Over at Hatfield House the other day I couldn’t help but notice the amount of noise from the nearby railway. With such a grand and historic residence, home of a line of Lord Salisburys and the young Elizabeth I, you’d imagine its gardens to be a haven of tranquility. But sadly not. Every other minute the peace is disturbed by the clatter of one of the many trains racing past only a few hundred yards away. Contrast this with the Gade valley. Here you can also hear trains, but they are not the full-on rattle of Hatfield, just a distant, dead-of-night rumble that conjures up the romance of travel. For that we must thank one of the most colourful characters of 19th century England. Sir Astley Paston Cooper, Surgeon to King George IV and Queen Victoria, lived in Hemel Hempstead, his former stately pile Gadebridge House overlooking the placid beauty of the Gade Valley. When he heard of plans to bring one of the newly emerging railway lines from London through his back yard, Sir Astley used his influence to have it re-routed. And so trains to and from Euston now pass through the Bulbourne valley, stopping at Boxmoor instead of Hemel town centre! What Paston Cooper couldn’t stop – because he was born a century too soon – were the consequences of the next big revolution in transport, the advent of the motor car. He would be horrified by the noise generated by traffic in his once idyllic valley. To get any semblance of peace and tranquillity at our end of the village I have to get up early on a spring or summer Sunday morning and if the sun is shining enjoy my breakfast and Sunday paper sitting in the garden. Like most vanishing pleasures you have to pick your moment. They can’t even do that at Hatfield House.
Back to Sir Astley Paston Cooper for a moment. I love the story of how he impressed guests at his dinner parties by demonstrating his prowess at amputation. Up until the early 19th century most amputations resulted in death due to gangrene. Sir Astley’s developing skills as a surgeon helped to bring an end to this. And to show how brilliantly successful his operation was, he would treat his guests to the finest leg of roast mutton. Then, after enjoying their meal, they would be amazed to see the door opened, and in walk a live three-legged sheep!