After some fun exploring around Newcastle and the North East, the ninth part of Exploring the East Coast Mainline saw me returning to more local stations, with me aiming to tick off the six from Hitchin to Hatfield. Vaguely familiar from my days of passing through on fast trains to and from London, all six stations on this bit of the East Coast Mainline are in Hertfordshire.
Catching the twice-hourly Thameslink service from Peterborough, I started my day at the town of Hitchin, the station for which lies just south of the junction connecting the line to Cambridge with the East Coast Mainline. As such Hitchin sees a frequent train service, with six trains an hour in each direction, with twice-hourly Cambridge-Brighton, Cambridge-Kings Cross and Peterborough-Horsham services.
My first stop in Hitchin was to the British Schools Museum, located just outside the town centre and about a 15-minute walk from the station. Unfortunately, the museum was closed on the day I was in Hitchin, however it is housed in original Edwardian and Victorian buildings, which are now Grade II* listed for their historic importance and contain the world’s last remaining purpose-built Monitorial schoolroom. The museum is open Friday-Sunday 1000-1600, with tickets costing £6.50 per person.
I was genuinely surprised by Hitchin’s town centre, partially as I had unfairly mentally written it off as another town ruined by 60s/70s architecture without seeing it, and partially because of the sheer number of historic buildings from different eras dotted around. At the heart of the town centre is St. Mary’s Church, the Grade I listed parish church of the town, parts of which date back to the late 12th century. The church is remarkably large for a town of Hitchin’s size, and is in fact the largest parish church in Hertfordshire, showing Hitchin’s previous prosperity as a trading town.
Hitchin is also home to the North Hertfordshire Museum, somewhere I didn’t have time to explore, but looks well worth a visit if you’re in the town, especially as its free to enter. A mix of an art gallery and a museum, you can explore how the lives of the people of Hertfordshire have changed over thousands of years or, if that’s not your cup of tea, explore the football collection. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 1030-1630 and Sunday 1100-1500.
After exploring the town of Hitchin, and grabbing some much-needed breakfast, I headed for my next stop, the small village of Knebworth. Whilst not the next station on the line, I had planned to hop back and forth along the six stations, making best use of ticket rules and the time available. Knebworth is served much less frequently than Hitchin, with only two trains per hour in each direction for most of the day, running between Kings Cross and Cambridge.
The main attraction at Knebworth is Knebworth House, a Grade II* listed house and gardens located to the west of the village, with the annual Knebworth Festival being held in the gardens. Unfortunately, the house is a 45-minute walk from the station and, with six stations to cover, I didn’t have time to head out to it on this trip. However, I did venture into the village of Knebworth itself and discovered a surprisingly wide range of local shops and restaurants, including a Post Office, allowing me to browse for the 30minutes until the next train.
The third stop on this Exploring the East Coast was Welwyn Garden City, a town in the centre of Hertfordshire that sees the twice-hourly Cambridge-Kings Cross service along with being the terminus of the Moorgate-Welwyn Garden City services that ran every 15 minutes for most of the day pre-Covid, but are currently running every 30 minutes. The fastest services from Welwyn Garden City take about 30 minutes to travel the 20 miles to London Kings Cross.
Welwyn Garden City hasn’t existed for long, having been founded in 1920 as England’s second Garden City (Letchworth was the first), and the town is unique in being both a Garden City and a ‘New Town’. Founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard, Welwyn was intended “to combine the benefits of the city and the countryside and to avoid the disadvantages of both” and aimed to be ‘The Perfect Town’.
Post WW2, the British Government introduced the ‘New Towns Act’ which brought further development to the town with new housing, shops and open spaces. In 1946 The Times compared Welwyn and nearby Hatfield. It described Welwyn Garden City as “a world-famous modern new town developed as an experiment in community planning” and Hatfield as “an unplanned settlement created by sporadic building in the open country”. “Welwyn, though far from perfect, made the New Towns Act possible, just as Hatfield, by its imperfection, made it necessary.”
I spent my time in Welwyn Garden City wandering around the 1920s shopping district and wide boulevards, enjoying a cup of coffee next to the central fountain of the town, before heading back through the 1980s Howard Centre to the station, which half sits within the shopping centre. Although there’s not much to actually do in Welwyn, its definitely worth a look if you’ve got an hour or so given its history as both a Garden City and a New Town. There are also the remains of some Roman Baths that are preserved in a vault under Junction 6 of the A1(M) that you can visit.
