Life on the edge of Letchworth
PUBLISHED: 22:20 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:36 20 February 2013
Letchworth was a quiet rural community of around 100 people throughout the 19th century – not even a shop, school or pub were listed in the trade directories. But this sleepy scene changed dramatically with the creation of Letchworth Garden City
ALMOST 4,000 acres of undulating agricultural land were purchased from the villages of Letchworth, Willian and Norton to create Ebenezer Howards dream of the worlds first Garden City, combining the benefits of living in a town and those of living in the countryside.
Letchworth Garden City has now flourished for over a century and its population has risen to 33,000 people. Many changes have taken place over the years but every effort has been made to keep them in harmony with Ebenezer Howards original ideals a balance of comfortable homes, work and leisure, town and countryside, all within close proximity of one another.
At a time when many town centre redevelopment plans have been put on ice, Letchworth Garden City has bucked the trend. The recent completion of an 8m scheme, funded by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, has given the town a fresh new look. This has resulted in attracting new shops, easier and more plentiful parking, family friendly shopping streets and colourful landscaped areas. Further plans are due to follow with the multi-million-pound development of the shopping centre, ensuring the town keeps pace with modern times, provides everything its residents need and brings in trade from surrounding areas.
The villages that gave up their land all those years ago are still there, sitting on the edge of the Garden City, and have managed to retain their separate identity and rural feel.
The historic village of Letchworth lies to the south of the town and is approached along a narrow, tree-lined lane. At its centre is the tiny and delightful 12th-century parish church of St Mary the Virgin. It has the smallest nave of any church in Hertfordshire, which is said to be a reflection of the obscurity of the original village.
Close by is a Jacobean manor house, known as Letchworth Hall. It was built by Sir William Lytton of Knebworth in 1625 and is now a luxury country hotel. This substantial red brick building has been tastefully extended over the years and still retains many of its original features, including exposed oak beams, panelling and a minstrels gallery. It stands in eight acres of landscaped gardens and the surrounding meadows and neighbouring golf course attract muntjac deer as well as the black squirrels distinctive to this area.
Letchworth Hall has retained its romance and nostalgia and makes a perfect venue for a wedding, family celebration, weekend stay or a special meal in the fine restaurant.
Beyond the hotel, a row of 17th-century timber-framed cottages complete the charming village setting.
The character village of Willian can be found just a mile and a half from the centre of town. It has much to boast about with its picturesque village pond, 14th-century church, elegant 17th-century manor house, two pubs and the best fish and chips in Britain!
Yes, Hertfordshire may be a land-locked county but its here, at The Fox, that you can enjoy the finest fish and chips in the country. That was made official earlier this year at the Great British Pub Awards 2010, with the Head Chef, Harry Kodagoda, also taking an accolade as runner-up top pub chef in Britain.
James Nye, managing director of the Anglian Country Inns group, says, We took on The Fox five years ago and have turned it round from a run-down pub to the thriving success it is today. The food at The Fox is all about quality ingredients, locally sourced where possible to support farmers and growers. Our meat is from the farm next door and our fresh fish and shellfish are from north Norfolk.
In response to the positive comments we received about the local produce we serve in our restaurant, we decided to go one step further and convert an unused barn at the back of the pub into The Food Barn. Its really taken off and people can come in and buy the freshest seasonal foods from East Anglia and further afield, including handmade farmhouse cheese from as close to home as Hitchin, chillies from a chilli farm up the road, fine wines, quality ciders and unusual beers, fresh meat and fish and much more besides.
Norton lies just to the north-east of the Garden City bounded by fields all around. The 12th-century church of St Nicholas, with its pretty lych-gate, sits at the heart of the village with a primary school and popular pub, The Three Horseshoes, close by.
The community spirit which exists here is strengthened even more by an ongoing archaeology and history project to discover more about the intriguing past of this area.
The village has remarkably unspoilt archaeology spanning 5,000 years and the Norton Community Archaeology Group, formed in 2006, is gradually uncovering some rare finds. These include surveying exceptional Bronze Age features, which may prove to be of national importance, and excavating the abandoned medieval village which was once part of Norton.
Norton also has extraordinarily well preserved historical records covering 1000 years of its social history including manorial court records from 1244. To unlock the secrets of these documents, The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation have each awarded the Norton Community Archaeology Group grants of 10,000. Considerable support is also given by the North Hertfordshire District Council and their Archaeology Officer, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews.
Chris Hobbs, Chairman of the Norton Community Archaeology Group, says, The grants we have been awarded are fantastic. The majority of the historical documents are very hard to read, with some written in Medieval Latin. Translating them will allow us to have a greater understanding of the area.
The projects we embark on are fascinating and allow the community to be truly hands on in learning more about their local heritage and watch history unfold in front of their eyes. The main summer dig involves up to 50 people of all ages and abilities.
We currently have over 100 members but newcomers are always most welcome.