Thursday, 18 January 2018

Northfleet Pubs & Little Links to Social History

Apparently The Black Eagle in Galley Hill Road first opened in 1866 but had definitely closed by the end of 1968 when I decided to visit one evening with my brother and his first wife Janice. A little disheartened, because there is nothing more disheartening than a pub that is definitely closed, ultimately we ended up in the nearby Ingress Tavern which luckily had stood the test of time. I vaguely knew both places from my childhood when on summer evenings my parents once or twice visited on my father’s motorbike, me and Bernard in the side-car. I certainly hadn’t given either much thought in the intervening years though which is perhaps not surprising as each was somewhat devoid of character. Many pubs of that vintage are apt to be so no matter how much we eulogise them later. The nearby Plough in Stonebridge Road and of a similar vintage where a boy in my brother’s class at St Joseph’s had celebrated his twenty first birthday earlier that year in fact underwent several rapid changes to celebrate the new century that unnerved those who knew it well. It became The Cosmopolitan in 2010 and was The Golden Grill by 2012. Perhaps predictably, despite our complaints of drinking venues being dull and dreary none of us are ever terribly enthusiastic about those we remember from our youth changing too much. My friend Margaret had a grandmother who lived in Stonebridge road and said she clearly recalled The Plough at the beginning of the First War, as a place where a group of local lads met up for pints to send them on their way to The Front. They all looked so handsome and so brave, she told us – and yet despite their courage not all of them had survived – the likes of young Freddie Holt and Arthur Deadman for instance and she could she said, name at least a dozen more if she had all her wits about her but at her age memory was fading. She’d only been a slip of a girl herself back then and helped out in the bar at weekends when called upon to do so

Another nearby Northfleet hostelry much favoured by some of our aunts was The Railway Tavern at 69 The High Street that had opened in 1858 and met its demise in 1967 along with a number of similar establishments. Little Nanny from Hamerton Road always found it an acceptable place to visit for half a pint of Milk Stout. She said it had in general been a more genteel place than most. She could never be persuaded to enter The Edinburgh Castle also in The High Street or The Rose in Wood Street, both of which were still thriving a few years ago. Old Nan, our grandmother once was reputed to have descended upon The Edinburgh Castle dressed in her best intent upon just one drink before proceeding onward for an afternoon at Rosherville Gardens, then famous for a variety of entertainments. Unfortunately on this occasion she made the fatal decision to have a second then a third drink and even missed the last train back to Crayford. This, she always felt was a pity, since she had been Dolled Up To The Nines and even sported a brand new hat with an ostrich feather.

I don’t remember much about The Huggens Arms at 10 The Creek which opened in 1860 and apparently changed its name in the 1960s. I recall visiting the place only once in 1955 as a teenager and feeling very nervous. I had dared my boyfriend Barrie to take us there and order us both gin and tonics. Although he was barely sixteen we were served without incident despite looking strangely out of place among the half dozen or so elderly men leaning over the bar who only seemed mildly unsettled by our bursts of giggling. Later I learned that it was said to be one of my father’s favourite places to pop inside from time to time with his latest Bit On The Side on his arm.

The New Blue Anchor at 5 The Creek that closed as long ago as 1908 was definitely spoken of by my grandmother who claimed to have pulled her Edgar out of the place more than once and furthermore said that it was a dead and alive hole which meant little to me. Its only family significance was that apparently it closed in the year my mother was born in the hop gardens at Mereworth. Locally it was known that Old Lil who delivered babies and laid out the dead lived nearby and was in the place twice a week as Regular as Clockwork should anyone wish to converse with her.

