In 1898 the social reformer Ebenezer Howard published his book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform, outlining many principles of towns that we take for granted today, like the allocation of parks, a green belt and zoning to keep industry away from residential areas.
Howard’s ideas were ridiculed by many, but championed by members of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Quakers.
At the dawn of the 20th century those ideas were put into action for the first time at the ancient parish of Letchworth, which had a population of just 96 in 1901. Letchworth Garden City is one of the world’s first planned new towns, with an incalculable impact on urban design.
For students of the built world, Letchworth’s fabric, interlaced with parks and Arts and Crafts architecture, is an attraction of its own.
1. International Garden Cities Exhibition
The lovely Arts and Crafts drawing offices for Letchworth’s chief architects have become a kind of visitor centre for the town and a the Garden City movement.
Here you can explore Letchworth’s influence on town-planning around the world, get to know Ebenezer Howard, learn the finer details about the philosophy behind Letchworth and just how the town was designed.
Entrance is free, and the temporary exhibitions occasionally complement Letchworth’s Broadway Studio & Gallery.
In spring 2019 there was an excellent exhibition about Richard Barry Parker, the architect and urban planner at the vanguard of the Art and Crafts and Garden City movement.
2. Howard Park
Named for Ebenezer Howard, Letchworth’s main park remains true to his ideals.
This green space, brimming with facilities, is a mainstay of the town, with large convivial lawns and secluded areas tucked away among mature trees for reading and relaxing.
There’s a refreshments kiosk, an up-to-date play area and a massive paddling pool, along with formal gardens where you’ll find the bowling green and pavilion.
At the southern edge of Howard Park is Letchworth’s first public building.
The Mrs Howard Memorial Hall was constructed in honour of Howard’s first wife Eliza Ann Bills, who passed away in 1904.
3. Broadway Cinema and Theatre
In a regal Art Deco building, the Broadway Cinema opened in 1936 with a black-tie screening of the Astaire and Rogers movie Follow the Fleet.
Over the last 20 years, to move with the times, the building was updated to a four-screen cinema, while its opulent Art Deco interiors have been sympathetically restored.
Of course you can catch all the latest hits from Hollywood, but the Broadway also screens live broadcasts or recordings from cultural institutions like the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House.
In 2016 the venue was adapted for theatre performances after a multimillion pound redevelopment, putting on plays, musicals, children’s shows, dance, touring music artists and stand-up comedy.
4. Norton Common
Right in the middle of Letchworth is more than 60 acres of untouched woods and meadows threaded by the little Pix Brook.
Norton Common has won the Green Flag award for the last five years, thanks to its high level of maintenance, as well as facilities like an outdoor pool (more later), tennis courts, bowling greens, a floodlit multi-use games area, small skate-park, a pavilion and a picnic area.
The meadows are dappled with wildflowers in midsummer, and walking in the woodland you might catch sight of a Muntjac deer.
5. Broadway Studio & Gallery
In the Arcade between Station Road and Leys Avenue, the Broadway Studio and Gallery is a superb art attraction offering a platform for local talent but also staging some big-hitting exhibitions for a town of Letchworth’s size.
In the last few years there have been shows for the German artist/nature photographer Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932), printmaker Richard Smith (1931-2016) and the installation artist Kate Terry.
There’s a swish cafe on the first floor of the arcade, while the gallery reaches out to the public with activities like a monthly Family Arts Studio for hands-on arts and crafts, a regular “meet critique” with local artists and “bring your baby” exhibition tours.
6. Broadway Gardens
The centre of Letchworth feels rather grand at this square/formal garden that was redesigned on the town’s 100th anniversary in 2003. During this work an imposing fountain was placed at the southern end, which looks great against the backdrop of the Edwardian Baroque town hall to the north.
The gardens have neatly clipped hedges, herbaceous borders and the stately Broadway Walk boulevard.
On a sunny day you could pick up a bite from the town centre and take a picnic under the foliage tracing the outer paths.
7. Standalone Farm
Children will be big fans of this farm park on Letchworth’s outskirts, open February to November.
All the farmyard favourites can be found at Standalone Farm, like goats, ponies, horses, pigs, chickens cows, as well as llamas There are lots of opportunities for little ones to get involved, feeding pigs, lambs and goats, grooming ponies, watching cow-milking demonstrations and, weather permitting, taking tractor trailer rides.
Bring a picnic, which you can take into a heated barn if the weather isn’t cooperating, while there’s also a cafe and children’s play area.
