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Letchworth Garden City
Letchworth Town Hall - geograph.org.uk - 106326.jpg
Letchworth Town Hall
Letchworth Garden City is located in Hertfordshire
Letchworth Garden City
Letchworth Garden City
Population 33,249 (2011 census)
OS grid reference TL215325
District
  • North Hertfordshire
Shire county
Region
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town Letchworth Garden City
Postcode district SG6
Dialling code 01462
Police Hertfordshire
Fire Hertfordshire
Ambulance East of England
EU Parliament East of England
UK Parliament
  • North East Hertfordshire
List of places
UK
England
Hertfordshire
51°58′41″N 0°13′48″W / 51.978°N 0.230°W / 51.978; -0.230

Letchworth Garden City, commonly known as Letchworth, is a town in Hertfordshire, England, noted for being the first garden city. The population at the time of the 2011 census was 33,249. The town lies on the Bedfordshire border and is the administrative headquarters of North Hertfordshire.

Letchworth was an ancient parish, appearing in the Domesday Book of 1086. It remained a small rural village until the start of the twentieth century. The development of the modern town began in 1903, when much of the land in Letchworth and the neighbouring parishes of Willian and Norton was purchased by a company called First Garden City Limited, founded by Ebenezer Howard and his followers with the aim of building the first "garden city", following the principles Howard had set out in his 1898 book, "To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform". Their aim was to create a new type of settlement which provided jobs, services, and good housing for residents, whilst retaining the environmental quality of the countryside, in contrast to most industrial cities of the time.

The town's initial layout was designed by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker. It includes the United Kingdom's first roundabout, Sollershott Circus, which was built c. 1909.

Letchworth today retains large business areas providing jobs in a variety of sectors, and the landlord's profits are reinvested for the benefit of the community by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, a charitable trust which since 1995 has owned much of the town as successor to First Garden City Limited. The town has extensive parkland and open spaces, with Norton Common and Howard Park both holding the Green Flag Award for well-managed green space. The town lies 32 miles (51 km) north of London, on the railway linking London to Cambridge, and it also adjoins the A1 road, making it relatively popular with commuters. Residential areas in the town are mixed, with large parts of the town covered by conservation areas in recognition of their quality, whilst the town also contains four of the five poorest-scoring neighbourhoods in North Hertfordshire for deprivation.

As the world's first garden city, Letchworth has had a notable impact on town planning and the new towns movement; it influenced nearby Welwyn Garden City, which used a similar approach, whilst aspects of the principles demonstrated at Letchworth have been incorporated into other projects around the world including the Australian capital Canberra, Hellerau in Germany, Tapiola in Finland and Mežaparks in Latvia.

Development

Before the Garden City: Old Letchworth

Letchworth was one of the ancient parishes of Hertfordshire. The parish church of St Mary the Virgin was built in the 12th or 13th Century. The village was located along the road now called Letchworth Lane, stretching from St Mary's and the adjoining medieval manor house (now Letchworth Hall Hotel) up to the crossroads of Letchworth Lane, Hitchin Road, Baldock Road and Spring Road, where there was a post office. Letchworth was a relatively small parish, having a population in 1801 of 67, rising to 96 by 1901.

The early days

Howard-three-magnets
Howard's depiction of the choice of town design as a contest between three magnets (select image for transcript)

In 1898, the social reformer Ebenezer Howard wrote a book entitled To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (later republished as Garden Cities of To-morrow), in which he advocated the construction of a new kind of town, summed up in his Three Magnets diagram as combining the advantages of cities and the countryside while eliminating their disadvantages. Industry would be kept separate from residential areas—such zoning was a new idea at the time—and trees and open spaces would prevail everywhere. His ideas were mocked in the press but struck a chord with many, especially members of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Quakers.

According to the book the term "Garden City" derived from the image of a city being situated within a belt of open countryside (which would contribute significantly to food production for the population), and not, as is commonly cited, to a principle that every house in the city should have a garden.

The concept outlined in the book is not simply one of urban planning, but also included a system of community management. For example, the Garden City project would be financed through a system that Howard called "Rate-Rent", which combined financing for community services (rates) with a return for those who had invested in the development of the City (rent). The book also advocated a rudimentary form of competitive tendering, whereby the municipality would purchase services, such as water, fuel, waste disposal, etc., from (often local) commercial providers. These systems were never fully implemented, in Letchworth, Welwyn or their numerous imitators.

