sunset over Watford

The future:

The young couple lounges on the couch. She’s online, he’s flicking through a catalogue. She complains that it’s exhausting going into the West End to go Christmas shopping.
“Into Milton Keynes, then?” her partner suggests glibly. She shakes her head as she peruses an online map. The cherubic daughter – thus far engrossed in her homework on the floor – is suddenly subject to a camera zoom-in. Her eyes are wide, “How about intu Watford instead?”, she squeals. The parents’ mouths drop open. They look at each other – the epiphany is shared. The intu logo runs across the bottom of the screen prompting the narrator’s voice. The child bounces onto the sofa and is caught in her family’s arms. They collapse back in mirth.

Watford belongs perpetually to the future just over the horizon.

Billboards advertise the imminent intu future as if a mothership is landing to fulfil its prophecy and carry the people to their promised clover.

Watford high street in December 2017

The new town rises, a modern Camelot surrounded by its moat. The thoroughfares being built are growing and filling the skyline above Watford, casting the original high street into shadow. I can’t help but think of Roman ruins buried under Medieval, in turn to be flattened under Tudor, then to be trampled by Victorian. Well, this is the next era and Watford is in the vanguard.

Intu isn’t an extension of Watford but a replacement. It’s pupating directly on top of the original human habitation. Two previous shopping centres – Harlequin and Charter Place – have been amalgamated to form its base.

I recently visited to buy a saucepan and was halted as I left Marks & Spencer’s by a woman with a clipboard who asked if I’d take part in a five minute survey. One of the main lines of questioning was “had I noticed the security and cleaning staff?” I couldn’t say I had – I wouldn’t recall them unless one had given me a reason to, but it did make me seek them out as I left the concourse. They are indeed there in abundance – stout men stand like yellow-banded golems at shop doorways whilst workers patrol in their high-vis aprons driving their sweeper bots on modern day yokes.

Intu Watford is fully air-conditioned. Its streets are pristine, bathed in the Mediterranean photons of industrial light. Every surface is shining and sterile. There is no dirt here.

As I swung open the glass doors back out into natural daylight, the cold singed my flesh and I was once again in the land of pestilence and squalor – the natives shuffling by buckled from the violent throat-clearings of consumption. Detritus littered the tarmac – some of it burned on crude brasiers. I heard the wails of Police sirens in the distance…

I made that last bit up.

But intu is desperate to make the feeling of cleanliness and security paramount – it’s a sanctuary from the elements, transience and the unbranded of the outside world. Intu Watford: I can almost smell the coffee and aftershave at the powerpoint presentation.

Watford, like most of Hertfordshire, is an expensive area. It’s also on the Oyster card system as the furthest flung stop on the Metropolitan Line, and so forms an outer London catchment.

But it’s also rundown, yet frenetic at the same time.

A giant hornet outside McDonalds – a nod to the local football team.

Walking down through the town, it’s usually heaving. Despite being wide, the high street feels choked with people rubbing cheek by fender with the cars – many of whom are obviously lost and have unintentionally joined the one-way system. I observe the pedestrians talking to themselves through a hands-free set or else with phone up to one ear, finger in the other as they interact not with Watford but with their own families, friends and businesses in a myriad of languages.

Many of the shops advertise used phones and unlocking, PC repair, cash trade-ins, international money transfer, “money shops” and cheap home decor and furniture. To me, these reflect a high turnover of a local population in flux and in need of credit, trying to scrape a living.

Contrary to most historic towns, Watford’s centre has changed more than its suburbs. Though to be fair, the Luftwaffe has also played its part in that; munitions were once produced here making the town a prime target.

Towns such as St Albans, Hitchin, Hertford and Berkhamsted lend themselves to photography. Each has the same static points where tourists and residents alike stop, raise the camera or smart phone and take a snap. They’re indulging in a ritual that’s been going on since the box brownie.

Watford doesn’t allow you to do this. The coaching inn arches resplendent in the early Victorian portraits have all but vanished or become clinically linteled and rectangular instead of the horse arches they used to be. There’s an indigestion of plastic lettering and neon.

The centre was described by railway engineer Francis Conder in 1824 as having “a long, straight street, the chief peculiarity of which was that about every third house seemed to bear the sign of a tavern, hotel or ale house”.

Building and rebuilding are, after all, often signs of a town’s past prosperity. This was Watford’s case too in terms of its brewing, paper making, silk throwing and printing presses.

A rare bit of historical architecture

But seeking out where former pubs, hotels and breweries used to be is frustrating as you’re confronted with modern glass frontages. Early images show the townsfolk heaving around the Compasses public house on the high street for local pageants or the sending off of sons to war. It’s a mock Tudor Moss Bros now, and opposite where the Rose and Crown used to stand is a gleaming wipe-clean branch of the Natwest Bank.

