The town of Baldock in Hertfordshire breathed a sigh of relief in March of 2006, when it became one of the last of England's historic coaching towns to be bypassed.
The town grew up over the years on the crossing point of one of England's most ancient routeways, the Icknield Way and one of its most famous and busiest, the Great North Road. This location made it an important staging post for resting and changing horse; many of the coaching inns survive as hotels. The broad, open way where the Great North Road came into the town centre still gives the opportunity to imagine a scene busy with coaches and horses, baggage being loaded and unloaded, horses being unharnessed and watered - and a throng of travellers.
Stepping back to earlier times, there is plenty of local evidence for Iron Age and Roman settlement through a range of finds of objects and evidence for settlement, with a Roman settlement near the Hartsfield Primary School. In Norman times, the town was part of Weston and then part of the lands belonging to William de Ow. Weston was held in the early 12th century by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, and it his his gift of 10 'librates' of land to the Knights Templars that become the parish of Baldock, with a grant of a market and fair being made in or about 1199 AD. The granting of the right to hold markets and fairs was a very significant development for any town in the medieval period; they provided the underpinning for the economy of the town and brought trade in from the surrounding countryside.
One of the theories for the origin of the name of Baldock is that the Knights Templar called it Baalbec after the town in Syria, now north east Lebanon, which they would have visited in the Crusades. Baalbeck remains famous for its extensive Roman ruins, and would have been a very memorable place for them to have visited, as it is today. Others suggest the name is derived from 'Bald Oak', meaning a 'dead oak'. Recorded as 'Baudac' in the 12th century, 'Baldac' in the 13th century and 'Baldoke' in the 16th century, it is, as with many other English placenames, impossible to be certain of the origin.
The Knights Templars were militaristic in their outlook, and they were suppressed in 1309. The Knights Hospitallers became responsible for the manor for a while, and then it passed eventually into family hands, being passed down through marriages and sale over the centuries.
The parish church indicates the principal site of the town as it grew in Middle Ages. We've already referred to the two major routes which crossed at Baldock; there is indication that the old Roman road to the north actually ran further to the east along Clothall Road with the town itself growing around the area where the church now is, on the line of the road from Stevenage. The town developed on the right angled turn made at the northern end of High Street, turning into White Horse Street. Thus the traveller on the main road north made a short diversion of a couple of hundred yards before again turning left and picking up his original direction of travel.
The histories of Baldock all mention the reference Pepys makes to the town in his diary, and so we must do so here. His diary for August 6th 1661 says, "Took horse for London, and with much ado got to Baldwick (Baldock). There lay, and had a good supper by myself. The landlady being a pretty woman, but I durst not take notice of her, her husband being there." Our understanding of Pepys's diaries actually comes through the work of John Smith, later rector of Baldock, in deciphering the code in which Pepys wrote.
The building of the railway by the local entrepreneurs of the Royston and Hitchin railway company gave the town a lasting legacy. The station was opened in 1850 and its place on the main line from Cambridge to King's Cross ensures a continuing high level of usage. The convenience of transport, formerly by the Great North Road and now by the A1(M), combined with the rail service, makes Baldock a popular location for those whose work takes them into London or further afield.
The church has a dedication to St Mary the Virgin. The east end of the chancel dates from the 1200s, when it was built by the Knights Templars. The remainder of much of the rest of the building being completed about 1330. The south chapel, clerestory and north porch were built at later dates, the latter being added in the 19th century. Non-conformity brought a Congregational chapel in White Horse Street and a Primitive Methodist chapel in Norton Street, together with the Friends' Meeting house in Meeting House Lane.
In Victorian times the chief industries of the town are recorded as malting and brewing. Today it is probably fair to describe the chief industry as 'commuting'!
The fascinating mix of stonework at the chancel end of St Mary's church tells something of the history of the building and of the town itself
There are many arches of coaching inns to be seen around the town. Some are closed and some offer pleasing glimpses of the courtyards behind.
The inscription on the almshouses in High Street reads 'These Alms Houses are the Gift of Mr. JOHN WYNN Citizen and Mercht of LONDON lately deceased who hath left a yearly stipend to every Poor of Either House to the worlds End September Anno Dom 1621.' The Merchant Adventurers arms are on the south side of the buildings and those of the Mercers' Company on the north, indicating the source of his wealth.
Many of the buildings have very attractive features, such as this Georgian door
The George and Dragon can trace its ancestry back to the late 16th century. Many of the large town centre buildings were once coaching inns; they may have to find new uses other than as hostelries as road traffic uses the bypass rather than the town centre