Sweet Herts: Berkhamsted

William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. Now Berkhamsted is popular with an army of commuters
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The Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted
The Grand Union Canal brought Berkhamsted new wealth at the end of the 18th century and is now is one of the town’s most attractive features
Surrounded by the green hills of the Chilterns, the Hertfordshire town of Berkhamsted is a popular commuting destination. For those who want serious countryside and good schools it is worth the commute. The town sits close to the A41 between Hemel Hempstead and Tring, some 32 miles from central London in the valley of the river Bulbourne.

At the end of the 18th century, the Grand Union Canal, which passes through the town on its way from the Thames at Brentford to Birmingham, brought new wealth. The port of Berkhamsted became important for boat-building and the import and export of coal, grain and wood. The third duke of Bridgewater, known as the father of inland navigation, lived at nearby Ashridge, and his monument there is a popular climb for locals, weekend hikers and kite-fliers.

But it was the arrival of the railway in 1837 that turned Berkhamsted in to a commuter town. Situated on the London to Northampton line, the train journey to Euston takes 30 to 40 minutes and during the rush hour there are four trains an hour.

The building boom that followed the arrival of the railways saw the development of street after street of attractive Victorian terraces on the south side of town. Development on the north side is predominantly post-war, with roads of detached Fifties and Sixties houses, many on large leafy plots.

'The huge success of the restored Rex cinema has brought some much needed artistic vitality to the town'

Today, Berkhamsted is a pretty and prosperous small town with a charming high street along Akeman Street, the old Roman road that linked St Albans and Bath. The street is dotted with attractive medieval, Tudor and late-Victorian buildings, most notably a half-timbered Tudor house reputed to have belonged to John Incent, the founder of Berkhamsted School. There is also the gothic-style Victorian town hall building, which once housed an indoor market and a mechanics’ institute but is now occupied by a branch of the Chez Gerard brasserie chain.

Berkhamsted's charming high street
Berkhamsted's charming high street
The town has a good choice of chain stores, including a Waitrose and a Tesco Metro, as well as independent shops. Worth seeking out are Home and Colonial — often described as the Liberty of Berkhamsted — which sells modern and antique furniture and vintage clothing over four floors, with a café on the fifth floor; and Amelie, a women’s fashion boutique selling covetable brands such as Odd Molly, Betsey Johnson and 7 For All Mankind jeans.

The huge success of The Rex, a beautiful listed and recently restored Art Deco cinema, with its neighbouring fashionable bar, has brought some much needed artistic vitality to the town and attracts cinema-going crowds from across the region.

Central to the town’s success, and one of its main attractions for families, is Berkhamsted School, a private day and boarding school, founded in 1541, which occupies a range of Tudor, Victorian and modern buildings between St Peter’s Church in the high street and the canal. Nowadays, the school is known as Berkhamsted Collegiate School, an amalgamation of Berkhamsted School, Berkhamsted Girls’ School and Berkhamsted Preparatory School that took place in 1996. The school is mixed in the prep school and sixth form but boys and girls are taught separately between 11 and 16.

The novelist Graham Greene is the school’s most famous former pupil. He was the son of the school’s then headmaster, and the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust organises an annual Graham Greene festival there in October each year. The school gets excellent results at GCSE and A-level.

State-school provision in the town is more problematic. Ashlyns School, the local comprehensive which takes pupils from 13 to 18, is only rated “satisfactory” by Ofsted, while the two feeder middle schools, which take pupils from nine to 13, do slightly better, being judged “satisfactory and improving” in the case of Thomas Coram and “good with outstanding features” in the case of Bridgewater.

'Between 85 and 90 per cent of buyers in the Shrublands conservation area of town are from London'

Paul Brissimitzakis, of local estate agents Aitchisons, says that that between 85 and 90 per cent of buyers in the Shrublands area of town are from London. “It is in a conservation area and the catchment area for Greenway school, a popular primary school that takes pupils from age three to nine. A two-bedroom Victorian terrace house there costs about £400,000; one with three bedrooms is between £425,000 and £450,000.

“The Chiltern Park area on the north-west side of town has been developed over the past 25 years. A two-bedroom terrace house there is about £250,000 and a four-bedroom detached home about £450,000.

Berkhamsted’s old town hall has been turned into a brasserie
The old town hall has been turned into a brasserie
“Northchurch straddles the main road out of Berkhamsted to the west on the way to Tring. It is more rural and there is a mix of older and newer houses. Prices vary but we recently sold a five-bedroom detached house there for £550,000.

“Berkhamsted’s most expensive road is Headway. Again there is a mix of house types but large detached houses there go for about £1.5 million, with some new-build houses on infill plots selling for £2 million. On the outskirts of town, Frithsden Copse is a private road where prices have gone has high as £2.5 million.”

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Berkhamsted and all that

Berkhamsted was where, in 1066, the Saxon kings offered the invading William the Conqueror the crown of England.

The great castle that the Normans then built became an important centre and Berkhamsted was for the Plantagenet kings what Windsor is to today’s monarch. The castle was abandoned at the end of the 15th century and all that remains are the earthworks and a few broken walls.

Given the long Anglo-French connection, it is hardly surprising that General de Gaulle lived in exile there during his time as leader of the Free French during the Second World War. The town is twinned with Beaune in Burgundy.

The Rex, a beautiful Art Deco cinema in the centre of Berkhamsted, had been derelict for more than 15 years before James Hannaway stepped in to save it.

The listed cinema, which was reopened four years ago, has one of the country’s most stunning deco interiors. The glowing red auditorium with its gold filigree proscenium arch is decorated with swirling plaster waves dotted with glass shell lights.

The Rex is now one of the region’s major attractions. When the programme for the next month is announced there are queues around the block for tickets.

Pictures by Barry Phillips

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