Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Postscript On Kentish Pubs

In recent years when back in my home town of Gravesend trips down Memory Lane invariably revolve around a great many pubs and churches. When I was a child an inordinate amount of time was spent in buildings that were definitely holy and those that were decidedly less than sacred. Perhaps not much has changed in the intervening years. I can recall going on a Sunday afternoon outings to Chatham, where my father grew up under the watchful eyes of the nuns at the children’s home, a town to which he was inextricably drawn from time to time. We would set out on an expedition of the narrow streets via motorbike and sidecar and very occasionally the outing might include a visit to the TRAFALGAR ARMS, an inn on a hillside out of town. My father said the place was once run by a woman called Jane Townshend who always dressed as a man and fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. Whether this story held any truth or not was immaterial to me at the time – I was more than willing to believe it. On these trips I was exhilarated to be riding pillion, my mother crouched into the sidecar with my brother on her knee, looking fearful. No compulsory protective headgear in those days which only added to the thrill of the occasion. Even more frequent were visits to the nearby village of Cobham where I am certain that the LEATHER BOTTLE at the time catered to families with a small room set aside for those with children. It was a dramatically old and beamed pub that had apparently first opened in the mid sixteen hundreds and had been a Royalist meeting place during the Civil War which was thrilling because at that time all girls like myself, under ten years of age, were automatically on the side of the Royalists. Each time we went there my father gave me the same little lecture about Charles Dickens incorporating the place into `The Pickwick Papers’ which of course I had not as yet attempted to read, and when I went to the toilet I was interested to stop every few seconds to admire the old prints that lined the corridor walls. Cobham Village must have been on the Dover to London stagecoach route and appeared to be one of the main stops. In my early twenties I took to patronizing the place once more and at that stage it was less convivial with large notices informing would-be-customers that young women wearing mini-skirts were not welcome inside. Nearby was the DARNLEY ARMS which claimed to go back as far as the twelfth century and was said to have a secret tunnel in the basement connecting to a building close by where smugglers stored their booty in the seventeen hundreds. I was told the place was haunted by Sir Thomas Kemp who was executed for some crime and spent his last hours there. My father was fascinated by tales of North Kent smugglers and from time to time took me with him on excursions tracing their general history. Once we went to Conyer to a place called the SHIP INN which overlooked a straggling creek and area of marshland and he said that battles took place in the vicinity between the gangs of smugglers and the Bow Street Runners. A number of the smugglers were caught and then they were either hanged or transported to the Colonies. One of my most favoured trips was that which took place fairly regularly to the village of Cooling where we always stopped to visit the church and gaze upon the thirteen little humped graves that featured in `Great Expectations’, the very place where terrified Pip met the convict. We sometimes admired the HORSESHOE & CASTLE from the outside but I don’t believe we ever went inside the place. Years later I returned regularly to Cooling with my own children, drawn always by those sad little graves in the churchyard. At one stage in the late nineteen forties we set off in a different direction to Dartford where we met an aunt or two at the WAT TYLER in the very active town centre, a building that was actually said to have been lived in by Tyler himself and where he planned the Peasants’Revolt of 1381. Said to have opened as a pub a few decades later, it seemed to be a long narrow, dimly lit place with no facilities for children so along with a number of cousins, I played on the busy footpath outside, the game of hopscotch impeding the progress of passers-by. From time to time we went to the VIGO at Fairseat on the North Downs Way and watched the locals play a strange and ancient game called Dadlums which seemed to be a kind of table Skittles. It was an imposing coaching inn between Tonbridge and Gravesend and later, my cousin Margaret upon her second marriage was lucky enough to live for a number of years in an equally imposing house nearby. One of my favourite Kentish towns was then and is now most certainly Faversham where over a couple of hot summers in the late nineteen forties we visited the ALBION TAVERN with its conveniently placed picnic tables outside, the BEAR INN where an unfortunate twelve year old boy was said to have been taken by a naval press gang and never seen again and the wonderfully named SWAN & HARLEQUIN outside of which I played happily for an hour or more with some local children. I now wonder what gossip, if any, was engendered by the casual and regular abandoning of young children outside the ale houses of Kent. It’s unlikely that the practice would be viewed kindly in these more enlightened times. These days it seems that children of all ages are more than welcomed within the walls of even the most upmarket hostelries. As my own children are now well beyond that particular definition, I’m not sure that I find this prevailing acceptance that under twelve year olds should be welcome in every area of our lives much of a step forward. But I expect that’s simply because I have become a Grumpy Old Woman!