There was a story in our local paper (Kent & Sussex Courier) this week about the closure of yet another pub. Sad, but hardly headline news you might say, but for the last six years, the Harp Inn at East Peckham hasn’t really been a pub in the true sense of the word. Instead it has functioned as a licensed “sexual entertainment venue” (strip club to you and I). Until now that is, because on 30th May, Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council refused to grant the Harp a new licence, following objections from 43 local residents.
Living reasonably local to East Peckham, I was obviously aware of this establishment, although I must admit I didn’t realise it was still operating in this fashion. Four years ago I remember hearing lurid tales of seedy goings on at the Harp from a couple of drinkers my friend and I were chatting to in a Tonbridge pub, but put this down to the beer-fuelled ramblings of a couple of "likely lads" and the tendency of people to embellish a story for effect. It didn’t strike me as the place for a quiet pint of decent ale, so I filed the place away right at the back of my memory and forgot about it until I saw yesterday’s paper.
Back in the nineties, the Harp had a reputation as a half-decent boozer; in fact at one time it majored quite heavily on serving a good selection of cask beers. For example, it was one of the few places locally to stock Hog’s Back beers at a time when they just weren't available in this part of the South East. What I think did for the pub, was the unfortunate death of the then landlord, coupled with its location right on the edge of East Peckham, in fact so far on the edge that it is necessary, and a lot safer, to drive there. According to the local paper, “Struggling with falling trade in 2007, Lee Swainsbury, landlord of the Harp Inn, decided to liven things up by bringing in some raunchy entertainment” This was after he had tried staging live music events and taking on a chef in a bid to attract custom.
The strippers obviously did the trick, but owing to the nature of the “entertainment” the windows were boarded up and the once quite attractive pub building had become a bit of an eyesore. Mr Swainsbury still has 21 years lease remaining on the building, but was quoted as saying he has no plans for the future of the Harp Inn. Manager, Graham Hammond was rather more outspoken over the closure though, stating that "The locals have no right to claim they lived in a traditional English village."
He may have a point, as East Peckham is no picture-postcard, snapshot of Old England, although I perhaps wouldn’t go quite so far as refer to it as a “s***hole” as Mr Hammond did in print. When I first moved to this part of West Kent, nearly 30 years ago, the village boasted five pubs. Now, with the closure of the Harp, the number has dropped to just two, with one establishment trading as an Indian restaurant, and the other, an attractive old building at the opposite end of the village from the Harp, empty and boarded up. Given this environment it is perhaps not surprising that the landlord of the Harp had to resort to what is euphemistically referred to as “adult entertainment “in order to pull in the punters.
Final word from Mr Hammond, who said, “The place cannot operate as anything other than it is. The village is simply going to end up with another derelict building or an even more undesirable pub.” I for one hope he is wrong and that some entrepreneur takes on the Harp and re-opens it as a traditional pub, but being realistic, for a moment and given the depressed state of the pub trade, I’m afraid I can’t really see that happening anytime soon.
Footnote: No discussion about an establishment of this nature could be complete without thought for the ladies that used to work/perform at the Harp. It is well known that workers in the “sex industry” are often vulnerable young women who find themselves open to exploitation for a variety of reasons. I do know from my brief encounter with the two local drinkers, four years ago, that most of the girls who worked there were East European. I am not suggesting for one minute, that they were exploited by the Harp’s management, but who really knows what brought them to these shores in the first place, and what exactly led them to have ended up working in the so-called “adult entertainment “business.