Kent pubs with literary links
PUBLISHED: 07:28 25 July 2014 | UPDATED: 07:28 25 July 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Kent is home to hundreds of ancient inns and has filled the pages of countless books and played host to many famous writers. Sometimes the two have overlapped
Vauxhall Inn, Tonbridge
The ‘bodice ripper’ might no longer be in fashion, but there was a time when the genre was in big demand.
One of its leading exponents was Jeffrey Farnol, whose most famous book is probably The Broad Highway, published in 1910. It tells the tale of Peter Vibart, an Oxford graduate who, with a few inherited guineas, sets out on a walking tour of the Kent countryside.
It’s an adventure packed full of highwaymen, damsels in distress and dastardly villains, and one in which Vibart seems to suffer disasters and triumphs in equal measure.
The Vauxhall Inn in Tonbridge appears in the book as the hero is making his journey south down the old London to Hastings Road.
Just outside Tonbridge he encounters “a jilting, sharping Tavern, or blind Ale-house, one fit to conceal a pursued hunted Villain.”
Despite the fairly unwelcoming appearance of the place, Vibart opts to stay here for the night.
He notes: “I found myself in a fair-sized chamber with a decent white bed, which he (the landlord) introduced to my notice by the one word, ‘feathers’. Hereupon he pinched off the snuff of the candle with an expression of ponderous thought.”
Although it still has its distinctive shiplap exterior, since Farnol’s day the Vauxhall Inn has been extensively redeveloped.
No longer quite such a “rambling structure” or home to “tumble-down stables and barns”, today the pub is part of the Chef and Brewer chain and prides itself on providing quality food in a traditional setting.
“The pub’s a bit different than it was when Farnol was writing” agrees manager Helen McIntyre. “Although there is a link with the past in the decor and feel of the place, this is still very much a pub that provides everything that the modern customer wants in terms of food and drink.
“We have a fantastic menu, great service and our atmosphere is just what you’d want from a pub. And we’ve also done away with the dastardly villains.”
The Cock Horse, Hildenborough
Back again to The Broad Highway and the adventures of Peter Vibart. After leaving Sevenoaks on his trip south, Farnol’s protagonist finds himself at the ‘Old Cock’ (one of several names The Cock Horse has been known as) in Hildenborough, not far from Tonbridge.
In the pub, (after a confusing chat with the landlord) he finally manages to obtain a much-needed meal of ham and eggs.
The Ship Inn, Dymchurch
The town of Dymchurch is the main setting for the fictional world of the Dr Syn novels, the work of author Russell Thorndyke.
Leader of smuggling gang the Marsh Men, Dr Syn is probably best known for his costume, which resembled a scarecrow.
Life on the marsh and the hardships of the smuggling world are perfectly captured by Thorndike, who lived in the area.
The Ship Inn was his local and the pub found its way into the narrative on more than one occasion.
The Dirty Habit, Hollingbourne
From his canonisation in 1173 until the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s, pilgrims from all parts of Europe came to visit the bones of the Christian martyr Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
And it is believed that one of the main routes these pilgrims came along (specifically those who arrived from continental Europe) took them from Winchester up to Guildford, through the Surrey Hills, across into Kent and then along the ridge of the North Downs and into Canterbury.
Over the years, the Pilgrims’ Way has been written about extensively, featuring in walking books, history books, and also the occasional bit of fiction too.
There’s even a link with one of the giants of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales featured a collection of 20 stories written in Middle English and presented as part of a story telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travelled together from Southwark to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury.
With so many travellers taking this route, it’s unsurprising that it was dotted with inns, some of which, amazingly, still survive. They include The Dirty Habit, an 11th-century pub in the pretty village of Hollingbourne.
“It’s believed that our pub was a stopping point for the many pilgrims who came this way; it was originally called the Ye Olde Pilgrims Rest,” says owner Natasha Chaussy. “If you came here today, although there are no pilgrims around, you can still get a feel for how this place would have looked back then and you can imagine the cast of characters similar to those from the Canterbury Tales regaling people with their tales.
“We’ve maintained the traditional feel inside, but allied this to good quality food and drink and a fantastic atmosphere.
“The Dirty Habit is a real community pub and one well worth a pilgrimage to.”
The Woolpack, Brookland
One of the region’s best-known and most prolific writers, Sheila Kaye-Smith, set much of her work in the Kent and Sussex borderlands.
Noted for being rooted in rural concerns (from farming, legacies, land rents and strikes to the changing position of women, the effects of industrialisation on the countryside and provincial life), her work included many of the landmarks and buildings of this part of Kent.
The Woolpack appears in her most famous novel, The Loves of Joanna Godden (1921), which tells the story of its eponymous protagonist and her attempts to run a farm on the Romney Marsh.
The Leather Bottle, Cobham
Charles Dickens had a relationship with Cobham for much of his life, from his early years in Chatham and much later on when he lived in Gads Hill.
He was known to take his friends for walks around the village, always ensuring that a stop was made at the local inn, the Leather Bottle.
Built in 1629, this half-timbered inn first got its name (Ye Olde Leather Bottle) around 1720 when a leather bottle containing sovereigns was found on the premises.
Dickens’ affection for the pub ensured that it found its way into his work (as was so often the case of places the great writer frequented).
In this instance, the Leather Bottle featured in his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (better known today as The Pickwick Papers).
In the book, having been jilted by the love of his life, a despondent Mr Tupman leaves a note for Mr Pickwick which appears to suggest that he is quite set upon ending his life.
The note concludes that “Any letter addressed to me at the Leather Bottle, Cobham, Kent, will be forwarded – supposing I still exist.”
Concerned for the welfare of his friend, Mr Pickwick and his two companions, Winkle and Snodgrass rush to Cobham to save the apparently soon-to-be- departed Mr Tupman.
Once there, they are 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 end of this room they find Tupman eating lunch and “looking as unlike a man who had taken leave of the world as possible”.
Sara Saunders, current manager of the pub, says: “Today the Leather Bottle mixes the old with the new, keeping our links with the past while at the same time offering everything a modern, country pub should; great food, great ales and wonderful accommodation.
“Everything that Dickens loved about the place is still relevant today. If you’re in the area, then we are well worth a visit.”