A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
The following extracts, spanning eighty years, paint a picture of Preston and its surrounding countryside and may help one to visualise life here in past ages.
Visits to Preston in 1890, 1913 and 1970
Hitchin and Neighbourhood in the Nineties by F L Griggs c.1890 ....Shortly we come to the Inn at Chapel Foot. And here I prefer that Mr Hine should be your guide. By love as well as by legal measures Minsden Chapel is almost his own. I believe he wishes to be buried there, or at least that his heart should be. I, too, from early youth found the place, somehow, more attractive than its mere appearance accounted for. Very little was left of the Chapel, and it never was a place either of much natural or architectural note, but Mr. Hine and I can call upon Thomas Hearne and J. C. Buckler, famous antiquaries and artists both to bear witness to the ghostly charm of the place. The footpath by it leads to the road by what remains of Hitch Wood, where again, as in so many places hereabouts, a choice of ways is difficult. To be orderly, let us go by St. Pauls Walden to Whitwell. Could a more perfect English lane be found? There is the wood along the right hand of the way, then the big trees by St. Paul’s Walden Church and the Park, and finally the descent to the river and Whitwell Street—all in perfect sylvan beauty. I remember even seeing birds in their nests in the banks, by which you will note that the roadway was of an ‘ elder fashion.’ Of the many roads which memory tempts me to explore again in search of the old delights, this one from Hitchin to Whitwell and the one road which runs through Gosmore and Preston to Kings Walden always remain the first choice. But, as Henry Harland says, ‘Beauty is always positive, never comparative,’ and to say so much of these two roads and their scenes is not to belittle others—in fact some of the others are possibly fuller of beauty, but associations and personal taste are generally for most of us the final arbiters.
Let us make another start from Little Almshoe and go westwards. What I am in search of is little helped by memory and I cannot be a trustworthy guide. It was a green lane, starting, as far as I ever found out, from nowhere, but leading or having once led to St. Albans, for someone said it was the St. Albans Highway. A map rather justifies this, for the road from St. Albans through Wheathampstead to Kimpton lies directly Hitchin- wards, and hereabouts is its only missing section. However that may be, it was one of the many half-forgotten, little used (and no doubt wholly uneconomic) remains of earlier tracks or roads of our neighbourhood.
Temple Dinsley Lodge beside St Alban’s Highway
Another such way, but better known and more complete, was the one which started from the lane bordering the Park on its south side. We used to reach it by a walk through the Park ending at the top of the hill above Charlton. From there to Preston, uninterrupted and unchanged, the lovely grassy way stretched. No art could design anything so utterly charming. It was a place for loitering and meditation, or for enjoyment of the views it afforded whenever it rose from its hollow snugness into prominence on a hillside. At last, if one ever got as far, was another wood—once part of the great Hitch Wood—and then one might either follow the lane, or a path through the wood to Preston. That, as you know, is not the way to Preston - if Preston be your objective. The more direct, or at least the quicker way, is by the road through Gosmore.
Gosmore, I believe, is only a hamlet officially, but in appearance it was the perfect Hertfordshire village, lacking nothing but an ancient church. Old houses, the Village Green, the Duck Pond, the Farm, the Inn (or Inns), the big encircling trees ; all were there, just as an author or artist would have them, though perhaps as local politicians would not. I hope they have left it alone. From Gosmore on to Preston the scene, as I remember it, was one of white road and green fields, hedges and trees, with hints of blue horizons. There was no house between them. And I needn't tell you that of modern transport and its regulation, or of the telegraph or electric transmission there was no sign either. Again words are useless. Peace and beauty are beyond verbal description.
A Preston scene by Lucas
There was a road from Pirton to Preston, more direct than the one to Hitchin. On its way it passed a dozen or more of lanes and old roads which it would need constant familiarity with to describe with any accuracy. Nowhere else, I believe, in Hertfordshire are lanes and byways to be found in such profusion, and Hertfordshire lanes are famous. Most of them were in disuse, or perhaps it would be truer to say that they fulfilled their original functions as what we now call accommodation roads. They had no scenic effect upon the landscape whatever. The triangle within the points Hitchin, Preston and Offley is a small one in square miles, but it is full of the peculiar beauty one associates with Hitchin quite naturally, and nowhere else is it quite so characteristic.....
