If you believe what you read on the internet, last night a gang of 400 youths marched down St Albans Road, set fire to eight buildings, and looted the Tesco supermarket.

A quick search of the social networking website Twitter also reveals one pub was "burned down" not once but twice last night.

The massing rumours did not pass us by in the Watford Observer office, and keen as always to provide an authoritative voice, the reporting team decamped to the town in the early afternoon.

The office car park was a scene that would not have looked out of place in a spy thriller. We divided up the jobs, which included scouting out a gathering in Cassiobury park, monitoring activity at the train station, and going deep undercover in Watford High Street.

We've all read the stories of photographers being mugged and reporters being attacked in London, so myself and the intrepid snapper Holly Cant changed into some urban camouflage - some jogging bottoms and a hoody – before trying to blend in with the crowds in town.

For a few hours the High Street was calm but eerie. It felt like a hurricane was coming. Cafes were clearing away tables and chairs. Bars and pubs were boarding up the windows. But where were the police? Had they not read the rumours?

My telephones were alight with things to investigate. Someone's brother had seen a car smashed up in the High Street. Someone else had narrowly escaped a flaming Primark. None of which, of course, were even slightly accurate.

The tension built as people started leaving work. The suits and tracksuits alike were dashing about looking nervous, talking into telephones about “when it would happen” or “where they were meeting”.

The joking around has stopped between me and Holly, and my former police officer friend who had offered to come and keep an eye on us.

A group of youths was gathering outside The One Bell pub in Lower High Street. They looked restless. Others were joining them, some wearing gloves or covering their faces. Was this it?

By now a handful of police officers were patrolling the High Street, some of which, I noted, were already wearing Police Support Unit overalls, and carrying heavy riot batons. These guys meant business, and they definitely wanted us to know.

The group outside the pub was swelling and growing more rowdy. The police were massing higher up the street, clearly planning their next move. We were between the two, wondering which was the more hostile. I realised the short sightedness of my hooded disguise.

Normally I stand out like a sore thumb, with a pen behind my ear, a camera over my shoulder and a notepad in my spare hand. A reporter might sometimes be an unwelcome sight to the local police, but at least I normally don't look like I might smash up T J Hughes.

A small group of officers approached the pub, flanked by counsellors from Hertfordshire Youth Connexions. The aggression peaked. The shouting crescendoed. The pressure built until – the group dissipated. If a riot was going to start in Watford, it didn't look like it was starting here.

Over in West Watford, primarily in Whippendell Road, residents and shop owners stood shoulder to shoulder, defending their properties from whatever may come their way, and as we've discovered this morning, sharing tea and biscuits with the police.

The looting we've seen on television seemed to catch the police off guard, while they were busy elsewhere. Thankfully the police in Watford were all over this "riot" before it had a chance to start.

People are suggesting the events of this week will draw communities closer together. In Watford, I hope the peaceful prevention of widespread looting and destruction restores some faith in our police.