“ Address: 23-25 Holywell Hill / St Albans AL1 1EZ / Hertfordshire „
I am primarily reviewing the White Hart Hotel as a pub rather than a hotel as, during the many years I have lived a few hundred yards away from it, I have always thought of it as a large local pub with some rooms above it rather than a thriving hotel. I have often met there for a quiet drink over the years; the quiet, non-threatening atmosphere makes it ideal to meet another female friend for a chat.
The White Hart is one of the buildings that every tourist will want to photograph as they walk around the St Albans. Standing on one of the main roads into the centre, the grade II listed White Hart immediately catches everybody's eye, with its 14th century black and white, timber framed construction. Inside, the atmosphere is much more hotel bar than cheerful local pub but what it lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in history.
Local gossip tells me that The White Hart has recently been visited by Alex Polizzi to film an episode of the Hotel Inspector. I think this is to be shown around September 2012 - so I can deduce that the White Hart is not doing as well as it could be in some respects!
The White Hart is in the very centre of town; less than one hundred yards away from the shops and historical tourist attractions, and directly opposite the main entrance to St Albans Cathedral. Access is via some small steps which lead you into up the smallest of the bars, but you can also walk through the arched entrance at the side to the back door. This provides disabled access and leads to the hotel reception desk and the restaurant.
To the front of the building are the two bars; the smaller one as you walk in is made slightly less cosy due to people walking through it to get in and out. On the other side is the larger bar; the door to the street is blocked here to make it more private and provide more seating area. At the back of the pub is a small restaurant called Tudors which is accessed via two heavy wooden doors. In between the restaurant and the two front bars is a lobby with the hotel reception and several tables which form a small third bar.
The pub has an oval central bar which allows staff to stand in the middle and serve all sides at once. The bar itself is very attractive, made out of old mellow wood and very cosy. It is nice to be able to look through to the bar at the other side.
Comfortable wooden bar stools with backs make sitting at the bar more enjoyable than a lot of pubs. The bar can serve to all three rooms due to its design.
Seating is a combination of comfortable upholstered benches, dark wooden chairs and tables and a few unusual much older carved benches and chairs that seem to sit around for decorative rather than practical purposes. Annoyingly, the furniture seen on the website of the White Hart is not actually the furniture they have in the bar. The room appears to have been 'dressed' for the photo-shoot, which surely destroys the intention of the website!
Each of the three bar areas has a fireplace, currently occupied by wood burning stoves although they have been opened up as log-burning fires in the past. The thing that strikes visitors as they walk in is the floor to ceiling oak panelling which looks very unusual and gives the pub its unique historic atmosphere.
Lighting is kept low, with amber lampshades on branched wall lights. Old photographs and memorabilia line the walls.
Recently the décor in the pub has undergone a rather unpleasant makeover, and the central lobby now sports a full sized set of armour and two red and gold thrones in the style of the Beckhams. This is a really tacky and unnecessary addition which I imagine is aimed at hotel guests from the US. It certainly hasn't impressed the locals!
Outside, a few parking spaces are available for residential guests. These can be accessed by driving through the archway in the building to the back courtyard. The courtyard also has some outdoor seating with patio heaters; there is a very small walled areas which is secure for children, but it is not really an outdoor area which encourages children. It is more of a functional courtyard with a gazebo to protect smokers.
A few rather shabby wooden picnic tables sit on one side of the pub - effectively in the car park and located in a place that means that cars entering the car park must drive very close to the tables. Pedestrians also frequently walk through the courtyard on their way to the shops. Noise from Holywell Hill is also quite high here.
I think the White Hart can genuinely claim to be one of the oldest inns in the area; inside and outside it is steeped in history with its sloping floors, timber frame and huge wooden beams. The most ancient part of the White Hart is on the southern side and formed part of an inn built around 1500 (then known as the Hartshorn). Since that time the building has been adapted and extended to a certain extent but it still retains a sense of ancientness.
The pub owners play on this for the tourists, with claims to a local ghost (a lady who died in the pub after bumping her head on a beam) and plenty of ghost-themed nights of 'fun'. The pub also likes to boast that local dignitaries met in what is now the restaurant to declare war against Spain in 1761.
