Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Ghost in the Shell: St Albans

Part 1

This post is about pubs in St Albans and how they’re faring up against the national cull. This is a city that’s weathering it better than others. St Albans is one of several towns in Britain that boasts the most amount of pubs per head of population along with Norwich and Canterbury. The jury’s out. 

The Black Lion faces The Blue Anchor. Despite appearances, they're both private housing

As far as public houses are concerned, its heyday was back when it was a stagecoach town reaping the custom of travellers coming in and out of London. For the pubs that endured into our Elizabethan age, it’s more a change of culture at a societal level that’s closing public houses as well as breweries opting to sell stock to the lucrative housing market . This essay will be in two halves: this post will focus on the closures and the loss historically and into the present day. The second half will be about the future possibilities, as the more I see things evolve, the more I wonder if some of it isn’t a change for the better. I’ll write about beer resurfacing in different public milieux.



At the end of the nineteenth century St Albans lost a pub which, if it had survived, might’ve been one of the most famous historically. It was apparently in its doorway that the Duke of Somerset was slain in 1455 in the first battle of the War of the Roses. Shakespeare alludes to it in Henry VI part II. His nemesis Richard Duke of York says:

So, lie thou there;-
For, underneath an alehouse’ paltry sign,
The Castle in Saint Albans, Somerset
Hath made the wizard famous in his death

It was demolished to modernise Sweetbriar Lane which became Victoria Street. When I think of pub closures, I think of this as the first as wooden medieval overhang gave over to the robust red brick of Victorian build. The closure traces an arrow right to the present day.

These harpoons are absolutely everywhere

If you go to any of the streets leading off St Albans’ main drag and rotate 360 degrees, you’ll see harpoons sticking out of the sides of buildings. Most of them will have been pubs - the signs would’ve hung from them. These empty pikes aren’t the only clue to the city’s ex-public houses; you need only look at the names of yards, streets and even shopping centres. Close to the site of The Castle was St Peters Brewery. Though long gone, its presence is reflected in the Maltings Shopping Centre built on what was once its malting floors. One of the yards backing onto it is Half Moon Yard named after the Half Moon pub. The little alleys that cut through the Tudor buildings to the market place are also named after boozers like Queens Way (Queen’s Hotel), Lamb Alley (The Lamb) and Boot Alley (The Boot). Gloriously, that last pub is still going strong. Through to French Row, St Albans’ second shopping centre - Christopher Place - is named after The Christopher Inn. A 15th century pedestrian arch still survives with a hoofed and particularly front-heavy stone grotesque guarding one end.

A bound 15th century grotesque

In the 19th century the trade was driven by competition between the Verulam Road Brewery and St Peter’s Brewery. The two families - Searancke and Kinder - eventually had their businesses subsumed into even bigger concerns; proof that brewery takeovers are nothing new. Both were purchased by Adey & Whites which in turn was acquired by Flowers. It was then ingested by Whitbread. Just think of Russian dolls.

There were streets where every building was a public house, tap room or coaching inn. French Row and Chequer Street were cases in point. Holywell Hill’s eastern side was literally a long row of hostelries. To list all the pubs would require an encyclopaedia. 

Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans. The large building is the town hall

The first swathe of closures in St Albans was actually attributable to the railway replacing horse-drawn traffic from 1858 onwards. Prior to that, the inns used to rely on the punters being literally ridden in from out of town. It wasn’t just ale and board for the travellers that was required but for the nags too. 

St Albans is just as famous for its many restaurants. Many were pubs: the Vintry became a Cote, Harry’s Bar became a huge Brasserie Blanc, the Bell became a Jamie Oliver Restaurant, the Cross Keys became a Bill’s, the Cricketers became an Indian restaurant, the Red Lion became a ZiZi and The Tudor Tavern became a Thai Square. Now in the yards that used to be occupied by stables, you’re more likely to see kitchen staff on their cigarette break crouching defeatedly against a wall - the perpetual growl of extractor fans their only company.

The age-warped but beautiful structure of what was the Tudor Tavern

With regards to the Tudor Tavern (which genuinely is from Tudor times), its loft spaces alone have been converted into several restaurants so maybe the chain will wish to apportion some of its seating, bar and cellar space to good beer some time soon. After all, when I walk past, the tables are never full - maybe that’s an omen. It would be a shame to ever lose those stone elephants, though.

Size certainly is a key issue. If the public house is also a coaching tavern with stabling for horses, it’s obviously a property of great size. In modern times, what becomes of such largesse? The horses ain’t coming back. Stabling was incorporated into the structure of the building - often occupying the heart of it so it’s not something that can easily be converted to a car park either. There are clusters of these architectural gems remaining in St Albans.

