Kent - Pubs and Inns with a literary connection

The Albion hotel fronts on to Albion Street and has gardens at the rear extending down to the promenade with direct access to sandy beaches. Charles Dickens said it had: "The most beautiful view of the sea from its bay windows you can imagine". And he should know because a plaque on the front of the hotel points out that he stayed here - or in one of the old houses that now comprise it - for some time during the summers of 1839, 1840, 1845, 1849 and 1859.
The Albion in Dickens’s day was a slim, four storey building known as Ballard’s. Today’s somewhat sprawling establishment is the result of incorporating a number of neighbouring houses. One of these - number 40 (now number 12) - is where he actually stayed in 1839. On this occasion he was joined by his friend and biographer John Foster and they enjoyed a memorable "merry night". Dickens had the highest regard for the hotel landlord; the feeling was mutual, for he wrote: "Mr Ballard of the Albion Hotel… one of the best and most respectable tradesmen in England. He has a kind of reverence for me."
During this first stay Dickens wrote the latter part of Nicholas Nickleby. On September 18th he exulted (in reference to the plot of the novel): "The discovery is made, Ralph [Nickleby] is dead, the loves have come alright, Tim Linkinwater has proposed, and I have now only to break up Dotheboys and the book together". At two o’clock on the afternoon of the 20th, he wrote: "…their eyes filled with tears and they spoke low and softly of their poor dead cousin" – and the book was finished. No wonder Dickens wrote of number 40: "We enjoy this place amazingly"
Here in Broadstairs, Dickens wrote parts of eight of his major novels and much more besides. His letters show he was nostalgic for the little town even when he holidayed abroad. There are two museums to the author: Dickens House, with a faithful reproduction of Betsey Trotwood’s parlour, as described in detail in ‘David Copperfield’, and Bleak House; Dickens favourite holiday retreat from the mid 1840’s, with many rooms preserved as he knew them. For one week in the middle of June, the clock is turned back and favourite characters from the stories are to be seen in silk hats, cravats and crinolines gracing the streets during the annual Dickens festival.

Broadstairs on the far north east tip of Kent adjoining Margate, was Charles Dickens’s favourite holiday resort. He stayed here with his family for a minimum of one month every summer from 1839 - when he was becoming established as a successful writer - through until 1851. On the two years he went abroad he was still nostalgic for Broadstairs. Of Italy, in 1844 he said it had: "never so fine a sunset" and in Switzerland in 1846 he missed Broadstairs’s: "good old, tarry, salt, little pier. "
The author stayed in various lodgings over these years and, even today, it doesn’t take much imagination to see Broadstairs as it was then: a little fishing village, with a couple of twisting streets feeding into the main street and zigzagging along the top of the white chalk cliff. And, down Harbour Street, as it bends round to the left still stands the Tartar Frigate, which Dickens described as: "the coziest little sailor’s inn that is to be met around the coast… the very walls have long ago learned ‘Tom Bowling’ and ‘The Bay of Biscay’ by heart and would be thankful for a fresh song".
Not only were the sailors idle in learning new songs, the hyper-active Dickens was also critical of them in other ways. In Our English Watering Place from ‘Reprinted Pieces’ he wrote: "Looking at them, you would say that surely these must be the laziest boatmen in the world. They lounge about in obstinate and inflexible pantaloons that are apparently made of wood, the whole season through. Whether talking about shipping in the channel, or gruffly unbending over mugs of beer at the public-house, you would consider them the slowest men. The chances are you might stay here for ten seasons, and never see a boatman in a hurry".
This historic 18th century flint-built pub/restaurant occupies an idyllic position over looking the harbour. It has been the haunt of smugglers, customs men and seafarers and has enjoyed continuous trading for more than 300 years.

