An Englishman’s home is his castle

Bart Simpson

Bart Simpson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t stamp my feet or hold my breath, but the petulance was unmistakable. In a way I could understand my partner’s exasperation but the terms of the accord were set earlier in the day. We could plod around estate agents until exactly 3PM when the England game started.

It was Euro ’96 and against all the odds, it looked good for the national team. Of course it all ended in tears but I wasn’t to know that at the time.

I never appreciated how many estate agents there were in Hemel Hempstead. All morning and early afternoon, we traipsed from one to the other looking at the house summaries and booking appointments for the following day. Only one remained. But we had an agreement and I was adamant I wouldn’t miss the kickoff. It was a good game. A lot of drama (as you would expect in an England game) but the boys did well and we won. I saw it as an omen.

The next day, we had just enough time to visit the sole remaining estate agent before our first appointment. We were in luck. A repossession came in as we stood in the branch. It was the right price, in the right area with the right amount of room. As it was just around the corner, we went there first.

We didn’t have a huge budget. We were not perhaps as fiscally solvent as we made out to the bank manager. The deposit consisted of a combination of a short-term loan from work coupled with a small amount of savings. The balance was made up by not paying a couple of bills that month. We certainly couldn’t afford stamp duty which kicked in at a certain threshold.

The repossession was comfortably below our ceiling but as it was the first house we saw, we were ultra critical. It was only later in the day when we plodded around some of the other horrors on our list that we realised how good that first house was. Nothing else was as big nor were they in such a good location. All of them cost a lot more money. I still have nightmares about the house with the bright green kitchen and the 10 foot Bart Simpson painted on the wall.

As we looked around at one more place that could have been the home of the Adams Family, we looked at each other and after a very short exchange we both agreed. We would rush down and put in an offer on the first house. The estate agent explained the special situation regarding repossessions in this country. Our offer had to be published in the local paper and everyone else had a week to put in a higher offer. It was a very stressful week. Luckily, the newspaper had a printing error which made it look like our offer was bigger than it really was.

And we’re still here. The wisest purchase we ever made. And if I hadn’t dug my heels in on that fateful Saturday, who knows where we would have ended up!

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What has Hemel Hempstead ever done for us?

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. We have Kodak House.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. We have Kodak House.

In order to get into Mensa, you need to undergo an intelligence test. If you want to get into Hemel Hempstead you have to negotiate a fiendish traffic management system called the magic roundabout. Somehow, just under 90,000 souls have passed the test and reside in the town.

It is a town of few accolades. Henry VIII granted the town a royal charter, presumably because he conducted his romantic liaisons in the town. It’s not the only time a reigning monarch has found the time to visit. Queen Elizabeth the Second came to Hemel Hempstead to open the appropriately named Queen’s Square shortly after her coronation. Louis Mountbatten went to school here.  Somehow, I think our days of royal interest have long gone.

Now Hemel Hempstead can add another accolade thanks to a recent survey. People voted the town the ugliest in the UK. Beating off stiff opposition from Luton and Slough amongst others, Hemel Hempstead came first with the grand total of 785 votes. Leaving aside the fact that only 3,000 people voted in the survey which is probably less than the number of left handed people with red hair who speak Norwegian, does Hemel Hempstead deserve the title?

Geneva has the lake and the jet d'eau - we have the water gardens

Geneva has the lake and the jet d’eau – we have the water gardens

It does suffer from “New Town Syndrome”.  Among many others, Hemel Hempstead grew very rapidly in the post war years to cope with a population displaced by the blitz. After a flurry of investment and concrete in the early days, it received precious little investment afterwards. This means there are a number of tired 1950s concrete structures which probably looked modern in their day but they are far from easy on the modern eye.

There are some very nice places in the town. We are blessed with a wide range of wide open green spaces in the form of Boxmoor and Gadebridge park. The Grand Union links Hemel Hempstead to Berkhamsted and Kings Langley. Hemel Hempstead has enviable transport links. A train line gets you into London in half an hour or so and the M1 and M25 are near at hand.

But ultimately, it’s an unremarkable town. The crime figures are low. So low in fact, that the Police are looking to close the Police Station in the town. How you can have a town of 90,000 people with no Police Station is beyond me. Mind you, there are plenty of babies around, but that didn’t stop them closing the maternity ward.

The vast majority of housing in the town is ex local authority and much of the housing stock is showing its age. But the thing that probably swung the award for us was the high street. A desolate wasteland of closed down shops, pawnbrokers reborn as chain stores, charity shops and mobile phone shops.

But to us, it’s home and ugly or not, we like it.

The monk with no head, from Piccotts End Lane

Misty night (pattanaik00_mul_18.6978_cone_0.5_...

