The Best of All Possible Worlds

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Friday evening – which, in England, is another way of saying ‘Let’s hit the pub!’ It took me many years to appreciate the glories of an English pub. You may ask, as I once used to, why anyone would want to spend a perfectly good evening in a dark and smelly room in the midst of noisy, chattering strangers. It doesn’t seem a rational or useful or even very entertaining way to spend one’s time. But that’s where magic enters the picture – the magic of oak beams and low ceilings, of wooden floors and polished counter tops, of shining brass and twinkling glass, of a glowing log fire in winter and the deeps of an ancient leather sofa, and of the rise and fall of laughter and conversation. I can join in the noise, be part of the crowd, or I can sit contentedly in a corner away from humanity yet continue to be very much a part of it. In the words of John Wain, ‘How much of our literature, our political life, our friendships and love affairs, depend on being able to talk peacefully in a bar!’

Historically, the village pub along with the church, was the centre of village life. It was used as council chamber, courtroom, village hall, meeting point, and was the place where news and gossip was exchanged. The first pubs were ordinary homes, open to the public for consumption of ale that had been brewed on the premises, usually by the woman of the house. Over time, these alehouses became inns and taverns. These were often run by women, which was in keeping with their role as brewsters. Taverns served food and wine, but did not provide accommodation; inns provided food and lodging for travellers, and wine and ale if asked for. The Church set up hospices or hostels for travellers and pilgrims. The hostels provided food and lodging and ale. In 1536, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the attached hostels were taken over by private individuals and turned into inns. Over the centuries, these inns and taverns changed into the public house or pub as we know it today.

Everyone has their favourite pub – the local just round the corner, where they can hang out with their mates over a pint and a game of darts, or the one down the road where children are welcome till 6 pm and dogs till all hours, or perhaps the one tucked away in a corner of the village known only to a handful of regulars. Some prefer pubs where they can watch football live on HD TV, while others like their pubs old world where the TV, if it exists, is tucked unobtrusively away in a corner.

My favourite is the Crooked Billet, in Wimbledon Village. It has everything that a pub should have – ‘olde world’ charm by the gallon, including the mandatory oaken beams and uneven flooring, wooden tabletops and windows paned with thick cloudy glass. It even has a resident ghost – the spirit of an Irish woman that haunts the cellars. It is also warm and friendly, full of chatter and talk.

The Billet is one of the oldest pubs in Wimbledon Village. Some say it goes back to 1509, and was possibly the alehouse run by Walter Cromwell, the father of Henry VIII’s secretary Thomas Cromwell. But there are no historical records to support this theory. A Thomas Wray is known to have been the alehouse keeper of the Crooked Billet from at least as early as 1745 to 1786.

Legend has it that it was once the hideout of the highwayman, Dick Turpin, who was in love with the landlord’s daughter, Bess. I wonder if this Bess is the same as the one in Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwayman - the landlord’s black-eyed daughter who waited for her outlaw lover at her window, ‘plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair’, and who died warning him of the king’s men who lay hidden at the inn.

The original Crooked Billet was not on the site of the present one but further down the road towards Wimbledon Common. The Crooked Billet on its present site is first mentioned in 1838, as run by a William Williams (who was there till 1881).  Today the Billet is one in the chain of more than 200 pubs run by Young’s.

But that’s not all. In addition to the history and the charm and all the beers and ales and what have you, the Billet also serves the most wonderful beverage of all – tea!!! Yes, tea in a pub. For a teetotaller like me, that’s the best of all possible worlds!


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One Response to “The Best of All Possible Worlds”

  1. A friend, Nivi Das, writes:

    Loved this article. Brought back such wonderful memories. I always loved the amusing names that the English give their pubs- Always wondered at the story or association behind such names. The Frog and the Nightgown (in Clapham Common?), The Sociable Plover, The Bucket of Blood ?????,
    Cannot imagine any other lunch experience would … See moreequal the pleasure of sitting in the courtyard of a country Pub on a sunny summer morning (yes yes a rare event) having a simple Ploughman’s lunch with a beer. That’s all I could afford by the way in the student days by the end of the month.
    However In 2003, when I took my Aussie husband to visit with me my favourite haunts in England, visiting typical old English country pubs was one of the top items on our list. I was in for a big disappointment. Of course we went to Oxford. I hunted out an old Pub I used to frequent here but to my disappointment, the outside facade remained same, but inside was redecorated in the most hideous manner, plastic menus advertising burgers and chips, chicken nuggets and chips. Gone were the old well worn timber furniture and bar, replaced with the typical American diner furniture. The floor was parquet! And this was the story in 9 of the next pubs we visited. We finally found an old Irish pub which still looked like a pub inside not a diner. Later we found the George near St Mary’s – maintaining it’s old dignity.

    When I was living in London in early ’80s, it was not so popular for the men to bring “their women” to the Friday lounge. That is the pubs in suburban areas on Friday evening. Of course the city pubs saw both sexes of city workers crowd in after office hours. But the Friday night get together was a Blokey thing- mates getting together, many rounds… See more of darts played, cigarettes were smoked, ribald stories shared and guffawed on. Us girls went out and did our own thing in more modern drinking holes like Thank God it’s Friday, drank ourselves to a stupor, bitched about the men and staggered home after midnight resting heavily on each other. But we were not welcomed in our partner’s favourite haunts or pubs. The pubs, specially of a winter evening were rancid with exhaled smoke and you would have to spend 10 minutes there to come home reeking of stale nicotine. It was hard to believe that Pubs would ever ban smoking in accordance with new Laws.
    The other pub reputed also to be frequented by Dick Turpin was The Spaniard in Hampstead Heath. You must visit this pub some day Rohini- it is a beautiful quaint little Tudor style building if memory serves me right in middle of beautiful setting. He was actually executed by the painful gibbetting method not far from this pub on the Heath (indeed a place with much sinister history). Not fully dead, his body was then placed in a cage which was hung on the Heath for common folks to cut off bits and take home as Lucky Charms. Thus I believe giving rise to the term giblets.
    My all time favourite is of course The George Inn dating back to 17th C , near The Globe, reputedly frequented by Shakespeare and his troupe. Mentioned in Dickens’ Little Dorrit. No visit to London is ever complete for me without a pilgrimage to this pub for old times’ sake.
    Another favourite Pub with a gruesome history in London is of course the Jack The Ripper Pub, in Spitalfields now called I think –The Ten Bells again after a period of being called Jack The Ripper. Well yes, I have a weird penchant for the gruesome and terrified as I am of all things that go bump in the night, I could not resist digging out all the Pubs associated with bloody, creepy, haunted stories and made a point of visiting them at least once.Can go on for ever… but I have bored you already.

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