Father Forgive Me!

Father Forgive Me!

Batswell sits amidst the crop seas of central Hertfordshire. It’s a pretty community full of tudor overhang and cottages whose roofs are in a permanent state of suspended collapse. Wood-warped beams, lopsided masonry, doorstep boot-scrapers and cascades of wisteria scaling whitewashed walls represent the soul of this village. Like many settlements in the area, it’s basically just a street. If you drive through, buildings appear by each side of the road, cluster, and then peter out. Keep going and you’ll hit similar gems a few miles down the road whether it be Whitwell, Codicote or Kimpton.

To denote public rights of way, herbicide is used to scorch out pathways through farmers’ plots. These access routes are often ochre in colour cutting straight through the majestic green. You creep up on villages from over their shoulder and penetrate their very heart first. It’s telling how many times the main footpath in ends up intersecting with the location of the public house until you realise it makes perfect sense; cars weren’t always a staple of the landscape. In Batswell, the pub this leads to is the Whetstone Inn.

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I arrived in Batswell at the start of May and found it festooned with that most evocative emblem of rural England: bunting. Triangles of coloured fabric were draped over and across everything.

I could hear the sound of jollification seeping through the pub’s weathered walls. There were the shrieks of children mixed with the babbling bass of adults. Trying to look nonchalant, I edged past the dark windows to try and make out the silhouettes of the pump clip parade and get a handle on a pub I’ve never been in. Crowds on the inside might have deterred me if it felt like walking in on a private party, but it didn’t seem too busy. I realised that most of the human commotion I could hear was actually from the beer garden round the back. Another detail as I crept past: there was a banner hanging over the bar in the manner of the flags displayed during the World Cup. It read “Happy Hanging Day 2017”.

A portly man in his late fifties emerged from the side of the building cradling a cigarette, his lighter sparking. We almost collided and he startled. He clutched his chest theatrically. We did that bizarre rite of apologising to each other simultaneously. He was wearing what earlier in the day might’ve been a smart white shirt but it was crumpling now and half untucked at the waist. He had stonewashed blue jeans that were at least two sizes too tight.

“Ere for ‘angin day?” he asked. He was jovial and quite tipsy. A combination of the springtime sun and early drinking had flushed his cheeks.

“No. I didn’t realise it was on. Just walking through.” but then I paused, “What is hanging day exactly?”

“Ooh blimey,” he goggled in disbelief, “well don’t be a stranger. You missed the main event but come in and ‘ave a look. I’ll introduce you to Pam and Kev”.

I resisted. In truth I wouldn’t have minded a drink and to tick this pub off from those unvisited on my list but didn’t want to get pulled into anything by an unknown quantity. I assumed the named couple were landlady and landlord. I didn’t have much money on me either. In cash terms, only enough to buy for me which would be social heresy. He insisted. He made the cigarette glow with a few motivated sucks and took it down to the filter. I started trying to find excuses but he waived them aside.

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“Bloody state o’ me!” he said looking down at his gut. He forced his shirt back in. “What you need mate, is a glass of serisea and a pecky.”

He’d said the magic word. I’d heard of serisea but had never found a place that still brews it. It’s basically a strong traditional cherry ale from Hertfordshire. The word serisea must come from the french word for cherry – cerise (the “c” is pronounced as “s”). It sounds as though the word is being used as a verb in the passive – cerisée (“cherried”) or maybe it’s just the word being vocalised in an english accent. Maybe neither of the above. In any case, I’d finally stumbled on a pub actually serving it.

What a pecky was in terms of a drink or food item, I’d no idea.

A century ago, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire were the epicentre of Britain’s cherry trade. These counties were even more renowned for cherries than wheat or water cress – their other main exports. The varieties are still out there growing in back gardens but unrecognised. There are varieties such as Circassian, Doesn’t Split, Dangler and Hertfordshire Black. This harvest’s been long forgotten but was reflected in pub names like the Cherry Tree (ex-pub, Wheathampstead) and the Bunch of Cherries (now the Speckled Hen, St Albans).

He introduced himself as Les and led me into the pub via a side door. There was a cinema foyer warmth to the inside lounge from the aged carpet and burnished oak bar. There were also those twee red papery lampshades beloved of pubs the country over capping the light bulbs in the walls. This front section had wooden tables and chairs rather than settles or stools. It obviously served a lot of food most of the time but right then, nobody was sitting apart from an observant presence by the hearth. On closer inspection, his dog collar revealed him to be a vicar who watched me with interest. Everyone else stood in converse. As I gained on the bar I heard someone address Les:

“You ent’ caught another one ‘ave you? Poor bugger!” I grinned back at the room in general.

I could see through the bar to the next room where people were also standing. I realised that everyone in this half was male and everyone on the other was female. Though I noticed, I didn’t make much of it at the time as folk often congregate down gender lines; conversation topics can often cause that. So can hen and stag dos.

There was a gorgeous oak brewer’s barrel behind the bar tilted forward on chocks. It had some age judging by the patination on the metal hoops. The colour of the wood suggested it had been re-used many times over many years. The year was written in chalk over the tap but I could still see the faded scrawls of previous years’.

“Kev! This is Alex!” barked Les “He was just walking through.” Kevin was a man of slim build with a publican’s manner. Watchful, officious, and clean-shaven with polite dimples. His pressed shirt was impeccable. He proffered his hand and and I shook it.

“Pleased to meet you Kevin. It’s Alec actually – like Alec Guinness.” I said.

“So finally – someone with a touch of class!” he slapped the bar. There was some audio feedback from the other locals to that.

“Glass o’ the red stuff please – on me!” called Les. I objected. I wanted to know whether card payments were possible but I couldn’t think of any acceptable social route to ask this now without it being completely awkward. I also wanted to know how alcoholic the beer was. From what I’d read, serisea was like a barley wine.

But we’d managed to enter at precisely the wrong moment because the barrel had literally just exuded the last drops and a sludge of yeast. I saw a small measure at the bottom of a pint glass left on the bar. It was beetroot in colour and had a pink candy froth head. Despite being gravity dispensed, it looked well carbonated.

A quick apology from Kevin who immediately press-ganged Les into the two-man task of mounting another barrel onto the chocks from the cellar. I noticed a pulley system above the bar consisting of a three winch set fed by what looked like multicoloured mountaineering ropes with a hook hanging at one end. This had been obscured by the “Happy Hanging Day 2017” banner.

Before disappearing into the cellar with Les, Kevin pulled through a pint of a local pale ale – Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebbs, and as I got my wallet out (even though I hadn’t ordered the beer), he told me it was on the house. Result. I scatter-gunned gratitudes. This gave me a chance to have a proper look at the surroundings whilst holding a prop.

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I nodded a shy greeting to the other punters and got a general return. The red carpet extended several meters from the bar until its edge revealed pale flagstones. Near the door that linked this bar to the other, the stone flooring became darker. It looked centuries worn. Also on the bar were four oven trays covered in foil. On them were rows of small reddish breads or sponges. Each portion seemed to have a filament or string attached.

I glanced into the other bar and witnessed a woman duck down like she’d gotten on her knees. There was a male after all – a boy standing with his arm raised. He dangled one of the breads above the woman’s face by the thread. Her eyes were shut. She uttered something that sounded a bit Italian and the child popped the treat in her mouth. This was met with cheers and encouraging coos towards the lad. Rising again, she pulled the string from her mouth and chewed on the cargo. Something red oozed from her lips. She caught the sauce with her finger and sucked on it. Whatever it was looked sweet but I was perplexed as to what I’d just witnessed. I was going to have to ask Les about this when he got back.

“First time in Batswell?” The voice cut through from behind me. The vicar I’d noticed earlier was watching me with his fingers knitted over his chest. My bewilderment had amused him. He too looked to be in his mid to late fifties but was in good shape. He wore a smart black T shirt under his dog collar and the shepherdic look of clergy wasn’t compromised by it. He had dark chinos and I noticed that his left foot was in a cast, hence, probably, why he was the only one sitting.

“I’ve walked up from St Albans.” I replied. He raised his eyebrows.

“Well that’s quite a yomp. Are you familiar with Hanging Day?”

“I’m not sure. I think I read about it. Is it connected with beating the bounds in St Albans?” I seemed to be on the right track. “Civitas versus ecclesia.” I added. I impressed myself by my last comment – and was even more surprised that I could remember the year – 1327. The quote was from a book and the words had obviously lain in wait like a sleeper cell waiting to ambush fellow anoraks.

Beating the bounds is a tradition in May whereby a throng – made up mostly of local school children led by the mayor – traces the outskirts of St Albans banging drums. It’s to symbolise the town’s citizens proclaiming their freedom from the mighty established church. All I knew is that this led to repercussions by the church on tithes further out where it reacted antagonistically by increasing its grip over local trade and taxation. The fact I knew this made the vicar light up and he gestured at one of the chairs at his table. I looked back for Les. It seemed rude to abandon him and the reverend read this.

“Oh don’t worry – Leslie and Kevin will be a while. Those barrels are precious but they weigh a ton.” he pointed at the ropes in the ceiling. “I saw you scrutinising those. You’ll see the sight of the next barrel being raised through the floor in a few minutes. It’s been rigged up like that since before the war – different ropes and fixtures, of course,” he leant forwards, “and have you had serisea before?” that magic word again.

And so I spent some time at his table. I learned that his name was Peter Stone but I could call him Peter, Vicar, papa or even pop. Not being a church-goer, I called him Peter. He told me something I’ve never realised about serisea – it’s been traditionally brewed as a sacramental drink and is also used for the blood-red filling in the breads; these turned out to be the “peckies” Les alluded to earlier. The church of England has less emphasis on the role of the Eucharist than the Catholic or Orthodox church, but instead of red wine representing Christ’s blood, serisea – a high abv cherry barley wine – was used instead in this parish. This was a revelation to me. To my astonished ears, this made Hertfordshire more beery and ecclesiastical than even Belgium! He went on to tell me about another ancient tradition which would further establish that: the privilege of altar.

The privilege of altar is deliciously British. It’s when the local clergy transform part of the public house (The business bit – meaning the bar) into an altar. This means that the Eucharist is actually performed in the pub and the vicar becomes both shepherd and landlord.

“If it wasn’t for this…,” he indicated his foot injury, “I would be serving behind the bar now. Mind you, glad to be avoiding moving the casks downstairs if I’m honest. I always end up putting my back out. I’m not really just sitting here drinking – I’m delegating!” he winked.

A little girl with dark hair appeared through the doorway connecting the bars. She paused at the edge of the crimson carpet and folded up neatly and silently into a sitting position on the floor. Peter noticed my attention drawn to her. She ogled me curiously, her look reflecting coyness and impishness in equal measure. She was clad in a denim dress over white tights and blue trainers. Her scalp hoisted up a pair of short pigtails in blue bows. But what was most striking were her eyes – she had a green eye and a blue eye. It was almost like the piercing stares of two people at once.

The vicar’s own eyes got dewy.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” I nodded – she was. He lowered his voice to a whisper “It’s called heterochromia.” I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard of it but went to try and impress.

“Isn’t that what David Bowie had?” I ventured. This pleased Peter. He straightened up like he’d just been given a feed line and raised a finger.

“Ah. No. Mr Bowie’s condition was anisocoria – his pupils were of different size whereas this angel has different coloured irises.” he relaxed back again smug and allowed himself the indulgence of quiet laughter. “Not bad for a man of the cloth, eh? I had a poster of Ziggy Stardust on my wall as a teenager,” he raised his voice, “but all that really means is that Hayley over here is very very special, doesn’t it?” he addressed her directly, “but then we already know that don’t we sweetheart?” Hayley beamed in return.

The vicar rose with a controlled grimace from his lame foot and limped over to the bar where he snatched a pecky from one of the trays. Hayley flipped around into a kneeling position with all the eagerness and agility of a Labrador puppy. The vicar let the pecky hang before her.

“Pater dimette me!” she squealed. The titbit disappeared and she scoffed it gutterally, her eyes even more backlit than before. She jumped up, hugged Peter and gambolled away into the women’s lounge.

Returning to the subject, the privilege of altar (as Peter impressed on me) also explained the separation of the genders: there is a long held belief that females cannot work or help behind the altar to the point that babies, depending on sex, are baptised either in the nave or at the altar. Only the boys get the latter privilege because only boys can become priests. The church of England is more progressive in this matter as it actively ordains female vicars but this changes from diocese to diocese. We were still in the diocese of St Albans which publicly promotes women vicars. Here, though, the preference parochially was for how it used to be.

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It dawned on me that this was why Hayley had stopped at the carpet’s edge – beyond it constituted the altar. She was a girl and so stayed back.

There was then a public spectacle: Les re-appeared, gave Peter and myself a salute, swiped and made three peckies vanish with a muted incantation, threw the threads aside and proceeded to open a floor hatch behind the bar. He reached up – exposing his flocculent bare gut – to grab the hook and yank at it to feed the rope down into the cellar. Presently, a barrel wearing a truss with an inbuilt loop for the hook rose from the floor. The rope quivered from the weight. I heard the growl of a motor. Les steadied the pod’s slow ascent and with great care, it was lowered onto the chocks. This, I thought, must be why it was called Hanging Day.

Plonking himself back down at the table, Peter couldn’t suppress his adoration.

“She really is the most beautiful little girl. Absolutely besotted!” his joy was contractive. He collected himself, saw in me a hive of questions and made himself ready. He answered the one I’d had since before I’d even walked in: “pecky”. Now I knew it was a bake which traditionally included a serisea-based custard. It basically acts as the sacramental wafer but is much tastier and as Peter opined at one point – “almost sinfully indulgent” – which ironically will bring us to the name. Why is it dangled on a piece of string? And what were the words Hayley had said? I assumed, because of the religiosity it must be Latin rather than Italian as I’d fumbled earlier.

He leant towards me again

“If I said the word “Peccator”, would that mean anything to you?” I asked him to spell it and this enthused him further but I didn’t have a clue. I hazarded a guess: something to do with fish. This was incorrect. “It means sinner.” he stated.

So: Peccator gets shortened in English to “pecky”.

I also discovered that peckies are actually supposed to be in the shape of a human figure but that the ones on the trays had risen too much in the oven so this was difficult to make out. There used to be a similar thing in St Albans a hundred years ago – popladys – these were baked around Easter to represent a female form: Mother Mary. Hot cross buns reputedly originate from St Albans too. I was startled to find that the strings the peckies are on signify the figure being hanged from the neck. Peter thought this might originally have been a reference to Judas hanging himself after his betrayal to Jesus, but admitted it was just conjecture.

Finally, Peter then explained that “Pater dimette me” means “Father forgive me”. It’s also a Christian sacramental custom. And so to round things off – my final assumption about hanging day being about the barrel of serisea needed to be confirmed. It must be about the brewing and raising of a sacramental ale.

“So, Les told me I’d missed the main event!” I said thinking of the original barrel. I imagined a custom of it being tapped publicly for the first time.

“Quite so.” Peter gave me a tentative look. “Would you like to retire to the garden? You go ahead – I’ll get there eventually. I’m a bit of a cripple at the moment – wish I could heal myself….maybe I lack faith.” he fingered his dog collar. “A lot of people are hostile about Hanging Day so may I say it’s a pleasure to meet someone so interested in history and tradition…… tell me – do you have the faith?” I understood the question – I’d hoped we wouldn’t touch on it, but being with him was like being a schoolboy again in the presence of a history teacher with genuine passion for his subject. In the lounge, I could sense the reverence people held him in. He was patrician-like; a sage. He saw all and counselled on all.

“No,” I answered, “I’m an atheist.” his look of disappointment seemed token. He more acted like someone who’d been handed a challenge.

“Maybe you just don’t believe yet….” not wanting me to feel awkward, he dropped it and gestured to the side entrance I’d entered by. “Shall we?” with that, we made our way out to the beer garden. As we left the lounge he added “This year, not so much a Peccator as a Peccatrix.” whatever that meant, I looked forward to seeing it.

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There were more people in the beer garden and the sexes mingled. There was a cluster of tables covered with white cloth. Further oven trays bore the remaining pecky rows. Aged wooden picnic tables bore the weight of punters’ backsides. The acoustics – the conversations rumbling in tandem, the clink of glasses, the abandonment to embarrassing laughter and the kids baying for attention – could’ve been bottled and exported.

The centrepiece was a white pole that stood in the middle of the children’s play area. Something I hadn’t expected was the effigy of someone that had been hanged from its crossbar about twenty feet up. The hangee was slouched in an odd position: it was standing but twisted at the hip so the body curved. Its full weight was on the ground but the noose kept it from slumping over. The dummy’s hands were tied behind its back and wrapped in a CostCutter plastic bag. Another was covering the head. I pondered that the one at the back was to hide the fact that hands are difficult to mould – maybe there was just hay or sponge sticking out from the sleeve ends. It was odd to have one over the face – perhaps a crappy gallows hood. Possibly it was even to keep it dry in case of rain. Some long purple locks poked out from under the hood the same colour as a goth’s hair – they’d gone to the trouble of a wig.

“Is that supposed to represent a woman?” I asked. My enquiry was drowned out by the rampant squeaking of a horse see-saw on a spring. A boy rode it vigorously lunging backwards and forwards before crying someone’s name and scampering off. The fixture continued to head-bang frenziedly by itself.

A finger tapped my shoulder and I turned to see Les. I apologised for leaving his guardianship. He just laughed. His cheeks were even redder and I could hear he was starting to slur. His shirt had again liberated itself and he pushed a wine glass into my left hand. The liquid inside was the colour of red wine but cloudy and with the pink froth I saw earlier. I still had half a pint of Fanny Ebbs in my right hand.
“Is this the serisea?” I asked pointlessly. I motioned getting my wallet out but he made bodily clear that that would only cause opprobrium.

“Ere!” he said, “which cherry type was used for this year’s ‘angin’ day?” I didn’t follow his meaning “Dangler!” he slapped my arm and pointed at the effigy “Dangler!” he shrieked again. My head twitched to avoid a gob of flying spittle as tears were on the verge of breaching around his sockets. I coughed up a smile and managed some laughter.

“Cheers Les and thanks very much for that.” I hoped that underlined things.

I approached the hanged form and scrutinised the dummy at close quarters. It had a bulge around the hips and chest. It certainly looked like it was supposed to be a woman.
“Who is she supposed to represent?” I enquired. I considered the basics. “Is she supposed to be a politician or a reality TV star?” I suspected the latter as the victim had been clad in a grey Umbro tracksuit. I looked back at Les who didn’t seem to understand my question. Peter appeared behind him clutching at the tables for support.

I put both the half pint of Fanny Ebbs and the glass of serisea down on the corner of a bench and went to have a proper look at the face. Surely they’d bothered to make one under the supermarket bag if they’d done the hair. Maybe I’d recognise the likeness of a celebrity. I tried to nudge the corpse but it was as heavy as lead. Possibly the clothes hadn’t been stuffed with straw but with sand or carpet. It wouldn’t budge. Instead I raised the edge of the carrier bag. A blowfly rasped under the crumpled plastic logo and flew out.

Version 2

I stared at the face of a teenage girl. Her brown stare was like glass. My thumb came into contact with her soft cheek which was still tepid. My interference upset a river of drool that coursed over the braces on her bottom teeth – the strand elongated, then retracted around a lip piercing. The stream re-poured mixed with a blood yolk. Her chin was glazed from the recent effulgence of saliva. A glut of red mucous hit her white Adidas trainer.

The ring around her neck was dark brown from the cut of the rope.

Weightlessly, I backed away – my torso a barren cave. I’d left the constraints of my body. I drifted through the silence. I saw Les’ face sporting a twisted gurn of confusion. I then passed to the vicar – Peter’s head was in his hand; something terrible had just dawned on him. I panned over the other grotesques gathered around – I was their focus. Groups in the background stopped their unheard conversations and cast their lights on me.

I propelled silently through Les and Peter like a spirit. I could feel no emotion but taste sodium and feel the cold press of zinc in my stomach. The building walls passed me. I haunted the street and glided towards a red beacon in the distance simply because it was a red beacon in the distance. I put the phone booth between me and the last few moments, saw my boots stop and align. My hands landed on my knees and I watched a torrent of pale vomit brake over the edge of a rockery.

I didn’t stray from that nook. I recall my voice on the mobile phone saying I’d found the body of a girl that had committed suicide or been hanged but the voice was detached from mine. It gave my name and location. I still don’t know why I mentioned suicide. Maybe it had been. Perhaps there had been a tragedy but things would be okay; optimism in spite of evidence.

Time passed.

Presently, a blue light pulsed – reflected off and through the glass in the windows at the street bottom. The patrol car approached and I ambled into the road to be seen. There were two officers. The driver’s side window lowered and the woman officer addressed me. She introduced herself as PC Mills.

A few metres from the corner of the pub, she asked me to wait as she and her colleague – a young man in his twenties PC Hayes – entered the garden and public lounge respectively. She was immediately blocked by Les in the doorway.
“You can’t come in ‘ere! This is the altar! On ‘angin’ day this area is sacroshanct. Men and boys only!” Les was snarling. He was also increasingly drunk but PC Mills was unfazed.

“I’m here to inspect the premises after reports of a dead body and ask questions, Sir. This is Police business.” Les looked past her to me. He glowered. All prior friendship had been wiped.

“This is to do with that cunt, ain’t it?!” He stabbed a finger at me. “We invited ‘im in. We give ‘im a drink – bring ‘im into our pub!” Spit was flying again. I readied myself. I was aware that Mills and Hayes were standing in a practiced formation. However, PC Mills backtracked and spoke to her companion. She asked him to go inside with Les for questioning instead as she couldn’t compromise religious custom by going into the lounge. I listened dumbly. Les made his look of betrayal linger for as long as viewable as he was ushered back inside. Again PC Mills told me to stand at the corner and not to leave. She spoke into her shoulder radio and disappeared into the garden.

I waited and could discern the calming tones of Peter being questioned. I expected people to come around the building but all was quiet. No drama erupted. After a few minutes I heard crunching on gravel and she returned. She was again issuing orders into her radio. I heard her request for the ambulance team to be stood down. She said she had a suspected HRP and was still investigating. I then recognised PC Hayes coming through on the radio frequency from inside the Whetstone Inn where he’d been questioning Les. Finally she addressed me.
“Can you tell me why you called for the emergency services, Sir?” I understood the question. I was just confused why she was asking it.

“A girl’s been murdered.” My answer sounded like a question.

“No. And don’t say that again. Repeating a smear against a religious practice could be used in evidence against you. I’m duty-bound to record that you repeated that. A woman has been judged according to the laws of the society she lives in. You can’t subject this community to your own ethnic bias. That’s now recognised as a crime by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Version 2

“How old was she?!” I gurgled, “sixteen? What did she do?!” She raised a hand.

“Listen – the vicar’s not going to press charges. He says he thought you were aware of what was going on but was mistaken. He’s giving you the benefit of the doubt. Do you know what a HRP means?” I shook my head listlessly. “It means Harassment of a Religious Practice. Have you been in the dock before?”
The question didn’t land. She asked it again.

“Yes” I answered ”Years ago I was in the magistrate’s court and was done for reckless driving.”
Officer Mills rolled her eyes at this.

“So you got a slap on the wrists and a fine, right? Believe me this is more than wasting Police time. You could be in the dock facing a charge of hate crime if charges were pressed. Do you understand, Sir?”

PC Mills changed her timbre and started talking to me in a conciliatory vein. I felt the relief physically. I also realised how tired I was. She explained that she’d had to stop things from escalating and that it was increasingly being seen as a priority for Police forces to avoid confrontation with religious groups.

Once PC Hayes came back out from the inn, he and PC Mills exchanged a nod as if to conclude business. She then advised I go the kitchen to speak to the licensee who’d asked to see me. Her name was Pam. I recalled that Les had mentioned her a short lifetime ago before I even crossed the inn’s threshold. That was the last I saw of the officers.

I was loath to see Pam. I didn’t want to talk to anybody and wasn’t legally obliged to. But I was miles from home and had the fear that over the long tramp to St Albans across the crop fields I’d be constantly looking over my shoulder. I pictured a blotch covering the centre of the Hertfordshire map – a no go area from now on. But then I also felt that meeting Pam might help get closure on this experience and I honestly wasn’t sure what to envisage. I imagined a woman with her knuckles white from fury but there was the vanishingly small possibility it was someone wanting to apologise or make up. I suppose my pride was that wounded that that hope was in there somatically rather than logically.

There was a single concrete step leading up to the kitchen doorway which, thankfully, didn’t face the beer garden. I somehow knew that the only reason the crowd wasn’t congregating around me was that Peter was standing them down, but I could still hear them speaking under their breath following the Police intervention – it made being an audience to it all the more intense. I forced myself not to listen to the individual words and concentrated on the emphysema of the kitchen extractor fan instead.

The door was ajar. I heard a woman’s voice say: “Come in, love.” no emotion could be attributed at this point. Pam was a stocky woman. Her greying blonde hair was bundled up in a top knot. She wore a white blouse and white jeans. She stood leaning against a tumble dryer with her arms crossed. Despite this firm body language, the impression she gave was of someone trying to gauge another. Her expression was quite soft. Perhaps there was even hurt. I lowered my gaze. When she spoke, her tone was controlled.

“Why did you call the Police? It’s horrible to have the Police visit on a day of religious celebration. The children thought we were in trouble. It really upset them.” I was careful about what I shouldn’t repeat.

“I didn’t know hanging was legal in Britain. That’s why I called the Police.” My answer was steady. Nobody moved.

“Do you hate us?” She waited. The silence prompted her clarification: “Do you hate Christians?”
I said I didn’t. I told her I had relatives who are Christian. I was raised Christian. “All we want is the same freedom as you have – to express ourselves.” she shifted “We want a meaningful relationship with god. It’s about family.” she sighed and some of the tautness left the atmosphere. “You’re not a father are you?” I shook my head. “No. I can tell. Are you married?

“Separated.” I whispered. She nodded and contorted an insightful smile

“Might’ve guessed. Well if marriage was truly sacred, if you had children to love and bring up, you might understand why Christianity is so important. It’s about love. It’s about family” I felt numb but nevertheless asked the right question.

“Did she suffer?” I demanded. There was a pause. She blinked. “Did the girl suffer when she was being hanged? How long did it take for her to die?”

“She transgressed!” Her voice was more pointed but still level, “We have a duty to protect our children from the devil. She will have to account to god now!”

“So why didn’t you let her live and leave god to judge her?”

“Because what if other children followed her example? What if they turned their back on god too? What if we couldn’t persuade them back on the right path and they never found heaven?!” her voice broke at the end and she lost composure.

This removed the charge that had been in the air leaving behind two people that hated each other. Suddenly Pam drew me to her and pursed her lips on my forehead. Under her breath, she blessed me. She framed my head in her arms and pressed her breasts into me. They were soft. Her perfume was soporific. I hadn’t expected this. I became wilfully limp until she released me.

She left the room. I could see a section of the bar through the archway. The trapdoor was still open in the floor in front of a row of boxes with perfect holes cut in. Each contained different flavoured crisps. Bizarre – I continued to notice the minutiae despite having seen a murdered girl. Maybe it had been someone else that had witnessed it. She returned bearing a glass of serisea and holding a child’s hand. It was Hayley.

I stood in the doorway which led to the front of the Whetstone Inn, around its side and off to the seraphim rape fields of Hertfordshire and away from Batswell back into a land in which I felt safe. Pam put down the glass on the sink drainer close by my hand.
“It’s about time you put this away, love. It’s good stuff and it’s on the house. Would be a sin to waste it.” I scanned her face for any brazen humour but there was just sincerity. She looked down at Hayley who was gazing at me. The sharpness of colour in those eyes were the livid blues and greens of forget-me-not and stonecrop – droplets glistening on morning meadow. Hayley lifted her arm. A pecky jerked on its noose. She looked up at Pam with hope. Suddenly the little girl was unsure – fearful, even. She couldn’t read this situation.
“It would mean so much to her if you’d kneel.” I shook my head. “After she saw you with papa in the lounge, she went on and on about you. She’d really like to…….do you this honour. All you have to say is Pater Dimette Me – Father forgive me.” I dropped eye contact and shook my head again. I started to turn but Hayley trotted up to my trunk, her face turned up. Water was her eyes – jewels gleaming from the depths of pregnant wells.

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Tasting notes:

The serisea had an aroma like fruit compote or the succulent pink flesh in a rhubarb crumble. It was tart on the verge of sour but a generous malt blanket wrapped around it keeps this firmly in ale territory. The alcohol (in this case 10 abv!) comes in around the fourth sip whereupon I felt my pores dilating as my cheeks competed with the purple/red of the drink. The feeling’s a bit like the warmth of cognac. After a glass, you start seeing petals open on the periphery of vision. The pecky starts off bland and salty but this is cut straight through by the flood of cherry jelly that bursts from the centre. This is its design and gives it both wholegrain bread and oozing sweet Hartley’s jam. It’s very carby. The serisea and the pecky really do compliment each other like a sharp red wine with Kirschtorte.

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….

this tame wilderness

this tame wilderness

A bus journey through Hertfordshire is a pleasure. Scaling the steps to sit at the back, you’re raised to a position where you get a better appreciation of the architecture going past the window. You even get a fresh perspective of your home town as you peer down over the walls and hedges rather than up at them and down at cars and the caricatures that drive them. You see without being a part of – it’s a detached way to observe.

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The tour can feel like you’re an ambassador being taken on a reconnaissance trip of humanity. From an exalted throne you look down at the ivy-sprawled homes of the well-off as they line up for inspection. You gaze down too at weathered grey estates that seem to weep from the breeze blocks. The country pubs display their country hours on sandwich boards – open midday to 3pm. Some of the flint-clad village stores that squat under sinking masonry are so cute you could just shit.

Hertfordshire might have the tamest landscape in Britain. The word wild or wilderness cannot be ascribed save for the microcosms in which it’s allowed to prosper: the ancient hedgerows and the cultivated shrubbery of back gardens where greenery runs riot. These are the only oases of wilderness out here. You realise just how managed the landscape is.

The slopes around this county aren’t natural – they’re the result of centuries of ploughing down towards the source of life: running water. Mountains are levelled out in this manner. You make out hillsides for what they are – scored hides from the drawing of the plough – cut marks on bone.

The abated hills descend to the threads of Hertfordshire’s rivers. Though I live in it, Hertfordshire keeps taking me by surprise at how deep some of its valleys are. The plunge down into Wheathampstead is a case in point – it’s like descending into a canyon.

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More passengers donning flat caps get on. They’re not hipsters and care nought for post modernism. Old women in floral dresses grip the rails securely as the bus lunges off. It scrapes through buildings, kisses the wing mirrors of parked cars and frolics over pot holes. When the vehicle swings around in a turn, it always looks like it’s going the collide and take the wall with it.

Branches hit the side with a sound like musket fire as the bus charges into hawthorn bushes to give a tractor room to pass. I wish this carriage came equipped with a roll top bar like a tank as I look into the eyes of rooks on the plough-lines. They bob, readying for flight in case the machine comes crashing down on them.

Skulking pheasants. Placid lakes of green crop. Trees’ stark naked outlines hug the hillsides as the Pathé film hedgerow flickers past. Dramatic fly-pasts over rivers. An airborne wood pigeon high in the blue vault beats its way from copse to holt.

You pass the ghosts of pubs reincarnated as country homes. Sometimes faded lettering or the sign brackets endure, but often it’s from a lifetime of recognising pub buildings. The hunch always turns out right in retrospect.

Onward down the hedge-flanked tarmac aisles of Hertfordshire. Ivy and holly compete to throttle the trees that line the road with the former being in the vanguard. Sunlight picks out the silver boughs of birches and dyes them violet.

Outside the Boot Inn, more white-maned travellers alight, punch their tickets and grab at the poles like liana vines. The engine whirrs again and the bus takes off into an uphill hurtle before sudden breaking causes the passengers to contract at the hinge as the bus tangoes with a lorry at a corner.

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When it’s wet, the rain striking the windows of a bus is one of the most life-affirming things to witness. The water is sentient. The runnels seem to try and work out a route across the glass, pausing to decide on an angular or curved passage towards the corner the momentum is pushing them. They can forge their own straight line, suddenly fork or go on a number of hesitant turns. When one collides with another stream it disappears – swept away by a rip tide. But there exists the loner; the introvert that maps its own way across the glass expanse full of doubt, full of lull, edging its own cautious path to the other side.

