Over the years, the story of the Still and West pub in Old Portsmouth has intersected with the stories of many local people. Author, actor and playwright John Bartlett is one such person.
In the days of sail, the façade of the pub must have been a poignant sight for a ship’s crew when leaving these shores and a welcoming one on their return. There has been a pub on this site since at least the 1600s, although the current building is a combination of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century materials. That aside, the location, situated in a prominent position overlooking the harbour’s mouth and a mere stone’s throw from the old Coal Exchange, is surely second to none. The Still and West, originally The Still Tavern, acquired its extended name when the daughter of the licensee married the son of the landlord of the neighbouring East and West Country House Tavern, a happy union in more ways than one.
You might be forgiven for assuming that the name of the Still Tavern had something to do with distilling spirits. In fact, the name refers to a Bosun on ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ piping ‘The Still’, which is an instruction or order requiring everyone to come to attention and stand still. Even with modern technology, where some instructions have been superseded by the ship’s Tannoy system, there is still a place on a modern warship for the Bosun’s call. Perhaps the most poignant, is when a member of the ships company unfortunately dies at sea. On reaching port, the body of the deceased is piped ashore.
In living memory, other than a change of colour now and again, the outside of the Still and West has basically remained the same. There is one exception and that is the addition of a sun-room style restaurant. This has been built above what was once the single-story area that used to run along the western side of the pub close to the water’s edge. At one time, before major re-modelling and refurbishment, this prestigious location housed the old family room. To avoid children being paraded through the bar, there was an entrance on the outside of the building, although there was also a connecting door between the bar and children’s room.
I remember as a child, whilst sucking ginger beer through a straw and munching on a packet of Smith’s Crisps (complete blue paper twist of salt), the panoramic views from the children’s room made up for its drab interior. The walls were painted the colour of dirty margarine and the whole area was filled with functional brown tables and chairs. Unloved, the space, typical of its function, languished in a state of disregard and continual semi-disrepair. Generally, in the late fifties and early sixties, pubs didn’t particularly cater for children, so a room devoted to a younger clientele with such a vista was a rarity in the extreme. There were warships, frigates, destroyers, submarines, commercial ships and smaller craft of all shapes and sizes, and all had to share the watery neck of the bottle that forms the harbour mouth. With this ever-changing, nautical cavalcade passing by the ample windows, what more could a young ‘boy-chap’ want? A magnificent hotchpotch of busy maritime vessels going about their business, entering or leaving port was, to coin a phrase, absolutely ‘whizzo’!
For many years, particularly during World War II, the pub was especially popular with naval officers, many of whom favoured the smaller upstairs bar. It seems appropriate at this point, but very much in keeping with the essence and spirit of ‘Bar Room Banter’, to insert a somewhat inconsequential piece of chronicled ephemera. This interesting snippet is about a wartime caper concerning HMS Goathland, a type 111 Hunt Class Escort Destroyer. The ship was laid down in Scotland on the 30th January 1941 but owing to the diligence of the Luftwaffe, she was not completed until 6th November 1942. The ship entered service in January 1943 and joined the Plymouth-based 15th Destroyer Flotilla. Her role was to undertake convoy defence and interception patrols in the ‘South West Approaches’ and English Channel. Various engagements followed but by the end of September she found herself undergoing a refit in preparation for Operation Neptune and the D-Day Landings. Once the initial harrowing few days were over, for a variety of reasons, she was ordered backwards and forwards to Spithead. On one of these trips it was been documented that as she, ‘rollicked into port’, the strident strains of the ‘Post Horn Gallop’ could be plainly heard bouncing across the water as she triumphantly swept past the familiar Still and West.
There is an article in the World War II: The People’s War BBC documentation, concerning a personal view of the D-Day landings, which gives some credence to this story and must surely refer to HMS Goathland:
‘With everything and everybody aboard that huge section of the vast invasion fleet – and raring to go – the word of command came, and a destroyer surged through the fleet blaring out the unmistakable music of the “Post Horn Gallop” informing everyone that, “A Hunting We Will Go”.’ (Article ID: A2731051 depicting the memories of Norman Lascelles Wright and his experiences of the Normandy landings).
She was the first ship to be named after the North Riding Goathland Hunt, Yorkshire. There is one further scrap of flotsam to add relating to hunting: between 6th June until 24th July 1944 the chaplain of HMS Goathland produced a daily bulletin entitled ‘Tally Ho! Tally Ho! Tally Ho!’ Tally Ho indeed!
Today, the purely imagined image of the destroyer, surging past the Still and West to the sound of the Post Horn Gallop, is an evocative and endearing one. I have no doubt that for decades, long after the war had ended, the Still and West would have been familiar to those mariners. A pub is a bastion within a community, its meaning and significance generated by the experiences of its patrons. Many, including me, have seen their personal histories played out within its walls.
My mother met my father here. They were married on the 15th of November 1952, so I assume their first meeting must have been a year or so earlier. She was on a date with a naval officer and having a drink in the more intimate, upstairs bar. However, she was not enjoying it very much as her ‘date’ with his back turned against her, was ensconced in a lively discussion with other members of the group and far too busy with his own self-importance and popularity to pay her very much attention. My mother was none too pleased about being disregarded by her date but only too pleased to be singled out by my father, also a naval officer, who was enjoying a pint and standing at the bar. He remarked upon the fact that it appeared she was being ignored. My mother was no shrinking violet and very soon an energised conversation developed between them: the rest, as you might say, is history!
For many years, the interior of the Still and West was a true homage to all things nautical, from ship models to photographs and marine artefacts. Time and tide wait for no man and things change and evolve. The first major alteration to the fascinating interior of the pub came when the landlord’s lease expired. The brewery replaced the tenancy with a managerial post and either out of spite or an agreement could not be reached with the outgoing tenant and the brewery, the contents of the Still and West inevitably found their way to Nesbit’s Auction Rooms in Southsea. The specialised and eclectic mix of memorabilia was sold to the highest bidder and lost to the collective, never to be seen again.
The first time I visited the pub, after everything had been removed, I was completely shocked at the denuded interior that met my gaze. The character and ambience of the Still and West had been destroyed. Since then, there has been some attempt to replace a few similar artefacts, but a managed house is a managed house.
Owing to its premier position, the first element to go was the family room. This structural change was arguably long overdue and not unexpected. The small upstairs bar was extended by moving the bar backwards as far as the building would allow and the new restaurant area was constructed above the old children’s room. Unfortunately, whereas the pub once felt like a rather special local, it now has the feel of a somewhat indifferent, slick money-making machine. The views are still magnificent, but, along with the walls, the heart of the pub has been ripped out. I dare say this is not the end to fundamental changes to the Still and West and no doubt at some time in the future, the pub will endure further so-called improvements.
When I was a student at Highbury College, it was customary on the last day of the summer term for students and staff to stream out of college and head off to Old Portsmouth and take over the Still and West for the afternoon. This was in the days before young people were obliged to carry identification and if you looked vaguely eighteen, most landlords were only too willing to sell you a pint. Personally, I bought my first pint when I was fourteen, not that I looked older than fourteen, but this was a time when many landlords used their discretion and if it was quiet, served you anyway.
Conversely, I remember my friend Guy being challenged in the (New) Dolphin, Havant. The Dolphin was a modern, 1960s, decidedly awful Gales house, now thankfully demolished. At the time, Guy was a youthful, fresh-faced young man who didn’t look his age. Unfortunately for him, he was also relatively short, which certainly didn’t help his case. We were on our way to Hayling Island and had just stopped off at the Dolphin for a quick pint. The sour-faced, fifty-something barmaid, complete with a tight, blonde peroxide hairdo, curtly confronted Guy, exclaiming, ‘You look underage, I’m not serving you!’
This prompted a few turned heads and a bout of sniggering from us.
‘I’m twenty-one!’ was the indignant and ruffled response from Guy. ‘I’ve got my passport in the car I can go and get it if you like!’
With eyes narrowing and not to be outdone, the old bat behind the bar maliciously retorted, ‘There are plenty of fakes around!’
This seemed quite preposterous and produced open revolt and guffaws from the general assemblage. Even though we were all over eighteen, we were all asked to leave.
Fraternisation with further education staff and college students was rife in the 60s and 70s and, whilst frowned upon by management, it still went on. By and large, the lecturers I had dealings with were a decent bunch. I imagine every generation has a view on the unconventionality of many of their educators but certainly there seemed to be a plethora of eccentricity during my formative years. This ranged from a minority of violent and sadistic schoolteachers to extraordinary, alternative and fascinating college lecturers.
Highbury FE College was no exception to the rule with several entertaining individuals worthy of note. A few always participated in the annual pilgrimage to the ‘Still’, as it was often referred to. I have fond memories of being crammed into the old upper bar with members of the ‘in’ crowd, along with the cheerful company of Trevor and Clive, not to be confused with Derek and Clive who were a different kettle of fish altogether. Trevor taught English Literature at the college and Clive ceramics.
Pints bought, one of many, it was an opportune moment to indulge ourselves in some choice ‘bar room banter’. Trevor began by regaling us about being a child in the North of England just after the war. Trevor’s favourite tale, which, he had told and retold to us many times before, concerned, ‘the gang’ spending many a happy hour jumping on the prows of working barges. This feat of dexterity was achieved where the cut narrows for a bridge. There was little the bargee could do other than put up with the verbal abuse from the mob of unruly children on the bow.
At the next bridge the children would leap off the prow and wait for an unsuspecting canal boat going the other way. Occasionally, this early form of ‘barge surfing’ didn’t always go quite to plan. Sometimes, unbeknown to the unkempt saucy urchins skylarking about on the front end of the barge, there was a second burly bargeman below. With a sharp clip around the ear in the offing, there was nothing for it but to leap into the ‘cut’ and make a run for it.
Filled with visions of such disorderly behaviour and chuckling at the misfortunes and tribulations of being a child, everyone took a generous pull at their pints. Before anybody could venture a story of their own, Trevor went on to describe the customary reception awaiting them on their return home. Eyeing up her bedraggled, damp and decidedly smelly canal water sodden, offspring, the usual response was, ‘You wait ‘til your father gets ‘ome!’ In due course, the temporarily avoided larruping from the irate bargee was administered with the aid of ‘father’s leather belt’, adding credence to the adage that everything comes to he who waits!
It was time for another round and looking up, one of the familiar Isle of Wight passenger ferries passed by the window. There were three ships in service at the time, two of them sister ships, TSMV Southsea and Brading. The third, TSMV Shanklin, was a later addition to the fleet and an upgraded version, having a taller funnel, raised lifeboats and increased passenger deck space.
They first came into service a few years after the war and, considering they had been designed as ferries, in their own way, were quite distinctive. They were relatively wide in the beam and, setting off their lines, sat comfortably low in the water. Their jaunty, swept back funnels, gave them a cheery seaside air that satisfyingly added to the Solent seascape. The lower part of the funnel was painted red with a wide black band at the top. In white, from 1965 onwards, the British Rail ‘double arrow’ logo – or the ‘arrow of indecision’ as it was instantly nicknamed – was painted over the top. The livery for the superstructure and upper part of the hull was white, the lower section of the hull was painted black. Barely worth a second look at the time, these three iconic little vessels were certainly a far cry from the ‘block of flats’ that pass for ships these days.
For decades, in all weathers, these three little ships provided sterling service ferrying passengers backwards and forwards over the water before finally being retired. Whilst the Southsea and Brading were broken up, the Shanklin however, suffered a different fate. Throughout her career she had been involved with a variety of mishaps the most serious of which was demolishing forty feet of Ryde Pier. In mitigation, on the day of the accident a veritable ‘pea-souper’ lay like a grey blanket across the Solent. The Shanklin had made her way through the fog and had fetched up roughly where she was supposed to be. Unfortunately, she was just shy of the pierhead and at 12.35 she struck the roadway that runs the length of the old Victorian pier. The taxi driver, speeding up the roadway to meet the incoming ferry was, to say the least, somewhat surprised as he plunged over the precipice that had suddenly appeared in front of him. As you might expect, the taxi quickly disappeared into the watery depths, but thankfully the driver escaped and lived to tell the tale.
