In the north of Hertfordshire at the foothills of the Chilterns, Hitchin is a cute market town with a Medieval layout.
Market Place, where corn was traded for centuries, is very pretty, as are the old cobblestone streets that radiate from it.
For fans of historic architecture Hitchin has its fair share of half-timbered houses and grand Georgian flat-fronted buildings, especially on Bancroft, Sun Street and Bucklersbury.
Since the 2000s the town has found itself on the tourist map for its lavender fields in summer, while the ostentatious parish church is a holdover from Hitchin’s booming Medieval wool trade and has kept a host of 15th-century fixtures.
1. Hitchin Lavender
A crop that you’d associate with somewhere like Provence, lavender has been grown in the Hitchin countryside since the 16th century.
Starting in the late 18th century, the Perks and Llewellyn Pharmacy, based in the centre of Hitchin, gave the town a nationwide reputation for its lavender products.
The industry was revived at Cadwell Farm, north of Hitchin, in 2000 and these 25 miles of lavender rows bring a shock of colour to the landscape.
In summer you can come for walks and to take photographs, while picking your own flowers.
Beside the lavender is a wildflower meadow and sunflower field.
There’s a cafe in the farm’s 17th-century barn, and a shop selling lavender plants, essential oils and cosmetics.
The museum on the farm holds a faithful replica of the Perks and Llewellyn Pharmacy interior, the original of which is on display at the North Hertfordshire Museum.
2. St Mary’s Church
Hitchin’s parish church is the largest in Hertfordshire and is larger than a town of this size would have needed in Medieval times.
Instead St Mary’s Church is testament to the wealth generated by the wool trade in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The bulk of the building dates back to that time, but the roots of the church go back much further.
The tower is from 1190, while a Saxon church built in the 7th century and expanded up to the 10th century was discovered beneath the current church in 1911 when a new floor was being laid down.
Inside the church take a closer look at the baptismal font, carved in the 15th century, with figures of the apostles at the base that were damaged by Puritan soldiers in the Civil War.
The pulpit is also from the 15th century, as is the ornate “Angel” rood screen, accompanied by the stalls of the guild of Our Blessed Lady St Mary the Virgin, from the same time.
3. British Schools Museum
This acclaimed museum is in a sprawling school building set up in a disused malthouse in 1810 and then extended through the rest of the 19th century.
One of the extensions was a “monitorial schoolroom” from 1837 (for classes of 300!), founded on the theories of the education innovator Joseph Lancaster, and another was an unusual galleried classroom for 110 pupils completed in 1854. The school closed down in 1969, but the complex stands as a piece of education heritage and became a museum in the 1990s.
Kids can dress up like Victorian pupils and have a go at writing with dip pens.
You can learn just how one schoolmaster was able to teach 300 children in the large schoolroom, while the galleried schoolroom has sand trays, which were used for lettering before kids graduated to slates.
In early 2019 the “Carrot and Stick” exhibition recorded the different ways pupils were punished and commended at Victorian schools.
4. Market Place
Aside from lavender Hitchin’s main crop was corn, which was sold at the Market Place for more than 300 years.
Attesting to this is the Corn Exchange on the square’s west side, dating to 1853 and once filled with stalls occupied by corn dealers and seed-sellers.
The square in front is mostly pedestrianised, and has rows of historic buildings on the west, north and south sides, while on the eastern frontage is the modern Churchgate Shopping Centre.
The half-timbered building with intricate studwork on the north side is Grade II* listed and houses a Starbucks, while on the south end Café AIR is a kiosk with tables taking over the square.
After perusing Market Place you could make your way up the High Street, which soon broadens into Bancroft, another thoroughfare replete with historic architecture.
Bancroft was the main route into Hitchin from the north.
This explains the great width of the street, to allow drovers to walk their livestock through the town, and the many coaching inns from when Hitchin was part of the stagecoach network.
The stretch just north of Hermitage Road is gorgeous for its row of Georgian and older timber framed houses, some concealed by facades updated in the 1700s.
The half-timbered house at 105-106, easily spotted for its tall chimney stack, is Grade II* listed and dates back to the 15th century.
6. Barton Hills National Nature Reserve
The northernmost spurs of the Chilterns rise just west of Hitchin, at the Barton Hills.
The grassland covering these steep downs grows lots of rare wildflowers that come into flower in spring and summer.
Among them are pasqueflowers, fleaworts and greater pignuts.
Also integral to the reserve are its many varieties of butterfly, like grizzled skippers, marbled white and chalkhill blue.
Dartmoor ponies are let out onto the hills in summer to graze, and at the bottom of one of the hillsides you’ll come across a spring that feeds a crystalline chalk river that weaves through a parcel of ancient beech woodland.
7. North Hertfordshire Museum
Opened in summer 2017 as a modern extension to the refurbished Town Hall, the North Hertfordshire Museum displays the collections for the defunct museums for Hitchin and Letchworth.
The “Discovering North Herts” Gallery speeds you through the county’s history in chronological order, revealing the epic marine reptiles that swam here when this was a sea, and some of the characters who lived at Hitchin’s Biggin Friary in the 14th century.
“Living in North Herts” investigates old trades and industries like wool production, displays jewellery from various periods and has a counter from Hitchin’s Perks and Llewellyn Pharmacy, famed for its lavender products.
