A walk through Hertford 2017 style

Wrenbridge have just submitted the final plans for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre after months of discussion between themselves and East Herts Planning Department, local groups, residents and more than enough statutory consultant bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust that you can throw a blueprint at.

If you really must read all about it then follow this link to the planing page and read as many documents as your brain will allow: Documents relating to application.

Bircherley Green Shopping Centre is located in the town centre bordered by Railway Street to the south, the River Lee (Lea) to the north, Bircherley Street to the east and Bull Plain to the west. This map explains it all:

Aerial view of Bircherley Green
Bircherley Green in blue (top centre) within Hertford Town boundaries

This small piece of real estate almost lost in the middle of twentieth century expansion has consumed the minds of the good and great since 2014. It is contained within the Hertford Conservation Area but as everyone admits it is not the most attractive group of buildings to grace this ancient, market town.

So why has it got everyone defending it and wanting to counter any change? Because Hertford is an ancient English market town. I doubt if anyone who has contributed to any report listed above has bothered to walk the streets recently. They might have a different opinion if they had; so I will save you the trouble of visiting the town yourself and explain how Hertford fits into this mind set.

Hertford has seen a return to the old traditional crafts of tattooing, vaping, nail polishing and video gaming. Many shops have adopted a simple Dark Ages colour scheme of black or dark battleship grey eschewing the more modern trend towards hand painted signage above the door applied with mahlstick and sable brush.

The inns and taverns that were found in almost every house the length of Fore Street and Back Street (now Railway Street and Maidenhead Street) have been replaced by bars and venues serving ‘craft’ beer from metal kegs and poured from bottles containing ales and stouts that were never brewed anywhere in the county or for that matter, the country.

The old coffee shops have given way to transatlantic coffee shops with even stranger sounding names where no face to face commerce takes place apart from a Wi-fi link and where a cup of coffee costs more than a pack of Java beans from a supermarket shelf. Thank Heavens for Rose Cafe which stands by the traditional methods and where you can still buy a traditional cup of Nescaff for under a pound and it is brought to your table with saucer almost as soon as it is ordered.

Unfortunately many staple mid seventeenth century meals such ‘boyle beef, porch, rost beef and cheese’ have been replaced by a growth of restaurants with a distinctive Italian flavour and a slight hint of Turkish. This type of Continental fayre is thought to have been brought over to this country by the growing number of Italian students eager for a sight of their Shakespearean heritage behind the modern facade of estate agents and charity shops.

Do seek out the commercial sector, many of the inns and stores that sold these hot and cold vittals are still there. Many are seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings; one or two are thought to be sixteenth century. The timber framing and plaster boarding have been protected for posterity by the application of twentieth century concrete. You cannot see the original design or view the interior as they are mostly private offices but they are all to be found in the Department of Environment List of Buildings of Historic or Architectural Interest being at least of Grade II standard.

As befits a medieval town the road system is all that you could wish for. The town centre layout has not changed much since the early seventeenth century as Spede’s map of 1611 shows.

Spede's map of 1611
Spede’s map of 1611

Fore Street and Back Street mentioned above can be plainly seen leading from Hertford Castle in the centre to the town’s eastern boundary.

Not only is the road system exactly the same as it was over four hundred years ago, so are the roads. The cobbles have no mortar to bind them, broken slabs on the pavements catch the unwary lady with high heels and pot holes peer though the thin tarmac on the surface of the roads to laugh at motorists. Hertford was built for the horse and cart and this is still the best form of travel through town although there are now no inns to stable your horses which is a bit of a stinker. But fear not, you can still park your car – for a fee – before the Beadle catches up with you.

Did I mention Hertford Castle? It did exist but the unwary visitor may find it hard to find. All that remains is the grassy mound on which the original Norman motte was built. What we call ‘the Castle’ is actually the gatehouse rebuilt by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century and then parts of it were blown up by the Duke of Devonshire in the nineteenth century.

No medieval town could be without its castle; or its market. There is a Charter Market on Saturdays which struggles to fill the available space. No longer are cattle herded down Fore Street to be sold at market behind the old inns that stretched to All Saints churchyard at the rear. I suppose this might be a good thing as they might wander along Gascoyne Way and cause traffic to snarl up all along the A414 east and west, which of course never ever happens at all in these more enlightened times.

This is why report after report from agencies as diverse as Historic England and Waste Services have been damning the application to redevelop Bircherley Green Shopping Centre in a bid to protect Hertford’s heritage and architectural beauty from the ravages of the Twenty First century – and urge us all to continue to embrace the legacy of the Saxons, the Norman Conquest, the Plague and the Poor Law.

It is now all in the hands of the East Herts Council Planing department – we await their decision.

Another nail in the coffin – Claydons gone

Looking back over these posts they all follow a similar pattern. One of closure, redundancy and retirement.

John and Judy Workman called in at Waitrose the other day and told my wife that they had retired.

