Saturday 27 August 2022

Woad Mead to the S4 bus


Woad Mead to the S4 bus!

I’m finding more interesting stuff about Sopwell while working on the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society (SAHAAS) St Julian’s project. At the moment, I am researching the history of a fascinating piece of land called Woad Mead which you can see on this extract of a medieval map of St Albans. Its position, just above Eywood Lane, maybe gives a clue as to what is there today – the Griffiths Way Retail Park (Sainsbury’s) and before that, the gasworks. I will be publishing an article on it hopefully and will then write a post on the website. Woad probably grew there at one time. It was used to dye wool proving Sopwell had a wool and textile industry in medieval times.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting what is probably the oldest house in Sopwell - if we don’t count the Sopwell House Hotel. Glebe House in Watling Street is a grade 2 listed property with lots of wonderful old features like wood panelling, an inglenook fireplace and an old cellar. It has a large garden which once extended to the footpath opposite the Marlborough Academy. Have a look at my post on Sopwell Memories. I was really interested in this house as it once backed on to the old vicarage garden. The vicar was a neighbour when there was a vicarage,

Unfortunately another of my interviewees, John Buckingham, has passed away, John was very special. I first met him on the S4 bus! John had so many memories to share including: what Cottonmill Lane was like years ago; his schooldays at St Peter’s school; his Dad’s allotment and loads of stories about the railway. He also shared fascinating stories about his Dad’s jobs at the gasworks and the stables/kennels opposite the Nunnery ruins. John remembers playing in the river, catching crayfish and walking all the way to the Park Street watercress beds. I had to have two interview sessions and several phone calls to cover all his tales! What is so wonderful is that these memories have been captured and won’t be forgotten. They can all be found on Sopwell Memories  and in our book Sopwell, a history and collection of memories. [Still available to purchase via the website] I went to his funeral, the church was packed. I am so pleased I overheard him talking on the S4 bus!.

Saturday 11 June 2022

  Today, I went to visit the newly built Cottonmill Community and Cycling Centre, the successor to the Marlborough Pavilion in Old Oak off Cottonmill Lane and I was extremely impressed. Lots of careful planning has gone into its construction and design to make it appropriate for the whole community. Inside the main building there is a cafĂ©, a large function room which can be divided into three rooms, a kitchen, two changing rooms, toilet facilities and separate washing facilities for the Muslim community when they use the centre for worship. It even has a state of the art disabled toilet and changing facility complete with hoist! The other part of the centre is a Cycling Centre where cyclists can meet, buy cycling gear and have bikes checked over and repaired.

Outside, as well as the Multi-Use Games Area (MUGA) and football pitch, is a leisure track which circles round the football pitch and a fantastic pump track - a bumpy track -  for the more adventurous to try out. Loads of children were playing on it while I was there. The carpark has been well laid out and I was pleased to see. that there are three disabled bays.  Four fruit trees have been planted in a tiny wildlife meadow at the rear of the building and there are plans for a children's playground. There are plenty of seating areas outside where one can watch the cyclists as well as admire the beautiful Ver Valley.

Years ago, many of you may remember that Cottonmill used to have its own purpose built community centre funded by membership subscriptions. For around 20 years, it was a very popular social venue, especially for the elderly, but falling membership numbers meant it had to close. It opened ten months later under a different name - the Marlborough Club but that did not last long before it was burnt down. Since then there has just been the uninspiring prefabricated building - the Marlborough Pavilion - used mainly for clubs and the odd meeting, and as a changing room for footballers. It was a sorry looking building, never well liked or maintained neither inside nor outside and consequently was often vandalised. This new building is such a delightful contrast. It is bright and airy, looks beautiful and has been built with the whole community of Sopwell in mind.

When I was in charge of the SRA committee, I often dreamed of a having a a dedicated community centre. I was envious of community centres elsewhere like the ones in Fleetville and Cunningham Hill. There was talk of doing something with the Marlborough Pavilion years ago. The youth club land was another possible site but nothing happened.  At one point we were hoping that maybe the King Offa site would work. However, now thanks to the existing SRA committee's persistent campaigning for a new centre and a dedicated  group of fund raisers from the Cottonmill and Sopwell Hub (CASH), the dream of Sopwell having a purpose built community Centre has been realised and it is ten times better than Fleetville and Cunningham Hill! CASH raised £30,881 which is amazing. Many people bought engraved bricks and I made my mark!

