Friday, 27 February 2015

HLD#4: St. Marys & Cashio

The front facade of St. Mary's in Hemel Hempstead

     After an eventful half term with my boys, it was back to work as usual.
I am now at the midway point of my HLD tour, taking in some of Hertfordshire's most breathtaking sites, and on the latest leg of my journey, I find myself a little closer to home.
     In the morning I paid a visit to the neighbouring town of Hemel Hempstead, before returning to my home town of Watford in the afternoon. I had the pleasure of visiting two of the oldest churches in the local area, one from each town respectively, and ironically, they share the same name. St. Mary's in Hemel Hempstead and St. Mary's in Watford.
     St. Mary's in Hemel, paints a very pretty picture. It dwells in secluded grounds, in what is now known as the old town. It is a very typical church of the era in which it was built (mid 12th century), taking a cruciform shape, with a tower over the crossing. What isn't typical however, is the spire. Of course, spires are not uncommon among churches. In fact, Salisbury has a spire that reaches a staggering 400 ft making it the tallest in the country. But that's just it, Salisbury is a cathedral and you'd expect such glamour on a building of it's type, but St. Mary's on the other hand is nothing more than a local parish church. So why does it have a 200 ft tower?
     Annoyingly, no one knows! The eye catching spire stands at a whopping 200 ft and is to this day, one of the tallest church spires in all of Europe. But despite this epic claim to fame, historians have been able to uncover, why, such a small church, in what would have been at the time, a very small village, should warrant such a masterpiece. Perhaps we'll never know, but the mystery behind the spire, make's it all the more intriguing, I think.
     About 50 years after the church was built, in 1302, the monks of Ashridge Priory founded a cell in Hemel Hempstead. The monks would frequent the church often, and on days of service, would enter the church via a small door at the base of the tower, to avoid mingling with the local peasantry.
     Leaving the graceful ambiance of St. Mary's, in Hemel, I headed back to Watford to see to the church there. St, Mary's, Watford, doesn't quite cut the scene like that of her sister in Hemel, probably because it's surrounded by the high street on one side, (which incidentally follows the path of the old Roman road that runs from London and heads all the way to Berkhampstead Castle and beyond.) and the ring road on the other. But she presents an imposing figure nonetheless, with a large tower forming the front facade. It also brought back memories of my youth, for it was the site of my old scout troupe, but we'll leave that story for another time!
     The church is thought be 800 years old, built around 1230. But records in the church only date back to the 16th century, so it's hard to be precise. It is likely that the church was built around about the time the Lord of the Manor at Cashio, the abbot of St. Albans, received a charter to hold a market in Watford.
     Cashio, later known as the Cassiobury Estate, and later still Cassiobury Park, was home to a monastery, before being turned into a grand stately home, which was the seat of the earls of Essex for several years. St. Mary's was the parish church for the Cassiobury Estate, which was later incorporated into Watford. A number of Watford nobility, have been buried in the church.
     Nothing however remains of the manor or the monastery in Cassiobury Park and the gatehouse was knocked down in the 1970s but it is still a wonderful place to visit on a warm summers day. In fact, I took my boys there on two separate occasions during the half term week.
     Though it is a shame, especially considering my tour, that there is no visual evidence of what once existed in the park, I was pleased to learn that a petition has been set up, that seeks to see the gatehouse rebuilt at Cassiobury Park. I myself have signed it, and if this is something that appeals to you, please feel free to visit the link on my facebook page.

Front facade and tower of St. Mary's in Watford