In all the years we have lived in St Albans I have never been on one of the guided town walks. I’ve seen groups set off from the Town Hall many times, but I think when you live in a town you never quite get round to doing things. When I saw the new “Eat, Drink and Be Merry” tour advertised in the information centre, I thought it was a long overdue chance to find out some of our local history.
Spoiler alert – I will tell you the odd snippet of info from the walk, but there was so much covered in the two hours there is still plenty to discover if you plan to go. Ann Dean was our very knowledgeable guide, and brought the stories to life. Any mistakes in the information that follows are entirely mine!
We met Ann outside the Town Hall, and set off to market square. There were 15 in the group, so it was easy to hear what Ann said and made for an enjoyable tour, with thoughtful questions and local chat. I learned that St Albans had many inns back in medieval times, as the town was a day’s travel on horseback from London. Some inns were built by the monastery, and there were at least five breweries at one time, even when the population was around the 5000 mark. Inns were fashionable and selective places, setting the tone for St Albans even then!
We paused outside L’Italia and Ann showed us the Christopher Inn building, which you can see clearly if you look up at the roofline. The whole of Christopher Place shopping centre would have been the yard for the Inn, where people would have stabled their horses. In the passageway to the side, Ann showed us the location of the entrance so guests could arrive under cover. Ann explained that this and many other inns in St Albans were built way before coaches, so they are not “coaching inns”, which was news to most of us.
We heard how the mayor and other town officials would feast in the inn, and there is a fantastic menu recorded of the food the 24 guests ate at the civic banquet in 1577. It includes river eels, oysters, green fish, mutton, rabbit, beef, grouse pies, a plethora of puds, and to wash it down 126 and a half pints of wine. Plus beer. I’m not sure how much they remembered afterwards but it does sound like they enjoyed themselves enormously.
Many of the buildings in the town centre were inns, and we discovered that the whole of Holywell Hill was once inns! Zizzis was once an inn called the Red Lion Inn but had long since lost its original purpose as somewhere to stay. The Flr de Lys too, although this keeps its name although under the guise of The Snug. Ann explained that pictorial signs were used because most people, even the super wealthy, could not read. So if you were looking for The Cross Keys, it was painted clearly on the sign. We learned the difference between inns, taverns and taps: inns were for food and lodging (and ale, beer and wine), taverns were used mostly by locals or perhaps, a “lower class” of person. Taps were even more functional and served to provide ale for the main inn. The White Hart Tap used to serve the White Hart, and the entire space between them was the yard for the White Hart. Where now stand rows of desirable terrace housing, there was simply a yard for horses, and all the people who made their livelihood looking after travellers. Servants would have drunk at the tap, and those they serve up at the White Hart.
In the taverns, you could get a “good ordinary meal, at a fixed price, at a fixed time”. That probably suited what the tavern keepers could cook in the space they had; quite a leap to our now extensive range of pubs, cafes and restaurants serving food from all round the world.
Quiet Sopwell Lane was once the major road to London, and in one year had 250,000 horses travel along it, according to the road toll at the town boundary. The Goat would have been a very busy place. It is still packed with charm, and does good food, and thankfully continues to serve good ales. The tiny doorway shows how people have changed over years!
It was fascinating to hear that the C&G building on Holywell Hill was once the Queen Hotel and that Charles Dickens stayed there. If you stand across the road, you can see the entrance for the horses nearby. Just along at Jamie’s you can see the original outline of The BlueBell, which has many colourful stories. It has been through many incarnations, not least losing the “blue” bit from its name. There is a bell hanging outside to give you a clue of its history, but it should probably be a flower. I am sure there are many local historians who may have their view on that.
When the railway from London to Birmingham reached Watford, the inn trade virtually disappeared overnight, and St Albans had to adapt. And here we are. We still enjoy our local pubs. It’s still a very busy place with many travelling to London. And we still enjoy good food. When you are next walking through the old parts of St Albans, take a look for the many passageways and imagine the horses arriving, with tired riders ready for food and ale. It brings history from over 500 years straight into your imagination. Would you have been a wealthy guest, a busy cook, a successful landlady or landlord, or brewer? Would you have been one of the thieves or pickpockets and would you have ended up in the nearby prison or workhouse? St Albans was a very lively place!
For more information on local guided walks, visit the Town Hall Information Centre. You need to book ahead as they are very popular.