Wheathampstead: spiritual home of the elephants

Wheathampstead: spiritual home of the elephants

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East Anglia boasts a proud array of representative art in its village signs and Wheathampstead’s is hard to beat. It bolsters the argument that Hertfordshire is actually part of East Anglia too. Both in canvas and logo, the traditional export is clearly visible: wheat. That’s the farmer with his scythe bundling it into sheaves. Wheat is also the town’s toponym – Wheathampstead simply means “wheat farm place”. We can also see the water mill on the river Lea (which was listed in the Domesday book), reeds and watercress, a bull, swan, cart horse and St Helen’s church.

However, this panel doesn’t include any elephants but really should. The reasons for this will become clear.

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a strong local history society make Wheathampstead an amazing village to visit

Each site of interest in Wheathampstead is viewable on a map by the main bus stop. Heritage leaflets are readily available in the pub, church, café, billboard and car park. Wheathampstead has a proper baker, butcher, tea room, chippy, Chinese takeaway, Indian takeaway, offy and Tesco Metro (come on – it’s where the residents will go the other 90% of the time). In other words, it’s the perfect English settlement. One single cash point greases the local wheels.

There is a green plaque system run by a very effective local history society. Virtually every building has a metal plate boasting an astonishing fact. Here’s one: this village with a population of just over 6000 used to have 26 pubs.

Many of those deceased public houses are still here as cadavers. Some of the pub sign brackets jutting from the walls of houses bare a pike over six feet long. Why so enormous? Arguably, it was an arms race to be seen over the competitors.

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26 bloody pubs!

Still trading, there is also the Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence, the Elephant & Castle in Amwell and the Wicked Lady and John Bunyan on the town’s outskirts. These last two pubs are linked into the local history by name.

John Bunyan was the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress; the chimney of a house he lived in stands opposite the pub. The wicked lady was Lady Katherine Ferrers – a noble woman who became a highway robber. Her story is intriguing and to me bears some similarity with Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and Stockholm syndrome. However, a 1970s film was more interested in bodice-splitting boobs. Michael Winner directed it – ‘nuff said.

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John Bunyan’s chimney stands opposite a McMullens pub of his name

In the village proper, only one pub remains – the Swan.

The first elephant:

The Elephant and Castle is a fifteen minute walk from Wheathampstead’s centre. It claims never to have not served cask ale in the three centuries it’s been trading. On my visit I’m astonished by the well sunken into the floor of the back bar – a feature I’ve not seen in any other pub (though I’m sure they exist). It must also be the oldest part – mining a well into the floor of an existing building doesn’t sound quite right to me. Building a roofed structure around a well makes much more sense.

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modern brickwork certainly but I looked down the well and IT’S DEEP

The pub is owned by Greene King and has a house beer brewed by Hardy and Hansons (also owned by GK). I listen as the landlord goes through the cask ales on offer to a father with his two boys. Every offering is currently golden. When he gets to the last beer engine I notice the uplift of pride in his voice.
“and this one is brewed right here in Wheathampstead!” He looks up and beams. This smile is withdrawn when he starts trying to pull Farr Brew through and the swan neck only ejaculates froth. The cask’s gone. His disappointment is genuine.

Between Wheathampstead and Amwell is the gorgeous brewhouse building of the Parrot (later Hope) Brewery which has been all but forgotten. A driveway issues up from the basement – originally for the dray horses. This was owned by the Lattimore family who advised Cobden on the repeal of the corn laws in 1843. The institution was a huge concern back in the day.

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the Parrot Brewery (later Hope Brewery). It’s a spa and hair stylist now

The second elephant:

In the nineteenth century, it was often remarked that before the sound of distant huffing or any plumes of steam could be discerned on the horizon, you could smell the train coming. It came with both fish from the coast and elephant dung from London Zoo. The latter was used as fertiliser on local flower nurseries – a valuable commodity.

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our Georgie guards this station 24 hours a day…

The railway station was one of the fatalities of the Beeching cuts in 1965 (Dr Richard Beeching was the transport minister. Over half of local rail lines were axed as car ownership grew and industrial traffic faded). For decades, the platform endured but was so completely overrun by vegetation that it took a modern archaeological team to find it!

With a huge amount of labour, love and both financial and material donations from local businesses, the station has been restored and is guarded by none other than George Bernard Shaw in wooden form as he waits for the next train to London. He lived in nearby Ayot St Lawrence and was treated with such prestige that if he was late for a train, the guard would hold it and all its passengers back until he showed up.

