Just 40 minutes from frenetic St Pancras Station, lies peaceful, picturesque Harpenden.
It is a sizable town, with all the trappings of modern urban life – supermarkets, chain stores, phone shops and consumers to go with all of that. Yet, on my visit to Harpenden I discovered places and people that make me think of the kind village life I had found in novels a long time ago on the other side of the world.
When we arrived at mid-morning on a drizzly late autumn day, Harpenden Station was completely deserted. We set off down a sloping, curved and empty street towards the town, coming to rest in the first lit and populated shop – the Oxfam Store. Racks of damp-smelling tweed and stout shoes, glass cases crammed with one-short sets of sherry glasses and shelves stacked with travel books suggested that the good folk of Harpenden are fond of winter walks and arm chair journeys with a fortified wine. They are also painters, or at least collectors of paintings and it was near a pile of gloomy oils that I met my first Harpenden character. Carelessly groomed and shabbily chic in shades of peat and moss, with a voice like the Queen, she was commanding a bemused young lass to authenticate a dark, foreboding landscape. When the girl shook her head helplessly, she left the shop with an exasperated snort and slammed the door behind her.
We ambled on down to the corner, past the post office, past rows of small, old world buildings, where modern businesses had taken a tenuous hold – Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants, dress shops full of shiny stuff, a gelati parlour and a boulangerie/pattisserie – and from which idle personal stared vacantly at the street.
Round the corner in the High Street, we found the church and in the church, a cafe, offering morning teas Monday to Thursday and lunch as well on Friday. It sounded cosy, almost “villagey”. Inside a matron in a floral apron served us piping hot tea and buttery scones. At table near the counter, a tiny old lady, with a booming voice that belied her frail, stooped frame, shared a postcard with the vicar.
A few doors down from church we came across a piece of old Harpenden, a piece, in fact, of a lost world – the tobacconist. Dark, small and with a deliciously exotic mixture of smells, its corners were crammed with stands of canes, shelves of cigarettes, cases of cigars and packets of sweets.
Further along, Sainsbury’s holds half the block. Here, we came across the Oxfam art connoisseur again. She was shouting at a shelf-stacker. Across the road a Café Nero had the corner. We headed into the back streets where there were quiet cottages, greens, graceful manors.
Harpenden, as we had already half guessed from the racks in the Oxfam shop, is the departure point for some wonderful walks. One follows the Ver River, another skirts the Moors and another crosses the Common. They all follow routes marked with fascinating names, like Sopwell Nunnery, Smug Oak Lane, Frogmore Pits and Jack Williams’ Wood. Unfortunately we were unable to tramp out these paths. We discovered them at the Harpenden Library, under the sharp gaze of a stern-faced Librarian in brown tweed and brogues, just before our 5.30 train left for London.