Published in European Socialist Action No 30, September/October 2010
Picture this, a cosy and inviting pub with its dark wooden-beamed interior, open fireplace and friendly staff who only serve well kept, local real ale. This was an image that was conjured up in my mind when I first decided to search for the ‘holy grail’ of the English village pub, the unmistakable centre of traditional village social life.
Over the next few issues I would like to share with you some of my best and worst experiences in pursuit of that mission, of finding the most quintessentially English hostelry and maybe reveal to you some of the many hidden gems that I have found along the way.
The manor, which is home to one of the finest examples of Fourteenth Century domestic architecture, is well worth a visit if you have the time, before tasting the liquid delights that the local pubs have to offer. After leaving the long and repetitive road of the A21, I was left to navigate my car through the narrow, winding, secluded roads of The Weald. It’s funny but this kind of road always reminds me of those typical American horror movies where the guy breaks down in the middle of ‘Deliverance’ country, only to be hunted down by a pack of inbred, deformed scavengers.
This, of course, did not happen to me and the only sign of human life that passed by me was an old man sitting on a fence staring at a flock of sheep that were grazing lazily in a field. Much more civilised! But all is not well despite the idyllic stillness.
The English countryside is under threat from development with Government proposals to meet fresh housing targets initiated under a Labour government. The new Coalition government intends to relax planning rules further. All these beautiful villages I love so much, where the weary traveller will find hospitality and refreshment, are to be engulfed by vast new housing developments, changing forever the landscape and the character of historic areas like the Weald.
One of my favourite causes is the Weald of Kent Protection Society whose fiftieth anniversary falls this year. Its events calendar reads like a rustic community’s traditional fare from a Wealden Ploughman's Lunch, an annual Summer Party, to volunteers for making log piles in Cole Wood (a 12 acre semi-ancient wood dominated by sycamore with ash, oak and beech supporting a mixed vegetative community left to the Society). Inviolable and so precious.
The Weald of Kent Protection Society exists for one of the noblest causes you will find in this England of ours — to resist the urbanisation of the Weald and to preserve the green belt for posterity. In their own words: “The society’s aim is now, and always has been, to protect and enhance the rural character of our Wealden villages and countryside”.
As I sat out the back of The Spotted Dog in Penshurst sipping their finest ale, I viewed the Weald as far as the eye could see. It is wondrous as you feel its ancient presence, a legacy handed down for all to enjoy and, most of all, to respect.
I am a great believer in rural communities maintaining a certain continuity, forever close to the land from generation to generation. They are the custodians of the land in the same way as the old established peasant families were on the continent of Europe before the Second World War, now sadly replaced by an industrialisation of agriculture. It began elsewhere with Stalinist brutality and the elimination of the Kulaks in Russia.
I fear the encroachment of urban sprawl, the lifting of planning regulation, opening up to the very great dangers of the spoiling of traditional English beauty and it will be devastating.
Ah, yes. I come back to my traditional village pub as a centre of local life. In early evening there is a buzz as it fills with the residents of the area, all of them knowing each other, greeting and smiling to those so familiar to them. These pubs have not been ‘themed’.