UP CLOSE IN HITCHIN: The Half Moon pub
By Layth Yousif
1st Nov 2020 | Local News
Hitchin Nub News aims to support our community, promoting shops, businesses, charities, clubs and sports groups.
We showcase some of these businesses, organisations and individuals regularly in a feature called 'Up Close in Hitchin'.
For today's Up Close feature we popped down to the Half Moon and spoke with landlords Freddy and Emily.
Please note this interview took place before second lockdown restrictions were announced.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Many thanks for your time Freddy, we know you're a busy bloke, so we'll crack on.
FREDDY BEST: Not a problem, love what you're doing with Nub News by the way.
So. I grew up just outside Hitchin in Little Wymondley, I went to Little Wymondley JMI School. I lived in the village the whole time I was at that school. It was a very nice school. Then I moved to Charlton where I went to The Priory – which was an experience coming from a small village!
When I first went there I didn't really know anyone at the school. I applied to get into Hitchin Boys' School but I didn't get in. The whole five/six years I was there you could see the school change. So, yes, I've been in and around Hitchin all my life.
After school I worked in London, on building sites. I was a labourer. There were a few skilled people on site who wanted to get me into electrical work but I steered clear of electrical work.
I'd done the first year of A-levels but as much as I enjoyed Chemistry, Psychology and Physical Ed, and Maths but I had a chat with my teachers and it was very much a case of just wanting to get out there in the world and do something. I wanted to get experience of life and just get stuck in.
That was usually north of the river. In Islington mostly. It was one of those situations where I enjoyed it for a while but in the winter you were leaving home when it was dark and coming back when it was dark. And you don't really appreciate where you're working because of the travel.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: I've worked on building sites in my time, you'd have met a few characters on a north London building site as a 17-year-old kid from a sleepy Herts village wouldn't you?
FREDDY: Yes, definitely. There are people from all over the world and its nice to meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds. I enjoyed it. I did for around two or three years in my early 20s. After that I couldn't really decide what I wanted to do, and bounced around for a while doing patios and interiors. I also did a bit of window cleaning and factory over too at that time. When you're that age sometimes you're just a bit unsure of what you want to do.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: How did you get from building sites and cleaning windows into becoming a landlord of a busy Hitchin pub then?
FREDDY: I had worked at the Windmill in Charlton as a 14-year-old on Sunday afternoons helping out which was beautiful. I just helped out in the kitchen and plated up peas and stuff, but I really enjoyed it. My first kitchen job was in the Angel's Reply on Bedford Road. It was completely different experience than what I was used to. It was all about rotating stock and keeping an eye on everything. From the kitchen I worked behind the bar a little and I enjoyed it. I preferred the customer facing side of things and I enjoyed communicating with people. It was nice to do and to get to know people.
From there I worked in the Old Kings Arms, which was a lovely experience. From there I ended up getting a job here at the Half Moon under the previous owners.
I worked for them for a good few years, six years I think, which was a nice experience. learning the cellar trade and picking up new skills. I did work in the kitchen at the Half Moon for a short while but I was far more interested in bar work.
When they said they wanted to sell up and retire my partner and I, Emily, expressed our interest and we came to an agreement and subsequently bought the lease in October 2017.
It was actually Friday 13th when we signed the lease, which was a bad omen but Emily's lucky number.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Why?
FREDDY [Laughs] Because it's everyone else's unlucky number! We saw it as a lucky date. I'm 31 now and would have been 28 when we took over. Emily has had previously experience in the trade working over at the Red Lion in Preston and went to college in London and studied fashion. Emily went to Hitchin Girls' School and grew up in Ley Green as well as working fro Jolly Brown in town.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: I suppose you could date your time working in pubs from the age of 14 but what do you really love about working in a pub – what drives you, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
FREDDY: In the nicest possible way, it's definitely the hardest job I've had. It's not a job it's a lifestyle. We live onsite so we're here everyday. It's having different groups of people under one roof – some of who may never have met each other before, and having laughter and conviviality. It's about creating a nice environment for people to be in. We want everyone to have fun and to respect everyone else having fun.
On a busy Friday night it can be sweaty and stressful but when you look around you realise you're the only sweat and stressed one and everyone else is having a nice time.
People are being jovial, catching up with people they know well, that they've never met before, that they've met every Friday for the last three years on that day – and it's a lovely feeling to get up every morning and know you can help create that feeling of enjoyment.
We definitely take enjoyment from other people's happiness. I know some people have big social groups but, for others, sometimes the pub is the only form of social contact they get on a regular basis.
Some people live alone who might not have family but they can come here and meet people and talk to people – and that makes them happy.
