Friday, 9 December 2016

Far Off, Long Gone Pub Sounds

When I was growing up in the Northfleet and Gravesend area of Kent in the nineteen forties and fifties, there seemed to be a pub on every corner and, unlike today, each of them flourishing. Although neither of my parents could have ever been described as dedicated drinkers, they seemed to spend a great deal of time on Licensed Premises. Some had what were called `Children’s Rooms’ where under eighteens were allowed to sip on orange juice or lemonade and flick through filthy piles of fly ridden Beano comics. If no such facility was available we simply hung around outside which was infinitely more lively. My mother always proclaimed loudly that she could not abide alcohol and told terrifying and possibly exaggerated stories about her own parents’ drunkenness which, if they were all to be believed should have resulted in neither she nor her siblings reaching adulthood. Later I learned that a couple of infants had indeed possibly died from being slept upon by a drunken parent. We had pubs of course where we as a small family group ventured on a regular basis but when visitors in the form of aunts, grandmother and numerous cousins descended we spread our patronage far and wide. I dimly remember The Black Eagle in Galley Hill Road near Swanscombe where my cousin Pat and I played hopscotch on the pavement and fought over a packet of crisps. That very same evening I seem to remember us moving on to The Plough in Stonebridge Road, or was it The Ingress Tavern? Some ten years ago The Plough still appeared to be open if memory serves me correctly. There were pubs aplenty in Northfleet High Street during those post war years – The Railway Tavern and the Edinburgh Castle being our most favoured with The Huggens Arms in nearby Creek Road, and The Rose in Wood Street coming a close second. Old Nan told a tale or two about a place she remembered from years past called The Blue Anchor that even then no longer seemed to exist and added that even if it did she would never `set foot inside the place’ and we assumed that she had at some time been unceremoniously ejected. Neither would she set foot inside The Little Wonder at 78 The High Street so presumably there was a story to be told there too. My older cousin Margaret liked to go to the Marquis of Granby or The Coach & Horses, both situated on The Hill, close by St. Botolph’s Church because then we could roam the churchyard that even then was derelict and offered all kinds of amusement. Infrequently we boldly entered The Queen’s Head at number 39 The Hill though my mother maintained they were `toffee nosed’ in there and she didn’t feel comfortable. When my father managed to purchase his first motor bike with sidecar (an Ariel I seem to remember) we embarked into new and to me until then unfamiliar areas patronizing The Bridge Inn and The Huntsman in Dover Road East and even The Six Bells in Old Perry Street. Occasionally we went to The Fleet Tavern in Waterdales and met up with my father’s oldest brother Uncle Walter and his wife, Aunt Lou. On such occasions I played sedately with my cousin Connie, fearful of the wrath of this particular uncle who ruled over his large family of mostly boys in a manner that was truly terrifying. At some stage in nineteen forty seven there was great excitement when The Battle of Britain in Coldharbour Road, Shears Green opened where there was not only a children’s room with lots of books to read but also a garden with swings. Some years later a local manor house appeared to be converted into the New Battle Of Britain and the old building was demolished. Decades on it seems that this iconic pub has teetered on the threat of demolition once more. On really special occasions when perhaps a wedding anniversary was to be celebrated, or Christmas was almost upon us we self-consciously entered The Tollgate Inn on the old Roman Road, Watling Street dressed in our best with my mother trying to appear as though frequenting such upmarket places was simply a daily occurrence. Public houses, Ale Houses, Beer Halls, Taverns - in those days these were, even for teetotalers, of necessity the centre of any community. Weddings were invariably celebrated in dusty rooms above the Public Bars as were engagement celebrations and sometimes twenty first birthdays. Theoretically we children were definitely banned from licensed premises but we were all totally familiar with the convivial though slightly tense bar atmosphere, the dark polished surfaces and mirrors with gold lettering in need of cleaning, the smell of stale sweat and yesterday’s spilt beer. We never seemed to patronize any of the riverside pubs between Northfleet and Gravesend such as The India Arms, The Half Moon or The Ship all along The Shore, or The Royal Charlotte in Dock Row or The Red Lion in Crete Hall Road. Later I learned that these were said to be the haunts of my father and Sadie the bus conductress over some months in nineteen fifty when his predilection for women in uniform appeared to be at its height. In the years following his death in 1951 my mother would avert her eyes from these buildings whenever we passed. Nothing would have persuaded her to darken their doorsteps. Strangely, neither would she ever consent to go into any of the pubs that were closest to York Road, where we lived. Never once did she sample a Half of Bitter or a Milk Stout in The Brewery Tap in Dover Road or the nearby Leather Bottel despite its antiquity and history, certainly not The Dover Castle, and under no circumstances, The Prince Albert in Shepherd Street or The British Volunteer in Buckingham Road. These latter two featured large in my life however on those Friday and Saturday evenings in summer when the crescendo of voices lustily joining in the last sing-song of the evening penetrated my bedroom enough to make sleep impossible. Undoubtedly those far off, long gone pub sounds somehow or other, for better or for worse became central to the sounds of childhood for a generation of post war working class children.

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