Thursday, 27 December 2012

Classic, Basic & Unspoilt No.4 - The Sussex Arms, Tunbridge Wells

The pubs we have looked at so far have all been rural ones, but towns are not exempt from having basic and unspoilt hostelries, and the Sussex Arms, in Royal Tunbridge Wells, was just such a pub. It was situated just round the corner from the historic Pantiles,  and no visit to  the town was complete without popping into the "Sussex Shades" as it was known locally. The pub wasn't a classic so far as architecture was concerned, although it did date back to the 17th Century. What made the Sussex special was the unique character of the pub. This was created by landlord Dennis Lane who, with his wife Barbara, had run the pub from 1958 to 1987. They furnished it with artefact's purchased from the nearby auction rooms; the collection of chamber pots was legendary. So too were the number of locks on the front door - alleged to number 27 in total!

The Sussex was a freehouse in the true sense of the word. Along with a variety of different beers, Harvey’s PA was always available, together with XXXX Old Ale in winter. During such times, a welcoming coal fire was kept burning in the grate. One very memorable evening, our local CAMRA branch had arranged a visit to Larkins Brewery, which was then situated in nearby Rusthall. The visit had been arranged by Bob Dockerty, the head brewer and owner of Larkins. Bob had recently purchased the business from the former Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery, and was keen to make our acquaintance. We had agreed to meet up with him at the Sussex, before going on to the brewery.

Larkins Best Bitter was on sale that evening, and as we waited for Bob to arrive, Barbara provided us with bread and cheese on a "help yourselves" basis. A great slab of cheddar, plus a pile of white bread "doorsteps" was placed on the bar; the perfect accompaniment to the beer. With the fire blazing away merrily behind us, we all felt extremely reluctant to leave the pub that night. This was despite the tempting prospect of the free beer at Larkin’s Brewery!

In 1987 the Pantiles area was earmarked by the local council for what amounted to "gentrification". Other people, including myself, had a less polite word for it, but with the redevelopment work going on all around them, Dennis and Barbara decided to call it a day, and sold up in the autumn of that year. Rumours were rife at the time about how the property company, entrusted by the council to carry out the re-development, had been keen to force the Lanes out. Certainly a real pub run by, and used by real characters, did not fit into their plans. What they wanted instead for the Pantiles was an upmarket refurbishment with a rather twee, almost kitsch 18th Century England theme, of the sort that has become all too common place throughout the country.

The Sussex ended up by being completely gutted, and turned into a trendy pub aimed at the youth market. Plans for it to brew its own beer came to nothing, and eventually the pub was sold to Greene King. The area immediately surrounding the pub was opened up, and it is now no longer "tucked away" in the way it once was. That such a fine old institution, like the Sussex, was allowed to disappear in this fashion, is yet another sorry example of the way in which so-called town-planners, architects and property companies have become totally divorced from the wishes of ordinary people.

 Footnote:  to be fair to the current owners, the Sussex is now a pleasant and popular town pub that has mellowed nicely since its conversion a quarter of a century ago. It features a number of different guest ales alongside the usual Greene King offerings, and is one of three pubs in the Pantiles area of Tunbridge Wells managed by the same people. (The Duke of York and the Ragged Trousers are the other two).

The rather faded photo of the pub, is taken from "Old Pubs of Tunbridge Wells & District", by Keith Hetherington & Alun Griffiths, published by Meresborough Books in 1986. It is the only pre-conversion photo  I could find.


greengrass said...

This brought back many memories of a great Pub.
Along with the curiosities already mentioned I remember the ancient Hams hanging in the flu, the Willow Patterned W.C. high on the shelf, the old Cuckoo Clock,the first slice off an Elephants ass,the oil painting of Dennis (like a Monet self portrait)& many other curious things as you say acquired from Brackets the auctioneers.
There were many characters using the pub at this time including Benny Hills sidekick, Bob Todd. It was rumoured that a lot of Hills script came from the graffiti on the toilet walls.
Apart from Dennis & Barbara & the Pub itself, Dave the barman was a great asset. How often now is your glass polished with a clean tea towel before being filled?
Another unspoilt Pub run by experts at that time but not so quirky was the Boars Head (Gordon & ? I cant recall his good ladies name), also The Streets of London but understandably memory is somewhat foggy on that place.
From your previous blogs, I gather you live in the Pembury Rd. area so Im curious to know why quite often after your jaunts you end up in Wetherspoons, why not the Primrose (excellent Hen on when I was last in) or The Drum (best Guinness in Tonbridge)
Happy & Healthy new year,

Paul Bailey said...

