Stevenage Museum, Hertfordshire

‘The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters to shut up nothing as if it were the Mint or the Bank of England.’

– Charles Dickens on Stevenage.

Mama, who grew up in the town, is quite capable of taking the piss out of Stevenage with the best of them. It is, after all, a new town, built to relieve the pressure on the slums and bombsites of London after the second world war and designed with all the architectural and aesthetic principles the 50s and 60s could muster .

It is also the forerunner of Milton Keynes. Yes that’s right, Milton Keynes is what they built while applying the lessons learnt from their previous efforts in Stevenage. Milton Keynes is, in fact, an improvement on Stevenage. Says Mama (see what I mean?).

Stevenage Museum entrance

Stevenage Museum has a fairly large section devoted to the new town aspect. However, Stevenage also:

  • -was settled even in prehistoric times
  • -hosted a Roman villa yielding 2000 silver coins in an archaeological dig on a new building site a few years back. Must have made the property developers happy
  • -takes its name from an Anglo Saxon phrase meaning ‘strong oak’
  • -was raided by the Vikings
  • -got itself mentioned in the Domesday Book
  • -constructed a 12th Century church
  • -endured the excitement of trying to farm Hertfordshire’s awful clay soil throughout the medieval period and sending most of it off to the main local landowner, Westminster Abbey
  • -was decimated by the Great Plague
  • -built a 16th century grammar school founded by a monk
  • -which is now haunted (not by the monk)
  • -acquired an occupied coffin and alternative tourist attraction in the rafters of a local house
  • -went through a boom period when road travel really took off as one of the first major staging posts on the route up north out of London
  • -saw Dick Turpin, who worked the area, escape through a secret passage in one of its pubs
  • -died down a bit with the coming of the railways
  • -was dissed by Pepys and Dickens
  • -survived the world wars
  • -produced the odd writer, formula one star, a French resistance leader, two films, a heavy metal band, the last person every to be accused of witchcraft in Britain, a brace of footballers of varying levels of fame, a handful of contestants in programmes such as the Voice, twin brother poachers, and at least one actor
  • -is currently a relatively popular place for major companies to park their headquarters, being with easy reach of the capital and cheap
  • -one of the first representatives of which was the Vincent motor cycle factory
  • -is also (for much the same reasons) the first stop for any journalists wanting to report on likely chavy behaviour in the provinces. The Black Friday riots reporting? Was filmed in Stevenage’s Tesco.

Vincent motorbike at Stevenage Museum

Stevenage is a great town, in fact, for exemplifying in a largely undramatic way how history affects ordinary people. There are even six mysterious mounds in the centre which, as tradition demands in such cases, everybody thinks are plague pits, but actually aren’t. It really doesn’t get any more representative than that.

Shopping List at Stevenage Museum

And Stevenage Museum does not miss the opportunity to showcase the full extent of this. It’s emphatically not a museum which just glorifies Stevenage’s award winning cycle paths.

The coming of the railways at Stevenage Museum

Although perhaps there should be more about these given that Stevenage is responsible for proving that it doesn’t matter how good your bike infrastructure, the same small number of people will still cycle to work and the rest will take the car. Or the bus, at least until they shut down the bus service altogether, a situation just getting underway in Mama’s hometown. Nobody needs to go out on a Sunday, right?

Actually, Mama thinks that if they wanted more people to cycle they shouldn’t have made Stevenage so easy to drive around. As long as you like roundabouts. You can do 40 mph right through the centre, round the edges and then all the way back again along arterial roads! Mama, who always drives in Stevenage immediately after having had to slog across the middle of London by car, really appreciates this sort of thing. And the ample reasonably priced parking.

Ahem. Where were we?

Medieval house building at Stevenage Museum

Stevenage Museum also understands that the people who will be most interested are those living in the town and to keep them coming back you need to offer a wealth of different activities so you can never feel that you have definitively ‘done’ it.

Back when Mama was a girl (a looooooooong long time ago), this was mostly achieved via a vast and ever changing number of paper scavenger trails. Stevenage Museum still has these, but they have also added an extensive and very varied selection of extra button pushing and other interactive opportunities sprinkled around the exhibits in addition. We certainly didn’t have time for half of these in one visit.

