Cambridgeshire - Pubs and Inns with a Literary Connection


Brampton's most famous resident was Samuel Pepys. He was born on 23rd February 1633 over his father's tailor's shop in Salisbury Court between Fleet Street and The Thames. He moved to Brampton from London because of his health and because of fears of The Plague (from which several of his brothers died). Pepys’s uncle Robert (his father’s eldest brother) lived in Brampton, in what is now known as Pepys House. Samuel also lived there for a time between the ages of 7 and 11, and he attended the Grammar School in Huntingdon, which had been attended a few years earlier by Oliver Cromwell. The house, which is open most days between 10am and 6pm by prior arrangement, later became Samuel’s property. In 1667, fearing a Dutch invasion, he sent his wife from London to Brampton to bury his life savings in the garden. He returned two months later to retrieve his fortune, spending many an infuriating muddy hour locating his hidden wealth.
A path runs 400 yards SW from Pepys House to St mary Magdalene church where the famous diarist worshipped and where there is a memorial to his sister. Standing next to the church is the Black Bull, which is one of the oldest pubs in Brampton and is basically 16th century with 17th & 18th century additions. Pepys is known to have taken ale here and possibly stayed on occasion. On one of the walls in the restaurant is an extract from his diary praising the landlady Goody Stankers beer "fresh with a taste of worme wood which ever after did please me very well". Wormwood is an herb most famously used in distilling absinthe. There are 180 varieties in all and four of them grow wild in England. It was originally used to mask raw flavours of cheap wine, imparting a slightly medicinal "tonic" flavour – the word Vermouth comes from Wormwood.
Another local connection which brought Pepys to this part of the country involves nearby Hinchingbrooke House (also open to the public). This was the home of Sir Edward Mountagu the Earl of Sandwich who was Pepys’s generous benefactor and patron. Sir Edward, who was married to Pepys’s great aunt, bought Hinchingbrooke from Sir Oliver Cromwell (Oliver Cromwell’s uncle) on 20th June 1627. Both house and estate figure largely in Pepys’s diaries including details of the time and money spent on the improvements when Samuel was instructed to obtain the services of Mr. Kennard, master joiner of Whitehall to undertake the work.

Eaton Socon

In his book ’The Old Inns of England’ the eminent architect and writer Sir Albert Richardson identifies this picturesque inn as the model for the ‘’Black Lion’ in Smollet’s ’Sir Launcelot Greaves’ (1760) and also as the inn in Goldsmith’s epic poem The Deserted Village (1770) - but I’m not sure where he found his evidence. Both works contain a detailed evocative description of the interior of a welcoming inn.
Chapter 1 of Smollett’s novel opens with four riders arriving at the ’Black Lion’ on an October evening seeking shelter from a violent rain shower. He describes the kitchen as: "…paved with red bricks, remarkably clean, furnished with three or four Windsor chairs, adorned with shining plates of pewter, and copper saucepans, nicely scoured, that even dazzled the eyes of the beholder; while a cheerful fire of sea-coal blazed in the chimney…"
Oliver Goldsmith writes of: "…that house where nutbrown draughts inspired, Where graybeard mirth and smiling toil retired…" He also describes: "The parlour splendours of that festive place; The white-washed wall, the nicely sanded floor, The varnished clock that clicked behind the door; The chest contrived a double debt to pay, A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day;" And he observes: "…broken teacups, wisely kept for show, Ranged o'er the chimney, glistened in a row. "
The Dickensian Christmas card image of the snow covered inn is very apt because Charles Dickens and his illustrator friend Hablot Brown stayed at the White Horse in December 1838 on their journey north to investigate the infamous Yorkshire boarding schools. In Chapter five of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens describes the misery of the boys who had travelled from London on the outside of the coach: "So the day wore on. At Eton Slocomb there was a good coach dinner, of which the box, the four front outsides, the one inside, Nicholas, the good-tempered man, and Mr Squeers, partook; while the five little boys were put to thaw by the fire, and regaled with sandwiches".
In the 18th century the White Horse was a focal point for the coach trade; standing at a crossing of the Ouse where routes from Cambridge and Bedford cross the Great North Road. Parts of the inn are much older having a Tudor appearance, and showing some original beams. Two open fire places create a nice warming atmosphere in the winter with a large beer garden for summer visitors with children's play area. Various guest beers from micro breweries are on offer.

