Thursday 15 November 2012

Parlour Pubs

Following on from my last post concerning Rodney Wolfe Coe's list, I was reminded of a pub that would undoubtedly have featured in the "Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain" had it still been open when the list was being compiled. I only visited the pub I am about to describe once, and that was some 40 years ago; right at the start of my drinking career.

Before I reveal all I want to refer back to the Sun at Leintwardine, described by Mr Coe as "probably still the best pub in Great Britain".  Now I haven't been there, but I've read a lot about it, especially about its legendary and long serving landlady Flossie Lane who sadly passed away back in 2009. Now I know the pub has been given a new lease of life and that this has had to have come at a price (extension to the former tiny bar, serving food, laying on entertainment  etc.), and obviously accept the need for this in order for the pub to survive in the 21st Century. But prior to Flossie's death, the Sun could best be described as one of just a handful of "parlour pubs" left in Britain, and it was just such an establishment that I visited, back in the early 70's, shortly after my 18th birthday.

The Woodman’s Arms at Hassel Street, near Hastingleigh high up on the North Downs between Ashford and Canterbury, was a classic pub that has long since disappeared. I only had the pleasure of visiting it once, and having just turned eighteen did not, unfortunately, appreciate its finer points at the time.

The Woodman’s had been brought to my attention after it had featured on the local television "news magazine" programme - "Scene South East". This was back in the days of "Southern Television" when our local ITV programmes came from Southampton. This meant a distinct bias towards Hampshire, with Kent and Sussex lucky to get a mention. The only exception to this was on Friday evenings when the aforementioned programme was broadcast from the company's Dover studio.

What had caught the presenter’s eye was the fact that the Woodman’s Arms did not have a bar, which even 40 years ago was highly unusual. Instead, drinkers sat around a table in what appeared to be the licensee's front room. Having seen the pub featured, I decided to check it out for myself, at the earliest available opportunity. I therefore set off on my motorbike, one evening in June, in search of this highly unusual pub.

Hassel Street was only a few miles away from my then home village of Brook, but being tucked away amongst the maze of narrow lanes that lie at the top of the North Downs it took a bit of finding. I eventually succeeded, and found the pub located half-way down a “No- Through Road”. From what I remember, it was an unassuming, white-painted building which was considerably older inside than it looked from the outside.

According to a guide to “Kent Pubs”, published by Batsford in 1966, the Woodman’s dated back to 1698, and had three rooms. One was a side room, that doubled up as a children’s room, one was for darts whilst the third acted as the bar-parlour. It was the latter that I made my way into, and I do vaguely remember there being a darts room to the left of the entrance. As shown on the television programme, the room was plainly decorated, and simply furnished. There was a table, complete with tablecloth, in the middle of the floor, and along one of the walls, was a dresser on which were placed various bottles of wines, spirits and bottled beers, plus a selection of glasses. Pushed up against the other three walls were some hard wooden chairs, occupied by about half a dozen or so people.

As I walked in I could see no evidence of any beer pumps, so I enquired as to whether the pub sold draught beer. I was told that it did but, feeling very conscious of the lull in the conversation, decided to opt for just a half of bitter. The landlady retrieved a half-pint mug from the dresser, and disappeared down some wooden stairs to the cellar below.

To digress for a moment, according to the aforementioned “Kent Pubs”, the Woodman’s was renowned for its beer. Although it was a freehouse only one brew was stocked “so that it is always in condition”. “Come here for your Fremlins” said the guide, and you would have had the choice of Fremlins Mild, Three Star Bitter or County Ale. “Every pint or half, is drawn in the cellar, seven steps down and seven steps up, which stays at 50 degrees summer and winter.” The landlord had been told, when he first came to the pub, by a retired publican friend that, “The secret of keeping ale and beer was to order it in advance so that it can lay for two weeks before you tap it.” These days, pubs seldom lay their beer down for more than two days before tapping and serving it!

The recommendation given above would have been lost on me back then, as I didn’t know that much about beer. However, the beer stocked at the time was almost certainly cask Whitbread Trophy from the former Fremlins Brewery in Faversham. When the landlady returned with my drink, I made some half-hearted attempts at conversation, but  felt increasingly awkward and out of place. I had only recently reached the legal drinking age and was a somewhat shy and slightly introspected youth, lacking in social skills and not able to mix well with different age groups.  Most of the clientele seemed to know each other, and whilst they were not unfriendly, I quickly decided that one swift half was enough. This was a great shame as this turned out  to be my only visit to the Woodman’s. Not long afterwards I went off to university, and apart from short visits to see my parents, during vacation time, never returned to live at home on a permanent basis.

I am not certain exactly when, or indeed why the pub closed, but one possible clue to its demise is again given in “Kent Pubs”. The landlord of the Woodman’s worked as a postman in the mornings, which suggests that his main income came from delivering letters rather than serving pints. This indicates that the pub may not have been viable on its own, and given its isolated position, it is perhaps easy to see why. I cannot help thinking though, that had the Woodman’s managed to hang on for a few more years, then people like Mr Rodney Coe may have helped to put it on the map.


David, Little Omenden Farm and Nursery said...

I've still got that Kent Guide:I never made it to The Woodman's, nor to the Good Intent at Egerton which I think was in similar vein. I did visit, on several occasions the Black Bull at Newchurch on the Marsh,run by two old ladies who sold Sheps straight from the cask, (when Sheps was Sheps!)

Paul Bailey said...

David, I think our paths must have crossed in a previous existence!

I did once have the good fortune to visit the Good Intent (no pun intended here) at Egerton. This was in 1974, shortly before its closure. Unfortunately apart from it being an unspoilt pub, as so many were back then, I don't remember that much about it.

The Black Bull at Newchurch was an old favourite of mine, and I even remember it before Shep's acquired it; when it was owned by Whitbread. As you say, the beer was straight from the cask, kept on shelving behind the bar. There was also a really basic room to the left of the entrance corridor, complete with a stone floor, where one could play darts. I was very sorry to learn of the pub's closure, but with no car park, and not that many chimney pots nearby, the pub was trading at a definite disadvantage.

You are right; Shep's definitely was Shep's back in those days!

wee beefy said...

Hello again,

if you want to throw the net wider, so to speak, it may be worth considering featuring farm pubs.

I would expect some crossover with the parlour pub because farm pubs (based on my limited experience) were essentially houses with a pubic room, except, they were also, erm, farms...

The Red Lion at Dayhills in Staffordshire and the Harrington Arms in Cheshire are good examples, as is the fantastic Luppitt Inn in Devon, and the Royal Cottage in Staffordshire, but they seem to be dwindling fast.

Maybe worth taking a look at your Kent guide to see if there are any such hostelries listed?



Paul Bailey said...

Hi wee beefy, I am not familiar with the term "farm pub", but it sounds an interesting concept. I don't recall coming across any such establishments in my "Kent Pubs" guide, but I do have several other guides in the same series, (East Anglia, London, Surrey & Sussex), all published by Batsford in the mid 1960's.

When I get a spare moment I will have a trawl through them, although London is obviously out of the frame and I don't hold out much hope for Surrey either!

Btw. I am still missing one guide from this excellent series, that to Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire pubs.

Steve Milton said...

There is a real parlour pub called Ely's in Somerset - I visited it a couple of years ago. No formal bar area, just a room with barrels. Disconcerting when you enter - feels like you have entered behind the bar, but no it is a simple parlour. Magic and worth finding. I think it is just North of Taunton but my memory is clouded by the beers consumed that night.

Steve Milton said...

I found it! It is actually called The Rose and Crown but known as Eli's. Find out more here: