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.