Prolific writer Sheila Kaye-Smith is best known for her novels in the English regional tradition set in the 19th century in borderlands of Kent and Sussex. Her descriptions of this part of England’s countryside, coast and marsh are still regarded as some of the finest. The action from her most famous novel Joanna Godden (1921) plays out in Romney Marsh. The story begins with the death of Joanna’s father who bequeaths his prosperous farm to his headstrong daughter. Joanna shocked and outraged her tradition-bound neighbours by determining to run the farm herself (in her own way with modern ideas) and refusing to enter into an arranged marriage with a neighbouring farmer.
The powerful story is revealed against a background of local opinion in the insular community. From the first chapter the reader becomes a fly on the wall in the smokey, gossipy atmosphere of the ancient Woolpack bar. The indiscreet swell of loose lipped observations helps narrate the story: ‘Them as breaks grass shall themselves be broke‘ - thus at her inspiration Furnese of Misleham had created a new proverb in the bar of the old Woolpack, and much the same was soon being said in the bar of the Falcon on the Wittering Road, in the bar of the Lion, Sidlesham, and the Crown, Bosham, and the Queen's Head, Appledram‘.
Situated both historically and geographically in the birthplace of smuggling in Southern England, The Woolpack’s own fascinating story has yet to be told. The fertile reclaimed land of the Marsh made fine grazing for hundreds of thousands of sheep, and the export of the wool from their backs was for centuries both highly taxed and badly policed - almost an open invitation to smuggle. The inn sign is a survival from the days when the ’woolstaplers’ (wool graders) of the Weald passed this way with their laden packhorses.
From first sight this white cottage pub, with its low pitched tiled roof, oozes charm and character. For 600 years, thirsty traders would have entered here through the same ancient lobby you see today; with its uneven brick floor and black-painted pine-panelled walls. Illegal wool exports from the marsh probably started the very first day that restrictions were imposed in 1275 when the government introduced a tax of £3 a bag on wool leaving England.
Add to this the illegal imports of tobacco and spirits from the continent and you have a problem which, by the 17th century, assumed epidemic proportions. In 1660 wool exports were forbidden, and two years later the death penalty was introduced for smuggling. The legislators of the day probably saw this as a major deterrent, but if anything, it simply made the ’owlers’ of Romney Marsh more desperate still. If you’re to hang for smuggling, why hesitate to shoot your pursuer? The spinning jenny, now mounted in the ceiling of the simple quarry tiled main bar, was used to divide up the smuggler's spoils.

Brookland, Woolpack, Kent, Sheila Kaye-Smith

From his boyhood in Chatham through his later years at Gads Hill, Charles Dickens loved to walk up to Cobham. His enthusiasm for its green woods, shady lanes and village inn is most apparent in his earliest novel Pickwick Papers. The inn is first referenced in Tracy Tupman's pathetic letter to Mr. Pickwick; the former having lost his sweetheart to the irresponsible strolling actor, Alfred Jingle. Tupman's premature suicide note includes the lines: "Any letter addressed to me at the Leather Bottle, Cobham, Kent, will be forwarded supposing I still exist"
No sooner had Mr. Pickwick received the plaintive message than he set off for Cobham with his two companions, Winkle and Snodgrass. When they arrived at the inn, described by Dickens as; "a clean and commodious alehouse", they were shown into: "a long, low-roofed room, furnished with a large number of high backed, leather cushioned chairs, of fantastic shapes and embellished with a great variety of old portraits and roughly coloured prints of some antiquity". At the upper end of the room they found Mr. Tupman tucking into a roast fowl, bacon, ale and et ceteras, and "looking as unlike a man who had taken leave of the world as possible".
Mr. Pickwick refreshed himself with: "A copious draft of ale" whilst insisting that the lovelorn fellow finish his delicate repast. Then the two of them crossed the road to the churchyard where, pacing to and fro together, Mr. Pickwick managed to persuade his companion to give up his resolution and join his friends.
Built in 1629, this attractive half-timbered inn got its name when a leather bottle containing gold sovereigns was found here in 1720. Every inch of wall space in the low-roofed bars and restaurant is covered with Dickensian memorabilia - including a glass case which contains the large leather money satchel carried on the reading tours by Dickens's agent to collect the payments in silver.
Today the three tastefully decorated bedrooms (two with four-poster beds) are all en suite and named after Dickensian characters. Dickens was a regular visitor to the inn and depicted Mr. Pickwick spending the night, reading into the eerie hours, in the upstairs front bedroom which overlooks the churchyard.

