Holes around Harpenden

Ice houses, tunnels, cellars, chalk and lime pits, gravel pits and brickfields

Ice houses

Diagram of Ice House – from ‘Ice the Hard Way’ by R J Pilgram in Herts Countryside, 1970s

In 1983 a 19th Century Ice Well was rediscovered in the woods near to Rothamsted Manor. It is brick lined and 23 feet deep and dating by the rubbish found in it, was last used around the turn of the Century (1900). It had been used to store ice collected from nearby ponds and put in there, packed in snow and layers of straw for use later. Use of ice houses ceased when imported ice was freely available and later, when refrigerators were introduced, it must have been much to the relief of farm workers who had to gather ice and fill the well. Presumably Sir Charles Lawes-Wittewronge installed refrigeration when he inherited the Manor in 1900.

Brewery cellars

During the nineteenth century there were two breweries side by side on the site bounded by the High Street, Vaughan Road and what is now Bowers Way.

Vaughan Road – Brewery stables still standing in 1991

Discovery of the brewery tunnel – 1997

At the top of the old brewery site SDS Printing used the former stables as an office, under which lay the cellar used by the southern (Healey/Glovers/Prior Reid) brewery.

Built in 1847, it measured some 56 feet x 16 feet and had 29 steps down to it. The end wall was by the former Police Station (built in 1895). The cellar is now beneath the new Police Station built in 1997 (now offices for the Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner), accessible through a manhole.


Stairs for getting barrels into the cellar


End of one of the cellars showing ventilation hole. Sleepers were backing for targets when used as a shooting range during WWII

During the Second World War (WWII) the cellar was used by the Home Guard as a rifle range: the end wall had railway sleepers stacked up, filled with bullets. The main entrance came out lower down the hill, but has now been blocked up.

Two other small cellars from the former breweries remain. One, formerly part of the Peacock/Mardall brewery was under the Electricity showroom which was incorporated into the expanded Sainsbury’s store in 2003, alongside Brewery House. The other, belonging to the southern brewery, was used as the boiler room for the Methodist Church in the High Street and is now a basement music room of the Youth Centre, constructed on the brewery site in 2008.


Cellar with bread ovens at Bingham’s – 107 Station Road

Many houses have cellars as do a lot of shops, but those in the Lower High Street must regret having them due to the flooding that happens every so often.

Two houses in Lower Cravells Road have bread ovens in their cellars, and another one has recently been rediscovered in the former Binghams shop on the corner of Marquis Lane. The oven was filled with rubble, but has been cleaned out and is in good order now.

Sewer tunnel

Laying the sewer beneath the Skew Bridge

Work started on building a sewage works for Harpenden in 1911, with outfall into the River Lea. The main pipes, which were laid (or re-laid) in 1938 from the village, go along Southdown Road to the crossroads at the bottom of Piggottshill Lane, and from here through a tunnel to the sewage works half a mile away on the other side of the hill, where Pioggottshill Lane was known as Sewer Lane. The tunnel was dug allowing a gravity flow to the works.

Laying the sewer in Southdown


Tracing from 1898 OS map of central Harpenden showing wells and pumps

There were many wells, some very deep, notably the one at Annables, a 17th Century donkey wheel over a well 145 feet deep. Last used in 1914 it is still operable.

The Harpenden Water Company in Shakespeare Road has a well 126 feet deep and a partly underground reservoir.

Nearby was the Granary, Upper Top Street Farm, built in 1650, in Crabtree Lane (Gilpin Green now). An old well head stood alongside the farmhouse, until in 1961 it was carefully dismantled and reconstructed at the Chiltern Open Air Museum on the village green (no. 34 on the site map). It was a massive wooden structure over the 100 foot well and had a large wheel on the side for winding up the bucket.


Harpenden Midland Station

Work started on rebuilding Harpenden Station in 1983 and the main buildings were stripped out including the floors. It was then possible to see the large void underneath, due to the station being built on brick pillars going down to the original ground level. The land was built up round the station to form the car park approach road.

Air Raid shelters

Typical plan of Harpenden shelters

There were air raid shelters built in 1939, in the form of concrete lined trenches under the Public Hall car park, on the Common by Heath Road, under Leyton Green and under the green by Bowers Parade, where once was the pond that featured so much in old photographs. Although they are still there, they were filled with foam concrete in 2018 when explanatory boards were sited on Leyton Green and in Bowers Parade garden. They had remained accessible, as many people remember playing there as children into the 1970s/80s.  Locks were fitted to the manhole covers at the entrances on Leyton Green; now just small slabs mark where they were.

Another big hole was dug behind the old Fire Station beside the old Public Hall (now Park Hall) at the beginning of WWII for use as an underground control room for the Air Raid Protection (ARP) headquarters in. It was sealed in 1947 after everything was taken out and was finally demolished in 1994 along with the Fire Station, when Harpenden Town Hall was built.

Station Road tunnel

Preparing to dig the pedestrian tunnel, after demolition of the Stationmaster’s house, 1965

The newly opened tunnel in 1967

Another tunnel (very short) is under the railway line in Station Road. It was built to improve road safety due to the narrow footpath then in use. Work started in January 1967 when a large part of the Station Master’s house garden was dug out, and a retaining wall built. A concrete block was then built and from this hydraulic jacks rammed concrete tubes through the embankment without disturbing it. Once through, the concrete block was removed and the path laid. It was all finished by 1st March 1967. The walls have twice/three times(?) been decorated with murals.

