With its mix of well-worn tiles and threadbare carpet, a tiny jumbled servery full of dimpled glasses, bottles and barrels – and proper outdoor loos – this Worcestershire pub is the perfect hide for our tavern twitcher, Jacob
– Tavern Twitching –
I have recently invented a new outdoor pursuit – lavishing my idle hours on pubs, their endless diversity, their heritage, their clientele, traditions, libations, legends and characters. I cannot go anywhere without exploring the local licensed premises, passing comment and helpful critique on the good, the bad and the ugly, or seeking out some hidden treasure loitering down a back street or huddled among the hedgerows.
For me pubs are for life, not just the occasional drink. Inevitably, of course, there comes that subtle tipping point when healthy interest lapses into anoraky obsession and one begins to surround ones-self in an increasingly insanitary attic with lists, maps, and books of the very best, rarest, strangest and picturesque. Regrettably for me, that time came and went a while ago. Thus, the devotee of my newly named pursuit of Tavern Twitching comes into being.
I deliberately liken it to bird watching, as the two fields have much in common, not least in the fever, which is bestowed upon them by their respective fanatics. The preponderance of birds and taverns in people’s day-to-day lives are about equally matched; one would struggle to go far in this land without crossing paths with a Blue-tit or Magpie, as well as an Old Red Lion or two.
Both quarry also come in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes, hues, scarcities and pestilences. Consider, if you will, the obvious correlation between the stout unpretentious redbrick street corner local and an urban dwelling house sparrow, a pleasant and comforting sight with a certain kind of beguiling charm. Or take the noble blackbird, who flits between hedgerows issuing his familiar call, as much a part of that bucolic scene as the many sedate thatched and timbered taverns that are so redolent of country life. Thus, we begin to build up a picture of the twitcher’s spectrum. At the one end we have the scavenging herring gull, the feral pigeon and more belligerent varieties of geese. These go hand in hand with the ubiquitous, emasculated, chain-owned eating barns that plague our towns and countryside alike, those places of piped music, swirly carpets, big screens, breaded scampi by the hundred weight and a battery of taps dispensing mass-produced cider and lager of questionable provenance. While at the other, more rarefied, end we have those elusive and much sought after specimens. These are those alluring and fascinating beasts that set the twitcher’s heart a flutter and compels them to endure discomfort and overcome obstacles to steal a mere glimpse of something singular, beautiful, extraordinary and often all too endangered.
This brings me nicely onto the subject at hand, a specimen that fulfils all of the above and would sit proudly alongside a slender-billed curlew or blue-cheeked bee-eater in an ornithological twitcher’s handbook. Named after three brothers who kept the pub before the days of Technicolor, the Three Kings Inn of Hanley Castle is a most exquisite example of what the tavern twitcher seeks high and low for: small, out of the way, historic, beautifully ramshackle, utterly honest and brimming with a loyal and devoted set of characterful regulars. The Three Kings ranks simply as one of the best and most unadulterated pubs of the land, earning recognition from the boffins at CAMRA’s Heritage Pubs Group for its unaltered interior. It is as far removed from the aforementioned mutilated eating houses, masquerading as olde English inns, as a sky lark is from a carrion crow.
The pub sits within the fine and refreshingly undeveloped estate village of Hanley Castle, a deceptively short hop from the incivility of the M5/M50 junction. Hanley is a place where things are not rushed and change comes slow, if at all. The pub has belonged to the ancient Lechmere family and their nearby seat of Seven End House since 1710, while the incumbent landlady Sue Roberts is the granddaughter of Fred and Ethel who took up the tenancy 103 years ago. The passing down of taverns through family lines invariably yields fruitful results, creating traditional pubs with character. The slow accretion of artifacts, furniture, objet d’art and tat that comes of long ownership is impossible to fabricate, and the Three Kings is a venerable example. This unconscious and organic assemblage over many generations is something that is wildly misunderstood by the avaricious big breweries and pub-cos, which have, over time, swept away many such notable interiors.