Leather Bottle - Cobham - Kent - Charles Dickens

Jeffrey Farnol has been described as the last of the swashbuckling romancers. His adventure The Broad Highway,is the ultimate ’bodice ripper’. It is stirring stuff with pistols at dawn, roast beef in country taverns, honest rustics, tinkers, highwaymen, damsels in distress, frightfully decent chaps and dastardly villains all moving through the rolling Kentish countryside. A good deal of the story is set in The Bull in Sissinghurst but, as the dramatic conclusion approaches, we find the hero Peter Vibart travelling at night, bound for The George at Cranbrook and sharing his carriage with the corpse of a murder victim:
" And so at last came lights and houses, and the sound of excited voices as we pulled up before the Posting House at Cranbrook. Looking from the window, I saw a ring of faces with eyes that gleamed in the light of the lanthorns, and every eye was fixed on me, and every foot gave back a step as I descended from the chaise. And, while I stood there, the Postilion came with two white-faced ostlers, who, between them, bore a heavy burden through the crowd, stumbling awkwardly as they went; and, as men saw that which they carried, there came a low, deep sound--wordless, inarticulate, yet full of menace. But, above this murmur rose a voice, and I saw the Postilion push his way to the steps of the inn, and turn there, with hands clenched and raised above his head ".
" My master--Sir Maurice Vibart--is killed--shot to death--murdered down there in the 'aunted 'Oller!" he cried, "and,if you axes me who done it, I says to you--'e did--so 'elp meGod!" and speaking, he raised his whip and pointed at me ".
Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, spent some time in Kent between May 1758 and May 1760. He was billeted here at the George whilst serving in the Hampshire Militia. Captured officers from Napoleon’s army were being held in squalid conditions in nearby Sissinghurst Castle. and he was detailed with" the loath task of guarding prisoners… Of the two years between my return to England and the embodying of the Hampshire militia, I passed about nine months in London, and the remainder in the country".
Reference to the George can be found as far back as 1300 when Edward III instigated the rise of the broadcloth industry. Large hooks in the modern Brasserie were once used for hanging the broadcloth. Queen Elizabeth I visited Cranbrook in 1573 and records show she alighted at the George Inn. Here she received a silver gilt cup engraved with a lion supporting the Queen's Arms. Although some of the original architecture has been lost or altered over time, there remains a wealth of impressive period features, including what was once described "one of the noblest staircases in the county of Kent".

The George, Cranbrook, Kent
The Royal Victoria & Bull

Over a period of nineteen years, Jane Austen made a number of journeys by coach or post chaise from her home county of Hampshire to visit her brother James in East Kent, stopping over at Dartford en-route. There were a number of inns in Dartford High Street at the time and two of them had ’Bull’ as part of their name. The best of these, famous on the Dover road, was originally and simply named The Bull. Following patronage by Queen Victoria (then a princess) it took its present name of ’The Royal Victoria & Bull. ’
David Waldron-Smithers in his book ’Jane Austen in Kent’ proposes that this would have been the Austen’s preferred stop-over. But on one occasion on October 9th 1798 it seems the Bull had no rooms available and Jane and her mother had to put up at the smaller inn across the road. Writing that evening to her sister Cassandra from The Bull & George, Jane said:
"We have got apartments up two pairs of stairs, as we could not be otherwise accommodated with a sitting-room and bed-chambers on the same floor, which we wished to be... We sate down to dinner a little after five, and had some beef-stakes and a boiled fowl, but no oyster sauce… After we had been here a quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put in to a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies. No part of my property could have been such a prize before for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7£., and my dear Harry’s deputation. Mr Nottley immediately dispatched a man and a horse after the chaise, and in half an hour’s time I had the pleasure of being as rich as ever; they were not gone about two or three miles off".
The Bull & George was demolished in 1981 to make way for a new Boots pharmacy. The present ’Royal Victoria & Bull’ dates to 1703 and is one of the few remaining coaching-inns with a galleried courtyard. This is now covered by a glass roof under which a Dover mail-coach is displayed. Charles Harper in his ’The old inns of old England’, writing about the original inn on this site says: "“Probably it was at this inn that the Canterbury pilgrims spent their first night. They would naturally prefer a house with religious associations; (St George) and the landlord, Urban Baldock, was a personal friend of Chaucer, and, like mine host of the Tabard, a member of Parliament."

