A walk through Hertford 2017 style

Wrenbridge have just submitted the final plans for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre after months of discussion between themselves and East Herts Planning Department, local groups, residents and more than enough statutory consultant bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust that you can throw a blueprint at.

If you really must read all about it then follow this link to the planing page and read as many documents as your brain will allow: Documents relating to application.

Bircherley Green Shopping Centre is located in the town centre bordered by Railway Street to the south, the River Lee (Lea) to the north, Bircherley Street to the east and Bull Plain to the west. This map explains it all:

Aerial view of Bircherley Green
Bircherley Green in blue (top centre) within Hertford Town boundaries

This small piece of real estate almost lost in the middle of twentieth century expansion has consumed the minds of the good and great since 2014. It is contained within the Hertford Conservation Area but as everyone admits it is not the most attractive group of buildings to grace this ancient, market town.

So why has it got everyone defending it and wanting to counter any change? Because Hertford is an ancient English market town. I doubt if anyone who has contributed to any report listed above has bothered to walk the streets recently. They might have a different opinion if they had; so I will save you the trouble of visiting the town yourself and explain how Hertford fits into this mind set.

Hertford has seen a return to the old traditional crafts of tattooing, vaping, nail polishing and video gaming. Many shops have adopted a simple Dark Ages colour scheme of black or dark battleship grey eschewing the more modern trend towards hand painted signage above the door applied with mahlstick and sable brush.

The inns and taverns that were found in almost every house the length of Fore Street and Back Street (now Railway Street and Maidenhead Street) have been replaced by bars and venues serving ‘craft’ beer from metal kegs and poured from bottles containing ales and stouts that were never brewed anywhere in the county or for that matter, the country.

The old coffee shops have given way to transatlantic coffee shops with even stranger sounding names where no face to face commerce takes place apart from a Wi-fi link and where a cup of coffee costs more than a pack of Java beans from a supermarket shelf. Thank Heavens for Rose Cafe which stands by the traditional methods and where you can still buy a traditional cup of Nescaff for under a pound and it is brought to your table with saucer almost as soon as it is ordered.

Unfortunately many staple mid seventeenth century meals such ‘boyle beef, porch, rost beef and cheese’ have been replaced by a growth of restaurants with a distinctive Italian flavour and a slight hint of Turkish. This type of Continental fayre is thought to have been brought over to this country by the growing number of Italian students eager for a sight of their Shakespearean heritage behind the modern facade of estate agents and charity shops.

Do seek out the commercial sector, many of the inns and stores that sold these hot and cold vittals are still there. Many are seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings; one or two are thought to be sixteenth century. The timber framing and plaster boarding have been protected for posterity by the application of twentieth century concrete. You cannot see the original design or view the interior as they are mostly private offices but they are all to be found in the Department of Environment List of Buildings of Historic or Architectural Interest being at least of Grade II standard.

As befits a medieval town the road system is all that you could wish for. The town centre layout has not changed much since the early seventeenth century as Spede’s map of 1611 shows.

Spede's map of 1611
Spede’s map of 1611

Fore Street and Back Street mentioned above can be plainly seen leading from Hertford Castle in the centre to the town’s eastern boundary.

Not only is the road system exactly the same as it was over four hundred years ago, so are the roads. The cobbles have no mortar to bind them, broken slabs on the pavements catch the unwary lady with high heels and pot holes peer though the thin tarmac on the surface of the roads to laugh at motorists. Hertford was built for the horse and cart and this is still the best form of travel through town although there are now no inns to stable your horses which is a bit of a stinker. But fear not, you can still park your car – for a fee – before the Beadle catches up with you.

Did I mention Hertford Castle? It did exist but the unwary visitor may find it hard to find. All that remains is the grassy mound on which the original Norman motte was built. What we call ‘the Castle’ is actually the gatehouse rebuilt by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century and then parts of it were blown up by the Duke of Devonshire in the nineteenth century.