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a hard-working local

The Swan, like many last-standing pubs in Hertfordshire’s villages, is hard working and very spacious. The original structure was wattle and daub. On my last visit, I sat at the furthest seat away from a screen showing Arsenal v Man City. At the bar, a local had taken the pub hostage by shouting deafeningly whenever the former team got into the latter’s pitch half. There was no volume control to him. The woman in charge had a look on her face: the endurance of a necessary evil. When he got up to visit the gents, both the over-care in his negotiation and the redness in his face reflected the pints of Stella (I saw the chalice) that had passed through him.

The third elephant:

In 1940, elephants from a touring circus were brought down to the river’s edge to drink and their weight caused the concrete bank to collapse (Maybe the workers from the local plant nurseries followed these elephants around with an open casket hoping for a payload).

This bank is historical for another reason: standing at the centre of the bridge, I’m straddling two old countries before they were joined up. My left trouser leg is in the Danelaw. My right one’s in Saxon territory. The river Lea marked the border between the Danes and the Saxons. I can imagine them hurling Germanic F-words at each other across the water.

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absolute class – a mooring bollard in the form of a wheat sheaf

Wheathampstead has a local brewery. It’s actually a small hike away but the walk can incorporate something that makes even King Alfred’s struggle seem modern.

It’s amazing the history we don’t know. Both Devil’s Dyke here and Beech Bottom Dyke in St Albans (about seven miles away) are the remaining stretches of a massive boundary ditch. There’s also a more shallow depression between them called the Slad indicating it was part of the same earthwork. Parts of the modern remnants are sixty feet deep in some areas. Two millennia ago, they would have been deeper. It probably linked the river Ver to the river Lea. If it did, it was huge and must have taken generations to dig out.

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Devil’s Dyke. After Christianisation, many earthworks and stones acquired the “devil” prefix because they no longer fitted in with the theology

Bowing ash and alder trees seem to love these dykes as do the wrens that keep fluttering past into the caves hollowed out by their roots. Wrens live up to the double troglodytes in their Linnaean title. In April, these incredible man-made valleys turn purple from bluebell sprays.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler certainly helped make archaeology popular but was also a bit of a vandal. Modern archaeology is the discipline of uncovering, recording and re-covering – leaving things exactly in place for future archaeologists. He didn’t bother with that. He also asserted that this was the location where Julius Caesar killed native king Cassivellaunus. He never advanced any evidence for this as there wasn’t any.

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there is no evidence to this claim but it’s constantly repeated

So onwards to the brewery.

It’s the most rural I’ve been to and is situated on a farm. I pass through clouds of investigative St Marks flies, listen as yellowhammers, dunnocks and whitethroats compete vocally along the hedge rows and even hear a distant raven.

In Farr Brew I sit in that armchair to the left of the image below and it’s every bit as comfortable as it looks. I hear a call – a buzzard. As I sit facing an open barn door, outside is a grain silo, hedge and the white canvas of the sky. The buzzard comes into view circling lazily on a heat thermal and we share some moments together. As I sip the pale ale, my taste buds start sparking up and I’m aware that I’m subconsciously linking flavour and location through experience. Is it any wonder nostalgia’s such a powerful emotion?

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Farr Brew has one of the most comfy tap rooms in England

Somewhere in the cosmos the fourth conjunction between elephants and Wheathampstead is pencilled in for around the year 2040. I’ll keep my eyes peeled….

Pope’s Yard Brewery

Pope’s Yard Brewery

Hertfordshire is a very traditional county in regards to our national drink. The difference in beer culture between here and London who’s doorstep we’re on (or vice versa) is something increasingly apparent in my mind. I associate Hertfordshire with cask heritage, with CAMRA, McMullens Brewery and an apprehension towards the new – but maybe that’s pushing it.

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Pope’s Yard in Watford is doing things very differently. In fact, Watford tends to do a lot of things very differently – town centre planning being one of them. I went down to the brewery to meet the two brewers – Ben and Geoff.

I strolled down the everlasting Whippendell Road and eventually made it to the building the brewery is located in. It’s part office, part workshop and maybe even slightly factory. The structure was once owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s the kind of building I associate with scout or brownie meetings and polling stations. Pope’s Yard Brewery occupies a ground floor space.

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located in a large ex-Ministry of Defence building on Whippendell Road, Pope’s Yard Brewery is also the closest to a speed camera in Hertfordshire

They have a one barrel kit and a five barrel kit. Brewing hasn’t yet become regularised to a specific timetable but they have mastered a commendable portfolio of styles.

For a new brewery, Pope’s Yard has a lot of space in comparison to new startups in the capital. What it also has when it opens its doors to the public is convenience – a symphony of lavatories. When I entered the building the ladies’ were to the right and the gents’ to the left. And on the brewery floor is another stealth multi-toilet chamber behind a secret door. This is a stark change to the fifteen minute conga lines that develop under London’s railway arches for a single pan. The many cubicles no doubt reflect a large ex-workforce, but I’m digressing.

