Wednesday, 20 April 2016

A Sup And A Yarn

On Friday nights there came a regular knock at the door. Dad's friend Fred calling for him to go for their weekly drink. In those days you dressed up to go to the pub and, sure enough, there stood Fred sporting a white shirt and fancy tie beneath his tweed jacket, hair Brylcreemed in place, and grey flannels with cycle clips. His Friday night bottle of Harvest Brown Ale was the highlight of Fred's social life; he took only one week off from work each year and that was in the Spring so that he could get his garden in order. Even then he walked up to the farm twice a day to do the milking.

It wasn't actually a pub they were going to though, but a Social Club, set up by the men of the village in response to their local pub closing down - it was happening even back then in the 1950s. Though the economics of running a village pub was very different in those days as most publicans had day-jobs to supplement their income.

Many village pubs had some kind of small-scale farm attached to the business. My local pub still has an old barn (disused now) and a few acres of land, though much of the space is now taken up by the car park. My grandfather, when he kept The Fox Inn, had pigs and chickens too. The last vestiges of this practice still remained in one or two pubs when I began to use them; The Jolly Brewers always had boxes of vegetables on the bar and you could, if you so desired, buy a sack o' taters with your pint!

The first pub I drank in was The Blue Ball at Grantchester, which is still a small, beer-drinkers' pub even in these days of gastro-pubs and wine bars. Back then though the Lounge Bar was just like sitting in someone's front-room with its armchairs, standard lamp and radiogram, complete with 78 rpm records and a few, very "square" LPs. The landlord, Ernie, worked during the day in a toyshop in Cambridge and, if you got in early enough, you could catch him still eating his dinner, with his napkin tucked into his collar and gravy down his chin.

Just down the road, at the Red Lion, things were much more sophisticated. The Lion prided itself on being a hotel. There were a few guest rooms and a restaurant but the bar still had a dartboard and a bar-billiards table. The hotel side of the operation seemed to be run most of the time by the permanently flustered and overworked Turkish waiter, Harry. I remember hearing him answering the phone one evening as he was dashing from the restaurant to the kitchen, "Hello, ees Harry here. Head waiter? Head waiter? You wanna spik to the head waiter? No, ees Harry, the only waiter!"

On Saturday evenings a lady from the Salvation Army always arrived attempting to sell copies of Warcry magazine. She was a powerful personality and usually persuaded several of us to part with some of our hard-earned cash for a magazine we did not want and to support some cause in which we had no interest. It became customary for most of us to decamp to the safety of the gents' toilet. This worked well until one night she was accompanied by a male colleague who, as our bad luck would have it, came into the Gents', only to find some twenty men crowded into the small space, each of us clutching our pints.

Most pubs in those days had two draught beers - bitter and mild - and a small selection of bottled beers such as brown ale, stout, Burton and barley wine (which was more like a beer than a wine). There'd be a few bottles of spirits, usually whisky, gin and rum. Also there'd be drinks which were exclusively for the wives who occasionally came in with their husbands - Babycham and later Pony. If you felt peckish there were crisps (Smiths, with a little blue twist of salt), pickled eggs in a jar on the bar, and sandwiches on darts night. Some pubs had pork pies too. I remember asking for one in the John Barleycorn - "What you think this is? A flamin' butcher's!" came the cheery reply from mine host.

Perhaps the most basic alehouse in the area was the Exhibition, in the village of Over. I discovered this little piece of history when friends moved into a cottage nearby. I went into the pub first and took a couple of steps inside. This located me in the middle of the room where I stood looking around in some puzzlement. You see, there was no bar counter, no beer taps, no spirits bottles.....just a room with wooden tables and benches. 

At length I was approached by an elderly lady asking me what we wanted to drink. She scuttled off and came back with a tray bearing the beer. I gave her the money which she stowed in the pocket of her apron before she went and sat down on one of the wooden settles. For entertainment there was a box of dominoes (not allowed on Sundays) or the newspaper. Failing that you had to talk to each other, or to the redoubtable Grace Bullen who ran the place.

Similarly archaic was the Harvest Home at Fen Ditton, though at least that had a bar, and even a dartboard for when you tired of listening to the ticking of the clock. Three of us called in for a drink one evening and someone suggested a game of darts. 

"If you'd like to make up a four", said the woman behind the bar, "I'm sure my husband will join you". 

An old man shuffled into the room wearing his slippers and proceeded to show three young whippersnappers just how the game should be played. "Used to have a good darts team in here back in the day", he confided, "only not so many folks come in these days"

"Moved away have they?" suggested Steve. 

"Oh no, all dead". 

Take care.


  1. Very interesting, John, though not the picture of British pubs we get from television and movies.

  2. Lol. Thanks for taking me on a pub crawl. Great fun!

  3. A good read--and I like the matter-of-fact sound of that last line--"all dead."

  4. I really enjoyed your pub memories, especially the stories at the end.

  5. Oh for a good old English pub - the classic English institution.

  6. Loved your stories of the pubs of yesterday.

  7. Lovely story John and brought back so many memories. My dad used to go to the village pub (The Hunter's Leap) every Friday night for his weekly game of billiards with my brother and brother in law. His only other hobby, apart from the garden, which took up most of his time growing veg in Summer, was crown green bowls. My mother and I used to go with him to this - but never to the pub. A woman in a pub in those days? Scarlet women only I'm afraid.

  8. A fascinating and fun read! Thank you, John!

  9. Great stories, and such good pictures of the pubs. I laughed out loud at the image of 20 men crowded into the men's room with their pints!

  10. Good memories of times that someday will be forgotten. An enjoyable read.

  11. Thanks for a nice story, John!

  12. Great post - I remember the Salvation Army folk coming into the pub - no one dared not give them anything!

  13. John, you need to write a book. A mere blog isn't enough for you.


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