Standing on what was once part of the Great North Road, ‘The Comet’ in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, was built by the Watford-based brewer, Benskin’s in the mid-1930’s. The site was developed as a ‘roadhouse’, a new industry concept, which aimed to capitalise on the interwar boom in private car ownership and the resulting increase in both business and leisure travel.
As the major brewing groups of the era sought increasingly prominent sites on the nation’s busiest roads for their new premises, there were few routes as potentially lucrative as the Great North Road, which was still the main highway between London and Scotland. When it opened in 1936, Benskin’s landmark ‘Art Deco’ building commanded prime position on a busy stretch, just north of the capital.
To design their new building, Benskin’s turned to the architect, E. B. Musman (Ernest Brander Musman, F.R.I.B.A., 1888-1972), one of the preeminent public house architects of the era, who would work with the group on several occasions during the interwar period.
Musman was also one of the leading advocates of the ‘road hotel’, as he termed it, writing in 1937 that “This concept is neither a public house nor an inn, neither a roadhouse nor a hotel, but at its present stage combines certain aspects of them all. It has the bars of the public house, the restaurant and cocktail lounge of the hotel, the tearoom, the dance hall and outside sports amenities of the roadshouse. It has a number of bedrooms available not only for the travelling public, but also for those employed in the neighbourhood, who wish to make a place of this kind their headquarters.”
The benefits of the new ‘roadside house’ were also neatly summarised by Benskin’s Chairman, Colonel W. H. Briggs, who noted at the company’s 39th Annual General Meeting in December, 1936 that the format provides the public with “the best of food both in a restaurant and meal room, a band for dancing, whilst bedrooms furnished on completely modern lines are ready for the comfort of late travellers.”
‘The Comet’ was formally opened on Monday, 21st December, 1936, with Colonel Briggs joined at the official luncheon ceremony by Lord Hampden, Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, and Sir Dennis Herbert, the Conservative M.P. for Watford, underscoring its importance to the local area.
The new building took its name from the two-seat, twin-engined ‘de Havilland DH.88 Comet’ aircraft, which had been built at the aero manufacturer’s nearby Hatfield factory, itself a prominent ‘Art Deco’ landmark, which now serves as Hatfield Police Station.
In October 1934, the DH.88 had achieved global fame when Flight Lieutenant Charles William Anderson Scott and Tom Campbell Black won the prestigious MacRobertson Trophy Air Race, flying G-ACSS Grosvenor House, between London and Melbourne, Australia, in a time of 71 hours dead.
The link between ‘The Comet’ and the eponymous de Havilland aircraft was much stronger than just a name, however, with Musman purposefully designing the new roadhouse to resemble an aeroplane, in what could have so easily resulted in an embarrassing gimmick.
Instead, the revered architect delivered a building that stands as a monument to the ‘Moderne’ architectural style, matching the DH.88’s streamlined profile with great success.
In its original layout, the saloon lounge at the front of the building formed the ‘nose’ of an aircraft, with the restaurant, public and saloon bars, the ‘wings’.
A prominent glass turret was added to the top of the building and illuminated green at night, partly to guide pilots to nearby Hatfield aerodrome but more importantly, passing motorists to Benskin’s new establishment.
In order to further promote their premises, Benskin’s commissioned the prominent sculptor and war artist, Eric Kennington, R.A., to design an inn sign. Rather than adhere to the typical hanging variety, Kennington delivered a 15-foot high plinth in Portland stone, into which were carved 18 individual panels, depicting various types of flight, with a model of G-ACSS Grosvenor House in red placed atop, complete with spinning propellers.
With other interwar roadhouse buildings typically designed in the more conservative ‘Neo-Georgian’ style seemingly still preferred by the brewery groups, ‘The Comet’ was, and still is, largely unique, matched only be Musman’s own ‘Nags Head’ at Bishop’s Stortford.
The latest of Benskin’s roadhouses was an immediate success, with the Chairman confirming to investors at the 40th AGM in 1937 that “I can safely state once again that all the recently rebuilt houses continue to show increased trade even in excess of our estimates, thus proving that well-planned, well-ventilated, roomy and comfortable houses are appreciated by the public.”
With the advent of the Second World War, the business and leisure travel that had underpinned the success of the ‘roadhouse’ disappeared overnight as restrictions were imposed. The concept never regained its popularity during the postwar years and many of the interwar buildings have since been repurposed or redeveloped.
Benskin’s was acquired in 1957 by Ind Coope, Ltd., who themselves merged with Tetley Walker, Ltd., and Ansells Brewery, Ltd., becoming ‘Allied Breweries’ in 1963. Despite passing through various different owners and the surrounding area having been comprehensively redeveloped, ‘The Comet’ managed to survive.
As one of the standout buildings of the era, ‘The Comet’ was duly listed by Heritage England at Grade II on 6th July, 1981, yet it was noted at the time that the original interior had been lost.
Until recently, the site was in use as a Ramada hotel, but has since been beautifully restored to its former glory by the Warwickshire-based, Corstorphine + Wright Architects, who were instructed by Fusion Students. Externally, both a modern extension to the rear, and various unsympathetic additions to the original building were removed, whilst the glass turret, which had been lost, was reinstated.
With little of the original ‘Art Deco’ interior having survived beyond the entrance hall stairs and first floor landing, the architects have tastefully remodelled the ground floor space, incorporating new metal casement windows and recreating Musman’s original concept of the ‘wings’, one of which now serves as a breakfast room, and the other as a bar area.
I can think of few redevelopments of 20th Century buildings as successful as this one, particularly outside of the capital. The main building has been beautifully refurbished, with original features not just retained and restored but also reinstated, whilst unsympathetic additions have been removed. The end result is quite simply, stunning.