Spirella Building - geograph.org.uk - 988178
The Spirella Building

A competition was held to find a town design which could translate Howard's ideas into reality, and September 1903 the company "First Garden City Ltd." was formed, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed architects, and 16 km² of land outside Hitchin were purchased for building. In keeping with the ideals only one tree was felled during the entire initial construction phase of the town, and an area devoted to agriculture surrounding the town was included in the plan – the first "Green Belt".

In 1905, and again in 1907, the company held the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions, contests to build inexpensive housing, which attracted some 60,000 visitors and had a significant effect on planning and urban design in the UK, pioneering and popularising such concepts as pre-fabrication, the use of new building materials, and front and back gardens. The Exhibitions were sponsored by the Daily Mail, and their popularity was significant in the development of that newspaper's launching of the Ideal Home Exhibition (which has more recently become the Ideal Home Show) – the first of which took place the year after the second Cheap Cottages Exhibition.

A railway station was opened in 1903 a few hundred yards west of its current position and railway companies often ran excursions to the town, bringing people to marvel at the social experiment and sometimes to mock it: Letchworth's founding citizens, attracted by the promise of a better life, were often caricatured by outsiders as idealistic and otherworldly. John Betjeman in his poems Group Life: Letchworth and Huxley Hall painted Letchworth people as earnest health freaks.

One commonly-cited example of this is the ban, most unusual for a British town, on selling alcohol in public premises. This did not stop the town having a "pub" however – the Skittles Inn or the "pub with no beer" which opened as early as 1907.

Despite the ban it is not entirely true to say that there were no pubs in the Garden City. Pubs that had existed from before the foundation of the Garden City continued – including the Three Horseshoes in Norton, The George IV on the borders with Baldock, and the Three Horseshoes and The Fox in Willian – continued to operate (as they do to this day), and undoubtedly benefited from the lack of alcohol to be had in the centre of the town, as did the pubs in neighbouring Hitchin and Baldock. New inns also sprang up on the borders of the town, one such example being the Wilbury Hotel which was just outside the town's border.

This ban was finally lifted after a referendum in 1958, which resulted in the Broadway Hotel becoming the first public house in the centre of the Garden City. Several other pubs have opened since 1958, but to this day the town centre has fewer than half-a-dozen pubs – a remarkably low number of a town of its size. One effect of this is that the centre of the town is normally a noticeably quiet and peaceful place in the evenings.

One of the most prominent industries to arrive in the town in the early years was the manufacture of corsets: the Spirella Company began building a large factory in 1912, close to the middle of town and the railway station that opened the next year. The Spirella Building, completed in 1920, blends in despite its central position through being disguised as a large country house, complete with towers and a ballroom. During the Second World War, the factory was also involved in producing parachutes and decoding machinery. Because corsets fell out of fashion, the factory closed in the 1980s, and was eventually refurbished and converted into offices.

Another significant employer in the town was Shelvoke and Drewry, a manufacturer of dustcarts and fire engines which existed from 1922 until 1990; as was Hands (Letchworth), James Drewry joining them in 1935, who manufactured axles, brakes and Hands Trailers. Letchworth had a very diverse light industry, including K & L Steel Foundry, often a target for German bombers in World War II, the Letchworth Parachute Factory, J M Dent and Son (also known as The Aldine Press, Garden City Press).

The biggest employer was British Tabulating Machine Company, later merging with Powers-Samas to become International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) and finally part of International Computers Limited (ICL). At one time the "Tab" as it was known had occupancy of over 30 factories in Icknield Way (the original pre-Roman Road), Works Road and finally in Blackhorse Road. Blackhorse Road was built on what was the continuation of the original "Icknield Way". Upon building the new ICL building the remains of a large Roman camp was found, many articles being found and saved for display in the Letchworth Museum & Art Gallery. In WWII a number of early computers were built in what became known as the ICL 1.1 plant.

Civic history

In addition to the usual local government bodies, Letchworth is unique in having a private charity responsible for the management of many aspects of the town (or the "Garden City estate") which has many planning and grant making functions normally associated with elected public authorities.

Local government

The civic local government of Letchworth has always been separate from the Company, Corporation or Foundation.

1908–1919: Letchworth Parish Council

Before the founding of the Garden City each of the three original villages – Letchworth, Norton & Willian – were within Hitchin Rural District. An unofficial "Residents' Union" or "Residents' Council" for the town was established in June 1905, meeting monthly until March or April 1908 when Letchworth (Civil) Parish Council was formed, within Hitchin RDC.

