Category Archives: Hertfordshire

Ware

New River by Steve Chilton, under Creative Commons. Click pic for flickr photostream.

New River by Steve Chilton, under Creative Commons. Click pic for flickr photostream.

Sat just off the A10 near Hertford, Ware is an unassuming little English town, but it’s one with plenty of history. Not much of it is in the Hastings/Bannockburn/Agincourt mould mind: it’s situation on various thoroughfares and infrastructures has ensured it’s seen life in all its forms for a good 6000 years, making it “one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Western Europe” (so says Robert Kiln).

The London end of today’s A10 is one of the massive arterial projects of the 1930’s, and its bypass around the town of Ware is part of a number of deviations of that route from the Roman Ermine Street, which ran from London through Tottenham and Edmonton and on towards Ware. Ware was also on the Old North Road, a big ol’ coaching route, and was the location of the country’s first turnpike. On top of this, the river Lea meant that water trade was a big deal before the days of rail, and the town became the source of the New River, supplying London with something to drink. So, a fairly important place.

The town retains something of the old, quaint character: malting-houses dot the central skyline, the main road weaves past meadows and rivers, over bridges and past pillared townhouses. It’s a well-to-do location now, with a swift run into London on the train, and well-dressed older ladies serenely shopping on a weekday afternoon. We came primarily for a cup of coffee (it was one of those days) and found an hour plenty for that (alright, and some apple crumble) and the three charity shops here. You could spend longer though: the high street is pleasant and has plenty of cute-looking shopfronts. I’d suggest combining it with some other destinations: Hertford is very close indeed, and there’s close-by amenities at Hoddesdon, Bishop’s Stortford or even Welwyn Garden City, if that’s your thing.

The highlight of the visit (as at Waltham Cross, also not far) is the Isabel Hospice shop: a split-level affair, with the clothes downstairs being less interesting than an array of vintage fripperies upstairs. Some ridiculous hats here, which is always good, along with several bookshelves, a bucket of tapes, and a huge pile of Christmas decorations. Better to come here than pay several times the price at what must be the world’s biggest garden centre, Van Hage, just down the road. There’s also a newly re-branded Age UK and Barnardo’s and although there wasn’t much to buy here except for some excellent dressing-up materials, they weren’t poor by any means. Google Maps promises one or two others – I didn’t see any evidence of them, but perhaps I’m mistaken.

I liked Ware. I could easily spend time wandering along the Lea or perusing the high street by means of coffee, and the charity shops are a good combination of reasonable price and good stock. I’ll certainly be back.

Find: Ware @ Google Maps
Consume with: we had a very good coffee (and the apple crumble) in Truly Scrumptious
Visit: There’s a (small) part of me that fancies the New River Path all the way home. We’ll see…
Overall rating: three Terry Pratchetts

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Filed under 3/5, Hertfordshire

Berkhamsted

water tower redscale by slimmer jimmer. Click pic for link.

water tower redscale by slimmer jimmer. Click pic for link.

I wish it could be Christmas every day, right? Well, I’m a fan of the mince pies, it’s true, but given the mammoth hamper-construction task we’ve given ourselves this year, I think I might not be able to cope with it every day. Nevertheless, set the task we day, which meant that this Saturday was dedicated wicker search day. Running through the demographic options it was concluded that the highest incidence of basketry was likely to be our Chilterns run, so off we set.

The job was done surprisingly quickly – Gerrard’s Cross, Amersham and Chesham did the trick. Left with some time to spend, we ventured along this string of Buckinghamshire towns and arrived in Berkhamsted. I don’t know if it’s the festive cheer or the availability of fancy brownies, but I liked the place: a strip of a high street bounded by boutiques and stores mostly masquerading as upmarket, if not quite reaching the nouveau riche exclusivity of Gerrard’s Cross or the Regency elegance of Amersham’s Old Town.

The castle was beyond the limits of our stay this weekend (after all, we had to return to make mincemeat and pickle onions), but it’s the seat of the town’s history. Berkhamsted was the extent of the marauding Norman invasion back in the (10)60’s, where the surrender was made official and the keys to London were handed over. The town’s been a thriving market community since, and today houses a very Christmassy market and three charity shops.

Cancer Research and Red Cross reside at the far end of the high street and are fairly par-for-the-course charity shops. Next to the Red Cross shop was a jewellery boutique where everything seemed to be modelled by meerkats; later on, the toy shop had to announce it was out of meerkats. There appears to be some sort of conspiracy here.

Pick of the bunch, though, is Oxfam. So often overpriced and filled with fair-trade lecturing, this one was packed to the gills with lovely stuff (cf. Pinner for another good example). I could have spent a fortune on books, limiting myself to a beautiful old edition of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and two books which I’ve been meaning to check out for my course. Then there was the epic mounds of children’s clothes and a generally well-stuffed collection of other stuff.

