11 May 2013

Berkhamsted, Herts

A small town in Hertfordshire

In one sense The Rex is the most appropriate name for one of Berkhamsted's best known attractions, as it was in Berkhamsted in 1066 that William the Conqueror, after his success at the Battle of Hastings, accepted the crown of England from the Saxon lords. He then proceeded to London where he was enthroned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

Subsequently, as King William I, he built up the castle, which later became the favourite home of the Black Prince, son of Edward III, in the fourteenth century. It was also associated with Geoffrey Chaucer, who was Clerk of Works, and Thomas Becket, who was at one time the Constable of the Castle. It is now a ruin, with much of the masonry and all the timber stripped out centuries ago for other building projects, but it still makes a fine sight from the railway line, as travellers zip past between London and Birmingham (and they won't see this from HS2!)

The Church of St Peter the Great was not always the Parish Church - St Mary's, Northchurch, where my grandmother's needlework is still evident in the Mothers' Union Flag, used to hold that accolade.  But St Peter's, one of the largest Parish Churches in Hertfordshire, has held the position for many years now.  I remember attending my first funeral there, that of Miss Benham, who was for three years the complete school experience for me.  Her coffin was miniscule and even though I was barely a teenager I felt a distinct sense of loss, as I imagined the black and white etching of a dove that represented Jesus' soul in her dim and tiny parlour;  she was high among the clouds, and death seemed a very strange thing at that time.


Berkhamsted, however you spell it - the local historian Percy C Birtchnell (whose Men's Outfitter's shop collapsed suddenly a few years ago) quoted 50 different spellings collected by an earlier historian (though neither of them had my daughters' version, Burp Hamster), has ancient roots, as there is evidence of human life around here at least 5,000 years ago, and the Romans drove a highway through the valley 2,000 years ago. The name actually refers to the birch-grown hamstead but, with the exception of the castle and one or two other buildings, the earliest remaining constructions now are medieval, and the house of Dean Incent, founder of Berkhamsted School, is a prime example of timber frame vernacular architecture.


The Court House is another example of Tudor construction, even though it has been extensively restored in recent times. It used to be the office of the Ale Taster, but now it serves as an adjunct to the church and families can grieve together there over a glass of wine or cup or tea following a funeral, or the Women's Institute may hold lectures there.

In the days when these buildings were still relatively young, the poet William Cowper, best known for his Diverting History of John Gilpin, though some of his Olney Hymns are also well known (God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform) grew up here, son of the rector of Berkhamsted. He may be due a revival, as his poems and letters show attention to the natural world that fit with modern sensitivities. As John Betjeman wrote, Every winter I read The Task by William Cowper, and twice or thrice those wonderful books in it where he describes a Winter Evening, a Winter Morning and a Winter Walk at Noon...... Cowper's magic power of description gives an eternal look to the cold and sparkling scene.......

Another local celebrity, commemorated in St Mary's Northchurch, was Peter the Wild Boy, who was brought from his birthplace near Hanover in 1724 by Queen Caroline, and granted a royal pension. He never learned to speak and lived on a farm, roaming the woods and fields until his death in 1785.

In the Elizabethan age the seat of power moved from the rickety castle to Berkhamsted Place, on the highest point to the North of the town. This house was a typical unfortified residence for wealthy landowners, and it stood the ravages of time until shortly after I took this photo (below) about 45 years ago or so. I remember entering the spooky and derelict shell (no health and safety signs then) and venturing to explore, but actually found little of interest as anything of any value had long since been extracted and recycled.



The Roman road through the valley of the Bulbourne, a trickle today but once powerful enough to erode the Chiltern Chalk to create the valley and strong enough in earlier time to power two mills in the town, brought trade and drovers and troops and so on and so forth through the town. For many years before the railways there were horse-drawn coaches heading north-west from London and stopping for refreshment at the Crown, the Swan or the King's Arms. While I never saw a horse in one of them (no horse walked into the bar while I was there) the King's Arms was the home of the Marjorie Behren's School of Dance, where I was driven to attempt to learn to strip the willow or prance in the manner of Sir Roger de Coverley (Julia, forgive me!)