There is no view which isn’t compromised by the shouldering in of another subject in the same shot. Every square metre of the town has been re-imagined, dressed-up and become the focus of a regeneration exercise, civic project or otherwise abused by the local council and its architects in an attempt to redefine it. Why?

The area around St Mary’s church has been given a therapeutic makeover to separate the square between it and the high street, though what the term “therapeutic” means to town planners rarely corresponds to what it means to us humans. Why would a twirling metal spike be attributed with that epithet?

St Michael’s church in the background – through time it alone has endured

The ring road circling Watford town centre (Exchange Road) is the most violent urban laceration in Hertfordshire. At its southern arc, it serves as the executioner’s block that beheads the museum from Watford’s kneeling body. Crossing it (and visitors probably wouldn’t), you don’t feel as if you’re exploring Watford but leaving it behind.

Couldn’t Exchange Road here have leapfrogged the High Street like it does on its northern orbit? Every time I see that flyover swooping over the market carrying its airborne buses, it grows on me more and more and is emblematic of Watford and how it’s chosen to do things differently. The first time I saw it, it seemed an affront to natural law. But now every time I see it, it gives me succour.

Airborne buses swoop overhead as witnessed by another McDonalds

But Watford does do things differently.

Reading The Book of Watford by J B Nunn, there was fierce pride in its transformation into a magnet for out-of-town shoppers in the 1970s. Brent Cross had recently opened (which is what the inside of intu strongly reminds me of) and Hemel Hempstead had also opened its own Marlowes Centre. Watford wasn’t going to be outdone!

There was a sense of competition comparable to getting behind the team of its own dear Watford F.C. The football club’s original nickname was “the brewers”. This was because the stadium on Vicarage Road had been built by Benskins Brewery. For a long time, this brewery represented Watford.

Brewing goes back a long way in this town.

The past:

The first recorded brewer by trade was Nicholas Colebourne who was listed in the 1605 survey. In 1619, John Day was also listed as a brewer. In 1671, on the death of Mr John Baldwin – landlord of the Rose public house – an inventory revealed he had a fully-equipped brewhouse and beer cellar.

The Compasses – the backdrop to public spectacles for over two hundred years – had a brewhouse attached when it was sold by Mr Vaughan in 1760. The Swan was brewing in 1770, but there have been three pubs by that name in Watford, so nobody’s sure which one it was.

The fifth Earl of Essex. He definitely had a pub face

But there is also evidence of home brewing on a grand scale within the local gentry: in 1838, to complement his enormous inherited legacy, the fifth Earl of Essex drew up an inventory of bequests to go as heirlooms to his Cassiobury Estate (now a council-run public park in Watford – Cassiobury Park). Item number 32 was a brewhouse with:

“a brewing copper as fixed, a mash tub and underback, two coolers*, two working tubs, a small hot water copper, sundry odd tubes and implements of brewing and the grain pit and four ladders”.

*we often use the term ‘coolships’ now – though these were used for cooling liquid rather than spontaneous fermentation.

But the legacy of brewing proper started at 194 High Street. In 1775, one of Watford’s first three-storey brick buildings was built by Mr John Bird, the son of a freemason who had come to Watford at the start of the century. This establishment was to become one of the most important historical buildings in British brewing history and one of the most pivotal addresses in Hertfordshire.

I’m very happy to announce it’s still standing.

One of the display cases in Watford Museum. Note the Benskins take away beer carton from 1980. I always thought these were a modern phenomenon

Mr John Pope – a baker by trade – took the building over and diversified into brewing. He founded the Pope’s Yard Brewery.

In 1812, the brewery was then bought by Mr John Dyson. During his ownership, the business became known as the Cannon Brewery. This man was nothing if not practical: he once lent a low brewer’s dray to draw along the coffin of James Rogers – the enormous landlord of the Rose and Crown – so his otherwise unliftable body could be conveyed by his cortege down the high street.

The Cannon Brewery became Benson Bradley & Co by 1869, though would still be known locally as the Cannon Brewery – the lettering saying so remained on the brickwork up until 1897 when the symbol was changed from a cannon to a pennant. The Bradley in the name probably refers to a business partner stumping up half the equity.

194 High Street. There are some amazing details in the picture above: under the pink-roofed structures in the middle ground, coopers are beating staves into shape to be made into casks. In front to the right, mounds of casks sit ready for transportation. Top right behind the building reveals a railway track coming right into the grounds. It splits and one siding draws level with the left wing of the front building. All around the grounds are horse-drawn and motorised drays. At the base of the tall slender chimney to the rear left, you can just make out the lettering spelling out CANNON BREWERY. Last but not least – the ivy-clad building at the front with both its wings. From being central to Watford’s brewing heritage, this is now the museum this illustration hangs in.

