The first two Garden Cities were up and running amid the green fields of Hertfordshire were up and running within a decade, funded – in the face of government disinterest - by “gentlemen of responsible position and undoubted probity and honour”. It wasn't all philanthropy, though – rents and sales meant investors got their money back within a decade.
Jumping off the train at Welwyn Garden City - just 25 minutes out of Kings X – things start depressingly when I exit straight into a soulless modern mall. But within a few minutes, I'm crossing Parkway to plunge into Howard's vision - a green grid of neatly laid-out streets lined by fine Edwardian detacheds built of striking deep red bricks, set amid wide grass verges, tall hedges and plentiful trees, flanked by woodland and common.
To their credit, Garden City proponents practised what they preached by actually living here. Sir Ebenezer spent half the 1920s at 5 Guessens Road, where neighbours included Welwyn co-founder Frederick Osborne and architect Louis de Soissons. Another co-founder CB Purdom lived on Parkway, where his prestigious 3-bed house is for sale at £1.15m (Putterills: 01438 717701, putterills.co.uk). That sort of price indicates Howard's vision of working class affordability has fallen by the wayside, as the initial influx of blue collar residents got eased out by rising prices as skilled middle class workers seized on the desirability of this new green lifestyle within easy striking distance of the metropolis.
That appeal remains. “Once people move here they want to stay,” says Welwyn agent Tony Putterill. While plenty work in London, Howard's ideal of local jobs still applies courtesy of employers like GlaxoSmithKline, complementing modern lifestyle totems like Waitrose and John Lewis. Many buyers are local – either movers from less leafy Welwyn areas or Garden City residents upgrading to bigger property or more sought after streets such as SherrardsPark Road, where Putterills are selling a 5-bed detached for £1.4m.
Further up the line, an hour from Kings X and Moorgate, Letchworth Garden City maintains London commutability while adding the wealthy influence of Cambridge half an hour away. The town centre has period landmarks like the Deco-style 1930s Broadway Cinema, green spaces like The Broadway plus a sprinkling of engaging independent shops amid the usual suspects.
Completed just before Welwyn, Letchworth Garden City's pioneer status attracted praise for its good looks but also mockery for its 'revolutionary' ideals. John Betjeman versified a “bright, hygienic hell”, bemoaning a “vegetarian dinner” consumed with “lime-juice minus gin” in its strange pub-without-beer The Skittles (closed in 1923). George Orwell, meanwhile, railed against a place he saw attracting “every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England”.
Now those folk are spread far more evenly around, it just seems an expansive green enclave with more varied property than its Welwyn cousin. First up are big white Arts-and-Crafts influenced houses oozing quiet charm, with prices starting around £550,000 – though a Grade II-listed detached with half-acre south-facing garden is on the market for £945,000 (Satchells: 0146248077, satchells.co.uk).
My favourites, though, are the picket-fenced 'Exhibition Cottages' lining Pixmore Way and Lytton Avenue. Built in 1905 and 1907 for two ground-breaking experimental housing exhibitions, they aimed to combat an outflow of agricultural workers to cities by offering local property temptation for around £150. Today's buyers need to dig deeper – if you get a chance. “The cottages rarely come on the market,” says Keith Bowles of local agent Satchells. “And when they do, they tend to be priced quite individually.” For ballpark, a 3-bed on Lytton Avenue sold this year for £325,000, with much play made of its wood-panelled dining room and historic documentation, including original plans.
Historic status imposes practical constraints, however. “You can't separate Letchworth from the Heritage Foundation – they look after the aesthetics,” explains Bowles, referring to the body whose permission you'll need for exterior changes. And I suspect Orwell and Betjeman would have had a few things to say about the posh local school St Christopher, perhaps the only vegetarian fee-payer in Britain.
There's nothing so lah-di-dah in Humberstone, the only garden suburb to be built by the workers rather than 'for' them – specifically, the Anchor Boot & Shoe Co-operative Society using subs from wages. Built in 1908 just outside Leicester, its initial 94 gabled cottages came with bowling green, tennis courts, cricket pitch and communal green. Today, prices range from £250,000 for a simple semi up to £600,000 for substantial Grade II-listed properties. And it's a do-able London commute – just over an hour from Leicester to St Pancras.
Yolanda Barnes, residential research director at Savills, backs Garden City principles as a way forward. “Ed Miliband’s conference speech was an acknowledgement not only that significant new supply is needed - but also that it has to be more than just homogenous housing estates,” she says. “We don’t need to get hung up about the design and style of the old garden cities. What they encapsulate is a well-planned mixed neighbourhood that has all the things that people need to live in – rather than just exist.” Time to dream, urban jungle dwellers.
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