Nuclear bunker

In 1980 a house in Prospect Lane was built with its own underground nuclear fallout bunker 6.5 feet x 13 feet with 20 inch concrete walls and steel roof.

Chalk/lime holes

Dig a hole in Harpenden and you find chalk, it was said. True, there is sometimes a layer of clay well suited to brick making, but below this lies the chalk. This chalk also works as a sponge holding the water that our supplies are drawn from, hence the hardness of the water. For centuries now it has been known that lime improves the soil, and it was to provide men with a living, getting the chalk spread on the fields. Known as ‘chalk drawing’ or ‘marling’, a small gang of men with a winding apparatus like a well head, rope, bucket, shovels, wheelbarrows and plenty of beer would sink a shaft some 4 feet in diameter down to the chalk and then dig out horizontal galleries from it. The winding gear would be placed over the hole and the pure chalk drawn up, and spread on the land. When finished, the shaft was covered with small branches and covered with soil, but problems came later when horses sometimes fell through or the hole below gave way and the ground sunk.

When the Council were building houses in Milford Hill, the foundations of one house were being dug in March 1957 when the ground fell in; revealing a shaft 11 feet deep and it had a tunnel going off from it for 30 feet, right under the site of the house. It was said to be neatly dug out, curved and arched and about 5 foot high. It caused some excitement at the time (suggestions included an escape tunnel for the Prisoner of War camp!), but was soon filled in once supporting brickwork had been built in. Another one was found when the road itself collapsed into a hole, in 1982.

In around 1900 there was a lime kiln near the end of what is now Northfield Road at the top of a track leading up from the Lower Luton Road where the 30 mph signs are. Further along in Great Cutts Lane near Hyde Mill was a very large chalk pit also with a lime kiln, but it was filled in during the 1950s. There was yet another large pit near the bend halfway up the hill to Mackerye End from Batford.

Another large pit was dug beside Luton Road near the bottom of Bloomfield Road now at the back of Reed Place and used for car parking.

There was a pit at Thrales End Farm and Roland Young was injured when some chalk fell down onto him on 20th May 1939, but once transport became reliable and cheap, chalk/lime was then supplied from larger commercial pits, as at Pulmer Bottom at Codicote or Totternhoe, west of Dunstable.

Gravel pits

Extract from 1898 OS map, showing gravel pit alongside Oakley Road

Extract from 1898 OS map showing gravel pits north of the Old Bell at Roundwood Lane and alongside the Luton Road, and the site of a chalk pit, NW of the Nickey Line

A study of the 1898 OS maps shows the site of many gravel pits which have determined where it was safe to build. Along the course of the Dry Valley, from Gibraltar Farm to Kinsbourne Green along the western side of the Luton Road all that remains of old pits is a drainage ditch. But south of Kinsbourne Green, the Klondyke houses between Farm Avenue and Ridgewood Drive were set back behind old gravel workings. Similarly the building line along the western side of Luton Road remains set back from Ridgewood Drive to Roundwood Lane.

On the eastern side of Luton Road from Bloomfield Road to the Nickey Line bridge and from Hollybush Lane to Townsend Road sunken front gardens lead to houses built on solid land.

Southdown gravel pits and ponds

The Southdown Ponds had originally been dug for gravel,and along Grove Road, gravel pits, later used as a refuse tip, were grassed over to form the playground alongside Oakley Road. Houses have been built near ‘the pits’ at Paddock Wood. Crabtree Fields, off Waldegrave Park, were formed as gravel pits before being used as a refuse tip. The land remains unstable on the embankment leading down to the sewage works off Piggottshill Lane.

1879 OS map, showing gravel pits where the Southdown Ponds were later dug. There was also a gravel pit where the first St John’s church was built at the bottom of Crabtree Lane

Extract from 1898 OS map, showing gravel pit alongside Oakley Road

Brick making

Drury & Andrews – 1794

Until the establishment of large commercial brick-kilns in the late nineteenth century, bricks were made from locally dug clay and baked in small kilns on or near building projects. So it is not clear why Drury & Andrews map of 1794 identifies an area known as Brickill, alongside the Common, south of Hatching Green – not close to building developments – but maybe the clay was particularly suitable [an topic for further research]?

Extract from 1924 OS map, showing The Warren surrounded by earthworks

More than 80 years later this area was still an active source of clay pits and brick kilns, shown on OS maps for 1879 and 1898. The pits were still evident in the 1924 OS map around The Warren – later incorporated into the West Common estate developed by EC Jarvis from the early 1930s onwards. Jarvis had a temporary kiln at Hatching Green in 1931 (location unknown) which closed as a result of complaints about smoke and smell from residents of houses already sold.

Reference to brick-making on East Common in 1852 may indicate the origins of the ‘ups and downs’ or brickle-dells. Elsewhere there are references around 1884 (the beginning of the Harpenden building boom) of brick-making in Breadcroft Lane, Moreton End Lane and Townsend Lane. However, bricks and other building materials were increasingly brought in by rail – and Sir Halley Stewart‘s growing wealth in the early twentieth century was due to his investment in 1900 in companies which became the London Brick Company near Stewartby.

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