Pubs more familiar to us as we grew up in York Road, Northfleet were those that were not in fact Destinations but rather places we dropped into from time to time as we passed, almost becoming an extension of home. Neither of my parents were habitual drinkers and my mother put this down to the fact that both her parents had been alcoholics, a situation that invariably creates ambivalent feelings where alcohol is concerned; nevertheless they were certainly occasional imbibers. In those days when the Wireless was the only form of home entertainment, casual pub visiting was possibly more customary than it is today and with one on every corner, more accessible a pastime than Going to the Pictures. A place that was spoken fondly of by one very elderly neighbour was The Dove which had been on The Hill adjacent to the lychgate of St Botolph’s Church, and sadly burnt down in the early years of the twentieth century, presumably making way for the Infants’ Playground of St Botolph’s School. As a small child old Mrs Beresford had lingered in the doorway frequently, observing her parents consuming quantities of gin. If she complained she was given a drop of gin and water and sometimes fell asleep outside. At other times a complaint might simply result in a clip around the ear. On one momentous occasion she had been completely forgotten about and woke up to find everything still and quiet and had to run home and let herself in the scullery window. She was fearful that it might turn out to be her fault and result in a beating but luckily it didn’t.

A year or two ago, I was cheered to find that The Coach & Horses at 25 The Hill, was still open and serving a hearty Sunday lunch. It was also a remarkably atmospheric place with many of the original features still intact. The proprietor told us that although it was said to date back to the mid-1700s, it had been around since 1686 when it had a different name – The Three Horseshoes. It was the fact that it had been rebuilt in 1764 that caused the confusion. This had been one of my brother’s favourite Inns back in the early 1960s when he proudly introduced me to his first girlfriend Christine, the girl he was going to love for ever. They were both sixteen and lost within an intensely passionate relationship. To Bernard The Coach & Horses was simply the smartest place he knew locally and therefore fit to entertain his Beloved and his sister and so we sat beneath its ancient beams sipping slowly on our vodka, nibbling Smith’s Crisps and trying desperately hard to look sophisticated. When I revisited the place more recently I was impressed both with the way it had stood the test of time with little visible deterioration in its antiquity, and also with the Sunday lunch which was substantial and delicious.

Happily I also discovered that The Leather Bottel at 1 Dover Road and dating from 1706, was also still open for business. However, the inside of the building has been so modernised and upgraded as to be all but destroyed from a historical perspective and completely belies the enticing promise of the exterior. This was my mother’s favourite Local if one of her sisters should suggest a Milk Stout or Half of Mild and a Sunday afternoon gossip. It appears to have been a coaching inn at one stage and apparently it provided excellent stabling. As the adjacent road into Gravesend was said to have been dangerous at the time, presumably eroded by the incessant digging for chalk, it is possible that The Leather Bottel was a convenient place in which to take pause and consider the best progress forward. Back in the early days of the 20th century Little Nanny had been friendly with Martha Johnson, apparently the mother of the then proprieter and told us that coming from Dublin she had found Northfleet a difficult place to settle into. My mother always maintained she wouldn’t have relished being in the building alone because it was haunted by not just one, but two different lost souls and that was why she needed company to visit the upstairs Ladies convenience. A former maid was only seen on the upper floor but downstairs a tall dark man was seen frequently and was said to have committed suicide. At one time The Leather Bottel was the venue for holding inquests into the deaths of those born in the parish and if I had known all this when I was patiently waiting for my mother and aunts outside the place in 1948, devoid of entertainment I might not have squabbled quite so much with my cousin Pat, who was a more patient waiter than me!

Those public houses closest to us we always treated with disdain and in fact my mother who said that you wouldn’t catch her walking into them even if she was dying of thirst. I suspect Little Nanny might have felt the same as they were determinedly lively places with nothing genteel about them. The Prince Albert at 62 Shepherd Street was almost on the corner of York Road and had opened in 1855. This was the place where my friend Pearl whose York Road address was conveniently close by, sent her boyfriend when he was visiting and happened to want to use the Gentlemen’s convenience. She did not want him to know that there were no indoor facilities at her place and thought she would keep him in the dark with this clever ruse. I can only imagine that it confused him further. This pub closed a few years ago and has now been converted to a Pre-school but before this happened I was able to visit one summer afternoon and sit drinking shandy in the recently established tiny courtyard (where the Gents, much visited by Pearl’s boyfriend was situated in the 1950s). A little later I took photos of both the front and rear of the place and the bar staff then took photographs of me simply because they thought it decidedly odd that a stranger should be so taken with a backstreet bar.

