six Hertfordshire haunts

To celebrate Tryanuary, I’m putting together a recommendation of pubs, bars and beery destinations that people should visit in Hertfordshire. I’m listing these destinations based on the routes out of the capital and how long each one takes to travel. I’ve been heavily biased in that the locations should be easy to reach. 

This is written in mind for everyone outside Hertfordshire, but the probability is that most people aiming to visit the county from the rest of Britain would ‘bounce’ up from London via the rail network anyway.

This isn’t the same as an itinerary of my favourite Hertfordshire pubs (though there’s overlap). There are brilliant tap rooms and pubs not included in this post because the overall experience can be replicated in the capital and elsewhere. Instead, this is about about having a genuinely different encounter to the norm – often because of the environment or historical context the subjects are rooted in.

All train journeys and walking times are approximate.

From Euston:

Rising Sun, Berkhamsted (train time 35 minutes – walking time 10 minutes)

The Grand Union Canal flows from London and cuts through the country on its route to Northampton. Along the way, it runs straight through Berkhamsted and is partnered at lock 55 by the Rising Sun public house.  

Known locally as the Riser, this pub showcases not just an ever-changing array of cask ales (with staples by Tring Brewery), but keg taps, bottles and cans from the most obscure craft breweries too, as well as a biblical tide of real cider and perry – more booze than should conceivably fit in the building. If you can’t see something you like, you must be facing the wrong way.

The interior is compact, snug and woody; it’s a bit like being in a hobbyist’s shed. The walls are festooned with brewerania. The ceiling is like a Sistine chapel dedicated to framed CAMRA accolades.

inside the Riser

In the summer, the outside seating is ideal to watch boats navigating the lock and witnessing the chamber fill and empty so the vessel can pass through – this is the canal’s method of allowing waterways to go up and downhill. This rite of passage can be a very convivial moment between drinkers and the passengers.

A short walk up the towpath is Berkhamsted Castle – the first ever monument to be protected by law following an appeal in the house of commons in 1833. At the time, the railway narrowly avoided ploughing straight through the ruins (though it did obliterate the gate house). 

An impressive motte-and-bailey structure, Berkhamsted Castle dates back to the eleventh century and was developed – as well as pillaged for building materials – over the centuries. Despite the weathering of almost a millenium, the huge mound of the keep will still get those hamstrings and lungs burning from the clamber up, and afford an extensive view from the summit. A raised pathway also encircles the whole site looking down into the vast moat.

the grounds of Berkhamsted Castle as seen from the keep

The town of Berkhamsted is quirky in itself insofar as it follows the linear model where shops and dwellings flank the sides of one long road rather than radiating out from a centre – this is seen all over in Wales and Scotland, but rarely in England. 

Berkhamsted is full of Tudor and Victorian build and heaving with historical plaques. The pike jutting from the Goat public house might be the longest unbridged pub overhang in Britain until someone proves me otherwise – go see for yourself.

Because of the child-friendly pub, the canal, towpath and castle grounds, a visit to Berkhamsted would also be an ideal day out with children. 

From St Pancras:

The Six Bells, St Albans (train time 25 minutes – walking time 40 minutes)

This is the longest walk from the station on this list, but a picturesque one from the city centre down Fishpool Street (if you want to omit the walk, the local taxi firms are cheap). The pavements get so high that if you tipped over the edge, you’d land on top of parked cars. This is because the road was previously a body of water used for fish farming by the abbey – the modern pavements roughly describe the original banks.

Bearing left at the bottom, you cross the oldest bridge in Hertfordshire – annum 1765. Look to the left down the river Ver and you’ll likely witness a carpet of verdant watercress filtering the channel – a callback to a local Hertfordshire industry. Look right and you’ll see a structurally intact water mill (trading as a waffle restaurant) with its single looming chimney. The origins of that building go back to 1194. 

