Ghostly goings-on at Bishop's Stortford author's childhood home inspire first novel
The family restaurant where Bishop's Stortford woman Chrissy Smith grew up fuelled her imagination as a child – and is now the setting for her first novel.
Named after the café in Holywell Hill, St Albans, The Pilgrims Rest explores the 16th-century building's mysterious tunnel, believed to link it with the city's Norman cathedral.
Chrissy, 60, has lived in Stortford for 32 years, and the café was run by her family in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Newly retired from her job as a medical secretary in Church Langley, Chrissy said: "My novel is based on fact 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 St Albans which have been passed down through the ages.
"An ancient tunnel which links The Pilgrims Rest to St Albans Cathedral forms the basis of this mystical tale. There have been many ghostly sightings reported in the area."
The book is a family affair through and through. Husband David, who retired from his job as an electrical engineer last September, was the first to read the novel and helped lay out the artwork for the cover.
Their daughter Hayley, 28, a visual merchandiser and former student at Herts and Essex High School, did the illustrations for the front, back and spine. Sons Andrew, 32, who works for Tate Enterprises, and Daniel, 22, a freelance sound engineer, were also supportive. Both attended The Bishop's Stortford High School.
Her grandparents, former publicans Reg and Win Hayes, bought the Pilgrims Rest and worked with Chrissy's parents, Derick and Julie Hayes. A strange loner called Alf, who features in the book, was based on an elusive character and odd-job man who lived on the top floor of the café with the family.
Chrissy said: "I lived above the restaurant for most of my young life and it was quite an unusual upbringing. My parents and grandparents worked every day, there were no weekends off, and our living quarters were upstairs on the first and second floor.
"When all the customers had gone home and the place was quiet, I would explore the very old 16th-century building, which had many secret nooks and crannies, a spooky attic on the top floor just along the corridor from my bedroom and an old cellar underground where a blocked-off tunnel was discovered, running under Holywell Hill and supposedly linking it to St Albans Cathedral.
"Stories surrounding the tunnel were the trigger for my imagination. Apparently, monks used it centuries before to make and store their wine for the liturgy etc. There was a lot of talk and rumours among staff of ghostly apparitions."
Chrissy said: "I started the book about nine years ago when my mother and I went back to visit No 1 Holywell Hill, which had been bought by Wesley Barrell and was a furniture showroom. I started doing my research then, asking if there had been any more ghostly sightings by the staff.
"The historical information and legend were obtained via old documents on websites which related to the town of St Albans, the abbey and the story of Albanus (Saint Alban).
Chrissy said: "It's been an on-and-off project and was only really finalised once I retired and could concentrate on my writing, but it was a story I needed to tell. I believe my father's death was the trigger and he died in 2010."
She is already 30,000 words into her second novel and said: "Now I have more time hopefully this one won't take so long!"
* The Pilgrims Rest is available for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.
More by this authorSinead Corr