A picture of Berkhamsted
With our busy lives, many Hertfordshire towns remain an undiscovered secret - places we just drive through, glimpse from a train or know as a name on a signpost. Sue Armstrong stopped off at Berkhamsted to take a closer look
THIS vibrant market town, with its strong royal and literary connections, is on the western edge of Hertfordshire, bordering the Chiltern Hills. With the Grand Union Canal and the River Bulbourne running alongside, Berkhamsted is surrounded by pretty villages and beautiful countryside. There are plenty of fine walks to enjoy and close by is the National Trust's Ashridge Estate with its 5,000 acres of open down land, woods and rich variety of wildlife. To add to its appeal, this prosperous area has the advantage of excellent road and rail connections. London is only 27 miles away and Euston station is a 35-minute train journey. With plenty to see and do in the town, a good starting point to explore is the site of the Norman castle. It is intriguing to wander around the crumbling walls and lumpy ground of this ancient building with its hidden mysteries of centuries past. A climb to the top of the mound, where a three-storey keep once dominated, will reveal an overall view of the castle's substantial earthworks, constructed more than 900 years ago. From this vantage point, there is an impressive outlook over the town, towards St Peter's Church. Hidden amongst the jigsaw of rooftops below there are many interesting roads and buildings to discover. The High Street, with its lively mix of shops, runs in a long straight line, giving a clue to its Roman origins. A lot of the properties there have their original facades, including the charming Victorian baker's and chemist's. The birthplace of well-known 20th century novelist, Graham Greene, can be found in Chesham Road. Close by is the Tudor School House he moved to as a young child and Berkhamsted School (now known as Berkhamsted Colligate School) where his father was headmaster. The Town Council's Heritage Walks guide lists 32 buildings of interest around the town, all of which are conspicuous with their blue plaques. A peaceful stroll along the canal's towpath is also included in the guide and there is a separate Graham Greene Trail. The Graham Greene Birthplace Trust promotes the appreciation of this distinguished man's works and an annual festival is held in his name. People from all over the world come here to enjoy the festival, which lasts for four days with guest speakers and film viewings. As day turns into evening there is a good choice of hotels for an overnight stay, cosy pubs, lively bars and elegant restaurants all waiting to be enjoyed. Few towns of this size can rival the huge range of entertainment on offer - from local bands presenting a mix of modern music to frequent classical, jazz, choral and operatic performances.Theatre and film are also represented in a big way. The Berkhamsted Film Society has regular screenings of new and classic films and the Rex Cinema takes its audiences back in time to film's golden age - a treat not to be missed. A night at the moviesSOME people dream of opening their own shop or restaurant but James Hannaway has gone one step further and opened his own cinema.The Rex is a beautifully restored art deco gem, much loved by its followers, and it has been described as 'Britain's most beautiful cinema'. Attention to decorative detail and customer service is outstanding and every effort has been made to ensure cinema-goers are treated to the time of their lives. This is no ordinary cinema. The seating in the upstairs area is sumptuous and every other row has been removed to provide spacious legroom. Down in the stalls there are no rows at all. Instead, audiences are seated in luxurious swivel armchairs, placed around small cocktail tables. The idea was inspired by some of the much loved romantic classics of the 1940s, such as Casablanca and Holiday Inn. People arrive well in advance of each screening to sit comfortably and take in the ambience whilst enjoying a drink from the licensed bar and nibbling from cheese and biscuit platters. No rustling packets or wrappers will be heard here - the crisps and sweets are served in style, emptied into bowls.Before performances begin, audiences receive a warm welcome as each film is introduced on stage by an announcer - usually by James Hannaway himself. The Rex's programme is a mix of popular and serious films with big releases showing a couple of weeks after going to national multiplex cinemas. The selection is interspersed with classics, art-house and foreign language films. To add to the glamour, a piano accompaniment can be enjoyed when silent films are shown, such as those from the days of Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. Big names like Dame Judi Dench, Charles Dance and director Mike Leigh have made personal appearances here to attend question and answer sessions after their films have been shown. Having originally opened in the 1930s, the projectors were turned off in 1988, the building was boarded up and went into disrepair. Developers had plans to knock it down and build flats or offices but James was determined to bring the cinema back to life. With the help of his supporters, he did just that.In late 2004, the Rex re-opened in its full glory, with a screening of The Third Man, a classic considered by many people to be the greatest British film ever made. A very appropriate choice as it was written by Berkhamsted-born Graham Greene.Not surprisingly, this beautiful cinema has become extremely popular, membership is sought after and tickets sell out very quickly. People are happy to join long queues when tickets go on sale for each month's films - but when there's such a treat in store, it is certainly worth it.