Heart of the Village

a_pint_of_guinness

As often happened over the time I spent in Hampshire, I found myself out of work many times. Despite there being barely a million unemployed out of the sixty million population of the UK at the time, often you would find you spent days, sometimes weeks between jobs. Before you ask – no I did not sign on between jobs. I was too proud to beg for a hand out, even though I was entitled…

My situation always exasperated my elderly cousin. But as I pointed out to him on more than one occasion, just so long as I continued paying him rent, he should keep his thoughts to himself. I was not planning on staying forever, so I really didn’t care what he said. Of all the various members of the family, I was the only one who ever stood up to him…

On the days when I was out of work, my routine was to get up early, feed my cousins chickens, and stand in the doorway of his garden shed with a cup of coffee and a smoke, watching the sun come up.

To the south in the early morning light, I could see the countless vapour trails of planes, illuminated by the suns rays from below the horizon looking just like tiny fireflies, flying holidaymakers off to the south of France, sunny Spain and beyond, on their two week all expenses paid package holidays. Then when eleven o’clock loomed, I would walk down the leafy lane to the pub for a bit of lunch and a pint.

The English pub is the central meeting place for most people within the community, be it village or suburb; people come and go all the time. Some stop for a cup of tea or coffee or a meal at lunchtime, most drop in for a pint or a chat in the evenings. Contacts are made, in my case sometimes for work. With the exception of snobs like my cousin, people from England’s social strata tend to rub shoulders in the village pub, enjoying a pint and each others company.

Taking my customary seat at the oval table in the bay window, I would make myself comfortable with pint and paper. As usual the tabloids were full of the inevitable muckraking they thrive on, and when the sun finally came out, my already warm room temperature pint of HSB was rapidly heating up.

“G’day Jack, how are you then?” Ian D would say as he ordered his pint. “Everything alright?”

“Yes thanks Ian, how about you?”

“Not bad, not bad,” he’d say as he slid himself into the window seat to warm his back.

“Afternoon gents,” signalled John’s arrival when he turned up later, ordering himself a drink, and taking a seat. If it was raining, Kenny would come in for a while. His job as a self-employed gardener was wholly dependant on the weather. Normally he would appear sometime after three o’clock on most days.

Ian loved football; he’s crazy about the game. He supports Portsmouth and goes on a regular basis to watch them play, accompanied by his son. John loves his cars, and if given half a chance, will regale you with specifications and the like for hours. His specialist subject is Le Mans. He has religiously made the trip to France to attend Le Mans for over twenty years. If I hadn’t been heading back to New Zealand, I would have joined him just for the experience. As Ian D would often say, “oh well them’s the breaks I guess…”

Like most of the people I met in the pub, John is ex services. In his case he served in the Royal Navy aboard carriers. John and I shared an interest in planes. He told me numerous stories of his experiences aboard various aircraft carriers and ashore, and about the few times he managed to wangle a ride in one of the planes.

Kenny often told me stories about his dad, who used to drive large heavy haulage trucks during the war, carting huge loads down from the north. Kenny was very proud of his dad. On one occasion, he told me the story of his dad doing the bread run from Portsmouth during the war, when the naval docks and the city were being bombed on a regular basis. Apparently his dad was driving along in the gloom when his vehicle became the unwilling target for a German plane. Despite being strafed, Kenny’s dad survived the ordeal, I never asked about the truck.

Ben? Well Ben was special to us all and still is to me. He lived with his delightful elderly mother and his collection of rusting motorbikes on the other side of the village, which is up a narrow road past one of the other village watering holes, the Brewers Arms. His mother was over ninety at the time, and was involved with the Iron Age village project up at Butser. Once or twice a week the bus that delivers the elderly to and from the daycentre in Petersfield would stop outside the pub and let her off. Ben would fuss around her and get her seated before fetching her a drink. She loved doing the crossword puzzles in the magazines she picked up from the daycentre or from the pub’s papers. When she spoke, you could hear a gentle Scots accent breaking through.

Ben’s late father used to be a scientist of some kind, working for the government. According to Ben his dad got interested in amateur radio at one time, and had installed a powerful set in his car. One day he was sitting in his car beside the perimeter fence of the particular establishment he was working in, fiddling with his amateur radio, when along came the guards. According to Ben, his father could not see why they were making such a fuss; maybe they thought he was a spy, who knows!

Guinness Roy often came in. A portly retired civil servant and ex Royal Marine, Roy loved his Guinness, hence his nickname. He and I would talk for hours about all sorts of things. When he found out I was planning a trip to Malta, Roy generously supplied me with information and an address for the place he stayed at when he went on holiday there. When I did go to Malta, I went to see the place Roy told me about in Birzebbuga for myself. It consisted of three apartments, next door to Tony Muscat’s Ice cream parlour on the waterfront, overlooking the deep container port in the south of Malta.

Roy had been involved in the Suez crisis as a young marine and later he was stationed in Aden. He used to keep me in stitches over some of his escapades during his time in the Royal Marines, like the time he met the late comedian Franky Howard whose penchant for young men in uniform was well known during the comedians lifetime. Thankfully Roy survived the meeting unscathed. I shall always be grateful to him for his advice on Malta and his warm friendship.

Occasionally, Terry and Andy would come in when they had woken up from a few precious hours sleep, after getting home from their long twelve hour shift that ended at six that morning in the lettuce factory, south of Chichester. Terry was an ex CPO in the navy, currently working as an engineer in the factory. Andy worked in one of the noisiest and wettest parts of the factory. He spent his time feeding raw lettuce into one of the machines that chopped, washed, and bagged the lettuce for sale to the many supermarket chains across the UK, brought there by refrigerated trucks from the company farms in Spain, and from the vast farms that surrounded the factory. Terry and I enjoyed a chat from time to time as did Andy, even though he usually never said very much. But he would sit there with his glass of Coke, giggling and laughing, while the rest of us chatted while sinking our pints of HSB, Stella, Fosters, Lager-top or whatever it was that each one of us drank.

Sometimes Mike would appear from his insurance brokerage business across the village square, to have a pint and a bowl of hot chips and read his paper. Mike is a delightful man and a thoroughly interesting character. Among his many accomplishments, like myself he’s written several books, in his case on the local military history. He gave me a copy of one of them. It deals with the defensive series of forts surrounding Portsmouth, built during the Napoleonic war to protect Portsmouth from invasion by the French, not from the sea, but from the land! The concern back then was that the French would bypass Portsmouth and land further along the coast to attack from behind. You can still visit the brick clad forts that face the wrong way, on Portsdown hill, overlooking Portsmouth, to see them for yourself.

In the short time I spent in the village, the pub changed hands several times. Each time the prospective landlords arrived, the locals would size them up and offer comments on how long they would last. Endless arguments went on across the oval table on that very subject. The pub itself was built sometime in the sixteen hundreds, I can’t remember exactly when. The original bits were pointed out to me by Kenny and Ben at various times. It had been built on the route south from London to Portsmouth in the days when Hampshire was covered in acres of forest.

Most of the forest was unfortunately cut down to supply the Royal Navy shipyards along the coast, feeding their increasing demand for timber to build ships of the line to defend England’s shores from the French.

I loved the ‘Ship and Bell’. It still sits besides the London road in Horndean. When I knew it, it desperately needed repair. Like all pubs here in England it serves warm flat English beer. Despite what the regulars will tell you, it was full of atmosphere when I was a customer. Its constantly being shaken by the heavy traffic passing through the village. But despite all that, to me it’s the heart of the village, and may it go on being so for many more years to come.

😉

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