In the Swan we funded Peter Anthony Caro's gambling habits for many years, quaffing mugs of thin beer which went from one shilling and eight pence to thirteen new pence per pint at decimalisation (not too far off a 100% rise).  For years our party included Richard Mabey, and sometimes his brother David, the brothers Robertson (one an orchid specialist the other an artist with a liking for birds), and sometimes the novelist Tim Binding, who for a while lived only a short step away along the high street above an ironmongers.  It was a convivial environment, even though Mr Caro's wife, Paula, oftentimes seemed care worn or brow beaten, but it was preferable to many of the other hostelries along the strip, including the Crown next door, which tended to be full of drunken newsreaders and disgruntled school teachers, or the King's Arms where a Hemel Hempstead kiss would result in a visit to West Herts A and E.


The Town Hall, built in 1859, was for years the market hall, but then became a pub, on the ground floor, but with an atmosphere like that of a railway terminus, it did not trade well. Now Carluccio with his southern charm has taken on the pavement, and provides those well known Italian treats, skinny lattes, as froth on the daydream for the nouveau Berkhamstedians.

It is really quite strange to have known a place so long.  Nowadays I walk down the High Street and wonder why so many people are sitting in the Gas Showroom in the evening, before remembering that it is now a refined eating place.  And where my friends the Manders lived and worked a hardware store the post office has taken over, vacating the smooth brick building where I worked for the Christmas posts and we bought our stamps. 

Berkhamsted was blessed with schools from an early era, well before compulsory education or Mr Gove. Ashlyns School was originally the Foundling Hospital, relocated here from Coram's Field in London. The Boys' School, founded in the sixteenth century by Dean Incent,

was my alma mater, and my dad's (who was himself brought up in School House, Northchurch, where his father was the Headmaster as well as being Organist and Choir Master of St Mary's). School House Berkhamsted was the home of the young Graham Greene (and his brother Hugh Carlton). It was, for fifteen years, also my home, and I can claim the indistinguishment of having refused to open the front door to the Messrs Greene one fine day in the twentieth century when I saw the tall and tweedy brothers swaying across the graveyard towards our front door. I still do not know what overcame me, but I missed the opportunity to be able to say I met Graham Greene because something inside me said, don't let him in - don't let him taint you.... So to this day you ask me about Graham Greene and my story is I didn't let him in his own/my house.....

However the school, and Graham Greene, have been good for the town. We used to have visitors from all over the world wanting to see the green baize door, and nowadays there is the annual Graham Greene festival. Norman Sherry, also my professor at University, strutted around researching his three volume biography of the author, and Greene himself set much of The Human Factor here.

Other Old Boys include the composer and musicologist Anthony Hopkins (for 36 years presenter of the BBC radio programme Talking about Music), who until he died, aged 93, in May 2014 lived on the common with his young bride; and Robin Knox-Johnson, circumnavigator extraordinary.

In the First World War, Lord Kitchener, he of the recruiting posters no less, had a camp here by the town, where later kids like me would toboggan in the winter, eroding the grassy surface of the chalk hills much more than the war effort ever did. Ironically, in a way, my grandfather, later to return here to settle, was one of the recruits who spent a short while here in training, before being packaged off to the slaughter. In recent years an extensive practice trench system has been rediscovered at the top of New Road.

Kitchener's Field

Berkhamsted is perhaps an unremarkable place - the bypass cements that concept - it is a by-water now - but it has had a distinguished past and is an attractive and convenient town to commuters and celebrities of varying kinds.  Not many now will remember Harry Worth, but he lived here and would occasionally be seen re-enacting his signature mirror trick at shop entrances.  Roger Moore, the eyebrow 007, seems to have been an inhabitant, though that would be a secret.  One of Basil Brush's stooges was a local boy; Reg Butler, a foremost sculptor in his day, lived up near where Berkhamsted Place stood; one of the first famous presenters of breakfast television, Nick Owen, grew up and lived with his family here (and some say Esther Rantzen was also here); the artists Brian Bennett and Harry Sheldon are local residents; Lady Clementine Spencer Churchill lived here and attended the girls' school, then in the High Street (which building became the National Provincial Bank when the school moved up King's Road). Slightly more recently Sarah Brightman was raised here and attended the Arts Educational School in nearby Tring Park (and may have married my old mate Malcolm 'Puke' Abbott, though this may have been just a drunken dream).  It is also the home of Ed Reardon, eponymous anti-hero of the Radio 4 series Ed Reardon's Week, which celebrates much of the attraction of the locality.

