Friday, July 06, 2012

The Royal Oak, White Waltham

Good weekend to you m'Dearios. 
This week I have been land-locked. 
The Goode Shippe FB has taken a hell of a pounding in dock and what with the repairs needed I didn't feel it worth risking everything. 
So land-locked we been. 
I've seen worse weather, but I have seen a lot better. 
A friend of mine took his family on holiday last week and he described the weather as 'Biblical'. I couldn't agree more. So in the meantime, I've battened down the hatches, put a pan of rum onto a gentle heat, plopped me old Mog in the chair beside me and dug out a good book.
If you're out and about in that lot, be safe and be careful.
Stay dry me beauties.


It's funny to me, but in writing this Blog, I have become ever more deeply aware that I was fortunate to have had a very good childhood. I mean that not just in the parent's and family I have and the way they raised me, but in my experiences.
Today's FB is about a pub.
Not just any pub mind you, no, this is The Royal Oak at White Waltham near Maidenhead in Berkshire.
It was run by my Uncle and Aunt, Joe and Enid Rogers.
Joe, my Dad's brother, and eldest son of the family, was the sort of chap who you could never dislike. He was a semi-legendary figure to me and the stories I have of him appearing on wartime doorsteps with massive catering tins of peaches and piles of army blankets, still make me laugh.
My Dad's family were good people. People people. You wouldn't get any angst off them, for they were too tightly bonded for that and had been raised in a proper manner by my Grandfather and Grandmother at a difficult part of the twentieth century. They weren't the sort of family who feuded. There were never any big fall-outs and despite being spread around Britain, familial love still resulted in regular letter writing and phone calls and visits.
As the eldest Joe had had to go and do his own thing and had moved South to 'the smoke' and met and married Enid, and together they did a lot of different things before moving into the pub trade. I think it was sociability factor that attracted Joe, for when they did eventually get there they found their vocation.
He was ever the quintessential genial landlord and she played the perfect supporting role.
The Royal Oak was an oasis in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, yet strangely it was busy all the time. You could always be greeted by a crowd of regulars on first name terms. There was an acceptance of weekend motorists and their newly acquired wheels. I think even then it was a place that people sought on reputation.
We lived not far away in Northolt, so often on Sundays we would go through to visit them. Getting there necessitated using a car though, as it was a distance of approximately 25 miles. A succession of old smokers did the job: a Morris Minor, a Vauxhall Victor and the pinnacle, an automatic Vauxhall Viva.
Our journey took us along the relatively newly constructed M4 and then off onto quiet Berkshire lanes until we arrived at The Royal Oak. It always seemed to me that we were heading into the back of beyond, which I suppose it was really, back in those days before universal car usage.
It was our Sunday adventure, and there was the prospect of gold at the end in the form of Enid's famous sandwiches and cakes.
After travelling through quiet leafy lanes you came upon a quaint and unsupposing roadside pub. Brick finished and painted. The sort of place one chances upon and then is gone in a flurry of road dust and disappearences in rear view mirrors. I think the place had been furnishing travellers and locals with succour and vittals for a long time. It had the feel of a building well-set into place. A permanent bolt-hole from everyday life.
As there is no official history of the building I will have to furnish details from a stretched memory.
My cousin Alan could easily fill it in, but I haven't seen him since the last century.
Filling in bits of pure supposition I would say that the building itself in parts could well have been 16th or 17th century - possibly even earlier *.
How can I say this?
Well it has all to do with the floors, as there wasn't a straight one in the central core of the building. This was especially so upstairs where you could comfortably walk uphill and down dale. The stairs were the tightest I have ever seen and there was a small window with a deep window ledge halfway up on the turn. I really do wonder how Joe and Enid ever managed to get anything up those stairs, but then again maybe age is making my impressions narrower too.
