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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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….