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From the NS archive: A country pub

25 August 1934: The author’s memories of his aunt’s modest Bedfordshire pub evoke a vision of old England.

In 1934, HE Bates, his first book of repute, My Uncle Silas, still five years away, wrote this piece for the magazine in which he recalled his aunt and the pub she ran. His evocation is a time capsule: his aunt (he never gives her name), the chatelaine of The Chequers in Bedfordshire, a squat figure in black, is the presiding deity of the place; its customers eat and drink as if in a play; the building itself is thatched, low-slung and sits next to fields and a duck-filled stream. It is not just a real pub and a real woman that he invokes, but a vision of old England.

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It must be 40 years since my aunt began to keep the pub of which am writing; and less than five years since she ceased to be the landlady of it. It is, and has been for all my lifetime and perhaps hers, too, a small, very low-roofed pub with a thick crust of dark, bird’s-nest-coloured thatch, whitewashed walls, and long, rather prim bow windows in the early Victorian manner. The sign, The Chequers, is set on the top of a white pole, which rises in summer from a lake of marigolds in the garden at the front of the house. The Bedfordshire fields slope upwards on all sides, straight from the pub doors, so that the place looks more squat than perhaps it really is. On the stream that flows past the garden railings there is a perpetual procession of white and brown ducks, which waddle about also among the hens in the pub yard; so that the garden paths, the thresholds and the yard itself are covered with hen and duck droppings and little coveys of white and brown and red feathers that float and bounce against the earth like angels of fresh thistledown.

Like the pub, my aunt does not seem to have changed in my lifetime. I see her dressed in perpetual black: not the black of crepe or mourning, but a kind of rook's black, shining and silken, the black of authority and austerity. She is a sturdy, stocky woman, with a face of apple red intersected by many little veins of darker red and purple. She seems to be for ever frowning in reprimand. In reality she is smiling, not so much with her mouth as with her eyes. They are bright grey eyes and are framed in an infinite network of little creases and wrinkles. And she cannot keep her mouth still. It twitches. It is as though she would like to laugh but will not, as though she has schooled herself, as the landlady, not to make a public exhibition even of an emotion like laughter.

I do not know which was best known, my aunt or the pub. Very likely they were synonymous, and reflected each other's reputations. Certainly the pub reflected the character of my aunt. It was not prim, and I am pretty sure it was not always proper, but it had about it a kind of austere homeliness. The floors were of polished brick, the tables were scrubbed like bleached bones, and the lamps shone like altar brasses. There were three rooms – the bar, the smoke room and the parlour, and they had characters of their own. And just as I see my aunt in perpetual black, so I never think of the pub without remembering the mild beery smell that all her scrubbing could never wash way, the odour of lamp oil and the faint fragrance of old geraniums sun-warmed in the summer windows.

It has always been a modest and dignified little pub, of a better class than an alehouse, and yet never in danger of being mistaken for a hotel. Occasionally, in the shooting season, my aunt let rooms; in the summer she was busy with teas; and again in the shooting season she would have orders to provide cold lunches for the shooting parties that met in the woods that top the crests of the slopes all about the parish. “The gen’lemen”, my aunt would call them. “I've a lunch on for the gen’lemen.” And she would make my mouth water by the hour as she sat in the back room telling me what she provided for the guns: cold veal pies, cold chicken pies, bread and cheese, home-cured ham, cheese-cakes, barrels of beer, flasks of coffee, bottles of brandy. God knows how many shooting lunches I've eaten in imagination as I sat there in the back room with her.

Not that I have never eaten meals there in reality, too. Tea would be laid on summer afternoons on the long table in the back room, the windows would be open on to the garden, and the smell of thyme would come in and mingle itself with the smell of tea and seed-cake and butter and that eternal soft beery smell that nothing could drive away.

There was always a perpetual coolness about the rooms at the back of the house. They faced north, over the yard that was more like a farmyard than a pub yard, with its long since disused stables and the pigeon-house without pigeons and the gate leading straight into the sloping fields. They were rather dark and shadowy rooms, the whitewash faintly smoke-stained, the glass-ringed tables of scrubbed deal not reflecting even what little light there was.

