How the genesis of St Albans’ coffee shop culture was founded in former pub

Owner George with former owner Jack Pia

Owner George with former owner Jack Pia - Credit: Archant

It is hard to believe now, but several decades ago a donkey, several dogs and an annoyed shopkeeper spent months ensconced in a protest against the council.

Owner George with former owner Jack Pia

Owner George with former owner Jack Pia - Credit: Archant

Memories of a colourful shopkeeper who caused St Albans council ‘a lot of trouble’ recently came flooding back for a former owner of what is now L’Italiana, a popular restaurant and pizzeria in French Row.

Eighty-four-year-old Jack Pia, an ex-district councillor for St Peter’s ward, contacted the Herts Advertiser after reading a feature on the history of St Albans’ Christopher Inn.

Located in the heart of medieval St Albans, in its heyday the Christopher Inn building next to The Snug in French Row, near the historic Clock Tower, became a slum house for paupers despite once hosting grand official feasts.

Originally built in the 1400s, the inn was one of the town’s oldest watering holes, and sits alongside medieval cottages.

Jack Pia took over the former inn back in 1956 and ran it for a decade, as a bistro-style coffee bar.

But until recently, he had not visited the Christopher Inn building in four decades.

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Before the ‘50s, Jack recalled the site as “derelict, because it had been a doss house.

“And, because it was falling down, the former owner didn’t want to put the money into it, so the council took it over, became the new owners, and they did it up themselves, using their own engineers, and they did it very well,” Jack explained.

He introduced the first commercial espresso coffee machine in Herts – right here in St Albans.

Jack recalled: “I had the biggest part of the building, which is now the Italian restaurant, I got it in 1956 and sold it in 1966. I kept its name, so it was called The Christopher Inn.

“Coffee bars had just come onto the scene in London, so I thought I would get a Gaggia espresso machine, the Rollys-Royce of espresso machines, and thought I would open it up as a bistro-style coffee bar, which served up the likes of Italian food – it was mainly spaghetti, because most people thought it came out of a tin back then.

“It went off like a bomb. We had two levels, same as L’Italiana has now, but we fitted it out in a different way, so it was in keeping with the building.

“It was a lot of fun doing it up. We used to sleep on the floor, on camp beds, while we were doing the refurbishment.”

One of his memories is of a very small toy shop, Deverells, where a sweet store operates from now in French Row and sold second-hand comics. And where Simmons bakery is now located, was the famous Mrs Wedge.

Jack said: “She was a well known character, and quite a colourful person. She caused the council a lot of trouble when they tried getting her out of there, because they had to rebuild the whole place, because it was falling down.

“She sold everything to do with upholstery.”

Mrs Wedge, originally from Southwark, was apparently “potty about animals. She had three dogs, and a donkey.

“The council got her out but she camped in the alleyway next to the shop, to say how badly she was being treated by the council.

“She put placards up, and had several dogs with her, and a donkey.

“Everyone knew about her; she must have got herself into the Herts Advertiser a few times – Mrs Wedge protested for at least a year. She was out there in all weathers.”

Eventually, she was given an alternative shop in Verulam Road, where Christopher Place shopping precinct is now – for a low rent.

Jack has fond memories of his decade at the old inn, adding that when his son was born he called him Barnaby, after spotting signatures and graffiti going back centuries in the premises, including the name of Barnaby Colles.

He also recalls a tunnel in the cellar which was “just earth, so I got that cemented. There were little vaulted arches, going under the pavement.

“There are a lot of people around who would remember The Christopher Inn, because it was very popular – it was the first place to have an espresso machine in Herts.

“I left after 10 years to run a press agency. The last time I came here was in the 1970s.”

Asked whether he had any spooky ghost stories from his time at the old inn, he laughed and replied: “I don’t do ghosts”.