Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Fearsome Pub Landladies
When I first started drinking, back in the early 1970's, the battle-axe landlady who ruled her pub with a rod of iron, and tolerated no nonsense from her customers, was quite common-place, but times have changed, and matriarchal women in charge of pubs, appear to be a dying breed.
I'm sure there are several reasons for the decline of the lone female in charge behind the bar, but looking back to my days at primary school (early 1960's), we had quite a few elderly (or so they seemed at the time), spinsters in charge of our classes. This was perhaps hardly surprising, coming just forty years or so after the carnage of the First World War, in which the flower of British manhood was butchered in the fields of Flanders, thereby condemning a whole generation of women to eternal spinsterhood. That there should be a large number of un-married women, of advancing years, running many of the nation's pubs during the 1960's and early 70's, therefore comes as no surprise.
I can recount quite a few tales concerning some of these legendary matriarchs, but will confine myself to just a couple. The first relates to an elderly lady called Norah, who ran a pub called the Rose, situated in the village of Willesborough - now long absorbed into the town of Ashford. Willesborough was the place where I spent 11 happy years of my childhood, before we moved further out into the country.
I first knew the pub as a child, having been taken there by my parents and maternal grandparents, when the latter made one of their regular visits from London. The Rose was unusual in that it was built into the side of a hill. This meant it was constructed on two levels, with a public bar at the higher level, fronting the road, and a saloon-cum-games room, plus children's room, at the lower level. This was reached by descending a series of steps from the road, and also the car park. I remember having my first sip of beer, from my grandfather's glass here, and absolutely hating it, but to continue with the story I became re-acquainted with the pub as an 18 year old, back in the early 1970's.
I had just left school and together with a couple of friends, had taken a job at a local food processing factory whilst awaiting my A-level results. The work was dull and boring, but paid reasonably well, and we were placed on permanent late shift, which ran from 2pm until 10pm. Back in those days most Kent pubs closed at 10.30pm Monday to Thursday, with an extension to 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The Rose was the nearest pub to the factory, and if we left as soon as the shift ended, we just had time to hot foot it along to the Rose and get a couple of quick pints in before time was called.
Presiding behind the bar was this fearsome old lady called Norah. She appeared to run the pub single-handed, although we later learned that one of her sons helped her with the cellar work and other heavy duties. We tended to frequent the lower saloon bar on our after work visits, primarily to engage in a game or two of bar-billiards, and despite our relatively young ages, Norah seemed quite glad of our custom. One friend though recounted a tale of how Norah had once barred his father from the pub, purely because she "didn't like the look of him", and we were soon to experience this side of Norah's character for ourselves.
One weekend myself, plus the same friend called in at the Rose, but this time we decided to patronise the public bar. We were sitting chatting and enjoying our beer, when Norah suddenly enquired if we would like to play bar billiards? We replied that we were quite happy as we were when she suddenly became quite insistent that we go downstairs and have a game. She did explain herself after a while, informing us that there were a couple of boys using the table downstairs who, in her view, had been there long enough. We were to be her reason for getting them to leave. The next thing we heard was Norah disappearing down the steep wooden stairs to the lower bar and telling these couple of lads "There are two boys upstairs who want to play bar billiards. You two have been playing quite long enough, so kindly finish your game and let others have a turn!" Fearing some sort of trouble we delayed going down to the lower bar as long as possible, but when we did, we still got a scowl from the departing players who had done nothing wrong apart from perhaps outstaying their welcome in the games room.
At the end of that summer I left home to go to university. When I returned the following summer, I had a different part-time job which was nowhere near the Rose. I therefore lost touch with the pub. I believe it became a "Hooden Horse" themed pub for a while, part of a small local chain that specialised in decent ale and food, but which ran into difficulties and was eventually bought out. I have carried out several on-line searches, all of which have revealed that the Rose is no longer a pub. Mind you, without its fearsome matriarchal landlady, it wouldn't really have been the same!
The other pub I want to mention is the Ringlestone Inn, situated high on the North Downs, between Maidstone and Ashford. I first became acquainted with the Ringlestone when I bought a house in Maidstone in the late 1970's; a move that marked my return to Kent after an absence of some six or so years. It was an unspoilt pub that served a couple of beers direct from casks kept behind the bar. I can't remember the landlord's name, but it's a couple of his predecessors I want to write about here.
Back in the 1960's the Ringlestone was kept by two elderly sisters; both spinsters, and with a reputation for their no nonsense approach when dealing with customers. They were reputed to have kept a shotgun behind the bar, and were said to have had no qualms in pointing this weapon at anyone they didn't like the look of. For two relatively elderly women, living on their own in such an isolated place, this was probably quite a sensible thing to do, although one wonders how many times they actually produced the gun. I also wonder whether the weapon was loaded? I would like to think not, but who knows? However the story passed into local legend, and was quite well known, even as far as East Kent where we lived at the time. My parents, neither of whom were regular pub goers, had both heard the story, and I remember them recounting it to my sister and I.
I like the tale, and mourn the passing of such eccentric characters as these two feisty women, keeping the nation's bars in order. I am therefore, pleased to report two pubs runs by elderly ladies who, whilst perhaps not quite resorting to scaring customers off with firearms, still run their pubs with an old-fashioned, no-nonsense approach. The pubs in question are the Red Lion at Snargate, and the Queen's Arms at Cowden Pound. Both establishments are on CAMRA's National Inventory of unspoilt "Heritage" pubs, and you can read more about them by clicking on the above links.
In the meantime, I would be interested to hear any similar tales of eccentric old battle-axes, either past or present, and the pubs they ran.