No medieval town could be without its castle; or its market. There is a Charter Market on Saturdays which struggles to fill the available space. No longer are cattle herded down Fore Street to be sold at market behind the old inns that stretched to All Saints churchyard at the rear. I suppose this might be a good thing as they might wander along Gascoyne Way and cause traffic to snarl up all along the A414 east and west, which of course never ever happens at all in these more enlightened times.

This is why report after report from agencies as diverse as Historic England and Waste Services have been damning the application to redevelop Bircherley Green Shopping Centre in a bid to protect Hertford’s heritage and architectural beauty from the ravages of the Twenty First century – and urge us all to continue to embrace the legacy of the Saxons, the Norman Conquest, the Plague and the Poor Law.

It is now all in the hands of the East Herts Council Planing department – we await their decision.

Hidden Hertford – an audio visual guide

html video by EasyHtml5Video.com v3.9.1

This is the first three chapters of the official Hidden Hertford audio/visual tour. It is a unique opportunity to enjoy a virtual walk around the county town with a professional commentary on the history, heritage and points of nterest.

The mp4 video file was originally intended for us on iPods and can be viewed now on a variety of devices including a PC running Windows 10.

As this was photographed in 2008 some of the shops that are mentioned have changed ownership or trade. The Library has moved from Old Cross to Dolphin Yard, although the building remains and is used by a design agency. Some landmarks like Sovereign House have recently been demolished. The tour takes about one and a half hours on foot but as the introduction states, there are plenty of opportunities to stop for refreshment

Download the full tour here – £2.99 from Paypal. The file is 164mb and runs for approx 22mins. After purchase Paypal will re-direct you to a new page from where you can download the file.

The MP3 audio version is available for download for £0.99 through Paypal. The file is 19mb. After purchase Paypal will re-direct you to a new page from where you can download the file.

Hidden Hertford logoIn 2007 Visit Britain contacted my colleague Carole Skidmore who was at that time working at East Herts Council and asked if Hertford would like to be part of the Hidden Britain project.

We raised over £32,000 from Visit Britain, Action for Market Towns, The National Lottery Awards for All and Hertford Town Council. Our local MP Mark Prisk also wrote a letter of support to assist in the grant process.

By early 2008 Hidden Hertford was ready to go. The funds were used for several projects including river trips, community festivals, educational days on the Farmers Market, equipment for Hertford Museum and the software, hardware and professional expertise to place a guided tour on to a digital platform.

This is only available as an mp4. I am only offering one format but there is software available if you need to convert the file. Once payment has been made you will be redirected to a new page from where you can download either file.

If you would like a French, German or Polish version please contact me as below.

Here is a quick photo montage of Hertford; much, much more appears in the video with historical background and the odd interesting story to accompany it. Clicking on one image will begin the slideshow.

This is a quick photo montage of Hertford; much, much more appears in the video with historical background and the odd interesting story to accompany it. Clicking on one image will begin the slideshow.

You can contact John Barber here: moc.r1524517644ebrab1524517644nhoj@1524517644tcatn1524517644oc1524517644



Hertford – a short guide

Hertfprd Castle Gatehouse
Hertford Castle Gatehouse

Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire; about twenty miles north of London up the A10 from Tottenham, or take the A1/M1 turn off at Hatfield for the A414.

It has two railway stations, Hertford North and Hertford East with regular services into London Kings Cross and London Liverpool Street respectively.

Hertford Castle

At the centre of town is Hertford Castle; it was known to the Vikings and on the site of the original earthworks a castle was built around 912 AD.

From then onwards it was always a favourite of royalty. It was briefly lost to the French in 1216 but Henry V conferred it to his wife. Henry V111 was apparently none too taken with it but lived here for a time with Katherine of Aragon.

His daughter Elizabeth 1 loved the place and moved Parliament here during the Great Plague of London. Castle Street leads you out of the grounds and into Parliament Square.

Very little remains of the castle now apart from the Gatehouse and the castle grounds which can be enjoyed by visitors. The rooms of the Castle are now occupied by the Town Council although on open days throughout the year the Robing rooms are opened to the public, as part of a guided tour.