Coin rubbing at Stevenage Museum

Of the ones we partook of, my Fantastic Big Brother particularly enjoyed the multi-part audio recordings of a modern day Stevenage boy who travels back in time and meets an equally ordinary child from the past. A particularly nice touch was how each episode involved things from the display cases nearby.

Mama, on the other hand, was thrilled to find a board where you can weigh up the arguments for and against building a New Town.

New town debate at Stevenage Museum

I preferred the full-sized 1950s play kitchen.

1950s kitchen at Stevenage Museum

And we all agreed the hats you could try on from each era were beyond cool.

Audio trail at Stevenage Museum

All in all, Stevenage Museum is probably not somewhere you will ever make a trip to specially unless you are enjoying a stay in Stevenage or the surrounding area and have some time to kill. Although when Mama found out about their excellent and very reasonable birthday party deals, with four different historical themes to choose from and food included, she did briefly consider hiring transportation and shipping all our little friends out there this year.

But if you are in the area permanently and you haven’t been then it’s high time you went, and I recommend you put it on your list of regular wet weather afternoon hangouts to boot.

More information

Stevenage Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about concrete.

Address: St George’s Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1XX

Opening: Wednesday to Friday 10am – 4.30pm. Saturdays 10am – 5pm

Admission: Free.

By car: Stevenage is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). There is extensive parking in the town centre car parks, especially the multi-story carpark on the other side of the road. Use one of Stevanage’s iconic underpasses to reach the museum.

By bus: The SB6 is the route that gets the closest to the museum, but all buses will stop at the bus station, which is on the other side of the first totally pedestrianised town centre in the UK to the museum, about a ten minute walk away.

Getting to Stevenage by bus is now much harder than previously, after the cancellation of the 797 service from London.

By train: The train station is likewise on the other side of the town centre.  There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.

Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Lest you are thinking that Mama never takes us anywhere more child friendly than a benignly disposed art gallery, let it be known that over the Christmas holidays we went to a Panto. Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre.

Aladdin at Stevenage

It was my first visit to such an entertainment. And here’s the thing about Pantos.

They are no place for newbies.

I mean, sure, you think the plot is simple enough, and indeed, should be familiar from your basic bedtime fairytale reading, but what I noticed was that there seemed to be an awful lot of unnecessary diversions, which everybody except me seemed to be expecting, and on top of this, the whole audience including Mama, my Best Big Brother, and Granny and Grandad had been given parts, which they had evidently studied carefully.

I spent the whole time wondering what my lines were and when to join in among a sea of people shouting their heads off in chorus when prompted from the stage. Or booing. Mama in particular seemed to like the booing, which seems uncharacteristically rude.

Mama tells me not to worry and I will get the hang of it. She says that my Best Big Brother was likewise totally bemused for the duration of his first two shows, and only this year, his fourth visit, has he really got the hang of it. And how! He spent most of the performance on his feet bouncing up and down and yelling his head off. Panto suits my Best Big Brother.

Mind you, even Mama found herself sitting there wondering why Aladdin, which is clearly a story which should be set in the Middle East takes place in the Far East, although to be fair, this is the original version of the story and not some way for bygone Pantos to take a pop at two varieties of Johnny Foreigner at once. Presumably even exotic locations need their own exotic locations.

It does mean that, Panto being the comic vehicle that it is, modern theatre has a delicate balancing act to do. Of course, nobody goes to Panto for cutting edge political correctness, but Mama felt adding the two black actors as self proclaimed slaves was an exceptionally bold way to distract us from the fact that this year’s fond Papa was a foolish Chinaman and the bad guy an Arab.

Fairly successful though.

Especially as having the Genie riff off Shaft did at least allow for equal opportunity sexual harassment of the audience. Just as all the women had relaxed as Stevenage’s perennial Dame, Paul Laidlaw, targeted this year’s hapless male in the front row (“You’re going to regret sitting there, Dave”), so the large man in the skin tight suit came and stood opposite them (“Look at my eyes. My *eyes*, lady!”).

Mama sniggered. Sometimes Mama has a very low sense of humour. Low. Look at his EYES, Mama.

At least none of the scripted jokes poked fun at anyone’s origins. Unless you count coming from Stevenage and the surrounding area. Mama, who does, doesn’t. Some things are fair game.

Anyway. My faint bewilderment at the intricacies of the medium and feeling of missing out on some crucial inside information notwithstanding, I did very much enjoy Aladdin.