Misty night (pattanaik00_mul_18.6978_cone_0.5_rod_0.767677) (Photo credit: cosmonautirussi)

I can’t stand it here,
I’m going to the bar.
Spluttered my brother,
but the bar was too far.

I know a shortcut,
I’ll show you the way.
But when I saw where he meant,
I heard myself say…

My brother, you’re mad
Completely Insane.
Have you forgotten the legend
of Piccott’s End Lane?

You mean the monk
deprived of his head?
I’m telling you brother,
I don’t feel any dread.

So off to the Old Town
we went with a cheer,
For bawdy young ladies
and lashings of beer.

But as we returned,
loaded with drink,
the darkness closed in
and we started to think…

As I bounced off the hedge
from one side to the other,
I bumped into something
I prayed was my brother.

The more sounds we heard,
the more that we worried.
We heard a dog howl,
And onward we hurried.

Now and again,
we thought we were sunk.
How would we escape
that headless old Monk?

It took a long time,
to reach the top of the path.
My brother, relieved,
gave a nervous laugh.

You see my brother,
there was nothing to fear.
Aren’t you glad we went out
for a relaxing beer?


This is kind of based on a true story. For many years, my brother and I trekked up and down Piccotts End Lane in search of nocturnal entertainment. The ghost story is real. Allegedly, a headless monk has been seen along Piccotts End Lane many times and I have to say, it could be quite spooky along that lane, especially on a moonless night when the mist closed in.

Alas, we never saw the headless monk himself, thank goodness. But that long walk chilled my bones.

We have no time to stand and stare…

 

Rainbow in the Fountains of the Bellagio Hotel...

Rainbow in the Fountains of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is nothing quite like a good view. You can almost feel your batteries being recharged as you take in the sheer magnificence of the spectacle before you. Unfortunately, the reverse can also be true. It can be draining when you take in a view that is not quite so pleasing. Unfortunately, I find myself in just such a place right now. I am in Las Vegas for a conference and whilst I can understand why the location appeals to some – I am not amongst them.

I am impressed by the technological achievement of some of the developments here. The synchronized fountains outside the Bellagio are undoubtedly a sight to see. I can appreciate the design work that must have gone into the intense choreography as the individual jets shoot carefully controlled pulses into the sky. The architecture behind some of the buildings is astonishing in the sheer scale of these monolithic cathedrals to hedonistic consumerism.

But to me, these buildings have one essential ingredient missing – they lack a soul. Somehow when you walk around the buildings in an old part of London or York, the history around you almost seeps out into the street as you walk through. Of course, they are nowhere near as opulent as the structures of Las Vegas but they are genuine.

Aside from the old town, Hemel Hempstead, my home, will never be renowned as a site of beauty. Despite the fact that we have the tallest building in Hertfordshire in the form of Kodak House, the skyline is never going to rank amongst the most impressive in the world. One day though, I did manage to see it from a different perspective. I was working for BP at the time. Whilst waiting for a job to finish on my machine, my gaze happened to wander over to a field outside the building where there was a team busily preparing to launch a hot air balloon. The balloon was festooned with BP logos, and in that moment – it occurred to me that there might be a way to hitch a ride.

I pleaded with my team leader to let me go outside to the balloon until she let me go. I ran downstairs, climbed over the prickly hedge and ran over the muddy field. As I neared the balloon, puffed out from my exertions, I caught sight of the man leading the crew. For an instant, he gave me a look that told me my travails had been in vain and then his face softened into a broad smile and he lifted me into the basket.

At that moment, they gave a blast with the burners. It sounded like a primeval, unearthly roar and the searing heat washed over us. Little by little, the balloon started to rise and the basket floated beneath. Before too long, my office was disappearing below us. The higher we ascended, the more amazing the view became. As I saw Hemel Hempstead stretched out below, I realised how verdant and green everything looked. The rivers and canal  framed the town, and it looked quite stunning from up above. Fortunately, there was not much else to do in the balloon other than drink in the view.

Aerial views show a completely different perspective on the familiar. There is an approach to Heathrow where the pilot makes his final approach low over the Thames. I never tire of roaring along the river from East to West taking in all the famous London landmarks. Nowadays, with Google Earth, you can see the same view from the comfort of your own home, but somehow, it’s not quite the same as feeling the experience of flight at the same time.

One view I will never forget was from high up in the World Trade Centre in New York. I was there early one morning to give a training course. Because it was in December, sunrise was fairly late. The streets in Manhattan are laid out in a lattice so that all the buildings share the same orientation. As the sun came up, the skyscrapers that make up the famous New York skyline lit up in unison. It seemed almost as if the city was made of huge gold bars standing to attention in the morning light.

If you ever find yourself with a spectacular site before you, take my advice. Take the time to stand and stare, unless you find yourself in Las Vegas.