The Comet Roadhouse

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The Comet today
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The Comet around 1936 (from ‘Recent English Architecture’ Country Life, 1947)

Yesterday I fulfilled a long awaited visit to a building that caught my attention nearly thirty years ago. As a teenager I was given a copy of ‘Recent English Architecture 1920-1940’ a book published by Country Life magazine in 1947. Inside was a photo of ‘The Comet Roadhouse near Barnet’. This wonderful Art Deco relic is, in fact, in Hatfield.The architect was E.B.Musman and the building was opened in December 1936. The Comet has survived reasonably well as it approaches its 80th birthday. The only visual differences being the removal of the rather nice glass tower on the top, and the addition of a large hotel extension to the rear.
It was called The Comet for good reason. A few hundred yards away is the site of the former De Havilland factory and airfield. In 1934 the company produced three special endurance racing aeroplanes called the DH88 ‘Comet’. To illustrate this fact, Benskin’s the brewery responsible for the building, commissioned a tomem pole like construction in the forecourt, with a model of the DH88 on top. Apparently the current model is the third one, so either the others rotted away or got stolen!.

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The DH 88 Comet totem today, with the third incarnation of the aircraft.
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Close up of the totem from a publicity photo from the time. This is the original model aircraft, with an additional shooting star, which has long since gone.

IMG_20150725_155012 The column supporting the aircraft is made of stone and has numerous whimsical carvings representing forms of flight.

Roadhouses were a phenomenum of the 1920s and 30s, cashing in on the increased car ownership of the time, and the building of new roads to cater for them. The Comet sits near the A1 or as it was called ‘Great North Road’, which itself has been superceded by the M1.

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Another early publicity photograph from the late 1930’s.

Roadhouses were very much an American concept, designed for the new car owning classes. These weren’t simply ‘pubs’, they were aspirational places where the motorist could stop on their journey to have a proper sit down meal and drink. Some roadhouses offered live entertainment or dancing, others provided rooms for an overnight stay. Sadly, this rather elegant and romantic world was cut short by the advent of World War Two. After the conflict things were very different, and by the 1950s car ownership had become more democratic. Long distance car journies were a more commonplace activity, in vehicles that were suited to the age of the motorway. Roadhouses were superceded by motorway services and the ‘Little Chef’ restaurants. The Comet is now owned by the Ramada hotel chain, and it had a large modern extension added to the back. At some point during the last forty years, the rather nice glass tower on the top of the building was taken away, which is a shame.

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The main front bay today
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The front rooms today
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A ‘snug’ area, complete with original railwork.
The dining area taken in 1937. Note the aircraft design etched onto the mirrored wall. (from http://www.hertsmemories.org.uk)

My wife and I went to have a drink, and there is still echoes of its past in the building, with a number of art deco finishes. Ramada have furnished the rooms with Thirties influened furniture, and there are some reminders of the area’s aeronautical past in the form of framed pictures.

Sitting in the Comet, I imagined the types of people coming to the place, in its golden days. The sound of big motors, and tweed-jacketed Terry Thomas types arriving through the doors, some of them perhaps on their way to do a spot of flying at the airfield. Those days have long gone, as has the aviation. Over the road from the Comet is the huge Galleria shopping complex, and the M1 hums with traffic. Luckily this wonderful evocation of the past is still there to remind us of more genteel times. IMG_20150725_155047

The current owner’s website – http://www.ramadahatfieldhotel.co.uk/

Text and colour images Copyright Mark Amies 2015.

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