They say that Unicorns don’t exist – but I know otherwise. This one lived in Hertford and it survived until 1984. I still miss it and I wrote a piece called Death Of A Unicorn about its demise for CAMRA’s Hertfordshire Newsletter 37 years ago, almost to the day. The Unicorn was a pub in Hartham Lane – in its own understated way, small and magical. Its passing away raised little alarm in Hertford, a town then brimming with even more pubs than now, but for those that used the Unicorn the end was abrupt and sad. So, why write about this now? Well, it’s a stark reminder that if we don’t use pubs then how can we expect them to remain open. With so many pubs lost in the last 20 years we really mustn’t let the side effects of Covid lead to the loss of many more…
In the 1980’s, I lived on Folly Island, a neat and picturesque neighbourhood of mainly 19th century terraced cottages in central Hertford, surrounded by the River Lea and a former mill stream. My “local”, just off the island, was the Unicorn, a small McMullen pub in the shadow of the brewery, once terraced itself, and in a run of similarly-aged cottages as mine, but by then almost the sole survivor in Hartham Lane because the majority of the attached houses had become dilapidated and were demolished some years earlier. I had used the pub for 3½ years – it was a friendly place, though by this time frequented mainly by an older generation of drinkers, keen on the AK and the quiet conversation and contemplation overseen by landlords Bob and Trudie Saich. Bob laughed and leg-pulled gently in whispers, enjoying an occasional short from the optics and the ever-smiling Trudie spoke with an endearing accent that gave us a glimpse of her Silesian origins.
The Unicorn was a traditional local with two bars – a largish somewhat spartan public bar with dark polished furniture, a dartboard and a few sparsely-spaced paintings and adverts on the nicotine-stained walls which topped a brown-painted wooden dado. There was an aperture and counter that acted as a bar and a door to the internal Ladies lavatory – and another door to the yard at the rear where a simple urinal and wc offered a chilly winter prospect for the men. The tiny saloon was behind a bay window and was warm and carpeted, with a couple of small tables, a material padded bench, a stool or two at the bar, a cigarette machine – all facing a welcoming bar-back with shelves made homely with a range of unrelated artefacts and water jugs. An overhead horizontal timber shelf was stocked with capsized pint jugs which had become less and less frequently used as people increasingly preferred the simplicity of straight sleeve glasses. The impressive doilies covering the water jugs on the bar were the precise handiwork of Trudie.
Out front, skirting the road, there were some rectangular tables and benches laid out on the hard surface, sometimes occupied by families visiting Hartham Common.
Generally, I suppose you could say that the atmosphere was of a throwback in time. But time is what I had to invest – the Unicorn was a marvellous place full of light humour, tales from the past and well-kept AK – quiet during the week but busier at the weekend when people crossed the Common to shop at the town’s Saturday market and when football results could be compared soon after the pub re-opened for the evening at 5.30pm. With the only manufactured sound provided by a tinny transistor radio, you could imagine that, internally, the pub had changed little since being built in the mid-19th century, though old photos display an external livery that indicate former long-lost glories when the pub offered “Refreshing Pure Tonic”, “Genuine Wines and Spirits” and “Dinners”, perhaps a lure for travellers alighting from trains at the nearby Cowbridge railway station. The Unicorn was a small retreat in a world that was leaving it behind.
As the older drinkers faded the now isolated pub was finding it more and more difficult to survive. To try and boost interest and trade in the pub we arranged a South Herts CAMRA branch meeting which was to be proudly held on Tuesday 20 March 1984. A week earlier at 9.30pm I went round to ask Bob if everything was still okay for the meeting. There were only four or five people in the bar and a silence dropped. Bob looked sadly over the bar and whispered “No mate, they’re closing me up”. Though I heard the words clearly, I stupidly said “Pardon?” and Bob repeated what he had just said. I was shocked. “When?” I muttered. “Tonight” said Bob. I looked for some sort of reassurance from the regulars but this was no passing joke – there was a glum and resigned look shared by each of them. Bob pulled me an AK. Things had been more difficult than he had let on – for some time he had been struggling to make payments to the brewery. Now nearing retirement age, I guess Bob and Trudie just didn’t have the energy, will or skills to breathe new life and trajectory into the pub – it was just great the way it was – the way it had always been – the way they wanted it – though most drinkers were now being attracted to the brighter lights of pubs like the burgeoning Old Barge on the other side of the island which had recently been refurbished and enlarged inside. It was booming.
Faced with the tragic news of closure, I raced home, told my wife and we made our way round for last orders. Well, that night, my friends, last orders were never called – I even took a stint behind the bar – and it was about 2am before we left having taken some photographs and bid farewell. There had been fun and laughter to the end. The last night was officially Tuesday 13 March 1984 – but we stretched it well into the 14th!
Later that morning I woke with a strange and confusing sense of bereavement (tangled with a beery hangover). The thought of my daily commute to London was not beguiling at all. And how could a pub shut – just like that?
The Branch approached McMullen’s to see if they had plans to bring in new tenants but the pub windows were soon boarded – Mac’s had called a permanent “Time” on the Unicorn. It had existed for 134 years. We felt that an injection of cash might have brought the best out of the pub’s location at the gateway to the Common – maybe as the brewery tap – and after all there was sufficient derelict land adjacent to make a large pub garden, but Mac’s thought otherwise and the pub was mothballed becoming a store for furniture and then gradually falling into disrepair.
Of course, we have no right to expect that Family Brewers such as Mac’s should retain all of their pubs forever. Pubs need customers and if they can’t attract them then we would hope a pub would be sold to others to give it a try. But the Unicorn sat on the brewery plot of land thus removing that possibility.
However, that is not quite the end. Unicorns cannot be easily forgotten.
Years later McMullens sold much of their brewery land for development (including the decaying Unicorn building) and on it now stands a Sainsbury supermarket. In the large car park is a somewhat incongruous open-sided structure used for parking. It has been said that it sits on the footprint of the pub, a requirement under Planning. Maybe we should call it the Unicorn Stable Block. Maybe it should have a blue plaque. Why not? Sometimes, small things need to be commemorated, just as much as big things.
It is worth noting that nearby, since the Unicorn closed, other community pubs have shut. I suppose it begs an awkward question for pub lovers – is it better to have, say, four underused, floundering pubs in an area or two that are thriving and that continue serve the community?
As we come out of the pandemic restrictions, in the coming months, make sure you regularly visit some of the excellent Hertfordshire pubs near you. They need us – and our communities need them.
And raise a glass to The Unicorn. Pubs Matter – Support Your Local.