St Albans: great heritage pub crawl
Added: Tuesday, November 27th 2018
You tend to take your home town for granted and forget its many attributes. Take St Albans, for example: a magnificent abbey cathedral, Roman remains and a Roman museum, a street market topped by a Georgian town hall and, to cap the lot, 50 pubs.
When I moved to St Albans in the late 1970s, there were 55 pubs, and in spite of all the trials and tribulations of the pub trade in recent years we’ve not lost many of our fine hostelries.
I’ve never organised a pub crawl in the city before but I was repaying a debt. Last December I met three members of a small group called the Completists: Richard Coldwell, Simon Everitt, Duncan Mackay and Martin Taylor take on the mind-boggling and bibulous feat every year of visiting every pub in the latest Good Beer Guide. That’s around 4,500 drinking outlets: a daunting task for both feet and livers.
I had joined Richard, Simon and Martin in Sheffield for a tour of some of Steel City’s finest pubs: Duncan couldn’t make that trip. In return, I promised to show them some of the St Albans pubs in the GBG and, after much emailing and shuffling of dates, finally met up almost a year after our first crawl. Simon couldn’t make it but Duncan braved the long journey down from Scotland.
The word had gone out via social media and we were joined by Peter Allen from Birmingham, a drinking friend of the Completists, Mick Ayres from Hartley Wintney in Hampshire, veteran CAMRA member Paul Mudge from Stafford, and from St Albans Peter Cox who blogs as God1Zola25. They are seen above in the Great Northern pub.
Our first port of call was the Robin Hood in Victoria Street, a useful starting point as it’s just a couple of minutes’ walk from the main City station. The Robin Hood, once a Whitbread pub, hasn’t been in the guide for many a long year and it’s good to welcome it back into the fold. We couldn’t have had a better start to the day for the pub serves that sublime ale, Harvey’s Sussex Best. It’s little seen outside of Sussex, with just a few outlets in London, and it’s good to find it propping up a bar in St Albans.
Suitably cheered by this brief encounter, we headed up Victoria Street where I pointed out a now boarded-up building that was once a bike shop with a room above where CAMRA had its first office in the early 1970s. The group would later pass the second CAMRA head office at 34 Alma Road when they made their way back to the station at the end of the day.
From Victoria Street, a quick right and then left turn brought us to the Mermaid on Hatfield Road. The Mermaid has been a star pub in the local firmament for several years as a result of its dedication to good beer from independent brewers as well as a fine reputation for cider.
You can sit on the comfortable benches in the pub and wallow in nostalgia, as it’s decked out with a plethora of old brewery mirrors and advertising memorabilia. The pub has been famous locally for serving vast amounts of Oakham Citra and that was naturally on offer but I was surprised and delighted to find two beers from Elgood’s in Wisbech: Plum Porter and POSH IPA. With more pubs on the agenda, I was pacing myself with a half in each. I was delighted with the porter and must hurry back for a taste of the IPA.
We headed off to the Boot but I paused en route to enter the recently opened museum in the old town hall. This has a time line detailing the history of the city from Roman times and I pointed to one of the segments for 1972 that says the local branch of CAMRA was formed that year. The campaign is part of the city’s history.
The Boot on Market Place stands opposite the historic Clock Tower. This was erected by local citizens in defiance of the abbot: only he was permitted to tell the time but in the turbulent period that led to the dissolution of the monasteries the citizens were keen to cock a snook at the abbot.
There’s more history on offer in the Grade II-listed Boot (it wasn't snowing on our visit but it's a nice wintery scene). It dates from 1422 and has beams, open fires, bare boards and settles. Soldiers fighting in the first battle of the Wars of the Roses drank in the Boot after rampaging through the streets and crossing swords on Bernards Heath. The pub is another popular outlet for Oakham Citra and JHB and also features such local breweries as Mad Squirrel and Tring. It also occasionally serves Draught Bass but sadly not on this visit.
