Friday 29 August 2014

End of the project – not really

In two days' time, on the 31st of August, the Sopwell Memories project officially ends. I have submitted my digital record – of which this blog is part – and also the required end-of-project report. Almost all of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) £10,000 money has now been spent. So thank you Heritage Lottery!

I hope you will agree that we have done what we set out to do and produced a wonderful website at – something Sopwell should be proud of!

On our journey, we have interviewed many lovely people about their memories and transcribed the recordings; we have edited these and posted them on the website; and we have collected many more images and maps of the area and added these.

If you still haven’t seen how we did all this, then you have two days left in which to visit our exhibition at the Museum of St Albans in Hatfield Road. We are obliged to take it down on 1st of September.

Sopwell History Walks Leaflets

As our final gift to you, and courtesy of the HLF again, we, that is the Sopwell Residents Association, have published a set of five Sopwell History Walks leaflets to encourage visitors to explore Sopwell and learn a little about its history.

Many of you will be aware that, each year, we organise a walk around our area. These popular walks, which explore our history and green spaces, started several years ago, and there has always been a lot of interest in them. So, in our request for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Sopwell Memories project, we asked for some money to print walk leaflets. And these are the result!

The five short and fairly easy circular walks were beautifully produced by Diverse Print and Design, the company who also did our book Sopwell: a history and collection of memories. And our own Barry Bateman has drawn by hand a beautiful map in each, so you shouldn't get lost.

The leaflets are free and available from the Museum of St Albans and from the Tourist Information Centre in the old Town Hall. Pick one or two up when you are passing!

In addition, you can view/download them in PDF format from the Sopwell Memories website.

As I said before, it may be the end of the project, but we will still be collecting memories to add to the website, so if you want to take part and tell us your story, please get in touch.

Sandy Norman

Thursday 7 August 2014

Have you seen it yet?

The Sopwell Memories exhibition held in the Museum of St Albans in Hatfield Road is up and running and will remain there until the end of August.

The Sopwell Residents Association's team of volunteers has curated it with the help of the museum staff and we think that we have done a really professional job considering we are just a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs.

It is amazing how good we can make it look with the help of a roll of Velcro dots, laminating sheets and foam board.

We have been really fortunate also in being able to borrow the display panels from the Smallford Residents Association. They are also managing an HLF All Our Stories project - the history of Smallford station - so we have been sharing our experiences of running lottery funded projects over the past year or so. Our thanks go to Jeff Lewis and team for helping us out.

We have had lots of favourable comments on the exhibition so far. We would like more so if you haven’t been to see it yet, do go along and let us know what you think. And of course you can still visit the website and leave comments and maybe your memories.

Sandy Norman

Saturday 19 July 2014

Sopwell Memories exhibition at the Museum of St Albans

We are pleased to announce that, to accompany the launch of the Sopwell Memories website,, there will be a free exhibition, which we have curated, of the story behind the website at the Museum of St Albans in Hatfield Road, from 1-31 August 2014.

Do come along to see it!

Sopwell Memories exhibition poster August 2014

Many residents and past residents have contributed their memories in the form of oral history recordings and photographs and to date over 40 people have been interviewed resulting in 137 posts. The website is interactive, so you may add your own comments and memories.

Project Manager, Sandy Norman, says: “It has been really enlightening talking to past and present residents about their memories. These would be lost to future generations if we had not decided to preserve and celebrate them. Their stories and photographs will be an invaluable resource for education institutions and social historians as well as the general public.”

Please look at the website and if possible, drop in to see the exhibition.

Saturday 14 June 2014

It’s downhill all the way

The new website is being read and you all seem to like what we have done. Some people have posted comments already which is good. Keep them coming and feel free to let me have any new images of yours to add to what we have already.

North Western hotel sign
I have posted several interesting stories this month.

If you have not yet had a look at the post about the North Western hotel from Grant Peerless, it is worth a look and listen.

Grant lived in the hotel which was on the corner of Prospect Road and Holywell Hill, in the 1940s and 1950s. Originally a late Victorian railway hotel, it no longer exists of course. It had a spell of being the Abbey Tavern before finally closing to make way for offices.

Also interesting were the stories told to me by Brian Welch who lived on Holywell Hill at one time in one of the houses belonging to the Colne Valley Water Company – remember them? Brian was one of the so called ‘vandals’ who was instrumental in preserving the site of the Holy Well.