This Worcestershire pub is really a place of two halves. The original part is the low redbrick portion of the building, accessed via the white panelled front door, containing the delightfully historic and unaltered public bar leading off a central corridor, as well as a little used, though interesting, former smoke room.
The timbered section of the building, with its entrance round the right hand side, once housed local school mistress Nell Creese in a separate cottage, however, when she moved on the Roberts family decided to knock the servery through into her former sitting room and kitchen, to create the large lounge bar.
The two halves of the pub retain a distinctive feeling and character, even having their own, fiercely loyal, regulars. Indeed landlady Sue still refers to serving behind the bar in the lounge as ‘popping next door’, returning back home again when calls for ale issue from the hatch of the public bar.
Given its recent history and relatively late addition to the pub, the lounge bar retains the air of being someone’s large front room; the mismatched collection of old furniture and handsome settles playing host to gatherings of local estate workers, old regulars and the occasional folk night. The fine stone fireplace at the front and the still working black grate stove, which once cooked old Nell’s dinners, at the rear, also feature, often casting a fine haze of wood smoke about the place, adding to the evocative atmosphere. The bar is a simple and honest affair, with a row of handpulls dispensing seasonal and regional ale from local brewers as well as guests from further afield.
There is also a very fetching, though recently retired, brass Gaskell & Chambers hand pump, which seems to owe some of its design to Heath Robinson. The threadbare carpet of a fading swirly hue is also a delight, a thousand times more pleasing on the eye in its disheveled state than so many of its newer, brighter and more brazen cousins that are stapled over floors and walls by clueless pub interior design departments.
For my money though, the little public bar is the place to be. Through its quirky sliding door, one enters a timeless scene, a treat for the devotees of such unmolested hostelries – the large fire crackling comfortingly under its big brass hood, surrounded by old newspapers, rusted farming implements, knickknacks, plates and a collection of stuffed birds.
The well-worn red quarry tiles and undulating built-in seating are redolent of a simpler and more civilised time, when unpretentious rural drinking houses such as this, could have been found overlooking many a village green.
Here a collection of old boys hold court, huddled around the fire of a winter’s eve, swapping the same old stories, but who will strike up a conversation with visitors at the drop of a hat. The subtle magic of this little time capsule makes even the rather garish late ‘70s curtains and rusting hulk of a gas heater affixed to the far wall blend in to such an extent that they become features in themselves. The hatch, through which beer is presented in heavy dimpled and handled glasses, looks into the little servery, with its homely jumble of bottles, barrels, glasses and old papers, below the window onto the rear courtyard, containing a proper set of outside toilets.
Landlady Sue tends both bars with great verve and skill. Her knowledge and passion for the pub and its wide range of ales and ciders is impeccable, and strangers and regulars alike will always find a warm and courteous reception. If the pub is quiet, she will be happy to stand and talk at length about the tavern, local history and duly direct the enthused twitcher on to other equally fruitful stalking grounds for fine old pubs, from the Welsh Marches, across to the Black Country and south into Gloucestershire and Somerset. The Roberts family celebrated 100 years running the pub in 2010, and one can only hope that there will be a few more generations to come who will call the Three Kings their own.
Indeed, the Kings is one of the last of that old generation of traditional English drinking houses, where the barbarous tide of modern developments, ruthless sanitisation and incivility is held at bay – for now. It is a place that deserves to be publicised, patronised, loved and defended.
These places, these little islands of beauty where real people still congregate, offer a welcome escape for the wandering pub-fanatic-come-misfit such as myself. They are places of reflection and repose away from the desolation and penury of modern mainstream culture, with its obsession with money, celebrity, football and base vacuity.
There is apparently a curious old saying in the countryside around Hanley, which has long been under the care of the Baronets Lechmere, that when there are no more Lechmeres in Worcestershire, the local fruit trees on which the rural economy once rested, will refuse to blossom and there shall be no more apples. Fanciful perhaps, but my concern is that one day there will come a time when there are no more pubs in Worcestershire or indeed England that could hold a card to the likes of the Three Kings. If, and when, that day comes, the people of Worcestershire, England and beyond will have lost something far more fundamental, far more precious and far, far harder to replace than their blessed apple crop.