A lot of the historical research into our district has been focused on the four towns – Baldock, Hitchin, Letchworth Garden City and Royston – but they are only part of the story. Most places are villages and hamlets and these were the sorts of settlements most people have lived in over time. There are places that were once regarded as towns – Ashwell, Codicote and Knebworth – because they had markets, but which have become less important, even though they are now larger places than when they had their markets.
The district currently has 82 individual settlements (can you name them all?), spread between 37 parishes. Some parishes have only one settlement – Baldock, Bygrave, Caldecote, Hexton, Hinxworth, Holwell, Ickleford, Kelshall, Langley, Letchworth, Lilley, Newnham, Nuthampstead, Pirton, Preston, Radwell, Reed and Wallington – but the others have more than one. Whitwell is the main settlement in St Paul’s Walden parish, while Codicote and King’s Walkden have seven settlements each (Codicote, Codicote Heights, Driver’s End, Nup End Green, Oakhills, Pottersheath and Tagmore Green are all in Codicote parish, while Breachwood Green, Darleyhall, King’s Walden, Ley Green, Lye Hill, The Heath and Wandon End are the settlements in King’s Walden).
It gets even more complicated if you go back over 900 years to the time when Domesday Book was compiled, in 1085-6. This names places by vill, a manorial unit held by a specific person or institution. We use the term ‘held’ rather than ‘owned’ because in feudal law, everything belonged either to the king or to the church, so lords of the manor only had properties because their feudal overlords had granted it to them. The could throw out the lord at any time they wanted. Domesday Book lists 103 separate vills in North Hertfordshire; there are six in Reed alone, where today we recognise only one village. This complexity can make life very difficult for the local historian.
In coming weeks, I’m going to be writing about some of these smaller places in the district. I want to show that our history isn’t just about the bigger places, which we might think of as more important. Everywhere has its own story and these stories are every bit as interesting as those of the towns. The history that I am interested in goes beyond the lords of the manor and the parish priests to the lives of ordinary people, the places they lived and how they occupied their time.
If you couldn’t name all the settlements, here’s a list, which includes the name of the parish they are in, when they were first recorded in documents and what we believe the name to mean.
In 1974, the Reverend Robert Tebbutt of Tilehouse Street Baptist Church made a slideshow on the history of Hitchin. His slides and recorded commentary were rediscovered in 2015 and turned into a YouTube video by Sam Hallas. Thanks to Hitchin Historical Society for sharing this, which is now itself an historical artefact, showing views of the town from almost half a century ago.
This summer we have taken the pop-up museum panels on the road to various events in Letchworth and Hitchin. Our reception has been overwhelmingly positive; the main question is always ‘When can we come and see the new museum?’. We spoke to around 200 people, and although some are still sad about losing the old museums, everyone said that they understood the reasons for change, and told us that in fact they are now looking forward to having a bright and modern new museum to visit. Parents were keen to hear about the new Learning Centre, which will be ideal for holiday and after-school activities, and family historians were interested to hear about the Local Studies Centre. Everyone was happy that there will be easy access, with a lift to all floors, lots of loos (it’s amazing to remember that Hitchin Museum didn’t even have one public WC) and a café. The fact that we are telling the stories of the District through objects which have been hidden in store for years adds to the sense of anticipation. The newest pop-up panel, showing images from some of next year’s exhibitions, caused the most interest, particularly next Spring’s Arts Council Matisse exhibition; next summer’s sci-fi extravaganza, ‘Invasion’, and next winter’s show of Nick Sharratt children’s illustrations. Nick is best known for illustrating the Jacqueline Wilson books, as well as many of his own. We hope to open the new museum at the same time as the beautifully restored Hitchin Town Hall; watch this space for updates.
Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to SHARE Museums East for funding all the pop-up panels, and the matching free flyers.
18 March @ 4:30 pm - 10 June @ 5:00 pm