During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…
Let’s face facts: if we’re talking about which UK towns you should visit now that lockdown has lifted, Watford probably wouldn’t rank high on the list. In fact, it probably wouldn’t make it onto the list full stop.
This corner of Hertfordshire on the cusp of Greater London is, after all, a spot that travel publisher Lonely Planet hailed as “the sort of town that makes you want to travel.”
They weren’t wrong. Growing up I couldn’t help but think: “There has to be more to life than the Harlequin [subsequently renamed Intu, and now Atria] shopping centre?”
I would flit endlessly in and out, forever running for a train, as a teen, to take me to the bright lights of the nearby capital and, later, a plane to somewhere warmer. Indeed, I spent the lion’s share of my twenties and thirties living and working as a writer in the Middle East, China, the Caribbean and Argentina before finally heading back to Blighty and settling in Brixton, south London.
When Saturday came, I’d get a snapshot of Watford on my weekly pilgrimage to Vicarage Road football stadium – home of the Hornets (Watford FC) since 1922 – to watch the Golden Boys play. However, come evening, Brixton would be calling and I’d be back on that train seeking out dinner and drinks in the latest London hotspot.
Then coronavirus happened and the retraction of a job offer, due to the pandemic, caused me to retreat for a spell to my home town. With a change of circumstances came a more connected lifestyle. I got to know every inch of Cassiobury Park, the jewel in Watford’s crown, courtesy of my daily lockdown walk.
Instead of hastily grabbing a coffee and sandwich from a soulless chain at Watford Junction station before charging to a football game, I sought out independents like Domenic’s Cafe – which has been run by the Blasi family since 1983 – and stalls such as Roti Pan Kitchen in Watford Market, where Fes and team serve up a tasty chickpea curry, rice and peas.
I became more invested in what was happening in the streets – how had I missed the gold post box, a permanent memorial celebrating local boy-done-good, Anthony Joshua, who went from Watford’s modest Meriden council estate to the top of the heavyweight boxing tree?
And when Watford were promoted back to the Premier League, at the first time of asking in April, I joined fellow fans who have become family – united, regardless of our age, race, religion, class or gender, in our jubilation – for a socially distanced dip in the town centre pond (it’s something of a tradition in these parts). Post-promotion party, supporters even offered to pay for a litter clean-up. Yet arguably Watford’s close community spirit was best exemplified by my beloved football club itself.
This Herts-slash-London town is gritty rather than pretty, but spend even the smallest amount of time here and you’ll quickly discover unexpected delights
When, during the first national lockdown, most of the country's football clubs shut up shop, Watford did the opposite – opening their doors to next-door-neighbour, Watford General Hospital, and offering NHS nurses, doctors, managers, porters and cleaners complimentary meals, overnight accommodation and a laundry service, as well as spaces to recharge after a tough shift.
Had I been unlucky enough to succumb to Covid, I can think of worse places to have fallen ill.
Others can sit out the pandemic in the South Downs, Dorset or the Lake District. Personally, I need to see people on the street and parks full of families playing ball games. Some might like it quiet and slow; I’m not one of them.
It may have taken me 40 years and a global pandemic to truly appreciate where I am from but, like the town’s famous sons and daughters – Anthony Joshua, England manager Gareth Southgate, footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones and Spice Girl Geri Horner (formerly Halliwell) – I’m proud to be a Watfordian.
Planning on paying Watford a visit? Be warned: This Herts-slash-London town is gritty rather than pretty (people who see the point of the National Trust should turn back now), but spend even the smallest amount of time here and you’ll quickly discover unexpected delights. As Visit Watford’s tagline says: “We will surprise you.”
Here’s how to explore this Hertfordshire town’s best bits for yourself.
For a culture fix the Watford Palace Theatre, a beautiful 600-seat Edwardian theatre, is where it’s at. New for autumn/winter 2021 is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as told from the perspective of the novel’s heroine, Mina Harker. Elsewhere, the Watford Colosseum houses musical, comedy and theatrical events and is where the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings soundtracks were both recorded. Meanwhile the Watford Museum, situated in the former offices of Benskins Brewery, tells the story of the town’s past and present through displays on local history, industry and archaeology.
Take a walk
When you think of Watford, green space isn’t exactly what comes to mind. Yet Watford has more green spaces than you can shake a stick at, including the award-winning Cassiobury Park, which is looking better than ever following a recent £6.5m restoration. Watford's best loved park boasts paddling pools, play areas, sports facilities, a bandstand, nature reserve and a charming cafe in Daisy’s in the Park.
If you say to people you're from Watford, chances are they immediately ask if you've been to ‘that club’. Currently called Pryzm, Watford's biggest nightspot has previously been known as Oceana, Area, Destiny, Kudos, Paradise Lost, Baileys and Top Rank. Regardless of name, this place is an unashamed party joint. When clubs can reopen their doors, expect a rowdy crowd, frenetic dancing, arm waving and drink spillage with wild abandon into the wee small hours. No night out in Watford is complete without a trip to this temple of hedonism.
Falling for football
Soon after flamboyant singer-songwriter Sir Elton John bought struggling Watford FC in 1976, he appointed straight-talking Graham Taylor as manager. Together, football’s odd couple took the Hornets from the old Division four to second in Division one in six seasons. Off the field, the club was unique too – and became known as the “original family club”, with players getting involved in the community. Next season, Watford will once again be playing Premier League football – for the low-down on match-days at the home of the Hornets, click here.
Follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter
Fans of the boy wizard will love the Leavesden Studios, home of the Harry Potter Studio Tour. The three-hour, self-guided walking tour takes in several of the sets used during filming, such as Dumbledore’s office, Diagon Alley and the Great Hall, as well as giving visitors the chance to see costumes and props from the phenomenally successful franchise.
L’Artista restaurant has long been a Watford favourite, and for good reason. The front-of-house team is full of cheerful bonhomie and there’s an equally confident brigade at work in the kitchen. Portions of uncomplicated Italian dishes – think pasta and pizza – are plentiful and comforting. For something less formal, head to Watford Market where you’ll find a host of street food stalls selling everything from Middle Eastern falafel to Malaysian “layer cakes”. Or for Insta-worthy cocktails, look to The Florist – a chi chi bar that wouldn’t be out of place in the likes of London or New York.
Once the private residence of Lord Mountbatten, today Sopwell House is a popular Georgian country house spa hotel set in 12 acres of grounds – just a 15-minute drive away from Watford proper. Rooms are elegant, without being intimidating, and colourful without being garish, while the newly refurbished Cotton Mill spa is the current talk of the town. Doubles from £199.