Where's a good, easy day out from London? St Albans that's where. A mere 25 minutes from central London and in feel, a world away. All of a sudden you are in a distinctly different part of the country with an easy going feel to it and a small town atmosphere. It has a cathedral, a large market, an old town, lots of pubs and even a small Christmas market. What's not to like? Well a persistent drizzly rain that's what. Despite leaving London with a cloudless sky, we arrived to light rain, which more or less, despite the weather forecast saying a 2% chance of precipitation, gave us 100% drizzle. As Peter Kay might say "you know, the kind of rain that wets you."
I suppose too if I was a bit picky, I'd complain about the station being nowhere near the centre - and it isn't - but if it hadn't been raining that wouldn't have mattered, but as it was we were getting distinctly wet, so after a little bit of orientation we hopped into the Blacksmith's Arms for no reason other than we were passing it. It is quite a nice, friendly pub, which despite having a Cask Marque sign had by some way the poorest beer we had that day, not helped by a random looking choice of Christmas ales, plus Doom Bar. My Bath Ales Festivity was pretty underwhelming, but the pub was bustling and cheerful and the service was brisk and polite, so it was getting some things right. The food looked decent too.
After a walk round the long street market, we crossed into the Old Town and made for the cathedral, noting the odd pub as we went. This being the festive season, it was carols that were the main attraction and the lovely cathedral was full of locals, anticipating their singalong, though one or two others, like us, wanted to see the building itself . That was fine too and very enjoyable. The whole church had a homely and community feel which given its size was extraordinary. It was the kind of place, if I lived locally, I'd be drawn to - and I'm not particularly religious. I'd go back in a heartbeat just to see it again.
So, after that uplifting experience it was back into the rain and a quick dart into the low ceilinged Boot, which was atmospheric and rammed. We stood for our first pint and then managed a little table for two with a good view of things. It was clear the place was full of locals as folks greeted each other by name or shouted and waved across the crowded room. We were happy to be part of it and left with a lot of reluctance after a couple of decent pints, for a look round another market. Then a stroll to the local JDW which came as highly recommended, being in a renovated medieval barn. The Waterend Barn was also, despite its size absolutely "chokka" as they say in Liverpool, so we stood at the bar with our drinks while watching the manager dish out roles to the staff, while omitting to get one or two to actually serve the growing throng of customers waiting to be served. Ah well, nearly right. It should go without saying that serving customers comes first. Well in a way, that's what happened. It went without saying. Good beer though and interesting customers in a more upmarket Christmas jumper sort of way.
We left the best of the day to the last two pubs we visited. The White Hart Tap was more or less on the way back to the station and an absolute delight, though tricky to get in as the door is in front of the bar which is only about five feet away and was blocked by a number of quite pissed lads, who good naturedly stepped aside to let us in. This is a neat little pub with Northern quality beer. I had some splendid beer from Summer Wine Brewery (Zenith) and even a bit of a chat with a couple of gents necking down vino reddo.
Our last call was near the station. The Robin Hood was better looking on the outside than in, though it was busy and friendly. It seemed to have been given a bad taste makeover recently, with inappropriate pale laminate flooring jarring considerably, as did the light blue paint on the bar. Putting these aside, the Harvey's Best was excellent and compensated in no small way for the decor. I do wonder though about the yukky pub interior, which was further diminished by harsh white overhead lighting.
This was a good day out with beer well above average, some good pubs and all noticeably friendly. Best of all in some ways was that less than an hour later, we were back in our London flat. We'll be back when it isn't raining.
The city - for that is what is is - had a homely small town feel to it. Coming as I do from a small town, I liked that about it.
I have been to St Albans before but it was a long time ago and I was driving, so no pubs that time. Thanks to all who gave me recommendations for this visit.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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