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The changing face of Hemel Hempstead

PUBLISHED: 17:17 22 September 2014 | UPDATED: 17:17 22 September 2014

Team GB's Jamie Nicholls in action at The Snow Centre. Photo: James Streater

Team GB's Jamie Nicholls in action at The Snow Centre. Photo: James Streater

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Hemel Hempstead is changing fast. Now home to two of the UK’s leading centres for extreme sports, it is also undergoing an ambitious five-year £30m regeneration plan. Ewan Foskett reports on the changing face of the country’s third new town

All ages are catered for at The Snow CentreAll ages are catered for at The Snow Centre

Snowboarding, caving, rock climbing and skateboarding are not outdoor activities which can normally be pursued all-year round in England. However, fans of high-action fun can hone their skills in Hemel Hempstead whether it is summer, winter, spring or autumn, as the town boasts world-leading facilities that have put the county on the extreme-sports map.

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All-year snow.

One of the biggest draws is the Snow Centre, which has been praised and endorsed by some of the biggest winter- sports names since it was built five years ago.

The XC Centre's pool and bowl skating area is uniqueThe XC Centre's pool and bowl skating area is unique

It hosts a 160m slope and a smaller run, both with real snow, for snowboarders and skiers of all abilities.

Centre marketing manager Jenny Bletcher estimates that more than a million people have learnt to ski and snowboard here.

‘In terms of introducing many people to snowsports, it is quite an achievement,’ she says.

The team is pleased to see many adults and juniors enjoying the facilities on and off the slopes. Whether they are learning to ski or board, whizzing down the slope on a ringo or enjoying a meal in the centre’s Lodge Bar and Kitchen, there is something for everyone.’

The caving system is the largest in the UKThe caving system is the largest in the UK

While new riders have been introduced to the thrills and spills of snowsports at the centre, it has also been used by some of the country’s best.

Team GB snowboarder Aimee Fuller, who competed at the Sochi Winter Olympics this year, is one of the facility’s biggest champions, and believes the centre can help young developing athletes. ‘One of the best days at the Snow Centre was straight after the Olympics when we flew back from Sochi and headed straight there for a session,’ she says. ‘It was so memorable as there where so many people there riding and just stoked on snowboarding, and that was the coolest thing to see, just the place packed with tons of new people trying the sport we love.’

Other elite pros have designed runs for the course in the ice-cold centre, which has temperatures averaging around six degrees, creating a year-round perfect piste.

Jenny Bletcher did not want to say if the Dacorum Borough town was the main destination for thrill-seekers and extreme-sports fans in the UK. ‘That would be a matter of opinion. But the centre is the newest indoor real-snow skiing and snowboarding destination, with the largest lesson slope in the UK.’

The tree-lined vision for Marlowe's shopping zoneThe tree-lined vision for Marlowe's shopping zone

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Caving, climbing, skating.

Away from the icy home of snow sports, Hemel Hempstead is home to another one-of-a-kind all-year site for extreme activity.

The XC Centre is a £5.2m government-funded facility which has been entertaining visitors since 2012.

The Marlowe's shopping zone at nightThe Marlowe's shopping zone at night

It has been designed as a one-stop shop for thrill-seekers of all ages – with a climbing wall, indoor caving system, skate park and high-ropes course.

The caving complex is one of the largest in the world and winds 150m through tight twists and turns, recreating the challenges of potholing in natural cave systems. The centre’s climbing wall has four distinct areas with difficulty levels suitable for beginners through to advanced climbers.

The vast skate park is a draw for visitors from across the country. As well as incorporating an assortment of conventional skate-park challenges, it boasts the only indoor concrete pool and bowl complex in the UK. One of the pools is designed to look and ride like a Californian back- yard pool – the kind of place that gave birth to skateboarding as it is known today. The XC team even imported pool tiles from the Golden State to give it an authentic American feel.

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Hemel Evolution.

Hemel Hempstead is not only a destination for those looking for adrenalin-fuelled fun. If you prefer retail therapy or strolling through beautiful gardens, the town centre will soon be a must-visit destination.

Dacorum Borough Council is overseeing a £30m five-year regeneration plan that is well under way, with the latest phase of the six-stage project awarded a multi-million pound package from the National Lottery. The Jellicoe Water Gardens scheme has secured £2.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund. Work is due to start next spring.

Claire Richardson, chairman of the Friends of Jellicoe Water Gardens said, ‘This is fantastic news. We have worked closely over the past year and a half with Dacorum Borough Council supporting the different stages of the bid. We are delighted with the outcome and welcome more friends to join our group to get involved at this exciting time.’

The water garden was landscaped around the River Gade and is an integral element of the post-war new-town design. It will be restored and enhanced with new community buildings, a new play area and environmental improvements to safeguard the future of the park’s wildlife.

The Hemel Evolution scheme, due to be completed in 2017, also includes the redevelopment of the pedestrian Bank Court area that links the water gardens to the Marlowes Shopping Zone – which will also be revitalised.

Cllr Andrew Williams, leader of the council and planning and regeneration portfolio holder, said, ‘The regeneration plans aim to transform the heart of the town centre so that it becomes a place that offers something for everyone and is vibrant during the day and night. We hope the changes will attract more visitors, businesses and investment to the area.’

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