Looking back 19 years later, this project appears to be something of an exercise in vanity with a gentle hint of depravity folded into the mix. When our first child, Jessica, was born on 13th February 1995 amidst the common feelings of euphoria and elation, there was this little devil on my shoulder who wanted to break through the overwhelming sensation of joy to hatch a dastardly plan. This particular Beelzebub was a cunning so-and-so and knew exactly how to lure me into his evil lair.
“You love a list,” he whispered seductively and knowingly “and you love pubs and I assume you love this new-born daughter of yours so why don’t you compile a list of the First 20 pubs you take her into and then you will have that note of record forever.” Sneaky but brilliant and naturally I found his machinations irresistible. So here is the fruit of my (and my wife Yvonne’s) labour:
Dedicated to JESSICA MERRYN HAIG FOSTER – ‘Your first 20 Pubs’
Note: For those without the joy of children it is worth explaining that it is remarkably easy to carry a baby into a pub in their car seat and place said item under the table. As long as the infant is a good sleeper, which Jessica thankfully was, then hey presto you can enjoy the pub without disturbing the essential equilibrium of ‘grown-up time’.
PART I The First Ten – a battle between town and country.
No. 1 – The Clifton Hotel, St. Johns Wood London NW8
Sunday 19th February 1995
The Clifton was a favourite hostelry amongst our group in the 1990s. We lived just up the road in West Hampstead and it was always with great relish that we went to The Clifton usually for the Sunday lunchtime pint. Not only was it steeped in slightly saucy history, being where Lily Langtry, Edward VII’s mistress, hung out before he had his wicked way, but also it was an old-fashioned pub with decent beers and convivial atmosphere.
As the very first pub, The Clifton will always have a special place in Jessica’s heart and indeed she enjoyed it so much that at the tender age of six days old, she insisted we went back the following Sunday; at that point I knew she was going to be a very determined individual, which has turned out to be true.
No.2 – The Hollybush, Hampstead London NW3
Sunday 19th March 1995
A full month passed before her next pub was notched up, and like the Clifton The Hollybush was one of those ‘Sunday pubs’, which just made so much sense on the Lord’s Day. It was Yvonne’s 30th birthday so what better a treat than to take the family to the salubrious surroundings of Hampstead and pretend that we belonged there, which we clearly didn't but we could dream.
No. 3 – The Green Dragon, Potters Bar Hertfordshire
Saturday 25th March 1995
Potters Bar is a long way (in so many ways) from St. Johns Wood, Hampstead and even West Hampstead. My failing memory does not recall why we would be heading out to such a place, but probably had something to do with the ‘let’s get some country air’ movement that suddenly and inexplicably inspires parents with small children. To say that The Green Dragon did not linger in that notoriously poor memory is an understatement, as I cannot remember one single detail, even after some retrospective research. This may go to explain why Jessica is not a big fan of the country as she often points out “there’s nothing to do there”.
No. 4 – The Ladbroke Arms, Notting Hill W11
Friday 31st March 1995
So after the Potters Bar divertissement, it was back to familiar territory with a trip to The Ladbroke, which had become the regular Friday evening haunt. For the post week wind-down the Ladbroke was the perfect boozer. In the mid 1990s this was a ‘no nonsense’ bar, with no food served apart from bar snacks, it was just for drinkers, which was just the way Jess liked it. The proximity of the police station across the road made it all the more memorable as cop cars whizzed in and out on their Friday evening missions.
No. 5 – The Freemasons Arms, Hampstead NW3
Sunday 2nd April 1995
Having abandoned the countryside after the Potters Bar debacle, we made a family decision that as we had Hampstead Heath on our doorstep then this was as much fresh air as anyone might need, so a brief walk would be rewarded with a long lunch and a few pints. A spacious pub with a large garden this was a great watering hole to herald the arrival of Spring.
No. 6 – The Dover Castle, Weymouth Mews W1
Friday 7th April 1995
Another stalwart of Friday nights, and the first of that much cherished breed – the mews pub. London has many disadvantages but its proliferation of good mews pubs is what goes to making it such a great city. To this day, Jessica just loves a decent mews and is quite partial to a bit of Muse as well.
No. 7 – The Prince of Wales, Fortune Green Road NW6
Saturday 8th April 1995
Jessica had clearly developed a keen fondness for pubs as the following night we went to what was pretty much our local The Prince of Wales. This is the first pub on this list, which no longer exists (The Green Dragon may or may not but who cares?) When it did exist, The Prince of Wales was a strange one – one of those split level affairs that culminated in a semi-conservatory at the back. It was a sad day when it was converted into flats, but not that sad.
No. 8 – The Royal Oak, Tibshelf, Leicestershire
Thursday 13th April 1995
Madness I know but we ventured back into the countryside but this time it was pukka and not just a dormitory town in the ‘burbs. It was Easter and we were on the great trek north to visit my in-laws in Scotland so naturally we stopped halfway to rest and gain sustenance so we came to stay at the Royal Oak in Tibshelf as it snugly nestled between Junctions 28 and 29 of the M1. Yet again my rural amnesia means that I cannot remember one iota of detail apart from, rather endearingly, being called ‘duck’ by a local lady.
No. 9 – The Birch Tree, Coalville, Leicestershire
Tuesday 18th April 1995
On our way back down from the frozen wastes of Caledonia we stopped off in a different part of Leicestershire to enjoy the delights of The Birch Tree, which was a very different pub to The Royal Oak in that it was close to Junction 22 of the good old M1. Jessica has never really taken to driving and maybe her experiences in Leicestershire go some way to explaining this.
