A day out in Berkhamsted
PUBLISHED: 10:23 29 August 2019
A historic market town close to the western boundary of the county, Berko, as the locals call it, mixes ancient and modern in style
If I didn't live in St Albans, I think I'd want to live in Berkhamsted. It's true. A quaint market town steeped in history, I'm a little in love with the old misshapen buildings, the cobbles and the colourful façades. Spending afternoons here are one of life's little joys, a change of scenery but not too far from home. Why visit? Well for the coffee, the canal and the castle, of course.
Sandwiched between Northchurch and Bourne End, Berkhamsted has one of the cutest and most shoppable high streets in the county. Independent boutiques sit alongside well-established chains, interspersed with numerous cafés, pubs and restaurants. Hair and beauty salons could easily be mistaken for designer cocktail bars, and it's not uncommon to see vintage sports cars parked up in the safest available spots.
Entering this cobblestoned town from the east, don't miss the small but quirky parade of shops before you reach the main body of the high street. If lovely homewares, the smell of fresh bread and craft beers are your thing, you need go no further. The tiny maze of rooms making up White Mint will leave you inspired and ready to redesign your house with the latest interior trends. If you spot a long queue and it's swiftly followed by the smell of bread, making you peckish before it's even lunchtime, you've found Darvell's. This family-run bakery was established in 1838 and is as popular as ever. The bread, and the queues, speak for themselves.
At the end of the parade, an eclectic beer shop with hipster vibes and an inviting garden, is Berkhamsted's branch of Mad Squirrel. It sees the convergence of every generation with an appreciation for a lovingly-brewed beer. Keep an eye out for live music on selected evenings and peruse the shelves for cool designer packaging while you sample some of the drinks on tap.
Across the road is one of my all time favourite places, The Gatsby bar and restaurant in what was the original foyer of the beautifully restored cinema, The Rex. If you have a love of Art Deco, this is the place to go. The cocktails are second-to-none and the atmosphere relaxed despite the glitz and glamour.
Hitting the main part of the high street you'll find all manner of shops, independents and chains, and enough eateries to keep you going for weeks.
Sitting in the window of one of the pubs and watching the world go by is like watching a colony of worker ants. Berkhamsted's quaintness doesn't reflect its pace of life. This bustling market town is a hub for classy mums, trendy millennials and serious foodies.
Eat, drink and shop
My top picks for great coffee, light lunch and a browse in intriguing shops:
- HERE This café and bar with a big focus on local has loads of tasty choices - with day and night menus - and is the ideal work-brunch spot. It hosts jazz nights too.
- Fred & Ginger Coffee Stylish and full of caffeine - this lovely coffee shop and breakfast and lunch spot is a winner.
- Zaza Authentic Italian food in a beautiful cosy setting - the 200-year-old olive tree adorned with fairy lights is a must-see.
- The Forge Boutique, White Mint and Home & Colonial Antiques For unique clothing, gifts and interior inspiration be sure to explore these Berko favourites.
Walk the canal
With transport easy from London, along with ample short and long stay parking, people flock for a lush lunch and a leafy walk along
the Grand Union Canal. A short looped walk takes you from the top end of the high street up to the ruins of the 11th century motte-and-bailey Berkhamsted Castle (managed by English Heritage, it's open 10am-6pm in summer), and along the canal. For the route, follow Castle Street from St Peter's Church, walk over the bridge and on to Lower Kings Road. From here you can divert to the right under the railway bridge to visit the castle before looping back on yourself. Continuing on, you'll see several small footpaths leading off the main road and down to the canal towpath. If in doubt, look for where the road crosses the water. Follow the footpath and exit at either the first or second bridge you come to. The first takes you straight into St Johns Well Lane car park which houses the back entrance to Woods of Berkhamsted, a charming garden centre, while the second bridge allows a longer walk that brings you out at the bottom of the high street and ready for another coffee.
It's just a short drive to some of the best forest in the country, so consider combining a leisurely afternoon in Berkhamsted with an evening walk through the Ashridge Estate. A stone's throw from the Chilterns, the cluster of idyllic towns and villages in the area are simply beautiful. I've added them to my list of places I'd also like to live...
Don't miss and if it rains...
Take the time to study the architecture as you walk along the high street. Many buildings tell of their history and still display original signage and advertisements. Look out for the old pharmacies, particularly above Sterling Homes.
If it rains, catch a movie at the restored gem of a 1930s cinema, The Rex, then pop next door to The Gatsby restaurant for dinner and cocktails.