A pub crawl to the Huntingdonshire pub known as The King of the Belgians
The unique pub name of The King of the Belgians is not the only reason to search out this hostelry. It has a excellent range of ales, offers good food, provides good company and has an intriguing history with regard to its names. This walk uses the road from Houghton so it is an easy stroll with other pubs along the route.
Houghton to Hartford Walk - Essential Information
Houghton Mill CampsiteView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- National Trust owned campsite that is located directly in front of Houghton Mill
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 19:30 to 23:30
- Griffmonster, Kat, Chaig, Stephen, Bev
- Weather Conditions
- Blue skies and warm summers day
Normally such small wanders to a pub such as this two mile each way stroll would not be documented but there are a couple of reasons for its inclusion. Firstly the destination is a pub that should not be missed for any ale aficionado or pub enthusiast. Secondly, this started as a mystery from an old photo and one could not miss the opportunity of seeking out this pub and writing up some of the findings.
The mystery opened up some time prior to the three night visit to Houghton which had been booked to reminisce on 1970s family holidays to the area in honour of my dads passing. So, going back to the spring of the year of the visit, specifically a Saturday evening during which a group of friends congregated in a pub in Coastal Suffolk for an evening of socialising. Soon after arriving at this hostelry in the village of Knodishall a conversation was struck up between the landlord, a few locals and our own group. The conversation centred around a series of old black and white photos depicting various public houses. Each item appeared to illustrate an Adnams tied house and, judging by the scenes, they were all pre-war, maybe even pre WWI. Each photograph had been identified by the locals, providing both the knowledge of the pub and the village it was part of. Despite some of these having long finished trading, there was enough living memories in that pub to tell a few tales of days gone by and visits to those old pubs. All the photos were identified. That is all apart from one image which depicted a horse drawn dray at a distinctive old pub that no-one was able to offer even a glimmer of a recollection. The distinctive building could not be placed to any location in the coastal Suffolk area and the pub name provided even more of a mystery. No-one had even heard of a pub known as The King of the Belgians, let alone such an example in Suffolk. The photograph had been paraded in front of many eyes over the previous weeks but no-one could offer any idea of its location. Hence the reason it was being liberally displayed in front of our eyes on such an evening.
Now I would not call the group of friends whom I arrived with as youngsters, but nonetheless we were all most certainly ordained into the 21st century and had all the modern gadgets that accompanied this age, including modern network enabled devices and a knowledge of the world wide web. It did not take long for a tablet device to return an image of a pub named The King of the Belgians that matched the building in the photograph. A pub still was in existence and appeared to have hardly changed since the photo was taken. There was a lot of agreements amongst the regular customers that it was indeed the pub and nods of approval affirmed that the world wide web was such a novel and wonderful thing.
However there was one little discrepancy and that was its location. Hartford. Not that anyone really knew where Hartford was but, once again, the internet provided the vital information. In fact Wikipedia states
Hartford in Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire), England, is a village near the town of Huntingdon, and not far west of Wyton. It lies on the A141 road and on the north bank of the River Great Ouse, upon which it has a significant marina. The village is not to be confused with the much larger town of Hertford, some 38 miles (61 km) to the south-east.
This presented a bit of a mystery as this was an Adnams dray delivering the beer to this pub. Did Adnams really deliver their beers such a distance all those years ago? One hundred miles? It would be a long way for a horse to pull a dray from the brewery in Southwold. That question never got answered and despite exhaustive searches no light can be shed upon the subject. Maybe something will bring enlightenment in the future and if so, this will be added to this short discourse.
Now, I was one of the few who had any idea of Hartford and its whereabouts. These days it is lost in the urban sprawl of Huntingdon, indistinct as a separate entity and probably ignored by most travellers passing through. However, back in the time of the aforementioned family holidays of the 1960s and 1970s, the journey would take us through Huntingdon. Back then Huntingdon was a small market town. The drive in from Brampton lead one down the A604 into the centre of town where traffic lights would manage the flow of vehicles at the junction of the High Street. A turn right followed by a left turn a few hundred yards on would see the journey progress out of town on the A141. The road twisted round and left the housing and within minutes one was passing through the village of Hartford. I remembered it distinctly, although had no recollection of the pub being such a tender age when pubs provided little attraction.
