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General or Historical Articles

FiftyOne1Alec James

In the beginning there was Dave Burford. His grandparents ran the George in Rochester High Street (now the George Vaults). We used to play in the cellar, which is now a trendy restaurant (please see an old illustration of the cellar of the George on the right) and the garden. I remember the four ale fog coming out of the bar in the mornings. I often wondered what it was like to drink in a pub, so here goes.

I suppose the journey really started in autumn 1963. I think it was after a castle fête or something, myself and two friends were walking home in the early evening. For some reason we were near the Prince of Wales (photo lower left) in Cecil Road in Rochester and the idea of trying to get a drink in a pub seemed a great idea. Somehow I was cajoled into trying to get served in the “Jug & Bottle”.

It was sandwiched between the public and saloon bars, the only furniture was a low wooden bench in a corridor. Mine host looked at me as though he was about to burst out laughing!

FiftyOne2I was quite small in those days and he looked enormous. I think I said something like “three brown ales mister”. To our surprise he poured the ale into glasses. I thought blimey, that was easy till he said “now sit down, shut up and behave”. The brew slid down quickly and we left thinking I've cracked it, I'm a man!

Of course underage drinking was not encouraged but we soon learnt of a couple of pubs we could use if you behaved yourself and accepted your role in the pecking order, i.e. pretty low. It was not the crime it is today and you soon learnt how to behave in front of older drinkers. “Jug & Bottles” were the best bets and both the nearby Don Cossack and the Rose both let you have a bottle in the early evening.

Of course pubs were busier then and early evening was the best bet. Medway pubs in those days opened at 6pm, a quick one in one of the three pubs and chips from Wragg’s chippie on Cecil Road and home by 7pm. Happy days and good training in a way.

FiftyOne3I left school in April 1964 and my first job was at Surridge Dawson, newspaper distributors located near Chatham railway station, I did some extra hours on Thursday evenings and went into the Alexandra with a couple of the porters from the station. It was run by a Polish couple who didn't mind me having a drink as long as the railway men bought the beer. There was also a strange pie stall opposite in the yard for a snack on the way home.

A friend, Steve Revell, was by this time working for a rum merchants in Tooley Street, London, so our next forays was to go to London on Saturdays, take in a footie match and then have a drink before coming home, and still only 17 years old. Of course Steve had a better drinking apprenticeship than me and showed me the delights of the pubs round Borough Market.

This continued for the next two years or so, football, pubs, live music and clubs. Football was Gills one Saturday, London the next when they were away.

FiftyOne4We saw any big team there, no tickets needed just queue up and watch Best, Law & Charlton & Co, a couple of pints later, take in a club and a late train home. We even managed to watch England v Argentina in the World Cup Finals!

Some of the venues for live music locally were the Northgate (now Strictly Italian), City Arms (long closed) and my favourite was the Ivy Leaf Club (then in Higgins Lane, Chatham). The Central Hotel in Gillingham held an R & B club on Monday, but boy was that a long walk home!

At this time the choice of beers was quite limited with the big brewers heavily advertised their keg products. Courage Tavern Keg, Ind Coope Double Diamond, Whitbread Tankard, Truman’s Ben Truman Export and Watney’s Red Barrel. The first three of these brewers also promoted cask beers that were dispensed by CO2 which made them almost as gassy as the keg beers.

FiftyOne5These were Courage Best Bitter, brewed in London. Whitbread had Trophy which was actually the former Fremlin’s Bitter from their Faversham brewery. Ind Coope offered Bitter from the their Romford brewery and Truman’s had Eagle Bitter As far as Watney’s were concerned, their ordinary bitters, Best and Starlight were already keg products and they had hardly any presence in Kent.

Occasionally there would be a Courage or Whitbread pub with beer served by hand pump, especially in the country. Shepherd Neame, similarly also had a number serving non-gassy beers yet also served a number using CO2 pressure. They had also launched Abbey Keg Bitter. Charrington’s Crown Bitter was often served by gas but could be found occasionally on hand pump.

By 1967 I started to collect beermats and as we used the Coopers Arms I pinched my first mat off the table. Within days the landlord told me to ask as he had loads to give away. My mother was horrified when I stuck them on my bedroom wall. By this time Steve had a car and bought a book called Kent Pubs by D.B. Tubbs. For a couple of years we trawled through the Kent countryside visiting some wonderful pubs. Sadly many of them have now gone but I had the privilege to drink in some wonderful country inns.

FiftyOne6Friday nights we always used the Bridge Wardens as it had a good juke box and a football table. By this time we realised their beer wasn't up to much after some of the ales we had tried on our travels. In the summer of 1967 I fancied a different career, and a job on BR was easy to obtain. Poor Mr Tett, the Station Master at Snodland thought I had potential, a bad move as I was basically a shunter and not very masculine at that time.

However I soon got to know my way round the pubs in Snodland and of course the Rising Sun close to the Holborough sidings. The whole culture was fitting trains in around opening hours! Every day a coal train arrived and once the wagons were unhooked, we (including the driver and guard) retired for a liquid lunch in the Sun. Of course having a privilege card meant a lot of cheap or free travel.

I somehow got transferred to Halling along the road, where alongside shunting I sold tickets and just about did everything! I had soon done every pub in Halling, Plough (long gone), Five Bells (now just the Bell), Homeward Bound and my favourite, the Rose & Crown. Quite often I would sneak off to the R & C, meet a young lady, quick half and back. It was that obvious that when we had a work to rule, the management told us to avoid pubs if we were wearing our uniform. I must mention at this point that the young lady in question later dragged me up the aisle!

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