‘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 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.
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.
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.
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 is, the same small number of people will still cycle to work and the rest will take the car (no really. There are studies).
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?
Stevenage Museum also understands that the people who will be most interested in what it has to say 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.
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.
I preferred the full-sized 1950s play kitchen.
And we all agreed the hats you could try on from each era were beyond cool.
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.
Address: St George’s Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG1 1XX
Opening: Wednesday to Friday 10am – 4.30pm. Saturdays 10am – 5pm
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 Stevenage’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.
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