1919–1974: Letchworth Urban District Council

The Parish Council continued to meet in a relatively informal way until 1910 when the first council elections took place for 16 seats. In 1919 Letchworth Urban District Council (UDC) was formed, replacing the Parish Council, and taking over responsibility from Hitchin RDC for the local services – such as libraries, museums, parks and leisure – which were not the responsibility of the county council. 15 councillors were elected – nine "all party", four Labour, and two independent. Seats were hotly contested in the early years, but elections had lapsed into apathy by 1925. Although the council had no active role in town planning and building control until after 1945, it built nearly 5,000 homes in the town.

1974–Present: North Hertfordshire District Council

Along with all other UDCs in England, the Letchworth UDC was abolished on 1 April 1974 by the Local Government Act 1972. Most of its responsibilities passed to the newly created North Hertfordshire District Council, though some became the responsibility of the county.

2006–2013: Letchworth Garden City Council

The new two-tier arrangement stayed in place until 2005 when, following a referendum, a Parish Council – which was named the Letchworth Garden City Council – was created. In the elections, all 24 being won by independents. However even before its formation the new body had had detractors, a situation that grew as the Council began its work. Opponents of the council highlighted a number of decisions, including:

  • In 2006/07 over 50% of its funding was spent on administrative overheads. In 2007/08 Operational overheads consumed 80% of the council's precept in the council tax. The Town Council was accused of claiming credit for the actions of others in a dispute on the Grange Estate.
  • In August 2007 the town council's chairman, Philip Ross, adopted the title of Mayor, as was the usual practice for a Chairman of a town council. £11,000 was spent on his chain of office, including £9,975 for a new coat of arms for the new council because it was not entitled to use the existing Coat of Arms and Crest. Cllr. Ross agreed to a formal petition for Arms to the College of Arms in March 2009. The incoming council, elected a few weeks later, were unaware of this application and – in the absence of any request to stop the process – the College issued the Council's new Arms in December 2010.
  • By 2007 the Council had its fourth town clerk since its inception and Councillors had been the subject of complaints to the Standards Board for England.
  • Until 2008, despite a number of councillors resigning their posts, no further elections had been held. Councillors had instead relied upon their right to co-opt new members to vacant seats.
  • For 2008/09 the council increased its charge in the Council Tax by 206.7% to fund projects not included in their original election manifesto. This compared to a 4.5% increase by Hertfordshire County Council and North Hertfordshire District Council.
  • In April 2008, a poll in the town on the question 'Should Letchworth Garden City Council be dissolved?' resulted in over 76% of respondents voting in favour of its abolition; turnout was 15.6%. A larger percentage were in favour of the abolition of the Town Council than had been in favour of its creation. In contrast the Town Council's survey suggesting 54% of households who responded would prefer a single permissions scheme for planning applications is described by the Town Council as significant.

In September 2008, following the death of a sitting Town Councillor, the nomination of a member of the group seeking the dissolution of the Town Council ("HELP") was not opposed. Later in the year, when four Town Councillors resigned, HELP candidates were again nominated for the vacancies: opposing candidates were nominated and by-elections were held in the four wards concerned on 8 January 2009. All four "HELP" candidates were returned with significant majorities.

In June 2009 all 24 seats on the council were contested by candidates representing HELP and the Town Council Supporters Party. 22 out of 24 seats were won by HELP. The two seats won by the Town Council Supporters were won by margins of 6 and 1 votes. Among those to lose their seats was the chairman of the Town Council Philip Ross. The new council quickly adopted a policy "to close down all Council activities as soon as legally and morally possible leading to a non-spending council so that its dissolution can then be sought". In December 2009 the Letchworth Community Democratic Association (mainly defeated councillors and recipients of council grants) attempted to seek a judicial review of the legality of this policy, but this was thrown out by the high court.

In December 2009, it was revealed that the previous council had precepted a total of £1,496,000 from the taxpayers of Letchworth and distributed grants totalling only £116,000. Although it was subsequently stated that some £258,000 remained on account, with defeat at the election likely, the outgoing council had chosen to give its six staff such generous contracts that £200,000 of that reserve went to them, rather than giving any benefit for the Letchworth community.

