In 1932, we moved from Welwyn Garden City to a house a few miles north of the Hertford road in what is now New Road, Digswell. It is a very attractive area, situated in the Mimram river valley near Welwyn North Station, on the London and North Eastern Railway, which was the main line from King’s Cross, London to Edinburgh, now the East Coast Main Line. Just before the train arrives at Welwyn North Station going north, there is a famous brick viaduct carrying the railway line over the valley of the River Mimram, a tributary of the River Lea. It is a fine example of a civil engineering structure, over 1500ft long with 40 arches the biggest of which is 100ft high above the river valley. It was designed by Lewis Cubit and built by the contractor Thomas Brassey, with Irish labour, at a cost of only £70,000. I dread to think how many millions it would cost today. It was opened by Queen Victoria in 1850. The present problem is that it only has 2 tracks, but needs four, which would mean constructing two new tunnels north of the station, which would be very costly. There was a well used pub called The Cowper Arms on the west side of the station, opened to provide for the Irish labour working on the viaduct. No doubt thirsty work at any time.
The house my father bought in Digswell, was in the unmade road, now called New Road, near the bottom of the hill at the Hertford Road end. The house had the ghastly name of ‘The Hut’. How anybody could name a large and attractive house with that name is beyond belief! Needless to say, it was immediately renamed by my mother, ‘Aldwick’, after the village where we used to stay on holiday near Bognor in Sussex. By one of those strange coincidences in life, while in an antiquarian bookseller’s shop in Lincoln, opposite the Cathedral, I found a pile of old bound copies of The Architects Journal. Going through the books for 1932, I came across an article Reconstructed house at Welwyn from designs by the architect Geoffrey R. Barnsley. This was the house my father bought, and if I have identified it correctly during a recent visit, it is now called Oakdene, No.12 New Road, but there are no extant records to be found in the council’s archives.
The Unity Heating System
The article includes plans of the alterations and pictures of the exterior and inside of the furnished downstairs rooms. In the days before houses had central heating, a firm called Young, Osmond & Young started up as makers of tubular electrical heating known as the “Unity” heating system. When the house was being altered, the architect recommended installing this new heating system in the drawing and dining rooms. The designer of tubular heaters was, I think, my art master from school, Mr. L. van de Straeten, who was then living in the Garden City. They were not very attractive to look at, brown in colour, but effective in providing room heating as an alternative to a central heating system, which was not very common for domestic heating in the early 1930s. As an indication of that period, I like this quote from the article: ‘All the cooking is carried out in the old scullery, leaving the kitchen as a comfortable maid’s sitting room’ We seem to have moved up the scale with living-in servants. I fact, without boasting, we did have two living-in maids, a part time cook and a gardener!
Gardens and a Tennis Court
The house had a large garden, with a grass tennis court and vegetable garden, where we grew most of our everyday soft fruit and vegetables. There were also a number of rose beds below the tennis court, which were my mother’s pride and joy. When I visited the house recently, it was so altered that I didn’t recognise it from the exterior. The tennis court had disappeared and half the garden had become part of another large house next door, so close that it spoilt the property. The modern double garage was also an eyesore, but perhaps I wasn’t looking at the house in the above article that I remember. It needs some further research with the help of the present owners. The eastern boundary hedge to our garden, was adjoining the land of Sir Alfred Beit’s Estate, where we used to go on Boxing day for the meet of the local hunt. The gamekeeper became a friend of mine and taught me to use my air rifle and allowed me to shoot rabbits and rooks on the estate. I became very fond of rook pie and rabbit stew, made for me by our cook.
Sherbet Dabs and Gobstoppers
My mother and I frequently walked from Digswell to the Welwyn Stores, and back, after doing the shopping, going down the lane under the famous viaduct to the Hertford road. In those days one walked several miles, instead of getting into the car to drive there and back. The only shop in the village was in a row of cottages on the north side of the Hertford road, where I could buy a variety of sweets from farthing bootlaces to sherbet dabs and gobstoppers, liquorice allsorts and fruit drops, all for one old penny. Tizer bottles of drink always created a problem: whether to get the penny back on the empty bottle or break the neck and recover the marble in it! Probably the money took preference most of the time. The woman behind the counter was physically big, which was a good advertisement for eating sweets. I must have carried this with me into old age, as I do have a sweet tooth.
I remember Martin Dent, the book publisher, his wife, and daughter Penny, who lived next to the blacksmith’s forge, just south of the Hertford road junction. He was the son of Dent the publishers; and Frank Wells (son of the famous author H.G. Wells) and family, lived in the Mill House. I used to swim in the Mimram river with my cousin Jim Hall, near the culvert under the Hertford road, just up stream from the mill.
I used to help the blacksmith sometimes, with various items he was making in wrought iron at the forge. My father bought an external light made by him, with horn panels, for the outside corner of the house, where there were steps down to the garden and the front door. Again, from memory, my uncle Harold Hall was a tenant farmer, living in Digswell Water Farm near the junction of Digswell Lane and the Hertford Road. It had a large garden with a tennis court next to the house, as well as the farm buildings. I used to help there in the summer, probably a nuisance to the farm labourers working on the harvest.
The Flying Circus
At that time there were no other children of my age living in the area, so I had to make my own amusements. One was to construct a small go-kart, without engine, but with a chassis made from a pram frame and wheels, but no brakes. On a few occasions I came off and suffered minor injuries, which my mother had to sort out, but it was great fun trying to reach the bottom of the hill without mishap. My mother was very glad when I gave up using it. One exciting event was being taken to Alan Cobham’s flying circus and going up in an open biplane with my father and hanging over the side to look at the people below and the countryside. After we had landed, I remember my mother being very angry and berating my father for putting me to such a risk. This was my first ever flight. When I think of the thousands of miles I must have flown, both during and since the war, travelling to the Far East, Africa, east and south; Australia and New Zealand, and America, it was a small start.
Dancing to the Big Bands
I used to cycle regularly to the Clock Roadhouse in Welwyn, in the summer, to use the large swimming pool. My sister celebrated her 21st birthday party there in August 1934. The dance hall was, I think, upstairs, with music for dancing provided by a radiogram, which I was allowed to operate, with the 78rpm records of the big bands, which were all the rage at this period. The leading bands of the 1930s were Henry Hall & his Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers, Ambrose, Billy Cotton; Edmundo Ross, Paul Whiteman, Carol Gibbon and his orchestra; Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. The popular songs of the period were sung by Maurice Chevalier Thank God for Little Girls; Gracie Fields The Greatest Aspidistra in the World; Al Bowley’s Good Night Sweetheart; Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen; Bing Crosby’s Pennies from Heaven and Fred Astaire’s Top Hat. One of my favourites was Stephane Grapelli and his partnership with Django Reinhardt in the Quintette du Hot Club de France, formed in 1934. I bought many of their records, and of the big bands like Duke Ellington, which I could go on listening to today, when they are occasionally heard on the radio.
The Beehive Works
A local family I remember were the Taylors. He was the manager of the Beehive Works and lived just near the factory by Welwyn North station. It was from this factory I used to buy timber for various DIY jobs at home. Taylor’s wife was an excellent amateur pianist, and I loved to hear her play Chopin and others of my favourite composers. This meant persuading my mother to take me there for tea, or at least for a short stay for her to play for us. In 1935, due to the depression, we left Digswell and moved to Highgate, north London