John is better known incorrectly as John Claydon – the fishmonger. They had a shop – Claydons – in Railway Street for many, many years. they were a fixture in the town. A throwback to the old days of retailing where you sold produce from the window. Theirs was always half open so you could see the fish on display and choose your dinner.

On the first Fun Day I organised John set up a sea fish stall. So popular! Many locals had forgotten what simple pleasures you can get from life by eating cockles, mussels and whelks in the middle of town with a pint of local beer and a local band playing.

There was a period of uncertainty for a while when the shop lease was terminated. However they returned with a customised chiller trailer and continued to sell fish from the counter and became a similar fixture in Salisbury Square. I had an electrical point placed near Cafe Nero so that the chiller would work. Some time later a power socket was placed by the Council outside the White Hart and there they traded on every Saturday – and on Fridays and Tuesdays in Ware as well.

They were happy days. A Town Centre Manager has to have his fingers and ears in many pies and I enjoyed John’s company and local knowledge which he dispensed from the front seat of his van. We also used to stand in the middle of Salisbury Square with Mick Wentworth who ran the fruit and veg stall and sometimes Colin Sykes the jeweller, and occasionally Charlie who ran Wigginton’s for Roy Roberts until he passed away.

They’ve all gone now. Hertford will be a quieter and sadder place now. No local colour, no local knowledge, no old men chewing over the gossip. This is what some media people like to call the local business community. Perhaps they are right and I am cynical but it wasn’t that – it was just friends chatting, joined by the various traders and residents who walked by and had a few minutes to spare.

You don’t cultivate a local network by attending meetings about meetings and drinking tea in dark committee rooms. You have to get to get out there. That’s what I learned. I can’t do it any more – nor do I want to – because Hertford town centre is not like that any more.

I doubt if John or Judy will read this but I wish them a long, peaceful and healthy retirement.

So to end on a more topical note. I see that Which? has awarded Waitrose the top awards in the supermarket customer appreciation surveys.

Not the Hertford branch of Waitrose obviously because that will shortly ‘go dark’. But an ironic release considering that the day after it was announced that the Hertford, Waitrose store was set for closure the Consumers Association (Which?) stated that it was selling its Hertford site to Aldi to build a new supermarket.

Now we await publication of Wrenbridge’s planing application for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre. It’s like London buses – they all come at once.

Bircherley Green Regeneration

10 September 2014

I went out today at about 3.00pm to visit the Post Office. Fortunately I was walking. A Boots delivery van was badly parked on the corner of Railway Street behind the delivery bay. A 310 double decker bus was unable to complete a turn from Market Street resulting in a queue of traffic down Market Street, along both sides of Fore Street and into Parliament Square. There was nowhere for any vehicle to go apart from waiting for the obstruction to clear. In that congestion was a fire appliance fortunately I hope, not on a call.

What has this to do with the Bircherley Green Regeneration plans you ask?

Wrenbridge, working on behalf of Cordeo-Savills have had some preliminary consultation meetings with Councils, residents and also set up a stand in Bircherley Green on 30/31 August 2014. The plans which at this stage are no more than artists impressions lack any real detail as to measurements, materials or size. There have been comments both positive and negative on the proposed siting of a new anchor food store and the provision of 124 town centre apartments.

The main area of concern for those who attended the consultations was the removal of the bus station from Bircherley Green and the provision of a number of enhanced bus stops along Fore Street. .

Under the new proposals all buses would have to enter the town along Fore Street from the roundabout; and exit through South Street, turning either right or left. There are no lights at the South Street exit where it joins the main roundabout.

Fore Street is one way and at best restricts traffic to one lane only as on the north side there are already marked out bus stops and the the south side has allocated parking spaces and delivery bays for traders. Even so, there is not a lot of room for two large vehicles to pass.

In effect all buses will be circling the town along Fore Street, through Market Street and out again through Railway Street; along with all other traffic. At present when buses are early or catching up with the timetable they wait at the bus station. Sometimes there can be up to six or seven buses standing there idle, as well as patient passengers. There will be no room for any of this if the move to Fore Street goes ahead.

It is worth mentioning here that Hertford is an ancient market town full of buildings of historical or architectural interest; the roads were not built for, nor intended for heavy modern traffic. The impact of so many extra buses along roads not constructed for their use may well break up the surface and cause uncertain damage to the historic structures all around.

The pavements at Fore Street are quite narrow and there is not much space for all the schoolchildren waiting for a bus at 3.30pm. In addition this is the site for the Taxi Marshalling Scheme on weekends and the present taxi rank is located on the north side of Railway Street.

Most people to whom I have spoken cannot see how this can work. There are a lot of bus routes which use the current bus station and they all have to be accommodated. For many people in Hertford the bus is the only means of travel. It is a worrying state of affairs at best.

You may now understand why I began this post with the traffic problems this afternoon. The driver returned to his van and the traffic moved again. It was not a long hold-up. However it only needs one broken bus, minor traffic incident or a badly parked car to gridlock the whole town in a matter of minutes and remain so for hours.

I think Wrenbridge and their fellow consultants may have to dramatically re-think their strategy.