News Reviews 3

Posted on September 1, 2013

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Ugliest Town in the Britain is…

Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and Water Gardens of Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and Water Gardens of Hemel Hempstead taken by the author, Darren Greenidge


Recently a report in the news named Hemel Hempstead as the ugliest town in Britain. It came from a group called  Crap Towns Returns who do this every year.

I had to laugh at this but wasn’t surprised. You see, I was born in the town and grew up there sadly. Is it as bad as they say? In my opinion yes for it has been allowed to fall apart and be run into the ground. Money has gone ‘elsewhere’ I expect in other projects. Who knows, but when you see a town that resembles something from post apocalyptic films, then you have to wonder why it was allowed to fall into such a state?

It was never the prettiest of towns anyway but it had and still has some beauty about it as well as some interesting things if you know where to look.

Hemel Hempstead is called a ‘new town’ of which many were built after WWII to help counter the influx of refugees from a bombed out London who needed to start a new life elsewhere. Many Irish, Scots and Welsh came into England to help rebuild those towns and cities affected. Many came to Hemel and I myself would not have been born if otherwise.

I remember growing up in Hemel as a kid and not caring about how it looked but enjoying all it had to offer at the time. Now though it is all very different with technology controlling our lives with most kids playing on their X-box, iPad’s and suchlike. Also, I seem to remember being in the town centre and always meeting someone who I knew but not nowadays sadly for the town has grown, people have moved away and little of what was there when I was a kid does not exist anymore.

St Mary's Church and Spire

St Mary’s Church and Spire taken by the author, Darren Greenidge

1988 was the year the town changed in my lifetime for it was in that year planners decided the New Town needed updating with plans for a Riverside development and much ‘needed’ improvements in the Marlowes itself. Sadly though it took almost a decade for things to start moving and after knocking down many buildings including a historic pub called the Wagon and Horses which was the ‘gateway’ to the town centre and a huge building overpass that I seem to remember belonged to BP and connected to the huge Kodak building (now itself flats); the land became a derelict wasteland. There were huge iconic car parks, one famous for a large spinning orange ball on top that fell to the bulldozer when we needed car parks. Another was levelled along with a brilliant bowling alley where I spent many happy days with my loose change playing an arcade game called Gauntlet as well as bowling of course.

The Wagon and Horses pub had a couple of stunning weeping willow trees in its back garden that dipped into the River Gade, drinking from it on hot summer days. It was one of the perfect pubs but sadly I was too young to be allowed in to drink and by the time I was old enough, it was knocked down. This is not the only pub and old building of Grade II that has been levelled in the name of so-called progress.

The developer has long been a problem for Hemel as have others with their big ideas. It has become a dumping ground for commercialism, greed and blandness when it should be focusing on what it does have and can have if the planners and council would just open their eyes.

One building that fell to the developer was the Dacorum Pavilion; a venue for many shows of all kinds and host to some fantastic music. I was told by many musician friends that Hendrix had played there along with the Who and countless other bands and singer/songwriters. It was infamous for its acoustics and well respected and had a bar called Snooks, named after the local highwayman, Robert Snooks who was the last to be hanged in England. It was a wonderful venue and its demise tells the story of Hemel and the way it is now. The people get what they don’t want and not what they want or need.

It held 1500 people and closed its doors for the final time on the 30th June 2002. Apparently a study and building survey found that the venue, built over 45-50 years ago, was becoming increasingly unsuitable to meet the needs of the local community so Dacorum Borough Council made the ridiculous decision to close it down and replace it with a better venue. That venue never came and all that’s left is a patch of grass and the ghost of a memory of what was and what could’ve been.

This brings me to the towns true age. Now many that can be bothered to find out in Hemel know of the Roman Villa in the Gadebridge area, just a fifteen minute walk from the centre of town. It lies buried under a small piece of land and is dug up by archaeologists every so often to do more investigative work on the site. My idea is this. Why not do what the nearby Roman city of St. Albans has done and open it up completely, protecting it from any damage and building a small visitor centre around it to encourage tourism? I know funds are tight nowadays but this would bring in money to an otherwise boring a bland town. Also, Hemel has no museum as yet and there is much to be told about the town and surrounding area that surprises even me. I do some volunteer work in my spare time for the Dacorum Heritage Trust that I love with all my heart and have learned much from it about the town of my birth.

For instance, in the Old Town of Hemel Hempstead there were 24 pubs in a stretch of road that can be walked from end to end in 5-10 minutes. Now it has four and the rest of the buildings are antique shops; I have no idea how they survive and have been in business ever since I was a child, restaurants and many hairdressers, both of which there are too many. Oh, and a few estate agents. It was granted permission to have a market by Henry VIII and the borough was called Dacorum which was itself granted by the controversial King.

Iron Age Burial Mound, circa 1700BC in Hemel Hempstead

Iron Age Burial Mound, cira 1700BC in Hemel Hempstead, Herts taken by the author Darren Greenidge

The Old Town has a Norman Church called St. Mary’s that is quite beautiful and legend has it that underneath there is a tunnel that Henry VIII used on occasion that led out to Gadebridge Park. I have no idea if this is true for I have not come across it but a friend did show me a locked door that is supposedly the entrance and said that it was blocked up because it was too dangerous to venture under? If this is true, how about unblocking it and setting this up as part of a major tourist walk of Hemel?