Roman amphitheatre of Verulamium

There are gateways to the landscaped swathes of Verulamium Park also worth exploring, but continuing on, some of the residential architecture of St Michaels is so archaic that window frames are ovoid and the walls crumple drunkenly to the point of concertinaing. 

An original blacksmith’s shelf is visible down Blacksmith’s Lane. You can see old school buildings and the old bakery. Up ahead is St Michael’s parish church that dates back to the late tenth century – the most significant Anglo Saxon building in Hertfordshire. The Six Bells pub is named after the bells in its belfry (though they were actually augmented to eight in 1953).

But all this is just from recent history because around the corner – for a pittance of an admission fee – are the remains of the only surviving Roman amphitheatre in Britain.

the tilting ceiling of the Six Bells

The Six Bells was almost lost in 1914 when city magistrates sought to close down twenty of St Alban’s seventy five public houses. The chief constable of the city police described it as ‘very old and the structural conditions very unsatisfactory’ Though this could at face value mean the building was in danger of collapse, the term could also refer to the pub having too many doorways for miscreants to evade capture from the law.

From outside, the whitewashed building looks like it’s sinking into the earth. Taller people might need to stoop going through the doorway. Inside, the flagstones sway and the ceiling undulates from age. It’s the perfect country pub. The ales are usually sourced from Oakham, Tring and Timothy Taylor.

Two thousand years of local history surround this pub which, at only five hundred years old, is but a sprat by comparison.

garden of the White Lion

Sopwell crawl, St Albans (train time 25 minutes – walking time 15 minutes)

This one’s a bit different as it represents a cluster rather than a single pub. The Sopwell conservation area of St Albans has something exceedingly rare in modern Britain: five to eight pubs all within the same block (depending where you draw the outer edge). They are the White Hart Tap, the Garibaldi, the White Lion, the Hare and Hounds and the Goat. At the borders – if one wishes to add them – are the White Hart Hotel, the Peahen and the Beehive.

Sticking with the core five, the fact they’re in such a small residential area is all the more striking as they’re not in the city centre nor leading off it – none of them rely on the tourist trade.

I’m taken back to when I first started visiting St Albans in 2010 and discovered Sopwell on my wanders. I recall my astonishment on finding two backstreet pubs so close together and turning around and seeing another, then walking a few feet further and realising they were all around me.

Nitty – pub cat of the White Hart Tap – tells me in no uncertain terms I’ve finished reading my newspaper

The Goat is the furthest out from the rest (97 steps with short legs – I counted). It’s a large multi-chambered pub which can seem a bit spartan and sticks mainly to its Wells and Young cask offerings. It goes back around five centuries. Its coaching arch is still intact and the horse stabling area is easily identifiable reincarnated as the beer garden.

The White Lion is also veteran. A local woman did the research and traced it back to the year 1593 when the pub was passed down by will, but the fact that the inn was already established then obviously means it goes back further; the transcription is framed behind glass in the snug bar. The White Lion is thoroughly beast-related – it always has cask ales from Animal Brewing (alter ego of XT Brewery) and features Mad Squirrel heavily.

Virtually opposite, the Hare and Hounds is a sprawling pub with many separate spaces. Purity by Otter Brewing is regular along with beers from Black Sheep. It’s an eighteenth century pub with strong links to the local rugby and football teams as well as being my favourite place to watch Six Nations Rugby. 

White Lion pub being passed down in ancient will. This transcription is framed in the snug bar

If you exit the White Lion via the back garden, you’re delivered to the front door of the Garibaldi – a Fullers tenanted pub – my regular pilgrimage for perfect ESB. If it’s not on, it’s because it’s settling in the cellar and won’t be tapped until it’s rested for 48 hours. If you then vault over the back wall from the enclosed garden of the Gari, you’ll land in front of the White Hart Tap – known locally simply as the tap. 

