The Hertford Heritage Trail
There was an outbreak of blue plaques in Hertford last year (2017) − no fewer than 38 new ones have appeared (with 3 more to be installed in due course for Nos. 32, 33 and 35), placed on many of the town’s historic and most interesting buildings, and together they form the Hertford Heritage Trail. Created by Hertford Town Council, Hertford and Ware Local History Society and Hertford Civic Society, the trail provides a fascinating insight into the history of the town and its significant buildings, notable people, former trades and professions, and rich heritage.
Each plaque provides a brief description identifying the point of interest, but further information can be obtained from the free booklet that accompanies the trail and which can be obtained from Hertford’s Tourist Information Centre opposite Hertford Theatre in The Wash. The booklet also includes a map indicating the location of all the plaques. The trail in its entirety is very approximately 3½ miles long if walked in a roughly anti-clockwise direction starting from the Castle (excluding No. 41, which requires a slight detour), but of course you can choose to walk shorter sections of it, or simply focus on buildings or features of particular interest to you. It is a wonderful way to get to know and enjoy the historic county town.
The numbers in parentheses in the paragraphs below relate to the order in which the plaques are listed in the trail booklet, as well as the photographs that appear in the picture gallery at the end of this article.
Public and civic buildings
Hertford has many fine public and civic buildings, probably the most important being the historic 15th-century gatehouse of Hertford Castle (1) in its riverside gardens. Other distinguished examples include James Adam’s 18th-century Shire Hall (8), the 19th-century Corn Exchange (11), the former Old Cross Library (21), the fine 17th-century town house accommodating Hertford Museum (19), and W. N. Ashbee’s impressive Hertford East Station (16). Also of interest are the former 19th-century County Hospital (35) and the War Memorial (6) in Parliament Square, although little remains of the County Gaol (39) except for a section of its wall.
Hertford is home to the oldest Quaker Meeting House (18) in continuous use. It has survived since it was built in 1670, whereas only the site of the former Ebenezer Chapel (32) now remains. Other churches of interest include the late 19th-century Hartham Chapel (23) and the Catholic church of The Immaculate Conception and St Joseph, built on the site of the former 11th-century Hertford Priory (17). One of Hertford’s most distinctive and recognizable buildings, the 15th-century Verger’s House (30) at 43 St Andrew Street, also had connections with the church. The rear part of this building was used as a parish hall for nearby St Andrew’s Church in the 19th century, under the name St Nicholas Hall.
The present Richard Hale School can trace its origins back to 1617 when Hale’s Free Grammar School was founded. The original Hale’s Free Grammar School (37) building can still be seen, as can its boarding house, the Master’s House (13), and the building that replaced it, Bayley Hall (7). Near to the old grammar school is the building that used to house the School of Industry for Girls (38), also known as the Brown Coat School. The more familiar Bluecoat School, as Christ’s Hospital School (15) was also known, was located in Hertford for over 400 years before the premises ceased to be a school in 1995. Look out for the two figures of the Bluecoat boys that stand on the main gate pillars (now replicas, the originals having been relocated to Horsham where the school is still going strong).
Some of the better-known former inhabitants of Hertford, whose homes can be seen on the trail, are W. E. Johns (25), author of the Biggles books, the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace (27), the novelist Annie S. Swan (29 and 31) and Samuel Stone (10), the minister who founded Hartford in Connecticut, USA. But there were many others who made significant contributions to both local and national life. Dr Thomas Dimsdale (41). who had a clinic in Port Hill, was instrumental in the development of inoculation against smallpox; Arthur Elsden (33) and his son were prolific photographers of people and places in Hertfordshire; and Robert and William Andrews (2), who came from a family of builders and timber merchants, founded Hertford Museum and were also founding members of the East Herts Archaeological Society. John Briant (3), bell founder and clock maker, J. M. Gilbertson (9), former Mayor of Hertford and later of Gilbertson & Page, game product manufacturers, and the Bridgeman family (36), local nurserymen, also all made their home in Hertford at some point.
Trades and professions
Probably the most notable Hertford business, still operating today and whose premises are a local landmark, is the McMullen & Sons (22) brewery, and until about 20 years ago another well-known company, Addis (40), said to be the oldest firm of toothbrush makers in the world, was also based in the town. Other premises formerly used by tradesmen and professionals can still be seen around the town: the offices of Stephen Austin (5), publisher of the Hertfordshire Mercury in the 19th century; the former Old Cross Post Office (26); the more recent but now closed main Post Office (12); Yeomanry House (28), which used to be a military HQ and is still a Territorial Army centre; the historic Prince Albert Cottages (24), which housed the Hertford Building Company; and Sele Mill (34), England’s first paper mill and subsequently a flour mill until the late 1980s.
Inns and pubs
For a small town Hertford has always been well served with inns and pubs! Some of the more interesting and historic buildings can be seen on the trail − in particular, Lombard House (20), a 15th-century hall house that has been used for many different purposes over the centuries and which is currently a private club. The site of the former Green Dragon Hotel (4) and its still-existing vaults can be identified by the advertising on the brick wall overlooking The Wash, and the fine buildings that once housed the Chequer Inn (12) and the Ram Inn (14) still exist in Fore Street.