I have beer in my my blood. Literally, because I’m drinking a bottle of Backyard Blonde whilst writing this and metaphorically, as an ancestor of mine called Organ, ran an ale house in Cirencester called the Three Cocks. Stop sniggering at the back.
Perhaps this is why I love a bit of pub history, particularly when it is overflowing with stories and legends. If you want to know where the best beer is you’ll need the CAMRA guide, if you want to know where some of the best stories are, here’s an extract from the Cardigan guide, where a well kept past is as important as a well kept pint.
The Bull’s Head in Shenstone dates to the mid eighteenth century and was originally a house. It later became an inn and was also used for petty court sessions and, in the 1970s, then landlord George Waite told the Lichfield Mercury that he’d heard that one of the cellars had been used as a cell. Mr Waite said he’d seen curious niches, chains and shackles in a sealed underground vault which he believed supported the story. Sounds like my kind of lock-in… Anyway, an example of the kind of cases dealt with at the petty sessions is that of Thomas Flanagan and Mary Walsh, who were brought before J S Manley Esq and the Rev TOB Floyer, after they were accused by a Hammerwich farmer of stealing turnips. Flanagan, who had ironically been appointed to watch that the turnips weren’t stolen, was sentenced to 14 days hard labour and Mary was sent to gaol for three days. There is also the shocking tale of the besom maker’s brush with the law. He or she was fined for cutting birch saplings in Weeford Park as a caution to others, as this kind of theft and trespass by travelling besom makers had become prevalent. Whilst reported sightings of a grey lady at the inn may be suspect, there have been definite sightings of the Chocolate Soldier. In 1969, the landlord of the pub was approached by someone who wanted to use the stables at the back for a pony and despite Chocolate Soldier being teetotal, he often trotted into the bar on a Sunday lunchtime.
The Pig on Tamworth St in Lichfield was originally the Acorn, its name apparently being taken from an oak tree growing outside the original pub which was knocked down and rebuilt. I know that this took place in around 1909, as in November that year, the Lichfield Mercury reported that Frederick Cope from George Lane fell into a hole caused by the work and fractured his ankle. In the 1970s, the Acorn was threatened with demolition as Allied Breweries wanted to build shops on the site. Shortly after these plans were announced, tales of paranormal activity at the pub emerged. Theresa Bird, who worked behind the bar, revealed that she’d had strange dreams of a man dressed in black who then turned up at the pub but disappeared as she went to serve him. Landlord Les Hine informed her that it was Fred and his presence in the pub had been witnessed by himself, other members of staff and customers on many occasions, reading the paper and sometimes throwing things around (which to be fair to Fred is sometimes what I feel like doing after reading the paper). Whether due to supernatural or market forces, The Acorn was not felled although in 1988, it was renamed as The Pig and Truffle due to the presence of Percy (a two foot pottery pig) and chocolate truffles, which you got if you ordered a coffee. Percy the pig, who was described as normally being dressed in a waistcoat, flatcap and glasses (although that wording implies he may have had other outfits) later disappeared and I’d like to think it was Fred’s way of protesting against the nonsensical name change. In the meantime, two derelict buildings next door had been converted into a Wetherspoons, and John Shaw, author of the Old Pubs of Lichfield book, successfully campaigned for it to acquire the name of The Acorn, as a tribute to its neighbour’s former identity. Recently, the popularity of the once packed Pig and Truffle had dwindled but earlier this year it gained a brilliant new owner. The Pig is now run by the Derby Brewing Company, and it’s fantastic to see the place rammed.
The Whittington Arms on the Tamworth Rd was once the clubhouse for the Whittington Barracks Golf Club, and prior to that a house for high ranking officers from Whittington Barracks. Between 1959 and 1998, it was home to the Lochranza kennels which bred cocker spaniels. It’s the cats I’m most interested in though. In the 1970s, workmen found the remains of four of them in the foundations of the building and passed them on to a car salesman at the garage next door. In his opinion, they had been placed in there already dead but were they accidentally trapped or a ritual offering? Those of you thinking the latter is too far fetched need to brush up on your Greek and do a bit of research into apotropaic magic. Removing your defences against the dark arts is always foolhardy move, leaving your premises vulnerable to all sorts of malevolent forces, as the landlord of the pub discovered in 1993 when a 12 foot inflatable castle was stolen from outside the pub. This may or may not have been modelled on the present Whittington Heath Golf Course which was built as the grandstand for the racecourse which moved here from Fradley Common in 1702. The last race meeting was held on 14th March 1895 and the racecourse is now the golf course although I’ve read the finishing post is still in situ. Oh and I’ll just mention that in the 18th century there was a riot at the racecourse during the course of which a dancing master whipped a Duke. Round of crazy golf anyone?
Ye Olde Windmill in Gentleshaw is believed to be four hundred years old and takes its name from an olde windmill in the beer garden. Less obviously, there is a well with a giant eel in it somewhere in the grounds. Actually, the Eel in the Well would be a great name for a pub. Better than the Pig and Truffle anyway. In the 1970s, a tradition developed where regulars would bring the landlord Len Banks models of mills for him to display in the bar. In ‘The Friendship of Cannock Chase’, written in 1935 by Cllr Mac Wright who wrote under the name ‘Pitman’, he describes how a Mr Bonehill, keeper of the Windmill Tavern refused to acknowledge the local lordship of the Pagets of Beaudesert and tells the story of when the old Marquis of Anglesey (suspect this may have been the 13th Lord Paget) heard about this and visited Bonehill to ask if the rumours were true. Hopefully, Bonehill’s curt response, “They speak the truth my Lord. Good morning”, took the wind right out of the aristocrat’s sails.
The Nelson Inn at Cresswell Green, Burntwood was refurbished in 1972, and there were rumours that the builders had discovered that some of the beams had originated from a 15th century shipwreck. It’s a story that washes up over and over again in relation to old buildings, but there is no watertight evidence anywhere to suggest that timber from ships was ever used in the construction of any building, including the Nelson. Reuse of timber from other buildings was common however, and so perhaps the builders found evidence of this but were in a maritime frame of mind due to the pub’s name? Some bonaparte fide nautical curios were added to the fixtures and fittings however, including a cannon from Portsmouth Dockyards which was fired on special occasions until it was stolen in 1985, and to celebrate the refurbishment and reopening, a telegram of congratulations was received from HMS Victory and its captain LCdr Hardy.
If I may, I’d like end with some advice for all you good, good people during these turbulent times? Go to the Bull’s Head/The Pig/The Whittington Arms/The Wiindmill/The Nelson/any of the other fine hostelries and inns we have in and around Lichfield and wait for all of this to blow over. And to all you bad people? Don’t steal things from pubs. Or turnips.
Townships: Wall with Pipehill’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990)