As a New Town, Hatfield was built almost from nothing after the Second World War to make up for a dire shortage of housing.
This mid-century modernist streetscape all cropped up next to Hatfield House, a mansion where Elizabeth I spent some of her childhood and was almost imprisoned in the 16th century.
Some of her personal belongings can be seen inside, as well as the highly symbolic Rainbow Portrait, showing her holding a rainbow.
In the park is a historic oak tree standing at the place where Elizabeth learned she would become queen in 1558. Another name associated with Hatfield is the groundbreaking aircraft manufacturer, de Havilland, whose heritage is documented at a museum nearby in London Colney.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hatfield:
1. Hatfield House
On the east side of town, Hatfield House is a marvellous Jacobean mansion in more than 40 acres of gardens.
Built in 1611 for Chief Minister to James I, Robert Cecil, the property is a classic Prodigy House, a lavish Renaissance home intended to accommodate kings and queens on their Royal Progress around the country.
There are plenty of original Jacobean fixtures inside, like the sumptuously carved wooden Grand Staircase and the stained glass window in the private chapel.
The “Old Palace” was a childhood home for Elizabeth I and she would return throughout her life.
Lots of Elizabeth-related artefacts can be seen around the building, like the Rainbow Portrait (1600-02) and items of clothing like her hat, gloves and silk stockings.
The story of the garden is almost as riveting, as Robert Cecil hired the gardener John Tradescant the Elder, who introduced European plants that had never before been grown in England.
2. Mill Green Mill and Museum
The old mill on the River Lea, just off the Hertford Road, has stood at this spot in some form since the 11th century when it was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The present building dates to the 18th century, while the miller’s cottage next door is about a century older.
That cottage has a museum with changing exhibitions on social history, local archaeology and art, while on milling days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons) you can head inside the mill.
The wooden machinery is still powered by the waterwheel, turning stones to produce freshly ground organic flour.
You can buy a bag of that flour, take an indulgent cream tea on Sundays in summer and pause in the Jubilee Garden, planted in the Tudor knot style to mark Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee in 2002.
3. Hatfield Park
Hatfield House presides over an immense estate, and on the website you can download maps for three looped trails through the landscaped parkland.
The longest and most recommended is the Red Walk, 3.2 miles long and requiring about 90 minutes.
On this route you’ll discover everything the park has a to offer, like the dreamy banks of the River Lea, the deer park, the stately Queen Elizabeth Avenue, the remnants of a 17th-century vineyard, the former estate sawmill and the Daffodil Ride, which is astonishing in early spring.
Some of the trees in the park are more than 700 years old, and one, the Queen Elizabeth Oak, marks the place where the Princess Elizabeth learned of her accession to the throne in 1558.
4. The Old Palace
Although Robert Cecily demolished most of it, a big piece of Elizabeth’s childhood home does survive, at Hatfield House’s Old Palace.
This was built around 1485 and is an exceptional example of Medieval brick architecture.
As well as growing up here, Elizabeth I spent a time under house arrest at the Old Palace during the reign of Mary I in the 1550s.
The remaining wing is the Banqueting Hall, which has many original oak beams in its roof.
It was later turned into stables, and the beams and those roof timbers are laced with gunshot from when people would shoot at the sparrows that nested in the ceiling.
The Old Palace is hired out for events but also opens regularly, and you can enter the viewing bay and Upper Solar from the West Garden.
5. Hatfield Park Farm
On the west side of Hatfield House, younger children won’t want to leave this open farm, which rests in a lush rural setting.
You can roam around the paddocks, getting up close to sheep, cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens, goats and ponies.
These enclosures are accompanied by a miniature railway, Bloody Hollow play area with a scale model of Hatfield House, sandpit and “kids’ cabin”, and every so often there are rides on the tractor and trailer.
The website has details of events, like Reptiles on the Farm, when they can meet and handle creepy crawlies, and Spooky Storytelling at Halloween.
6. Stanborough Park
Between Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City, Stanborough Park has two large lakes ensconced in 126 acres of verdant parkland.
This space has earned the coveted Green Flag for the last ten years.
Out on the tree-lined paths it may be hard to imagine that this was all a gravel quarry until just a few decades ago.
On weekends and school holidays from April to September you can hire single and tandem kayaks, pedal boats and rowboats to navigate the northern lake, which is strewn with little islands.
The southern lake is a little deeper and used for sailing, angling and other water activities, and next to the road, just between the two you’ll find the Terranova restaurant.
7. De Havilland Aircraft Museum
In the post-war years the aircraft manufacturer de Havilland was Hatfield’s largest employer, with almost 4,000 staff.
After a couple of mergers the factory was eventually owned by British Aerospace, which moved production to Macclesfield in 1993. But in that time the de Havilland Comet was built in this town.
About 15 minutes away by car there’s a museum for de Havilland at another of its factories in London Colney.
This country estate, formerly home to Winston Churchill’s mother, is where the de Havilland Mosquito was manufactured.
The museum’s showpiece is the Mosquito prototype developed in 1940, alongside two more built in 1943 and 1945. This versatile plane was famed for its speed and was able to fly freely over enemy territory as a reconnaissance aircraft, bomber and fighter.
There’s a display of other aircraft from before, during and after the Second World War, with jets including two Vampires, a Sea Vixen and a Sea Venom.
8. Paradise Wildlife Park
This acclaimed animal park is an easy excursion a few miles east of Hatfield.
