Stevenage

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Stevenage is a town and borough in Hertfordshire, England. It is situated to the east of junctions 7 and 8 of the A1(M), and is between Letchworth Garden City to the north, and Welwyn Garden City to the south.

Stevenage is roughly 30 miles (50 km) north of central London. Its population was 1,430 in 1801, 4,049 in 1901, 79,724 in 2001 and 84,651 in 2007. The largest increase occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, after Stevenage was designated a new town under the New Towns Act of 1946.

It was the location for two films filmed and set in Stevenage, those being Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and Boston Kickout. Spy Game was partly filmed in Stevenage but set in Washington, D.C.. The BBC sitcom Saxondale was set and filmed almost entirely in Stevenage.

Stevenage may derive from Old English stiþen āc / stiōen āc / stithen ac (various Old English dialects cited here) meaning ‘(place at) the strong oak’.

The name was recorded as Stithenæce, c.1060 and Stigenace in 1086 in the Domesday Book.

The present site of Stevenage lies near a Roman road that ran from Verulamium to Baldock. Some Romano-British remains were discovered during the building of the New Town, and a hoard of 2,000 silver Roman coins was discovered in 1986 during new house building in the Chells Manor part of Stevenage. The most substantial evidence of activity from Roman times are the Six Hills, six tumuli by the side of the old Great North Road – presumably the burial places of a local family.

A little to the east of the Roman sites the first Saxon camp was made in a clearing in the woods. This is where the church, manor house and the first village were later built. Similar settlements sprang up in the nearby areas of Chells, Broadwater and Shephall.

In the Domesday Book, its Lord of the Manor was the Abbot of Westminster. The settlement had moved down to the Great North Road and in 1281 it was granted a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market and annual fair (still held in the High Street).

The earliest part of St Nicholas Church dates from the 12th century, but it was probably a site of worship much earlier. The known list of priests or rectors is relatively complete from 1213.

The remains of a medieval moated homestead in Whomerley Wood is an 80 yard square trench almost 5 feet wide in parts. It was probably the home of Ralph de Homle, and both Roman and later pottery has been found there.

For a description of the medieval manorial records, and details of Stevenage’s history from the Tudor period to the Victorian era – see the external history link.

In 1281 Stevenage was granted a twice weekly market and an annual fair. Both were probably held in the wide part of the present High Street to the north of Middle Row. The High Street is closed for an annual fair even today.

Around 1500 the Church was much improved, with decorative woodwork within, and with the addition of a clerestory.

It was in the 16th century (1558) that Thomas Alleyne, most probably a former monk, founded a free grammar school for boys, Alleyne’s Grammar School, which had an unbroken existence (unlike the grammar school in neighbouring Hitchin) till 1989. Francis Cammaerts was headmaster of the school from 1952 to 1961. The school (now a mixed comprehensive school) still exists on its original site at the north end of the High Street. It was intended to move the school to Great Ashby but the Coalition government has proposed the scrapping of the move owing to budget cuts.

Stevenage’s prosperity came in part from the North Road, which was turnpiked in the early 18th century. Many inns in the High Street served the stage coaches, 21 of which passed through Stevenage each day in 1800.

In 1857 the Great Northern Railway was constructed, and the era of the stage coach had ended. Stevenage grew only slowly throughout the 19th century and a second church (Holy Trinity) was constructed at the south end of the High Street. In 1861 Dickens commented “The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters to shut up nothing as if it were the Mint or the Bank of England.”

In 1928, Philip Vincent bought the HRD Motorcycle Co Ltd out of receivership, immediately moving it to Stevenage and renaming it the Vincent HRD Motorcycle Co Ltd. He produced the legendary motorcycles, including the Black Shadow and Black Lightning, in the town until 1955.