Just outside the entrance to the castle buildings is a weatherbeaten stone which commemorates the first General Synod of the British churches in 673AD. It was at this meeting that the rules for determining Easter were set.

If you have ever wondered why Easter always falls on a different date this is the reason: Easter was to be held on the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21.

Leisure spots in Hertford

Hertford town centre is well populated with bars, pubs, restaurants, bistros and eateries. So whatever your particular favourite in eating and drinking you’ll find it here.

Many of Hertford’s pubs are old coaching inns. The Salisbury Arms Hotel has been on the site in Fore Street for five centuries although the Dimsdale Arms,a few doors away, is now the Pizza Express and was once the site of the Monday market that used to stretch from its back doors over to the other side of what is now the main road through Hertford, Gascoyne Way.

Hertford is a brewery town. McMullens are one of the last large scale independent brewers left in the country. They have brewed on the site at Old Cross since 1890. The smell of hops often drifts over the town.

The River Lea

Hertford’s prosperity was due to its pre-eminence in the brewing industry and supplied barley and malt to London’s major brewers from the early sixteenth century.

The River Lea runs through the town and with the building of the canals became the main trade route to the capital. The Lea splits into two in Hertford and the wider, faster running water that flows past Folly Island at the Barge pub, is actually the Lea Navigation following the Navigation Acts of 1832.

The original Lea runs on the northern side, thus forming Folly island and is little more than a stream in some places until it reconnects with the Navigation past Hertford lock.

Folly Island is a Local Conservation Area. There is only one road for motor access and parking is almost impossible, even for residents. It can be accessed on foot more easily and a good stopping point is the Old Barge, built in the 1880’s with the cottage style workmen’s houses on the island itself.

You can walk along the Lea riverbank up to Hertford basin where the houseboats are moored and across the footbridge to Hertford East station.

Most people just stop for a light meal and a pint at the Barge and watch the houseboats and small craft come up the river and turn round a few more yards upriver where you can just discern the old mill buildings that once were more prevalent in town.

Hertford as well as being the county town also has a market. This happens on Saturdays and supplemented by a Farmers Market on the second Saturday of the month.

Hertford is a commuter town with most residents working in London but on weekends Hertford is a bustling, busy, thriving place to be and there are plenty of pubs where you can take the weight off your feet and enjoy a pint of local ale.

Hidden Hertford

In 2004 Hertford became the centre of media attention with the publication of an article in the Hertfordshire Mercury claiming that underneath the streets of the county town were a labyrinth of secret tunnels still used by descendants of the Knights Templar.

Hidden Hertford logo
Hidden Hertford logo

I have now made the official Hidden Hertford Audio Visual Tour available again for download. You can view the full 20 minute video as an mp4 file for just £2.99 (or listen just to the audio version for £0.99). Many of the places mentioned above are featured but some shops and landmarks have now closed or disappeared such as Sovereign House.


You can contact John Barber here: moc.r1524517644ebrab1524517644nhoj@1524517644tcatn1524517644oc1524517644

A short history of brewing in Hertford

Traditional maltsters
Traditional maltsters

What made Hertford so famous for brewing?

Hertford’s wealth was founded on the brewing industry. The main crop was barley which thrived in the light well drained soil that surrounded Hertford. It produced the short, plump, thin-skinned variety that every maltster desired. Hertford’s pre-eminence was born out of a simple geographic alliance.

Barley was brought in from the fields to the maltings where it was soaked in water to convert the starch into sugar and then heated to arrest germination before the addition of yeast to produce alcohol. The temperature is controlled to give either a pale malt or roasted to produce the dark malts for stout and porter – particular favourites of Londoners.