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club hammer – winner of beer of Hertfordshire at St Albans Beer Festival

What’s particularly pleasing to find is that Pope’s Yard isn’t blinkered about real ale. It has a preferred dispense method for each of its beers. To illustrate this, I mentioned my fondness for Hibiscus Sour, a cask of which sold recently at the beer festival in St Albans. It was my beer of the festival, in no small part because it was so different to the surrounding cask staples. Ben pointed out that it had to be casked back then as that festival only serves cask ale (foreign bar aside). But ideally, keg would be better for a sour and keep it cooler, consistent and more carbonated. I agree.

Conversely, Quartermaster – the amber bitter they were pouring – is so full bodied and malty that to afford it any respect it could only ever be served on cask. I said that it reminded me of Fullers ESB and they confirmed that’s what they were going for with its crystal malt base. It’s gorgeous.

The second cask ale on tap was the Club Hammer Stout (it was originally called Lump Hammer but this name was shared by another brewery). It’s chocolatey, fulsome and perfect for sipping in the winter chill. Luminaire was the third – a more refreshing citrussy beer that slides down easily.

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The brewery isn’t just a tap room but a grotto with a table of collector’s items. There is a beautiful sign for the Fish and Eels – a pub in Hoddesdon which criminally decided to “update” its signage. This is the discarding of art – just look at the image! Why are so many pubs doing it? On the table there was also a collection of Benskins pump clips and what looked a bit like pepper grinders were in fact German sachrometers – the tops unscrew to reveal the probes.

Two brewers barrels on the shop floor carried an unorthodox cargo: evolving inside was a Brett sour beer that was being aged on spruce tips. By their own admission, the beer wasn’t ready but we were treated to a taster. There is currently no carbonation but the Brett aroma is an almost physical barrier it’s so ripe. The spruce added a fresh not-quite menthol note to the finish – almost a cool draught rather than a taste. I look forward to when this beer’s properly come of age.

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Pope’s Yard’s beer range doesn’t reflect the greater brewing scene in Hertfordshire but neither is it a clone of any of the output in London. It’s bespoke to its own taste. Most of its beer is sold in 330ml or 500ml bottles. They have an impressive range including whisky aged beer, strong dark mild, and single hop varietals.

On sale at the tap on this visit were the likes of Hibiscus Sour, Vanilla Milk Stout, Galaxian IPA and Lapsang Souchong Porter. They’ve even developed an Abbey style ale in tribute of St Albans (its cathedral/church is locally known as the abbey as it used to be one) – St Albans Abbey Triple. Finally, their Never Surrender is an ale that puts malt in the spotlight. Six malts and as the label states: “just a hint of hops”. How often would you hear that bold claim in Hackney?

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the trials of an inbetweener

the trials of an inbetweener

Today I turn 39 and it was almost a year ago I wrote “Caught between the Revolt and the Revolution” where I talked of being too young to remember CAMRA’s inception but too old to be “down” or possibly “up” with what’s going on in the more general sense. Little’s changed since then apart from growing older.

Maybe a couple of examples from 2016 could help illustrate some of the trials of being an inbetweener – of not completely swallowing the benefits, bias or even the bullshit of either tribe.

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On a dulcet spring afternoon I visited one of my favourite breweries in Bermondsey. Though I’ve stomped that ground enthusiastically for the past several years, the gathering popularity of the beer mile and the warming climate meant that a twenty minute queue snaked out of the entrance supervised by a zealous bouncer who shoved and prodded at people to keep in line. It was like being a sheep corralled towards the dip. I had come alone and was a quarter of an hour from actually seeing what was on tap (to nip inside to scan the badges would be to lose one’s place in the queue). Once at the bar, I ordered two glasses – I had to – otherwise once I’d finished one, I’d have to start from scratch at the back of the line.

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this brewery image is for illustration only. The experience I’m moaning about didn’t happen here

The two glasses (both two-third pint measures) came to over ten pounds. For a moment I thought I’d been charged for the drinks of the guy standing next to me too. But no. Something about these drinks had cost the earth. Neither beer was of a rocketing ABV – both around five per cent. Neither had a rare botanical ingredient that necessitated scaling the reaches of Machu Picchu to obtain it, either. Both beers were brewed in London! Why were they so expensive? The moment to reject the drinks was there and then at the head of the queue. Stupidly, I let that moment pass and went on to stand awkwardly in the corner with my two stem glasses. Because the railway arch was standing room only, I was unable to put my cargo down anywhere. The bouncer glowered, ensuring my spine was flush with the wall so none of my limbs projected outwards to cause a fire hazard. I actually remember re-evaluating my life from the shock.