Berkhamsted is an excellent addition to a fine run of Chiltern towns – I could spend a happy day sifting the 23 or so charity shops between here and Beaconsfield, and given an hour extra we could even pootle from here to Tring, Aylesbury, Harpenden, St Albans…

Find: Berkhamsted @ Google Maps
Consume with: I recommend the stand selling nothing but chocolate brownies, I can’t fault that business plan.
Visit:
I ‘ll be trying to find time for the castle next time.
Overall rating: four diddy wooden spoons

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Filed under 4/5, Hertfordshire

Rickmansworth

ricky!!!!, under Creative Commons from Moonezs photostream. Click pic for link.

ricky!!!!, under Creative Commons from Moonez’s photostream. Click pic for link.

As part of the rash of wealthy commuter towns in the Three Rivers area (cf. Abbots Langley, Chorleywood, Loudwater), I held out high hopes for “Ricky.” Yet, as with these other settlements when you actually get there, there’s very little worth coming for. Looking on Wikipedia, it seems the town’s main claim to fame is being included on the first page of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which isn’t really saying a lot. Famous residents such as David Seaman, Tim Lovejoy or Alan Duncan may disagree, although you’d have trouble getting a similar statement out of William Penn these days, but it seems to me just another bland, Betjemanian sprawl of wealthy suburb.

Wending ones way into the town, it looks promising – a narrow high street with overhanging roofs, tight one way systems, free parking in the multistorey, a Waitrose towering over the hilly station. In reality however, it’s an imitation of a lovely high street; the majority of buildings date from the 1920s at the earliest, ranging through the numerous multi-storey parking of the 1960s to the modern, bizarrely placed, and huge Waitrose. It’s an attempt to capitalise on a small existing community (there’s a few C17 buildings around, the low ones) in a sympathetic way. Partially successful, but it doesn’t make much of a destination for visitors of any sort – least of all niche markets such as ourselves.

There’s just the three charity shops, and referring to our minimum standards, one Oxfam. This is the pick of the bunch with some curios, among them outsize red shoes (I was a bit tempted, even though my boat-likes wouldn’t nearly fill them), collectable first editions and expensive shirts nestling in underneath low ceilings. Further up the high street, Help The Aged offers a huge but sparsely stocked space, and back down the road, Sue Ryder has another large space but again, poorly filled. I wonder if the proclaimed credit crunch is really having the reported effect on charity shops by now. It’s difficult to genuinely tell, but Rickmansworth definitely offered a thrill-free hour of charity trawling, so maybe we’re onto something…

Find: Rickmansworth @ Google Maps
Transport: Rickmansworth station is served by overground rail and the Metropolitan Line
Consume with: Caffe Nero was as exciting as we can find, although there’s actually plenty of places to refuel.
Visit: One of Colonisation‘s classic founding fathers, William Penn was a Rickmansworthite; his house is still here, and his life is on display at the Three Rivers Museum.
Overall Rating: two red shoes

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Filed under 2/5, Hertfordshire

Letchworth

Fountain and town hall, Letchworth Garden City, under Creative Commons from Gregory Williams photostream. Click pic for link.

Fountain and town hall, Letchworth Garden City, under Creative Commons from Gregory Williams’ photostream. Click pic for link.

Did-You-Know-That of the day: Letchworth should not be called Letchworth Garden City. Despite its innovation in the field of mass suburbanisation over a century ago, the modern day settlement is really just an extension of the original town of Letchworth as compared to, say, Welwyn Garden City, built adjacent to the old Welwyn.

With that cleared up, on to Letchworth itself. Or rather, into. One enters Letchworth via a grandiose, treelined avenue leading to an impressive, large-scale square cum garden arrangement, with fountains, a looming town hall structure at the end, an art-deco cinema… It’s all a bit bewildering, and so completely different from the organic, historic towns (we came here from Hitchin) that England is used to, although it does have its own interesting past.

It’s a bit of a letdown when you get to the town centre, then. It feels a bit windswept, empty of life and character. Lots of discount stores, empty shops, not many actual people. The charity shops are a mixed bag. A closed Oxfam Bookshop, a Sally Army which we didn’t spot, a Scope which we avoided in order to get out of Dodge, as it were.

That left a small but winding Mind, filled with books and local, genuine, actual punks flicking through the Playstation games, and a British Heart Foundation with – like all these shops – a decent DVD selection, evidence of a town with little else to do. I left with Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy in a handy single volume. Typically, I’d found the middle one separately elsewhere just previously. Clearly, McCarthy is like London buses in this respect.

That just leaves the star of the show, Garden House Hospice – one of the largest charity shops I’ve ever visited, on a par with the Cambridge Oxfam, the Walthamstow Sally Army and the Epping Sue Ryder. This sprawling outlet features sofas and dressers, arrays of books, Shaun of the Dead on DVD, elderly typewriters, bags of used golf balls, dresses and clothes that you’d wear to your wedding.

