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In LetchworthGillian Darley
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The volumes​ of the Buildings of England series initiated by Nikolaus Pevsner unsurprisingly confine themselves to buildings and their settings, but it’s tempting to be distracted by what you already know about a place, about Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, for instance, the latest county to have its volume revised and expanded by Yale.* The mid-18th-century country house designed by James Paine is described as ‘utilitarian’ but ‘counterbalanced with magnificent and ornate interiors’. It belonged to the Lamb family, forebears of Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, Lord Melbourne and was bought in the 1920s by a Liverpool brewer, soon ennobled as Lord Brocket. Then it became a hotel and conference centre. The lake, a dammed section of the River Lea, attracts the attention of guests and delegates, just as it did the third Lord Brocket’s insurers, investigating the theft of his classic car collection in 1995. Their divers discovered that the missing Ferraris had been stashed in the lake.

James Bettley, the editor of the new volume, writes that after the near total collapse of watercress-growing and paper-making in Hertfordshire, ‘perhaps the single most successful industry that continues to the present day is that of film-making.’ Elstree Studios in Borehamwood were founded in 1914, and eighty years later Warner Brothers opened studios on the site of the former Leavesden aerodrome at Abbots Langley – they’re now home to Harry Potter World. How can knobbly Knebworth House, which looks as though it’s built of papier-mâché, compete? In 1843 Edward Bulwer-Lytton had the Tudor manor house remodelled – in Pevsner’s words – as a ‘romantic paraphrase of the Gothic palace’, reflecting his own overblown historical fiction. The 16th-century banqueting hall survived – it has been used in more than thirty films – but the redbrick exterior was destroyed. In the 1880s, Childwickbury Manor, an unwieldly jigsaw of parts from different centuries, was remodelled by Blundell Maple, founder of the Maple furniture store; in the 20th century its labyrinthine interior provided a home for the archive of its new owner, Stanley Kubrick, and a production centre for his films.

Hertfordshire remains for me a county seen through car or train windows. When I was a child, the Great North Road didn’t begin until we passed the de Havilland works at Hatfield and the Comet, a 1930s roadhouse that is apparently designed ‘to resemble the outline of an aeroplane, with rounded two-storey nose and lower wings’. In front of it stands a column carved by Eric Kennington with images of flight and surmounted by a model of the Comet racing plane. The 1952 flight test hangar and the control tower are still standing, though the aerodrome closed in 1993 to become a business park.

My half-brother, nearly a generation older than me and with a dislike of everything urban, lived in Tudoresque suburban Hertfordshire all his working life. Recently I learned that his near neighbours were two of the most socially committed architects of postwar Britain, David and Mary Medd, who lived in a house they designed and built for themselves in the 1950s. The Medds were leading figures in the Hertfordshire county schools programme. Using a prefabricated system, first to build single-storey primary schools and then two and three-storey secondary schools, they were able to roll out an enormous building project in very little time. The Medds insisted that a school’s size and internal arrangement was appropriate to the age of its pupils. Areas for messy activities or quiet study were separated by low partitions and classrooms were designed to allow in as much natural light and air as possible.

Hertfordshire has been fertile ground for utopian experiment. In 1846 a Chartist colony was founded near Rickmansworth. Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader, raised funds to purchase one hundred acres, with the aim of liberating working men from factory life and setting them up as smallholders. Heronsgate (originally O’Connorville) consisted of 35 houses to be built by the winners of a lottery, who would, as a result of home ownership, become enfranchised. The venture soon stalled on legal and practical grounds, but the villages endured. The road names – Stockport, Halifax, Bradford, Nottingham – recall the origins of the settlers and some cottages still bear recognisable traces, such as the central pediment, of the patternbook design that was used in several sites across England.

Houses in Letchworth did not come with three acres and a pile of manure, but the first garden city had its own version of civic self-sufficiency. Construction began in 1903 after a competition to design a town that demonstrated the ideas of Ebenezer Howard. Howard’s book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform was loosely based on the work of Henry George and, following George’s philosophy, the growing development value of Letchworth was returned directly to its residents. What is now called ‘land value capture’ remains the central pillar of the garden city movement. In the most recent financial year, the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Trust returned £5 million to the town. Some of it came from the dominant building in the town centre, once the American-owned Spirella corset factory, a handsome brick building with immense mullioned windows masking a solid reinforced concrete construction. After the factory closed in 1989, it was bought by the Letchworth trust and converted into offices; the profit from its letting returns to the town.

Letchworth is modest in appearance: comfortable domestic architecture set along curving, tree-lined roads – a model for numerous municipal estates in the first half of the 20th century. The plan (and many of the cottages) was the work of Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, who remained closely involved with the area. When George Bernard Shaw, who lived in the nearby village of Ayot St Lawrence, needed a garage, he asked Parker (his revolving writing hut was Shaw’s own work).

Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead followed Letchworth and Welwyn in the first wave of postwar new towns. Few realise that Hatfield was another, a town extension planned and designed by Lionel Brett, Lord Esher. Part of the site was on a hillside and Brett emphasised the topography by wrapping it with low terraces marked by pronounced curving roofs with deep eaves. In 1957 a furious gale ripped off almost fifty roofs. The young architectural critic Ian Nairn, until recently a bomber pilot in the RAF, pointed out that the geometry of the design had acted as an aerofoil (but he liked it). Brett later complained that this disaster was all anyone remembered of his architectural career. Ironically, the Building Research Establishment at Garston, ten miles away, has for almost a century tested all manner of buildings against adversity, including the Mohne Dam in Germany (damaged by the Dambusters), a scale model of which still stands in the grounds.

A thousand years earlier, Paul of Caen and Robert the Mason began the transformation of the Roman shrine to St Alban, the first British Christian martyr, into a Norman church of handsome proportions, eventually dedicated in 1115. A succession of ambitious and not always scrupulous abbots and master masons enlarged and extended the abbey church over the following centuries. Eventually the infeasible building outgrew its own strength and began to collapse. It’s now an amalgam of replacements. Sometimes this has been to its advantage – there is a lovely painted wooden ceiling in the presbytery that took the place of some costly stone vaults – sometimes the adjustments were merely odd, such as the ‘Herts spike’ that was substituted for the spire after its removal in the 15th century.

In 1877 the abbey church became a cathedral, just as Gilbert Scott’s planned renovations gathered momentum. Scott died in 1878 and Edmund Beckett, an exceedingly rich and entirely unsupervised architectural amateur stepped in. He considered the cathedral a tabula rasa, to be rebuilt at his own expense. William Morris, whose Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was resisting the march of church restorers, railed against the ‘terrible dullness’ that Beckett, soon to be Lord Grimthorpe, inflicted on ‘this once romantic and deeply interesting building’. It was, he judged in 1884, merely ‘an architectural freak’. The best criticism of Grimthorpe’s architecture, especially the conjectural Gothic Revival west front, came from the Builder, where the rose window he had bodged in, hacking out the Perpendicular original, was described as ‘a stone colander’ and the style of his work as ‘railway-station Gothic’. In 1890 the Oxford English Dictionary added a new verb, ‘to grimthorpe’, meaning to perpetrate the crass and insensitive restoration of an ancient building.

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