Baldock - history and further information
Baldock is the smallest of the four towns of North Hertfordshire and retains much of its traditional market town character with the largest number of Listed Buildings of any place in the District. Established by a charter granted to the Knights Templar during the 1140s, it was a typical medieval new town. Quite by chance, the Knights had chosen the long deserted site of an ancient Romano-British town, remains of which are often encountered during development work.
The ancient town grew up in the first century BC at the point where several ancient routes, including the Icknield Way, crossed. It seems to have been the base for local Late Iron Age chieftains, whose burials were discovered in 1967 and 1981. The centre of the town lay beneath Walls Field, which is Scheduled as an Ancient Monument, and by the middle of the second century AD had grown to be quite a large place for its time. The settlement is best known to archaeologists for the number and size of its cemeteries (more than twenty separate burial grounds have been identified), which have yielded the largest collection of burials from any Roman site in Britain.
Before the end of Roman rule early in the fifth century, the town had entered a decline from which did not recover. By the end of the sixth century, all its buildings, streets and temples had been abandoned and had so completely decayed that when the Knights Templar founded their new town in the 1140s, nobody knew that there had ever been a town there before. The Knights called their town Baudac, which is the medieval French form of Baghdad: they perhaps hoped that their new town would prosper just like its Middle Eastern namesake.
The market, established by the end of the twelfth century, was quickly prosperous and soon eclipsed the older market in Ashwell. By the fourteenth century, the town was almost as wealthy as older established places like Hitchin and St Albans. In the same century, the Knights Templar were disbanded and control of the town passed to the Knights Hospitaller. Their parish church of St Mary, much of which dates from just before their suppression, remains an impressive monument, dominating the skyline. It is a spacious building in the town centre with its large fourteenth century west tower capped by a small and typical Hertfordshire 'spike' (or steeple). The main part of the church is also of the fourteenth century, although some windows are later, and the quite splendid screens which extend right across the chancel arch and aisles are of the fifteenth century. The wood carving of the screens is superb and the rood screen is more ornate. Monuments include a thirteenth cent ury marble coffin lid, and several brasses of the fifteenth century including one depicting a man with a hunting horn. More ornate is a typically Victorian memorial to Georgiana Caldecott, who is shown backed by an angel carrying her soul up to Heaven.
The town centre boasts some handsome sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century houses. The Great North Road actually ran past both the church and the market place, and part of this famous road, lined by grass banks and trees, forms the High Street. Although there are newer buildings in this thoroughfare - including the former Council Offices of 1897 - its charm is in the several Georgian houses with their pilasters and pediments. Even older are Wynne's Almshouses, a pleasing group dating from 1621. Also of interest are the Brewer's House of the former brewery (pulled down in 1967), a late Georgian residence, and nearby, a restored much older timber framed house.
More Georgian buildings are found in other central streets, both on a grand scale and in the form of small terraced houses. Close to the church is the rectory designed by Butterfield in 1870, and in Church Street is the former Quaker Meeting House, a seventeenth century building now used commercially.
The town's seventeenth-century and later prosperity was based on local malt, which became the favoured type for London brewers. The coaching trade developed around the same time and in the eighteenth century, many of the town's older buildings were refronted in fashionable brick styles and new inns grew up to accommodate travellers. A decline in the popularity of beer after 1800 and the arrival of the railway in 1850 saw a reversal of Baldock's fortunes and it grew only slowly until the development of the Clothall Common estate in the 1980s.
Today, the town is popular with commuters, as it has fast electric trains to London and Cambridge and is situated on the A1 motorway with connections to the north and south, and the A505 with connections to the east and west (the recent A505 bypass cuts through the Weston Hills to the south). A large Tesco store has been built behind the elaborate Art Deco façade of the former Kayser Bondor stocking factory. There is a local story that the building was originally a silent film studio, but the more prosaic truth is that it was intended as a photographic laboratory for a Letchworth company called Kosmos that went bust before it could move in. It stands on the site of the town's original manor house, destroyed by fire in 1928.
There is a strong community spirit in Baldock with numerous groups and societies, many centred on the town’s community centre near the library. There are several thriving primary schools and a highly regarded secondary school, Knights Templar, which also has a leisure centre open to the public. Every May, the town runs a two-week festival and a group of volunteers keeps the museum (in the old Town Hall) open on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons. It features displays on the history of Baldock including its importance as a coaching centre and its malting industry, with a larger themed exhibition that changes each May. There is a weekly market on Wednesday mornings and a wide variety of cafés, pubs and restaurants.
Baldock Historical Society, Baldock Museum, Baldock Town Hall, Hitchin Street. Telephone 01462 892640.
The Baldock Society, c/o 1 Norton Road.