Most of us tolerate it, some of us loathe it but we’ve all had to learn to live with it. It is around 60 years since substantive work began on arguably the biggest change to how the town looked in its history – the Watford ring road.
The story of its development and associated projects evolved over many years with plans being drawn and redrawn – at one stage a flyover was proposed where the Rickmansworth Road/St Albans Road underpass stands today – but thanks to research from Watford Museum’s volunteer archivist Christine Orchard we can look back at some of the key elements of the transformation of the town, together with some archive images.
One of the first key years in the plans to radically alter the face of the town was 1956 when the ‘Watford Central Area Draft Plan’ was published.
Writing in her book ‘Watford – A history’, Mary Forsyth said: “It was going to be the answer to traffic congestion. The plan…gave a clue to what was coming: it showed two new roads running north-south, parallel to the High Street, now Beechen Grove and Exchange Road, and a number of multi-storey car parks, not all exactly where they are now.”
Five years later Watford borough engineer Frederick Sage presented a proposal to build a multi-storey car park over the market and shops. Although the site was not exactly the one eventually developed, it was essentially what became Charter Place.
Mary explained Sage’s idea were part of the ‘Central Area Development Plan’ which included the ring road. But it took until 1970 for the plans for the “new site in Beechen Grove” to be announced. The details followed the next year: a new market, shops, car park and a new home for the YMCA.
May 20, 1962 is a significant date because that was when part of the High Street was first pedestrianised – a temporary barrier was put across the road at Market Street – and a trial one-way system introduced.
“The hope was in the future ‘no vehicle will ever again travel the length of the High Street’,” wrote Mary. “And no vehicle ever has.”
Two years later a new ‘Central Area Draft Plan’ was published. It proposed the pedestrianisation of more of the High Street, from Market Street to the Pond, and led to the flyover across the High Street at Upton Road and the subway from the Parade to the Town Hall.
Mary continued: “The 1964 plan proposed a fly-over to carry through traffic on the A412, Rickmansworth and St Albans Roads, which would be above a ground level continuation of the pedestrian precinct from the Pond to the Town Hall. The estimates for its cost led to a change of plan: the traffic continued at ground level and the pedestrians went underground.”
There were plenty of controversial elements to the proposed works, none more so than in 1967 when the Watford Observer reported “the entrance lodge to Cassiobury Park will have to come down in the Rickmansworth Road widening scheme”.
This newspaper also reported that the council were to consider the possibility of moving the gates. Letters followed, a 17-year-old started a petition to save them, others tried to raise the money to move them, but none of this proved feasible. The gates were demolished in 1970; the site lies under one carriageway of Rickmansworth Road.
It was in the early 1970s that many of the key elements of the redevelopment took place: the demolition of the park gates and other parts of the highway including Weymouth Street and Hyde Road; the flyover was built and opened; A412 Rickmansworth/St Albans roads became a dual carriageway; the new subway between High Street and Hemsptead Road was constructed.
The ring road wasn’t completed until 1981 by which time car usage was far exceeding what had been planned for.
“The near-by trunk roads which were designed in part to take traffic away from the town centre also served to make it more accessible to motorists from a wider area,” wrote Mary. “What was good for the local economy also added to the congestion that, it had been thought, the ring road would alleviate.”
It is an issue that politicians and planners are still grappling with more than 40 years later.