Those who were involved in the early days of CAMRA in Hertfordshire always speak of the Woodman of with affection – a tiny pub in this pleasing hamlet north of Hertford, which was still selling Greene King beers directly from the cask in the 1970s – as beer at the Woodman always had been – and remarkably as it still is today. A cooled cellar is directly behind the bar.
The pub first appeared in the years before 1862 – with a single bar – and run by D Akers. It was acquired by Wickhams, the Hertford brewer who only ever amassed less than a dozen pubs and who succumbed to takeover by Wells and Winch of Biggleswade in 1938 and they, too, by GK in 1963.
Abraham Clark and his family served for over 20 years at the end of the 19th century and Alfred Wells and family for most of the inter-War years of the 1920s and 30s but perhaps the most characterful landlord and landlady were Ray and Florrie Groom – Florrie continuing long after the passing of her husband and well-loved by customers who flocked there in the early 1970s. Rent in 1955 was 15/- per week and the pub sold just 9 gallons of ale and eight dozen bottles of beer. On her retirement in 1976 the tiny pub was selling four nine-gallons of real ale. And Florrie wasn’t the only publican to raise mallard chicks and other strays from the nearby pond at the pub – more recent landlords Tony Dawes and Linda Howe also being successful at the task. It was Pip and Sandie Bonner who took up the reins from Florrie and increased trade still further as word spread of the pub through CAMRA circles in the 1970’s. In the 1990’s Nick and Jane Brown introduced exotic pets in the back garden and held the famous Woodmanstock music festivals – beer festivals and music events continuing and then rejuvenated under Tony from 2009. In the years between Nick and Tony, Danny Davis had kept the pub bubbling along for 6 years.
In the 70’s a pint of IPA at the Woodman was called “Boys” and a pint of “Mix” comprised a half of IPA and a half of Abbot. The dangerous and heady “Abbot and Eddie” was a half of Abbot topped with a bottle of the strong St.Edmund Ale – making a walk back to Bengeo or Hertford a wobbly affair. Occasionally Greene King light mild (a beer long discontinued) and the dark and remarkable XX mild would appear. In 1996 the pub was awarded the South Herts Branch’s Pub of the Year title. It remained a small two-bar pub (though the right-hand bar had been extended marginally in 1994) with no gaming machines and was popular with rural workers, the local shoot, walkers and motorists and families, particularly at weekends when the gardens could be very busy.
In 2013 local residents Chris and Brendan Bacon took the lease with Gary Mack as a co-manager. The pub was sold to the Hawthorne PubCo in 2014 and a year later the Bacon brothers bought the pub as a Free House. That year a conservatory was added at the rear and now a new corridor, added in 2019, allows internal access throughout – though the two-bar nature and essence of the pub remains intact. Gary is now sole manager and the pub has gained a strong reputation for its excellent cooked-to-order “Thai and Tapas” food which is available in the evening from Wednesday to Saturday and on Sunday lunchtimes and afternoons. Greene King IPA and Abbot remain popular but these are supplemented by local Hertfordshire beers from the likes of New River and 3Brewers with Tring’s Side Pocket for a Toad a regular favourite.
Gary says “We are very lucky to have such supportive locals and regulars and are very appreciative of that. Here, it’s you, your pint, conversation and fun – no music, fruit machines or TV Sport – though we do occasionally show international rugby. Our Thai tapas has become really popular and we offer a warm welcome to everyone – and in the warmer weather our gardens attract people from all over”.
Hertfordshire once had all number of small rural “locals” – often formerly beer-houses – scattered in its rural communities. The Woodman is a survivor from those days but a pub that has kept abreast of the times, still deeply in touch with its roots. The rear garden has a safe children’s play area.
The Woodman is closed on Monday lunchtimes (open in the evening) but is otherwise open from noon then all day on the other six days of the week. Until recently an old bus stop sign was still mounted outside the pub in the lane but it has now disappeared – as has the bus service which the sign long outlived. Today the nearest bus service is the 383/384 running from Hertford to Stevenage. Alight in neighbouring Tonwell and carefully cross the fast A602 road taking the well-trodden footpath up to Chapmore End – a leisurely ten-minute walk. And if you are driving through the hamlet go slow, the ducks may be policing the road!