Six Bells pub chimes with city’s history
- Credit: Archant
St Albans has history – and much of that history is captured by the city’s pubs. The Six Bells in St Michael’s is so rich with the city’s past that it featured in the Rory McGrath Pub Dig TV series – when the car park was excavated to search for Roman treasure – and there’s evidence that an inn stood on the site when St Michael’s Street marked the boundary of Roman Verulamium.
The present pub is 500 years old and has become a beacon for beer lovers to such an extent that its owners, Jo and Patrick Remmington, have been handed a silver award for 2013 by the local branch of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, in its annual Pub of the Year competition.
The Six Bells has everything you would expect from such an ancient inn – low ceilings, beams, wooden settles and a vast inglenook – and a leaflet available for visitors to the pub outlines some of its fascinating history. There are references to “Le Bell in Saint Michaels” in 16th Century documents and it became the Six Bells to mark the number of chimes in St Michaels Church: in the 19th Century, the pub was known by the nickname of “the Ringers”.
It’s hard to believe, as you sit in the quiet comfort of the bar, that the pub once stood on one of the busiest roads in England that linked London to Chester and Holyhead. But the thunder of hooves and rattle of coaches have long gone though St Michael’s – or “the village” as it’s known – is still busy with visitors to Verulamium Park and the Roman museum.
The Remmingtons are keen to stress the history of the Six Bells but they are living in a modern world of tough competition for pub trade. St Albans has been largely free from the national scourge of pub closures, but nevertheless publicans in the city can no longer open the doors and expect customers to pour in.
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The Six Bells is the Remmingtons’ first pub. Jo had worked in marketing while Patrick is a former Metropolitan police officer. He was a keen beer lover and they had long cherished the idea of running their own pub. They have managed the Six Bells for eight years and they bought the freehold four years ago.
“We had to build the business up – it had been declining for some years,” Jo says. “We started from scratch with new staff and we worked every shift, seven days a week. It was exhausting!”
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When they arrived, the pub was owned by Punch Taverns, which supplied the beer. The Remmingtons were keen to concentrate on local breweries and it’s a policy that has earned them plaudits from CAMRA. The pub was given a gold award by the South Herts branch in 2009, a bronze in 2011 and now silver for 2013.
Tring Brewery’s Ridgeway Bitter is a regular and other local brewers – Buntingford and the new 3 Brewers – feature on the bar. Beers from Oakham in Peterborough could be described as “localish” but they are in great demand by customers, as is Timothy Taylor’s multi-award-winning Landlord Bitter from Yorkshire, which is now another regular on tap. Prices are keen, with Oakham’s JHB costing £3.10 a pint, almost a snip by St Albans’ pub standards.
The real ale policy has worked well. The Remmingtons have boosted its share from 45 per cent to 55 per cent of total beer sales, overtaking lager.
Food is vital to the pub’s success in an area so reliant on casual visitors as well as regulars. “But,” says Jo, “food mustn’t take over. We mustn’t deter drinkers who want to drop in for a pint and a pie and bring their dogs.”
“We’re a pub not a restaurant,” Patrick adds emphatically. “We need to appeal to a wide cross-section of people.”
The pub side is stressed by such regular events as quiz nights, live music, a giant onion-growing competition, and the Six Bells bake-off that is increasingly popular – the first event attracted 30 home-baked cakes.
Food is available lunchtimes and evenings until 9pm (not Monday evenings). Staple pub grub dishes are augmented by such daily specials as potato and leek soup, pork tenderloin, grilled sea bass, butternut squash, and Caribbean fish cakes. There’s a Sunday lunchtime roast, too.
The Remmingtons are not worried by the presence of the Rose & Crown just a few yards away and the Blue Anchor just round the corner in Fishpool Street.
“The pubs keep the village busy,” Jo says. And we need to keep our pubs busy.
*Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.