The Chequers (Crooked Chimney)

The Chequers (Crooked Chimney)

This still stands on the corner of Cromer Hyde lane a mile or so north of Lemsford on the Hatfield to Wheathamstead road, and to Mary and I in our youth and to Eileen and I when we were courting it was a well known spot. Some time in the early 19th century, when beer houses became a popular feature, both in town and in the country to supplement the traditional coaching inns, two or three cottages on the site were made into one and probably called The Chequers from the beginning. The name goes back to the middle ages when a type of beer was made from the chequered bark of a woodland tree, but I don’t think chequered beer was ever sold there.

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Ernest Brown & wife at the Chequers (Crooked Chimney) in the thirtiesIn the early 1940s when my uncle Ernest Brown was having some alterations done the workman found an old staircase that must have been sealed up at the conversion. Right up to and just after the Second World War the pub which belonged to Benskins mostly served local farmers and labourers with a little traffic from the road to Wheatamstead.

My grandparents moved from St Pauls Walden to the old cottage at the end of Cromer Hyde lane in the 1890s when Grandfather became gamekeeper for Lord Mount Stephen at Brocket. The Chequers was their local until they moved in the early 1930s to Southill, Beds, to become gamekeeper for the Hon. Michael Bowes Lyon, the Queen Mothers brother. In the 1920s the publican named Padley died and my uncle, Ernest Brown who had married his daughter Elsie, took his place, and remained there until retiring in the late 1940s.This is the period I remember.

My auntie May who was born in 1899 used to tell stories about the Chequers when she was young and one was about a famous music hall star who used to hire a brake ( a horse drawn wagon with seats) to take her London friends to the point to point races at Wheathamstead. On their way home they used to stop at the Chequers for what today we would call a rave up. When they emerged and climbed on the brake they would throw handfuls of small change to the waiting children who always gathered because they knew what would happen. My grannie forbade her children to go but the temptation of a pocket full of coppers was too great.

Chequrers, now known as the Crooked Chimney late 1950s to early1960s. Landlord Lew Smith in another tale she told of one labourer who lived up Cromer Hyde lane who on a Friday night would spend his money on beer until closing time when his wife came to meet him. She used to bring rags to bind his knees because he was too drunk to walk and had to crawl home. The rags stopped him wearing the knees of his trousers out!!!

John (Cats Eyes) Cunningham Image produced from the war a group of famous test pilots from De Havilland , including Geoffrey De Havilland and John Cunningham, used to meet at the pub and my uncle let them use the back parlour. At the time the Mosquito was being developed at Hatfield, which was all built of wood. They gave my uncle a beautiful picture of the plane, framed in the type of wood used in its construction, and signed by them all. Sadly several of them died while developing planes to break the sound barrier and the picture became quite valuable. After my uncle died, my auntie sold it to a greeting card company.

Up until not all that long before the last war, the pub had no services and water was obtained from a large wheel pump in the forecourt. The outside toilet was the old bucket type, with a soak away urinal at the side for male customer Oil lamps and candles gave light but a gas supply was the first service to be enjoyed.When I used to go as a boy, the main entrance opened straight on to the main public bar which you passed through to get to a saloon room in the front by the road . There was also a dining room that could act as a tea room or whatever was required.

Postcard featuring cartoon of Landlord Ernie BrownAll the ground floor was flagstones and the cellar behind the bar was about a foot lower. Beer was served straight from the barrel and local experts used to argue if the barrel had settled enough before it was served. When the large barrels were delivered and mounted up on their stands the tap was driven in to the bung with one strong blow from a mallet. On one occasion my uncle hit his hand as well as the tap , broke the bung but with not enough strength to hold the tap in. The beer rushed out while he nursed his injured hand and flooded the cellar with about three inches of beer.

At the back was a large garden and at one side an old orchard much neglected in my day. Never less there were as many apples and plums as you could want. I often cycled back to Enfield loaded up with my Zip fastener jacket bulging with fruit. At rhubarb time there was as much as you like and the soil in the garden would grow anything. There was a large barn full of old farming and gardening tools and then a large field that went with the property which had a lot of rabbits. My dad loved to borrow uncles shotgun, that was probably my grandad’s, and get a rabbit for the pot.

Meeting of the hunt, photo taken late 1950s. Landlady Mrs Smith in doorwayIn the old days customers sometimes paid for their beer by barter with rabbits, cucumbers, lettuces etc were all accepted. With only one actual bar, it was difficult to discriminate between public and saloon bar prices but uncle mainly charged public for locals and saloon for visitors. If you wore a trilby you probably were charged saloon bar prices but a cap probably meant public bar.

After the war the old zigzag road from Lemsford was made dead straight and the old pub was all renovated with the outside much the same but all renewed at the back. The name was changed to The Crooked Chimney all the labourers went to live in Welwyn Garden City and Cromer Hyde Lane became a high class commuter area. We went there once for lunch on one of Marys visits and had to book a table. Another occasion when we were watching one of the inspector Morse series on tele we suddenly saw the old Chequers in all its new glory but still recognisable. It will always have a place in Brown History

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