The place felt old and lived-in in that central part; no doubt my impressions from this far down the line are aided and abetted by my Uncle Joe's love of buying of antiques. Real ones. The sort that people after the war thought almost worthless.
Boy did he get some bargains.
Breastplates from Waterloo.
Dutch and Chinese and Japanese porcelain.
Chinese, Japanese and European weaponry, and my favourite thing:
The Guardian Of The Stairs.
This was a bronze Chinese Dragon of very obvious antiquity. Even now I can tell it was an incredible quality item; it exuded craftsmanship and artistry. It used to sit on the window ledge halfway up and you had to get past his ever watchful eye to go up there. It watched you as you started up the lower, pre-turn flight, and it watched you on the turn and then it watched you as you headed up the apr├Ęs-turn flight.
This powerful memory of it, no doubt runs in with my love of The Hobbit (coming in ruination to a cinema near you soon . . .) which I first read at the age of 11. Bilbo's meeting with Smaug always struck me as the most daring and wonderful thing. The Guardian Of The Stairs was my Far East Smaug and I dearly would have loved to have owned it. In fact I would still love to own it. I wonder where he is now?
But this is getting away from the pub.
Sometimes back in its past the building had been added to . . quite considerably.
The original central part of the building had been extended and broadened in all directions away from the road. There were extensive outbuildings, a modern kitchen extension and a long garden where I remember playing on hot Sunday afternoons. There was no cellar as such, but a cool room off to the side of the courtyard. This would further make me think it had been a pub for a long time as such establishments started as roadside places of rest, where local men and women brewed something considerably more palatable than water. Early pubs were often little more than houses which happened to serve home-made ale to passer's by.
There was also a small stream which ran alongside the garden, and, being a proto-fisherman (encouraged by Joe) I learned to 'read' water and recognise the minutiae of river life.
This was very important to me as I would later go on to know my small section of the River Annan in intimate detail.
It's funny but checking modern maps the 'stream' no longer appears to be there, unless it has been culverted. Certainly there is a larger small river nearby called The Cut. But I am wondering how my memory can be so wrong? Well thinking about it clearly, I reckon it was probably little more than a ditch (albeit a clear running decent sized one) doing its work. Maybe I am wrong, but looking at the mapping, that seems to be the case.
You could lose yourself quite comfortably in those grounds, but especially in the sheds.
These were where Joe stored mixers, old oak barrels, ancient soda syphons, all the necessary workings for the pub were in this collection of converted stables.
They were accessed by a locked gate from the car park, and I could and did spend huge amounts of Sunday afternoons exploring them. Swifts and Housemartins and Swallows; Cocoons and Silk and Spiders; old mortar and scratched names in brick; but the one abiding thing, suffusing the air like Jasmine on a warm breeze, was the smell of hops and oak and sherry; of a strong aroma of stale tobacco and old beer.
The smell of crates and barrels and pub life.
It wended its way into my bones.
You can still smell it pretty much at any pub, despite the aluminium barrels and sanitisation.
It'll waft up to you from cellar doors and is a smell (to me) of homliness and comfort.
The sheds were like a bazaar of wonders to me. Names of wonderful things like Courage and Schweppes and Canadian Dry Ginger and American Cream Soda. It was heaven.
Imagine as a sweet-toothed small boy being confronted with head-high crates of Ginger Beer and R.Whites Lemonade; of Cresta and Coca-Cola. Nirvana!
If I was lucky, Joe would let me have something fizzy (latterly a Strawberry Cresta - it's Frothy Man) and I would wander into the bar (remember Sunday's in England, pubs closed after the lunchtime sessions and before the evening, much to Joe's chagrin - he would have loved a day of rest) and play darts, and sit on the bar stools and pretend to be ordering beer. It was wonderful and for that brief period of time was almost everything in the world.
Those are my memories of The Royal Oak - a proper pub: the bread and butter of the field hand; the working man's repose; the traveller's rest.