We get people from all ages and all backgrounds who come to the Half Moon. And then you also get people who will talk to complete strangers and get on with them and the next time you see them they'll be with them chatting away. That's a beautiful thing.
Things have changed somewhat over the course of this year but the ethos still remains the same, despite the restrictions. You can see people make friends and that is a beautiful thing.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: The Half Moon has always been a sociable pub with loads going on – and not just beer festivals – I remember being here to write about a beard festival a few years back…
FREDDY: Yes. We've wanted to put our own stamp on the place – we don't shy away from putting on events. You've seen we host Hitchin Food Rescue. We also love our music. We're always up for a bit of variety and we put on live music too. I think it is appreciated.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: We've talked to a lot of people and businesses who say they've had to adapt since [the first] lockdown – would you say the Half Moon has had to adapt as well?
FREDDY: Yes. We want to keep the same feel, same environment. After lockdown our challenge was to create the same atmosphere outside as it was inside. And you also find some people don't want to sit inside either. But I do think that everyone who comes to the Half Moon appreciates the work we've been doing, to make it safe and welcoming. We will never be a part of those stories where pubs or clubs up and down the county cram people into their spaces. We want to make people safe and comfortable, they'll come back if they feel safe. I'm just a frontman it's normally Emma who comes up with the ideas. We've used our car park space for people to use as an open, outdoor space. There's not many spaces in the town, so we're lucky to have an outdoor space we can use. We're limited with space inside so we're looking to install outdoor heating and lighting outside as well.
Em joins the conversation.
FREDDY: We've also been happy to host Hitchin Food Rescue. It's nice to be able to offer them a venue to ensure food doesn't go to waste. It's nice to give a little something back and I think they really appreciate it as well
EM: I can't believe the amount of food that goes to waste. It's unbelievable. When we bought the pub I said we want to be part of this town and this community. We go to all the other pubs in Hitchin such as The Victoria and I think that's really important to show support and be part of the town. We've met a lot of people doing that.
FREDDY: It's nice to be part of a community. It's nice to pop into town on a Saturday morning, say, and to stop and have a chat with people. We've been in and around Hitchin most of our lives and it's nice to be seen as almost 'pillars' of the community. I don't understand how that happened though!
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Talk us through your beers. I worked in a pub for a year and you really have to care about the beer you sell if you want to do well
FREDDY: The art to it is that I sing to the beers…I sing every morning to them….no, there's a long line of people who want to sell you beer and spirits. For me it's more interesting researching beers. Through the internet, talking to people, getting feedback. For example, we have beers such as Oakham Ales which will always sell. But more often than not people will want to try something new. Of course everyone's happy to have something day in day out but if you can open their eyes to something new, it broadens their horizons so to speak. We have had people who have had the same beers for along time until we got them to try something else and now they ask us: 'What do you recommend?' It's nice for that to happen.
We've had Bishops Farewell and Timothy Taylor Landlord as a staple.
EM: It should be called Landlady as well…
FREDDY: This is true. We have beers from Tring Valley. Mad Squirrel Brewery. Nene Valley. There is an abundance, I couldn't possibly recommend a single beer.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: In terms of spirits there's been a real renaissance of gin over the last few years. Do you monitor new trends to find the next 'new thing' and if so what's next on the horizon…?
FREDDY: We've got nine or ten gins on offer and they all seem to sell as well as each other, whether it's a rhubarb gin, a Seville orange Gin or a grapefruit Gin. Craft Beers go well too.
EM: During lockdown we tried to find ways of remaining relatively sane while having a young child. We couldn't really open for 'takeaways' as that threw up so many other issues. So we decided to do 'alphabet boxes' where you sell a letter of the alphabet. We got to the letter 'm'…We offered 12 different craft ales for £25. People seemed to like it. We had things like jam doughnut beer. You wouldn't want a pint of it, but a small can got people's interest.
Cans are good to have for possible impending lockdowns as beer goes out of date. We had about 20 barrels that were about to go out of date so we handed them out to our regulars as gifts.
On our daily walks back then we became 'beer fairies' when we'd drop off beer on people's doorsteps and take a photo of it to send to them and say: 'The beer fairy has been.' It was good fun. I think people appreciated it. But now with craft cans people seem to be stocking up on them.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: As someone who has worked in a bar, there are times when you can overindulge in the 'sweet shop'. How do you temper that as pub owners…?
