The Major Arcana of the Tarot consists of cards numbered from one to twenty, preceded by and concluded by zero, the Fool.
Here are ten pubs from my life, preceded by a small ale house somewhere in East Anglia’s Fenland, on the banks of a river and next to a bridge. There was no cellar, the barrels, wooden ones, which tells you how long ago this was, were in a room next to the bar. There was no decoration, no attempt to project an image, but the sense of peace was unparalleled.
The Nelson Head
Between Horsey Mere and the North Sea lies the village of Horsey. The Nelson Head is on the road to the beach, but even in high summer there was little traffic. I went there often as a small child while on sailing holidays with my parents. My mother and I sat outside on a bench drinking cider, which was considered suitable for women and children even though more alcoholic than beer. It was a good plain old fashioned pub, the landlord was tall, thin, and cadaverous. He had second sight, which made him permanently miserable.
The Fish and Duck
To the South of Ely on the banks of the river Ouse sat the pub I treasure the most, the Fish and Duck. It had one large bar and restaurant area, the windowsills stacked with books, the walls covered in obscure memorabilia. Through the windows you could see out across the Fens to Ely Cathedral on the horizon. The food was good, the beer well kept, the ambience unique. It was the one place I tried to revisit every time I returned to England, but now, Googling for it, I think it has closed as part of a marina refurbishment, and may or may not reopen. Even if it does, it will be not be the same. Nothing ever is.
The next set of pubs are all in Cambridge, where I lived for about a thousand years some time in the early Seventies
The Elm Tree
In the back streets of Cambridge near where some friends lived there is one of the smallest pubs I have ever been in. One narrow bar, just room to play darts, and a bar counter more like a serving hatch. The landlord’s name was Peter, his wife, Dawn, was said to have been one of the Queen’s bridesmaids. Peter was an alcoholic and a smoker, a dangerous combination. One night a forgotten cigarette set the place alight. Peter and Dawn escaped, but Peter went back inside, and died. The pub has been rebuilt and it looks much the same from the outside. I wonder what happened to Dawn?
The Baron of Beef
Bob Wass, one time Regimental Sergeant Major in the Rifle Brigade, rescued the Baron of Beef without doing any renovations, just by being there. The frontage was narrow and the one bar went back so far you could forget the street entirely. Down the end was an old style bar billiards table. I was never any good at stick and ball games but it was fun anyway. We, the Bowes and Bowes staff, adopted it as our after work local for a year or two, until it’s rising popularity, and Bob Wass’ inflating ego moved us on to The Eagle.
This is an ancient inn set round a courtyard. The main bar has graffiti on the ceiling dating back to the Second World War, when the Eagle was popular with airmen. We frequented the small bar, which had a good open fire on cold nights. The loo had a famous, probably much imitated, piece of graffiti; “God is dead – Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead – God”.
One night a Morris side performed in the courtyard. I had never seen or heard anything like it. Pure magic, but you have to be there.
In Rose Crescent, off the market square, there used to be a pub, The Rose. There was nothing remarkable about it, but the clientele were interesting, and the landlord, Sid, fitted the Biblical phrase, “publicans and sinners”, perfectly. The pub is gone, now, turned into tourist nick-knack shops.
The Prince of Wales
In a Cambridge basement is, or was, the Prince of Wales. It served only bottled beer, we went there for the Newcastle Brown. The place had strange shape, like a theatre with the bar where the stage should be, and a very odd atmosphere, as if it were a front for something.
Now let us move on to Islington, a Northern part of London.
The Island Queen
This is where my wife, pre wife era, worked as a barmaid in the evenings to supplement the pathetic pay she got from the Economist’s Bookshop. I used to drive down from Cambridge on Friday nights and collect her at closing time. The Queen was a big Victorian place with a horseshoe bar, stained glass, gleaming brass, and a dodgy clientele. Maybe Islington has been gentrified since then.
And across the World.
The Duke of Wellington
This is, or was, Melbourne’s oldest pub. They used to do great food, the Beef Wellington was a treat. The decor was vaguely of the Turf, and the front bar was occupied by men who were either builders or bank robbers. Or both. We had pre-concert meals there a couple of times and then it closed. A great loss.
And back again.
The White Hart in Eynsham, near Oxford
We stayed there last December for a few days, in what used to be the stables. They do a good breakfast, and the beer is excellent. The building is ancient, unpretentious, and welcoming. We had a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner there, the family together again for the first time in five years.
In the end, somewhere in East Anglia’s Fenland, next to a river, there will be a tiny pub with no cellar, the barrels, wooden ones on trestles, can be seen through a doorway in the next room. There is no decoration, no image, just tranquillity.