Let's hope the whole community will use the Centre. The hiring of the halls is not expensive and all the activities outside are free. You can make bookings and check opening times at

Monday 23 August 2021

Looking back in time

While researching for the St Julian's Project, I have been looking into correspondence in the 1920s and 1930s between the Gorhambury Estate, land agents, solicitors and building developers concerning the purchase of land for building houses in our area. 

Lord Verulam owned most of the land in Sopwell and St Julian's. H.C. Janes from Luton was the developer. Janes built the Mentmore Estate. He also wanted to develop the Cottonmill Lane area and  St Julian's and went into lengthy negotiation to purchase what was mainly farmland. However the Council also wanted the land to build Council houses so there was a lot of compulsory land acquisition. 

It is fascinating stuff and I am trying to get my head round where all these parcels of land were because of course, most of the roads weren't there then. 

So I decided to orientate myself by having another look at the "Britain from Above" website. Their selection from the Aerofilms collection is so fascinating! It really is looking back in time. When I was working on the Sopwell project I interviewed several people who described what it was like when the estates were built and in these photos I can see what they are talking about. 

For instance, I remember Mrs Brown, John Buckingham and others talking about how Cottonmill Lane was reshaped after the war: "They built the road from rubble from London and built it up high, then cut the road across the field. At the back of these houses [from Boleyn Drive] there was a field that went right through to Priory Walk as it is now and then the road came along Priory Walk". In one of the photos I could see the bank in Priory Walk where it had been built up. And I remember Lil Day telling me how money was collected to pay for a new church in Abbots Avenue as all they had to worship in was a Nissen Hut - and the original Nissen hut can be seen in one of the photos! 

Also in the Gorhambury correspondence, I discovered that there was a proposal to build a secondary school in Sopwell. This was in 1936. At first it was going to be near the gasworks, with access to Doggetts Way, but that was proved unworkable so they were considering another 10 acre site in St Julian's. Looking at all the clues, it must have been near the elevated railway bridge by Little Sopwell Farm at the end of Butterfield Lane. The farm's boundaries were given as the St Albans-Watford railway and Watling Street from where it meets Park Street to the bottom of what is now Doggetts Way by the gasworks. I found this hard to imagine but the farm must have been quite large. I think the problem with this site had something to do with the lack of a sewer as a school was not built here either. The council must have looked elsewhere for a suitable plot. St Julian's was not built until the mid fifties.

Sandy Norman

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Mine's a pint!

My topic in this post is about milk which used to be delivered in fat glass milk bottles from years ago. You know the ones with the cardboard tops? What prompted me to write was an email I had from Roger Miles who wanted to let us know about one of these milk bottles that he found on Bernards Heath which he thinks had been unearthed by a fox or maybe a badger. He says that the old claypits were used to dispose of St Albans' rubbish at one time.

Etched on the bottle, as you can see, is Sopwell Home Farm, W.G. Brown and on the base it has E. WIGG moulded on it. Well I knew about Sopwell Home Farm. It used to be attached to Sopwell House. W. G. Brown was the farmer. Ten years ago, I interviewed the lovely 90 year old Betty Terry for the Sopwell Project who told me that her father was the cowman on Brown's Farm in the 1920s - 1930s. Her family lived in Sopwell Gate Lodge but because of a dispute between her parents and Mr Brown over working in the dairy, they were kicked out: Sometime after we’d been there, Mr Brown wanted my mother to do the milk, sterilise it or whatever they do with it. The room was cold and damp and he wanted her to stay there and work and she had three young children to get ready for school in the morning so she just could not cope so they had a row, my Dad and Mr Brown, over it and he got the sack. Cos the house went with the job so we were homeless really. Mr Brown doesn’t sound very friendly.

I have seen bottles like this before. When I was doing my research for the Sopwell Project I visited Sopwell Mill Farm off Cottonmill Lane where the tenants showed me some of their milk bottle finds on the property. I was fascinated to learn that the bottles came from the three different dairy farms in Sopwell: Sopwell Mill Farm, Sopwell Home Farm and St Julian’s Farm. The farmer at Sopwell Mill Farm was Frederick Coaker who residents recall delivering the milk on his horse and cart. Apparently he wasn’t a very nice man either. He was described as a bit crotchety. The Muirs ran St Julian's Farm – the farmer was Archibald Muir and they also delivered their own milk. So all three farmers delivered their own milk. They must have shared each other’s bottles too.

Has anybody else found any of these bottles and does anyone know anything about E. Wigg from Watford? Google didn’t. Please share if you do by writing a comment.