It was the front room, the private-room, that was the glory and pride of my aunt's house. As I see her in black, so I see this room in perpetual sunlight. It was a museum. I can think of no other way of describing it. Into it my aunt had put, year after year, all her cherished belongings. The faded gold-and-blue wallpaper was hung with the faded portraits of my family in all its branches, from stupefied-looking gents in dicky-bits, down to my mother in a neck-ruffle as the belle of her day. There were various portraits of my deceased uncle in various attitudes of vague alarm or pride or dreaminess or statuesque melancholy. There were countless wedding groups and cricket teams, the women wearing the oddest pancake hats, the cricketers all looking slightly boss-eyed, unreal, and extremely proud of their pimple cricket caps and their waxed moustaches.

The furniture of the room was of some wood that was neither maple-wood nor walnut, but somewhere between the two: a delicate deep-golden wood, highly polished and grained and beautiful. The chairs, upholstered in black American leather, were slippery as a straw-stack. One sat in them, and gradually, slowly and serenely, one slipped out of them. The table, covered with little wool mats, was of the same wood, a perfect golden oval, on which a beer stain would have been a sacrilege. On the mantelpiece were more photographs, generally head-and-shoulders portraits of the dead or sepia miniatures of small Victorian infants who looked as if they wished they had never been born into the world. And on the mantelpiece also, and also on all the tables and niches and whatnots and tea-caddies, were countless little vases and trinkets of porcelain and milky glass, and shells and shell-boxes from distant seasides. And finally, in the long bow window, the geraniums. They were very old plants, and they had grown up into miniature trees covered with flowers of hunting-pink or scarlet or wine, and here and there with white flowers blotched and streaked with purple and rose. They were so tall and thick that they might have kept out the sunlight. For some reason they never did. It filtered through their leaves and blossoms in long shafts, not only lighting up the room, but warming it, so that it had that strange fusty smell of things preserved for countless years.

I don't suppose the port at The Chequers was ever more than four-and-six a bottle, or the sherry. But if anyone wanted port or sherry to drink I fancy they were shown into this room, like honoured guests. Other rooms could have their public ribaldry and darts and arguments and eating-matches. But not this room. It was select and private. There was a kind of musty holiness there among the trinkets and the geraniums. I say eating-matches. Once, in the early days, my aunt had tolerated an eating-match. Great crowds came to see two men sit down to a couple of mountainous steaks in the smoke-room. My aunt was an excellent cook, and the two men ate and continued to eat until she, fearing to have a corpse, if not two, on her hands, hastily and prematurely declared the winner.

It was, I suppose, nothing unusual. All sorts and classes of men called at my aunt's pub, regularly or casually; the gen’lemen themselves, labourers, butchers and bakers, blacksmiths, peddling drapers, poachers, commercial travellers, shoemakers, and always strangers who came once and never came again.

And if I remember any one thing about the place more than another it is the arrival of three strangers who asked to be shown into the private-room on a summer Saturday evening. I see them now, with their black bowler hats pushed back on their sweat-ringed heads, their coats open, their watch-chains dangling, and I can hear my aunt saying: “And what could I get you, gen’lemen?” “Whisky,” one said. “And a jug of water.” “Ditto.” “Ditto.” And when my aunt had taken in the whisky and the water and the glasses I chanced to go along the passage and see them sitting there at the private-room table, their hats still on, their chairs tipped forward, their voices lowered, all watering their whisky with a kind of parsimonious secrecy and making strange patterns with their fingers on the table top between the intervals of raising the water jug and drinking.

Who were they? What were they doing? They seemed to me then, and still do now, something like a cross between Nonconformists out for a drink on the quiet, and bookmakers who had welshed and had come to celebrate their luck or drown their horsey sorrows. Whoever they were, they sat there hour after hour, still talking, still making their patterns on the golden table top, still watering their whisky, only getting up and pushing their chairs back and their hats forward when the sun had gone from the geraniums and the summer twilight bad begun to fall.

And when I remember the pub they are an inseparable part of it, just as that shining black is inseparable from my aunt, the sun from the geraniums, and my aunt and the pub itself from the gentle countryside I know so well.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)