This last pub is my favourite of the quintet. Like the White Lion, it’s owned by Punch Taverns and run by the same team. The permanent cask ales are to the left (Timothy Taylor, Castle Rock, Tring and Oakham), but three rotating guests are to the right and usually change within two days. Breweries often featured are Moor, Dark Revolution, Wylam, Arbor, North Brewing Co, Cloudwater and Track to name a few. The company has allowed the publicans (both hardcore beer afficionados) a free hand in sourcing beers from across Britain, and in my opinion, this pub has the fastest cask ale turnover in the city – impressive considering it’s not dependant on tourist footfall. 

The Lazian pink bell tower of the cathedral watches over in the distance, the streets are quiet and almost free from traffic. The Sopwell circuit is one of the homeliest crawls in Britain.

From Kings Cross:

Old Cross Tavern, Hertford (train time 45 minutes [1 change] – walking time 10 minutes)

The Old Cross Tavern looks and feels ancient but isn’t. This Hertford institution only goes back to 1999. Previous to that, it was an antiques shop, and on closer inspection, it doesn’t bear the typical understains of ground-in pubby grot. It lacks the osmosis and cold of older pubs too – it always feels warm and hermetic.

Naked brickwork harbours fossilized beams like prehistoric bones in strata. Dogs lie spreadeagled across the wooden floor. Ledges are crammed with ceramic jugs and drinking vessels. Up above, the yard of ale takes pride of place alongside the copper pans. A stylised ‘X’ – denoting the cross – is stencilled on each window pane. 

There are cosy booths with wooden settles and a cast-iron fireplace that adds heat and ambience in winter. A glass cabinet displays old bottles of Thomas Hardy Ale, but the show-stopper is the collection of beer bottles from all over Britain commemorating the past century’s royal weddings.

Royal wedding beers from all over Britain!

In other words, this pub is a labour of love. The owners created the vision they had for the ideal pub – their Moon Under Water – and they actualised it. This is a celebration of beer, of brewing and of its regalia.

The Old Cross Tavern is also home to the only micro brewery in Hertford (McMullen being the nearby Victorian titan just over the road). It has eight handpumps that can be employed, but I’m pleased to say that during the midweek of lesser activity, those engines reduce in number so as not to push quantity ahead of quality and serve beer out of condition.

Gemütlichkeit

Though the Timothy Taylor is a mainstay, it’s obvious that this is Hertford’s pub for the beery people. It’s a CAMRA landmark – an outlet for its local rags and the large table closest to the bar always fills up with these reprobates seasoned connoisseurs.

The tagline for this pub is ‘the way pubs used to be’. Considering the sweet atmosphere, cleanliness and lack of class or gender division, I could perhaps suggest a minor tweak: ‘the way pubs should’ve been’.

There is no piped music, TV screens or duke boxes. And though people treat this as their local – those little booths are just as likely inhabited by couples on the wine – it’s definitely Hertford’s cask ale epicentre and serves as a perfect diametric to the next entry.

Great Eastern Tavern, Hertford (train time 45 minutes [1 change] – walking time 25 minutes)

This bastion is a locals’ pub that isn’t trying to reach out to a wider audience. Depending on what you’re looking for, this might put some people off because when you go in, you’ll realise you’re the only soul in there that doesn’t know everyone else. It’s popular with the local trades – the customers that live down the tidy terraces off Railway Street have known and lived with eachother for years. 

The pub was built in 1843 by Eastern County Railways and was originally run by Meux & Co of London. It was sold to Hertford brewers McMullen in 1903 and has been tied to them ever since. The Great Eastern Railway used to terminate adjacent to the pub so it served as a watering hole for passengers disembarking. However, in 1888 the station was moved a few hundred feet up the road – the ornate grandeur of that building’s worth visiting too. 

abandoned signal box

The Tavern is grade II listed and rendered in smart black and white. The bounding hart of McMullen’s livery is emblazoned on the windows and inhibits you looking in. Architecturally, you can still sense its Victorian stamp: the main entrance opens onto an enclosed area that used to act as the jug and bottle bar for takeaway beer. Turn right for the public bar, left for the saloon bar (these days used mainly for functions and meetings)

Inside, the public bar oozes warmth with oak panelling, brass plate and blood-red upholstery. The locals sit throne-like on high chairs around the bar’s umbra. Sport plays silently on screens above the babble of conversation. 