Royal Victoria and Bull, Dartford, Kent

Unlike nearby Rye, the town of Dymchurch has lost much of its former character. However, it provides the settings for the adventures of the fictional Dr Syn. The Ship Inn was Russell Thorndyke’s local and he made it the centrepiece of his now famous novels featuring the fictional Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, vicar of Dymchurch (alias the Scarecrow). The Ship was a smuggler’s haunt in real life and also played host to the local coroner's court, where inquests were held into the deaths of many smugglers.
The vicar was once the infamous Capt Clegg, a pirate of much repute who was believed to have been hanged 10 years previously in Rye but now lives a secret life with his true identity known only to the likes of his right-hand man Mr Mipps, the coffin maker. Seen as a respectable man of the church to most, Syn is in fact the feared leader of the ’Marsh Men’ a gang of smugglers that travel the Romney Marsh on horseback at night. All is well in Syn’s world until the Kings’ men pay an unexpected visit to Dymchurch and turn up at The Ship looking for smugglers.
The Church of St Peter and St Paul across the road from the pub has a brass plaque commemorating Russell Thorndike. Many gravestones in the churchyard provided inspiration for Thorndike, and the names on many tombs will be familiar to fans of the Dr Syn books. The village war memorial is located on the spot formerly occupied by a set of gallows.
The pub has been extensively remodelled but upstairs little has changed. Today the road passes at the rear of the building which is alive with Dr Syn, smuggling and nautical related art and artifacts. The Inn boasts one of the largest (if not the largest) collections of Dr Syn related memorabilia in the world. Here you can buy Scarecrow posters, paintings, books, DVD's, post cards, mugs, rock, t-shirts, key rings and lots of other Dr Syn related merchandise. And there is even a Scarecrow ale brewed by the Wychwood Brewery Company.
Dymchurch village celebrates its connection to Russell Thorndyke and his stories by staging a ’Day of Syn’ on a biennial basis usually held during the August Bank Holiday weekend. Re-enactments of various parts of the books can be seen at many locations throughout the village, with the ’Kings Men’, ’Mr Mipps’ and of course ’The Scarecrow’ in attendance – it is great fun.

Ship Inn, Dymchurch, Kent

Following his mugging by the gibbet on River Hill, just south of Sevenoaks, and his introduction to ’The White Hart’ (see separate entry), Peter Vibart, the hero of Jeffrey Farnol’s novel ’The Broad Highway’ hitches a lift on a hay cart. In the morning he asks the farmer about the nearest inn where he can get some breakfast: ’An’ that is the ’Old Cock, ’ a mile an’ a half nearer Tonbridge. ’ – ’Then the sooner I start the better, ’ said I, ’for I'm mightily sharp set. ’
In chapter nine, titled: ’In which I stumble upon an affair of honour’, we read of Vibart having an amusing encounter with the cantankerous host of the ’Old Cock’, when he tries to ascertain what fare might be available. The conversation concludes with the landlord saying…’I s’pose you’d turn up your nose at ’am and eggs - it’s only to be expected. ’ - ’On the contrary, ’ said I, ’ham and eggs will suit me very well; why couldn't you have mentioned them before? ’ – ‘Why, you never axed me as I remember, growled the fellow. ’
’Slipping my knapsack from my shoulders, I sat down at a small table in a corner while the man, with a final kick at the fire, went to give my order. In a few minutes he reappeared with some billets of wood beneath his arm, and followed by a merry-eyed, rosy-cheeked lass, who proceeded, very deftly, to lay a snowy cloth and thereupon in due season, a dish of savory ham and golden-yolked eggs. ’It’s a lovely morning! ’ said I, lifting my eyes to her comely face. ’ It is indeed, sir, ’ said she, setting down the cruet with a turn of her slender wrist’
The Cock Inn - also known as The Old Cock, Lower Cock and The Cock Horse, was built in the 16th Century. Inns with this name are often found at the foot of hills. It is a reminder of the days of stage coach travel when an extra ’cock’ horse was added to a team to help pull up hill and then released at the top to find its own way home. In this case horses were released at the White Hart. Stabling for 12 horses was at one time hired by the Post Office for their mail coaches to London. In the early 1900s, when Jeffrey Farnol stopped at the Old Cock, the landlord was Walter Palmer, who also ran a slaughter business at the rear.