In May 2012 a consultation, asking all Letchworth residents what kind of local governance they wanted, resulted in 74% of respondents supporting the abolition of Letchworth Town Council. As a result, in July, North Hertfordshire District Council resolved that a second consultation took place to propose the abolition of Letchworth Town Council. This postal consultation was sent out on 24 August and ran for six weeks. In November it was announced that with a 25.88% turnout, there were 5,358 votes (75.06%) to abolish the council: with 1095 (15.34%) against (Don't Know: 685 (9.6%)). As a result, on 22 November 2012 District councillors voted unanimously to abolish the council. It was dissolved on 31 March 2013.

Management of the Garden City estate

The current arrangements have evolved from one of Letchworth Garden City's founding principles which, unlike any other British attempt at new town design, was that land should be held in common for the good of all.

1903–1963: First Garden City Limited

From 1903 First Garden City Ltd owned the entire estate. The original idea was for the residents to purchase the estate after seven years so as to become responsible for the town, but "When the company was formed, however, this period of seven years was omitted.". Until 1945 FGC Ltd, with the compliance of the District Councils, ran almost all aspects of life in the emerging town, leasing plots to citizens for building houses, to farmers for growing crops, and so on. The rents provided income for the company, which it would then invest back into the community. All citizens were shareholders, so all money was invested for the common good, and developments which the citizens disliked (tower blocks, for example) could be restricted as they pleased. This only began to change from 1945 when changes at the national level resulted in several of FGC's services (such as electricity and gas generation) being nationalised while the UDC took on a greater responsibility for planning.

The arrangements began to break down and many residents in the town would often remark about the town being run by the "forty thieves". In 1961 matters came to a head when Amy Rose and a company named Hotel York Ltd realised that if it bought enough of the shares from the citizens it could have a controlling interest in the town's estate, with no guarantee that the money would be used for the common good.

1963–1995: Letchworth Garden City Corporation

To remedy this, the then Member of Parliament, Martin Madden sponsored a bill in Parliament, and Parliament passed the Letchworth Garden City Act 1962, which created a public body, the Letchworth Garden City Corporation, to take on the business of First Garden City Ltd; as a statutory corporation it could not be bought. The Corporation's officers were appointed by the Crown and could level a supplementary rate, which for some years it did partly in order to pay Hotel York compensation.

The main task for the Corporation was to own and manage the 5,300-acre (21 km2) Garden City estate – including offices, factories, shops, houses, community amenities, farms and land. This included powers related to planning applications (which would normally be the preserve of the local council) in order to safeguard the character of the Garden City.

1995-date: Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation

By the 1990s the political tide had turned against "quangos" and it became policy of the then Conservative government to abolish them, wherever possible. As a result, in 1995 the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation Act 1995 replaced the public sector corporation with the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation – an "industrial and provident society" registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies with "exempt charity" status.

The new Foundation retains most of the former Corporation's functions and responsibilities. Its published mission statement says that the Foundation exists "to create, maintain and promote a vibrant, quality environment in Letchworth Garden City, for all those who live, work and visit the world's first Garden City." It also aims to "maximise the financial returns from the assets we hold in trust and to re-invest those returns:

  • To improve an increasingly valuable asset base; and
  • To support charitable activities which meet demonstrable needs and provide a proven benefit to the community."

Although a private body – with a Chief Executive (currently John Lewis) and a team of Executive Directors – the Foundation also has a degree of democratic accountability with the Directors reporting to a Board of Management, which includes local authority representatives, plus six of the thirty Governors of the Heritage Foundation, who are elected to be representative of various groups in the town.

Many of the original ground leases were written to last for nine hundred and ninety-nine years, but some ran for only ninety-nine; around 2001 many of these shorter leases began to expire, whereupon the Foundation sold the freehold of the land to the house-owners.

Letchworth is thus in theory owned collectively by its residents, as opposed to landlords – although in fact, ownership resides in a trust. By holding most of the commercial buildings in the trust, the trust is able to raise income by leasing them out to shopkeepers. It has assets of over £127m. No dividend payments are made to the residents, but instead, the profit of £7m a year is invested into the local economy.

Letchworth today

Letchworth-HeritageMuseum
First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth

Several housing estates have been added to Letchworth since its inception.

To the north of the town The Grange began construction in 1947 and to the south east Jackmans was built from 1961. These were council / municipal housing estates with many residents originally coming from the London overspill. Two more prosperous (and private) estates – Lordship and Manor Park – were built from in 1971 to the south west.