If Letchworth wasn’t such a spooky place to visit, this shop alone would make it worthwhile. As it is, it confuses the life out of me – I’m a bit fascinated by it all, but I don’t know if I’d return.

Find: Letchworth at Google Maps
Transport: Letchworth Garden City station, via First Capital Connect
Consume with: we didn’t linger that long. It says something that on return to the car, we consumed the rest of a piece of bread pudding bought in Hitchin, rather than find somewhere here.
Visit: The Letchworth Garden City museum could actually be quite interesting.
Overall rating: three golf balls

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Filed under 3/5, Hertfordshire

Harpenden

 

The Main High Street, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, under creative commons from bestfors photostream - click pic for link.

The Main High Street, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, under creative commons from bestfor's photostream - click pic for link.

I warn you now, Harpenden is not going to be totally fairly covered, for several reasons. We found Harpenden through our logic that where money > sense, charity shops will be good; Harpenden is one of the most expensive parts of the country, and therefore the charity shopping must be excellent. Correct?

 

Equation fail. There’s just the four here. And to make matters worse, our visit was somewhat truncated because on the way there, we got stuck behind the hunt. That’s right, not 10 miles from London the barbarism begins – or at least, some sort of bizarre ritual which includes rich people chasing something along where I want to be driving.

Which means that we got to Harpenden lateish, and therefore didn’t make it to all the charity shops (which all seemed to close at 4:30pm). I can run you through the couple I went in (Cancer Research was a pretty big shop with some fairly nice clothes, and as usual in a poshish place, some decent books. I left with Round The World Again in 80 Days by Jean Cocteau, but declined the amateurish, but large set of Lord of the Rings themed paintings. Help The Aged was a fairly standard shop, next to the station – it didn’t seem as good as the Oxfam nextdoor). A schlep up the High Street brought us to Marie Curie… which was closing.

So, an unsuccessful jaunt. I should come back. But I probably won’t. Why? Harpenden has all the trappings of success and beauty: village green; Caffe Nero for gossip; expensive houses; fast train to London; there’s really nothing of substance to the place. As you promenade the High Street, it reads like an upmarket version of Green Lanes. Instead of greengrocer/kebab shop/gold shop/repeat, it’s hairdressers/interior design/estate agent/repeat. It’s a little frightening the sheer volume of hair salons, beauticians, etc. I didn’t find the people of Harpenden to be sufficiently attractive as to prove this is a good thing. It’s a little depressing that people aspire to this kind of lifestyle though. Where’s the vim and vigour? Where’s the variety? Where’s the life?

Find: Harpenden on Google Maps
Transport: Harpenden Station, on the City Thameslink line
Consume with: I don’t recommend the Caffe Nero (worst. service. ever.) but the chocolate shop looked nice: DeAngelis Chocolates
Visit: Get out, and have a gander at St Albans cathedral
Overall rating:
two ugly cufflink

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Filed under 2/5, Hertfordshire

Hitchin

 

Church, under Creative Commons from Limbo Poets photostream. Click pic for link.

Church, under Creative Commons from Limbo Poet's photostream. Click pic for link.

There’s something a little bit familiar about Hitchin. It’s not that I’ve been here before, rather that this is an archetypal English town: cobbled market square, narrow alleys, beautiful wall writing and flourishes, huge central church, riverside walk with swans, you name it, it’s here. As such it’s a really lovely place, and thankfully, it’s not lost any of its ancient charm.

Hitchin’s been around since the dark ages, and has thrived on its market. These days, the central square is empty of traders, who locate themselves on a much larger plot to the side of St. Marys church – little of your frou frou organic breads or wild mushrooms here, Hitchin market is a bustling, proper market: odds and sods from one stand, traders barking vegetables at passersby minding their own business, a discount meat lorry with an affable brummie, offering as much as you can fit in your freezer for twenty pounds.

Just a short walk from the market, past the odd, confused, but ginormous church, all mismatched in its colouring, and over the small navigated path of the River Hiz, you’ll end up in the town square, today home to buskers and coffee carts, and a general meeting point. With a four faced clock overlooking you (courtesy of Gatwards jewellers, est. 1760), you can point yourself in any direction and find a genuine haul of charity shop goodies.

Totter south down Sun Street (carefully now, mind those stones) to Help The Aged, a spacious shop which we visited twice, thankfully finding the object of our desires still there. Wander further and you’ll find a shop specialising in Ordnance Survey maps: I chose not to visit in the estimation that I would never leave…

Go south-west of the square and you’ll find a Scope and one of the two Cancer Research shops sat on the corner. Cancer Research caters (in a small way) to the retro/vintage market with a small shelf dedicated to the same, although whoever makes the choice of what qualifies as retro/vintage may need some sort of big city exposure.

