History of The Old Bell and Harpenden

The earliest record of The Old Bell dates it to 1735, when it belonged to a farm, known as the Old Bell Ground. By 1835 the farm was a beer house, though it wasn’t until the 1869 Wine and Beerhouse Act that The Old Bell became a fully licensed public house.

Harpenden’s history is in agriculture. While the men of the village farmed wheat, the women (and often children too) took advantage of the abundance of good quality straw and took up straw plaiting. They would sell the plaits to the famous straw-hat manufacturers of Dunstable and Luton, usually to supplement their husband’s income.

It was not uncommon to find many a farmer stopping off for an ale or two at The Old Bell, on his way back from Luton market having sold a bundle of his wife’s plaits.

During 1860 a new railway line was laid between Harpenden and Luton. So patrons of The Old Bell would often be joined by railway navvies, guzzling fine, full-bodied ales to ease the aches and pains of a hard day’s toil on the tracks.


The town of Harpenden can be traced back to Roman times. The name ‘Harpenden’ is derived from ‘Herpe Dene’, meaning ‘the military path through the valley’. It refers to the Roman road that ran from Verulamium through Harpenden, along a dry valley now used by the A1081.

The geography of the area is significant. Harpenden lies at the bottom of The Chilterns, between two river valleys: the Ver Valley and the Lea Valley. The first settlers followed the river valleys inland and set up small farms within the woodlands. In fact the abundant greens that populate the town today are thought to be the original sites of some of these ancient farms. 

Harpenden has a strong history of agriculture, especially the growing of wheat. In 1843, Sir John Bennet Lawes, an agricultural scientist, founded an experimental farm in the grounds of Rothamsted Manor, where he lived.  Today, it’s the world’s oldest agricultural research station, though there is a public footpath through the Manor woods.

For many years, Harpenden’s cereal farms and straw-plaiting sustained it. The transport development of the early 19th century largely passed the town by. That all changed with the arrival of the Great Northern Railway through Batford in 1860, the Midland Railway mainline in 1868, and the Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead Railway, known as “The Nickey Line”, in 1877. The Nickey Line still exists today, though it’s now a scenic cycleway which takes you through some of Hertfordshire’s prettiest woodland.

A pleasant village with a good rail connection, including a direct line to London: Harpenden’s reputation spread and the population expanded rapidly in the early 20th century, yet never at the expense of its countryside charm. Today, the town is perhaps best known for its pretty parks, commons and greens, from Batford Park and Kinsbourne Green, to Nomansland Common and Rothamsted Park.


Of course, Harpenden is also a gateway to the beautiful Chiltern Hills, an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Stretching all the way from the River Thames in Oxfordshire to Hitchin in Hertfordshire, walkers will love exploring its wildflower meadows and lush green woodlands. And cyclists can hop on the Chilterns Cycleway – a 170-mile route through the Chilterns’ historic villages and lively market towns – just a few hundred yards from The Old Bell. 

With its pretty countryside feel, inviting interior and idyllic location at the foot of the Chilterns, The Old Bell is the perfect place to come for a traditional pub lunch, pint of hand-pulled cask ale. A delicious end to your day is assured!

Directions to The Old Bell

You can find The Old Bell on Luton Road in Harpenden, just off the A1081. Simply key AL5 3BN into your satnav.