create an environment that would combine the benefits of living in a town and those of living in the countryside.
After an extensive search for a suitable site for the first Garden City, in 1903 Howard's vision took the first steps to becoming a reality. Almost 4,000 acres of undulating agricultural land were bought in the villages of Letchworth, Willian and Norton, in the North of Hertfordshire. Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed as the architects and the town was planned on either side of the railway, with residential and industrial areas being carefully separated so that prevailing winds would take smoke away from housing.
Letchworth Garden City quickly developed its own style and its original architecture and way of life came from the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This focused on handcraft, anti industrial processes and the use of local materials. Many examples of Arts and Crafts buildings and later neo-Georgian architecture can be admired all around, from gabled cottages, some still dressed with their traditional cream colour-washed walls and green doors, to elegant shopping parades and handsome public and civic buildings in warm red brick.
The town's history is enriched by its many landmark buildings, each with its own unique story to tell, and the Arts and Crafts inspired Spirella Building is amongst them. This was a corset factory for many years, run by two Americans. The factory was ahead of its time offering its mainly female employees outstanding facilities including baths and showers, gymnastics classes, a library, free eye tests, bicycle repairs and even a ballroom. When corsets eventually went out of fashion, the factory closed but it has been lovingly restored and today offers modern office space, a caf and fitness centres. Its splendid ballroom is used for dances, wedding ceremonies, receptions and conferences.
Close by is the Settlement, formerly known as the Skittles Inn, which gives an interesting glimpse into Letchworth's past. Originally it was set up in 1907 to recreate the social life and atmosphere of an old country inn, but without any beer.
All drinks served at the bar were non-alcoholic, in response to the wishes of the majority of Letchworth Garden City residents. In fact the town didn't have any licensed premises until 1960 when the Broadway Hotel broke the mould.
Details about all the fascinating buildings, museums and places to visit in and around Letchworth can be found at the Tourist Information Centre. This is conveniently placed just a few minutes walk from the railway station, with easy links to London Kings Cross and Cambridge. Armed with leaflets and a town trail guide, you'll find Broadway Gardens provide an ideal place to sit quietly and digest the details. From here, visitors can look across to the magnificent fountain, the graceful town hall, the Art Deco Broadway Cinema and the Letchworth Museum & Art Gallery.
This special town has flourished for over a century and now has a population of over 33,000. Many changes have taken place over the years but every effort has been made to keep these in harmony with Ebenezer Howard's original ideals. That balance of comfortable homes, work and leisure, town and countryside, all within close proximity of one another, is still firmly in place. Letchworth Garden City continues to be a sustainable community, the dream of many town planners around the world today.
Christmas shopping in the Garden City
Shoppers in Letchworth will have the chance to stock up with some special continental treats early in December when an Italian market comes to town. Traders from across Italy will be selling a variety of food, drink and crafts from their homeland and their colourful stalls will be set up in Leys Square.
Later in the month, the regular Farmers' Market will take on a festive feel when local growers and producers stock their stalls with Christmas wreaths and plants, fresh vegetables, cheese, home made pies, meats and much more.
The Christmas lights and cheerful shop windows all add to the charm of Letchworth's lively and varied shopping centre at this time of year. The broad walkways in Leys Avenue and Eastcheap, two of the main shopping streets, make browsing along the character shopping parades a real pleasure - and an occasional feeling of deja vu for anyone who is familiar with Ebenezer Howard's second Garden City, Welwyn.
The pedestrianised Garden Square Shopping Centre has a modern mix of well-known national stores as a well as an indoor market selling a vast variety of goods from fabrics and ribbons to international groceries. Just across the road is the pride of Letchworth shopping in the 1920s - The Arcade. Here a delightful selection of independent stores can be discovered along with inspiration for some original Christmas gifts. Childhood memories will come flooding back at the sight of the traditional sweet shop with its shelves lined with jars of delicious treats - anything from kola cubes to sherbet lemons, pear drops to aniseed twists. And not to be missed is the opportunity to step back in time by calling into the bakers shop, which has been run by June and Maurice Blunt for 50 years. It's full of the smells of freshly baked bread, Bakewell tarts and mince pies. A warm welcome awaits customers together with a chair by the counter to sit and order a special cake for Christmas or just to rest a while, like the good old days.
Beyond The Arcade, there are yet more specialist shops to be found in The Wynd and plenty of health and beauty stores in The Gallery for anyone feeling the need to be pampered after a busy day in the Garden City.
Letchworth Garden City Tourist Information Centre
33-35 Station Road
Saturday, December 6
Saturday, December 20