This slow growth continued until, after the Second World War, the Abercrombie Plan called for the establishment of a ring of new towns around London. It was designated the first New Town on 1 August 1946. The plan was not popular with local people who protested at a meeting held in the town hall before Lewis Silkin, minister in the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. As Lewis Silkin arrived at the railway station for this meeting, some local people had changed the signs ‘Stevenage’ to ‘Silkingrad’. Silkin was obstinate at the meeting, telling a crowd of 3,000 people outside the town hall (around half the town’s residents): ‘It’s no good your jeering, it’s going to be done.’ Despite the hostile reaction to Silkin, and a referendum that showed 52% (turnout 2,500) ‘entirely against’ the expansion, the plan went ahead. Ironically, although the New Towns Commission declared the Old Town would not be touched, the first significant building to be demolished in it was indeed the Old Town Hall, in which the opposition had been expressed.

In keeping with the sociological outlook of the day, the town was planned with six self-contained neighbourhoods. The first two of these to be occupied were the Stoney Hall and Monks Wood “Estates” in 1951. Next to be built and occupied by the London ‘overspill’ was Bedwell in 1952 – The Twin Foxes pub was Stevenage’s first “new” public house and is still situated in the Bedwell estate. The public house was named after local notorious identical twin poachers (Albert Ebenezer and Ebenezer Albert Fox). Next came Broadwater and Shephall (1953), then Chells in the 1960s and later Pin Green and Symonds Green. Another area to the north of the town is modern development of Great Ashby – this is still under construction as of 2011.

At least three other public houses are worth mentioning, for they have a direct relationship to local history: the name of the pub “Edward the Confessor” (closed 2006) could have a connection to the time in which the St Mary Church in nearby Walkern was built, for King Edward ruled from 1042 until his death in 1066. Walkern’s village church dates from this time. The second pub with a strong bond to local history seems to be the “Our Mutual Friend” in Broadwater, for the name of the pub is the title of a novel by Charles Dickens. Dickens was at some occasion guest to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton in nearby Knebworth House, and for that reason he knew Stevenage very well. The Pied Piper in Broadwater is the only public house in the world to be opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The pedestrianised town centre was the first purpose built traffic-free shopping zone in Britain, and was officially opened in 1959 by the Queen.[3] By the clock tower and ornamental pool is Joyride, a mother and child sculpture by Franta Belsky. Although revolutionary for its time, the town centre is showing signs of age and in 2005 plans were revealed for a major regeneration due to take place over the next decade. Details are still being debated by the council, landowners and other interested parties.

Next to the Town Gardens, the Church of St George and St Andrew is an example of modern church design, and has housed Stevenage Museum in its crypt since 1976. The church is a ‘cathedral-like’ Grade 2 listed building. It is also the largest parish church to have been built in England since World War Two.

Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother laid the Foundation Stone in July 1956 and was also present at the consecration by the Bishop of St Albans, the Right Reverend Michael Gresford-Jones, on Advent Sunday 27 November 1960. The frame is constructed from a ‘continuous pour’ of concrete into moulds creating interlacing arches and leaving no apparent joints. There are twelve Purbeck marble columns about the High Altar and the external walls are clad in panels faced with Normandy pebble. The campanile houses the loudspeakers for an electro-acoustic carillon. A popular sculpture, ‘The Urban Elepant’ by Andrew Burton was commissioned in 1992.

In the old town centre of Stevenage, next to St Nicholas Church, in the parochial house there, called Rooksnest (“under the big wych-elm”) the novelist Edward Morgan Forster lived from 1884 to 1894. Stevenage later acquired a monument through him, when he had Rooksnest in mind as a role model for the setting of his novel Howards End. In the preface of one paperback edition of Howards End, there is a lot to be found about landmarks of Stevenage and their relationship to the story of the novel, such as the Stevenage High Street and the Six Hills. The land north of St Nicholas Church, known as Forster Country, is the last remaining farmland within the boundary of Stevenage borough. Forster was unhappy with the development of new Stevenage, which would, in his words, ‘fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire’.

Also close to Stevenage is Knebworth House, a gothic stately home and venue of globally well-known rock concerts since 1974. The house was once home to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Victorian English novelist and spiritualist, who, as reported by one of his visitors, was so deep in the belief of spiritual realities that he sometimes thought himself to be invisible while others were around.

 

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