Christmas Day 1973.
Joe and Enid are on the left. My brother is the very tall one at the back and my Dad is to my right.
Taken on the family Instamatic, on daylight film, hence the overly orange-ish cast.
I have deliberately not retouched the hairy slide mount edge at the left side.

It is funny how times change isn't it.
Something that was once a solid part of a community and a popular stop-off point for those mad days of motor-rallies through the lanes of Berkshire, can become an enormously popular, celebrity bolt-hole eatery.
Michelin-approved (more of this in a later FB . . oh yes readers . . I've done that too!); A Rosette winning, food critic lauded 'Gastro-Pub' (in the true sense of the word) with directions of how to get there by helicopter!
This isn't an uncommon thing, as was pointed out to me recently by my friend The Bard Of Kernow.
Country pubs, once the staple of the working man, and the traveller's delight, have (quietly and smoothly and efficiently) been transformed into (no doubt nice) places where money and status count. Places where locals are asked if they wouldn't mind dressing up a little before entering the bar area, or if they don't are asked nicely if they wouldn't mind shutting the door quietly behind them on their way out.
The Royal Oak, plain and simple, once a Courage pub, is now:

'The Royal Oak, Paley Street' **

and is owned by none other than Sir Michael Parkinson and his son.
Yes, Parky.
I nearly choked on my Cresta when I read that.
Chris Evans can be seen cavorting on their publicity photos. It has directions on how to get there by helicopter or light aircraft. You can land in the field behind the pub if so inclined.
It is so utterly changed from what I remember that I sort of feel like part of my childhood has had a complementary upgrade to first class.
The bar, my bar, suffused with tar and beer and genial conversation; the sound of the bandit paying out, and crown corks being loosed, is gone. The low ceiling and plain walls have been cut out to expose beams (whether they are original or not I do not know, but given my suppositions about the age of the building, they could well be).
The bar area now appears to contain the largest wine rack known to man. Photos of Parky's interviewees now hang where Joe's antique brasses and prints hung.
I would wager a years wages they no longer have a dart board.
Outside, looking at the aerial mapping, it looks like the sheds have gone to be replaced by either a herb garden or outside eating area - I know not which.
Joe's wonderful long garden with a small and productive orchard at the end is now a car park.
The menu (which looks really wonderful by the way) features phrases like:
"Line Caught" 
"New Season". 
The countryman's favourite cheap dish has been transformed into:

"Rabbit, Bacon and Wild Mushroom Pie with Mash Potato £22.00".

It even has its own Sommelier who states:

"My passion is to explain and help people appreciate what is put in front of them be it a house Sauvignon Blanc or a Puligny Montrachet.  This I try to do with simplicity so that I don’t sound like a wine snob!"

I wonder if I asked him nicely if he would furnish me with a glass of chilled 1974 Vintage Strawberry Cresta.
I know it sounds like I am belittling the place, but I really am not. ***
I am chuffed as a very chuffed person that my Uncle and Aunt's pub is still a vital building, and is still a beacon of warmth and homliness, albeit at a price. 
I can't help feeling the ghosts of Joe and Enid are still there, with their arms round each other. Joe with a fag and whisky in the same hand, Enid with a sherry in hers, ever the genial hosts; ever the erudite landlord and landlady.
They'd be shocked at how posh their humble establishment has become though . . .
I'll leave my last words on the matter down to my Aunty Madge, the fifth eldest of the Roger's clan. 
When she and her husband Jack arrived from Gainsborough to stay with us (when Jack retired) we took them to see Joe and Enid.
This was the first time they'd been to The Royal Oak, as Jack's job as Station Master at Gainsborough Station hadn't really allowed them the time. They were home-birds too, so travelling wasn't something they usually did.
Anyway, Madge came into the pub, looked around her, clasped Joe in her arms and said in her best Lincolnshire accent:

"Ee Joe, ent it lovely."

And she was right.
It was.

God bless and thanks for reading.
The observant amongst you will see there has been little photography this week. 
Sometimes you need a break.

* After doing some extensive trawling it turns out to be 17th Century. All my fears have proved true about the sheds - now an out of doors eating area, and Joe and Enid's wonderful upper floor with tight turns and floors like a day in the hills, has been turned into an upstairs eating area.
It is fortunate that I am here with the memory of former times eh.

** As if it needs that distinction . . of course it is on Paley Street. That is its address.

*** If anyone from the Royal Oak chances upon this and would like to furnish my wife and I with a nice lunch or a la carte meal on the house, I can tell you even more. Of course we could do with a helicopter to get there too . . it's a hell of a long way from Sheephouseshire


  1. Another stellar and interesting foray into the past, and as it happens, back to the present as well. I think you captured in your post this week a snapshot (if you can forgive the pun) of a time and life of the past that we all truly miss.

    Thanks again for an entertaining and enlightening piece and keep them coming.

  2. what a great article, I love it. even though I was very young I have some great memories of the pub. thanks Herman