Despite the homogenisation and ongoing obliteration of our high streets, much of Britain wears its history well. Look up and you can see buildings from different eras, often dated. Look down and the paths, tracks and water courses define where you are. The dents, hollows and bings of a landscape act as a guidebook to the past.
I started thinking about Arlesey in this context, when examining its appearances in the Good Beer Guide. Four of its six entries have closed, a ratio typical of a post-industrial setting.
Though a semi-rural town of 5,500 people, Arlesey is indeed post-industrial, once prospering on the clay from which Arlesey White bricks were made.
Bedfordshire was the home of the brick industry, knocking out Whites, Luton Greys and Reds in their tens of millions. Arlesey had five brickworks that dominated the skyscape.
The blue and green lagoons that formed in the old clay pits became the leisure centres of their day. Swimming was popular and fishing too, leading to the invention of the Arlesey Bomb weight for catching perch.
This abandoned steam power excavator served as a diving board.
Like many industries, it was the coming of the railway – in 1850 – that stimulated growth. The first brickworks opened in 1852, to be followed by four more. Where there was work there was thirst. The Brickground Hotel; Old Oak; True Briton; Three Tuns; Steam Engine; Crown; Rose and Crown; City Arms; Prince of Wales; and Stag all opened between 1850 and 1868.
By then there was at least 16 pubs in the town, a pretty good pub crawl, particularly if you favoured the local brewer, Charles Wells.
Arlesey was booming. A Working Men’s Club built in 1880 contained a reading room, a lecture hall with seating for 300 and a billiards room. Another source of employment was the Three Counties asylum, the second to open in England. By the end of the century it had 1,116 patients and 256 staff. It had its own tramway and was serviced by the new Three Counties station.
Remarkably the asylum had its own brewery and in 1906 Mr Prime, the brewer, was found dead in vat three, requiring 400 gallons of beer to be drained. A case of the beer containing plenty of body, presumably.
The asylum had its own cinema but the town itself had to wait until 1920, when the Victory Cinema opened. That closed in 1962 and the last of the brickworks went in 1992. The Stag and the City Arms fell in the 1920’s recession. The Lamb, which had its own mortuary, shut in 1964.
The closure of the brickworks and associated industry was not kind to Arlesey. The Crown closed in 1985; the Rose and Crown and the Star in 1994; and the Prince of Wales – which had a miniature railway in the garden -in 1995. The one-time asylum, latterly Fairfield Hospital, shut its doors in 1999.
Today Whatpub tells us three pubs remain in the town. The White Horse is the oldest, dating from the C17th and a pub in its current form since 1805. The Old Oak, also a Greene King house, has survived since 1859. While the frequent Good Guide entry, the Vicars Inn, formerly the Steam Engine, is a 1901 rebuild by Wells, now a free house.
That much of Arlesey’s social history is well documented is due in no small part to Arcangelo Lombari, whose blog is packed with great photos, some of which I have plundered with grateful thanks.