A pint at the local #1 Great Eastern Tavern, Hertford

Written by Les Middlewood

Then Sir Henry Meux purchased land from the Northern and Eastern Railway in 1843 and built his Railway Hotel opposite the newly-constructed Hertford East Station in Railway Place, Hertford, he must have thought it would be a sound investment that would pay dividends for years. With its new connections to Liverpool Street in London the pub was sure to be a hit. True, there was to be competition from the Albion, another new pub built opposite but the Railway Hotel had the edge architecturally — an impressive and ornate entrance that also outshone the somewhat simple and functional-looking station. The Railway Hotel mirrored Meux’s other new pub, the Station Hotel in Ware, three miles down the tracks. Hertford’s station was built to the east of the town, its location governed by a local edict that pronounced that the station must be at least 200 yards from the entrance of the nearby County Gaol in Ware Road. Meux leased his pub to Benjamin Young, a Hertford brewer with his own brewery not 500 yards away. But Meux’s own beers were still to the fore. A licence for the pub was applied for by Litchfield Green and the pub was open for trade. A notable early landlord was Henry Wilmott, pictured right who, between 1851-1870 proudly advertised his business in the Hertfordshire Mercury: “Henry Wilmott, Railway Hotel and Posting House, Hertford. This Hotel is opposite the Railway Station, and possesses every comfort and accommodation. Dinners on the shortest notice. Choice Wines and Spirits. Meux and Co.’s Stout and Porter. Fine Country Ales. Good Beds and Stabling. Flys, Gigs and Saddle Horses…” (photograph above courtesy Hertford Museum).

Sir Henry Meux must have considered that his new pub would have a long future serving passengers from the station — and so it did — but forty years later the Railway Company had fresh ideas. The original problem with the proximity to the gaol was overcome and a new Hertford East Station was to be built closer to town, a much grander affair, designed by railway station architect W. N. Ashbee, and built in 1888 with Victorian flair comprising two canopied platforms, an impressive booking hall and station concourse and covered waiting areas for horse and carriages picking up and setting down outside. Opposite was built a new Station Hotel for Hertford, a pub which was later to be renamed the Dolphin, and which closed in 2004.

A new way needed

With its trade whisked away by the new Station and Hotel, the Railway Tavern, as it became, was adrift from its founding raison d’être but, nevertheless, continued to thrive. In the years following the construction of the first station, Hertford’s residential area had spread eastwards and the Tavern now found itself in its midst. Its two bars — public and saloon — served the area well and its “Jug and Bottle” which was situated in the main lobby catered for the off-sales in the area. In 1903 the pub was sold to McMullen’s who had been gathering a sizeable tied estate in and around Hertford and the pub fared well with just the Albion, Saracen’s Head and Forester’s Arms — the latter two in Ware Road – serving the growing east of the town. By 1912 Ernest Hudson and his family had moved in and began a 30 year tenure as the pub negotiated two World Wars and a recession. Beer drinkers quaffed AK Mild, Dark Mild or Bitter. The pub offered a clean, warm and well-run environment, though, as in most pubs, the Gents’ WC was outside.

Though the pub had locally been called the Great Eastern Tavern for many years, or perhaps more colloquially, the “Eastern”, the name was not officially adopted until 1953. In the post-WWII years Bert Pickett, Eric Taylor and Ted King each held the tenure for 10 or so years, providing continuity and resilience as both the Forester’s Arms (1959) and Albion (1966) closed. New incoming publicans were Frank and Jan Wilkins who had previously run the John O’Gaunt in Hertford between 1976-78. And it was in the late 1970s that a small extension to the public bar finally also brought the Gents’ WC inside.

Frank and Jan’s 20 year stint at the Eastern straddled the years of pub licensing hours reform which led to greater evening opening and better Sunday hours.

The “Eastern” was an excellent local, popular in its neighbourhood, where clubs, sports and pub teams were based and where workers from the Addis toothbrush factory enjoyed a lunchtime meal or sandwich. Keith and Estelle Wallings, then Anna Clement each held brief tenure before Jill Rose and daughter and husband, Tracy and Kevin Green, took over. Fourteen years on, Jill has since retired but Kevin and Tracy continue.

A local for today

The Great Eastern Tavern continues to be one of the best ‘locals’ in Hertford. Open all day, internal redecorations have always been sympathetic to the pub’s original style. Outside there is a gem of a patio garden tucked away behind the car park — the pub often winning local floral display awards. Kev has also won McMullen cellarmanship awards — and doesn’t like to be reminded (oops, sorry Kev) that he has often been nominated for a Hertford cheery trader award (“I’ve no idea who nominates me” says Kev) — for which he is much ribbed by the pub’s drinkers. But that is the banter — and that is the pub. It’s rare that there is not a leg-pull going on or a jape being planned in the public bar. On Kevin and Tracy’s tenth anniversary at the pub, whilst away for the weekend, one of the locals shinned up the pub sign outside and pasted on a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine. “Even the brewery saw the funny side of it” says Kev. Regular customers take part in the annual winter “Chili Challenge”, bringing in their chili con carne offerings for judging in a competition that has now run for over a decade. The fortnightly Sunday quiz is now one of the longest running in Hertford and the monthly folk music session on the third Thursday of the month has run for around 18 years.

In the quieter saloon bar several community groups still meet. These days the pub does not provide food but offers three handpumped Mac’s real ales — AK, Cask and Country — and a range of wines and spirits. There is a keen following for TV sport and, later in the evening, Kevin’s taste for traditional British rhythm and blues music often comes through the speakers in the bar — or perhaps a little UB40 or ska from Tracy. It’s a “local” which goes the extra mile for its regulars — and some travel more than that to get there. Well-kept beer, good company, good fun and a place to enjoy some time with friends.

As Kev says “We have always tried to keep the pub true to its roots, people like it that way. Comfortable, warm and friendly”. So,
if it was Litchfield Green who secured the first licence for the pub it is Kevin and Tracy Green who currently hold it — a sort of full circle for a great pub. Take yourself down there.

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