TRAILS OF THE UNEXPECTED
Who in their right mind would want to visit Watford? The traffic system is a nightmare, for a start, and the town hardly sounds a place to see the best of Britain. Yet this old Hertfordshire market town has Tudor almshouses, a superb park, one of the finest of all Victorian churches and - not least - was the birthplace of the Fig Tree Legend.

Catch a train to Watford Junction, which is easy because of the frequency of the service. Leave by the main entrance and turn up Clarendon Road. This was originally fronted by Victorian villas, a few of which survive, sandwiched between glitzy office buildings.

At the top, cowering beside the orbital nightmare that is the inner ring road, is Beechen Grove Baptist church. Recent refurbishment means that its vivid red-brick exterior of 1877 causes unsuspecting pedestrians to leap in surprise. Cross the road and admire the Palace Theatre, a testament to Edwardian showmanship. Opened in 1908 as a music hall, it has played host to such stars as Little Tich, Marie Lloyd, Stan Laurel and even a young Charlie Chaplin.

Turn left down the high street and stroll past two excellent bank buildings, first a Lloyds of 1889 and then an Edwin Lutyens' gem for the Midland: it has an exquisite flattened dome which looks a bit like the lid of an exotic teapot. Keep going down the High Street, past the Blockbusters video store which occupies a glass pyramid, and then cross over into the lower section of the High Street.

The River Colne flows nearby and its ford, together with "Wath", an Old English word for hunting, gave the town its name. The plentiful supply of water from the Colne attracted brewers, particularly the Benskin family who lived in an attractive Georgian mansion. This now houses the excellent Watford Museum. It details the story of Odhams, the printers who moved to the outskirts of Watford in 1936, and, as you might expect, there is a section entirely devoted to football and Watford's most famous supporter, Elton John.

Retrace your steps and just past King Street turn left towards the parish church of St Mary's. Facing it are two beauties: the old Free School of 1704, built for "the teaching of 40 poor boys and 14 poor girls of Watford in good literature and manners" and the Bedford almshouses of 1580.

By the south-east corner of the church is a tomb which gave birth to the Fig Tree Legend. The story goes that a wealthy woman was determined to prove there was no God. She ordered seeds to be placed in her coffin on the understanding that if no tree grew after her death, then God was indeed dead. A fig tree duly sprouted, which for many years attracted sightseers. Shame to ruin a good story but the tree, in fact, sprang out of the church vault. And it did not survive the severe winter of 1963.

Leave the church, averting your eyes from the hideous car park, and walk up Exchange Road. At the junction with Market Street is the wonderful Church of the Holy Rood - if it wasn't in unfashionable Watford it would be under permanent siege by tourists. The inside takes your breath away. It was designed by J F Bentley, the architect responsible for Westminster Cathedral. He was fortunate to be working here for a rich local benefactor, Mr Holland - a man so wealthy that he had his own personal railway station.

Holy Rood was officially opened in 1890 and Bentley continued working on it until his death in 1902. The detail, colouring and craftsmanship offer a sensuous feast for the eye: the vaulting in the chapel and baptistry, the marble and tiles by the altar, the elegant light fittings. Nothing was skimped - not even the squirrel at the foot of the pulpit.

After such bravura, a period of repose is needed. Meander through the side streets and into Cassiobury Park. For centuries the grounds were home to the Earls of Essex who had enough clout to stop the railway coming through their property - which is why the line between London and Birmingham curves gently around Watford. The earls' Cassiobury House was pulled down in 1927 but the park was spared development.

Leaving the park, stroll up Rickmansworth Road. On the left is the Peace Memorial Hospital, a neo-Georgian building, now empty. Take the subway towards what is effectively the top end of the High Street. It is difficult to believe that the pond in front of you was once frequented by horse and cattle. Pass underneath the flyover which bizarrely crosses over the high street and on the right is the final delight, a grouping of Elizabethan timber-frame houses now occupied by a jeweller. On the left is Clarendon Road and the way to the station.

Andrew Davies

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