Smaller areas of in-fill housing also appeared in the 1990s, particularly on land adjacent to Jackmans Estate on the sites of a former creamery and the Willian Secondary School, which had closed in 1991 when school rolls in the town had begun to fall.

Willian School, along with two primary schools (Lannock and Radburn) had been built as part of the Jackmans Estate, which was constructed with not only its own schools, but also shops, library, community centre, sheltered housing, and public house. Bordered by major roads this almost self-contained community developed a reputation as being slightly cut off from the rest of the town and tends to be overlooked in most studies of Garden City development.

This is an unfortunate oversight as the plan of the estate (based on the "Radburn principle" pioneered in Radburn, New Jersey – a town whose design was itself inspired by the original Garden City) was an impressive and largely successful addition to the town, and matched most Garden City principles. Certainly for a period that has a reputation for poor town and residential planning it is remarkably well executed piece of urban design.

Almost all residential housing on Jackmans Estate is in a series of cul-de-sacs with access off a single feeder road – appropriately called Radburn Way – which in turn is crossed by a series of underpasses.

The effect is to largely separate pedestrians from motor traffic. Most houses do not open onto streets with passing traffic, but onto pedestrian squares, green areas, and children's playgrounds. The estate is crossed by a series of footpaths. The idea is not unique to Jackmans Estate, and has been tried in New Towns elsewhere, but rarely so successfully.

In some cases the housing itself varied in quality as – perhaps harking back to the Cheap Cottages Exhibition 60 years before – various different construction methods were tried, including the pre-fabrication of some houses at a shipyard in Sunderland. This resulted in dwellings with large amounts of internal space, but of variable build quality (particularly, it is alleged, for houses whose panels were constructed on Friday afternoons). Other parts of the estate used more traditional methods.

Over time increased mobility and changing age profiles has reduced the need for the estate to have its own facilities. Although a small parade of shops and a community centre flourish, the estate lost its secondary school (Willian) in 1988, its public house (initially called the Carousel, later the Gatehouse, finally the Sportsman) in 1998, and its public library in 2006. By 2007 the two primary schools on the estate were both running at under 50% capacity, and after a brief consultation the county council closed Lannock Primary School, the smaller of the two, in July 2009. Radburn Primary remains in operation.

The Garden City estate began to turn a profit in the 1970s, leading to investment in a number of town amenities: a working farm, Standalone Farm, in 1980, a leisure centre and a theatre named Plinston Hall in 1982, a free hospital (the Ernest Gardiner Day Hospital) in 1984, and major refurbishment of the town's cinema and shopping centre in 1996 and 1997. A further major programme to improve and update facilities in the town centre – entirely funded by the Foundation – began in 2009.

On 1 October 1995, the 'Foundation day' event took place celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Letchworth. Markets and stalls ran throughout the day, whilst a fun fair was erected in Norton Common, where tribute bands performed and a fireworks display was held. 'Foundation day' was shortly an annual event for around 5–6 years. The Foundation later celebrated the town's centenary in 2003 by building a landscaped path for walkers and cyclists. The path, known as the Greenway, forms a 20 km loop around the town.

In 2011 the first George Orwell Festival was held in Letchworth and Wallington, the nearby village where George Orwell lived from 1936 until 1940 and then intermittently until 1947. It was where he wrote some of his most famous books, essays, reviews, diaries and letters, and where he developed many of the ideas leading to his greatest two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. There was a further festival in 2012.

Geography

Climate

Letchworth experiences an oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfb) similar to almost all of the United Kingdom.

Sport and leisure

Sport has played an important part in the town's history, with open spaces and playing fields being incorporated into the town's layout. Many early businesses in the town provided recreation facilities for their workers, in keeping with the ethos of the garden city movement.

