‘It is old-world England wherever we turn in this small town, with one of England’s smallest rivers flowing by Hertfordshire’s biggest church.’
So wrote the 1930s travel writer Arthur Mee. There is still a timeless quality to this historic Hertfordshire market town, nestling at the end of the Chiltern Hills on whose slopes once grazed the sheep that provided the town’s wealth. Winding lanes radiate from the spectacular medieval church, lined with photogenic buildings, a compendium of domestic architecture through the ages and, accounting for its popularity as a TV film location, Dr Foster, Morse and Humans to name three.
Picturesque pubs jostle for trade alongside cosmopolitan eateries. Market day is still held each Saturday, as it has been for centuries and many independent shops including Gatwards, the oldest jewellery shop in the Country, in the same premises since 1760, compete to occupy your visit.
The Romans knew this area well, 20 miles away lay the Roman city of Verulamium ( St.Albans), but Hitchin’s name derives from the Anglo-Saxon Hicca tribe who dwelt here in the 7th century. A hundred years on, Offa, King of Mercia, founded a Benedictine community on the site of St.Mary’s parish church. This was a prestigious establishment, designated a ‘minster’ and ‘royal manor’ with a landholding of 600 acres.
St. Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church still dominates the townscape, the largest and one of the most impressive Hertfordshire churches. The greater part dates from the 15th-century, a period of frenetic church building in England, driven by piety and the wealth derived from wool. Though 17th century Hitchin was a centre of Puritanism, the tower bears a sundial, with the inscription ‘1660 the year of salvation’, a reference to the restoration of the monarchy following the turbulent years of civil war and republican rule. During this period soldiers of Oliver Cromwell`s Army had been garrisoned in the church and defaced much of the medieval iconography. Over the north door hangs a painting from the studio of Peter Paul Rubens, entitled ‘Adoration of the Magi’. It was gifted to St.Mary`s in the 1800s, long after those soldiers had left!
Not all Hitchin clerics were saintly, one of the most unpleasant was Francis Bragge, the vicar in the early 1690s. His memorial describes him as a ‘Labourer in Christ’s vineyard’. He made ‘sinners’, those he disliked, stand in the chancel draped in white sheets and took a sadistic delight in persecuting ‘witches’, His book about witch finding ran to five editions and made him rich. A notorious drunk, he maintained a brew-house for his private use, before and after services!
1 George Chapman 1559 -1634 poet, translator and playwright. His work influenced Shakespeare.
2 Joseph Lister 1827-1912 pioneer of antiseptic surgery. The `Lord Lister Hotel` is his former school.
3 Sir Henry Bessemer 1813-98 inventor, the `Bessemer furnace` revolutionised steel production.
4 Sir Henry Wood 1869-1944. orchestral conductor established the BBC Promenade concerts. Funeral held at St.Mary`s.
5 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother 1900-2001. Birth registered in Hitchin, childhood spent at St.Pauls Walden Bury, the Bowes-Lyon family seat, 4 miles away.
Hitchin grew rich on wool, tanning, grain and brewing. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth 1st claimed to prefer ‘Hitchin grapes’ (ale) to ‘Spanish wine!’ By the 18th-century, 300 cartloads of barley and corn were sold each market day. The town’s location on the main route north guaranteed success as a staging post for travellers. Many former coaching inns are still in business today, their stagecoach size archways (gazunders) now lead to a car park or garden.
Lavender was first grown in Hitchin during the 1500s, by 1800 it was a major local industry. In 1851 Queen Victoria, travelling on the new Great Northern Railway, stopped at Hitchin so that she could be presented with a bottle of essential oil. You can visit Hitchin’s lavender farm, 25 miles of lavender rows through which you can walk and pick your own flowers.
Just 10 miles long, one of England’s smallest rivers, the Hiz rises a mile south of Hitchin. Its name is a medieval abbreviation of ‘Hitch’ and should be so pronounced, nobody does. Once used by local industry as a sewer, it is now a tranquil and clear flowing brook.
North Hertfordshire Museum. 90 million years of local geology, history, culture and folklore.
British Schools Museum: Founded in 1810 and once common throughout the English speaking world, visit the last surviving ‘monitorial school’ building, in which brighter pupils, under the guidance of the schoolmaster, delivered lessons to their peers. Museum and hands-on exhibitions.
Hitchin is 35 miles north of London, midway to Cambridge. Easily accessed by road or rail.
Greg Laing is a London Blue Badge guide and enthusiast for Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk.