Sunday 30 March 2014

Beer stories

In our youth in the 1960's on Sheppey, as we drank our way around Sheerness and Minster, the pubs served beers from the following breweries. Fremlins, Shepherd Neame (Sheps), Courage and to a lesser degree, Trumans, Watneys and Worthington.
Shepherd Neame and Fremlins were two old Kentish breweries with Fremlins based in a large brewery alongside the river at Maidstone and Sheps based at Faversham. Fremlins are now long gone but "Sheps" remain as a very successful brand who have done well as a result of the rise of interest in Real Ales. Watneys and Trumans no longer exist as far as I know, or possibly Courage, I don't go in pubs much these days to know, mainly because on Sheppey, there are far fewer to go in.
Certainly when we were drinking regularly in the 1960's/early 1970's, Courage was our favourite beer and fortunately the two pubs that we most frequented, The Queens in Sheerness and the Kings Arms in Minster, both served Courage. While I imagine that some lager was about in those days, I can't recall ever seeing anybody drinking it, we still drank beer just as our fathers had, mostly light or brown ales from the bottle or mild and bitter from the hand pump. The in-fashion drink in those days, for some years, was a pint of Light and Bitter - half a glass of bitter ale topped up with a bottle of light ale. My little circle of friends however, favoured the darker beers, either brown and mild - a bottle of brown ale in half a pint of mild ale, or in my case Courage Velvet Stout and dark mild. Stout and mild was a heavy and sweet beer mixture that looked like Guinness and had some quite sickly effects if you got drunk on it, which I did quite regularly. But that was my favourite drink for several years until my tastes matured and I discovered the continuing delights of Real Ales.
On the subject of the dark mild ale that made up my stout and mild, generally in those days, there were just the two beers pulled up from the cellar by the hand pumps at the bar - bitter and mild. The barrels of mild ale were supplied by the breweries in either a dark or mid-coloured variety but there were still a few pubs at that time that were still hanging on to an old fashioned and soon outlawed method of acquiring mild. They would have a funnel and pipe behind the bar that run back down into the cellar into an empty barrel. Throughout the day/evening the drip trays under the hand pumps and all left over beer in glasses, was poured into the funnel to gradually fill up the barrel below. This awful and potentially unhealthy mixture was then drawn back up on the mild pump and served to people like myself who ordered a brown ale or stout ale and mild mixture. Generally, if you were served this stuff, the bottled beer masked the taste and you didn't know that you were drinking it but now and then a landlord would also be silly enough to include lemonade slops and then you could and complained.

Although some of the "old timers" in the pubs were quite partial to "Sheps" beers, many of our generation in the 60's found it quite abhorrent and considered it as being the closest thing to drinking a pint of vinegar - how tastes change, I love it now.
There were however, times when we found ourselves stranded, with no choice but a "Sheps" pub and then we had to grin and bear it but could at least have a bit of fun with a nickname for one of their beers. I remember that we went into one such pub one day to find a landlady that looked like she's been there as long as the barrels and was clearly not happy to see four long-haired and boisterous teenagers walk in. "What'll you have then" she grunted, to which I replied "a pint of Nun's Delight please". "We only have Masterbrew or Bishops Finger" she said, pointing to the two hand pumps. I put my hand on the one labelled Bishops Finger and said again, "a pint of Nun's Delight please" - well, eventually she realised what our nickname meant, said "that's disgusting" and ordered us out.

Although you could sometimes find one or two that stayed open longer than they should, the biggest drawback in those days was the fact that pubs closed at 11.00 at night - 10.30 on Sundays! It wasn't that important in the winter but on warm summer nights when we tended to stay out all weekend, sleeping in tents or other assorted and sometimes bizarre places, it seemed an early time to have our drinking cut off. Normally the only recourse was to by a crate or two of our favourite bottles of beer and take them with us to wherever we were going, often in those days, the open air shelters along Sheerness seafront. There we would play guitar and sing folk songs, carry on drinking and often, sleep on the benches till dawn broke. The first few times, after midnight, a police land rover would drive along the promenade and stop to check us out but eventually they realised that we weren't of the trouble-making variety and used to just drive by and wave. In the early morning light, a tad hung over and damp from the overnight dew, we would first hide the beer crates and bottles, (for later return to the pub cause there was money back on the empty bottles) and make our way to Sheerness bus station. Here, outside the booking office, was the only form of hot refreshment at that time of day, a hot drink dispensing machine. For a few pence it dispensed paper cups of coffee, hot chocolate, weak tea and even weaker chicken soup which tasted at best like hot water with a chicken feather in it. After that, at 7.00 on a Sunday morning, what do we do next, oh well back to the shelters until a cafe opens we suppose, we can watch the dog walkers go by, they didn't have joggers in those days.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

The sun and moon

On Sunday 16th March our dedicated band of recorders carried out the last monthly Harrier Roost count of this winter at various sites in Kent. It had been a beautiful sunny and warm day and the early evening was just as good as I stood on the sea wall of the Swale NNR, waiting for any Hen Harriers to come in to roost in the saltings ahead of me. Little was happening bird-wise but I witnessed a double event that I've never seen before. First there was superb sunset in the western sky behind Harty Hill.

