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Pub review: The Bunch of Cherries, Hertfordshire, AL4 0XG

bunch

Telling stories in the pub.

A distant Friday.

Staff from Nicholas Breakspear RC School (named for the only English pope) around a sticky table, torn crisp packets, glasses up and down like Eiffel Tower elevators.

Fiona, my beautiful, now departed friend tells the story of a study tour to Russia. She was a fine raconteur: comical, self-deprecating, a contagiously animated narrator. At school, Fiona had been assigned as my mentor. I was in good hands. I miss her.

Local sixth form students. Saint Petersburg accommodation in a grey block, the building sinister and cavernous. Unshaven men, whispering in hoarse conspiracies, Stalinist treachery lurking like toxins.

Fiona then recounts this conversation with a pair of students, both eighteen, both built like men, but with boyish hearts.

“Where did you two get to last night?” Fiona asked, in that direct, yet gentle way she had.

“Well, Miss, Billy and I went for a walk, you know, around the motel.” Henry kicked at the frozen ground.

“Then we somehow ended up in the basement.”

Fiona was curious. Not mad, just yet. “What was in the basement?”

“Well, Miss, there was a club. Yeah, I guess you’d call it a club,” Henry offered.

Fiona continued. Still not mad. She rarely got mad. Everyone loved her. “And what happened next?”

“There was a huge man at the door of the club.”

“Like a bouncer?”

“Yeah, Miss.”

“Henry, was it an adult club?” Fiona had a way that quietly extracted the truth. She made the kids feel safe.

“Well, yeah, Miss. It was a strip club.”

“Henry, this is a problem.”

“Yeah, I guess, Miss. But the bouncer let us in for half-price,” he chirped, pride swelling his chest.

“Why?”

“Because we’re still at school!”

*

We lived in St Albans, just north of London, in Hertfordshire, and there were eighty pubs! The older ones, in the city centre, are charismatic, and gorgeous. Simply strolling through a door can be a celestial experience.

The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, down the hill from the Cathedral, dates back twelve hundred years. It’s the country’s oldest pub. Others like The Six Bells are enticing antique taverns, with exposed beams and squat ceilings and rugby murmurings.

six bells

My Friday afternoon pub, The Bunch of Cherries, up the road from my school, was built in the 1950’s on the outskirts of town. Architecturally, it had less allure than an abattoir. It was of a style that could be called “Red Brick Hideous.”

But, for the thirty months we lived there, I loved it.

I recently found a yellowing receipt from one of those Fridays during June when life was freshly abounding. With the transaction complete and diverse glasses plonked on the table, I fell into my chair: physically, psychically and fiscally powerless to speak or sip. In time, I recovered.

six bells bar

It was tremendous fun.

As you will note, it was an elongated shout, and offers insight into this ample and eclectic crew-

Two pints of lager (Carlsberg)
Two pints of Real Ale (Black Sheep Best Bitter)
A half pint of lager (Stella Artois)
Two glasses of New World Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia)
One glass of Old World white wine (suitably vague)
A rum and coke
A nip of brandy
Two bottles of orange juice (small)
A house champagne
A gin and tonic
Three ginger beers (diet)
A mineral water
A pot of black tea
Six packets of crisps
One chip butty

I can’t recall if there were TVs showing football replays, or piped music (doubtless Robbie Williams, the Bug-Eyed Yelper), or other distractions. This, of course, is high praise for the Cherries, as conversation is the ECG of a merrily functioning boozer.

Beyond several tonnes of pork scratchings, Walkers crisps, and peanuts I didn’t eat a meal there, ever. It wasn’t that sort of pub. There was a wobbly, self-imposed curfew which barred the communal breaking of bread. So, I can offer no analysis of its bangers and mash; nor its scampi, chip and peas; nor its gammon steak and eggs.

Home was by Verulamium Park, three miles away by bike through Fleetville, The Camp and Cottonmill. I’d take the Alban Way, a former rail line and now cycle path, popular among misshapen youth for torching stolen Vauxhalls and scooters. Seared metal skeletons are oddly attractive when covered in snow.

Alban Way 2

But, at 4pm of a Friday with the summer sun still high in the pale Home Counties sky, or with the sleety dark rattling the Christmas windows, it was a bright place to invest a jovial hour with the folks from work. Folks with whom I shared a vivid, momentary corridor.

*

Nearly a decade after leaving we visited one January with our boys, who tore about in the pub as boys will do, to the constant horror of their parents and the indifference of most others.

Only the red brick exterior remained. Inside had been renovated, but in a disingenuous way. Now superficially stylish and too polished, as if it would soon have souring aspirations, it had been renamed The Speckled Hen.

My disenchantment was exaggerated for it was a Tuesday. For me, the Friday stories at the Bunches of Cherries were long finished. But they had been magnificent, a cheery symbol of an enchanted time.

Of course, the worst pub in town just might have been the best.

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Boris, The Bunch of Cherries, and The Gatting Ball

AB and me

I can see it now. I’ve a horrifying habit. Too many times, I’ve accidentally chosen to work where the local pub is the worst in town.