8. Spirella Building
The Spirella Corset Company established this Arts and Crafts-style factory in Letchworth in three phases from 1912 to 1920. Chiming with the Utopian ideals of the Garden City, Spirella laid on a host of amenities for its employees, like a library, ballroom, showers, baths and a gymnasium, while providing free eye tests and bicycle repairs.
The factory produced parachutes in the Second World War, eventually closing in 1989 after the business had been sold off a few years earlier.
The derelict Spirella Building was bought by the council in 1995 and now contains offices and a fitness centre, while the ballroom continues to host dance performances, weddings and conferences.
9. Church of St Mary
A sign of how small Old Letchworth used to be, the Church of St Mary was the parish church until 1903, measuring only 18 metres long.
This is the oldest building in the area, dating back to the 1100s and constructed on the foundations of a Saxon church.
A cute detail is the timber-framed bellcote over the west end, which houses a bell cast in the 1300s.
The windows in the chancel date from 1200s, while elsewhere you can find a recumbent effigy of a knight, Sir Richard de Montfichet.
10. Hitchin Lavender
The countryside on Letchworth’s west shoulder is heart-melting in July when some 25 miles of lavender rows come into bloom.
The neighbouring market town of Hitchin has a storied lavender tradition, going back to the 16th century.
In the 19th century this provided lavender oil for Ransoms, the oldest independent pharmaceutical company in the UK.
Queen Victoria’s train purposely stopped at Hitchin in 1851 for a bottle of lavender oil.
At Hitchin Lavender you can feast your eyes on the colours, pick your own lavender and visit the shop, selling lavender oils and lavender-infused toiletries.
11. Letchworth Outdoor Pool
A classic lido, Letchworth’s heated open-air swimming pool was built in 1935 and sits in the south-east corner of Norton Common.
You can get there in five minutes on foot from Letchworth Railway Station, but the pool feels secluded ensconced in the common’s woodland.
The season begins in May, and the pool is a go-to for families on hot afternoons in the summer holidays, handing out inflatables and offering a large grassy area for sunbathing.
At fifty metres long, and nine lanes across, there’s plenty of room for people who just want to get some exercise in.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the pool schedules a grown-ups only session, first thing in the morning from 07:00-08:00.
12. Letchworth Greenway
Encircling the Garden City estate is a 13.6-mile hard-surface path, in the countryside but without ever straying far from Letchworth.
At a cost of £1m, the Greenway was created in 2003 to mark Letchworth’s centenary, and on its course are plenty of places where you can stop or take detours.
Standalone Farm is one, but there’s also Radwell Meadows, the Willian Arboretum, Norton Pond and Wymondley Wood.
You can download a free app for the Greenway, which will show exactly where you are on your walk, and give you seven suggested routes to follow.
13. Icknield Way Path
The connecting trails on the Icknield Way had been walked for thousands of years even before the Romans arrived in England.
Often referred to as the oldest road in Britain, this route can be followed on a signposted long-distance footpath, 110 miles across the South of England from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk.
The path comes through Letchworth, and if you want to work your calves and take in some lofty chalkland scenery you could set a course for the high downs in the Barton Hills and on the margins of the Chilterns.
14. Teamworks Karting and Laser Tag
Ten minutes on foot from the train station, Teamworks is an activity centre dedicated to go-karting and laser tag.
The karting setup here is highly rated in the motorsport community, using state-of-the-art indoor karts on a highly technical track rewarding quick reactions.
You can book the track in advance, or just show up for something called Karting 30, for quick and easy access to a kart in four 7.5-minute chunks.
There are also special offers on Tuesday evenings when you can race for just £20. Kids will have the time of their lives playing laser tag, but it could also appeal to groups of grown-up friends out for some competition.
The laser tag centre uses atmospheric lighting and smoke machines, as well as the latest infrared technology for an adrenaline-pumping activity.
It wasn’t long before Letchworth had its own golf course, which was established in 1905 and was laid out by the famed Jersey golfer and course architect Harry Vardon in 1911. Letchworth Golf Club was redesigned to play to modern tastes in the early 2000s, and is a true parkland course, with rippling fairways lined with willows, copper beech and sweet chestnut trees.
In summer green fees are £47 Monday to Thursday, £50 on Friday and £58 on weekends.
For golfers with children, Letchworth Par 3 Family Golf Centre is a bit more accessible, catering to both novices and long-time golfers working on their short game.
These nine holes are in calming mature woodland, and there’s a large clubhouse for post-round refreshment.