Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.
Our goal on Friday was to explore a couple of towns on the train line between Cambridge and London. This we did, then we also had a look at a business park cum housing estate (or vice-versa?) outside Cambridge.
I failed to mention in my previous notes that I’ve forgotten the camera. We tossed around the idea of driving down to Ricky to pick it up but decided not to bother, it’d probably have been a 1.5 hour round trip from Stevenage. No photos! Quite liberating actually.
Hitchin, our first destination, won us over quickly. Old village architecture, a permanent market area, and an interesting collection of shops in the town centre. The market was quiet and had a collection of pretty dodgy stuff in the guise of “antiques”, however there were also decent looking fruit, vegetables, and meat. Given that it was Good Friday I guess, and hope, that it may have been quieter than usual. To bolster my hope far fewer stalls were occupied than not. But it may be possible that the market is past its heyday, which would be sad.
On walking the winding streets of Hitchin what stood out was the classic white-walled, black-beamed facades. These were even more remarkable since in many cases one end of the first floor was a foot or more higher than the other! I have to imagine that for modern use the core of the buildings has been rebuilt and only the extremely characterful shell of the original building remains. I’d not be surprised to find red brick out the back.
The town centre boasts all the usual High Street brands, ho hum. There is also a brilliant deli with an excellent selection of cheese and the butcher looked good (in addition to two butchers in the market area.) There’s also, surprisingly and amazingly, the best catering store I’ve ever seen in the UK!
The physical features of the town centre are a large square, used part-time for parking and otherwise for reasons unknown. The market area is elsewhere, down a passage from the main square. And on one side is the imposing edifice of the church, seeming much patched together and patched up over the centuries. The church is buffered by the usual graveyard an pleasant grassed grounds. Running to the east of the church is the tamed river Hiz, this bisects the town and runs under the market. I expect this river is actually a remnant, transformed to a channel (or drainage ditch) and now mostly subterranean. The name, Hiz, is pronounced Hitch – thus the name of the town. I’d expect it is better phrased as “pronounced Hitch in antiquity” since the modern phonetic pronunciation must surely be more common now.
We’ll probably pop along to Hitchin once more on the way home, to test out the accessibility by train.
The drive into Stevenage from Hitchin was short and we found ourselves on the main street of the Stevenage “Old Town” in less than 10 minutes. The street was OK but kind of devoid of life, it also seemed to not have any produce stores at all. We wandered the street but weren’t impressed.
We got back into the car and followed the signs to the Stevenage “town centre.” What a travesty of “new town” design, what a hideous beast they’ve built. This is a cold, dank, shell of a town center. A veritable zombie, no doubt actually consuming the brains of any unfortunate enough to inhabit the area.
We did note that Stevenage seems to have excellent provision for cycling. There is, what appears to be, a dedicated road network for cyclists (and walkers.) There’s also a large central parkland that is quite pleasant. However nothing we saw in Stevenage made up for the soulless horror of the so-called “town centre.”
It would seem that our interest in Stevenage is probably now damaged beyond repair.
Heading back to Cambridge we chose a route via an area named Cambourne, our interest in this being derived from the fact that it is supposed to be a hive of high-tech businesses. The actual business park in Cambourne seems small, but there is clearly room for it to expand, and massively (roads leading off into fields, and the like.) The buildings are all shiny, glassy, and new looking. The landscaping is elegant and involves a lot of water, always a points-winner in my book. In typical English “you are being watched” style there are CCTV cameras all over the place too, quite horrible in my opinion.
An interesting note is that along with the business park it seems a whole suburb has been built where I was expecting only business buildings. There seems to be far too great a capacity to serve just the small collection of commercial buildings in Cambourne so I wonder what area the population is supposed to serve. As far as the “town” goes, what we saw didn’t impress us, the place looked bleak. No character, no cafés, just a supermarket, a “fish and chicken” shop, an uninspiring pub, and a flock of real-estate vultures.
Cambourne is about a 20 minute drive from central Cambridge, and it took us 40 minutes to get up there from Hitchin. So the other thing about it is that it isn’t even really close to anywhere. The main road connections other than Cambridge seem to be St. Neot, and Royston, but both seem rather small so probably have little use for a population “overflow” town. There are bus services to Cambridge it seems, but there’s no train line in the area. Most interesting, for a high-tech business park, is that it must take 1.5 hours or more to get there from London. Maybe close access to Cambridge is enough though, I really don’t know.
The only think I can say for certain about Cambourne is that I wouldn’t want to live there… older, characterful, English towns are more my style. It does seem a pleasant working environment however.
I wrote the above paragraphs yesterday. I have two amusing notes to now add over lunch on Saturday. Last night we popped into an Indian place for dinner and by chance we overheard the two couples sitting next to us briefly discussing Cambourne. One of the men was a flight instructor and the other his pupil, the instructor was discussing the “mushrooming” of Cambourne with a note of certain horror in his voice. There was a clear agreement that the place seemed rather strange and difficult to understand, the only positive point voiced was “they have a Morrisons.” Morrisons is one of the smaller supermarket chains, not all that exciting I think.
The second note is that in one of this morning’s Cambridge newspapers there was an article on how these new housing estates are depressive. Cambourne was dubbed “Glumbourne” and the news was that they had to set up a specialist psych unit there to deal with the higher than average rates of depression. The theory, apparently a controversial one, is that these “new towns” are devoid of social structures and networks that many people are dependant on as an integral part of their happiness. In my opinion it could also be a case of the place looking terrible, being isolated, and having no cultural interest.