There’s something quintessentially English about a canalside pub. Watching the boats drifting by, the ducks and the geese. A pint, a snack, summer sunshine. The Old Barge, in the centre of Hertford, fits this bill but when it opened around 1837 the local picture was much different. Folly Island, on which the pub sits, was a site of wharves and small industry as well as gardens and orchards, utilising the benefits of the River Lea, bustling with activity with river barges heading to and from London carrying malt, timber, vegetables and flour. The pub was therefore a retreat which offered locally-brewed beer – taking advantage of the Beer Act of 1830 in opening to serve the local workforce.
Change began in the 1860s as industry on the river declined now being quickly replaced by rail – and it was then that the first houses were built on the island. This rapidly continued – mostly two-up-two-down terraced houses built for working people, not only fronting the river but also four new streets created along the routes of old field boundaries. Within 40 years most of the houses had been built and the Old Barge took on a different mantle as a two-bar pub serving the new local community.
By 1846 the pub, up until then called the Jolly Bargeman was tenanted by John Hughes, owner of a clay pipe factory to the rear and Hughes together with his sons survived the sale that year to the Hawkes brewery of Bishop’s Stortford. Hughes’ son (also called John) became a prominent Hertfordshire cricketer. Around 1880 John Isaac became licensee, going on to complete a lengthy stint at the pub. In 1898 the pub was sold to Benskin’s of Watford and largely rebuilt – much of the riverside frontage to the east built on the former clay pipe factory site.
Prior to WWI, Harry Garner took the lease, overseeing the pub for 20 years. Harry was a famous speed-walker in his younger days, holding all manner of national records from 1 – 30 miles. In 1891, in New York, he established a world record of 1 minute 23 seconds for the ¼ mile. During his tenure the pub displayed his many awards.
Benskins were taken over by Ind Coope in 1957 who were then subsumed into Allied Breweries in 1961. Real ale, which had been discontinued at the pub in the 1960’s, reappeared with the arrival of a handpump for Ind Coope Burton Ale in 1977. Ind Coope Bitter soon followed. In 1980 Benskin’s Bitter re-emerged though now brewed by Allied at Romford. In 1982 landlords Don and Carol Blackett oversaw the transformation of the pub into, roughly, its current layout – the two bars at the front connected by arches and the riverside frontage and room to the rear brought into bar and restaurant use. Overnight the pub became a roaring success. In 1996 the pub survived a major fire, closing for many weeks and in 2009 it was surprisingly put up for sale by Punch Taverns who had inherited the pub from Allied. It was acquired as a Free House by existing leaseholder David Gay with Sally and Simon Davis (who had arrived at the pub as managers in 2006) at the helm – as they still are today. In 2017 an extension was added to the restaurant area.
For over 10 years the Old Barge has been an ever-present in the Good Beer Guide and now offers four real ales (with Marston’s 61 Deep as its staple beer) and four real ciders or perries. There is an interesting menu of modern, freshly cooked and classic English pub favourites, a huge open fire and a large drinking area at the rear – the pub attracting people from across Hertford and further afield. The pub hosts a charity music event every May called the Spring Fling (this year on Bank Holiday Monday 25th May) and each year children can “buy” a plastic duck to take part in the annual Duck Race that starts at the nearby Folly Bridge (this year on Bank Holiday Monday, 13th April at 5pm). The Sunday pub quiz is ever-popular and music aficionados can enjoy the music quiz that takes place every last Thursday of the month. Simon says “We are an old school real ale pub, keen to help local brewers, with a busy restaurant using locally-sourced food and a wide range of events during the year that include whisky tastings and drinks/food matchings”.