Head past the Corn Exchange to the little arcade on West Alley: here you’ll find a Salvation Army shop that closes at one, so cannot face review. More notable for me however, next to the secondhand bookshop is the wonderful Touch Of Garnish, a tiny but heaving caf which served us up a magnificent hot roast pork and apple sauce sandwich, and a first-rate bread pudding. Wonderful stuff, and wonderfully friendly types manning the station: Larry Garnish (real name!) seemed ever so proud that we enjoyed his pork, and was happy to commend us further for picking out his bread pudding.

Heading up the semi-pedestrianised, we find the second Cancer Research and British Heart Foundation, the former yielding up a brand new Peter Storm top, perfect for my cycle commute, only a fiver to you sir. Further still and we reach the Garden House Hospice, a cavernous place stuffed with furniture of all varieties and tons of homeware. We left with egg cups, and all manner of terracotta thingummies.

You can continue on to the Sue Ryder further up (we didn’t…), or dogleg back down Church Road to find Save The Children (on two levels, men’s clothes and books upstairs, offering up Soren Kierkegaard‘s Purity Of Heart on this occasion) and Oxfam, bringing you back to the square. So, totting up the number I very nearly run out of fingers: ten charity shops, all good, a variety of lovely little cafes, beautiful church and square, excellent market, Hitchin has everything going for it.

Find: Hitchin on Google Maps
Transport: Hitchin stati0n is on the Great Northern Line, and although it’s a bit out of the way, offers a half-hour connection to London.
Consume with: definitely some sort of roast pork, from A Touch Of Garnish 
Visit: Hitchin Museum, and Physic Garden
Overall rating: five complete dinner services

EDIT: on return to Hitchin, the Sally Army Care & Share was open – definitely good for a poke, this rambling shop is located nearly opposite the pork sandwich shop (yes we went back…) and is good for really cheap clothes (if you can find something you like), random objets, and a variety of kitsch kitchen machines including smoothie maker, teasmaid and best of all, chicken rotisserie for only £7.

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Filed under 5/5, Hertfordshire

Waltham Cross

from dubmills photostream

from dubmill’s photostream

The most impressive thing about Waltham Cross is… well, there’s nothing really there. Really: nothing at all. My sole reason for going was that Google Maps threw up a high incidence of charity shopping in the area, and in this it was correct. What Google Maps fails to appreciate is the massive lack of life, entertainment, happiness…

With a quick connection to the city and elsewhere, Waltham Cross should, in theory, be a pulsing, local hub – think Enfield Town, or Romford, or Croydon. But it’s nothing at all: a dingy, poorly-developed town centre, home to cheap tat stores, pound shops, ugly and tasteless cafes, and brutal, red-brick, ziggurat-styled offices overhanging the shops, giving an overriding sense of gloom. One can’t help but be reminded of the impression that Michael Moore likes to make of his smalltown Michigan home; the deserted former coal-mining towns of the Welsh valleys; the bleak nothingness of small town Scotland.

Though hardly a destination in its own right, Waltham Cross has at least a little purpose for the hardened charity shop, and you’ll find five stores open here, with another set to open in mid-November. The pick of these is the Isabel Hospice Shop: a cavern of delights if ever I saw one. Staffed by endlessly cheery Cockney grannies, this stocks furniture, which immediately marks it down as a useful stop-off (cf. Epping Sue Ryder; Sally Army on Forest Road, Walthamstow; Mencap in Tottenham); we bought a desk, and were helpfully able to pull up right behind the shop. View also for a fine selection of DVDs, shelves full of buttons and assorted sundries; boxes of football programmes… A bit more esoteric than your standard Oxfam.

Actually, DVD’s seemed to be the thing all over Waltham Cross. My only conclusion is that there’s nothing else to do here, so the long, dark, cheerless nights are spent in front of the latest DVD releases. I came away with little this time – just Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (I watched it; it’s good!), but I could have spent plenty.

There’s a big British Heart Foundation as well as a Scope and a PDSA which are more at the ‘meh’ end of the market. It doesn’t salvage what is a genuinely depressing, dead little town, sadly, but it may make it worth a stop-over (the furniture was really quite nice…).

Find:  Waltham Cross at Google Maps
Transport: Waltham Cross rail
Consume with: unless you can’t avoid it, nothing in town. I suggest grabbing a McDonalds just outside and getting yourself off to the Lea Valley Park. You can find the details here.
Visit: Royal Gunpower Mills looks quite fun
Overall rating: three pairs of stripey ties

 

EDIT: I can actually recommend a place to eat now: Cherry’s, near the cross, does some great baked potatoes and breakfasts, and is all round clean and pleasant. There’s also a huge new hospice shop here, which may make WC worth a re-post soon.

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Filed under 3/5, Hertfordshire