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.

Pope’s Yard Brewery

Pope’s Yard Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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