Following Welwyn Garden City, the next stop was the most southerly of the six stations for this episode, the town of Hatfield. Hatfield gets the same service as Welwyn, with the half-hourly Cambridge-Kings Cross service along with the Welwyn-Moorgate services of the same frequency. Just south of Hatfield station is the site of the Hatfield Rail Crash, where a fatigued rail shattered under a GNER InterCity 225 causing the rear portion of the train to derail. The incident occurred in the middle of a dark five-years for the British rail network, and ultimately led to the failure of the private company Railtrack and their public replacement, Network Rail, being formed.
Since the ‘New Towns’ project of the post-war era, the majority of Hatfield has been located to the west of the railway, between it and the A1(M), however to the east of the ECML is Old Hatfield and the town’s most prominent ‘attraction’, Hatfield House. Built in 1611, the current Hatfield House and its surrounding ‘Great Park’ were originally the home of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Sailsbury, Chief Minister to King James I and controversial figure in the Gunpower Plot. Henry VIII’s children, Edward and Elizabeth, spent their childhoods at Hatfield House’s predecessor, and in 1558 Queen Elizabeth held her first Council of State in the Great Hall that used to sit on the site. Today the gardens are open to public and regularly hold concerts and festivals, whilst the house can be explored via guided tours.
Just outside the walls of the Hatfield House estate is St. Etheldrea’s Church, the parish church of Old Hatfield that once also served as the church of the estate. Having served the estate, the church is especially grand for a parish church and it has been well maintained, with parts dating back to the 13th century. The church yard was also especially peaceful with benches dotted around, allowing for a short break for the bustling modern world outside.
The penultimate stop of this Exploring the East Cost was the station of Welwyn North, which serves the village of Digswell on the north side of the River Mimram. The station serves as a connection for commuters in the village, with there being no real reason for tourists to head to Digswell, however there is one structure of note to the south of the station, Digswell Viaduct. A Grade II* listed structure, the viaduct has 40 arches, covers a distance of 475m, and sits 30m above ground level. Designed by William Cubit and styled as a Roman aqueduct, the viaduct was the tallest and longest viaduct on the route of the former Great Northern Railway.
With just a short stay at Welwyn North, it was time to head to the final stop on this part of the ECML and the busiest station between Finsbury Park and Peterborough, Stevenage. Stevenage is the only intermediate station for inter-city trains south of Peterborough and therefore, in addition to the six Thameslink and two Great Northern services an hour, also sees two LNER services an hour along with sporadic Hull Trains and LUMO services. All in all there are 10 services an hour to London, ranging from 25-minutes with LNER to over an hour on the local Great Northern service.
Another of Britain’s post-war ‘New Towns’, Stevenage doesn’t have the advantage of also being a Garden City and as such the ‘beauty’ found in Welwyn Garden City was sadly missing. I had previously visited Stevenage a few years ago, prior to the present regeneration programme starting, and following that experience I was dreading finding something to talk about for Exploring the East Coast. Thankfully, Stevenage Council has begun to regenerate the town, with a new bus station opening soon next to the railway station and the central pedestrian areas of the town centre having new community spaces added.
In terms of things to do in Stevenage, there is the Stevenage Museum, a local museum similar to many others I’ve talked about in Exploring the East Cost and covers the history of the area, along with the New Towns project and contains a mix of exhibitions, art work and historic items. The museum is free to enter and is open Wednesday-Saturday 1000-1630, with opening hours extended by 30-minutes until 1700 on Saturdays.
The other area to explore in Stevenage, although unfortunately located next to the ring road, is the Town Centre Gardens, a latter part of the New Town development in the 1960s, although recently rejuvenated by the council. The gardens contain a large area of open grass, along with wooded area, a lake and some ornamental gardens. Surprisingly, despite the proximity to the main road, the gardens were very peaceful and listening to the water from the fountain splashing into the lake was a nice way to spend 10-minutes.
This part of the ECML has certainly been a mix, from the historic houses at Knebworth and Hatfield, to the more modern history of Garden Cities and New Towns. Whilst not all of it has been beautiful and at times there hasn’t been much to actually do, researching this Exploring the East Coast has taken me through more than a millennium of England’s history, and I’ve certainly found it fascinating. With this bit ticked off, there’s just six more stations approaching London to do, before we’ve covered everything south of Morpeth.