Objectively, the beers were nice. They were both cool, carbonated and hoppy as is the modern new world wont. They’d have tasted nice for five pounds but not possibly enjoyable for over ten. I observed the other customers in small huddles not seeming to smart from this daylight muggery. The contingent in cycling gear was enjoying itself. The group of Americans reminiscing was too. The gents with chequered shirts and immaculate beards were beaming. Or that’s how it felt and their enjoyment increasingly seemed in spite of the lack of mine.

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I longed for the comfort and hospitality of a real pub and without finishing either beer, I placed the glasses back on the bar and tramped sprat-like from Bermondsey to Covent Garden to the uterine warmth of The Harp on Chandos Place. She cradled me and lifted me to her bosom where I was nourished by an institution perfected over generations. I had my faith in social drinking restored. Because of her, that day ended with everything being okay with the world.

With mature pub-goers, I understand everything they say but might miss historic cultural references. With pub-goers of my age, I get the vibe but haven’t got a clue what anybody’s job title means. With some younger drinkers, I might understand the words individually but not when they’re strung together. My next recollection reinforces the negatives of the Bermondsey trip but does so at a different kind of price.

I wandered up to one of my locals in the summer. I saw Gerard (not his real name) through the window sitting at the bar before I’d even entered the pub. I recognised the barnet of white candyfloss that marks out an elder member of CAMRA. Glowing, it hovered over the bar like a small lampshade in the comparative darkness. I heaved the door open and faced a troop of pump clips, the young guy serving and the back of said swiller’s head.

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look closely and you can just make out Gerard’s luminous hair in the right hand window

There was to be no avoiding each other – I’d have to speak in a second to order and get rumbled anyway so I chose to salute him in the way I address all Watneys Red Barrel veterans:
“evening young man”
Eyes wide, Gerard swivelled around on his bar stool. His cheeks blazed the same auburn as his Twang brewery T-shirt (not the brewery’s real name either). It looked like he’d been steaming for some time.
“Allo matey. ‘Ow’s it going?” He struggled to recall my name.
We’d first met several years ago behind the Hertfordshire bar of the St Albans Beer Festival during a quiet shift so we’d had the time to chat. We’d glimpsed each other through various throngs many times since. And so we got to talking.

dscf4620The conversation inevitably moved onto what beer was around and I made the mistake of mentioning that a popular DIPA was currently on keg at St Albans’ “craftiest” pub. By way of precaution, I added that it was quite dear. This was misguided. It sparked Gerard to recount an experience he’d recently had in Soho whereby a barman had warned him that a pint of London-brewed beer would be seven pounds. The battle cry went out:
“Seven pahnd! I’m not paying seven pounds for a pint!’’ This salvo was launched lengthways down the bar of the pub we were in and caused heads to turn – many as luminously white as his. I was in an awkward position: I loved the DIPA. I wanted to enthuse about the beer but knew everything about it would be prohibitive in present company. One of the permanent bar staff appeared in time to hear Gerard add
“One day there’s gonna be a revolution!” He was still referring to the seven pound Soho pint!

To make me squirm even more, barman Ted (you know the score) let on that the exact same Manchester-based Double IPA was due to come on in that very pub during an upcoming beer festival and he pointed out that seven pounds is what it would sell for. It cost a lot to buy; if they sold it for any less they’d be giving it away. Ted shot me an annoyed look as it was me that had brought this spotlight upon him.

I regarded Gerard. He looked like he might start a march. I toyed with coming at this appreciation from a different angle: maybe I could ask how much he’d be prepared to pay for a half pint of red wine but the analogy was too strained. My point was that a half of this particular number was a sipping beer. It wasn’t a cask ale – more of a hop nectar – a completely different experience to downing a pint. In fact I’d been having a daily dose of it five days running at the other pub. I was given no option but to stare at the carpet for a while until the conversation moved on.

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To many of the older generation, beer only comes in pints and should always be sold at the lower price bracket regardless of style, strength or any other underlying factors. Reading the letters page of What’s Brewing, it sometimes seems volume to pound Sterling is the bottom line. However amongst younger drinkers, there seems to be literally no upper limit to pricing and they don’t seem to mind what they pay as long as the beer and the brewery’s “on message” in an alt cultural way.

Like a charged particle, I still find myself drawn towards the rubbings of both the older clusters and younger hipster “collectives”. But increasingly, I find it easier to mingle in age upwards rather than downwards even if I’m closer by vintage to the younger generation.

So in 2016, have I taken one step closer to the older mindset – to codgerhood and drifted further from youthful enthusiasm? I’ll keep a running update as the years go by.