Author makes history by saving green space

FEW can thank themselves for putting their town on the map. But Margaret Ashby, the historian, writer, and campaigner, is synonymous with Stevenage. Margaret is currently promoting the Friends of Forster Country society. She said: The Friends of Forste

FEW can thank themselves for putting their town on the map.

But Margaret Ashby, the historian, writer, and campaigner, is synonymous with Stevenage.

Margaret is currently promoting the Friends of Forster Country society.

She said: "The Friends of Forster have one aim which is to preserve for all time the open green space to the north of Stevenage which is known as the Forster Country."

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She added: "John Hepworth and I got together and founded it in 1989. We thought we'd last for two years but we're still going strong."

Patrons of the society, named after the author EM Forster, include Three Counties Radio DJ John Pilgrim, publisher and writer Nicola Beauman, musician Dame Thea King, writer Gunnvor Stallybrass and former BBC newsreader Richard Whitmore.

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Members from all over the world attend the conferences, making it not just a local but an international organisation.

The group does a lot of research into planning laws and planning applications and has taken part in two public enquiries.

Margaret said: "The most recent thing we've had to do is make our point to the District Plan and the East of England Plan.

"We're doing it for the local people, trying to save this piece of countryside forever.

"It's the last little bit of farmland and open country in the borough of Stevenage.

"There's always a danger someone will want to build houses all over it. We have to keep abreast of that."

The society is always looking for new members and Margaret jokes, "We are looking for alert people!"

As well as the serious stuff, the society also holds a number of entertaining events, including Edwardian walks through the High Street, garden parties, exhibitions and a series of concerts and events about the famous composer Elizabeth Poston last year.

Poston lived at Rooks Nest in Stevenage, like EM Forster before her, who based his novel Howards End on his childhood memories at the house.

The annual New Year's Day walk, which commemorated Forster's 128th birthday in January 2007, unites members of the society and the town.

Margaret has seen the town change a lot over the years first hand.

She said: "I've always lived in Pound Avenue, Stevenage, although I also have a house in Suffolk.

"This was my parents' house. They came here at the beginning of the Second World War."

Her 12 books include Voices of Benslow Music Trust, Stevenage Streets, A Hertfordshire Christmas, Elizabeth Poston, Composer: Her Life at Rooks Nest and Forster Country.

And her latest project is about The Hellards Almshouses and other Stevenage charities.

She said: "There's an enormous collection of records relating to them going back to 1482. So, from then until now we have documents telling us about these almshouses, very rarely do you have documents like that."

The documents about the buildings set up to house poor people listed what Margaret described as "traditional Stevenage surnames".

These include the names Chalkley, Chambers, Ansell and Pigott, for those that are interested in their family or local history.

The book is published by Hertfordshire Records Society, a charity set up to make old documents available for everyone so people don't have to go burrowing through local offices.

Margaret found her calling after getting fed up with people telling her 'Oh that's the new town, there's no history!'

She said: "I hope to influence other people so they'll carry on doing it one day as well."

Each book takes an average of two years, although some, like the Hellard almshouses, take much longer.

But which has been her favourite project so far? Margaret said: "I have to say the Forster Country. But I also very much enjoyed doing an anthology called A Hertfordshire Christmas, a collection of extracts about Christmas in Herts."

The writer has seen many changes over the years, especially in terms of population and the environment, but says: "I think the Old Town is surprisingly like a village still."

The historian has become part of history. Margaret Ashby has created an international society to protect part of Stevenage.

And somebody will no doubt be writing a book about her one day.

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