Highways and Byways in Hertfordshire - Herbert W Tompkins 1913 From Stevenage to Preston is a walk of anything between four and six miles, for road and lane and footpath lead you hither, and, if you ask your way, you will probably find the directions given about on a par with those which Tony Lumkin tendered to the younger Marlow. But the country through which you pass is fair to look upon, fair with that diversity so characteristic of Hertfordshire. Blue cornflowers look at me this morning from corners where they have escaped the foot of man or beast during the days of the barley harvest; a few jays, seen at intervals, serve to remind me that their numbers are fewer year by year; a kestrel is hovering over the tiny, triangular common near the thirtieth milestone from London, and, as usual, the small birds seem to know that he is near; the skylarks, once the kestrel is beyond their ken, resume their interrupted burst of song as I walk along the road toward, Chapel Foot. Presently, on the hill top, I come to the ruins of Minsden Chapel..... A ramble of two miles from Chapel Foot brings me to a spot which is hallowed ground in the eyes of Nonconformists, for it is haunted by the spirit of John Bunyan. Near to the village of Preston and the ancient manor of Temple Dinsley is a natural hollow in Wain Wood, still called Bunyan’s Dell. Here the Puritan dreamer and divine came often to preach, usually accompanied by friends from the chapel at Tilehouse Street in Hitchin. His days were at that time falling into the yellow leaf but, as we know well, his vigour was unabated, as it remained to the day of that last merciful errand which led him, not quite an old man, to his grave in Bunhill Fields. We know that the people flocked to this spot from the surrounding villages and hamlets, to hear the Word of Life from the great preacher, who wrote about it wonderfully too. He spoke to those crowds, like Baxter, ‘as a dying man to dying men.’ It was the age of peasant belief. Religion was a different matter, then...........religion and warfare went hand in hand in the days of the Knights Templars, who once owned this Manor of Temple Dinsley at Preston, a manor so old that we read of other properties which belonged to it before the Norman Conquest ....and here at the meeting of several ways is the hamlet of Preston. It is one of those quiet afternoons in late summer when a man may well be thankful if it be his lot to linger in an English village, to watch the children playing on the green and to find a shady seat before some cottage door­way where be may learn the history of the entire community from willing lips. In such fashion I have idled away an hour this afternoon, chatting with those persons who will chat with me, and finding, as one invariably does, that this village contains the social history of rural England in a nutshell. And I have afterwards bestirred myself and found things of interest which are more peculiar to the spot. I have noticed the tiny red-brick Bunyan Chapel ‘an Ebenezer of the Foster family whose ancestors were associated with Bunyan and Preston. I then demonstrated my impartiality by going straight from thence to the local church as by law established and spending a few minutes in the new building dedicated to St. Martin. It is a plain little sanctuary, like a thousand ‘mission churches’ scattered through our land, with a slate roof and tiny leaded windows. There is, however, a large window of stained glass over the alter, of considerable beauty , representing the descent of Christ from the Shepherd King of Israel. King Solomon is there and David,playing upon his harp; Jesse is seated beneath, leaning his head upon his hand. It is a pleasant enough picture to look upon in this quiet spot and may serve to remind you that, go where you will in this world, you can hardly avoid for long some memory of the romance of Scripture.....such memories were mine just now now as I leaned against the fine elm near the well on the village green - an elm said to have been planted on the day when George III was crowned.... ...There is nothing strange or uncanny in the aspect of Temple Dinsley to-day. It is, rather, just such a homestead as an Englishman might be expected to love. The house is not one of those huge piles in which the owner might lose his way, but is nevertheless spacious enough for any mortal of reasonable ambition. It stands at the head of a long ravine that slopes gently towards the east, in the direction of Minsden Chapel, a ravine which, as I look down into its wealth of waving foliage, is filled with that soft, rich glow which so often enhances the beauty of England when day and year are in their afternoon. Roses, clambering here and there upon green trellis-work sweeten the atmosphere with their perfume, and seats are placed in many coigns of vantage. Northwards there are lawns before the home and the landscape stretches upwards until, at no great distance, it is crowned with sombre pines.
Evening Post: May 1970 Frederick and Eva Blanchard (pictured below) have three clocks in their kitchen, each accurate to the second. That is how they see themselves - ‘sticklers for getting things right and keeping up to date’. They moved to Preston from London in 1934, one of the first infusions of new blood into a village where your neighbour was probably your cousin and the school teacher, your aunt.
Since then the Blanchards have established themselves as two of Preston's rebels. They don't retire from committees, they resign. ‘We may be a bit of a nuisance, but if something in the village is wrong we kick up a fuss until it’s put right,’ said Mrs Blanchard. A colleague on the parish council gave a wry smile when the Blanchard name was mentioned. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘they stir things up occasionally, but they have the interest of the village at heart and they are usually right.’ Mr Blanchard - a retired company director - and his wife live in the chintzy comfort of Rose Cottage, at one end of Butcher's Lane. It is more than 350 years old and like their other property in Preston, its cash value has rocketed since the war . As one old - timer put it, ‘Preston's a very nice place to live — if you can afford it’.
