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Episode 38: Hertfordshire

Where is Hertfordshire?

In our thirty-eighty episode, we mentioned lots of interesting places and things in Hertfordshire, so here are some pictures and links if you'd like to find out more.

Hertford Castle

Hertford Castle Gatehouse is a Grade I listed building, originally built on the site of a Norman Castle situated by the River Lea in Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire. This magnificent Grade I listed building dates from the mid 15th century situated in beautiful grounds at the heart of Hertford. 

The Castle was a Royal Palace for over 300 years where Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her childhood. Hertford Castle Gatehouse is all that remains of Hertford Castle. The impressive building is set in secluded grounds, hidden from view by the surrounding 12th century flint and stone wall.

Beech Bottom Dyke

Beech Bottom Dyke, is a large ditch running for almost a mile at the northern edge of St Albans, Hertfordshire flanked by banks on both sides. It is up to 30 m (98 ft) wide, and 10 m (33 ft) deep, and it can be followed for three quarters of a mile between the "Ancient Briton Crossroads" on the St Albans to Harpenden road until it is crossed by the Thameslink/Midland mainline railway at Sandridge. Beyond the railway embankment it continues, to finish just short of the St Albans to Sandridge road. This part is not accessible to the public.

It was constructed towards the end of the Iron Age, probably between 5 and 40 AD. This, and other similar earthworks in the district, may have been built by the powerful Celtic tribe established in this area, the Catuvellauni, probably by King Cunobelinus to define areas of land around their tribal centre at Verlamion - the predecessor of the Roman city of Verulamium.

Beech Bottom Dyke is thought to have originally been part of a defensive system for a Belgic settlement. Other defences are the Devil's Dyke and another ancient earthwork known as "The Slad". These may have created a defensive earthwork running from the River Lea to the River Ver enclosing a very large area.

Welwyn Roman Baths

The Welwyn Roman Baths are a Roman ruin preserved under the A1(M) just north of modern-day Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England. The baths were a small part of the Dicket Mead villa, which was originally built in the 3rd century AD.

The village of Welwyn has been described as being the site of a Romano-British settlement, where a Roman road crossed the river Mimram.There was another Roman villa near Welwyn on the Lockleys estate.

The full extent of the Dicket Mead villa was never fully excavated prior to the construction of the motorway, but the baths were only one of at least four buildings in total. The complex was probably part of a farm. It has been speculated that it might have been at least in part the equivalent of a hotel, lying as it does near Roman roads.

The ruins were uncovered in 1960 by local archaeologist Tony Rook, and the baths were gradually uncovered over the following 10 years by excavation. Shortly after the excavation was completed, the Ministry of Transport announced the route of a new motorway, straight over the top of the excavation.

Hatfield House

In 1611, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury built his fine Jacobean House adjoining the site of the Old Palace of Hatfield. The House was splendidly decorated for entertaining the Royal Court, with State Rooms rich in paintings, fine furniture and tapestries.

Superb examples of Jacobean craftsmanship can be seen throughout Hatfield House such as the Grand Staircase with its fine carving and the rare stained glass window in the private chapel. Displayed throughout the House are many historic mementos collected over the centuries by the Cecils, one of England’s foremost political families.

Hatfield House was completed in 1611. It was built by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury and son of Lord Burghley, the chief minister of Elizabeth I. The deer park surrounding the house and the older building of the Old Palace had been owned by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who had used it as a home for his children, Edward, Elizabeth and Mary. It was while she was living in the Old Palace, in 1558, that Elizabeth learned of her accession to the throne.

Knebworth House

The romantic exterior of Knebworth House with its turrets, domes and gargoyles silhouetted against the sky does little to prepare the visitor for what to expect inside.

The House has stood for many years longer than the Victorian decoration suggests; the stucco hides from view a red brick house dating back to the Tudor times. Knebworth House first achieved fame in Victorian times as the home of the novelist, playwright and politician Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton; author of the words “it was a dark and stormy night” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

Other notable family members include Lady Constance Lytton, Hertfordshire’s own Suffragette and the Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who married into the Lytton family.

Every generation of the Lytton family has left something of its style and taste; making Knebworth an extraordinary walk through 500 years of British history. Stories and heirlooms reflect the family’s contribution to literature, politics and foreign service; alongside visits by characters as diverse as Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and Liam Gallagher.

St Albans Cathedral

Little is known of the early churches built over Alban’s grave. The Shrine of St Alban was the reason for the Abbey’s foundation and the town that grew up around it, and it is said that King Offa of Mercia founded a monastery here in 793.

After the Norman invasion of 1066, William the Conqueror appointed Paul of Caen as the first Norman abbot of St Albans and commissioned a new church. Paul started his great rebuilding of the Abbey with the Tower, which still stands today. This Norman church was built from bricks and tiles saved from the ruins of Roman Verulamium. This ambitious project was completed in 1115, under the rule of Abbot Richard d’Albini.

The only English pope, Adrian IV, was born locally and granted special privileges to the Abbey, enhancing its reputation and power.

In 1213 St Albans Abbey was the meeting place for a group of churchmen and nobles. Their discussions led to Magna Carta which was reluctantly sealed by the king at Runnymede in 1215.

Sopwell Nunnery

Commonly called Sopwell Nunnery, the ruins here are actually those of Lee Hall.

