The Woodcarver's Cottage
People get in touch every week with enquiries about all sorts of things. One gentleman recently wrote asking for photographs of the Woodcarver’s cottage he had seen as a boy, to illustrate an article he was writing to share with his family and his cycling club. He kindly agreed to share what he had written with us. We really enjoyed reading it and hope you do to.
“The date 5th June 1942 represents the start of a whole new life for me. This was the date on which I received my first bicycle. Of course, it was not new – there was a world war raging, and all means of production were under government control with a view to winning the war. I had to make do with a collection of refurbished bits and pieces on a frame with no name, steel rims and wartime tyres of poor quality. Nonetheless it was mine – I no longer had to borrow other people’s bikes, and I could go outside the town without the guardianship of my elder sister, always going only where she wanted to go.
One of the favourite destinations of my school friends was the Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield at Hunsdon, where we could see the aircraft returning from daylight raids over France, and dream of the day when we could join them beating up the Huns. Not the finest ambition for 14-year-olds, but that was life then. Another destination was Hatfield, where we could see the streamlined A4 pacific locomotion at the speed on the East Coast main line. This was another new experience for me. Although, as we lived near Kings Cross station I had seen many of those locomotives, I had only seen them gently backing into the platforms to join their trains and then starting up with clouds of steam and smoke and plenty of noise. At speed they were even more magnificent. But I was not interested in cycling merely as means of transport – I enjoyed exploring the countryside, and this was particularly interesting in wartime. With the very real threat of invasion in 1940 all signposts, milestones and other means of indicating where one was and how to get anywhere were removed to Council yards. Maps could not be bought and none were printed (shortage of paper) and all public maps were hidden so that any parachutists would not know where they were – and neither could schoolboy cyclists! Finding one’s way there was one thing. Finding the way home another. An inhabitant of Newgatestreet refused to tell me where various roads out of the village led to. When I said Hertford he pointed to the road and said “that’s the way back to Hertford” and so I deliberately took the road I thought led to Cheshunt – and I was right.
And so in 1943 – aged 14 – I set about finding my way around east Hertfordshire. I knew which road led from Hertford westwards to Hatfield and I knew which road led northwards to Stevenage and Hitchin. And so I worked out that the road out of Hertford to Bramfield should lead to the Great North Road somewhere between Hatfield and Stevenage. I was correct, of course and emerged at Woolmer Green – not that I knew it – but the road looked like the Great North Road and I duly turned left and so to Hatfield – eventually. But this was not before I stood absolutely astonished at a sight I had never seen before and the like of which I have not really seen since. This was a cottage, and the thing I recall most clearly was that the garden gates were carved of wood and painted like a peacock displaying their marvellous feathers. The building was covered with carved and painted animals and birds, and we had the faces of Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt the U.S. President, looking down on us. Inside the garden were carvings of all sorts of animals – too many to count and remember. The whole thing was an absolute riot of fantasy and colour, and I had to stand and stare for some minutes at the whole colourful display – a complete contrast to the rainy afternoon around me. I could hardly believe my eyes, and I still find it difficult to find describe my feelings. It was like something out of Walt Disney except that I doubt he ever had anything like this.
A carving by Mr MacDonald held at Stevenage Museum.
I had no idea what the place was and when I spoke to people in Ware, where I was l was living and Hertford where I was at school, nobody had any idea of what I was talking about. Remember, if a bus did not go from your town or village to a particular place then you simply did not get there unless you walked or cycled, which few people did. Cars were an expensive luxury for the few in the 1930s and during the war petrol was rationed, so if you did not qualify for a petrol ration you laid your car up for the duration – it was as simple as that. And so it was a good time for cycling – even better than before the war as regards traffic.
Mr MacDonald’s cottage. How many different carvings can you see?
I have never forgotten about the woodcarver’s cottage but by the time I got around owning a car and taking my children there in the late 1960s it was a shadow of what it had been. I think the woodcarver had retired or died, and his son was running the garden as an attraction for visitors on payment of a few coppers – tourism had hardly been invented then. Although it was interesting (and the children enjoyed it) to have animals popping up when you trod on some sort of levered plate set in into the path, the general air was of neglect and I was disappointed. I recall that there was a local protest later when it was proposed to demolish the place and to build on the site, but this did not last. I imagine nobody wanted to smarten the whole lot up and run it, and so it all disappeared, and new buildings were constructed.
However, my interest was rekindled when I bought a picture book of Stevenage some year ago, and to my intense pleasure this included a picture of the cottage and the woodcarver. Apparently the owner was a joiner who, when business was slack, spent his time designing and creating the carvings to advertise his business and displaying them for a few coppers to augment his earnings. From my point of view, this is the sort of item I look out for on a ride, especially if I am describing the ride for others. What could be a better incentive to get children out on their bikes, or to keep them going a bit further (without protest) than to have something like the Woodcarvers Cottage to entice them on?
Other places which come to mind and were featured in various editions of my book “Twenty Cycle Rides in Hertfordshire” (now out of print and out of date) are the canal side inns on the Grand Union Canal in and around Hemel Hempstead like the Fishery Inn at Boxmoor which displays canal mileages and the pub in Pimlico which used have a helicopter and A.A. gun in the garden, the farrier’s shop in Knebworth (now closed), the memorial to two Royal Flying Corps officers at Willian, the grave of Jack O`Legs in Weston churchyard, the sources of the rivers Rhee at Ashwell, Hiz at Preston and the Maran at Whitwell, the Myddleton memorial at Great Amwell and the balloon stones at North Mymms and Standon Green End. These are the sort of things waiting to be discovered by the intrepid cyclist with his or her map and open eyes, and I am still on the look-out for them – even after 72 years of cycling. Not sure the sat-nav will ever include them, though.”
by John Hession, transcribed by Jamie, Museum Volunteer.