Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

What's Hemel Hampstead Really Like?

Hemel Hempstead has been very much in the news recently for pretty negative reasons. But what else is there interesting about the town?

Well, for a start there’s an enormous oil depot at Buncefield. This is where the explosions started taking place early on Sunday morning, and where the fires raged for days.

42 people were injured, two of them seriously, the nearby M1 was closed for most of Sunday, and a huge black cloud has covered much of the Home Counties, causing worries about possible contamination.

Hemel Hempstead is in fact a traditional market town in Hertfordshire, on the River Gade in a fold of the Chiltern Hills. The Grand Union Canal also runs past the town.

In 1947 Hemel Hempstead was designated one of the first New Towns. Four of these are actually in Hertfordshire, which is a pretty small county – as well as Hemel Hempstead, there’s also Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage. They were largely inspired by the first Garden City – Letchworth, also in Hertfordshire.

The effect of this is that an attractive 18th century High Street, with Tudor cottages and a Norman church, is augmented by a post-war pedestrianised shopping centre.

I first knew Hemel Hempstead in the 1960s. As an Assistant Manager of cinemas (before I was appointed as a Manager in my own right), I had to go out on relief a lot, being in charge while Managers were on holiday, or sick or whatever.

One of the cinemas that I used to go to was the Odeon Hemel Hempstead – others in the area were the Odeon Hatfield, Odeon and Gaumont St. Albans, Odeon and Carlton Watford and Odeon Luton (over the border in Bedfordshire).

The first thing I found out about the town was that when you’re there you don’t actually call it Hemel Hempstead – you simply call it Hemel.

The cinema was built as part of the shopping precinct, and I was told that at the independently run burger bar (a bit like McDonalds, which didn’t exist in England at the time, or Wimpy, which certainly did) I could get a staff discount.

So I went in, looked at the menu, and found that it was really quite expensive – however, my discount brought prices down to a reasonable level.

I decided to order what was being promoted as something new and brilliant – it was called something like “bacon egg and pancakey burger”, and I sat down with my coffee in eager anticipation of a mouthwatering treat.

When it arrived a few minutes later, my bacon egg and pancakey burger was an amazing sight. Its base was a pancake, and on top of this was a fried egg. The next layer was another pancake, and on top of that was a slice of bacon. Then came another pancake, with another fried egg on top of that, followed by yet another pancake. And poured liberally over the whole edifice was maple syrup.

Actually, I didn’t eat very much – the result was absolutely foul.

One afternoon at the Odeon, all the power went off during a thunderstorm. But the gathering of senior citizens were happy to join me in an impromptu singsong of music hall songs in the dark.

I later learned that the same thunderstorm had, a few miles away, led to the sad death of John White.

John White was an exceptionally good footballer. He played at inside forward (you would call that midfield today) for Tottenham Hotspur and Scotland. He had sheltered under a tree while playing golf, and had been struck by lightning.

So there are some memories of Hemel Hempstead. Not a bad town, as I recall. I hope it will recover from its present circumstances before too long.