Life of a Writer: in Conversation with Chrissy Smith

Fiction and real life intertwine in this conversation with author Chrissy Smith, as she tells us more about her book ‘The Pilgrims Rest’

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with St Albans, in Hertfordshire. For those who aren’t, though, here’s a few facts: the city is in the commuter belt of London, prices are slightly cheaper than the capital and it’s well connected, making living there a good compromise. But at the very beginning of its existence, St Albans was Verulamium, a Roman city, the second largest after Londinium. Once the Roman empire fell and consequently disintegrated, the city became part of the Anglo-Saxon reign and its name derives from St Albans Abbey, which is believed to be the resting place of Saint Alban.

There are many layers to the city – Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Tudors, Victorian – but what interests us are the more recent years, the ones right after the end of WWII because this is where our story begins.

Have you ever wondered whether Holywell Hill is really haunted? There have been quite a few sightings during the years. And do any of you happen to remember a popular restaurant called The Pilgrims Rest at number 1 Holywell Hill? No? So let me tell you a bit more about it.

The Pilgrims Rest was run by my family from the 1950s to the 1970s and I lived above the restaurant for most of my young life. I have to say it was quite an unusual upbringing. My grandparents, Reg and Win Hayes, former publicans, bought The Pilgrims Rest and worked there with my parents, Derrick and Julie, and also my aunt and uncle, Reggie and Sheila. They worked every day, there was no such thing as the weekend off, and our living quarters were upstairs on the first and second floor. There were twelve of us, but we were sharing two whole floors, so it was quite spacious.  There were three bedrooms on the top, almost in the rafters, where my parents slept, and for a short while my uncle, aunt and their children lived on that floor as well but they moved out sooner than us. So I took one of the bedrooms with one of my sisters while my parents slept in another with my younger brother and my other sister.  And then there was Alf, a strange lodger of sorts, who slept in the third bedroom opposite the spooky attic. He was an elusive character and I would define him a strange anomaly.  I never really knew who he was or why he was there. I knew he was not a member of our family, but he seemed to do odd jobs for my nana, sweeping, shopping or the occasional repair. He didn’t say much and used to shuffle around the place with his head bowed low. I only found out many years later, when I was writing the book, that he had been taken in by my grandmother when they’d lived in Dartford after having been in some kind of institution there for many years and she’d given him a home.

At the far end of the first floor there was a large room which we called the ‘Big Room’, the photo shows me standing next to the old fireplace on our last day there; it was a huge sitting room with a twin-bedded room adjacent to it, accessible via huge double doors hidden behind heavy brocade curtains.  Along the corridor there was a long row of rooms that we called ‘the flat’ and at the far end was a bathroom with a large flap door which could be lifted; beneath it were wooden steps leading down to the scullery.

When all the customers had gone home and the place was quiet, I would explore the 16thcentury building now hosting our restaurant, which had many secret nooks and crannies, a spooky attic on the top floor and an old cellar underground where I discovered the blocked off tunnel, believed to link to the city’s Norman cathedral. Apparently, monks used it centuries before to make and store their wine for the liturgy. There was a lot of talk and rumours amongst staff of ghostly apparitions.

Stories surrounding the tunnel were the trigger for my imagination.

I started the book about nine years ago when my mother and I went back to visit Number 1 Holywell Hill which had been bought by Wesley Barrell, a furniture showroom, and I started doing my research there and then, asking if there had been any more ghostly sightings by the staff, which there had! There have been many ghostly apparitions reported in the area in the past.

My novel is based on reality and is a memoir and homage to those who lived and worked at The Pilgrims Rest. Fictitious events have been intermingled with religious and historical truths and legends relating to the town of St Albans which have been passed down through the ages. 

I have so many happy memories of the restaurant, most of which I have tried to include in the book.  But one of my favourites is my grandad sitting at the large kitchen table, handing out money from the till’s takings to all the Saturday staff, including me. We all had to wait our turn, queuing up before him, while he sat at the head of the table like a magnanimous benefactor.  I felt as though I ought to curtsey before him when I reached the front of the queue to receive my hard-earned wages of £3.00 for washing up on a Saturday afternoon, always the busiest day – no dishwashers then!  

The book itself is a family affair through and through: my husband David was the first to read the final draft and helped to lay out the artwork for the cover with illustrations by our daughter Hayley, while Andrew and Daniel, our sons, showed their support all along.

St Albans is an amazing city, and I was truly blessed to have been brought up there.  The Abbey was a very special place and I would often pop in to enjoy its ambience if I was bored or perhaps if it was quiet at the restaurant. I would often take my younger brother and sisters out on a jaunt down to the lake at Verulamium to keep them out of the way of the busy kitchen. One of those jaunts features in my book when the lake was frozen and my sister fell through the ice, but in the book Alf suddenly appears to save the day. Shame he wasn’t there when it really happened!

The town itself was always bustling with many visitors who’d come to see the Abbey and Roman ruins at Verulamium and also to visit the ancient pubs, shops and the busy market which consisted of stalls running all the way from the Market Place, past the Town Hall and all along St Peter’s Street, and also have a peek at the secret alleyways along Chequer Street that I always loved dearly.

I have many photos of the family at the restaurant, some are very old, taken on our last day at the restaurant and others show the place as it is today, taken over by a bookshop called Books on the Hill.

Intrigued? Grab you copy of the book here:

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