No.10 – The Old Mill, Oundle, Northamptonshire
Sunday 23rd April 1995
Undaunted by our less than memorable Midlands efforts, less than a week later we went to stay with friends in the picturesque village of Oundle. By strange irony they lived in a house, which used to be a pub but although this was an admirable notion, for the purposes of this undertaking it does not count as an entry in itself. What did count was The Old Mill, which as the name implies, was smack bang on the riverbank and soon established itself as our first choice country pub because of its charm glinting in the Spring sunshine whilst it briefly restored Jessica’s faith in the great outdoors.
Nos. 11-20 including Jessica Goes Mad in Cornwall
No.11 – The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead NW3
Monday 29th April 1995
Having enjoyed and endured various hostelries in the middle of the country, it was a relief to be back on familiar ground and The Spaniards is not only a decent boozer but also one with a decent heritage and an unusual location, being squeezed into a tight crossroads at the top of Hampstead Heath. Having been mentioned by Dickens no less in The Pickwick Papers and reputedly the inspiration for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” this early exposure to a literary muse eventually materialised in Jessica choosing English as an ‘A’ level and getting a respectable B grade.
No. 12 – The Dog and Duck, Outwood Common, Surrey
Sunday 7th May 1995
The first visit to Granny and Uncle Stephen inevitably led to a nearby pub. The Dog and Duck was a great pub for those with small children as it was blessed with a large kids’ playground that could absorb and entertain little ‘uns for a good hour whilst bedraggled parents could enjoy some peace and quiet on the banks of the M23 which wends its merry way towards Brighton, within a short duck’s flight of the pub.
No. 13 – The Red Lion and Sun, Highgate, NW1
Thursday 8th June 1995
Our comprehensive coverage of the best pubs in Hampstead and Highgate continued unabated with the latest addition just outside Highgate village. The advantage of this particular pub is the extensive outdoor areas both at the back and front that offered the chance of not being stared at by irate locals camped around the bar who were hacked off at having their early evening pint disturbed by a small child. Thank the Lord for the beer garden(s).
No. 14 – The Oystercatcher, Polzeath, Cornwall
Sunday 18th June 1995
Here starts a South Western quintet, which pays homage to the magical, mystical world of Cornwall. This pub sits to the side of Polzeath beach, offering a chance to escape the bucket and spade brigade for a well-earned pint after a hard morning watching people surfing and generally showing off their moulded bodies whilst encased in black rubber.
No.15 – The Beachcomber, Treyarnon Bay, Cornwall
Wednesday 21st June 1995
As a regular visitor to the “English Riviera” this bar used to be one of our regular haunts and it is a shame and a dishonour to all those involved that this perfectly sited bar overlooking the spectacular craggy, beauty of Treyarnon Bay was sold for residential development a few years afterwards. One of the fondest memories captured here was of the Scouse barman whose proud declaration of the food on offer, especially ‘ONE STEAKWICH’ was delivered in an accent thicker than the juicy fare on offer. This was old style pub food with no hint of gastro niceties and all the better for it.
No. 16 – The Slipway Hotel, Port Isaac, Cornwall
Thursday 22nd June 1995
Port Isaac is one of those picturesque fishing villages which is almost too good to be true or possibly too true to be good. The narrow, steep streets that radiate from the still working fishing harbour could provide a backdrop to a TV series. Indeed The Slipway is the backdrop to Martin Clunes’ strangely popular “Doc Martin”.
No. 17 – The Cornish Arms, St. Merryn, Cornwall
Thursday 22nd June 1995
Young Jessica was back in her spiritual home, unbeknown to the four month-old child, she was christened with Merryn as one of her middle names because of her parents’ holiday just over a year before (you do the maths). The Cornish Arms is now part of the Rick Stein empire and it has to be said that the food and drink has improved massively. Back in the mid 1990s and well before the Stein revolution kicked in, the landlord here was one of those splendid grumpy, curmudgeonly hosts who made Basil Fawlty look like a silver-tongued charmer.
No. 18 – The Maltsters Arms, Chapel Amble, Cornwall
Thursday 22nd June 1995
Quite how we managed to visit three pubs in one day will remain hidden in the mists of time but the last of the trio was definitely the best. Chapel Amble is another charming spot a few miles inland and away from the windswept Cornish coastline. Later it became the first pub in which I supped Sharp’s Doom from the local Rock microbrewery, which started life in 1994.
No. 19 – Town and Gown, Cambridge
Saturday 24th June 1995
Because of a prior engagement to play cricket we had to trek across the country to reach Cambridge - not the easiest journey and we certainly needed the solace of a good pub at the end of it. Cambridge’s Town and Gown has a pretty shonky name and as befits such a weakly labelled product I cannot remember one jot of detail about the pub but I did take a handful of wickets which Jessica particularly enjoyed.
No. 20 – The Arkwright’s Wheel, West Hampstead, NW6
Friday 30th June 1995
Strangely, even though we lived in West Hampstead this was only the second pub from NW6 on the list and just squeaked into the First 20. Set in the heart of the busy thoroughfare that is West End Lane this was a regular for the lads and was one of those pubs that changes its name every year to try and jazz up their image but only succeed in alienating their clientele. But The Arkwright’s Wheel will always hold a distinctive place in my heart, as this was where we celebrated the ousting of Thatcher some five years beforehand.
In the space of just over four months Jessica was bundled into twenty pubs, which is an achievement that her mother and father remain strangely proud. As the rate of pub closures throughout the UK continues apace one wonders if such an achievement would even be feasible if and when Jessica begins the next generation of thirsty Fosters...
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