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!