Amazingly, just half and hour later, rising from the hills behind Seasalter came a full moon.

The light was actually a tad darker than the photograph suggests and the moon began to give off that eerie and cold light that only the moon can. Making my way back across the reserve before it got totally dark, I turned a few times and captured the moon as it began to climb in the sky.

As for the harrier count, well I saw no Hen Harriers at all going in to roost and it completed six monthly counts this winter where no Hen Harriers have roosted on the Shellness saltings at all, probably the first time for many years. That, and the fact that Hen Harriers have been very thin on the ground this winter on Sheppey anyway, confirms what most of know, Hen Harriers are in serious trouble. On the other side of the coin, the Marsh Harrier roost counts on Sheppey continue to remain very healthy and for the second month running, just one of the reed beds on Harty that was counted, recorded a roost in the high twenties.

Gradually, as a result of a couple of weeks of sunny, windy and drying weather, the high water levels on Sheppey's marshes are now starting to recede and drain away. Areas of grazing marsh that have spent the winter months under water are now drying out and beginning to green up again as the grass re-grows. The regular White-fronted Geese flock has finally left for it's northern breeding grounds and duck numbers are also starting to thin out as breeding activity starts to intensify. The sounds on the marsh now are dominated by the song of Skylarks and the courtship displays of Redshanks, Oystercatchers and Lapwings. In fact the first nests of Lapwings have already begun to appear as have those of some ducks, but with those have also come the first signs of casualties, odd eggs scattered around the marsh with the tell-tale signs of predation by crows. Every year, corvid predation has a serious effect on successful breeding by those birds that urgently need to increase their numbers, such as Lapwings, but fortunately most nature reserves these days have woken up to the need for properly managed pest controls. As a result corvid trapping is now taking place on places such as Sheppey's nature reserves and the surrounding farmland and people with common sense will hopefully reluctantly accept what they might see during their visits.

Finally, we're also at that frustrating time of the year when spring migrants are appearing. A time where you can spend endless hours and days searching every field and bankside for the first Wheatear and see nothing and yet others are seeing them daily. That first Wheatear sighting does eventually happen to lift the spirits but is not comparable to that warm Spring morning when the first Swallows come zipping past you, now that really is magic.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Spring or not?

Wow, what a shock to the system a walk on the reserve was this morning. Yesterday morning I wondered round coat less for the first time this year and marvelled at butterflies and bees on the wing in the warm sunshine - today it was back to full winter gear, it was bloody cold in a grey, murky light with a cold NE wind. When the wind is from the NE on the North Kent marshes there is little to break it's progress and it never fails to chill to the bone.
A bit of a sad story has been unfolding on the farmland alongside the reserve for the last few weeks. There is a ditch between the farmland and the reserve and around four weeks ago the cob of a resident pair of Mute Swans was seen laying dead in the rape field alongside the ditch. Ever since then his mate has rarely left the stretch of ditch where she presumably last saw him alive, simply feeding on rape alongside the ditch and presumably hoping he'll come back some time soon - quite sad.

The flock of c.300 White-fronted Geese still remains on the reserve, always restless as their time to leave comes and goes but they remain with us at the moment.

And at home in my garden pond the frogs have returned to spawn, just got to hope that the frosts stay away now until the spawn has hatched.

So what else has been going on in my retired life of ever increasing aches and pains.

Last Friday night, my long-time friend and I made another visit to the excellent Whitstable Folk Club to see two guitarists who we first saw at a club in the Tottenham Court Road, London, in the mid 1960's. We have seen Wizz Jones and John Renbourn a few times since but separately, but at the moment these two old friends from the 60's folk circuit are on a mini tour together and are well worth getting to see. It kind of hits home at how old we are all getting when you see these two arthritic old boys, looking like escapees from a Rest Home, climb awkwardly onto the stage, but when they begin playing, oh dear, there's nothing arthritic about their guitars and their playing, it was sheer magic. I was talking to John Renbourn in the break and despite being in his early 70's and not finishing the gig until 10.30, he was still planning to drive back home to Scotland in his old van straight after. Old Folkies never lose it, he'd probably hitch it if he had too!

Forever trying to maintain a bit of variety in what I post, it's been a bit of a struggle lately to find something new to say. I don't want to flog the "Growing up in Sheppey" series to death an so I'll save the three wives and promotion from simple docker to part of the management team in Sheerness Docks for another day.
Lately I've been working on writing a potted history of part of the Williams family here on Sheppey. They go back to the early 1800's and are scions of both myself and girlfriend Di's families and their research saw the two of us originally meet nearly two years ago and we remain together today.
Edwin Williams and his family moved to Elmley in c.1884 until his retirement as a cowkeeper to the tenant farmer in c.1927. As anybody knows who has got involved with researching family history, or indeed any kind of history, sometimes the compilation of just one sentence can take hours of research to find what you're looking for, I've spent quite a bit of time in the local library just lately looking through local newspapers of the 1880's. Then there is the buying of all the birth, marriage and death certificates at £9.25 each and I have an awful lot of them and Di, twice as many.
But writing about Edwin and his family maintains my love of Elmley and it's history, and some of the black and white photos from the 1920's in my collection were used in the recent BBC Countryfile programme on Elmley.