• Richard Prosser

Tuesday 20th August 2019

Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Elevation 70m, population 33,000. We convoyed it down so Elaine's car could have a service while she was working from her clinic near there.

Wiki tells us Hitchin is first noted as the central place of the Hicce people, a tribe holding 300 hides* of land as mentioned in a 7th-century document, the Tribal Hidage. Hicce, or Hicca may mean the people of the horse. The tribal name is Old English and derives from the Middle Anglian people. It has been suggested that Hitchin was the location of 'Clofeshoh', the place chosen in 673 by Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Synod of Hertford, for the first meeting of representatives of the fledgling Christian churches of Anglo-Saxon England, to hold annual synods of the churches, as Theodore attempted to consolidate and centralise Christianity in England. By 1086 Hitchin is described as a Royal Manor in Domesday Book.

The name of the town also is associated with the small river that runs through the town. The river is noted on maps as the River Hiz. The 'z' is an abbreviated character for a 'tch' sound in the Domesday Book. It would have been pronounced 'River Hitch'. The Hicca Way is an eight-mile walking route along the River Hiz Valley, used for trade between the Danes and English in the Anglo-Saxon age.

*The hide was an English unit of land measurement originally intended to represent the amount of land sufficient to support a household (very pragmatically, including taxes). It varied a bit but was generally around 120 acres.

It's a lovely place, but I have to say that Prince Charles may be right; alongside the kind of magnificent architecture for which historical Britain is famous, such as this:

and this:

and this:

there are truly ghastly examples of hideous modern abominations such as this...

Here's where you tie your horse :-)

But then! While Elaine was clothes shopping, I stumbled across this gem. I say stumbled, but actually it's pretty hard to miss. This is St Mary's Church:

I love places like this. I don't do the God thing, so it's not about that - more the sheer weight of history. The aggregate in the walls includes river stones, sea shells, anything robust that was easy to hand. Probably bones as well, if you look closely enough (I didn't, in case I found some).

Built by King Offa of Mercia in 792 AD, according to the blurb in the foyer, it started life as a Benedictine Monastery; Offa was a pagan, who, after murdering his cousin in order to take the throne (as one did in those days), made a pilgrimage to Rome at the request of his Christian wife to meet the Pope (the things we do to keep the little woman happy, eh ;-) ).

Pope Adrian I imposed a penance, stipulating that Offa "should forthwith erect a fair Monastery", which he duly did.

The act of Regicide being suitably atoned via this offering of great glory to the Almighty, Offa the Horrible set about making the Church the centre of village life, with the nave being used as an indoor market.

The present-day one is probably more practical, even if it isn't as aesthetically pleasing.

In 1298 the nave and much of the centre of the Church were knocked down by an earthquake - yes, in Britain. Most of the current building dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, with the original foundations of the Anglo-Saxon building under the floor, but some bits of the 8th century construction are still visible inside.

Then it was on to Letchworth Garden City, elevation 75m, population 33,600, for lunch at the Three Horseshoes.

The town's name is taken from one of the three villages it surrounded (the other two being Willian and Norton) – all of which featured in the Domesday Book. The land used was purchased by Quakers who had intended to farm the area and build a Quaker community. The town was laid out by Raymond Unwin as a demonstration of the principles established by Ebenezer Howard who sought to create an alternative to the industrial city by combining the best of town and country living.

Being a Quaker Town, Letchworth was dry from about 1903 till 1958. However the Three Horseshoes predates the formation of the City, having been established in the component village of Norton in the early 17th century. Along with two other pubs, the George IV and The Fox, it was exempt from the booze ban. I can report that both the Morroccan meatballs and the Guiness are excellent.

However it wasn't all temperance and horse-drawn buggies for the Letchworth Quakers. They also invented Britain's first roundabout.

Which is still going round today, except with more brrm brrm and less clippety-clop.

Last stop was to visit one of Elaine's friends, also in Letchworth, who happens to live over the road from this place.

It's called The Cloisters, and it's current role is as the Masonic Centre for North Hertfordshire.

It was built by a Quaker lady, Miss Annie Jane Lawrence, in 1905, as an open-air school dedicated to psychology, healthy outdoor living, and arts and crafts. Quite a combination I must say. The design apparently came to her in a dream, and included dormitories for about 20 students that were open to the elements where two of the walls should have been, which would have made for fun sleepovers during winter time.

It was appropriated by the British Army during WWII, who apparently bent it rather badly through various military activities, after which it fell into disrepair, and was taken over by the Masons in 1951.

Then we got stuck in a 26-mile tailback on the M1 heading home, and had to undertake a nice tiki-tour of lots of little roads and out-of-the-way places instead of a gentle motorway cruise, at the suggestion of Google Maps. Unfortunately I couldn't take piccies of any of that, on account of driving, and having to use my phone as a sat nav.


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