Londoner’s had always drunk beer; it was healthier than untreated water from the Thames. This demand was met by the brewers who had traditionally sourced malt, the raw material for beer, from three main areas; Surrey, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

The second natural advantage of Hertford’s ascendancy was the river Lea. It flows straight from the centre of the town until running in to the Thames directly into the heart of London. Here the great brewing names such as Whitbread, Perkins and Coombe built riverside warehouses to accept the continuous barges of malt.

Almost as soon as the Navigation Acts were passed in the middle of the eighteenth century allowing for the improvement of barge transport into Hertford, events were occurring elsewhere that were to threaten Hertford’s pre-eminence as a malting and brewing centre.

The decline of Hertford as a centre for brewing

East Anglia was establishing itself as a major source of barley and barges using the sea route from Norfolk to London’s Bear Quay were accounting for a higher proportion of London’s malt imports. The big brewers were establishing their own maltings and factoring houses not just in Hertford but in the newer territories and their dependence on local supplies was diminishing.

Local malting was dealt a mortal blow by the new industrial age – and in particular, the coming of the railways. The railway opened up the Midlands and its fields of barley. Burton soon became the new centre of the malting industry and as overseas exploration cast light on dark corners of the globe, it was Burton ales such as the eponymous IPA (India Pale Ale) that was shipped to the colonies.

Ironically beer in bottles such as IPA lasted the journey better; a discovery said to have been made in Hertfordshire by a parson from Much Hadham, Alexander Nowell. On one of his frequent fishing days he accidentally left a bottle of home brewed beer on the riverbank.

It was his custom to put a stopper in the bottle to prevent the contents being spilled and on his return a few days later he found that the beer in the stoppered bottle had improved greatly – and thereby, so tradition has it, invented bottled beer.


The Quaker Henry Stout and malting

The dark brown beer called porter was said to have been invented by a Londoner. If this is so then it is safe to assume that the malt used to produce porter was developed in Hertfordshire, for this area was famous for its brown malts.

The invention of stout was first mentioned in 1677 and accredited to Henry Stout. This is now doubted as Henry Stout was actually a maltster and stout is a reference to any dark, strong ale. He owned property in and around Hertford and also ran the White Lion in Fore Street.

Quakers of which Henry Stout was one, became involved in the brewing industry as this was one of the few professions that were still open to them following the restoration of Charles II.  Quakers were penalised for not taking oaths in courts of law or standing for political positions. Henry Stout was penalised in 1662 and 1664 for non-attendance at church, similarly William Fairman. He was sentenced in 1677 to be deported to Barbados. It is thought that he served his sentence in this country as in 1687 he provided liquor to the assizes to accompany the judge’s meal of ‘boyle beef, porch, rost beef and cheese’.

Modern day Hertford

Henry Stout’s White Lion has disappeared but Fore Street was a popular venue for anyone with a thirst. Numbers 41 – 49 now all retail units, was a brewery and number 42, the Turk’s Head Coffee House had a brewery in the yard and was situated in what is now known as Brewhouse Lane; numbers 72 – 74 was known as the Falcon between 1727 and 1731 and now houses a firm of solicitors. The Red Lion had a brewery behind the bar as long ago as 1621. In 1731 it was called the Half Moon and early in the 1800’s became the Dimsdale Arms. It is now the Pizza Express.

Why not sample some of Hertford’s historic brewing heritage with a visit to one of its pubs found in Camra’s Good Beer Guide 2018. For those wishing for a wider knowledge of Hertford’s historic pub scene you can do no better than Les Middlewood’s ‘One for the Road – a History of Hertford Pubs’. This was a limited edition print but copies are still available from Hertford Museum, priced £11.00.

Modern street names such as Barley Croft, Brewhouse Lane and The Maltings remain as a reminder of Hertford’s strong association with brewing.

All evidence of a once thriving industry has all but vanished but on days when the wind is in the right direction the smell of hops still drifts over Hertford from McMullens brewery, the last remaining independent brewer in the town.

© John Barber. First published Hertfordshire Countryside, April 2001

Contact John Barber: moc.r1524517644ebrab1524517644nhoj@1524517644tcatn1524517644oc 1524517644