In early summer, fields of golden rapeseed are radioactive; the glow is magnified through the window and bathes the face. When you shut your eyes, the capillaries in the eyelids are etched out like a crimson relief map.

When the bus crests the hill and breaks from the uterine tree cover, the landscape rises in a standing ovation and centre stage is a titan copper beech or horse chestnut – majestic in its own field, ablaze like an open brasier casting shadows across the earth from the flames.

And as if to calm me back down, there is comfort in pylons. They’re the charming sentinels of the countryside and remind me how connected up the land is.

Sometimes our labours culminate in chance coincidences where the cosmos just seems to come together. I frequently have this experience driving up the M1 from London to St Albans and for a while, I and the train to Bedford align and travel shoulder to shoulder at the same speed in the same direction like pilgrims on a joint venture. Something inside me stirs.

On a train from Hitchin to Letchworth Garden City, it passes over another track from which a second train issues – two gleaming metal convoys radiating out, for a time tracing a diagonal cross before parting ways – the composition is sublime – somewhere between art and choreography.

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In Letchworth Garden City, I attempt its Greenway hike. With partial success, I commute back to Hitchin and am seduced by beer. I miss the last bus and decide to walk back.

I start okay but overshoot the road forking south and take a long detour to Langley before turning back. Two hours are lost and it’s now dark. However, the landscape’s just as beautiful.

Near Whitwell I hear a tawny owl call from a hillside copse to my right – if you’re not sure, it’s the to-wit-to-woo refrain used in every film. To my left, a barn owl’s shriek tears out as well. The next time it shrieks, it’s to my right in the same territory as the tawny owl. I see a shape drop from a canopy. I’d love to be able to see that scene played out in night vision. These two species are rivals and won’t suffer each other on the same hunting patch. From further on the left – out in the swampier parts of the field I also hear the kazoo-like burblings of a lapwing and a bit further on, the celestial sound of a redwing in flight – it’s the most fragile of calls: both a single note and a flourish on the brink of hearing. Manifold tiny threshold mammals make roadside nettles quiver in their scarpering. In the dead of night, life goes on.

I’m aware of an aircraft passing overhead. My time working in central London turns it into a Police helicopter by default until I start getting deja-vu. It only travels in one direction across the sky each time and discover I have an unlikely guardian: it’s an aeroplane – each a different one on the same flight path down.

I watch as the acres ahead of me give up their secrets to the soft light of its undercarriage as it makes its descent towards Luton. The darkness seeps away into the landscape’s crevices like water draining from a rock pool at low tide. It’s brought down to sit equal with me – exposed in the night. The planes arrive with a conveyor belt regularity – about every eight minutes or so.

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I used to spend a lot of time on the ridgeway – the prehistoric spine running across Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I’d gaze down at the A34 road at night and it was gorgeous. From that elevated aspect, sunk in the distant man-made valley – an incandescent necklace of constant motion.

I could’ve been air-dropped anywhere on the downs and found my way home as I could piece together the land. I now need to rekindle this skill in Hertfordshire just two counties east.

I see a tree in the dark that has been toppled – probably by storm Doris. It’s leaning against a naked older tree that supports it in the nook of its branches like a crutch. It reminds me of an elderly veteran cradling the body of a young soldier but it worries me because there is absolutely no way I wouldn’t have noticed this pair from the bus on the way to Hitchin. This means I’m not walking along the same road back.

Oddly, walking along unlit rural roads at night carries with it a safety: you can both hear and see a car coming from a long distance before it catches up with you and climb up onto the bank or make love to the hedge as required. As the headlights make my shadow spill out like fluid on the tarmac before me, I usually just stand but occasionally like to splay out my fingers as my hands hang at my sides. This gives the effect of Nosferatu’s silhouette.

I haven’t flown in a few years but recall looking out of the window on the descent into Luton. Underneath is the black carpet of England in slumber with only the roads and villages picked out in dots of light. Now I’m in that inky realm looking back up.

Version 2

Even I’ve come to accept I’m lost and it’s the middle of the night. Home is maybe fifteen miles away but I don’t actually know because I don’t know where I am. Google maps hasn’t loaded on the phone the entire day. There is a single bar of charge left.

The road opens out and there is civilisation and a sign: Peter’s Green. Where the hell’s that? I strike out towards it. It’s a quaint manicured triangle acting as a roundabout with rows of houses describing each side. On the far side is a large building which is illuminated. It’s a pub. I approach and make out the name: the Bright Star. Fittingly, it’s my saviour. On the green itself is a stooped bus stop. I plonk myself down on it the same time the lights go off in the pub but that’s okay – it’s fulfilled its role. It has just gone eleven o clock.

Using the light from my mobile phone, I discern that this bus stop is for Stevenage. I don’t want to go there. Even in a time of crisis.

It’s still warm and I lie on the seat which is a real luxury – one of the sloping wooden ones. No part of the inside has yet been vandalised. I’m not even wearing my coat yet. There could be worse places to spend the night than this…..

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postscript:

I’m actually missing the stench and comfort of my own nest. It’s been a quarter of a century since I last slept rough in a bus shelter. The experience took the lucre off the romance of sleeping under the stars. I remember vividly shivering in the early hours, not sleeping but pacing up and down the seafront in Dover to stay warm. This night ended differently. With the last bar on my mobile phone, I ring my wife who is sat at home with the internet. I have a place name and a landmark and make sure she listens carefully. She books me a taxi and rings me back after a couple of minutes. She’s googled Peter’s Green. The world has changed, 2017, technology and all that.
“you’re in bloody Luton!” This is an exaggeration. It’s a fair way out.
“Oh. Thought I might be. I could see the runway.”

I cross the green to sit on one of the outside tables of the Bright Star. The taxi arrives within ten minutes and edges along cautiously. His passenger could be a total drunk but the driver sees in my gait I’m sober and I get in. He keeps his car tidy. It honks of pine. Our faces are lit up green by the animated fuel hybrid graphics on the console. The night countryside glides past. After a while we come to a roundabout, turn right and suddenly I know the area again as I descend for the second time that day into Wheathampstead.

As we pass the Wicked Lady pub some mischief grips me.
“Don’t let the wicked lady get you on the way back” The driver looks at me horrified. “you know this is the most haunted road in England, don’t you?” He starts freaking out and I try and assuage him by saying I’m massively overstating things which I am. Safely back in St Albans I get him to park on the main drag so he can just do a u-turn rather than join the traffic system.

temperate intentions

temperate intentions

Letchworth Garden City is an odd place but well worth a visit. Its oddness is the attraction.

Around a dot on a map – the old village of Letchworth – a new garden city was envisaged by quaker Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s. The idea was for social reform – for people to live in a community where they could breathe fresh air, reconnect with a countryside idyll and escape the smog of industrial Britain.

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The new garden city was designed and laid out by urban planners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and went on to inspire garden cities the world over. Its success was possibly because it was devised without the central diktat that often accompanies new age projects. It left its denizens or “pioneers” to decide matters rather than a preacher.

I came here to complete the Letchworth Garden City Greenway – a thirteen and a bit mile path that circles the town, but also to check out its beer culture.

Tracing the circuit has twice defeated me now. Even the woman in Tourist Information who gave me the map – a native since birth – admitted she got lost when she tried to follow it.

Within minutes of leaving the town centre, I find my first marker badges at the entrance to Standalone Farm and I’m soon exploring rolling crop fields. Church spires and water towers appear in the distance like the masts of ships on the heaving sea. The landscape sits somewhere between rural and urban. The soundtrack is a combination of roads rumbling and the celestial symphony of skylarks.

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this is a peeking black squirrel and the inspiration behind Letchworth Gardens City’s first town centre pub in the 1970s

I get lost pretty quickly. I negotiate my way though wave after legion of tidy closes and crescents. Communal greens here are huge. Last week I was ejected from the Greenway into an industrial estate. You feel like a bit of a prat finding yourself on a building site with binoculars and camera. The builders probably thought I was a niche pervert. The week after my trail goes dead and I trudge along the main road from Baldock. The binoculars do lend an advantage here: you can read roundabout signs a long way in advance and decide whether or not to swim through the blue exhaust fumes in that direction or turn back.

