Saturday, September 24th 2016
Letchworth Garden City began in the early years of the 20th century. A man named Ebenezer Howard thought that people would be happier and would lead more successful lives if the traditional separation between city and nature could be avoided and to this end created the concept of the Garden City. In 1903, a company was formed with the name First Garden City Ltd, whose plan was to build the nation’s first garden city in Hertfordshire. Land in the neighbourhood of Hitchin was bought and architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were commissioned to draw up plans.
You may have guessed that the name ‘Letchworth’ was not newly invented for the purpose. It has an ancient ring to it. This is because the name of the new garden city was taken from the existing village of Letchworth. How old the village is, I do not know, but the name derives from Anglo-Saxon times. It is believed that it combines two Anglo-Saxon words, lycce and worð. What is slightly curious about that is that both words seem to mean the same thing, something like ‘enclosure’, perhaps a place were cattle are kept of marshalled for sale. In the Domesday Book, the village appears as Leceworde but other spellings before and after that time preserve the English ‘th’ sound.
We arrived at Letchworth Garden City by train, disembarking at its charming railway station. This is in fact the second station, built in 1912.
It is often stated that the station is Grade II listed but I think that that is not quite accurate. According to the record, certain parts are listed, including the booking hall (see above), public rooms, offices and footbridge. (I wonder what they left out )
Walking down from the station along Station Place, you come to what is, perhaps, the centre of town. It is marked by what are usually referred to as the Town Sculptures, possibly for want of a better name. They are surrounded by a ring of small fountains forming a ‘water feature’ and I think that water and sculptures together form a single item. I have tried without success to discover the name of the sculptor and have been reduced to emailing various parties in the hope that they can help. If I receive a useful reply I will update this account accordingly.
Update: The Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation informs me that the sculptor is Mel Chantrey.
We had no plan and set up to explore as fancy took us, taking note of anything that caught our attention. If you are from Letchworth and I miss out any of your favourite sights, I’m sorry. Perhaps I’ll catch them next time.
We started by wandering along Eastcheap looking at the shops and businesses there. I soon discovered a large bookshop called David’s. I noticed that it sold both new and secondhand books and so we went in to ask whether they had any books in French. They had, and I came away with a good selection.
Recent books in French are hard to obtain in the UK and expensive if you find them. I therefore rely on secondhand bookshops where, conversely, books in foreign languages are cheap (typically less than £2 each). David’s had a good selection of secondhand books in foreign languages so I settled down on a kick-stool to go through the French ones. Tigger took the photo!
Cinemas, like pubs, are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in a world of changing social habits and are having to keep reinventing themselves. The Art Deco-style Broadway Cinema opened its doors in August 1936, in the heyday of the cinema. It was Letchworth’s second movie theatre, being preceded by The Palace, which operated from 1909-77 (demolished 1985), whose owners also built the Broadway almost next door, such was the current demand for seats.
During the Second World War, the Broadway served as an evacuee reception centre and a synagogue. Refurbished in 1955 it acts as a venue for live music and other events as well as showing films. More screens were added and the Broadway now has four. (No, we didn’t stop to watch a film!)
This lovely park, complete with fountain, is called Broadway Gardens. In the original plan, a broad, straight road led from the main highway (the A505) into the centre of Letchworth Garden City. As you have guessed, it was called the Broadway and it was intended that it should be lined with trees and greenery. The refurbished Broadway Gardens lies on the line of the Broadway (which now passes either side of it) and encapsulates the idea of its greenery.
The Grade II listed Town Hall has a handsome clock tower and, on the side, a plaque announcing a completion date of 1935. It was designed by Robert Bennett and Wilson Bidwell. The building is now used by North Hertfordshire College.
The public library stands on a corner of Gernon Road with Broadway Gardens. The style is sober but elegant and balanced. I read that the library celebrated its 70th birthday in 2009 but a notice board on the façade, bearing the initials LUDC (the old Letchworth Urban District Council) shows a date of 1938. There are persistent reports of a ghost in this library but we witnessed no supernatural manifestations during our visit.
Nearby, we spotted this small building rejoicing in the name of Brotherhood Hall. I thought at first that it might be the HQ of a small but enthusiastic minority religious group but the plate beside the door soon put me right. It tells us that ‘BROTHERHOOD HALL IS OWNED AND MANAGED BY NORTH HERTFORDSHIRE DISTRICT COUNCIL ON BEHALF OF THE COMMUNITY’ and that it can be hired for events (just call 01462474000).
This is the Arcade, a 1920s shopping centre. It feels like a direct descendant of the splendid arcades built for the delectation of affluent Victorian shoppers and though it is not as opulent as they, it possesses a gentle elegance and provides an oasis of calm.
We next visited the Broadway Gallery in whose cafe bar we treated ourselves to coffee and cake. The gallery includes space for art exhibitions and a studio where people can engage in various artistic endeavours.
After our coffee break, we looked at the artworks on show in the gallery. The above is one of the artworks in an exhibition entitled Still Life, Sculpture and Prints by Rebecca Louise Law.
Within the Broadway Gallery is another one called the Foyer Gallery. In this was an exhibition of paintings by David Lowther entitled Copse Paintings, as they have been ‘developed from drawing and photographs of a small clearing and wood near to the artist’s home’. They are a little too abstract for my taste but colourful withal.
We continued our explorations and walked along Leys Avenue where, among other interesting sights, I spotted this stand of buildings. Over the corner door, the pargetting has been painted and certain items picked out in dark paint. This shows a date of 1907 and a monogram that I take to comprise the letters GC, though what they stand for I do not know. (Something pretty obvious when you know, I expect!)
At the end of Leys Avenue, on the other side of a road called Norton Way South, lies Howard Park. In the southern corner of it, opposite the end of Leys Avenue, sits the remarkable Mrs Howard Memorial Hall. This Grade II listed building was erected in 1905-6 and was Letchworth Garden City’s first public building. It still serves the community in providing space for all kinds of activities and events. It is a beautiful building with an organic texture and an almost poetic feel to it.
Ebenezer Howard married twice and the ‘Mrs Howard’ of the dedication refers to his first wife, Eliza Ann Bills, who died in 1904. I find it odd that she is named so baldly as ‘Mrs Howard’: surely she deserved to be referred to by her name?
Our last stop before turning for the station was at the Letchworth Garden City War Memorial. It is sad to think that so soon after the founding of this new-style town, with all the hopes and aspirations for the future that it must have inspired, a dreadful war would break out in which 145 of the inhabitants would die. Dated MCMXXI (1921) it was designed by Onslow E. Whiting (1891-1937), who was a sculptor, silversmith, goldsmith and teacher and lived in Letchworth from 1905. It is Grade II listed.
This was but a brief visit and we therefore could view only a sample selection of what Letchworth has to offer. Our impression was favourable. Unlike most towns and cities that grow up over centuries and contain buildings and monuments from different periods, Letchworth was built from scratch starting in the early years of the 20th century and still retains the character of unity that this gives it. There is a pleasant feel to the town. Perhaps we shall return and explore other aspects of it another time.