History wraps itself around hidden gem

Three Horseshoes, Winkwell

Three Horseshoes, Winkwell - Credit: Archant

I should get out more often. Just a short drive took me to a glorious pub in a breathtaking setting. It’s the Three Horseshoes at Winkwell. The Grand Union Canal laps against the pub’s terrace while a soaring railway arch a few yards away carries the main line from the North through Hemel Hempstead and Watford and on to London.

Three Horseshoes, Winkwell

Three Horseshoes, Winkwell - Credit: Archant

I found the pub by sheer happenstance. Ten years ago I wrote a book about the history of the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford. I’m now updating it as a lot has happened to the company since 2005. It merged with Young’s when the London brewery closed and has since de-merged, though Wells continues to brew beer for Young’s pubs.

Wells has bought the famous old Courage brands Best Bitter and Directors Bitter and more recently the big range of McEwan’s beers that has given the Bedford brewery an important foothold in Scotland. So there has been a lot to write about and the text will be interspersed with photos and short pieces on some of the pubs in the Charles Wells’s estate.

That’s how I discovered the Three Horseshoes. It’s remote but easy to find. From Hemel Hempstead, you take the A41 Aylesbury road but quickly come off at the exit for Boxmoor. Turn left and you immediately see a petrol station on the right with a sign alongside saying “Winkwell”. Drive down this narrow road for a few yards and you cross a bridge over the canal, with the pub standing proud on the left and brightly decorated canal boats forming a colourful background.

The buildings that form the Three Horseshoes date from 1535. They started life as three cottages and a blacksmith’s: the smithy explains the name of the pub. One cottage became a small inn that gradually extended into the other buildings as trade developed. The inn was boosted by the Grand Union in the 18th century and the railway in the 19th. The navvies who dug the canal and later built the railway tracks and bridges were famous for their prodigious thirsts and the inn had to grow to keep pace with their demands.

In the 20th century the Three Horseshoes was owned by the big Watford brewery, Benskins. When the brewery closed, the pub was run by Punch Taverns, who sold it to Charles Wells in 2009. Today it’s managed by Matthew Fletcher and Donice Sousa from Yorkshire, experienced publicans who also run another Wells’s pub, the Falcon at Bletsoe in Bedfordshire.

The history of the Winkwell pub wraps itself around you. It has beamed ceilings, standing timbers, oak settles, some bare brick walls and impressive inglenook fireplaces. The rear wall of a room set aside for dining has a fine mural depicting country wild life.

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In warm weather, it’s a delight to sit on the terrace with a drink and watch boats chugging passed on the canal. Inside, the bars offer the full range of Wells’s beer and Kirin Ichiban, a Japanese lager faithfully recreated at Bedford.

The pub also serves an intriguing beer on handpump called DNA. This is the result of collaboration between Wells and the American brewery Dogfish Head in Delaware. Dogfish Head brews a strong 6% beer called 60 Minute IPA, so-called because hops are added continuously for an hour during the stage of the brewing process called the “copper boil”. The brewery sends a “reduction” – lower strength version – of the beer to Bedford, where it’s blended with Wells’s Eagle IPA to produce a 4.5% beer that’s also available in bottle. It delivers the powerful citrus-laden hop aromas and flavours that many younger drinkers look for today.

I didn’t have the opportunity to eat in the Three Horseshoes but having sampled the excellent tucker at the Falcon, I can heartily recommend the offerings at Winkwell. As well as daily specials, including British tapas, the main menu offers king prawn skewers, ham hock and pea terrine, pesto verde gnocchi, warm feta salad, oven-baked camembert, confit of chicken, steak and kidney pie, and a range of burgers, including veggie versions.

Whether you go by car, bike or boat, I suggest a visit to the Three Horseshoes should be high on your eating and drinking agenda.