Back in the town proper, walking around Letchworth Garden City is a bit like wandering around an elaborate film set. The buildings are faithful reproductions from around the Tudor age – old enough for lichen to have accumulated on the pitched roofs but too young for any subsidence or warp. Historical buildings minus the history. These green streets of tidy period cottages look ideal – but it also makes them creepy.

The Spirella building – what used to be a clothing factory – is so vast that to get it all in one photo, you’d have to take it from satellite. It earned itself the moniker Castle Corset. It just seems too big for a British venture and in fact this is the case – the company was from the US.

In a way, the pioneers that came to settle here were proto-hipsters. They were generally middle class and associated with the arts and crafts movement. They were big on theosophy, vegetarianism and ascetic clothing – namely smocks made from Ruskin flannel from the Isle of Man and sandals even the middle ages wouldn’t touch.

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the Settlement used to be the Skittles Inn. In summer locals would line along the long seated stoop with glasses of Cydrax

Apart from some private clubs and hotels, Letchworth Garden City didn’t have an actual beer pub until the early 1970s when the Black Squirrel (no longer there) was included in a new town centre redevelopment. In fairness though, up until that point the temperate intentions – from families who witnessed the capital’s gin melancholy – were democratically instituted each time through local vote. They opted against for most of a century though there was friction amongst some men that the vote kept not going their way because the women’s vote (mostly nays) was included here before the Suffragettes gained it nationally.

There was a public house instituted by the First Garden City L.t.d called the Skittles Inn that served food, had a skittles alley, a library and sold absolutely no alcohol. Instead, the staples were Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and Cydrax – a non-alcoholic apple wine. Lover of beer though I am, I can appreciate a public house that kept men sober – especially with the high rate of what we’d now deem violent alcoholism in many working families.

But let’s never forget that it was this vision of Ebenezer Howard’s that also inspired prince Charles to cough up the hideous settlement of Poundbury; a village that sounds like a discount home store but has less class.

The early citizens employed the word temperance correctly – to temper something is to moderate, not to forbid. The First Garden City L.t.d also ran two more pubs about a mile from the town centre: the Fox at Willian and the Three Horseshoes in Norton. Both were allowed to serve alcohol. So if you wanted a pint, you simply girded your smock and went for a stroll in those sandals to get it.

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the Fox at Willian with All Saints church peering over its shoulder

The local Wetherspoons is called the Three Magnets and is a decent gallery in itself showcasing the garden city’s history. Wetherspoons pubs are good at gathering local curiae and being museum-lites. There are, for instance, paintings of Ebenezer Howard and information plaques about Spirella corsets that changed the manufacture away from whale bone.

But maybe what’s most interesting is the reason behind its name: the Three Magnets is based on one of Mr Howard’s diagrams about the formation of society. The first two magnets are the town and the country – the pros and cons for people living there listed for both. The third magnet – representing the garden city – is attributed with the amalgam of the pros for the first two but none of the cons. Idealist? certainly. If the pub’s name used current jargon, it might be called Ye Three Socioeconomic Pull Factors

If our boy Howard were alive today he’d absolutely love Powerpoint.

But the jewel in the crown here isn’t the Wetherspoons, courteous as it is to its host, but a newcomer: the Garden City Brewery down the picturesque shopping lane called the Wynd (as in WIND-up toy).

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Every Thursday some cask ale in stellar condition is tapped and served from gravity along with some guest beer engines. If you’re lucky, you might also get your chops around a Bedfordshire Clanger – a home counties take on the Cornish pasty with meat at one end and fruit at the other. The pudding side has score marks in the pastry so you know which end to devour first.

Spring Saison is the perfect thirst quencher. A 5.3 ABV spritz of a beer; it leaps over the gullet and fizzles on the roof of the mouth. Then the glass is empty. To CAMRA members, £3 a pint. Proof that a trip to Letchworth Garden City is good for you.

The venue is filled with light. It’s airy, colourful and tidy. Donations are made from some of the beers to local charities so even in its own way, Garden City Brewery keeps the local legacy of community and betterment alive.

You can still get a feel for Letchworth’s new life roots: it’s to be seen in adult education centres, urban farms, an NHS clinic calling itself a wellness centre and the International Garden Cities Institute.

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a pint of the brewery’s own Armitage ale and a Bedfordshire clanger. Neither lasted long.

For its size, Letchworth now has at least the national average of pubs. So what caused the city to abandon its spirit of temperance? Well the context that spawned its necessity faded. Britain’s industrial age passed away so the very thing the garden city was set up to escape – the drudgery of the factories, mills and pits – disappeared from Britain.

During the queen’s coronation, members of the first migration celebrated together and reminisced about the difficult first few years while the town was being shaped. Many people that left for this corner of Hertfordshire really did find a better life in the long run. This re-imagining is what makes Letchworth Garden City’s odd outlook so unaligned with the rest of Britain.

 

the Six Bells, St Albans

the Six Bells, St Albans

Going into night shifts is a brutal process but a staple of my life. It starts with enforced narcolepsy as you bludgeon your circadian rhythm into submission. Only four shifts in a row means you don’t fully adapt before wrenching yourself back into day mode. It’s like having the bends, hypoxia, being on the edge of sleep and feeling vibrations from caffeine in your veins all at once – something I drink plenty of in the middle of the night to stay awake. I worry about the cumulative effect this is having on me. Coming off the last night shift always feels like ending a tour of duty.

Is going to the pub for a pint a good idea? I don’t know but the desire for a bit of bleary-eyed people-watching on a Sunday afternoon out of the four walls of my home is vital.

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Previous posts have been about social intercourse. This one’s more about another pub potential: a bit of solitude when you need it.

This afternoon is my zombie time and people who know me are starting to recognise it – it’s the worst possible time to expect witty repartee from me. You might as well expect somebody on a drip waking from surgery to get up and start boxing. Not going to happen.

The gods measure us humans by set square and plumb to determine that exactly two pints of session strength cask ale is the right amount for a weekend afternoon. I take my time with them during the lull after the Sunday roast crowds have trickled away. Any more than two pints risks summoning Morpheus and slumber – the compulsion I’m trying to resist.

On the surface, I’m brittle, unable and even unwilling to socialise. Underwater, I watch the surroundings around me with detachment like I’m drifting around a fish tank. But something to do with body and mind trying to re-align makes me privy to nebulous thoughts played out across time. It’s not something I try and do but something that lies in wait for me.

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The Six Bells is a good pub to have these reflections in. On this occasion, it turns out to be more busy than I’d anticipated. I stand for a while before a small table becomes free under a TV screen. I have ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring – it’s refreshing like a blend of mineral water and honeysuckle. I land on the chair with gravity.

When I entered, there was a large group around one of the tables with about seven children. The kids soon zipped up and left. In their wake, they left behind reams of paper, felt tips, the smell of glue and two lovers whose faces were festooned with glitter and spangles. The couple look relieved to have weathered it and proceed to get into each other. It’s the man’s birthday. I spy the cards.

I take in the surroundings anew. I think of the lives gone before, the permanence of this bastion, springtime, ageing, renewal, death.

One of the four pines in the park was toppled by storm Doris a couple of weeks ago. The locals congregated around the recumbent bough. Kids crawled over it like bluebottles. There was a feeling that the exposed wound – the fatal breach – needed to be witnessed while fresh. Gathering around it constituted a wake of sorts. We needed to see the body for ourselves to actualise it; confirmation of the new reality without pine three. It’s the act of witnessing that makes it official. Only after that can you move on.

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The tree’s roots remained steadfast in the earth when its spine broke at the small of the back. This demonstrated that it had in fact been ailing.

Standing at the bar, I see someone I know and acknowledge them by lifting my index finger and raising my eyebrows. These signals also mean please move on.

This pub’s name references the parish church that stands two hundred feet away. It was renamed from the Bell (or even Le Bell) in 1739 to make it more modern when the church upscaled to incorporate six bells in its belfry. Another two were cast in 1953 to celebrate our own Liz’ coronation so this should actually be the Eight Bells now.

