Hidden Royston: Below the High Street

Below the High Street

The death of the high street has been foretold many times over the decades. Royston is no exception – with empty shops in evidence, ‘use it or lose it’ applies more now than ever. One cause of the gradual decline of the British high street has been attributed to the relative costs of ‘bricks and clicks’ – physical premises being so much more expense than having an online presence.

Those selling goods and services in bricks and mortar buildings are under increasing pressure to make the best use of their available space. One area that’s often overlooked is what goes on beneath our feet – in cellars and basements. Three enterprising Royston businesses show what can be done by going underground.

For pubs, the cellar space below ground is a necessity – for accessible storage and an environment that suits the amber nectar that is pumped to the surface to thirsty drinkers. A guided tour around the cellars at The Old Bull at the top of Royston High Street by Ben, the manager, reveals a world that’s rarely seen by the public. ‘Mind your head’ he says as I don’t, and we descend along a short passageway that reminds me of the tunnel to the more visited Royston Cave at the bottom of the High Street.

With a career in the hospitality business, Ben has seen more cellars than most and doesn’t try to big them up. “Most pub cellars are cold and damp… not attractive… some are sprawling… but all are a major undertaking when you think of digging out a massive space that they then built over centuries ago. The space below The Bull [which dates from the 16th Century] is purely functional keeping the casks at a steady 8ºC.”

Like an anxious mother showing her untidy teenager’s bedroom to prospective house buyers, Ben apologises for the parts of the cellar that remain unused and are, of course, out of bounds to the public.

At the business end of the cellar empty beer kegs, each one once held 88 pints, are evidence of hearty celebrations over Christmas and the New Year. They now await a return to street level which, surprisingly, is only a matter of feet above the cellar floor.

Alongside are the kegs that are still to be emptied and I expect a highly technical explanation from Ben about the system for matching the beer below ground with the pumps at the bar. Disappointingly, he simply says “They’re colour-coded – it works well.”    


From pulling pints to pampering people

I’m back in daylight for a short walk to a cellar space that is very much for public use. The ‘below stairs’ development at The Ruby Rooms at the bottom of the High Street is used for beauty treatments – a complete contrast to The Bull’s cellars.

An entrepreneurial landlord renovated the cellar space to make it usable and the current occupants are creatively using the subterranean development to accommodate more clients with two treatment rooms and a space for pedicures. Illuminated false windows create framed pictures out of the bedrock beyond and make an unlikely feature out of a coal chute from a previous age. It all adds to the sense of peace and tranquillity.

Manager Jess confirms that development of the underground space was always part of the plan when moving into the property nearly two years ago. “We saw the opportunity to use the space for treatments; it hadn’t been used by the public with the previous occupants – a sports shop and jewellers. We fitted it out to create an attractive space where people could relax. The pedicure area is designed for two people, so friends can come together and enjoy the unusual surroundings together. When we moved in it attracted a lot of attention – people even came in just to have a look – it’s also added real interest for our clients who return with friends to share the experience.”

From pampering to painting

A left turn off the High Street into Baldock Street, takes you to Glazed Creations – a workshop/studio where all ages and abilities can paint their own pottery. Here they’ve made good use of their cellar area for both public and staff use.

As co-creator-in-chief Christina explains “The previous occupants used the cellar for storage. We now use it as our party room and kiln area [for glazing customers’ creations]. Having the kilns down there has the added advantage of heating the whole of the premises – we never need any other heating and have air-conditioning at times when it gets too cosy. The availability of a basement was one of the biggest attractions when we moved in five years ago – it was ready to use and we needed the extra space.”

Back at ground level on Royston High Street, a straw poll of 20 shops shows just over half currently have cellars. Only half of those (25% of the total) are actually using them – for storage, displays, offices and, in one case, testing electrical equipment. My investigations take me further than expected when a couple of shop owners tell me about a tunnel from the High Street to the Parish Church. But maybe that’s for another time…        

If readers of The Listing have a cellar at home in or around Royston that they think would merit attention for a future article in the ‘Hidden Royston’ series, please contact Chris Lee leeinroyston@aol.com