Thank you for sharing your recollections of the Sussex, Greengrass, they brought back a few memories for me as well.

I only had the pleasure of visiting the Boars Head on a handful of occasions, but remember the "wheeled stillages" on which the casks of Fremlins were kept. It was certainly a characterful pub.

You are correct, I do live in the Pembury Road area of town, but the reasons my friends and I often end up in Wetherspoons is partly due to its more central location, but more for its interesting choice of beers. I appreciate that it can seem like drinking in a shed, but this is off-set by the beers it sells - where else in this area could you enjoy Surrey Hills, Hog's Back or Thornbridge Jaipur for example?

It's a long time since I last set foot in either the Primrose or the New Drum, so I will try and make a point of calling in in the not too distant future.
All the best for the New Year

btw. Where was the Streets of London? apart from being Ralph McTell's best known song, it's not a name I am familiar with.

Greengrass said...

The Streets of London was a seedy, grotty but wonderful drinking hole in the bowels of the Castle Hotel in Castle St., T. Wells answer to the Cavern Club. You may be too to young to remember it, or perhaps you were too busy chatting up Mary in 'The Hole in the Wall'. Thinking about it ,the Hole in the Wall was around much later than The Sreets of London.

Paul Bailey said...

Greengrass, I never had the "pleasure" of knowing Mary from the Hole in the Wall! By the time I moved to the area the place had been converted to an ordinary pub, rather than its previous incarnation as a tobacconists, with a bar at the rear. Unfortunately, the conversion didn't last long and, as we all know, the Hole in the Wall is now a fish and chip shop!

I do know however, that Guy Sankey managed to rescue some of the splendid Edwardian mirrors from the "Hole" when it closed, and they now adorn the walls of his splendidly quirky "Sankey's" pub in Mount Ephraim.

ps. I will ask my walking partner, Eric about the Streets of London, as he cut his teeth drinking in the pubs of Tunbridge Wells!

Greengrass said...

Methinks Eric is too young

Anonymous said...

Stayed with my pal and his girlfriend Xmas 1982 when his mother vacated her small flat on The Pantilles. We visited
this wonderful pub on a few occasions. I remember the gloriously eccentric batman explaining that the torn rugby
shirt on the Deers's antlers was left some years back by a
visiting French Rugby team who had visited the Sussex and left two days later. A great roaring fire and a small snug Bar with the oft seen picture of dogs playing pool.
Impossible to find pubs like it anymore. Another favourite
The Square and Compass in The Purbecks has become
over commercialised now also and hard to find a good boozer in London anymore that isn't jammed full of tourists like it's a theme park. Mr G

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for your recollections of the Sussex, anonymous. There certainly aren't pubs like that anymore.

Sorry to hear about the Square & Compass; I only had the pleasure of visiting it once, and that was sometime around 1982-83.

Unfortunately pubs like that become victims of their own success. I remember my father telling about a marvelous and totally unspoilt beach in Norfolk. It remained unspoilt and virtually deserted until some idiot "travel correspondent" wrote about it in one of the Sunday colour supplements. Today, you can't get near Holkham beach on a warm weekend, without having to walk miles passed row after row of parked cars, and the charm of a beautiful deserted beach has been lost forever.

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Neil Houlton said...

Hi Paul, I started drinking in the Sussex Arms about 1970, it was a great place despite constant attempts at "busts". You didn't mention the cellar bar where you had to wade through a small lake just to get in the door. The only beer sold in the bar was "Dortmunder Union" along with German wine and Schnapps. I too remember the "Street" it was grotty but there was a disco upstairs on a Saturday night if your girl was fedup talking about Hawkwind. Another popular drinking venue was in the little street that led between the High Street and the Pantiles. It was a wine bar but it also sold King and Barnes, can't remember the name but it was very popular!

Anonymous said...

I am 62 but remember visiting The Streets of London in my early teens. A real eye opener as a young remote village girl ������������