Railway paraphenalia of every description adorns the walls and ledges – some indicating the platform, others warning you of the fine in shillings for not closing a gate. Reinforcing its role as a locals’ pub, there are small framed photos commemorating ex-regulars that passed away.

ex-hop kiln from the long departed Crown Brewery

But I’ve also included this pub for other reasons:

It’s part of a larger Victorian environment where one can see fragments to a bygone age. Outside, behind the exclusionary rail fencing and signs warning of electric shock, there stands a disused wooden signal box abandoned to decay that I find sublime. 

A few metres further down Railway Street (becoming Railway Place) is a repurposed hop kiln. Originally, this belonged to the Crown Brewery – a business subsumed by Benskins Brewery of Watford in 1895. 

This is a tale written over a century ago in which the only surviving player is the pub. This underlines how important the Great Eastern Tavern has been and still is to its surrounding community. It also boasts the best-value pint in the whole of Hertfordshire: a cool dark fruity pint of McMullen AK is yours for just £3.30.

Garden City Brewery, Letchworth Garden City (train time 40 minutes – walking time 8 minutes)

Letchworth Garden City was the first garden city in Britain. It was commissioned by quaker Ebeneezer Howard and the layout designed by architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin. The ‘City’ forces introspection. Is one man’s vision of utopia another’s experience of dystopia? 

This part of north Hertfordshire is very flat. When mists cover the ground, it’s in the clouds. I try and imagine this vista over a hundred years ago viewed through the eyes of a refugee from London’s smog. The still, the silence, the hope. A feeling of finally having slipped the clutches of drudgery – new beginnings.

On a previous meander around Letchworth, I wondered at the irony of a man humbled by god creating this garden city because, like the Nasca lines in Peru, its geometry can only be appreciated from a celestial perspective. The crescents don’t seem to end – they’re not to human dimensions and they distort space time. It shouldn’t be possible to walk along a perfect curve for so long without actually going round in a full circle, but that’s what seems to happen.

the distant fountain. Note the grandeur – note also the barrenness

The absence of personality that accumulates over generations – the clashing idioms, the boasts of wealth, the shoving, the worn-down thoroughfares – which inevitably mould a town – can conceive soullessness. Because it was all planned out, this garden city bypassed the quirks that give most conurbations their imperfect character. If you’ve ever visited the grid layout of a Pontins or Butlins holiday camp, you might understand what I mean. Flawless planning can repel the spirit.

In the empty piazza on the edge of town, the fountains spurt lovingly for nobody. Further ahead, a traffic roundabout is adorned with a sign proclaiming it to be the oldest in Britain. This is what the future used to look like. The improved citizens it promised never materialised.

Garden City Brewery exudes modernisation and faces the future in bold pastel colours. It’s full of light. It’s clean. It’s inviting. The space in this ex-restaurant is neatly plotted. Decoration nods to the town’s heritage with classic advertisements to its former clothes industry mounted on walls amidst a blown-up aerial map.

a very cheery place in a town that divides people

Every time I visit, a term crosses my mind: clean break. With the past, with convention, with traditional pubs. Everything about Garden City Brewery is welcoming and wants you to stay. It’s a reason to get excited every Thursday when it opens its door with casks of just-tapped ale ready to go. Do visit, but make sure it’s on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Presently, it’s shut the remaining three days.

Whether you feel inspiration or despair along Letchworth Garden City’s streets with their infinite rows of Tudor houses built en masse at the turn of the century, it leaves a permanent impression on you.

2 Comments

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  1. #Tryanuary 2019 – BEERS IN ONE FORTY.

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