We set off down the cobbles to Fishpool Street. It’s hard to believe that this was once the area where artisans lived, for the small houses and cottages are now much sought after by people with serious money. The Lower Red Lion, like the Boot, is Grade II-listed and its two bars are heavily beamed, with standing posts and welcoming open fires. In a city short on hotels, the Lower Red offers accommodation and is praised for its food. It’s also yet another outlet for Oakham beers but has a regular and changing range of guests.
The pub’s curious name stems from the fact that there was once a Great Red Lion near the Clock Tower but that has been a restaurant for many years and is now part of the Zizzi chain.
It’s a quick stagger to the Six Bells in an area known as St Michael’s, deep in the heart of the old Roman city where remains are frequently found, including a malt oven that suggests the Romans may have made ale, perhaps when supplies of wine ran short.
The Six Bells dates from the 16th century and has the obligatory beams, timbers and roaring fires, with a large garden for the summer months. The beer offer is superb: yet again Oakham JHB but backed by Tim Taylor Landlord, Otter, Tring Ridgeway, 3 Brewers Ruby from a local brewer, Theakston Atlantic Red and an 8.5 per cent version of Greene King Abbot called Confession – a fitting beer for a cathedral city.
It was time for a long amble across the great sweep of Verulamium Park with a large lake and the remains of a Roman hypercaust, a type of under-soil heating: the Romans clearly didn’t take to the English climate. At the far end of the park and the lake is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, officially the country’s oldest pub, though whisper it quietly in Nottingham if you visit the Trip to Jerusalem.
The YOFC, as it’s known for short, dates from the 8th century but has been much extended over the centuries and, fortunately, the cock fighting pit is no longer used for that horrific purpose. It’s claimed that Oliver Cromwell dropped in during the Civil War and took his horse to the bar. I wonder what the horse drank...
The listed building attracts visitors from all round the world with its rambling interior of beams, posts, open fires and comfortable seating. The inn has been transformed by publican Christo Tofalli. Once Bass and then M&B, it now offers six excellent beers, including pale and dark ales from local Farr Brew and Purity UBU: UBU is the inn’s best seller. The YOFC has a deserved reputation for good, imaginative food, using home-grown organic herbs and vegetables, and Christo plans his own micro brewery.
There was time for one last pub before we made our separate ways home. It was a long haul, up a narrow cobbled lane to the city centre with inspiring views of the spot-lit abbey en route, then down the main London Road to the Great Northern.
The pub has been brilliantly overhauled. Once a Courage pub with dismal beer and a poor reputation, it’s now a gastro eatery and is alongside the rejuvenated Odyssey cinema. The cinema was closed for many years but now shows a fine mix of films, ranging from top productions to smaller ones with restricted circulation.
The Great Northern was originally called the Alma as it stands opposite the junction of London Road and Alma Road. It became the Great Northern when a railway line linked St Albans to Hatfield and Watford. The line has gone and is a now cycle way, but the small preserved station still stands.
The pub is small, intimate and cosy and has rapidly built a good reputation for its food. There are three changing beers alongside Black Sheep Best Bitter all the way from Yorkshire, a fitting beer for a pub called the Great Northern.
That was the final call of the day. Apologies to the White Hart Tap and the White Lion, both listed in the GBG, for missing them out but there’s a limit to amount of walking and drinking you can do in a day.
But I was proud to have shown The Completists and friends some of the fine watering holes in our historic city.
•St Albans’ pub heritage is now under threat as a result of the punitive level of business rates in the city. The November budget included relief for pubs with rateable values up to £51K – but a number of pubs in St Albans have values in excess of that figure.
As a result, publicans have formed a campaign Save St Albans Pubs, led by Sean Hughes at the Boot and Christo Tofalli at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. They say the burden of high rates could cause several local pubs to close and they are asking Chancellor Philip Hammond to raise the relief ceiling higher than £51k. They have enlisted the support of local MP Anne Main, seen here with Christo Tofalli at YOFC. Mrs Main says she will raise the issue with the Treasury. (Photo courtesy Herts Advertiser.)