Pubs (or for the benefit of my American friends who insist on calling them bars) are private houses that were opened to the public for the purpose of tasting local ales and cider and have been around for as long as Britons have been looking for a cool beverage at the end of a long work day. Pubs have been the focal point of a community and a place to gather since Roman taverns and Anglo-Saxon alehouses and are frequented by individuals who live or work “local” to the pub or because it offered a particular beer/ale and good selection of food.

Many pubs have claimed to be the oldest in the UK with the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans claiming the Guinness Book of World Records title as it is an 11th Century structure on an 8th Century site.

They have also been the scene of such secretive and history changing meetings as the ones held by the The Sons of Liberty when they planned the Boston Tea Party in the Green Dragon Tavern, located in Boston, Massachusetts, US, and the gathering of the five conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot, when along with the group's most noted member Guy Fawkes, they met in a private room in the Duck and Drake Inn, London on the May 20, 1604.

The Swan Pub in College Road in Abbots Langley is a mere youngster when it comes to old pubs, as it first appears in the records as being opened in 1871 as part of the 42 tithe houses owned by Benskins Watford Brewery Ltd. when the company moved to 194 High Street, Watford in 1820. Benskins Brewery Ltd was acquired by the Ind Coope Ltd. Company in 1957 and ceased brewing local ales in 1972, with the main administration building becoming the home of the Watford Museum in 1978.

Mr George F Cowens, originally from London, was the first licensed victualler (a person providing or selling food or other provisions) or what would now be called the pub landlord of the Swan Inn when it opened in 1871 along what was then Asylum Road. Not a bad business move by Benskins Watford Brewery when you consider that the Leavesden Asylum across the road had a workforce of around 240 thirsty staff. If you were travelling in the area you could stop at the Swan and for four shillings be provided with a meal and a bed in a private room upstairs, as did Mrs Frances Hare, a widow from Tonbridge, Kent, in 1881. The stabling and feeding of your horse would be an extra three shillings. The Swan Inn would later have such landlords as Mary J Beeston, pictured in the accompanying photograph, which was taken around 1910.

The current landlord is the very enthusiastic and entertaining Neil Cayless-Smith, who at a youthful 38 has been the Swan's general manager since 2016. Neil is originally from Hemel Hempstead and started his career in pubs as the result of winning a karaoke competition when he was 18. The management of the Jumping Jacks bar, as it was known then, were so impressed with Neil’s entertaining and natural hosting skills they offered him a job on the spot.

Learning the trade at various other pubs such as the Scottish & Newcastle Brewery, Neil decided to take a “proper job” in sales but quickly found that his real calling and love was in the customer service interactions with the everyday, local people that you can only find in true local pubs. After meeting in 2007, Neil and his now wife Jo married in 2010 and Neil returned to the Swan as part-time bar staff. It wasn’t long before Neil showcased his managerial and customer services skills and was promoted to assistant manager and then general manager in 2014. Leaving briefly to manage another Greene King pub in Reading, Neil and Jo jumped at the chance to come back to the Swan in 2016 as a true management team, bringing their already established relationships with the local area and its people and their vision of what a close-knit community pub should be back to a place that was special to them both.

Managing and keeping a pub alive and well in these economic times is a challenge to say the least, considering the competition from online, easy access to your favourite restaurant meals being delivered to your door, which wasn’t available five or six years ago. Personally, I think that any meal package in plastic crates, stuffed in an insulated bag, driven several miles down the road while bouncing around on the back of a smoke spewing moped fails hugely when compared to a served at your table, good old-fashioned pub meal. But then again, I didn’t move 4,000 miles across an ocean to eat takeaway.

It is very obvious when watching Neil and Jo, as they move swiftly around the newly refurbished interior of the pub making sure that all their guests (they avoid using the term customers), receive their attention, that they are both passionate and devoted to ensuring that all get the same level of service and that the Swan maintains its original purpose of being a “public house” open to all and welcoming to every member of the community it serves.

Their success as a business is found in the fact that the Swan serves more than 1,000 meals and 4,000 pints a week and is considered to be one of the top pubs in the Greene King franchise. Their success in keeping their marriage alive and well, considering they are together 24/7/365, can be found in their sharing a love of the pub environment and their agreement to make whatever personal and relationship sacrifices are needed to make sure they can provide the best dining, drinking and entertainment experiences and that they both consider themselves the “hosts of the party”. A party I am always happy to attend.

- M Thomas Brooks is a local historian and writer living in Kings Langley