Of course, this was helped by the fact that for some reason, Panto overrides Mama’s aversion to expensive plastic tat, and we got given huge toys which lit up in three different patterns with practically no pestering whatsoever before we’d even got into the auditorium.

And then there was the singing and dancing. I was out of my seat, bopping away, waving my flashing magic wand dangerously in the direction of the little old lady sitting next to me on more than one occasion. All the music was good, but the bit I liked best was that there was not one, not two, but *three* songs from Frozen!!! And one of them took place on a flying carpet which was really and truly up in the air and wafting around above us.

Which was not the only impressive bit of special effects. We had dragons spewing smoke, startling pyrotechnic explosions, a dragon shaped Cave of Wonders opening up before our very eyes, and a five minute lazar show just before the break. Multi coloured light shapes appeared in the air above us! MY VERY WORD!

Mama, who likes to peruse the programme in the interval, would like to give a big up to the business acumen and general logistical prowess of the production company, Jordan Productions, who run the Pantos in Stevenage at this point. She gathers that they have a whole stable of medium sized theatres for whom they put on these festive shows. Which means they can afford to splurge on the scenery and costumes, as they will definitely be getting their money’s worth when Aladdin, Cinderella and Robin Hood et al relocate round the circuit next year. So they do. You might be in the provinces, Mama, who is married to a snobby Moscovite, says, but the kit for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s Pantos is always, therefore, very good. Mama’s money for next year’s Panto, looking at the offerings at the other locations and her imperfect memory of what has gone before, is on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs coming to her hometown next year, with an outside bet on Beauty and the Beast.

It’s probably the retro magic tricks which swung it for Mama this time though. Mama, child of the 70s that she is, likes seeing young women cut in half. I was less certain and needed reassuring that no permanent harm would come to her.

Mama was also impressed by the singing. The problem with Panto, she says, is that one of the requirements is to have actors you have actually heard of in the lead roles. This, she tells me, does not always make for a happy earful, as most of the ones who come to Stevenage used to work in soap operas. Especially, Eastenders.

Which is not particularly known for its fabulous musical numbers, apparently.

But this year Aladdin and friends had actual voices. Even the chappie from Eastenders. A Panto with a successful three part harmony is thing of beauty, Mama says. Almost better than the time they had Davy Jones from the Monkees. But not quite.

Especially the during the singalong. Thank god – they provided the words this year, Mama will never forget the shame of trying to belt out ‘There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden…’ order to win the deadly serious singing competition between the two halves of the audience without knowing one of the lines. Never assume, Panto people, never assume…

Aladdin at Stevenage Poster

So. Basically, Aladdin at the Gordon Craig Theatre is in most ways one of the better of Stevenage’s always enjoyable Pantos, and is extremely good value compared to the ones at the London theatres to boot. It’s running to 25th January, so there is still time to get down there and shout ‘it’s behind you’ at every available opportunity for reasons I do not really understand if you so wish.

Oh yes you do, oh no I don’t, oh yes you do. Says Mama, incomprehensibly.

Photo credit: I have used the official poster for Jordan Production’s Aladdin at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre. Clicking on the image will take you to the page where it appears on their website.

More Information

Gordon Craig Theatre website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about audience participation in pantomimes.

Address: Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre, Lytton Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1LZ

Times: Various, including afternoon and both early and later evening performances.

Tickets: Currently £15.50 per seat

By train: Stevenage station is right opposite the theatre, although Mama is genuinely sad to report the theatre is no longer the striking eyesore landmark it once was when covered with large yellow bubbles. There are regular trains out of Kings Cross and the fast ones take about half an hour (other directions are available).

Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage

By bus: You are just in time to be able to catch one of the last 797 coaches from Victoria to Stevenage before the service is discontinued. The journey takes about 1 and a half hours. Other bus routes from different starting points are available.

By car: Stevenage is famous for its cycle paths (Oh no it isn’t, oh yes… Lets not, Mama eh?), but has extensive and relatively cheap parking all around the theatre. Stevenage itself is bang on the A1M, which is convenient for London (40 minutes to the outskirts). You can come from the other way too.

By plane: Stevenage is excellently served by both Luton and Stanstead airports, both within 30 miles. Heathrow is 45 miles and a trip round the M25 away.