BATTLE OF WORDS OVER PIRTON’S FUTURE
Thirty-five years on, one is interested to read the strong war of words surrounding the news that thirty-eight houses were to be built in the village. For years Fred Weeden* had worked Cromwell Farm which was bordered by the houses in High Street and West Lane. When he died, the farming land was left to his daughter who no longer lived in the village. News that the land had been sold to Melbourne Property Company Ltd, became the major topic of conversation in the village. As a Parish Councillor of the time recalled recently, “Everyone was gobsmacked. We just didn’t know anything about it until it was a fait accompli”.
Permission was granted by the Planning Authority in 1964 for the 38 houses that were to become Cromwell Way & Bunyan Close. It was not until 1974 that plans for new houses had to be sent to parish councils, and thus be available for inspection by villagers, In 1965 hardly anyone knew what was in the wind at Cromwell Farm! Villagers took sides and letters penned to the press. At that time there was just a path between Cromwell Farm & the shop on the other corner (now 73 High Street); the path leading to a stile and on to West Lane.
Now the Oaks Estate was to be built.
The news brought forth a strongly worded letter from Mrs J Wood who then lived at 29 High Street. She certainly favoured development; having lived in the village for seven years, she saw development as the only salvation for a dying village! She deplored what she saw as a messy village – “What were once tidy, flourishing allotments are now thistle-ridden wasteland. Most of the footpaths are overgrown with nettles…and have become impassable. The village pond used to be the scene of bird life and now it is just a lifeless rubbish dump. The village green is a wilderness and a swamp in wet weather.” She wished the developers the ‘best of luck and all good wishes.’ She ended her letter by urging the Parish Council to develop the amenities in the village ‘instead of standing in the way of progress and development’.
Elizabeth Corbett, then living at Shillington but formerly of the Old Hall in Pirton (now Docwra Manor) attacked the development, stating that any notion of Pirton being a dying community was ‘outrageous. Writing in the following week’s paper, she deplored the fact that development was going ahead against the wishes of the villagers.
Two more villagers took up their pens to contradict Mrs Wood’s description of Pirton as “a dying village”, where development offered the only solution. One was John Thrussell, who had run the post office, been a former chairman of the Parish Council and remained a great lover of the village where he had lived for 77 years. He wrote of improvements that had taken place in his lifetime – “better roads, no longer clouds of dust in summer and inches of sludge in winter, improved houses – brick and slate instead of thatch and wattle and daub – electricity replacing oil lamps, sewers instead of open ditches, street lighting, a modern school and village hall.’ He lovingly wrote of Pirton being a rural village, “willing to move forward slowly, and not rush, retaining her old ways and customs and old friends, and living in peace and comfort.”
He was strongly supported by Betty Coe of 3 Shillington Road who, as a newcomer, counted herself fortunate to be able to live in Pirton among such friendly helpful people. She agreed that some improvements could take place but “how much more could be lost for ever if wholesale speculative building is allowed”. She had recently enjoyed the darting swallows over the village pond and the moorhen with its chicks.
Such divergent views led the newspaper to send a reporter to the village. The pictures that accompanied the 1964 article showed two of our most attractive half-timbered houses, a pond which “with a little attention could be one of the most attractive features of the village” and Great Green where the photograph supported the caption, “a jungle of thistles and brambles”. As the newspaper writer said, ‘there was sharply divided opinion’. She wrote that the younger people generally supported the view of a ‘dying Pirton’ and that the village was becoming something a of a dormitory – ‘people coming here to sleep, but with their work and interests elsewhere.’
Great Green was found to be a mess. Mrs Lil Gazeley who had lived by the Green for thirty-four years, described it as an “eyesore”. She recalled that when she had first moved to her cottage on Great Green, the green had been in good condition, but had deteriorated over the years. Horses had once kept the grass down, but who owned the Green had been uncertain, but now the Parish Council was planning to restore it to a proper state. Major Handscombe, who did not live in the village, had held the right to Great Green since 1924, but was fully prepared to pass the responsibility of it to the Parish Council in 1964 as long as they paid his legal fee (£21.7s.).
Three villagers were quoted by the newspaper as defending the village pond against Mrs Wood’s accusation of it being ‘a lifeless rubbish dump’. Mrs Rose Titmuss who kept the ironmongers shop opposite the pond said, “The pond is an attractive part of the village and visitors always comment on it”. She found support from Mrs Eva Chapman and Mr B C Burton. In spite of reflecting upon one or two ‘untidy ‘parts in the village, the reporter saw Pirton as ‘ a place of great charm and character”.
As the first foundations were dug there was debate over the names for the two new roads. Bearing in mind the farm of that name, Cromwell seemed a natural suggestion, but the developers’ recommendation was that they be Bunyan Way and Hewitt Close; the latter named after the former incumbent at St. Mary’s Church. The Parish Council preferred that the road proposed as Bunyan Way be Cromwell Way and instead of Hewitt Close that of Bunyan Close be adopted. Bunyan Close was named after George Bunyan, Pirton man, carpenter and then foreman of the new building development. George lived in 13 High Street.
Views in the village about the whole development remained mixed. The Parish Council wrote to the Hitchin Rural District Council that, ‘whilst the Parish Council would very much like to see land made available for development in the village to meet the demands of local persons, they are of the opinion that the present proposal is of a speculative nature and would not in any way meet the requirements of the village, and they view the proposal with concern.’ Subsequent appeals to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government brought forward no gain to local objections. The debate about Pirton’s ‘condition’ was, of course, caused by plans to build the new estate. There is little doubt that any plans to build in the village always provoke sharp differences. Looking at the village now, it is interesting to see how things were seen thirty-five years ago. No doubt many of our villagers can remember the controversy.
In any event the development happened and, look some saw the benefits. One Parish Councillor at the time recently said that whatever else, the influx of new inhabitants had brought fresh ideas into the village and that many of these people had taken on important roles in community activities. Those coming into the Oaks Estate did present young families giving the school a new lease of life. People born or living in Pirton were offered a £50 reduction in the purchase price of the new Oaks Estate and as the cost of purchase was between £2,900 and £3,700, this was a significant incentive. It is thought three Pirton families made the move; these included Derek and Edna Males who still live at no. 29 Bunyan Close.
Thus, the building of the thirty-eight houses took place and families moved in during 1966. At that time the development in Bunyan Close stopped at no 10 on the right-hand side and no. 33 on the left. The first house of the new Oaks Estate to be occupied was no. 31, followed by nos. 29, 33 and 27. Derek and Edna Males well remember moving in to the second house to be occupied, no. 29, on 16th April 1966. Outside no. 33 the road stopped, opposite were some large elm trees and beyond (where the remaining phases of Bunyan Close were to be built) was an orchard. The remaining houses in Bunyan Close were not built until some seven years later when the elm trees were cut down (not destroyed by the awful Dutch elm disease of a few years later). It all seems quite a long time ago now!
* The name Weedon/Weedon appears much in Pirton history. It is said that Fred of Cromwell Farm had the surname Weeden but always signed his name Weedon!
We thank many villagers for help with this article, especially: Michael Goddard, Betty Huckle, Pam Finbow, Denise Marshall, Derek & Edna Males, Fred Gazeley, Clare Baines & our wonderful local history book.