Sports clubs

The town has numerous sports clubs, which are generally amateur in nature. Many of the clubs compete in regional and national leagues. These include:

  • Bowls - There are several bowls clubs in the town, including Letchworth Garden City Bowls Club (founded 1931) based on Norton Common, Willian Bowls Club (founded 1919) also based on Norton Common, Howard Garden Bowls Club (founded 1926) on Norton Way South, and Whitethorn Bowls Club (founded 1994), based at the Letchworth Corner Sports Club on Whitethorn Lane.
  • Cricket - Letchworth Garden City Cricket Club was established in 1905 and since 1996 has been based at Letchworth Corner Sports Club on Whitethorn Lane. The club has five men's teams, which all compete in leagues, and several junior teams.
  • Croquet - Letchworth Garden City Croquet Club was founded in 1987 at the former Spirella tennis courts adjacent to Willian Way. Just two years later the club won the Longman Cup, the premier national handicap competition. The club moved to Muddy Lane to become part of Letchworth Sports and Tennis Club in 2006.
  • Football - The town's football club is Letchworth Garden City Eagles, based at Pixmore Pitches on Baldock Road. Letchworth's previous semi-professional club, Letchworth Football Club (the "Bluebirds"), went out of business in 2002. The Hertfordshire Football Association is based at the former Letchworth Football Club ground (also on Baldock Road), now called the County Ground and used to host various county-wide and other competitions.
  • Golf - Letchworth Golf Club was founded in 1905 with a nine-hole course in the grounds of Letchworth Hall. The course was extended in 1910 to become a 6,000-yard (5,500 m) eighteen-hole course, designed by Harry Vardon. It was extended to become a 6,459-yard (5,906 m) par-71 course in 2003. Another golf facility in the town is the Letchworth Par 3 Golf Centre at Willian Way, which has a nine-hole course.
  • Hockey - Letchworth Hockey Club was founded in 1960 and is based at Letchworth Corner Sports Club. It competes in the East Region Hockey Leagues.
  • Roller hockey - Letchworth Rink Hockey Club is based at North Herts Leisure Centre. The senior team were the National Rink Hockey Association's division 1 national champions in 2009.
  • Rugby - Letchworth Rugby Club was founded in 1924 and is based on Baldock Road.
  • Running - North Herts Road Runners was founded 1986. It hosts running events including the Standalone 10K, the Greenway Challenge, the First Saturday of the Month 5K, Santa Canta and Run Round the Garden. It was awarded the prize of England Athletics Club of the Year in the Eastern Region in 2019. Members regularly participate in Letchworth parkrun, held each Saturday at the Grange recreation ground.
  • Swimming - Letchworth's first outdoor swimming pool opened in 1908 in Howard Park and was rather basic, being filled from the waters of Pix Brook. It was replaced by a lido on Norton Common in 1935, now called Letchworth Outdoor Pool. As well as a 55-yard (50 m), eight lane main pool with a large trainer pool alongside, the facility includes an extensive sun bathing area, and parking facilities. A public indoor swimming pool opened at the North Herts Leisure Centre on Baldock Road in 1982. Various clubs use the two public pools, including Letchworth Amateur Swimming Club, founded in 1934.
  • Tennis - Letchworth Sports and Tennis Club is based at Muddy Lane and has facilities for indoor and outdoor tennis, squash, gym and croquet.
  • Triathlon - Freedom Tri is a triathlon club formed in 2009, based in Letchworth.
  • Weightlifting - The Hitchin and Letchworth Weightlifting Club is based at the Letchworth Corner Sports Club on Whitehorn Lane, catering for weight training and the sport of powerlifting. The International Powerlifting Federation's East Midlands Powerlifting Championship is regularly held at the club.

Recreation routes

The Icknield Way Path, a multi-user route for walkers, horse riders and off-road cyclists, passes through the town on its 110-mile (180 km) journey from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk.

Other leisure activities

Astronomy

The Letchworth & District Astronomical Society has been meeting in the town since 1991, and has over 100 members. It has an observatory at Standalone Farm and holds regular meetings.

Cinema

Broadway Cinema Letchworth
The Broadway Cinema in 2017

Letchworth had one of the first purpose-built cinemas in the country, the Picture Palace (later the Palace Cinema) on Eastcheap, which opened on 4 December 1909 with a showing of "Juggins on his Motor Skates". The Palace was refurbished in 1924.

The Broadway Cinema opened on 26 August 1936 with a black tie gala screening of Follow the Fleet starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was built in the Art Deco style at the corner of Eastcheap and Gernon Road. It was built by The Letchworth Palace Limited, which also ran the older Palace Cinema a short distance along Eastcheap.

The Palace Cinema closed on 31 December 1977.

In the mid-1990s, to ensure the continued prosperity of the Broadway Cinema, the sixty shareholders of The Letchworth Palace Ltd went into partnership with the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. The Broadway Cinema closed temporarily at the end of February 1996 with a special screening of Windbag the Sailor starring Will Hay. The building then underwent a £2 million programme to revitalise the cinema, restoring its Art Deco foyer and exterior and changing from a single to a triple screen facility. It re-opened on 12 July 1996.

