Time, mother, please: a toast to the landlady of the Fox and Hounds

Click to follow

Toys Hill village hall was packed to the rafters.

Toys Hill village hall was packed to the rafters. People were standing on the stage and on chairs, and spilling out of the back door down the steps. I had never seen anything like it, not even for the annual horticultural show. An official count put the figure at around 250, jammed into a Victorian structure designed to take 100. The two barrels of beer ran dry in no time. At the hub of it all, my mother, with her Judi Dench hair, wire-rimmed specs and size-eight Echo flatties; head cocked as she listened to the speeches and the tribute songs. This was her surprise leaving party from the pub where she has spent more than half her lifetime. Except it wasn't a surprise at all. Toys Hill is a hamlet and news spreads faster than the wind through the surrounding woods.

When my parents took over the tenancy of the Fox and Hounds, Toys Hill, Kent, they had three children under three-and-a-half, two puppies and two kittens. My father had undergone a couple of days' training in landlord skills in Romford. My mother had never been behind a bar in her life. But for the next 34 years she would do little else. My father notched up a mere 20 years before he wore himself out – but then he was 78 and, hospital visits aside, the only time he left the Fox for more than a day was when they carried him out in his coffin. Behind the romantic notion of running a pub lurk some pretty grim realities. There's the hefty duty on alcohol, drink-driving laws, cheap booze in supermarkets and foot and mouth restrictions, all of which wreaked havoc on country pubs.

Many landlords have the added burden of aggressive breweries – though my mother's lot, Greene King, have been exemplary. Not so Inde Coope, the previous owners, who wanted to evict my family in 1986 and turn the bar into a Victorian theme pub and diner. The locals staged an Ealing Comedy-style coup and "persuaded" the brewery to back down. My mother also coped with a routine that saw her lugging barrels, mowing lawns, sweeping chimneys, chopping wood and unblocking drains. Her calloused hands suggest hard labour in Siberia. Hardly surprising that neither I nor my four siblings have any intention of ever running a pub.

Which is a shame, because growing up in a pub is the best childhood anyone could ask for: the friendly punters; the visiting exotica such as Morris dancers, Hell's Angels and the local hunt; the open bar door leaking the exotic scent of beer, tobacco, and pork scratchings. Best of all are the conversations pregnant with adult mystery, wafting through the floorboards and open windows. My father in full flow was an added bonus. He could never reconcile himself with the need for customers at all. People would come to the pub with a tacit desire to be told to "Bugger off! Don't you people have homes to go to?" This attitude disconcerted the unwary, such as anyone who asked for coffee. "Coffee?" my father would explode, "Don't be so bloody silly." No one dared point out a large sign outside the pub which stated "Afternoon Coffee Served". And I vividly remember one poor man trying to exchange a pint which had an enormous spider floating on the froth. My father stared at the glass and declared there was "nothing there". The man nodded and bore the pint off looking slightly shell-shocked.

When my father died my mother took on much of his eccentricity. Notices appeared above the fire saying "No illegal stoking". Mobile phones were also banned and she stocked Hello!, Country Life and Private Eye on the bar counter. The firmer she was the more the punters loved her and her 14-year reign has seen the Fox and Hounds appear in all the best pub guides. The party turnout reflected her popularity as a landlady, matchmaker and amateur social worker – as did the huge cheque she was presented with. Even as you read this my mother will be pulling her last pints. It seemed like the end of an era. But the stop-press news is that the new tenant is a romantic soul who has never run a pub in his life and comes complete with anxious wife and three children. We expect great things of them.