Eight years later, it was known as Benskin & Co and went on to have London stores at 26 Praed Street close to Paddington Station. In 1885, Thomas Benskin (grandson of the eponymous founder) was joined by James Panton from nearby Wareham Brewery who was the first brewer to study scientific brewing at London university.

As a brewery, it throve and the list of its takeovers over the next sixty years causes intoxication in itself:

Crown Brewery (Hertford) – 1895, Groome’s King’s Langley Brewery – 1897, Kingsbury Brewery (St Albans) – 1898, Healey’s Brewery (Watford) – 1898, Victoria Brewery (Watford) – 1898, Ashdown’s St George And Dragon Brewery (Leighton Buzzard) – 1898, Hawke’s Brewery (Bishop’s Stortford) – 1898, Locke & Smith’s Brewery (Berkhamsted) – 1913, Bailey’s Fox Brewery (Bishop’s Stortford) – 1915, Barber’s Brewery (Aston Clinton) – 1915, Taylor’s Brewery (Saffron Walden – bought off of Watney, Combe Reid & Co) – 1915, Pryor, Reid & Co Brewery (Hatfield) – 1920, Sedgewicks Brewery (Watford) – 1923, Robert’s And Wilson’s Brewery (Ivinghoe) – 1927, Wellers Brewery (Amersham) – 1929 and finally Wells Brewery (Watford) – 1951.

Another cabinet display in Watford Museum. Wells’ brewery on the left was one of the many taken over by Benskins on the right

A grand total of sixteen breweries were subsumed by Benskins and the 636 tied pubs that collectively came with them. It was a huge deal. Benskins even supplied West End theatres as well as the bars in the House of Commons.

In 1957, Benskins accepted a bid from Ind Coope who bought 1,363,995 shares out of a total of 1, 368,000. Brewing continued at the site until 1972. The whole site was bought by Watford council and the main brewery buildings were demolished in 1978. The offices were saved and fortunately for us, turned into Watford Museum.

For a while, there were still beers brewed under the Benskins name. A special commemorative ale was brewed in 1984 to celebrate Watford Football Club reaching the cup final (which they lost 2-0 to Everton). However, the beer was by this point brewed in Burton, not Watford.

Elton John – Watford FC chairman from 1976 to 2008 also on display in the museum (the painting – not the rock pianist)

There was also an edition of strong ale in bottles and the name was revived sometime in the 2000s as a cask beer but not to the original recipe as anyone who drank it would attest.

Between Benskins closing and the ensuing four decades, there were a few attempts at brewing. Most notable was the Firkin chain at the Flag pub next to Watford Junction station. The Flag had previously been owned by Benskins and was named The Pennant after their trademark.

There was another false dawn at the bowling alley/bar/cinema complex next to the A41, but most of the customers only swilled corporate Lager. The project didn’t last long.

The commemorative ale brewed for the F.A Cup in 1984. This image was provided by Luke Clark – collections officer at Watford Museum who kindly went into the museum’s archives to find it

The present:

Geoff Latham and Ben Childs are both Watfordians born and bred. Geoff even went to school next to the old brewery. Together, they founded a business in 2010 on Whippendell Road and named it Pope’s Yard to commemorate their hometown’s original startup 198 years previously. They wanted to finally bring brewing back to Watford. This heritage still inspires many of their beers.

At auction, they even purchased the original scrolled indenture of sale of the brewery from 1812 stamped with Mr John Dyson’s wax seals.

The genuine article

They were always aware of Benskins growing up but by the time they reached legal drinking age, Benskins ales had been brewed at other locations for many years. Benskins beers suffered the same fate as many national brands at the time and ended up as different recipes badged with local names. But the pub livery, pump clips, posters and signs are still found all over Watford.

In the distant beery past of 2010 (which in the current climate of beer culture may as well be a hundred years ago), Pope’s Yard realised from the outset that some beers are best suited to cask whilst others favour keg. Thus they started life as the most experimental commercial brewery in Hertfordshire and have kept this impetus up ever since.

In their brewing portfolio are an Abbey Triple, an unhopped Gruit, a cherry sour (as a nod to Herts and Bucks once being the cherry epicentre of England) and a Russian Imperial Stout. This is on top of the cask ales that have won CAMRA accolades – particularly their rich club hammer stout.

The brewery on Whippendell Road during its last open day in December

The comparative rigour mortis of Watford around them as a beer destination only brightens Pope’s Yard’s lustre. Because Watford, after all, has a poor reputation for pubs. The locals will tell you the same. Towns such as St Albans or Berkhamsted have fared much better. A lot of people from Watford get public transport to other nearby towns just to visit the pub!