The Terrace Gallery meanwhile is an interesting mishmash, displaying football boots worn by the great Sir Stanley Matthews, and information about North Herts’ royal ties, local folklore and prominent residents like the suffragette Elizabeth Impey.
8. Stotfold Watermill & Nature Reserve
There has been a watermill at this very spot on the River Ivel for more than 1,000 years.
The first mention is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. The mill, mostly dating from the end of the 19th century, burnt down in 1992. Fortunately, nearly all of its machinery was able to be salvaged and the mill was restored to working order by 2006, while the surrounding wetlands became a nature reserve in 2011. Information boards are set up on three floors, labelling mechanisms like the cast iron hursting frame from 1897 and the two sets of millstones on the floor above.
Kids can have a go at milling their own flour using quern stones.
On the top floor there’s equipment for cleaning the grain and sifting flour, as well as a working scale model of the mill.
You can’t leave without picking something up at the gift shop, stocking the mill’s own flour, which also goes into cakes and bread at Randall’s tearoom here.
9. Biggin Almshouses
Over the River Hiz from St Mary’sChurch is a sight to take in on your way around Hitchin.
The Biggin Almshouses are close to where Hitchin’s Medieval friary used to be on Queen Street, in a half-timbered building dating back to the early 17th century.
In 1654 one John Kemp left this mansion, its land and outbuildings as a home for ten disabled women.
The building is in four ranges around a small open courtyard where there’s a Tuscan colonnade.
10. Oughtonhead Nature Reserve
On Hitchin’s north-western border is an important tract of fen woodland on south bank of the River Oughton.
In little more than 15 acres there’s a wide array of habitats, including fens, riverbanks and wet and dry woodland.
The damper parts of Oughtonhead were previously used for rush, reed and willow production.
The reserve has a reason to come in all seasons, whether it’s birds like redwings, goldcrests, redpolls and fieldfares in autumn or winter, or the marvellous kingfishers, commonly sighted in spring.
And on your way, don’t be surprised if you happen upon a herd of English longhorns in the pasture.
11. Purwell Ninesprings
The eastern Purwell district backs onto a 15-acre nature reserve on the lush floodplain of the namesake river.
The abundance of open water and reedbeds at Purwell Ninesprings attracts different birdlife according to the season.
In spring grey herons, reed buntings and little egrets are often spotted, while autumn brings warblers like chiffchaffs and blackcaps.
There’s lots of life even in the depths of winter, when buntings roost among the reeds and you may see siskins and snipes foraging in the meadow and alder woodland.
There’s a splash of colour in early summer when the yellow iris and water forget-me-nots are in flower.
12. Market Theatre
On the historic Sun Street leading up to Market Place is the Market Theatre, which has a year-round programme of plays, as well as lots going on for younger members of the family.
You could call this 100-seater venue a producing theatre, well-known for its “Adult Pantos”. Running from December to May, and then going on nationwide tours, these are pantomimes based on fairytales and folk tales (Aladdin, Snow White and Sinbad the Sailor) but spiced up with bawdy humour for grown-ups.
These productions of course aren’t for children; on Friday and Saturday mornings during the school term there’s a “Kids’ Club” for singing, acting, movement, teamwork and improvisation, as well as workshops during the Easter and summer holidays.
13. St. Paul’s Walden Bury
In the countryside, five miles south of Hitchin proper is a grand country house, and residence for the Bowes-Lyon family.
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) spent some of her childhood at St Paul’s, and may have been born here.
The red brick house is from the early 18th century and is still a private residence (hired out for weddings), but the 50-acre Baroque woodland garden opens regularly in spring and summer.
This is a chance not to be missed: Like the house the garden dates from around 1720 and is laid out with long formal avenues in a patte d’oie (goose foot pattern). These conduct you to resplendent statues, temples, a lake and ponds.
When you visit the meadows and woods will be brocaded with wildflowers like spotted orchids, bluebells and cowslips, while there are mesmerising displays of magnolias, rhododendrons, lilies and irises.
14. Standalone Farm
This family day out is also a breeze from Hitchin.
Standalone farm keeps everyone’s favourite farmyard animals, and organises a whole timetable of activities.
Kids will meet or get close to cows, shire horses, sheep, goats, ponies, pigs and even alpacas.
There’s plenty to get up to, like watching a milking demonstration, grooming ponies, feeding pigs and taking tractor trailer rides.
The choice of things to do changes with the seasons, so if you drop by in spring and early summer you should be able to bottle feed lambs and kid goats, while birds of prey and reptile handling demonstrations take place regularly.
The Greenway Café has recently opened at the farm, accompanied by a gift shop and play area for little ones.
15. Hitchin Swimming Centre
On summer’s day Hitchin’s elegant 50-metre outdoor pool is a cost-effective way for families to spend a few hours in the sun.
The pool, dating to 1938, is wrapped in parkland and edged by gardens, a fountain, terraces for sunbathing and fine Art Deco pavilions.
There’s also a paddling pool, for toddlers and babies.
In 1991 an indoor pool was built next to the lido, promising swimming all year round, and also containing a gym with 80 stations.
Added to that are three fitness suites scheduling more than 80 classes a week.