FREDDY: For our staff we have a no-drinking policy when working and we tend to lead by example in that respect. And then, if we are going to have a drink we'll pay for that drink. Because we'd rather be seen as customers if we're not working. And it's good to keep track. It's very easy, like you say to simply pour yourself and pint and have it, and do that again and again. But if you're paying for it, you feel like you're going out. I think a few people who when they imagine what it's like to run a pub, would simply stick their head under a pump and drink all night. But it's not like that…
EM: Paying for drinks changes things. It's nice because you feel like you're going out, even if you're literally just going down the stairs. Mind you when we took over, we did have a few night when we were like: 'This is amazing…' But then you realize you have to work, or work the next morning…
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: As landlords have you found Hitchin has a strong sense of community…?
FREDDY: [Emphatically] Yes. Very much so. We'd go to other pubs and people would joke 'what are you doing here, you're in the wrong pub?' It's very much a case of people are involved with each other. Everyone knows everyone and sees everyone. You don't have to go too far to meet someone who know. Which is a nice thing. People have been there for us during lockdown and beyond. Which is nice to feel.
EM: And also people who own pubs are quite friendly to other people who own pubs! Through lockdown, the guys at the Red Hart have been really kind and good to us by helping us with legal jargon. Vic and the Victoria has been really good as well. There's a real sense of solidarity. I think lockdown made us realise we're all in this together. If there's no pubs in town, I don't think too many people would come to Hitchin. So it's to everyone's benefit that there are flourishing pubs in our town.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: It does sometimes seem like a grim situation when you look at how many pubs are closing up and down the country…
FREDDY: Yes, it's scary. It doesn't necessarily bode well for the future. I think anyone who is open at the moment is doing well. Hats off them. Guidelines now are so tough. We try and support other places. I take my hat off to them all. A lot of members of staff of other venues drink here as well. Which our staff do as well. I have to say our staff are brilliant and have been brilliant throughout. We have a core staff of around five.
EM: They've been brilliant. Family and friends have been brilliant too. So many people have got in touch offering to help. The amount of people who have got in touch has been amazing.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: How have [previous]changes affected you?
EM: I've been saying for ages people should wear a face mask until they sit down. If you do that you've eliminated cross contamination that way. We also only opened until 1030pm anyway so the 10pm rule didn't affect us as much as some venues that stay open later. We were 1am before Covid but with the rules in place we just thought that past 10pm people might not be as strong following the rules compared to what they might have done before they started drinking.
FREDDY: What's affected us more is table service. It's a complete change for us. Some places it might work for their benefit. Because of Covid we haven't been able to offer food because it's not Covid safe to have staff and people wander around our flat doing food. You place your order to pay and then you go to a second window to collect your drinks. So essentially there's minimal contact and always distance and a wall between people. And now, we're more contact with table service.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: What would you say to Boris Johnson if he was here now. What would your message be?
EM: I would say a blanket ban is not necessarily the best way to go. I get the fact they've done it. But to apply the same to every pub doesn't always work. We've got probably ten tables that we can't use due to distancing rules. Every place is different and unless you go to every single bar and tailor the issues to them and discuss it with the landlords then – well, it's a difficult job for whoever is in charge and I don't envy them. I'd prefer table service to another lockdown put it that way…
FREDDY: It's been difficult from the start of [the first] lockdown. It's different everywhere.
HITCHIN NUB NEWS: The next six months are going to be hard over the winter. How are you viewing it?
FREDDY: It is going to be hard. As many people have said you can't please everyone all of the time. I think the majority of people understand that we have to work this way because we have to. People have been hugely supportive already. There is less trade. You can put signs everywhere. When I go to another pub, I probably hold up the queue by reading signs. I think the majority of our customers recognise the unprecedented situation we and everyone else is in. We are very fortunate to have patient and understanding customers.
EM: I hope the majority of our customers are understanding. I think they have been and they will be. It is out of our control. Also during lockdown prioritizing your family is really important. We said from day one of lockdown we will no longer sacrifice us as unit because of the pub. Because at the end of the day when we retire, we're not retiring with the customers we're retiring with each other. And making a million or whatever can't buy you that family time you will have missed. Also I want everyone to feel safe who comes here, or works here or lives here. We could have put out another 20 benches outside but that wouldn't have made people feel safe and it would have stressed us out with the extra clientele in abnormal circumstances. We'd never pack people in. Safety is really important. I want our staff to feel like they enjoy coming to work. That said we do work really hard!
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PREVIOUS HITCHIN NUB NEWS UP CLOSE FEATURES:
[L]https://hitchin.nub.news/n/feature-hitchin-food-rescue-39seeing-volume-of-food-that-would-otherwise-go-to-waste-makes-it-very-real39[L+] Hitchin Food Rescue
If you or your business or organisation would like to be featured in a future UP CLOSE please email [email protected] or tweet us @HitchinNubNews