Situated three miles south of Hitchin, the village has not been engulfed in urban sprawl. Nor is it likely to be for many years. Helpful development has to take place within the existing boundary surrounded as it is by Green Belt. While this helps to retain Preston's character, it has presented problems. Younger villagers have to move out when they marry unless they can afford to buy one of the few houses for sale. Slowly, the proportion of children among Preston's estimated 500 population has dropped. Mr Freddie Orchard, headmaster of the junior and infants' school said that of his 60 pupils fewer than 30 per cent live in the village. Mr Orchard - who is also chairman of the parish council - remembers the time he accepted the headship. An aldermanic member of the interviewing panel at Hitchin took him to one side and gave him a sherry. ‘So you've decided to go to Preston, have you Mr Orchard - funny place to live in, funny lot of people.’ That was 17 years ago. ‘During that time I can honestly say the people here have been friendly, kind and helpful. If you want to make friends you will find them here,’ said Mr Orchard. He was optimistic about the future. A £40.000 sewage scheme is due to start in the autumn, and plans are going ahead for old people's bungalows between Butchers Lane and Chequers Lane. ‘This should enable infilling development and release some of the council houses - presently occupied by elderly people - to young couples who want to move back into the village,’ said Mr Orchard
Preston’s only shop (shown right) is within staggering distance of the only pub across the village green. Mrs F. Fountain has been there for three years, selling everything from liver salts to dog meat. She commiserates with customers in their woes, rejoices with them in their fortunes and puts lost strangers on the right road. A New English Bible stands on tins of tomato soup which are next to packets of flower seeds. And if you happen to be waiting for a newspaper or a 5d stamp, you can gen up on decimalisation and the hazards of Colorado beetle from notices pinned to the shelves Mr Percy Sharp, a 73-year-old hospital porter (shown right), has lived In Preston all his life. He remembers when the village menfolk made their weekly trip to the well with huge pails hanging from wooden yokes. Now the well Itself has been concreted over, but the pumping machinery and shelter have been preserved. Much of Preston's history can be found in one of the village's most treasured possessions — the Women's Institute Scrapbook. Compiled by Mrs Ann Maybrick, it was the winning entry in a WI area contest of 1953 and contains an absorbing collection of maps, memories and old photographs contributed by villagers.
In 1894 Preston had its own miller, bakehouse, butcher, two general shops, tailor, wheelwright. carpenter and a carter. A sheep fair used to be held on the green. John Bunyan lived at Wain Wood Cottage and when it rained women from the village used to hold their aprons over Bunyan's head while he preached in the nearby wood - now known as Bunyan's Dell. The chapel in Preston still bears his name. The village will soon be losing two of its best known inhabitants, Mr and Mrs Derrick Seebohm. They are moving from their spacious chalet-type bungalow in Chequers Lane to Huntingdonshire. Mr Seebohm, who comes from a prominent banking family, is a former chairman of the parish council. His wife is chairman of Hitchin magistrates. ‘I regard our departure with a mixture of excitement and regret’, he said, ’It is time younger people came into the village and the responsibility for their future must be left to them.’ He said the village must grow to make it more viable. ‘At the present time we can't raise enough people. for our cricket and football teams. Outsiders have to help us out’. Preston is very jealous of its reputation as a tidy village It won the best kept village competition three years running and litterbugs can be sure of a tough reprimand from anyone who sees them. ‘Those and people who pick our daffodils aren't exactly welcome’, said Mrs Lynn King who runs the Red Lion public house with her husband, Marty. Friction in the village between older inhabitants and newcomers is not pronounced - but it’s there. ‘There’s no real hostility towards us, its more a subject of conversation’, said one newcomer. ‘All the old ones have died. We don’t seem to know many people now’, said Mrs Annie Currell who has lived in the village for more than fifty years. ‘You don’t get the friendliness now’, said Mr and Mrs Seebohm’s ‘daily’, Mrs Emily Peters. No friendliness? This is what happened to Mr and Mrs Blanchard on Good Friday: “There was a knock on the door and we were given two boxes containing a new-laid egg, two chocolate Easter eggs, pastries, sweets and a card. The card wished us a ‘Happy Easter’ from Preston Youth Club.”
Notes: The following were buried at St Martin’s, Preston: Percy Sharp of 3 Chequers Lane (12 May 1977, aged 79), Annie Currell (nee Payne) of 4 Holly Cottages (16 March 1983, aged 89) and Emily Peters (18 November 1992, aged 86)