An ancient market town, nestled beneath the Chiltern Hills in the Bulbourne Valley, Berkhamsted offers all the ingredients for family life or just a good day out
Stroll along Berkhamsted’s bustling tree-lined Main Street with its heritage buildings, independent shops and tempting cafes, and there’s no immediate clue to the momentous event that happened here. almost a thousand years ago. Nor to the waterway that brought commerce and prosperity to the city at the end of the 18th century. But turn off the main road and within moments you’ll be at both.
The Grand Union Canal was opened in Berkhamsted in 1798, originally known as the Grand Junction Canal, followed in 1837 by the world’s first intercity railway. Today this attractive town at the west end of the county is an increasingly popular choice for families with its excellent schools, retail and local amenities which include one of Hertfordshire’s finest cinemas .
Berkhamsted enjoys the best of both worlds, a bustling social and commercial scene with rolling farmland and wooded countryside on the doorstep. Stroll along the canal’s towpath, which features six locks as it climbs through the town, or head up the Chiltern Ridge to the National Trust Forest at Ashridge, where the beech trees gleam of yellow and gold as autumn approaches.
Leave the High Street, cross Grand Union and under the railway bridge to step back in time to the Norman Conquest, when a motte and bailey castle stood in this strategic settlement between London and the Midlands. In 1066, the Saxons submitted here to William the Conqueror and William instructed his half-brother, Count Robert de Mortain, to build a stone castle on the site of the old Saxon fort. In the 14th century, the castle housed Edward, the Black Prince, son of Edward III. Today the significant ruins are maintained by English Heritage and can be visited for free.
Beyond the castle is Kitchener’s Field where the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps (IOCOTC or ‘The Devil’s Own’) erected a tented garrison in September 1914 for soldiers to train for the Western Front. At the end of the Great War, more than 12,000 people passed through the city. Follow the public trails uphill and look for the information board that marks the practice trenches. Eight miles of practice trenches have been dug across the townships of Berkhamsted and Northchurch, and a 600m stretch can still be visited.
Back in the city center, look for blue plaques indicating Berkhamsted’s many historic buildings, including the childhood home of Clementine Churchill, the birthplace of poet William Cowper, and the birthplace of novelist Graham Greene whose father was a homemaker at Berkhamsted School.
The most unusual show of all? Definitely the 30ft totem pole next to the canal at Castle Street Bridge. Carved in Canada by a First Nations artist, it was commissioned in the 1960s by the timber yard that stood on the site and is one of the few in the UK.
Berkhamsted’s eclectic mix of buildings offers a fascinating architectural timeline through the centuries. Dean Incent’s timber-framed house, for example, was the 16th-century home of John Incent, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and founder of Berkhamsted School. Also dating from the 16th century, the half-timbered courthouse adjoins the church of Saint-Pierre. A short walk from the main street, the Rex Cinema, opened in 1938, is listed due to its Art Deco interior by architect Dayid Nye. Restored to its former glory, moviegoers can expect luxurious seating, a good wine list and tempting snacks while enjoying a varied program of blockbusters and lesser-known international dishes, all of which sell out.
Local mums Hannah and Barbara had both worked in the fashion industry when they met at their sons’ school and lamented the lack of affordable fashion in the area. In 2003 they opened Muse and now offer clothing, shoes and accessories from an eclectic mix of brands. And Italian style at reasonable prices can be found at The Forge Boutique, which offers an ever-changing range of clothing, bags and jewelry with a Mediterranean flair.
Oscar Wilde argued that “dressing well is a necessity” and the skilled tailors of William Young 1876 were masters at combining classic tailoring with contemporary design. Bespoke menswear ranges from shirts to overcoats, with jackets, shirts and trousers also available for women.
Want to spruce up your home? Shop the eclectic mix of home decor items from around the world at Soden Style on the High Street. And spread some extra happiness when you shop for designer gifts, cards and homewares at Number Twenty. This tantalizing little shop on Lower King’s Road donates all profits to the Berkhamsted-based Hospice of St Francis, often sourcing from local artists, designers and brands, and even ordering exclusive ranges.
There’s inspiration for every home and garden style at Home & Colonial. Browse antiques and home decor items on five floors where you’ll also find vintage clothing, jewelry and, on the top floor, home-cooked food at Black Goo Cafe.
For floral gifts, head to Hanako, a different flower shop, whether you want a bouquet, wedding flowers or a range of floral experiences, with the added bonus of a bar and snack menu.
Relax over an all-day brunch in the Art Deco atmosphere of Daisy & Co with its colorful garden-inspired interior, or enjoy your evening menu of small plates, British cheeses and Wednesday sharing platters Saturday. Coffee on the go? Order take-out or sit down for coffee and light snacks at Café Artisan Épicure. Afternoon tea more your thing? Then, head to the charming Blossom & Wild Tea and Baking Room for a gourmet slice or full afternoon tea.
Whatever style of cooking you like, you’ll find it at Berkhamsted. Dine on traditional Sicilian cuisine at Rosanna – dishes “like Grandma used to make” with a special Rosanna twist. Treat yourself to the flavors of Italy at Per Tutti; eat Turkish cuisine in Tabure; or go “authentically Greek” at The Olive Tree with its Greek island decor.
At the Copper House Brasserie Bar behind the Victorian Gothic facade of the Town Hall, choose from small and large plates perfect for sharing or enjoying individually. And for a touch of period glamour, head to The Gatsby restaurant and piano bar next to The Rex cinema.
For pub food with a view, head away from the High Street and stroll along the Grand Union Canal, past the totem pole to Crystal Palace, an independent brewery part of the Big Smoke Brew Co family. Or stop at The Boat on Gravel Path, where you can watch barges pass under the bridge emblazoned with ‘Port of Berkhamsted’ from a towpath table.
WHY I LOVE IT HERE
Anne Ausden from the Forge Shop
“Berkhamsted has what I call a real main street, unlike so many towns these days. I love the mix of independent shops and high street names that really appeal to visitors as well as locals, and it’s great to be part of the bustling atmosphere of the main street. Customers sometimes ask me to recommend a cafe or restaurant, and it really makes me realize how wide we have to choose from.
Anne’s colleague, Miranda Norman, has lived in Berkhamsted since she was a child and has seen the arrival of many independent businesses. She adds: “There is a wonderful community atmosphere here and it is a great place to raise children. We have seen many young families leave London over the past 10 years.