THE CASK WHISPERER
Blog by Nigel Walsh
What the Dickens? – Part I (Great Expectations)
That Charles Dickens fellow has been following me around again, as he has been pretty much all my life.
Every time I find a nice cozy pub to drink in, he turns up shortly after and makes it his own; he even gets to claim his own seat, marking it with a plaque sometimes!
I am going to do something different over the upcoming weeks. This will be a multi-part blog (serialized if you will) and will be a little longer this week; Charles Dickens and I have a long-shared history of pubs.
My own story begins on the Isle of Thanet in Kent, in the town of Ramsgate; Dickens wasn’t there often but he wasn’t too far away either. He parked himself down, right next door in Broadstairs, living in Fort House on the top of the cliffs… waiting and watching… biding his time… possibly.
At the age of four, I was sent off to the Medway Towns, forty-five miles to the west along the North Kent coast and just thirty miles from London. I lived for a while with my grandparents in their house in Strood, alongside assorted uncles and cousins, before my parents joined me, and we stayed in several lodgings in Chatham and Rochester, while waiting to get our own council house in Strood.
Dickens was here of course, living in Chatham as a young boy while his dad worked in the Dockyard, and returning much later to live out his final years at Gads Hill in the village of Higham, just beyond Strood; our paths would cross many times here.
He was there when I had my first beer, my first cask beer as it happens, at the age of fourteen.
I was at school in Rochester at the time and had saved up my tuck shop pennies and my wages and tips from four paper rounds, primarily to go up to London every other Saturday to watch my beloved West Ham United play and usually lose.
But my schoolfriends and I were at that age when we started to experiment with social drinking, and had figured out that the safest place to have a quiet half pint away from the long reach of our teachers, was the classiest place in town; this was the polished brass and red velvet splendor of the Great Expectations bar of the Royal Victoria & Bull Hotel, an old courtyard coaching inn just along Rochester High Street from our equally old school building. I spent some of my precious savings once a week, at lunchtime, with a half pint of Fremlins Bitter…lovely stuff.
Dickens knew the Bull Hotel very well; he stayed there on many occasions, and even had his own room (Room 17) set aside for him. The Bull had a starring spot in his Pickwick Papers, and also in Great Expectations under the alias of The Blue Boar.
Did Dickens drink there in the same bar? Almost certainly. He was a social if somewhat solitary drinker, and the Great Expectations bar would have been just his kind of place, albeit under a different name, if any at all.
Dickens and I share a great love of walking, and our paths within the Medway Towns, and between the Downland villages just beyond Strood would have crossed many times. We have the same perambulatory goals too, as I still do; we walk for exercise of course, but also to visit fine drinking establishments and to sample their ales.
A favorite of Dickens in Strood itself was the Crispin & Crispianus, at the foot of Strood Hill on the old Dover Road (or the London Road if heading westward), an ancient historic pub, now sadly a victim of hard times and arson. He had his seat in the corner by the fireplace (later adorned with a plaque), while I hung out in the saloon bar with friends from the Strood Youth Club practically next door, drinking cider or rum and cokes, as they had no cask ales at the time and the Courage keg bitter was pretty grim.
But there were casks in the villages.
The walk from my house to the Falstaff pub at Gads Hill was less than two miles; the Sir John Falstaff, to give it its full name, was not a favorite of Dickens, even though it lies directly across the street from his old house, but it was a favorite of mine because it was the first pub in my area to serve the mighty Ind Coope Burton ale.
We shared the walk itself though, at least the part that runs along Crutches (pronounced crooches) Lane between Gads Hill and the London/Dover Road at the Three Crutches pub, a shared favorite. I took it, or the alternate walk through Crutches Woods, to get to Gads Hill and Higham beyond, he took it to get to the village of Cobham and the Leather Bottle inn, of Pickwick Papers fame.
The village of Cobham is a real gem of the North Downs, practically a single street (The Street) barely three Manhattan blocks in length, with three excellent pubs; the Leather Bottle, the Darnley Arms and the Ship. While Dickens was enamored by the Leather Bottle and had his own seat again (with a plaque, again), I enjoyed all three pubs equally, sometimes on the same visit to the village.
My friends and I would follow his same walk back to the Crutches on our way home but would take the more adventurous shortcut through the dark heart of Cobham Woods on our way out, passing by the Darnley Mausoleum in the very center; now restored but an eerie ruin in our day.
We did venture through the woods in the dark on occasion with flashlights and whistles, making sure to avoid an encounter with the White Lady or the ghost of Lord Darnley’s Toe; although going Dickens route would have its dodgy spots too, coming dangerously close to the “laughing waters” at Shorne.
Next episode: Chatham Dockyard and a return to Thanet.
Scorecard w/e 07/25/23
In the past week, The Cask Whisperer has enjoyed the following casks:
- Fifth Hammer Unlicensed @ Jones Wood Foundry
- Gun Hill Mayhem @ Jones Wood Foundry
And remembered the following casks:
- Whitbread (Fremlins) Bitter @ The Bull Hotel
- Ind Coope Burton Ale @ Sir John Falstaff
Upcoming Cask Festivals
09/09/2023: 8th Annual Noah Webster Real Ale Harvest Fest