An interesting way to spend half an hour in Welwyn Garden City is to take the Cresta Walk. Start at one of the Sectional buildings on Broadwater Road, such as occupied currently by Topps Tiles. These flexible units were built by the Welwyn Garden City Company in the 1920s to attract start-up companies.
One was taken in 1929 by Tom Heron, who wanted to create a business producing and marketing block printed silk garments for discerning women. He had started making blouses when only 21 in Leeds, then moved to Cornwall to work for Crysede, a leading designer of silks. He was successful there but felt he could do more.
Choosing Welwyn Garden because of its forward looking image - and because the Company provided essential funding - he set up Cresta Silks. Heron employed modern artists to design his products, including his young son Patrick, who went on to be an outstanding figure in British art. He chose modernist Wells Coates to design his retail shops, in London, Bournemouth and Brighton, which broke new ground. They attracted go-ahead women who wanted reasonably priced but stylish and well made clothes.
Cresta flourished. It moved in 1938 to a new building, our second stop, beside the railway station in the town centre, with a shop and factory behind. Heron had to conform to neo-Georgian styling because of planning restraints. It stood in splendid isolation on the corner of Howardsgate/ Stonehills. Now it is McDonald's, Stonehills has been narrowed and a matching building has been infilled.
Silk was hard to come by during the war so Cresta turned to wool. Heron helped his country by joining the Board of Trade to set up the Utility Clothing Scheme, which provided well-designed clothes at minimum cost. In 1951, with Heron looking to retire, the business was taken over by the Howardsgate Trust, which had been set up to facilitate disposal of the assets of the Welwyn Garden City Company when it had been wound up. In 1954 Cresta moved to Welwyn Stores, also owned by Howardsgate Trust.
Our walk concludes in the toy department of John Lewis. Imagine it full of machinists, working behind windows which were blacked out (and still are) because residents objected to seeing a factory on Parkway. Cresta continued successfully for some time but moved away from block printing. Debenhams bought it in 1957, moved it out of Welwyn Garden, then closed it in 1980.
Tom Heron was a remarkable man and an important citizen of Welwyn Garden. We will write more about him in our next article.
This article by Geoffrey Hollis for the WGC Heritage Trust was first published in the Welwyn Hatfield Times on 31 Aug 2022.