In 2008 the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation took 100% control of the Broadway Cinema and refurbished the building again, adding a fourth screen. The building was adapted in 2016 to allow the main screen to be used as a both a cinema and theatre, with dressing rooms and technical facilities incorporated into a new extension. In addition to showing some of the latest films, the cinema also screens live (as well as delayed or recorded) broadcasts from the Royal Opera House and the Royal National Theatre.

The Broadway Cinema appears in the 2013 film The World's End, as a fictional pub named The Mermaid.

Letchworth Arts and Leisure Group

The Letchworth Arts and Leisure Group (LALG) was founded in 1987 to provide year round leisure activities. Membership exceeds 1300 households in Letchworth and the surrounding areas. Members with specific interests run groups linked to the main organisation, which include wine appreciation, film, gardening, singing, theatre, games, sports, outings, walking, reading, language practice, music, quizzing, and more.

Town twinning

Letchworth is twinned with:

Black squirrels and other wildlife

Letchworth Garden City is home to one of the UK's largest colonies of black squirrels, thought by some to be a genetic mutation of the common North American Grey squirrel, but in fact a rare but not unique example of Melanism. Sightings of black squirrels originally appeared in the area of Norton Common and later the centre of the town from the 1950s, and possibly before, and have since gradually spread, becoming common on the Jackmans estate by the 1980s and Lordship in the 1990s. Reports of black squirrels in the neighbouring town of Hitchin started to appear in the local press around 2005.

There are also muntjac deer living principally on Norton Common, but also increasingly elsewhere in the town (Jackman's Estate, for example where they often leave evidence of their presence on the allotments, much to the annoyance of allotment holders!). About the size of a large dog, they also find their way to domestic gardens and have been seen occasionally in the town centre. They can be something of a traffic hazard, especially on winter evenings, as they do not readily move out of the way of cars.

Roundabouts and Green Belts: Letchworth and 20th century urban design

Letchworth Roundabout 1909
The United Kingdom's first roundabout on The Broadway in Letchworth Garden City

In 2007 architectural writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades devoted a programme in his series Jonathan Meades Abroad Again to Letchworth. In "Heaven: Folkwoven in England" Meades suggested that many of the main features of British urban design in the twentieth century owed their origins to Letchworth Garden City - "a social experiment on a par with the Welfare State, a social experiment that affected us all and still does."

Meades's thesis was not entirely complimentary ("its legacy is Britain's ubiquitous, banal sprawl") but it is a theme that other writers have supported. Many factors underlying British housing design, and also town planning, began in Letchworth. The popularity of Parker and Unwin's "country" style, plus the success of the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions of 1905 and 1907, inspired British urban architectural design for many decades – a style which, according to Meades "shunned urbanism to an extent otherwise unknown on this continent".

However, innovation in Letchworth was not confined to the design of buildings. During January 2005 "Sollershott Circus" (to give it its formal name) in Letchworth Garden City was recognised as having the first roundabout on a public road in the United Kingdom, dating from circa 1909 (there are two signs on the roundabout saying "UK's First Roundabout Built circa 1909"). This was probably inspired by the traffic system at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a city which was familiar to Parker and Unwin.

When first built traffic could circulate around the central island in both directions. The more familiar rules of the road for roundabouts were not adopted until the 1920s. Roundabouts remain a feature of the Garden City's road network, which has only two sets of true traffic lights (discounting those on pedestrian crossings).

In addition the town was also the birthplace of the "Green Belt", certainly in its modern form of an area of land surrounding a town, designed to constrain its outward expansion. It was an important feature of Howard's concept – he saw a Garden City as having a maximum population of about 30,000. The Green Belt also aimed to make the Garden City self-sufficient in food and agricultural products. In addition Letchworth was also intended to be self-sufficient in gas, water and electrical power – an aim it achieved, exporting power to neighbouring towns and villages until the late 1940s when power and gas generation were nationalised. The originally coal-powered electricity station was first converted to gas power in the last quarter of the 20th century before eventually being decommissioned and demolished in the early years of the 21st century.

