I have an enormous fondness for the Fleetville Community Centre, born of the days when I used to hang around in the corridor waiting to pick up one daughter or another from the Steiner kindergarten.
One of the things that was particularly charming about the kindergarten at that time was that, rather than dispatching the children out of the door promptly on the dot of 12.30, they never appeared to be in any great hurry to get rid of them and so, as a consequence, we parents would routinely end up hanging around for a good 10 or 15 minutes, chatting with one another and studying the noticeboard while we waited for our children to appear. I was always very struck by the wide range of different groups that use the Community Centre: from the New Testament Church of God to the accordion players, from toddler ballet to calligraphy classes.
It’s a funny building: erected in 1942 as a day nursery for the children of women who worked in places like Ballito’s, the hosiery factory that occupied the site where Morrisons is today, which was turned over to munitions production during the war. The building, which was never intended to be anything more than a temporary structure, stands on the edge of Fleetville Rec, an open space that was given ‘for the recreation of the people of Fleetville’ in 1913 by the local businessman and politician Charles Woollam, owner of the Abbey Silk Mill and one time Mayor of St Albans.
Originally the nursery was heated by coal fires at each end of the building and brick shelters were constructed outside the classrooms in case of an air raid: although tunnels had been dug beneath the Rec in the late 1930s for use as wartime shelters, the worry was that very young children might not be able to make it down there in time. The original plan was that the nursery would remain in place for as long as it was needed, and then the building would be demolished and the land reincorporated into the Rec. Nobody ever anticipated that the building would last for more than about ten years, and certainly not for more than seventy.
When the County Council decided that it no longer needed the building in the late 1970s it was taken over by the District Council and converted for use as a community centre. In an echo of its original purpose, the building still contains two nurseries: the Community Playgroup at one end and the Steiner kindergarten at the other. The reasons for rebuilding the Community Centre are obvious: originally built as a makeshift structure it leaks both heat and noise and it has clearly outlived its useful life. The Fleetville Community Centre New Build Project is currently actively fundraising, drawing up a business case and making plans for what the new, modern, eco-friendly community centre for Fleetville will one day look like.
I have a hunch that I will not be alone, however, in missing the quirky character of the old building when it finally does get pulled down.