my memoirs: Savernake Forest Hotel

Savernake Forest Hotel: part 2

My time as Head Barman in a Country Hotel
It wasn’t completely class-ridden exclusivity of course, but almost. The Tap Room and the Farmers’ Bar I could serve from the same area, but there was a heavy tapestry curtain separating the Hotel Bar from the other two bars, and I took on a completely different persona when I passed through that curtain. Not deferential (never that) but perhaps quieter and a little more formal. There were people who would quite happily alternate between the Tap Room and the Farmers’ Bar and very occasionally the Farmers’ Bar and the Hotel Bar; but never between the Tap Room and the Hotel Bar.

Dickie though was a man who could easily use any of the bars, but then Dickie was a bit different. In my first few weeks there I had heard about him but had never seen him and was beginning to wonder whether he really existed. The only tangible evidence of him that I had seen was an old Castella cigar tin on the top shelf in the Tap Room. Scratched on the side were the words ‘DICKIES TIN’ and inside was a number of old, stale smelling cigar butts, which had been retrieved from the ashtrays. It seemed he used them to supplement his Nosegay tobacco, producing hand-rolled cigarettes of a highly distinctive character.
When I asked about him I was told that he lived in the Forest and would sometimes disappear there for a few weeks at a time: apparently I had started my job at the hotel during one of these retreats. One Thursday lunchtime, on my day off, I was sitting by the fire in an empty Hotel Bar and above the crackling of the beech logs I could hear the soft murmur of voices. I gradually realised that in that indistinct sound was a gentle Irish voice, one that I’d not heard before. I went round to the Farmers’ Bar and saw a short, stocky man with thick, and slightly long, wavy black hair. He was wearing a blue fisherman’s sweater, comfortably old trousers, and black plimsolls. Engaged in relaxed conversation with a couple of regulars he was leaning forward, elbows on the bar and rolling a cigarette, a pint of Guinness in front of him. A quick glance at his tobacco tin as he replaced the lid and I saw the floral Nosegay design. I decided that this must, indeed, be Dickie, and introduced myself. It was the start of a short lived but close friendship.

It seemed he was a writer, a poet, a man of a full and generous nature, an easy manner, and a beautiful way with words. He used the English language in a way that an Englishman never could, musically and poetically, and in conversation he was always entertaining. People could – and did – listen to him for hours but he was always able to make you feel that your contributions were equally valuable. He stimulated creative conversation but said little about himself. Looking back I can remember only two parts of his life about which he spoke.

He told me once that if I was ever in Galway, “be sure to go into the King’s Head and ask for some of their poteen – and say I sent you”. And the other time was his reminiscence, on that first occasion I met him, about his time in Soho drinking with Dylan Thomas and others, not as a boast about the people he once knew but as an enjoyable memory of times more Bohemian. And I, being young and easily – too easily – influenced, succumbed to the literary romance of it all and got just a little bit drunk.

There was another Irishman, Dennis, who appeared from time to time. Dennis was the man in charge of the gang that occasionally worked on the railway that ran in a cutting alongside the hotel. He was very large, with black curly hair and fists the size of my head, but he was softly spoken and pleasant-mannered.

My drink at that time was Guinness and bitter, also known as a ‘black and tan’ – and, for those of you that don’t know, at this point I must break into a bit of a history lesson. The ‘Black and Tans’, so called after the colours of their uniform, were unemployed former British soldiers recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary in the early 1920s as reinforcements during the Irish War of Independence. They rightly gained a terrible reputation for brutality and violence, a reputation which hadn’t been forgotten.

One day there were just three of us at the bar. There was Dennis, me, and old George, a local who had retired from London. We were talking quite happily and George said,

“What part of Ireland are you from Dennis?”
“Tipperary sir.”
“Oh” said George “I was out in Tipperary.”
“Now when was that sir?” said Dennis.
George, oblivious to the sensitivities of the topic, said “I was out in the barracks in the 1920s.”

Dennis didn’t say anything but I saw the smile disappear from his face and the muscles in his jaw tighten up.
Out of the corner of my mouth I said, “Keep quiet, George.”

“What?” he said.

“Just keep quiet” and he did and we all went on to talk about other things.

A little while later Dennis, seeing my glass was empty, said “And what would you like to drink, young fella?”
Without thinking I said, “That’s very kind of you Dennis, I think I’ll have a black and ta … a … a … ”. I suddenly realised what I was about to say, but by then it was too late.

Dennis looked at me for a moment then, leaning over the bar until his face was very close to mine, he looked me unflinchingly in the eye, and said quietly but very seriously, “Not when I’m fucking buying you won’t.”
I said, “I’ll have a Guinness and bitter then.”
“That’s alright”, he said, and we quietly got on with drinking and chatting.

At that point Dickie came in. He and Dennis got together every now and again for a lunchtime drink, even conversing in Gaelic, just for the hell of it. Dennis offered to buy Dickie a drink but he was being surprisingly abstemious. “That’s not like you Dickie”, said Dennis and Dickie replied that he had to drive that afternoon to a customer. Dennis was a bit surprised that Dickie should have customers, as I was. It turned out that, not known to us until then, Dickie bred peacocks and sold them for £50.00 a brace, a lot of money in the 1960s. Apparently it was his major source of income but to me, a town dweller, it was barely believable that someone should earn his living in this way. I later found out that on one occasion he had to deliver some peacocks by train. I imagine they must have been chicks for it would be difficult carrying two full-grown peacocks on the train. He arrived home three days later, having delivered and sold the peacocks, but without the £50.00. He was completely unaware of where he had been since delivering the peacocks, or what he had been doing, but alcohol was suspected - again. He did drink rather a lot. It never created a problem for anyone but I soon discovered that it was this that prompted his retreats to the forest for a few weeks every so often.