THE CASK WHISPERER
Blog by Nigel Walsh
What the Dickens? – Part II (Our Watering Places)
Charles Dickens first arrived in the Medway Towns at the age of four.
The Cask Whisperer also arrived in the Medway Towns at the age of four.
Coincidence? I think not! Almost certainly.
It was his father’s work that brought him to Kent, moving from the dockyard at Portsmouth to that at Chatham. From 1817-1822, John Dickens worked at the Cashier’s Office, one of a cluster of stately red brick administrative buildings off towards the right, just after you pass through the dockyard Main Gate.
If you looked immediately to the left instead, towards the river Medway, you would see several rows of imposing warehouses: first the Hemp House, then the quarter-mile long Ropery, and finally the two huge storehouses on Anchor Wharf.
A young Cask Whisperer would start his working life (well, apart from the paper rounds) as a yard-boy in one of those storehouses.
Dickens was intrigued by the dockyard as a child and returned in his later years to write about its wonders in Chapter XXVI of “An Uncommercial Traveler”.
He was particularly fascinated by the ropery where he was “spun into a state of blissful indolence”.
No blissful indolence for me, I was there to work! I know the ropery well; I walked its length daily as a shortcut to clock in and out of work, and I would usually be asked to supervise the wharf and sling crews when issuing ropes, or hemp bales, or kapok from the attached Hemp House; being the only one in the storehouse who was fit enough and stupid enough to clamber up the bales to attach the sling hooks.
Alas, there were no pubs inside the dockyard in my time or Dickens time (although there is a brewery there now); our Queens would have frowned on that sort of thing, you know.
But just outside, in the ‘town’ of Old Brompton (not quite Chatham and not quite Gillingham) there were dozens of pubs there in the mid-1800s, of which there were just four remaining during my time there: The Royal Marine, Army & Navy, the Two Sawyers, and the Cannon. Only the Cannon is still open to this day.
I worked in the dockyard for a little over a year, a ‘gap year’ before heading off to university and had many evening sessions and the occasional swift half at lunch time, in each nearby hostelry. My favorite being the Two Sawyers although I can’t remember why; none of them had decent cask while I was there.
Did Dickens have occasion to drink there? It would have been a long walk from Gads Hill to go on a regular basis, but he does include this little nugget in his article:
“For precious secrets in reference to beer, am I likewise beholden to him, involving warning against the beer of a certain establishment, by reason of its having turned sour through failure in point of demand.”
Well, that settles it; not only did he drink in the Two Sawyers, but they were having problems turning over the casks in his time too!
My brother was at the dockyard at the same time, undergoing his apprenticeship as a shipwright, and we had several mutual friends there including one who made the daily trip from his home in Broadstairs; you can see where this is going…
… to the beach.
I made the trip from the Medway Towns to the Isle of Thanet many times when I was a kid.
We would go as a family back to Ramsgate, so that my dad could reconnect with his half-sister, or his old workmates at Harrison’s fish and chip shop on the harbor; we would take the train, or an uncle would drive us there for a day at the seaside.
I would often go to Dreamland in Margate by myself, for a day of fun in the sun; to buy skull rings and puzzle rings, and to ride the old scenic railway roller-coaster all day.
But just like Dickens, it was Broadstairs that was my favorite watering place; it was quiet, it had the smallest but best beach (with real sand), the best cafes, and my dad really liked the old Brown Jug at Dumpton Park and the Tartar Frigate down by the harbor and fishing pier. No beer for me in those days, just Vimto and crisps…
Dickens would have known the Tarter Frigate; it is located right underneath the cliff on which his home at Fort House (now Bleak House) still stands. He would also have known Neptunes Hall just a little way up Harbour Street and the Dolphin diagonally opposite on the corner of Albion Street. All three have made claims as to his visits in the past.
On many weekend trips with my dockyard crew, I would hang out in all three of these historic pubs; it was Shepherd Neame bitter in the Neptune, Fremlins in the Frigate, and Newcastle Brown in the Dolphin (no cask then as now).
I would also hike out to the Brown Jug (more Fremlins) and occasionally drop into the Charles Dickens overlooking the beach and English Channel.
Did Dickens ever drink in the Dickens? That would be silly, it would be like me drinking in the Cask Whisperer. He did visit in his day though; it was a library.
Another reason not to be drinking in there, I guess.
My favorite hang-out in Broadstairs though, was a little way up Albion Street where it meets the High Street. This was the Royal Albion (even more Fremlins), an unpretentious place with decent cask for a hotel bar.
Dickens would certainly have known the Albion; part of the hotel as it exists now used to be a cottage that he lived in for a while!
As for me, the only place that I would lay down my head on those weekend visits, would be the beach, in the large wooden lean-to where they stored all of the deckchairs overnight.
Not particularly comfortable…
Next episode: A Tale of Two (or possibly Three) Cities: Edinburgh and London (and Boston?) … but mostly London.
Scorecard w/e 08/01/23
In the past week, The Cask Whisperer has enjoyed the following casks:
- Strong Rope Good Job @ Jones Wood Foundry
- Gun Hill Mayhem @ Jones Wood Foundry
- Fifth Hammer Unlicensed @ Fifth Hammer
- Wild East Radiance @ Wild East
- Wild East Dry Hopped Radiance @ Wild East
And remembered the following casks:
- Whitbread (Fremlins) Bitter @ The Tartar Frigate
- Shepherd Neame Bitter @ Neptunes Hall
Upcoming Cask Festivals
09/09/2023: 8th Annual Noah Webster Real Ale Harvest Fest
* I have my ticket for the 2:00pm session.