I used to live right behind the White Hart, and I liked a more direct link with history. At one end of my road was the White Hart Hotel, and at the other the White Hart Tap. I learnt from local sources that the gentry used to stay at the hotel, while their servants and coachmen used to stay a few hundred yards away at the Tap, leaving their horses in the stables there. I enjoyed the feeling of being between these two remnants of social history and used to think of it as I walked up to town - up the road and under the archway of the White Hart Hotel.
Although I have recommended the White Hart for a quiet drink with a friend, it is actually the ambiance that demotes this review to 3 stars. There is a vaguely old fashioned, Faulty Towers style to the whole pub; hushed tones and lots of empty tables. There really is no atmosphere at all in any of the bars, and I am never really sure why.
On a typical Friday night, when other nearby pubs are full of laughing, joking crowds of friends, the White Hart is strangely calm. Muzak is piped through all of the bars in true hotel style, and the bar staff wear cute little black uniforms. You may look through the circular bar just to see human life, and be reassured to see another couple quietly chatting on the other side. Occasionally a man with a dog may walk in for a swift half... and quickly leave again.
The bar staff are always friendly and welcoming, but on a couple of occasions they have been deep in conversation and clearly bored by the lack of custom. I have often had to call them or to go to find them to get service.
All in all, this pub always seems dead and it is this that makes me avoid it on most occasions. I feel that if I met a group of friends inside, we would make an unseemly noise and disturb the calm.
I have eaten in the White Hart several times over the years - usually for a Sunday lunch with the in-laws rather than an evening meal. The restaurant has always served traditional food, in a medium sized room with lots of character (the same oak panelling and open fires that can be found in the rest of the building).
The current incarnation of the restaurant is called Tudors. The restaurant is separated from the rest of the pub by two heavy oak doors. I have not yet eaten in Tudors, and when I visit the bar for a drink the restaurant has always been deserted, with the doors closing firmly just before 10pm to hide the emptiness.
The current menu can be found on the White Hart Hotel web page. www.whiteharthotelstalbans.co.uk
Looking through the window of Tudors in the interests of research, I found it completely deserted at 12.30pm Sunday lunchtime and have to conclude that something is wrong with either the menu or the chef for it to be so empty when every other restaurant in the town is very busy.
When I visit I usually have a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. This is invariably nicely chilled and very tasty - and served with a smile. Beers include a selection of real ales as well as the usual lagers and ciders.
Although I live very close to the White Hart Hotel, I have stayed in the rooms for 3 nights whilst I was in the middle of a house move.
The hotel has 16 rooms, which are all accessed through a small door in the bar and up a steep flight of wooden stairs. All of the rooms have an en-suite and TV and we stayed in the family room.
The website warns prospective guests that "Guests are attracted to the hotel by its individual and historic appeal and therefore should not expect the same stereotyped room specifications of the multiple chains". This is true in a positive sense as the guest will find quirky slanted floors, wood panelling and original fireplaces - but unfortunately the rooms also come with a lack of ventilation that makes a stay almost unbearable.
We stayed in November and found the rooms stifling. The small windows opened, but opened directly onto the very busy Holywell Hill, which has a constant stream of drunken party-goers passing by at night time, and a constant stream of queuing traffic during the day as cars queue in front of the traffic lights, revving their engines as they tail back up the hill. Opening the windows is a smelly and noisy alternative to being very hot.
When I stayed the rooms were adequate but not great, and they were also not that clean. A few years have passed since then, but reviews on Tripadvisor indicate that cleaning is still an issue although one of the doubles seems to have been upgraded to a high standard (the superior double).
As usual when staying above a pub, the smell of stale beer pervades even at breakfast, and in the evening the chatter from the bar can be intrusive. Having said that, the breakfast was large and delicious - served by a very friendly lady who made us feel relaxed and well cared for.
The White Hart is a landmark of St Albans but it really is targeted at the tourist and business market. It makes it clear that the bars are open to non-residents, but not many people take advantage of this. Competition is high - with a plethora of really good pubs and restaurants within yards of the White Hart and the highly recommended Comfort Hotel a few doors down.
If the Hotel Inspector really has visited, I hope that she has made a few changes.
The White Hart Hotel
23-25 Holywell Hill