Samuel Pepys the famous diarist, made regular horse-back journeys from London to both Cambridge and his family home at Brampton. He used a variety of routes and stayed at many inns along the way. Fowlmere was one hard day's ride from the capital and, on 24 February 1660 - a day after his 27th birthday, he dined and lodged at the Chequers in Fowlmere - as his diary entry attests:
"I rose very early, and taking horse at Scotland Yard, at Mr. Garthway’s stable, I rode to Mr. Pierces, who rose, and in a quarter of an hour, leaving his wife in bed (with whom Mr. Lucy methought was very free as she lay in bed), we both mounted, and so set forth about seven of the clock, the day and the way very foul. About Ware we overtook Mr. Blayton, brother-in-law to Dick Vines, who went thenceforwards with us, and at Puckeridge we baited, where we had a loin of mutton fried, and were very merry, but the way exceeding bad from Ware thither. Then up again and as far as Foulmer, within six miles of Cambridge, my mare being almost tired: here we lay at the Chequer, playing at cards till supper, which was a breast of veal roasted. I lay with Mr. Pierce, who we left here the next morning upon his going to Hinchingbroke to speak with my Lord before his going to London, and we two come to Cambridge by eight o’clock in the morning".
Set by the roadside in the centre of the country village of Fowlmere, the Chequers pub restaurant started life as a private house. The latched door opens onto an Elizabethan interior with wooden beams, sloping walls, a raised galleried dining are and large open fires. The diary entry is displayed in frame near the door. During WWII the pub became the favoured drinking haunt of the RAF’s No 19 Squadron and then the American 339th fighter Group, who’s red and white colours are on the pub sign. Today The Chequers is an up market, food-oriented inn though the area to the left of the bar has a good pubby feel and (at least when I was there in the summer of 2006) drinkers were made entirely welcome.

Blue Bell Inn

Known as "the peasant poet" John Clare spent much of his life in and around the small Cambridgeshire village of Helpston. He was born in 1793 in the thatched white cottage (marked with a plaque) which can be seen in the background of the photograph standing next to the Blue Bell Inn.
Clare's formal education finished at eleven and he first worked as a ploughboy and then as a potboy for Francis Gregory, the landlord of the Blue Bell. During his time at the inn Clare got his hands on a copy of K. Thomson's 'Seasons', which he said made his heart 'twitter with joy'. It inspired him to write his first serious poem 'The Morning Walk'. Thereafter his work focused on his natural surroundings, capturing the changing seasons and the nature around him - but he struggled to make any impact as a poet in his early life.
His big break came in 1819 when he met John Taylor (Keat's publisher) at Stamford who produced his first volume 'Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery'. This led to patronage and a pension for life. He also married and his first child Anna Maria was born. In the years 1821-1835, Clare had three further volumes of poetry published and started his Journal and Autobiography. He had eight more children but suffered from bouts of depression and delusions and in 1841 was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he remained for the last 23 years of his life. Clare continued to write poetry until his death in 1864. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Botolphs at Helpston.
The Blue Bell is a stone-built, family-run free house dating from the 17th-century with a prominent photograph of a bust of Clare in the lobby. It retains the charm of a real old-fashioned local with a simple traditional wood panelled poets bar and quiet, comfortable lounge with a large teapot collection. It is popular with locals and a new extension has provided a dining area, and a cosy snug has been created from the old cellar.

Blue Bell - Helpston - Cambridgeshire - John Clare

Set in the delightful film-set like village of Wansford, the 16th century Haycock derives its present name from a volume of doggerel verse published by Richard Braithwaite in 1638. Entitled "Barnabae Itinerarium", it comes from Drunken Barnaby's Four Journeys to the North of England, which records his pilgrimages and includes descriptions of several places and events along the Great North Road. The poem relates how Barnaby, arriving at Wansford exhausted, sought suitable accommodation and, upon seeing a cottage door inscribed Lord have mercy on me,, realised the plague was cutting a swathe through the village. Barnaby made a hasty retreat to the river bank where he fell asleep on a haycock (bale of hay). During his snooze the river rose and swept him down stream. On waking he was confused and alarmed thinking he had drifted out to sea and arrived in a new land.
Renowned for its 18th Century sign depicting the drunken pedlar, the age-old inn was re-built in 1632 as a posting house called the Swan. When Celia Fiennes stayed here in 1698 she was aware of Barnaby's story and recorded in her diary that it: "goes for a jest on the men of Wanstead (Wansford) to this day".
Daniel Defoe journeyed this way in 1722 and was at first very complimentary about the generous charitable action of Lord Fitzwilliams in building the fine stone bridge over the River Nene - until he found he had to pay 2s 6d before his coach was allowed to cross. "my applause was much abated, tis the only half crown toll that is in Britain." In the summer of 1790, during his Tour of the Midlands John Byng recorded:" I arrived here last night to a good supper and a good night's rest in the best of inns, pleasantly situated; the bridge, the river, the church beyond and all about constitute the right inn scenery.
The size of the inn and its grounds give a clue to how busy this place was when The Great North Road passed by the front door. Today the hotel maintains much of its original character and charm whilst providing a full range of contemporary comforts. An additional bonus is the award winning gardens which stretch along the banks of the Nene

The Haycock - Wansford - Cambridgeshire - John Byng - Celia Fiennes - Daniel Defoe - Richard Braithwaite

Copyright T.W. Townsend - the opinions expressed herein are those of the author and any observations were correct at the time of the review.

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