Then there is something else that surprised me for which I as yet cannot find much information on except that it is supposedly Roman? Did Romans get buried in Mounds? I have never heard that they did but I’m no historian or archaeologist. Not yet anyway. Usually where there is one mound there is another close-by but none have been found so far. About a five-minute drive from the centre of town near the industrial estate you find a fenced circle of iron with trees in the centre. On closer inspection you see a rusty old plaque, two in fact. It’s only when you are right up close that you can just about read it and it states that it is a burial mound that reads as follows:

Ancient Monument
Tumulus
Within this enclosure
is a Round Barrow or Burial Mound
from the early Bronze Age
Circa 1700 BC

So Hemel Hempstead does have much in the way of history and culture but sadly it is not accessible to the general public. Nearby St. Albans has its magnificent Roman ruins and museum as well as the Abbey and Berkhamsted has its castle ruins which reminds me of a train journey from two weeks ago.

I was on my way back from Berkhamsted and sitting on the train at the station that looks out to the castle when as we passed, an American voice rang out and the owner of the voice jumped up in wonder at the castle ruins. He sounded disappointed that he had missed it and wanted to get off but then said that it looked, ‘very small and unimportant.’

I smiled at this and was going to tell him that it was one of the most important castle’s in all the land, indeed island but thought better of it, deeming it cruel to do so being as it was too late for him anyway (he was on his way to London and then the airport). My point is, you see things right in front of you and sometimes you don’t know anything about them because there is no-one or nothing at all to tell you otherwise. Also, there are the things unseen, buried, covered up or just unnoticeable as you pass on by.

Hemel is full of things like this and if more is done to open these incredible places up tot he public then it may benefit the town a hundred-fold. All Hemel has are closed shops of which there are many, a rundown multiplex cinema that sits in a complex called leisure world which is half closed (the bowling alley shut a year or so ago) and itself sits in derelict wasteland and rumoured to be sinking into the soft ground underneath; a rumour that has persisted since it was built over a decade ago. There is a huge Tesco that sits among these along with a climbing complex called the XC.

Hemel Hempstead Civic Centre

Hemel Hempstead Civic Centre taken by the author Darren Greenidge

In my opinion there are far too many supermarkets in this town; four at the moment with another two on the way, plus some of these have small versions dotted around the area. One of these new ones is reportedly in talks to help redevelop the Marlowe’s once again as well as build a new college (long overdue), library, police station and civic centre. You have to ask yourself though at what price? The redevelopment is at the wrong end of the Marlowe’s and will no doubt help to put more nails in the coffin of what still exists.

I’m guessing once supermarket may have to downsize or go (Iceland) for it is never busy anyway and this will mean a few job loses which is ironic as the new development is meant to create jobs, not cut them. What with many businesses in the industrial estate relocating up tot he North of England and many shops closing, you have to wonder what can be done to save the town? This is why I have looked at the historical side of it. It would do wonders for tourism of which we have very little, if any at all.

Hemel to me has always been like an open prison of sorts with escape routes to so much more interesting places like Oxford, Brighton, Cambridge, and even London. There are many more smaller places close-by too and Whipsnade Zoo is a short bus ride away. All are a maximum of two hours by coach from the town itself, some as little as half an hour.

West Herts College, Hemel Hempstead

West Herts College, Hemel Hempstead, Herts taken by the author Darren Greenidge

For me, the improvements needed are in the Old Town which could do with more life up there instead of what exists at the moment for there is no real reason to visit the Old Town unless you want your hair cut, a meal or a pint.

A museum needs implementing fast as well as access to historical and archaeological sites.
Less pound shops and charity shops that aren’t as cheap as they look and in some cases can be much more expensive than you realize and let’s not forget the amount of money lending shops that are popping up that prey on the weak and desperate. These need to be controlled along with bookmakers.

Then there is much-needed improvement on public transport between Hemel and other towns. I used to work in St. Albans and getting back from there after 11pm is very difficult indeed. Taxis are far too expensive. Hemel could do with a proper bus station as better links to other villages and towns so encouraging people to visit.

Yes, times are tough and money is scarce but constantly knocking down buildings and rebuilding them costs too. Just recondition what you have and make it work. Regeneration doesn’t have to be expensive or do you have to sell your soul to the supermarkets. It’s a town I have moved away from twice and lived in various parts of and when I have moved away, I have not missed it at all for it holds nothing for me except family and friends. Memories are just that for what you remember in buildings are long gone and now dust.

I could write so much more on Hemel but I need to end it here for it gets me riled at what it has become and what it could have been. Like many towns across Britain and Ireland it has become a ghost town and it will take many years, decades even, to recover and maybe become something better. I only hope that it does for the people who choose to live there. For me, I can’t wait to escape once again and sooner rather than later with any luck.

You can read more on the article in the Guardian newspaper.

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