Although industry may not present itself as the raison d'etre for this modest (population c.16,000) town the Duke of Bridgewater, who lived at Ashridge a few miles up the Chilterns from the valley, brought the Grand Junction (now Grand Union) Canal through here and for a hundred years or so the traffic of barges was incessant (as a boy I remember a pair of working barges passing at least every half hour).  In 1852, William Cooper (from Clunbury in Shropshire, hence the Clunbury Press in Manor Street) started a small factory in Raven's Lane and perfected the world's first Sheep Dip, using sulphur and arsenic, brought in on the canal. Later the business expanded and at its peak produced most of the fly sprays and insecticides in the post war period.  The works finally closed about twenty years ago.

Being a bargee was thirsty work, and Berkhamsted had plenty of pubs to match demand.  One of the best is The Rising Sun, pictured above in the 1960s and below in 2013.  As an apprentice drinker I enjoyed this rough but homely establishment and was grateful that Madge never challenged me for ID.  Now I am happy to drop in from time to time (when it is not too family full!) to taste one of the real ales on tap, or to share the free snacks on a Friday evening.

The canal is still used, but it is busiest in the summer with holiday cruisers; a sign of the times, but a living memorial to a great period in our past. With the railway, the A41 and the canal towpath Berkhamsted is well connected, and in many ways represents the various stages of the history of our land.

The Rex is one good reason to visit Berkhamsted, as it is not only a wonderful art deco cinema, almost exactly as it was in its heyday some sixty years ago, with shell uplights and red plush, but it is also a superbly run modern establishment, showing great films with the possibility of enjoying a drink at the same time. 

It was not the only cinema in the High Street, however, as the Court (in Graham Greene's time, The New Cinema) was popular in my youth. I well remember seeing Tommy Steele in Tommy the Toreador in 1959 and walking out into a pea-souper fog so thick that we all had to hold hands to walk home. They don't make films like that nowadays, nor do we have fogs like that. Mysteriously the Court Cinema burned down and has been replaced by Tesco's.....

"There is mercy in ev'ry place,
And mercy, encouraging thought!
Gives even affliction a grace,
And reconciles man to his lot."

William Cowper 
Verses, supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk, during his solitary abode in the island of Juan Fernandez, 1782.

Stalwart  citizens...  a certain reunion in the King's Arms

Photo by Joe Harris


  1. Wonderful. Brings back so many memories. You and I were contemporaries but I left the area, and then the country, after school and rarely returned, at least not in the last 25 years or so.
    I used to dream regularly of Berkhamsted Place. We used to play there and it was very spooky indeed as well as being strictly out of bounds. In some of the dreams I discovered that I had bought the place for a lot of money. A strong sense of panic would descend on me, probably caused in reality by indigestible food and wine some hours previously.

  2. Wonderful essay, thank you, Richard. Remember Boxwell Road?

    All the best

    Julia Carter as was

    1. Richard's and my family were like ships that pass in the night as my Dad paid the princely sum of £14,000 pounds for the property of 2, Boxwell Road in October, 1969.

  3. Thank you for these web pages. I was a boarder at Berkhamsted School for Boys from 1955 to 1961.It was nice having a boarding school so woven into the fabric of the town. I smoked my first cigarette at Berkhamsted Place, where we used "scrump" soft fruits still growing in the wilderness there. I was boarded at Overton when Incents Boarding House had it's big fire ( front page of the Daily Express). Good Berko manners gained myself and a friend the loan of the keys to the tower of St Peters and we followed this up with trips to many other towers in the area. School House has mixed memories for me. I have a huge regret that I was never brave enough to escape that torment but I did at least assist others down the vertical fire escape ladder in the small hours. Horror of horrors was to discover, 50 years later in life, that one of my cane wielding house masters was actually a distant cousin of mine but we we taught to forgive our enemies ! Happy days?

  4. Thanks Richard, your father was my Housemaster in Swifts and taught me physics, and I respected him. I thought your mum was lovely too.

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