Along with the pier, the Shanklin was patched up and put back to work. In 1978 it was decided that the ferry crossing to the island only needed two ships and so the Shanklin was withdrawn from service and placed in reserve. In 1980 she was put up for sale and sold to the Firth of Clyde Steam Packet Company, who already owned the now familiar, PS Waverly (paddle steamer). She was given a new name Prince Ivanhoe and after being refitted she began public and private sailings in the Bristol channel. All this was to be short lived, as a few months later, just off the Gower coast, she hit rocks or maybe a submerged wreck. With a forty-foot gash below the waterline and 450 passengers on board, Captain David Neill quickly realised that the ship was sinking. Saving the passengers from a watery end, he managed to keep her afloat long enough to beach her at Horton, Swansea. The only casualty was, of course, the old Shanklin, a sad end to a sterling little ship. After several failed attempts to salvage her, she was eventually removed piecemeal and scrapped.
By the time I had pushed through the crowd of semi-inebriated noisy youths, been served and re-joined my compatriots, the ferry had swept, like HMS Goathland before her, past the pub and was now heading for the open sea and the Isle of Wight. Without a second glance at the diminishing ship, the wheel of opportunity spun around and landed on one of our most respected lecturers, Pottery Clive. At the time I suppose he must have been in his forties. Clive had a great sense of humour which had created permanent laughter lines at the corner of his eyes. In a mild way, he was one of life’s wits and raconteurs. During the early seventies it was popular for men to wear their hair long and so, as a nod to fashion, Clive’s dark hair extended a little beyond the collar of his shirt. I remember on one frivolous occasion, the girls in the group managed to persuade him to allow them to put his hair up into small bunches using small elasticated hair bands. Quite harmless, until a surprise visit by the prickly Vice Principal. Whilst the class sniggered in the background and hoping the VP hadn’t noticed, Clive was obliged to surreptitiously pull them out by running his fingers through his hair.
At odd moments during class Clive would often elaborate about what it was like to be a student in those far off days not long after the war. Over time, these snippets of information started to form a whole and gradually a graphic picture began to emerge concerning his experiences. Clive learnt his craft at a small art school situated in the countryside, quite close to one of the main film studios of the day, Ealing, Pinewood or Elstree. The college was a quirky, characterful building, which had previously been a substantial wooden mill. To make use of the outbuildings and barns, sculpture and pottery had been banished to the extremities of the site. It was in one such barn that Clive began his lifelong career and interest in ceramics. The barn itself was ancient but typical of its type with heavy oak beams traversing the space and where the design of the frame allowed, the requisite objects of the potter’s craft had been deposited; slabs of plaster for reconstituting clay, a large kiln, a pug machine and several kick wheels. Mixed with an unsettling sense of dejection and despondent gloom, the space depicted a dusty, workmanlike shambles.
In the centre of the main floor area, large work benches had been set out. Along the remaining walls, from floor to ceiling, there were shelves groaning with the weight of a myriad of unfired pots. A few were leather hard, but the vast majority were completely dried out, powdery white and brittle to the touch. The lecturer in charge of ceramics, was a kindly old soul who should have retired years before but, owing to the war, had been retained because of a dearth of trained professionals. Pottery is a satisfying craft to learn and one of the main attractions is to throw a pot on the wheel. Quickly becoming proficient, Clive soon mastered the basic techniques. Standing on a bench he would then place his finished work on a shelf to dry.
‘While you’re up there Clive,’ the elderly potter shouted across the room. ‘Move a few along will you!’
Clive would do as he was told and with monotonous predictability, several pots at the other end of the shelf would crash to the floor. Clive’s pot then joined the ceramic glacier, until his too fell into oblivion. This vast backlog of unfired pottery was due to the austerity of the war years. To save on fuel, a ban had been imposed upon unnecessary wastage, so the firing of student’s work had been prohibited. Over time, this resulted in a mountain of unfired pots made by students, destined never to return.
To be continued…