Hitchin town centre manager Keith Hoskins recounts the rise and fall of The Dell open-air theatre

PUBLISHED: 09:25 22 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:36 22 May 2017

Hitchin town centre manager Keith Hoskins shares his views in his weekly Comet column.

Hitchin town centre manager Keith Hoskins shares his views in his weekly Comet column.

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I'm indebted to Hitchin-born stalwart Richard Whitmore for his excellent account of the opening of The Dell back in 1950/51 in his very entertaining autobiography 'Didn't you used to be…Richard Whitmore?'.

That was then, but could it be again? Youngsters at The Dell open-air theatre in Hitchin in 1957, dressed as Victorian schoolchildren. Picture: Bonita Deegan, supplied by the British Schools MuseumThat was then, but could it be again? Youngsters at The Dell open-air theatre in Hitchin in 1957, dressed as Victorian schoolchildren. Picture: Bonita Deegan, supplied by the British Schools Museum

Richard was involved in the early days of the Bancroft Players before he went on to become one of the most recognised faces of BBC News in the ’70s and ’80s.

And with his kind consent, I have lifted the salient points.

The Dell, aka the Woodside Open Air Theatre, dates from Georgian times – when a huge pit was dug into the side of Windmill Hill to provide sand for building the final wing of Hitchin Priory.

As soon as the work was completed, the pit was abandoned and allowed to return to nature.

In 1950, a member of the Bancroft Players, Maurice Keeley, was walking his dog, saw the area and quickly realised the potential of this leafy location as an open-air theatre.

Another Bancroft Player, John Coxall, had just started work in the surveyors’ department of Hitchin Urban Council – and between them, they sounded out councillors and officials about the prospects of converting the base of the old sandpit into a theatre.

The timing was perfect. With the Civic and Arts Association planning a programme for the following year’s Festival of Britain, everyone agreed that an open-air theatre would make an ideal and lasting memento of the national celebration.

The council voted to spend up to £200 on the project, and accepted John’s offer to design the layout and supervise construction work. In July that year, The Dell was officially opened with the Bancroft Players’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and there is a great photo of this inaugural production in Richard’s book.

Despite the council’s great hopes of The Dell as a town amenity, few other organisations made use of it. Richard recounts that the council wrote to leisure groups throughout North Herts asking why they did not use this new facility. Only seven bothered to reply and all gave the same reasons – the unpredictable weather and an almost total absence of basic facilities.

Having to hire in marquees and portable toilets meant that margins were seriously eroded, and it only took one wet evening to turn a production from small profit to calamitous loss. The production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1963 was the last production there for 30 years!

But times change. There is a move afoot to try and make this wonderful concept a reality once more. A small group is currently investigating ways to make this happen and seeking the positive support of the council once again.

As soon as that hurdle is clear, there will be some serious fundraising to be done!

For more about Hitchin Initiative and Hitchin BID give Keith a call on 01462 453335 or email him at info@hitchinherts.com

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