Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.
Famous and half-factual folk legends, nursery rhymes with hidden meanings (like the one above), ghost tales and facts stranger than fiction. Above all, a good mystery.
These are some of the sorts of things that I think enticed me to come to Great Britain back in 1991. That, and good Old English pubs serving real ale branded with unreal names (such as Theakston’s Old Peculiar, Bishop’s Finger, Abbot Ale, Tanglefoot – to name but a few – and not to forget the diabolically strong Dog Bolter at a Firkin pub somewhere near Hackney, Stoke Newington or thereabouts). Yes, it was these along with leather seats or couches to sit on, and perhaps plough shares, potties or bed pans hanging as decorations on the walls.
These were the kind of establishments that I had been introduced to on a first brief four day jaunt that my friends had led me on for my birthday on the previous year – and before jetting off to sail around the sunny Turkish coastline for three weeks. They were certainly a far cry from the booze barns I was used to back home in Australia and New Zealand. I mean, there was still the booze (lots of it), but just set in quirkier or quainter surroundings with a lot more tales (and often singing) to go with the ales.
Certainly it wasn’t the weather that welcomed me there! I thought April would be warm, as it is the start of spring, and so good enough to camp out in the small cyclist’s tent I had brought with me. Boy, was I wrong!
The first place I had planned to give camping a go was in the grounds of the Youth Hostel at a place called Duntisbourne Abbots, a small village just off the M4 on the way down to Bath. The snow that fell that night was so heavy that I was forced into staying in the creaky old former rectory – and I swear that there were ghosts in that place!
The other attraction was the smallest pub in England that was one mile walk down the road – which was especially long in the snow that night I arrived! The pub was just the front room of the house, with a small bar – and that was it!
Sadly, on retracing steps again fifteen years later, there is no longer a Youth Hostel in The Old Rectory and the smallest pub is now a private house. Just like the plaque that had disappeared from the wall opposite what is now referred to as Winchester Palace, these two little iconic establishments are no longer open for business or the public.
Maybe the ghosts in The Old Rectory were too much – or just not publicised enough. Still, on my return down that road in 2006, I did discover a good enough pub just off the main highway that served pretty good food called Five Mile House. Certainly there’s not much else for about that distance around the place – and even that has struggled in recent times from what’s shown on the web-site, as it is now in new hands from the family that owned and ran for 100 years. Still, it looks to have good publicity!