Cock Horse, Hildenborough, Kent

Jeffrey Farnol, born in1878, had two younger brothers Ewart and Edward. Reminiscing about their experiences in Kent in the days before the motor car ruled the roads, Edward says: "During the years we had, all three of us, been great cyclists and had fully explored what was then in truth ’The Garden of England’. I don't think that there is a mile of road in the County (or of Sussex for that matter) which we had not ridden over, and it is from his (Jeffrey’s) detailed knowledge of the country that he drew the descriptions in ’ The Broad Highway’, ’ The Money Moon’ and ’ The Amateur Gentleman’. "
The Broad Highway in question is the old London to Hastings road along which Farnol’s hero, Peter Vibart, sets out of from Shooters Hill, Greenwich in search of adventure. Most of his encounters take part in or near wayside taverns and inns – which are still there to be visited. And so, in Chapter six entitled ’ What befell me at the White Hart’, the narrator recounts retracing his steps back to the pub after a run in with a highwayman by the gibbet at the top of river hill.
’ Very soon we came in view of ’The White Hart’, an inn I remembered to have passed on the right hand side of the road, and scarce were we driven up to the door than down jumped the Bagman, leaving me to follow at my leisure, and running into the tap, forthwith began recounting his loss to all and sundry, so that I soon found we were become the center of a gaping crowd, much to my disgust. Indeed, I would have slipped away, but each time I attempted to do so the Bagman would appeal to me to corroborate some statement. ’
In 2009 The White Hart was subject to a major (sympathetic) refurbishment. It was built in the late 16th / early 17th century near to the site of an ancient inn called The Cock. In 1709 the highway in front of the inn became part of the first turnpike toll road in Kent. A stage coach called here three times a week on its journey from the Nag’s Head near London Bridge down to Rye in Sussex. In 1840, Samuel Palmer, one of England’s greatest 19th century landscape artists, stayed at the White Hart Hotel which, he said, cost him 26 shillings a week. Dinner was two shillings per head and breakfast, with eggs or meat, was 1/6d.

The White Hart, Sevenoaks, Kent

Leaving the ’Cock Horse’ in Hildenborough behind (see separate entry), Jeffrey Farnol’ s Regency hero, Peter Vibart, continues his journey south down the old London to Hastings road. Nearing Tonbridge he comes upon a ’Hedge Tavern’; a slang term for an inn: ’ a jilting, sharping Tavern, or blind Ale-house, one fit to conceal a pursued or hunted Villain’.
’… I presently blundered upon a path which, in a short time, brought me out very suddenly into what appeared to be a small tavern yard, for on either hand was a row of tumble-down stables and barns, while before me was a low, rambling structure which I judged was the tavern itself. I was yet standing looking about me when a man issued from the stables upon my right, bearing a hammer in one hand and a lanthorn in the other. ’
Vibart has a bed here for the night for sixpence: ’Upon my requesting to be shown my room, he (the landlord) lighted a candle, and led the way up a somewhat rickety stair, along a narrow passage, and throwing open a door at the end, I found myself in a fair-sized chamber with a decent white bed, which he introduced to my notice by the one word, feathers. Here upon he pinched off the snuff of the candle with an expression of ponderous thought. ’
’Farnol would recognise the exterior of original Kentish shiplap building but that is about all. It has been extended and developed on all sides and is now home to a Chef and Brewer restaurant and part of a motel complex. Vibart describes the view from his room: ’…at the end of my chamber was a long, low casement, and, drawn thither by the beauty of the night, I flung open the lattice and leaned out. I looked down upon a narrow, deeply-rutted lane, one of those winding, inconsequent byways which it seems out of all possibility can ever lead the traveler anywhere, and I was idly wondering what fool had troubled to build a tavern in such a remote, out-of-the-way spot. ’
Today, the constantly busy four-lane highway of the A21 (that by-passes Sevenoaks and Tonbridge) passes behind and within sight and sound of the inn. The window above the porch in the photograph gives light to the room where a damsel in distress is locked. She begs for help and, Vibart - who is sleeping in the room next door - naturally comes to her rescue… and we are off again for more adventures of daring-do as the hero makes his way back to ’The Broad Highway’.

Vauxhall Inn, Tonbridge, Kent

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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