Monday, 17 December 2012

Classic, Basic & Unspoilt, No. 3 - The Ringlestone Inn

Unlike the first two pubs in this series, the pub I am about to describe is still trading. However, like many pubs that could once have been described as Classic, Basic & Unspoilt, this one has had to move with the times, go "up-market" and start catering for the restaurant brigade. Perhaps this is the price of survival in today's depressed pub trade? Read on and see what you think.

In 1979, after nearly six years away, first as a student in Greater Manchester and then working in London, I moved back to Kent. I set up home in Maidstone, in the west of the county, an area I was unfamiliar with having been brought up in East Kent. My new surroundings afforded plenty of opportunity to explore the local pubs, and armed with the latest CAMRA Guide to Real Ale Pubs in Kent I set off to discover what this part of the county had to offer. I soon had the good fortune to come upon the then unspoilt Ringlestone Inn. 

The Ringlestone was a classic country pub that also had a rather interesting history attached to it. It nestles high up on the North Downs, above the villages of Harrietsham and Lenham, along some rather narrow and twisting lanes. What I liked about the pub was its simplicity. With its un-plastered, bare-brick walls, stone floors, barred windows and antique furniture, together with oil lights and candles for illumination, the Ringlestone had a genuine old world feel to it. As an added attraction, the beers served were dispensed direct from the cask.

As was usual with many free-houses thirty years ago, only a limited range of ales was stocked. This meant though that they were all kept in tip-top condition. When I first became acquainted with the pub the cask beers sold were Draught Bass, Fremlins Bitter and Fremlins Tusker. The latter, in particular, was a superb drink that tasted even better by virtue of the gravity dispense. Later on the beer range was expanded, to include ales from both Everards and Tolly Cobbold, whilst at the same time Bass was discontinued. At the time the Ringlestone was privately owned by a couple who's names unfortunately escape me.

There was just the one bar which, as described above, was simply furnished. During the winter months it was heated by a log-burning stove. There was also a separate and very tiny restaurant, which was only open on Friday and Saturday evenings, and lit by candle-light. I particularly remember enjoying Christmas Dinner there one December evening, along with fellow committee members of the Maidstone and Mid- Kent branch of CAMRA. It was a truly atmospheric setting for such an occasion, made all the more memorable by the quality of both the beer and the food.

There is a story concerning the Ringlestone, which  has passed into legend. It pre-dates the time that I first knew the pub by some years. During the early 1960’s, the Ringlestone was owned and run by two women; a mother and her daughter. Given the pub’s isolated position, the pair took no chances with strangers, and kept a loaded shot-gun hidden behind the bar. According to the tale, if they did not like the look of you, the shot-gun would be produced, and you would be told in no uncertain terms that your custom was not welcome! All gripping stuff, and as a child  I remember my parents talking about an isolated pub,  run by two eccentric women who kept a loaded shot-gun behind the bar, in order to frighten off anyone they regarded as unwelcome. Mum and Dad weren't certain of the name, or exact location of this pub, but it was obviously  the Ringlestone they were talking about.

I managed to conduct some research on the subject and, according to Wikipedia, the women were called Florence (Ma) and Dora Gasking. They were indeed  mother and daughter, and they took over the pub in 1958. They acquired quite a notorious reputation, and were frequently armed with a shotgun, inspecting their clientele and requiring unwanted guests to leave. They are also said to have required a "speakeasy"-style series of secret knocks to gain entry to the pub!

One correspondent on Beer in the Evening looks back on those days: "I remember it when it was owned by "Ma" and her daughter. Back then, you often had to knock on the door to gain admittance and that was by no means a guarantee if Ma didn't like the look of you. She kept a loaded shotgun behind the bar, and would grab it quite often to deter anyone she didn't feel deserved to be in her hostelry. On one occasion, Peggy & Barclay, who were at that time owners of the nearby Blacksmiths Arms in Wormshill, told me that they visited Ma on their night off. Several youths were attempting to get in, rattling the locked door. After Ma told them to "piss off" and they continued to ask to be let in, apparently Ma said, "Barclay! Get my gun!" And sure enough, he said, she fired buckshot at the inside of the door and, not surprisingly, the lads outside decided to go home. I did not see Ma actually use the shotgun, but she did wave it around, convinced that customers were intent on robbing her, because there was no electricity and the place was quite gloomy at night, lighted only by flickering gas lamps or oil lanterns. The beer was very good, as I recall, served directly into jugs from barrels behind the bar. After Ma passed on it lost a lot of its atmosphere and really wasn't worth a visit."

In the early 1980’s the Ringlestone changed hands, and has since undergone quite dramatic changes. The small restaurant room was connected through to the main bar, but fortunately this was carried out without  spoiling the character of the pub. In late 1984 I ended up even further away from my roots when I moved to Tonbridge. The Ringlestone was now no longer a short 20 minute drive away and I have only re-visited it on a couple of occasions. Whilst it is still a pleasant enough pub, it has been expanded  in size, and like I hinted at the beginning of this article, has gone hankering after the food trade. To make matters worse the pub was bought in 2005 by Faversham Brewers, Shepherd Neame. As many of you will know I am not a fan of their beer so there is now even less incentive for me to call in at the Ringlestone. Instead I prefer to remember it as it was when I first knew it, thirty years ago.

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