This village was once home to the working poor. So was Hampstead. If you can get a property here now you’ve done very well for yourself. There was a time before this pub was here. But there was also a time when the English channel was a stream. The flagstones of this floor might as well be bedrock.

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Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring

Before the road it’s on was ever tarmac’d it sold ale to the farming public. Before the nearby bridge that straddles the river Ver was built, it was drawing punters. Back before the grazing pastures became the landscaped Verulamium Park, it was already here. In fact, it’s been trading here since before the Reformation. The Six Bells predates the landscape of St Michaels around it but is still just a sprat to its wider Roman environs.

This pub is full of curios. Milk jugs and horse brass line the brickwork and window sills. Tokens from the agricultural and brewing past are lined up along beams and behind glass cases. Copper pans adorn the open hearth. Two guns are mounted above it. The ceiling undulates gently from age. The scattered lamps cast a light brighter than the sky outside.

But now I’m absolutely fascinated by a man standing over by the coat hooks staring at the television screen above my head. I can actually see the blank screen in stereo – a reflection in both lenses of his spectacles; two black rectangles. Pointlessly, I crane around to look behind my shoulder to confirm something I already know: the television is off. Yet he’s mesmerised by it. What a soul sees with his eyes might not compare to with what he’s witnessing in his mind. I wish I could see his thoughts played out in those frames.

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the drinks list in the Six Bells in the run-up to the Second World War

Lurking under the table of the spangled lovers (whose faces are reddening from booze and libido), is a french bulldog who emerges and starts masturbating using his paw – I’ve seen this behaviour before with the same breed. Because of their large heads and barrel bodies, they can’t bend to lick their genitals like most dogs. Their paws don’t have opposable digits either so they don’t get the best of either world. He takes on almost human form like a mini wanking Buddha on the floor. Round bloodshot eyes implore the room and its inhabitants as he tries to bring himself to climax. He looks like a little busker strumming an invisible banjo and the couple notice me snort my beer as, in my head, I overlay their pet’s labours with the voice of George Formby.

By current averages of longevity, I’m equidistant between the teat and the grave. I want a home from home where I can become a fixture. I fancy being an octogenarian or older and cranking my hearing aid up to listen to the increasingly alien and unknowable views of pub goers in their teens.

I’d like to be able to come to pubs like this for as long as I can. It’s something I want to have in my life for as long as I’m able to get myself (or for as long as someone can help me) into one.

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I try to take a shot of the self-pleasuring hound with my phone and this puts him off. He looks at me with disgust. Rude. I feel guilty now. What’s the world coming to when you can’t even have a quiet knee-trembler down your local without drinkers capturing it on their devices?

A few days after the fall, guys with hi-vis jackets and chainsaws came for the stricken corpse of the pine. They tore through it and stacked the giant’s vertebrae in the back of a trailer as neatly as cheese rounds in a dairy. I hope the pine is reincarnated through some skilled carpentry rather than burned.

On the walls, black and white prints from yesteryear of men staring back at the box brownie with stage fright have one connection to you: they once came here to unwind too. The closest I can get to knowing these people and their social mores is by tracing their outlines with my finger. They wouldn’t have recognised our morals, atheism or our liberal mindsets. Our converging gender roles wouldn’t have made sense in their world. If they could come back, they might even have trouble telling the men from the women.

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the remains of pine three

How can the British pub be so permanently here? Generation after generation, why do we keep returning? It’s like it’s a point of reference through time. Dependable – a stout bannister flanking life’s upward climb. As folk, we change out of all recognition but the Six Bells endures.

This pub has been here for about half a millennium. The local history extends way beyond that but I think of this: the Six Bells has existed as a public house for longer than the Roman empire ruled England and Wales. This pub has outlasted that empire and even watched while the British one rose and sank too. Within that flowing timeline, I want nothing more than to be depicted in a tapestry panel with pint in hand, raising it at the viewer.

There’s a quote by George Orwell:

“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

Traveller’s Joy

Traveller’s Joy

I was a Londoner when I first kindled an interest in beer. At the time, there was only one shop for it: Utobeer in Borough Market. More shops began to proliferate around the time I moved away and I assumed that to “browse” beers on the shelf – other than macro supermarket staples – would always mean a trip to London.

However….

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Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans

Of all the home counties, something spectacular is happening in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Over the last several years, beer shops have opened up in St Albans, Berkhamsted, Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin (Herts), and Chesham, Amersham and High Wycombe (Bucks). If this catchment could be approximated geographically, it very roughly describes the Chiltern Valley.

I’ve done some searching online for these shops’ equivalents in surrounding counties. I find, for example, one in Billericay for Essex and one in Reading for Berkshire (where I once lived), but they’re singular enterprises. Within Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, beer shops have happened in spates.

Although there are eight stores all within a short drive of each other (more if you include new breweries selling other breweries’ ale in their tap rooms), they are owned by just three concerns.

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Back in 2013, the Red Squirrel Brewing Co had just relocated from Hertford to Potten End near Hemel Hempstead. This was an example of East coast to West coast before it became synonymous with American IPAs (though long after rap music, which never really got down with real ale). It opened a bottle shop in August of that year in Chesham – the first beer shop. Red Squirrel soon followed up with shops in Berkhamsted and Amersham, and has just opened its newest venture in High Wycombe – the Emporium – which also serves small batch coffee and pizzas.

Over the Herts border, John and Ben (the latter working for Tring Brewery – I name them both as I know them and regularly frequent their shop in St Albans) trialled market stalls in St Albans, Harpenden and north London selling bottles from British breweries as well as from Europe, America and beyond. The success enabled them to set up a permanent shop in St Albans in October 2013. Last year, John and Ben also opened a second larger store in Hitchin to the north of St Albans.

In June 2016, a new brewery and tap room opened up in Letchworth Garden City: Garden City Brewery. Hot on its heels, and just a block away, Crafty’s Beer Shop opened to the public in what used to be a jewellers’ shop where the display windows lend themselves perfectly to the presentation of gleaming bottles.

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For Hertfordshire alone, I could see similar shops and tap rooms opening in towns like Watford, Welwyn Garden City, Royston (where sadly its brewery Buntingford has ceased trading), Baldock, Harpenden, Tring, and of course, Hertford.

I’ve been to the bottle shops in London. One difference between them and their more rural counterparts is that those in market towns are often right in the heart of them rather than out in the ‘burbs or under railway arches.

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

“Cammin’ ‘ave a look! Two bawls f’ra pahnd, nar!”

When you join in the cattle-like drove of the customers, you almost start braying. The irony is that when it’s someone else’s market town, you join the herd wide-eyed. When it’s your own market town, you cut an arc around this human infestation in order to reach Tesco’s.

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The war memorial – an elemental part of the market town.

There’s something special about a bottle shop too. It seems to have come about through cosmic ordering and is rooted in both specialism and localism.

I remember visiting a proto beer shop a few years ago in Whitstable. It was an off licence and I say “proto” because there was a specific section set aside for Kentish beer which I was immediately drawn to. The same was true of one in Swanage for Dorset ales. At the time, they could only exist within the structure of a larger off licence.

But now the beer has broken free. Racks of wine from Gallo and stacks of Heineken cans are no longer necessary. There’s a more continental feel to beer shops – they often have seating on the cobbles in front. They have come to fruition and are evolving.

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Here the continental outside seating comes face to face with the British weather – the first bottle shop in otherwise gorgeous Chesham

Beer shops blur the edges between brewery tap rooms, shops and bars. This is in the context of supermarkets like Waitrose serving coffee and chain restaurants like Carluccios and Jamie Oliver’s flogging their own products – books, ingredients, cooking gear – within the eatery itself.

There is however, no confusion between the experience of drinking in a beer shop and drinking in a pub. This isn’t about the differing licences, either. With a beer shop, there is no illusion that you’re entering somebody’s lounge as there might be when visiting the Red Lion. The foundation here is basically the shop floor. The rest is added benefits. This is a much specialised form of the deli rather than the public house.

But maybe you could argue it’s in the eye of the beholder.

You also wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) session beer here as you might in a pub as that would defeat the object. It would be like filling cartons with a single sweet at the Pic n’ Mix. Yes, a beer shop is a confectioner’s boutique.

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I now feel that a market town isn’t complete without one – it fits in with the ethos perfectly. You inspect the wares on the shelves; try before you buy on the taps. What’s good? What’s local? But equally – what’s foreign, exotic and exciting in a sharing bottle?

Though I don’t want any more to be lost, the beer shop might one day gain as equal footing in communities as the pub.

Let me finish on this as proof of evolution. This is the beer shop in Hitchin. To me, it represents possibilities and the future. This isn’t a pub but a cross between a celebration and an analysis of beer. It’s been thoroughly thought out – the tasting tables separated from the bottle shelves as neatly as pub snugs used to be separated from the public lounge. The thing this establishment reminds me of most is a library – the archiving section and the reading section. This is the kind of set-up you get when you have an increasingly discerning clientele – the browsing and the study.

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Despite the onslaught of morris dancers, the beer shops in England’s market towns are leading the way. Beer has become a focus and a quest rather than a staple. The beer shop is something new in Britain. There is, of course, precedent in Belgium but the ones flowering in our market towns are raising the… what’s the word?

Bar.

2017

2017

2017: a year that doesn’t roll off the tongue

Well 2017’s here. Whether it will be as full of upheaval and death as its predecessor, I doubt. But if it is, then current affairs will replace benzedrine this coming year.

I’m sharing with you not so much two new year’s resolutions as two statements of intent. They almost contradict each other:

1 – drink more German beer on tap (which will necessitate going to London).

2 – explore the shire in which I now live instead of constantly visiting London.

Statement number one reflects that the best beer I had in 2016 waited until late December. It was a glass of Lagerbier Hell from Augustiner-Bräu – Munich’s oldest brewery. It was dispensed from keg at the Beer Shop in St Albans. At the time, the town was in a fifteen tog duvet of freezing fog so imagine how much more appealing this beer would be in the swelter of summer. Speaking of which, I also had a brief fling with Kölsch at the end of May (this time just in bottle) so that’s twice I got seduced by Deutsches Bier in 2016.

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German bottled beer is delicious – but I’ve had a taste from tap now

Lager is like the tide sweeping in over a salt flat. When it’s good it’s the most ravishing beer. It’s gorgeous and it’s always been there for me to ignore. Why?

My ignorance of German beer might also be linked to the fact that the bottled version often pales against its tap version. Apart from a few examples like Franziskaner Weissbier, I rarely see variety of German beer on draught – even in London. That’s why the Lager from the beer shop was such an eye-opener.

It’s also in stark contrast to IPA which has in one popular guise put itself on a path of convergent evolution with Um Bongo. IPA is rapidly becoming the syrup at the bottom of tinned fruit both in taste and consistency. It’s lovely but it’s beginning to miss an elemental part of beer: the refreshment.

The problem is I have been fixated on the British and the American with small cameos from Belgium for years now. In part, I think it’s because I’ve subconsciously convinced myself to ignore beer from large established breweries (unless, hypocritically, it happens to be Fullers). It’s time to put that right in 2017.

The second statement isn’t a swipe against the capital. I love it. It’s in me and always will be. I’ve worked for the same borough council now for over ten years so come into it each week. On my adventures around Westminster, I often pass pubs I don’t know and peer through the windows to try and discern the outfit that runs it and the beer it serves based on the pump clip silhouettes. I always used to put down markers for when I was off duty. We moved out in 2011 but the compulsion to go to London during down time carried on.

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the main drag through Sarrat

But this means I have neglected Hertfordshire where I now live. It’s to my great shame that it wasn’t until 2016 I finally visited places like Sarrat and Watford on beery days out. The older pub-goers I know in St Albans that are or were plumbers, milkmen and builders all know the surrounding areas. The people that moved up from London tend to be completely ignorant of them. In St Albans’ case, this isn’t actually a new phenomenon as it’s always been a commuter town and owes its wealth to the big smoke. On the street I live on, most people still work in London so the north/south commute is the norm. The east/west axis doesn’t exist.

The villages and towns in Hertfordshire are connected by wiggly arterial bus routes that take time and often require you change at least once. Since moving to St Albans, I haven’t been on a single bus. I actually had to ask a local codger whether bus drivers take payment (my recent experience only being London) as I genuinely didn’t know. I was also given a piece of advice: never wait to get the last bus – it might never come.

But out there in Hertfordshire’s multiple ayots, garden cities and steads, there are breweries of mystery and brew pubs of legend. They are mine to discover along with the shaggy creatures that run and frequent them. I have big feet for my short body so I’d make an excellent hobbit. It’s finally time to cut across country in 2017.

Happy new year!

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Watford has provoked fear in me for some time because I’ve usually driven in and its road system was designed by Hieronymus Bosch. Circling the town centre, you build momentum through centrifugal force and are either flung from the circuit into deep Hertfordshire or brought in by its gravitational pull. In fourth gear, you realise you need to cross four lanes of agitated motorists in the space of twenty metres. You exit like a dart to breach a chicaned car park entrance. I’d recommend drinking Red Bull before attempting it – in fact, the traffic could be sponsored by it.

I didn’t need to worry about that this time though, as I got the train that shuttles between St Albans and Watford Junction which is a genuine delight. It trundles back and forth along a route of just six stops and takes but sixteen minutes. Each time it sets off after a station, a recording of a “ding ding!” is played. I thought I could hear Ringo Starr’s voice narrating.

I was commuting to Watford to visit a unique local hero: Pope’s Yard Brewery – this way please ladies and gentlemen.

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under the road system can be more aesthetic than above it

Considering their almost walking distance proximity, the difference between St Albans and Watford is striking. St Albans is a cathedral city of strict masonry, building discipline and conservation areas but Watford feels very different. On the walk into town, it veers off in every architectural idiom at once. The office buildings at the top of Clarendon Road look like the round-cornered and smoked glass futurism of the 1980s and 1990s. The Victorian era Beech Grove Baptist Church boasts its ship-like hull. Then there’s the stocky frontage of the Palace Theatre, Edwardian in age. Deeper in, St Mary’s Church roughly dating from the 1200s squats awkwardly among the multi-storey car parks.

There is a tangible pride here too. It’s seen it in the murals on the walls along the subways that give pedestrians safe passage into the town’s heart. Watford is written in big colourful letters and illustrated in spray paint pictures.

The market here is an institution that goes back 900 years and still dominates. Part of it has been repackaged into a structure made from shipping containers and renamed New Watford Market.

The town centre is a bric a brac of chronology and style. It seems both up-and-coming and run down. Gentrification sits shoulder to shoulder with destitution. B&M Bargains neighbours Pret a Manger.

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does what it says on the tin

But there’s a creative energy here that St Albans is too prudish to acquire. St Albans has too much rectitude. Trashiness – a quality Watford has, comes with a kind of hunger for new blood. St Albans practices self-deprivation in this respect – its city centre looks like the browning photographs of itself from the nineteenth century and will be just as recognisable centuries from now. Watford is a bargain bin of civic projects. It’s alive.

St Albans is a tucked-in shirt, cobbled, IT manager-y, Waitrose-y, Jack Wills-y. You just know its pretty streets are heaving with conservation orders and neighbourhood associations that do mulled wine evenings – and they are! Whereas Watford has the freedom to keep redefining itself.

There’s an awkwardness to Watford too, though. When said aloud, it even sounds like it’s annoyed. The town’s chaotic but through some cosmic fairness, it’s just as difficult to negotiate through it by car as it is on foot. It’s like the town was planned to make life harder for both modes of travel without putting bias on either. Maybe the planners just got a fantastic deal on concrete.

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the flyover – Exchange Road soars straight over the town centre

And another thing, why does everybody cycle on the pavement here? I keep almost getting mown down.

Perhaps what tops it all is the brutalist concrete flyover careering straight over the main drag – Exchange Road built in 1972. That carriageway needs to stay because one day soon when 1970s brutalism isn’t the recent past but the sepia history, that structure will be as symbolic for Watford as the bridge is in Avignon. It will become a listed monument closed to traffic with a public walkway, visitors centre, viewing platforms and a sustainable coffee shop. Watford, the town on a roundabout, will become a UNESCO site.

A cold grey version of the Jetsons – vehicles orbiting in rings around the town and even soaring overhead on roads through the air. This was the future as we used to imagine it. Kudos to Watford for trying.