Visited: Friday 30 April 2010
I know, I know. Of all the great St Albans pubs to blog about, why choose a Wetherspoons? Of all the great St Albans pubs to drink in, for that matter, why even go to a Wetherspoons?
I’m out for a stroll with my young son, my girlfriend and her mother. We’ve done a circuit of the lake, around the parkland that surrounds the Roman ruins of this city (after 15 years of visiting, I still don’t whether it’s called the Verulam or the Verulamium). We’re approaching Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, and my girlfriend suggests dropping in for lunch. No, says her mum, let’s go back into town and go to the Wetherspoons.
Great, I think. The Fighting Cocks is really quite an interesting pub, and one of those that claim to be the oldest in Britain. And that’s a chance to drink there, and blog about it, squandered because my in-laws don’t understand pubs. (The only pubs they ever go to are Wetherspoons. And even then it’s just to eat, not drink.)
So I sulk my way back to the car and we park up in a non-Roman multi-storey. A little two-minute walk takes us to the pub. It’s called the Waterend Barn. And while I’d never choose to spend a night out here, it’s worth a look just to enjoy this magnificent old building.
There’s only one other Wetherspoons I can think of that’s housed in as agreeable a structure as this ‒ tucked away I don’t know where in one of the crouching, hideaway towns of Stoke-on-Trent. Once, years ago I was there, after football at Port Vale. That place was light, bright and modern, all glass ceilings and mezzanine. The Waterend Barn is several centuries old, two huge rooms, all endless vaulted ceilings and beams. And it’s a converted, er, barn. It’s anything but cosy, and cosiness tends to be the virtue I prize above all else in the feel of a pub. But it’s striking, and different, and enjoyable for that.
We order several plates of food at minimal expense. A friendly but clearly undertrained boy brings out a cheese and tomato tart thing with salad and no chips. “Is it supposed to have chips?” he asks. Well, that’s what it says on the menu. He quickly puts it right, but there are always answers like this ‒ and our astonishing half-hour wait for dessert ‒ to the question of how Wetherspoons keep their prices low. At least it’s not busy enough at the bar for any understaffing to spell a long wait for beer.
And on the issue of beer there is a bit of an irony. We’re in a city with a thriving ale and pub culture (Camra’s national HQ is just down the road), and in a pub whose chain usually offers a wide spread of cask beers. Yet the Waterend Barn only has two or three to choose from. The Ruddles bitter is quite alright, but the ‘Spoons we sometimes go to back in Sheffield carries beers made nearby by the Bradfield and Kelham Island breweries, among others, and it’s a shame there’s no similar chance to try something new and local here.
To address the eternal wait for pudding, I carry my little boy on a tour around the pub. The room with the bar in has another, smaller room at one end, almost a secret hiding place. There’s a pleasant smell of wood smoke, even though I can’t see an open fire. There are pretty stained glass windows and a huge semi-abstract painting of the St Albans cityscape. There are also windows with those leaded lattice patterns that you see in suburban semis, making the well-heeled folk of this commuter town feel right at home.
When we return to lunch, half a dozen of these stunningly posh St Albans types have occupied the next table. Lawyers, it sounds like. In the minutes that follow, a cheerfully incongruous scene unfolds, in that way that only pub scenes can. High-flying legal minds in thousand-pound suits are speaking in the accents of minor royals as they discuss one of their cases, and my young child is distributing blobs of banana and cheesy pasta to myriad points within a 15-foot radius.
Of course, the Waterend Barn is nowhere near as good as the White Hart Tap or the Beehive, which we visit later that evening, or any number of St Albans’ other fine pubs. Chances are I won’t come again. Indeed, some eye-watering comments over at Beerintheevening.com suggest strongly that this place is best avoided altogether of an evening. But just for this hour, this lunchtime, slotted into an inconsequential Friday, it pleasantly surprises me.