Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 22nd May 2024

Becky's Dive

This is a story of that arid zone euphemistically called the “Red Barrel Revolution” but which might more aptly have been known as “The Suppression of the Breweries”, ranking as it did, high on the list of plagues visited on the beer drinking community over the years. It was a time when the larger brewers were buying up smaller local breweries and closing them down, forcing clientele to drink the larger brewers’ “keg” beer, which was bland with an inch of fizzy froth on the top of each pint pot.

Those as hard hit as any by this real ale drought were club cricketers. During the nineteen fifties and sixties when all matches were ‘friendly’ I was a member of an up and coming cricket club that wanted to better itself by strengthening its fixture card. The best way to do so was that, if your club was lucky enough to get a plum fixture by virtue of a senior club having been subjected to a last minute cancellation, your ‘more junior club’ needed to ingratiate itself to their prestigious hosts firstly and foremost by beating your hosts. This would  impress them but, if failing to win, by putting on a good performance on the pitch after giving them an appropriate run for their money!

However, if you bombed on the pitch, you simply had to remain in your hosts’ clubhouse after stumps were drawn, drinking late into the night, hoping that the home club would consider you to be ‘good eggs’ and therefore worthy of having the fixture renewed for the following season and into the future. This ploy was called ‘drinking the fixture back’ and, being in times when we none of us had cars and had to travel by public transport, the journey home was safe but often long and troublesome, with the total lack of toilet accommodation on non-corridor British Rail trains and the London Underground representing a major problem.

This procedure could also on occasion have the additional encumbrance of a fellow traveler, out dead on his feet and unable to totter in any direction let alone the one in which we were trying to travel. The ‘stiff’ would be stretched out recumbent, laid in state on top of the club bag to be lugged to the nearest station as if by sedan chair with a footman holding each of the four convenient straps at the front and back and on either side of the bag. This dead weight would have to be leavened by the rotation of the footmen at regular intervals.

Hence, a typical mid-week conversation would go: “Where are we on Saturday?” The reply would be, “So and So, and we’re in for a stuffing. Thank God they’ve got Marston’s in the bar!” Thus, not only were opposing clubs judged by the beer in their bars, but the quality of the brew could assuage the pain of defeat, enabling you to take your medicine or drink ‘humble pie’, as it were. Even so, the dwindling pool of beers available in cricket club bars during the sixties was therefore hard to take for those used to a previous luxury of choice. It was with considerable pleasure and avid hopes that I read in the early seventies an article in the Guardian newspaper by Richard Boston telling of a bar in Southwark, south of the river just upstream of London Bridge called Becky’s Dive.

Here in a veritable Mecca, this article suggested that there might be found (reputedly) over two hundred different bottled beers. My office had just moved to the area near London Bridge in the London Borough of Southwark from the more central one adjoining Waterloo Station within five hundred yards of the House of Commons, pretty much the ‘Centre of Things’. This meant swapping an area more associated with the upper-crust suavity of Sichel’s wine cellars beneath the Adelphi where Sichel Senior slurped over his taste buds, savored and spat through his teeth into a large jug at tastings. Our future alternative lunch-time tipple to the latter was to be one drunk on the south side of the river, away from controlling influences. Hence forth we’d also be further away from what might be going on inside those Gothic Monoliths on the other side of Westminster Bridge and instead in accommodation which would be more conducive to the quaffing of good ale, albeit in ancient inns but where there might be a more welcoming easy-going ambiance.

With a nothing ventured, nothing gain attitude, I decided to pay a visit to this bar one lunch hour, taking with me a youngster from the office. This chosen office companion was Peter, who was in his early twenties, a rather callow youth, just down from ‘t’North’ and truly agog with the ‘Metropolis’.

As we neared the end of Southwark Street at the junction with Borough High Street, we spotted a ramshackle wooden sign over double doors leading down to the basement of a Victorian ‘brown tiled’ building adjoining the old Hop Market, accommodation which, I believe, had previously housed Lyons’ wine cellars. As if descending into Semi-Stygian Dickensian Depths we carefully made our way rather gingerly down the rickety stairs where, at the bottom, we found ourselves, thankfully, not in Livyan Hades, but in a dingy room some thirty feet by thirty feet with a bar facing us. It was hardly salubrious and the floor felt as if it were being held up by the moth-eaten carpet but there were about eight people conversing comfortably seated, drinking at serviceable tables.

Behind the bar was, we presumed, Becky, a lady of doubtful provenance who could have been a dead ringer for ‘Elynour Rummyng’ whose ‘tunnyng’, or in plain English,‘brew’ was celebrated by John Skelton, a 15th/16th century Poet Laureate and tutor to the youthful Henry VIII before the latter became heir to the throne. Elynour Rummyng’s somewhat warty ‘physog’ illustrating one of Skelton’s poems suggests that she could have been a forerunner presaging the later and very probably less faithful but more famed (warty) portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Skelton himself may not have been the right person to mentor the young Prince Henry as, in another line from his written work, referring to his Royal Charge, he recorded, “I yave (sic) him drynke of the sugryde welle.” But that’s enough of that sort of talk, if one wants to keep one’s head on one’s shoulders!

Behind Becky who was eyeing our suits with the deep suspicion of someone expecting a visit from the Council Public Health Department, were also about (un-ratified) two hundred different bottled beers from all over Europe. However, they were for show and not for sale! On the bar was a wind-up gramophone with a pile of 78 rpm records but, as we were ruing our gullibility, more importantly, we spotted two wooden barrels of ale, propped up on the bar, one of Shepherd Neame, the other of Thwaites of Blackburn. Though why a genuine ‘Ale House’, suitably situated within walking and descrying distance of the route the Canterbury Pilgrims had taken to wend them from the south side of London Bridge to the beginning of the Old Kent Road and thence to the Shrine of Thomas a Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral should stock an ale from deepest Lancashire was in itself food for thought!

With a visible start and inward sigh of relief, I ordered up two pints of Shepherd Neame whereupon Peter, betraying his youthful inexperience and not knowing any better, looked at his and said, in a decidedly woebegone tone, “It’s flat!” At this, I pointed out that a decent pint of beer was not supposed to have an inch of froth on the top. He then held his glass up to the dim light and said, “It’s got foreign bodies in it!” “No,” I averred sternly, “They’re English!”  and we drank deeply and gratefully.