And more stories about Holywell Hill come from Jennifer Taylor whose father owned the Adaire ladies fashion shop at the Peahen hotel. Jennifer went to school on Holywell Hill too.

The More Memories of Sopwell project ends in August but we are going out with a splash. We will be having an exhibition of all our work in the museum in Hatfield Road for the whole of the month of August. We know you will enjoy it.

I still have lots of information to put on the website so keep checking now and then.

Sandy Norman

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Alive but not quite kicking

The Sopwell Memories website is alive!

We had our “soft” launch at the Sopwell Residents Association AGM last Wednesday, where I gave a brief demo of its capabilities. 

The main launch - hopefully with press coverage - will be in August, as part of the month long display in St Albans Museum in Hatfield Road. 

I am really pleased with the work that we have put into it and I am sure, once people find out about it, they will be too. So the thing to do is to tell all your friends and family who may have an interest in the history and memories of Sopwell and St Albans. 

I have posted on the Sopwell Project page on Facebook and we had a couple of comments fairly quickly. It has been favourably received, so that is good. 

At present, the website is not yet being picked up by Google search so, to access it, please type the following URL in your browser: (or simply click on the link).

We are sure that the website will be of interest to:
  • anyone interested in history of the area
  • anyone interested in genealogy
  • primary and secondary school teachers setting projects
  • students researching local topics
  • anyone looking for old unpublished images of the area
and I am sure there will be many more reasons to use it.

Try it out and see what you think and by all means, let us know. This is the soft launch so if there are any glitches we can iron them out by August.

Sandy Norman

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Freak weather in Sopwell

We all know about the flooding in Sopwell which happens every few years or so in the Ver Valley, but did you know about lightning strikes and a waterspout?

Not once, but twice, a house in Nuns Lane got hit by a thunderbolt. The first time happened in the early 1950s. I have recorded interviews from two different people who reported that they had seen a red flash across the skies which hit a roof in Nuns Lane and set it alight. The house in question apparently belonged to a Mr and Mrs Tichner who lived at the top of the lane – I think that means the Cottonmill Lane end. Fortunately no-one was hurt. The second thunderbolt struck many years later. Does anyone else remember these thunderbolts? What was the number of the house? Apparently, it was opposite no 22 Nuns Lane. Can anyone confirm this?

I have recently taken out a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive for a month to see if I could find any gems about Sopwell and came across this item from 1859.

The Holy Well todayOn Thursday afternoon week, a most singular phenomenon appeared coming in a southward direction from Park Street towards the town. It consisted apparently of a dense mass of aqueous vapour or air, attended with a most fearful rushing noise, taking a tree up by the roots on Sopwell farm for some distance, whirling the birds in the air along its progress, and doing mischief to some cottages; it passed through the vale across the river Ver at Holywell Hill, where it came into contact with the Willow tree growing over the Holy Well in the meadow; this it broke asunder in its way rolling up the lead, and taking the tiles off the houses, damaging trees, and passing on to Hill Street in a direction towards Redbourn. The alarm amongst the inhabitants was great, and many had great difficulty in maintaining respiration, the current of air was so great. We have not heard of anyone being injured. It was probably what is known as a waterspout on land. 
Herts Guardian, 2nd August 1859

Now that is freaky! I also found it interesting that there was a willow tree growing over the Holy Well and that people knew where it was then.

Sandy Norman

Monday 31 March 2014

What happened "In the Olden Days"?

Daffodils planted by members of the Sopwell Residents Association
For the past few weeks, we have been part of a project at St Peter’s school to teach schoolchildren about local history. Letters were sent to parents encouraging them – or friends, neighbours and relatives - to come along to speak to the children. Each class took part with one or two people coming in to be interviewed. The older children had been taught how to use the recording equipment beforehand and they did very well.

There were two days of interviewing and I sat in on several sessions. There was no shortage of questions. All the children were fascinated by the fact that there were not many cars on the roads “in the olden days” and so children could play on the streets and wander far and wide. They were also amazed that we did not have televisions or computers. The children in Year 5 asked very good questions such as what was school like and what was it like in the war. It was so nice to see their enthusiasm. Years 1 and 2 interviews inevitably degenerated to repeating the same questions or asking questions about pets! However, I think it has been a success as an awareness raising exercise and we will definitely be able to use some of the material on the website.