Paradise Animal Park houses more than 500 animals, and among them are lots of big cats that kids will be excited to see.
The park has South African cheetahs, snow leopards, white Bengal tigers, Siberian tigers and a jaguar.
These are all in store at Big Car Territory, while Hooves and Humps present ungulates like Brazilian tapirs, reindeer and the endangered Bactrian camel.
More than 35 different snakes and lizards are lurking in the Angkor Reptile Temple, while the Tropical Rainforest habitat features armadillos, sloths and the UK’s largest collection of small monkeys, from ten different species.
9. Heartwood Forest
Some 600,000 trees have been planted among pockets of ancient woodland at this new forest a couple of miles west of Hatfield.
Initiated by the Woodland Trust, Heartwood Forest is made up entirely of native British tree species, across 347 acres of what used to be agricultural land.
After ten years of planning and planting, the Heartwood Forest was opened to the public in March 2018. It’s the sort of place you can revisit to see the annual progress.
Gradually coming together are a community orchard, wildflower meadows and an arboretum where you can view all 60 native British trees in one place.
10. Panshanger Park
Within ten minutes of Hatfield there’s a country estate with a strange past.
Panshanger Park was acquired in 1700 by Early Cowper, England’s Lord Chancellor.
His descendant, the 5th Earl Cowper consulted the noted landscape architect Humphry Repton when he redesigned the park at the start of the 19th century.
But since the 1980s Panshanger Park has been owned by Tarmac, which demolished the house and has used the estate to quarry gravel and sand.
Despite that disruption a lot of the park has been restored, and opened its doors in 2014 as a country park and nature reserve.
On signposted trails you’ll discover thrilling remnants of the estate, like the ruins of the orangery, the stables, cottages and some extremely old trees.
The Panshanger Great Oak is the king of them all, with a girth of 7.6 metres.
This is the UK’s largest maiden oak tree and the story goes that it was planted by Elizabeth I.
11. St Albans
Only six miles separate Hatfield from the ancient cathedral city of St Albans.
Known as Verulamium, this was the second-largest town in Roman Britain after London, and was the first large town on Watling Street for travellers heading north.
There’s a super museum for Verulamium, together with the phenomenal Verulamium Park where you can view traces of the wall, the London Gate and a 1,800-year-old hypocaust and mosaic floor.
The Medieval town grew around the Abbey of St Albans, which became the principal monastery in England.
This was dissolved in the 16th century, but became a cathedral in 1877 and has an awe-inspiring mix of Norman Romanesque and Gothic stonework.
Among its many exceptional features are the only surviving 11th-century great crossing tower in England, and the ornate 15th-century Walingford Screen.
The screen’s niches are adorned with Victorian statues replacing those lost in the 16th-century Dissolution of the Monasteries.
12. Welwyn Roman Baths
You can stay on the Roman Trail, paying a visit to these Roman Baths under the A1(M) motorway.
Constructed around the 3rd century, these once belonged to an opulent villa and were discovered in 1960 by a local archaeologist.
The baths are remarkably complete and include a hypocaust, caldarium (hot room), tepidarium (warm room) and frigidarium (cold room), which has a floor and cold bath composed of opus signinum.
You can inspect lots of artefacts in the glass display cases around the ruins.
The road was built on top of site ten years later, and the baths were preserved with a special steel vault that can be accessed from a tunnel beside the road.
Other artefacts from the villa have ended up at the Mill Green Museum.
13. Bayfordbury Observatory
One of the nation’s top teaching observatories is only 15 minutes east of Hatfield in remote countryside.
Used by the University of Hertfordshire, The Bayfordbury Observatory’s first telescope was erected in 1969 and the site has grown since then, gaining three new telescope domes and a 4.5-metre radio telescope at the turn of the millennium.
Over the last decade the observatory has become a remote sensing station for Hertfordshire University’s Centre for Atmospheric & Instrumentation Research.
You’ll need to book early, but there are public open evenings once a month from October to March.
During these events you’ll take a whistle-stop tour around the night sky in the planetarium, meet researchers and students, listen to talks and (weather permitting) observe interesting celestial objects though telescopes and with CCD imaging cameras.
14. Willows Activity Farm
More like a theme park that an ordinary farm attraction, Willows Activity Farm looks after many different domestic animals, but is also packed with fun fair rides, inflatables and outdoor and indoor soft play areas.
And being a working farm, the choice of things to do changes with the seasons.
So children can meet the newborn lambs in February, watch sheep-shearing demonstrations in spring, go on Easter Egg hunts, negotiate the maize maze in summer and harvest potatoes and pumpkins in autumn.
On an average day throughout the year there’s a show with Peter Rabbit, a cow-milking demonstration, sheep racing and three sessions for petting small animals.
15. The Galleria
If you’re up for some bargain hunting there’s an outlet mall in a gargantuan hangar-like building on the west side Hatfield, just off the A1(M) motorway.
The Galleria has more than 80 stores, including factory outlets for fashion brands like Nike, Gap, Ben Sherman, French Connection, TK Maxx and Marks and Spencer. For homewares, Villeroy & Boch. Le Creuset and Tefal are all here, and when hunger strikes you can pick from casual restaurants like Pizza Express, Nando’s and Prezzo, or the fast food chains, McDonalds, Burger King and Subway.
And to really make a day of it, you can settle in for a Hollywood blockbuster at the multi-screen Odeon cinema.