Archaeology

To the west of the town are the remains of Wilbury Hill Camp a Late Bronze Age hill fort. It comprises two adjacent enclosures and lies close by the Icknield Way. Settlement is understood to have started in the late Bronze Age, 700BC and it was further developed during the Iron Age. There is also evidence of continued occupation during the period of the Roman colonisation. Regular digs are conducted by Norton Community Archaeology Group in the fields between Norton village and the A1, where they have found evidence of Bronze Age, Romano-British and late Iron Age settlement.

Letchworth in popular culture

Literature

  • "The Lion and the Unicorn" In his polemic essay on wartime Britain, George Orwell said "The place to look for the gems of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new". In The Road to Wigan Pier, chapter 11, he describes "two dreadful-looking old men", supposedly socialists, getting on a bus in Letchworth.
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish In the fourth book of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Ford Prefect complains about the difficulty of persuading telephone operators that he is calling from Letchworth when tapping into the British phone system from the Pleiades. Remarkably a new Coat of Arms, issued for the Garden City Council in December 2010, includes a motto (Share, Enjoy, Prosper) that is almost exactly the same as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's "Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division" (Share and Enjoy).
  • Bigipedia (Series 1, episode 2) included reference to the "Letchworth Dog" - a fictional legend about a mysterious animal supposedly seen in the town in 1908.

The World's End (2013)

The film, The World's End, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was filmed between September and December 2012 throughout Letchworth. A number of attractions and locations have been filmed, and in most cases set dressed with fictional names.

Placename Appears as
Wendy's Shop, Leys Avenue The Good Companions
The Three Magnets pub, Leys Avenue The Trusty Servant
The Platform pub, Eastcheap The Two Headed Dog
Broadway Cinema The Mermaid
Thai Garden Restaurant The Beehive
The Arena Tavern, Arena Parade The King's Head
Letchworth Railway Station The Hole in the Wall
The Gardner's Arms The World's End

Notable residents

  • John Allison – comic writer
  • Jennie Bond – journalist at the BBC, attended St Francis' College
  • Bernard George Ellis (1890–1979) – awarded the Albert Medal for Lifesaving during the First World War
  • Adrian Fortescue (1874–1923) – Roman Catholic priest and scholar who founded the Church of St Hugh of Lincoln in the town
  • Walter Henry Gaunt (1874–1951) – English transport engineer
  • A. A. Gill (1954–2016) – writer and critic, educated at the St Christopher School and would later recall his experiences there for his books The Angry Island and Pour Me - A Life
  • Harold Gilman (1876–1919) – artist, founder member of the Camden Town Group
  • Spencer Gore (1878–1914) – artist, first president of the Camden Town Group, lived in Gilman's house (100 Wilbury Road) after Gilman had left it, painting it as "Harold Gilman's House at Letchworth"
  • W. F. Harvey (1885–1937) – horror writer, lived in the town from 1935 until his death
  • Shaun Hutson – horror author
  • Annie Kenney (1879–1953) – suffragette, lived in Letchworth for some years before her death in 1953
  • Tom Killick (1907–1953) – international cricketer, and rector of Willian
  • Dave Kitson – footballer
  • James Lovelock – scientist, author of the Gaia Theory, born in Letchworth
  • James Mayhew – writer and illustrator of children's books
  • Herbert Morrison (1888–1965) – Labour Party politician; worked in a market garden in Letchworth during the First World War.
  • Frank Newman Turner (1913–1964) – a pioneer in organic horticulture who moved here in 1958 and set up a practice in osteopathy, naturopathy and medical herbalism
  • Laurence Olivier (1907–1989) – actor; Olivier's father was Rector of Letchworth Parish 1918–1924.
  • William Ratcliffe (1870–1955) – artist and member of the Camden Town Group
  • Hans Redlich (1903–1968), musicologist, founded the Letchworth Choral Society in 1941
  • Jane Short (1881–after 1932) – suffragette and activist for women's rights
  • Philip Snow (1915–2012) – author, cricketer, Assistant Colonial Secretary of the Fiji Islands
  • Frederick Tees (1922–1982) – sergeant in the original "Dambusters" 617 Squadron, who was the sole survivor from his bomber; lived in Letchworth after the war.
  • Peter Underwood (1923–2014) – parapsychologist and author, born in Letchworth
  • Simon West – film director, directed the film Con Air
  • Josephine Wiggs – bass guitar player of The Breeders
  • Michael Winner (1935–2013) – film director, restaurant critic. Attended St Christopher School, Letchworth

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