Talking of which, the website is ready for beta testing and I have let the committee and the history team loose on it. I only have a few comments so far, but these are mostly positive. I have now uploaded 93 posts and I still have plenty more to do. Just today, I recorded another interview and collected several more original photographs. 

The project finishes in August and we are going to showcase it for the whole of the month of August in the city museum in Hatfield Road. More on that in a later post.

Sandy Norman

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Sopwell skyline features

Sopwell residents have been out visiting tall structures which dominate our skyline. The gasholders near Homebase and the Cedar of Lebanon in St Stephen’s field. One about to disappear and the other very much alive.

A few of us had the privilege to be invited by National Grid and the demolition contractors, Brown and Mason, to see the progress of the demolition of the gasholders - no longer called gasometers it seems. After quite a long induction on health and safety, we were kitted out with protective gear to go out to watch the metal being cut away piece by piece by oxyacetylene welders. Our guide explained how the demolition contractors worked from the top down, removing panels section by section, layer by layer. The metal is sent off daily for scrap. One of the gasholders is almost gone and the other has a large hole cut away in its side which exposed the three telescopic layers. The work should be finished by April when the site will probably be used for retail. It certainly isn’t suitable for housing. The whole experience was very interesting and it was good to capture these moments of history for the project. The skyline is going to look so different when they have gone.

And now to our other feature, the cedar tree. We met with David Alderman of The Tree Council. It was a mixture of good and bad news. It is not as old as we think. It’s a mere 250 or so years old in his estimation. Cedars of this type are very fast growing so that is why we thought it was a lot older. Apparently, when cedars first came to Britain in the 17th century, they were not that hardy and were all wiped out by 1743 when there was a terrific storm. People planted a hardier species after that and ours is one of them. David described it as a cluster tree, multi-stemmed, and so it looks big with all the branches off the several trunks, a bit like a hedge. On the other hand he said it was a fine specimen: a champion category 3 tree no less! It is big in volume and David described it as classic. He was pleased with its condition: there was only one branch which looked damaged and this had a hole in it which was likely to have been made by a woodpecker.

So for the record, the measurements of the St Stephen’s cedar are: height: 19m, girth: 8.3m at 0.4m, crown spread west-east 30.8m and crown spread north-south 29.4m. David dated it as being planted c1750 but we shouldn’t be too disappointed as it was still a very fine specimen and, out of 2,000 they have recorded, it is in the Top 50 for Britain. Regarding its status as the largest cedar in Hertfordshire, this is all dependent upon whether a tree survives at Beechwood Park School, Markyate. Until this is confirmed our tree at our slightly reduced girth of 8.3m at 0.4m is second largest. It is still something to be proud of.

Regarding the Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn story, David said that this may have started by the Victorians who liked to exaggerate rumours. However, quite often trees were planted to commemorate an event so it could have been planted because of the visit by the pair of them to St Stephens. Or, it could just have been planted to replace one of the less hardy cedars – the dates are right. We will never know the true story, but the pair of them were around our area and they may well have done some canoodling under a tree in the vicinity. Henry used to hunt there and Anne was known to have visited Sopwell Nunnery.

RIP the gasholders. Long live the cedar.

Sandy Norman

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Missionary work

The New Year has started on a positive note. I will soon be working with St Peter’s school on their local history project, where I hope to impart a sense of history and belonging. The children will be interviewing their parents and other family members about their stories and memories. We hope to be able to capture interesting memories from non-native as well as native Sopwellians.

I have now uploaded over 60 posts on to our website which is looking really good. We are hoping to beta test it in a few weeks’ time. There are lots of lovely oral history recordings posted as well as many old photographs collected from interviewees and from my Facebook friends – if they have given me permission of course. I am still learning a lot about the Sopwell area and the intention of the website is share these memories with others, not only from St Albans but also everywhere else.

Interestingly, I spoke to a guy today - he was trying to convince me to buy an ISA (!) – who had never heard of Sopwell, so I had to tell him where it was and about its history and what a lovely place it is to live. Cheekily, I told him he could find out all about it by popping along to Waterstone’s to buy the book! Well, you never know. I think I am becoming an ambassador for Sopwell as I sing its praises wherever I go.

Love Heart
More positive news: our famous cedar tree in St Stephen’s field is being assessed on Thursday this week to see if it as old as we think (hope) it is. Pity old Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn didn’t carve their initials in it when they were courting. I will keep you all posted.

Sandy Norman