The landscape of the area has changed drastically since those days. The bends and twists have been straightened out. Bypasses added, and Huntingdon High Street pedestrianised. Housing estates fill what was fields alongside the A141 and the main street through Hartford village is now bypassed with the King of the Belgians pub almost completely lost from view apart from a pub sign that sticks out from the rear of the pub garden. The population of Huntingdon has also substantially grown, comparable figures showing that from 7784 citizens in 1951 (ref) it has swelled to 24,810 in 2016 (ref.
One has to admit even back in the 1970s the traffic would snarl up, therefore the bypass was probably a necessity to keep traffic flowing. Back in them days the queues into Huntingdon were memorable in their frustration, and the not-so trusty family Ford Popular would sometimes overheat in those jams. One distinct memory was of the car overheating and my dad removing the filler cap to be blasted with hot water in his face and then having to find the doctors surgery for some urgent attention.
So returning to the present day and the return visit to Houghton for the first time in some 40 years. Knowing the close proximity of Hartford, and having spoken about it during the weekends walks it was soon decided to embark upon an excursion in search of this legendary hostelry. Sadly there are no footpaths and the main road has to be taken. Having said that there are pavements and this is a perfectly reasonable evenings stroll to a pub. In fact there are other pubs along the route to make it into a veritable pub crawl. At the outset on Houghton Square, there is The Three Horseshoes which is well worth a visit with its ever changing guest ales. Next up is The Jolly Butchers which provides a watering hole as one wanders out to the main road and offers three ales. Further along at the marina is the Hartford Mill and as one enters Hartford the Barley Mow offers more ale. However the crowning glory of all the pubs is undoubtedly The King of the Belgians. The ale. The food. The pub. The traditional bar. The friendly and welcoming atmosphere. It is everything one wants of a traditional English pub. Worth every step.
So the mysteries. Where did such a distinctive name come from and why was it adopted. What was the history of this pub? Was it once an Adnams tied house. Well the first of these mysteries are answered in the feature to this walk. The question of how Adnams came to be linked with the pub is still a mystery.
Road walk from Houghton to Hartford
Leave Houghton from the village square via Huntingdon Road. Follow this road out of the village to the junction with the main road. Continue heading eastwards along the main road, there is a pavement on the north side of the road.
Keep to the pavement until just past the entrance to Hartford Marina. Take the turn on the left which is a bus only roadway.
At the T-junction turn left onto the main road through Hartford village. Continue for 400yards. The pub sign is displayed on the right of the main road and just before this is a walk way through to Main Street that emerges adjacnt to the pub.
Return is retracing ones steps back. Alternatively one can continue on the road into Huntingdon, then take the Godmanchester road and return across the river meadows using the directions contained in the latter section of Ouse Valley Way Walk St Neots to Houghton
The King of the Belgians, Hartford View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Main Street, Hartford
This highly acclaimed hostelry dates from 1541 and retains many of its original features such as the solid oak beams and the copper topped bar. It was once said to have been the preferred local to Oliver Cromwell. During more recent years it has escaped intentions of demolition and being turned into a private house. Luckily it has now been bought outright on by a former manager of the pub in the 1980s which has secured its future, certainly for the foreseeable future.
Very much a traditional pub, it offers food ranging from simple snacks to full 3 course meals and an excellent array of guest ales. A warm welcome and a friendly local atmosphere make this a place to seek out.
As with many old pubs, this one also has its resident ghost which is said to be a headless woman that has been witnessed on many occasions. Sadly little else can be found about these encounters or whom the ghost may be.
Fantastic old pub full of olde worlde charm. Friendly. Welcoming. And the choice of ale is worthy of seeking out alone. Alas, we did not encounter the taverns ghost. A visit is well recommended.
The King of the BelgiansView in OS Map | View in Google Map
The King of the Belgians is an unlikely name for a pub although not totally unique. The remaining example in Britain is the pub on Main Street in Hartford, Huntingdonshire, or Cambridgeshire in modern parlance. The pub sign is said to depict Albert I who reigned as the King of the Belgians from from 1909 to 1934. However the pub dates from long before this period when it was originally known as the King of Prussia or the King of the Prussians, after Frederick II aka Fredrick the Great (1740-1786). There is no definitive reason as to why such a name was chosen for an English hostelry. It is true that the maternal grandfather of Frederick II was George I of England. He also tried to flee to England at the age of 18 during his military training. However he was caught, court martialed and forced to watch his best friend being decapitated for his efforts. However, the action that promoted the monarch to a hero in an Englishmen's eyes is the alliance he made with Britain against the French in 1756, this association lasting for the duration of the seven years war and during which Prussia was at the forefront of the fighting in Europe.