A lack of diversity in pub ownership has been a problem. Many of the pubs in the area are unable to sell the beers many customers want due to them being tied. The situation on the high street is that bars need to sell as much cheap lager at as high a markup as possible to afford the expensive rent and rates in the area.

As with most industrial business sites in Watford, the one Pope’s Yard is in is being redeveloped into flats. There are about fifty businesses within that vicinity that are looking for new locations outside Watford or planning to downsize or close down. There is an acute shortage of small to mid-sized units in the area, with most being windowless sheds.

Geoff Latham (L) and Ben Childs (R). Geoff captured here answering customer queries as to whether they do a CAMRA discount (image source: Pope’s Yard Twitter feed)

According to Rightmove, property prices in Watford have gone up by 34% since 2014. This means that business rates have gone up too as they reflect the cost of the site being rented. In a local economy, there is no such thing as universal good news. The employment that intu will undoubtedly provide might mean the flight of native shopkeepers and traders. Intu will be filled by the major national and international brands – not local businesses.

It might mean that you should cancel plans to run your own coffee shop, and get that Starbucks pinny on instead.

And this is history in the making. Just as the countryside lost its youth to the mills and factories of the new towns of the nineteenth century, today’s native population is needing to outsource to make way for the iceberg that displaces it. Watford’s brewing heritage – by far the biggest ever seen in Hertfordshire – for the time being rests solely on Geoff and Ben’s shoulders.

Geoff and Ben have a new brewery location in mind but they’re keeping shtum until the paperwork is signed. The only hint they can give is that it’s got its own borehole, so they’ll finally be brewing from their own supply if things come together.

There is no outlet in Watford that wants to host their brewery, or, due to restrictive licensing, is able to sell the full range of their beer. One delicatessen, for example, can only sell multi packs of beer but not single bottles. This means that they can sell a 4-pack of Heineken, but not Pope’s Yard’s beers individually.

To this end they will also be opening a bottle shop and tap room in 2018, not something they’d originally planned, but something which arose from necessity. Lovers of real ale, craft beer and those that shelter under neither of those umbrella terms will have this single reason to visit Watford.

Watford town centre – no, really!

It’s an irony of local economics and its fallout that a concern that once pulled everything into Watford – brewing – is now something that needs to be sourced from a thirty minute drive outside it because it can’t be accommodated. Yet it was what symbolised Watford in the first place.

But the story doesn’t end here. The latest bombshell (fitting, considering Watford’s munitions past), is that the entire intu franchise has been put in jeopardy as the company that owns it has sold it on before construction has even been completed. Even some of the big chains (which they all are) are having trouble affording the rent and rates here.

So whither Watford hence?

Will the half-built shopping centre remain like a castle in the sky – reminiscent of the unfinished brutalist structures found crenellating the horizons across the Soviet Union’s ex-provinces? Suspended in time since 1991 – these buildings were ruins before they even became functional. Or will a developer simply step in to sign off Watford’s future.

Work progresses. Or does it?

Perhaps historians of the future will speak of the sudden rise in Watford breweries post 2017 that filled the intu void in the same reverential breath they talk of Burton’s significance now. Who knows?

Years 1605 to 2018 record over four hundred years of documented brewing in Watford. Let us hope it’s not an epitaph.

 

There was quite a bit of research for this post. Much of the information comes from brewing history Here For The Beer by Helen Poole – ex-curator of Watford Museum – I’m very lucky to have access to a copy in St Albans Maltings Library. Thanks again to Luke Clark, collections officer at the museum for responding to requests and to Pope’s Yard brewery’s Geoff who supplied the background only a native Watfordian could.

 

7 Comments

  1. Full marks for effort, that really is a labour of love.

    I didn’t enjoy my trips to Watford much (I used to visit the Hospital a lot for work); it lacked much independent enterprise, quirk cafes, street art etc etc. In fact the football ground used to be the most characterful thing, with the best pubs in Bushey (the Swan). But you’ve done it proud.

  2. Brewing in Watford
    Not all is lost, as my brewery, WatlingStBeer, opened doors last week on the Greycaine Estate in Watford. Lovers of ale and craft beers are most certainly in for a treat should they pop into the brewery Tuesday – Sunday.

  3. I was there for the opening night of their tap room last Friday. Had 3 Watling St cask ales on plus a guest ale. It’s open 12 noon to 10pm Tuesday to Sunday.

  4. Thank you for a brilliant article. Really informative. Can I also recommend the watling street brewery. We had a great evening at a comedy night at their previous home and look forward to visiting their new location. Let’s hope there are more toilets there!

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