Sopwell Nunnery was founded on this site in 1140 but the atmospheric ruins that are visible today are the remains of a mansion belonging to an adviser of Henry VIII.

In 1540, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII granted the land to Sir Richard Lee, a soldier, engineer and member of the king's court. Sir Richard Lee demolished the nunnery and built a house on its foundations. The romantic ruins you see today are all that remain of Sir Richard Lee's Tudor mansion.  

Nomansland Common

Nomansland Common (sometimes simply called No Man's Land) is an area of common land in Hertfordshire, England to the south of Harpenden and the south-west of Wheathampstead.

In 1460 the Second Battle of St Albans was fought on Bernards Heath, and part of the conflict (the flight of the Yorkists) occurred on the common. In the 18th century, cannonballs and 25 skeletons were recovered from the site, and are believed to date from the battle.

In the 17th century brigands and footpads preyed upon travellers around the common, the most famous of which was the "Wicked Lady", a highwaywoman claimed, after her death, to have been Lady Katherine Ferrers of Markyate. Ferrers Lane, which runs through the middle of the common, takes its name from her, and her exploits are the subject of two films of that name. Also, a pub on the edge of the common is called The Wicked Lady.

Minsden Chapel

When Hertfordshire historian Reginald Hine died in 1949,  per his wishes his ashes were spread on the site of the ruins of the Minsden chapel, where several years earlier he had promised to “endeavor in all ghostly ways to protect and haunt its hallowed walls.” 

The chapel, built in the 14th century in the fields near Preston, fell into decline during and after the Reformation. As the congregation dwindled the building was neglected. Pieces of the chapel were stolen— the wood and stone work, the bells, and the furniture—until the building was nothing more than a shell that slowly crumbled and was engulfed by moss and ivy.

Ironically, this crumbling aesthetic made the chapel all the more picturesque, and it became popular for local weddings. In the last officially recorded wedding at the chapel, it was reported that the structure was so insecure a segment of roofing collapsed during the ceremony, narrowly missing the curate’s head and knocking the service book from his hands.

In 1907, a photographer clicked a picture of a ghostly figure resembling a monk outside the chapel. The local legend mill worked overtime for a while, with local reporters and residents spending nights near the chapel hoping to catch a glimpse of the phantom figure. Five years later, the photographer confessed that his photo was a hoax.

North Hertfordshire Museum

North Hertfordshire Museum, displays collections relating to local history and heritage. It is located adjacent to the refurbished Hitchin Town Hall on Brand Street, Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

The museum has three galleries containing permanent exhibitions – Discovering North Herts, Living in North Herts and The Terrace Gallery – and one containing temporary exhibitions:

Discovering North Herts

This gallery follows the story of the district in chronological order. It highlights how and why North Hertfordshire has transformed over time, from 90 million years ago when it was underwater, to the urban planning that has shaped the district today.

Living in North Herts

This gallery is arranged thematically, to draw out similarities and differences between how people lived at different times in the past. The principal themes include Living off the Land, Fun and Games, Making and Selling, and Cradle to Crave.

The Terrace Gallery

This gallery is also arranged thematically. It includes the Football Collection, the first established in England by Vic Wayling, secretary of Hitchin Town F.C., opening in 1956 and transferred to Hitchin Museum and Art Gallery in the 1980s. There is also a case Collecting the World, in which objects from every continent are displayed.

Henry Trigg's Barn

In the early eighteenth century, Henry Trigg was a wealthy grocer, living in Stevenage. He was also a church warden at St Nicholas Church and, according to legend, one night he and two of his colleagues were passing the church when they were attracted by noise, and flickering lights coming from within the church grounds. Making their way to the surrounding wall they looked over and saw body snatchers, removing the remains of the newly-buried corpse for sale to surgeons and students in training at a medical school.

The sight had such an effect on Henry that he decided he would take all possible steps to ensure that such a fate did not befall him after his own individual death.

So, in his will Henry bequeathed all his earthly wealth to any friend and relatives on one condition however – his body must be “decently laid there [in the recipient’s house], upon a floor in the roof”.

After his death in 1724 his brother, The Rev Thomas Trigg, took on the responsibility and agreed to fulfil Henry’s request. Henry’s remains were sealed in a coffin and placed, on full view, among the rafters of the barn at No 37 High Street.

Tomb of Piers Shonks

In a recess in the north wall of the nave in St Mary’s Church, Brent Pelham, is an elaborate ancient tomb (see images below). Its black marble bears many symbols, including those of the four Evangelists, and also a large cross thrust into the jaws of a dragon. The 16th century Latin inscription has been translated as:

Nothing of Cadmus nor St. George, those names

Of great renown, survives them but their fames:

Time was so sharp set as to make no Bones

Of theirs, nor of their monumental Stones.

But Shonks, one serpent kills, t’other defies,

And in this wall, as in a fortress lies.

The inscription refers to the legend of Piers Shonks, Lord of Pelham, who slew the dragon of Brent Pelham. This dragon lurked in a cave beneath the roots of an ancient yew tree that stood in fields outside the village, terrorising the neighbourhood. Piers, who lived in a moated manor house whose ruins are still referred to as Shonkes, vowed to rid the village of the monster.

Antstey Castle

Martin tells the fascinating legend of the Blind Fiddler of Antstey and his connection to Antstey Castle mound and the tunnel below it in this week's episode.

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