St Albans is a fetching cathedral and market town, just north of London, in the glamorous greenery of the Home Counties. It boasted over eighty boozers when I lived there, and most prominent is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Verulamium Park, where once stood a Roman city.

An eleventh century building on an eighth century site, it’s the Guinness Book of Records holder of oldest pub in England. Our townhouse was an easy par 4 from the Cocks, but I worked on St Albans’ periphery near the untreatably dreadful Bunch of Cherries. I’d many a pint there with my workmates, although as an example of 1960’s Dismal Brick/Shithouse, it has less charisma than a Heathrow toilet.

I now work in Singapore, a languid 5 iron from Orchard Road. Apparently, Harry’s has our Friday refreshments conquered with

26 premium lifestyle bars targeted at the PMEBs (professionals, managers, executives and businessmen).

My closest Harry’s is set in a shopping mall, and the staff offers rancid lager as well as a merry hatred of the thirsty.

The smallest place I’ve lived is the exception to this cosmopolitan misery. Kimba is half way across Australia, and on a Friday its sole pub was rollicking and happy. Icy beer, roaring jukebox. The core of its community. My first weekend in town, I won the meat tray. How could I not love it?

Geelong-besotted Almanackers identify Kimba as the hometown of Corey Enright. As a young fella who was frequently upright, and possessing of a pulse, I became Boris’ PE teacher. All saw him as a gifted footballer, but I argued that he was a better leg spinner, and could go far. Bowling on concrete decks that bounced and bit like a taipan, he bamboozled men and boys alike.

June 4, 1993 is a Friday, and despite it being Eastern Eyre footy season, a blissful tangle of chaps is inhaling ale. The Kimba pub jukebox blasts Choir Boys, Meat Loaf, and the sing-along gem, “What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes.” Day Two of the First Ashes Test from Old Trafford is on, but it’s beyond a footballer’s curfew, particularly for us modest B-graders. And then, shortly before lunch, AB throws a tubby, naturally non-blonde the ball.

For all the where-were-you-when-you-heard about Lady Diana, 9/11, the Boxing Day tsunami, there are celebratory counterparts. Jezza’s legendary leap, Australia snatching the America’s Cup, and for many, the Ball of the Century.

Ritchie’s commentating. No Bill hyperbole. Mercifully, no screeching Michael Slater.

He’s done it. He’s started off with the most beautiful delivery. Gatting’s got no idea what’s happened to it. He still doesn’t know.

The batsman’s humbled reaction is apposite. What choice had he? Anger and disappointment could have had no useful function. There’s only Gatting’s acceptance something astounding had occurred, that he had not previously seen, nor would likely see again. In the booming beery frenzy, Robbie, Hendo, Klingy, and I know we’ve witnessed a remarkable episode.

Strolling off, Gatting preternaturally knew he’d stolen a cameo role in what would be regarded as cricket’s most illustrious single-act production. Not a tragic narrative, but one approaching the comedic in its enthralling unlikelihood. Shaking his head in bemusement corroborates our shared view.

Australia was then sponsored by XXXX and, much later, so was I when in the skirmish for beer supremacy a grassroots marketing strategy took me hostage. For twelve months I transmogrified into a XXXX Gold Ambassador. As a Coopers Sparkling and Pale Ale aficionado, I call it the year I barracked for Collingwood. I had not gone native. It was abundantly worse. I had gone Queensland.

Given entirely too much XXXX to inflict upon family and friends, I was also required to host a XXXX-infused BBQ and, finally, with my Kimba mate Bazz, sat in the sponsor’s marquee at the Adelaide Clipsal 500. This was telling given my relationship with motorsport is akin to that between Fev and Mensa.

My ambassadorial climax was a Sunday in Glenelg’s Holdfast Hotel with our most significant modern captain, Alan Border.

Me: I must tell you that you’re my Dad’s favourite cricketer. He describes you as being “pugnacious.”

AB: Well, everyone has their own personal style. I did what I did best.

I decline to say that Dad also once remarked if he had to be in a fight, AB is the first bloke he’d want on his side.

Me: Can I ask you about my best ever sporting moment? The Gatting Ball?

AB: Sure. It was a huge occasion.

Me: Where were you?

AB: At that point I often fielded at midwicket, so I didn’t really get a decent view of it.

Me: But you knew it was special?

AB: Yea. At the drinks break Heals said it was, “a pretty fair seed.”

Laconic understatement. Just what I wanted to hear. Sensational.

Me: What did Gatting say?

AB: He knew it was good too. He’s done really well out of it. The Gatt’s dined out on that story ever since. With all the speaking engagements, he’s very pleased.

Warne’s striking proclamation of his genius is leg spin’s enchanted temple. For cricket fans, it generated a global epiphany while the attendant symbolism makes this the most resounding of his 708 Test wickets.

And on that June afternoon I suspect even the desolate types in The Bunch of Cherries squinting at the screen over pints of tepid Tetleys knew SK Warne’s first Test delivery in England was to be cherished.

In Kimba we definitely did.

.bunch