An ancient coaching inn on Sopwell Lane

One of the best preserved coaching inns in the country is at the corner of Sopwell Lane and Holywell Hill. It’s a private dwelling now but was once The Old Crown Inn. A bit further down the lane stands The Goat. What was former stabling is now an italianate patio beer garden. Another famous example is on Verulam Road. It was formerly The Verulam Arms (not to be confused with another Verulam Arms a block away - see part 2). In 1835 Queen Victoria and her large retinue stayed and had lunch there on their way back from Scotland to London. In this case, the body has remained intact as it’s been converted into something that benefits the many rooms and is even more essential to a community than a pub - a nursing home.

At the other end of the scale, a narrow boozer like The Bat and Ball is now the home of Lisa’s Star Nails. I love the fact that an old pub name can remain hovering high on the building decades after its demise. It was a Kent Holywell Hill Brewery tied pub.



On some houses we are also left with some antique stencilling and artwork. Now a private house, what used to be The Vine on Spicer Street still has a painting of a bunch of grapes above the door. The pub was originally leased by Gentle’s Yard Brewery just around the corner - a micro before the term existed. Still on the wall in fading letters: Benskins Fine Ales & Stout - this was the brewery that later took it over. Benskins hailed from nearby Watford and was once Hertfordshire’s biggest brewer. The brand name was used up until the early 1990s but actually belongs to Heineken now.



The below image is of a house in Tyttenhanger Green on the outskirts of St Albans. Historically it’s infamous. In the mid 1970s it boasted 18 cask ales at a time - possibly the only pub in Britain to do so. It was an early CAMRA destination in the days before people bothered too much about drink-driving. As you can see, it was called The Barley Mow and its once glowing illustration panel is fading away. The figures on it, just discernible, are ghosts. Instead of a welcome to walkers, if you attempt to wander down the public footpath that runs past its right flank, you’ll be funnelled into an ever narrowing squeeze by a row of parked cars before two massive Rottweilers launch themselves at you. Just a flimsy fence separates you from them. Scrambling out of the other end of the tight bottleneck you’ll come out at the A414 where traffic thunders past at 80 miles an hour. It’s one of the most unpleasant twists to a countryside walk imaginable.



One of the things most in contrast to my previous Ghost in the Shell essay about St Johns Wood is how many ex-pubs in St Albans have become houses or housing. Away from the big cities, this seems to be the default reversion. As well as The Barley Mow and Vine, I could also mention the Blue Lion, the Duke of Marlborough, the Black Lion, the King Offa, the Crow, the Blue Anchor and the Camp. The last two were McMullens tied pubs.

There is only one remaining McMullen tied house - The Peahen at the junction of London Road and Holywell Hill. It’s a big venue. It was once two pubs in the 18th century. The Peahen absorbed its neighbour the Woolpack in around 1852. It incorporated Kent’s Holywell Brewery which was later bought up by Adey & Whites. Nowadays under McMullens, it gets added revenue by portioning some of its space out. It must be the only pub in Britain that is also a jewellers, the White Rooms Business Hub (check it online - I’ve no clue what it is either) and four separate estate agents. It still bears its horse arch. Inside is where the Kent Holywell Brewery (Kent being the family name) operated up until 1936. It has one added architectural quirk - a balcony seemingly built to look down on the crossroads traffic.

Not just a pub but 6 other businesses. The view from the balcony isn't worth it.

Referencing the area’s Roman heritage, the Camp was situated on Camp Road. It was tied to McMullens whose pubs have been sold in their droves over the past few years as a house sale is worth much more in the short term. Last year, there was a concerted effort by CAMRA to save The Camp. It was given ACV status but planning has been given for the structure to be pulled down and be replaced with a block of flats as no buyer has been found. I regret not getting involved as I thought there wasn’t the custom to sustain it. I went in twice. On both occasions me and my dog were given a friendly welcome but I couldn’t help but notice how empty it seemed apart from the several men at the bar. They looked like they spent their lives there. Even if it seemed me signing the petition would’ve made no difference, I’m conscious that if everybody took that view, stands would never be made. A brawl took place at the bar on its closing night as a group of morons decided to settle old scores. That didn’t help its cause either. I walked back there for the photo and couldn’t help noticing that the boards in the windows look like the pennies on a dead body’s eyes.

What used to be the Camp

If this post ends on a depressing note, I hope the follow-up post will act as its uplifting counterfoil.