The change of name to the King of the Belgians came around the time of the first world war and was most likely caused by Prussia's association with Germany, being part of the German empire. It was therefore considered unpatriotic to have a pub name honouring the enemy and consequently such a name would most likely have deterred trade and invited retribution by locals. However the pub website states that it was not until after the war that the name was changed when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and the Prussian municipalities of Eupen and Malmedy were annexed by Belgium. This does seem strange especially considering other pubs that were similarly named aalso changed their names at the outbreak of the war.
It is unclear why the name The King of the Belgians should be chosen as the substitute other than the connection to belgium referred to in the above paragraph. The Midlands pub sign website offers the irony of the name chosen, noting that Albert I had close connections with Germany, but then stating,
However, he opposed German forces entering Belgium in 1914 and subsequently served in the Belgian army, particularly during the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of the Yser.
For a short period around the WWII years The Hartford King of the Belgians became known as the Traitors Arms. This was due to the Belgian King at the time, King Leopold III, who had surrendered to Germany and was accused of collaborating with Hitler. The Belgians held a referendum in which they voted against his return and his son Baudouin became king. Throughout this period it is said the pub sign depicted a skull and cross bones. It eventually reverted back to The King of the Belgians at a later date.
Although the Hartford pub is the last instance of such a pub name in Britain, it is certainly not unique. There was also a King of the Belgians in Dorset which had gone through a similar series of name changes. This Bridport pub, renamed The Lord Nelson in 1940, dates from the mid 18th century and it was also formerly named the King of Prussia. In this instance the Dorset Life magazine attests the King of the Belgians name was chosen
in recognition of the Belgian refugees that the town was housing, many of whom were working in the town’s factories and contributing to the war effort.
It is true that Britain was the home to 250,000 refugees during the first world war. This is an interesting avenue of thought. Could this be the reason for the change of name of the Hartford pub. The 2014 publication
Remembering the Hemingfords, a commemoration of 100 years since the outbreak of WWI for the Huntingdon villages on the opposite side of the Ouse, contains the following extract
As early as 30 October 1914, the Hemingfords’ Belgian Refugee Committee was formed for the purpose of arranging to support a family of refugees, with further hospitality if funds permitted. Refugees duly arrived, initially three men of military age, and a local doctor placed his furnished summer residence at the disposal of a family.
This certainly provides food for thought although thus far no records or memories have been found of refugees being taken in at Hartford. Even so, this is a close enough proximity to provide an association with Belguim and promote such a name change.
Another pub, located in Gravesend in Kent and now long since closed down and demolished, also had the name of King of the Belgians. This was also formerly known as the King of Prussia. This pub dated from 1768 and is noted that it closed down around 1914 and then must have reopened, because by 1922 it was called The King of the Belgians.
Other examples of a similar history comes from Brompton in Kent, where the pub dating from 1690 and named The King of Prussia also changed its name, although the replacement name chosen in this instance was the King George V. It is alleged that this pub had its windows smashed in 1914 whilst it carried the former name, demonstrating the hatred towards such a pub name.
There is also an example of the King of Prussia that is still named as such in Penpergwm near Abergavenny in Wales. Even this one briefly changed its name during the WWI years, although this was more subtle, adopting the name The king of Russia. In Stratford, East London, the King Edward VII pub was originally named the King of Prussia until the start of the war, although why this Edward VII should have been adopted is unclear since he had died 4 years prior to the war.
Finally there are a couple examples of the King of Prussia to be found in the west country, one at Kingsbridge in Devon and another at Fowey in Cornwall. The Cornish example has nothing to do with Fredrick the Great but is a recognition of a local late 18th century smuggler and privateer named John Carter who was locally known as the King of Prussia due to his resemblance of the monarch. Although this has been renamed as Kings Arms and the Kings Hotel it is unknown if the pub retained its name during the years of the First World War. The example in Devon may also take its name from the smuggler although nothing conclusive has been found to establish this fact. There are suggestions that this pub had changed its name to the George in 1935.
All in all, this is an interesting tale of pub names.
Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information
Summary of Document Changes
Last Updated: ... 2017-01-31