The British Volunteer was in Buckingham Road and quite the rowdiest and most popular place in the neighbourhood on Friday and Saturday nights. It opened in 1889 and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the building of flats. But in 1948 it was very much still open for business and my mother’s best friend, Grace Bennett, whose husband frequented the Public Bar regularly told us that it was there her Frank happened to hear that the local council in their stupidity were about to create rose beds and flower gardens in the New House Farm housing estate and what a waste of money it would be. Frank also heard that The Battle of Britain at Shears Green was shortly to open as a Charrington House and suggested he and Grace might pay a visit at the earliest opportunity. Despite the interesting gossip, some of which was more salacious and could not be repeated, my mother could still not be persuaded to patronise The Volly. Even without her patronage, however, it went from strength to strength and at times was so crowded that the patrons spilled out onto the pavement and into the very road itself. The British Volunteer not only went in for Darts matches and illegal betting but also regular sing-songs to keep their decidedly working class clientele happy and the local children for miles around, awake. In its heyday it was quite the most popular public house in the area.

In the late nineteen forties one of our Sunday afternoon destinations was The Fleet Tavern in Waterdales. It was a thoroughly modern and up to date place, having opened in 1938 and it had a Children’s Room for the use of those with baby-sitting problems or the kind of offspring it would not be safe to leave home alone. We went there to meet up with my Uncle Walter, who was my father’s older brother and lived in Waterdales. Sometimes he would bring his wife and two or three of his many children. If that happened, my father would disappear into the Public Bar with him and the rest of us would remain in the Children’s Room. It was all a bit boring once we got over the initial excitement of being given lemonade, sometimes with ice, and a packet of crisps. I solved this by initiating fights with my cousin Georgie who was only there because he was one of those children it was not safe to leave at home. This always worried my cousin Connie who was a year older than me and a very responsible child, possibly she knew that in the end it would definitely be her fault for not coping with the situation properly. Uncle Walter was a very hard taskmaster and I was definitely frightened of him but he had an impressive intellect coupled with very old fashioned ideas. It was he who informed my father during the late 1940s that Wombwell Hall had just been purchased by the Kent Education Committee and would shortly be turned into the kind of girls’ school where those like me and his Connie might be taught a number of housewifely skills that would prove invaluable in years to come.

The Battle of Britain pub increasingly became a weekend destination for families like ours in those years that followed World War Two and the stories concerning how many brave young pilots had made the place their own abounded and the undoubted truth became intermingled with the undoubted fiction about the place. Gravesend air base had become a satellite airfield for Biggin Hill in the early stages of the war under the control of No 11 Group Fighter Command. During the Battle of Britain it was the Hurricanes from No 501 Squadron that were primarily using Gravesend. As an eight year old I found it exciting to go there though I was uncomprehending of the history of the place. More interesting to me were the piles of comics and Rupert Bear Annuals on hand for the amusement of young visitors. There was also play equipment in the garden in the form of swings and a slide. This forward thinking of the owners ensured that the place was constantly busy.

I had a poignant reminder of the place a few years back when listening to late night radio in New Zealand. I was enormously cheered when the Midnight To Dawn host, a well-known Maori broadcaster who had just come back from his first visit to England, began to talk about his trip. He said the highlight had been going to a place called Gravesend in North Kent, twenty miles or so from London. He went there he said, not because he had any connections whatsoever with the district, but because he wanted to visit the place where the only battle that was ever fought and won in the air, took place. Over time he had developed a yearning to stand in the nearby fields and look up into the very sky in which it had all happened and cogitate upon those events of WW2. And then he was thrilled to be able to go into the local pub, aptly called The Battle of Britain, a place those young pilots would have undoubtedly been familiar with. He drank a pint of beer and was glad that the pub existed and had been preserved for the memory of that critical point in history!

And I was glad too – glad that an important link to those historical events remained at least as a place where someone from across the globe and completely disconnected, but with a yen to uncover a splinter of modern history could sit and muse and sample English beer. It is therefore difficult to make any sensible comment on the fact that The Battle of Britain has since been demolished.

1 comment:

  1. I found this very interesting. I didn’t visit any of the pubs mentioned but I do remember the Battle of Britain pub, which I think was built about 1948, as I worked on the adjacent housing estate as a carpenter. I don’t remember it ever being frequented by pilots as they had all left the area by 1948. I was one of the Thurman triplets born in Northfleet in 1931.