To boldly go in the 1800s: early Society excursions

Early Society excursions

As the Society approached its 40th anniversary, members embarked on a series of excursions to places of interest in and around Hertfordshire. The leader in many instances was the knowledgeable guide Canon Owen Davys, MA, rector of St Helen’s Church, Wheathampstead. The destination was frequently a church, which seems highly appropriate, as many of the members at the time had a deep interest in ecclesiastical architecture.

‘A careful and exact record’

Such visits were seen as crucial to the purpose of the Society, as explained by the Society’s librarian H.R. Wilton Hall. In a report published in the Society’s 1905/6 Transactions covering the Society’s first 60 years he wrote:

About the year 1882 began a series of Excursions to various places of interest in the County and Counties adjoining Hertfordshire. These have been most valuable, and have formed a most important part of our work. Quite early in the history of the Society a careful and exact record of the architecture of Churches and ancient buildings was put forward as one of the objectives to be attained. Until the institution of Excursions, however, very little was done in this direction.

One of the first such outings was to the “picturesque ruins” of the old church at Ayot St Lawrence, led by Canon Davys. He described how the party examined together the plan of the church and details of “what had been one of the most interesting Ecclesiastical structures in our county”. It was not until 1884 that he wrote up his notes, explaining that ‘it seemed desirable that those notes should take a more permanent form, and be published, with some details and a plan of the building, in our Transactions’.

Come rain or shine

The weather wasn’t always kind, as on the day a party of some 30 members set off by train and then horse and carriage to visit Dunstable Priory church, the Downs, Maiden Bower and Totternhoe Castle and Church. The party left St Albans “amidst a heavy shower and the thick clouds which hung all around promised anything but a comfortable ramble on Dunstable Downs”. After visiting the church and priory, the party walked down the high street to the Sugar Loaf Hotel where carriages were provided to convey them to the Downs. “Jupiter Pluvius now proved more kind, and for an hour or so little or no rain fell. Having driven to the foot of the knolls, the party walked up to the ancient earthworks.”

Roman and Drovers’ roads

It was here that they learnt more about the two old Roman ways that met near the spot. The party picnicked in the carriages at Maiden Bower in a lane “hard by’ where a farmer helpfully informed them that it was an old drovers” road by which the Welsh cattle were brought up. Then, it was on to Totternhoe, whose quarries supplied the ‘clunch’ used in the construction of St Albans Abbey.

In 1884 Canon Davys was once again in the lead, taking a party to St George’s Church at Anstey – some 15 miles northeast of Stevenage. It was a place close to his heart although he had only visited it for the first time just a few weeks earlier. His grandfather had been Rector there for 21 years and it was the birthplace of his mother. In addition, St George’s was, and still is, very similar in style to St Helen’s, and described by Canon Davys as ‘a miniature minster, perfect in its people’s nave and aisles, its chapels in the transepts and its ancient choir’.

Engendering more research

These excursions were clearly valuable in sparking members to research the places they were to visit. There was a second enduring benefit. At long last and for the first time the Society found the means to publish the resulting papers in the first series of Transactions. They record scholarly works describing buildings and places in great detail and even in the early 1900s these records were considered to be documents of ‘Antiquarian and Historical’ value.

The reports of those early, intrepid members who ventured forth, come rain or shine, to visit churches and ancient Roman sites, by train and horse-drawn carriage, make excellent reading. They are a collective reminder of the many ancient wonders the county of Hertfordshire has to offer. For those ready to leave the comfort of their armchairs, the Society continues to organise excursions, or ‘outings’ as they are called today.

Many thanks to Pat Broad for her research contribution to this article.