Proprietor Tracy King invited me along to meet some regulars who were more than happy to share their memories with me.
Tracy herself came over from Ireland when just 18 years old. She recalls: “I did my original apprenticeship in this trade with Berni Inns, where you weren’t allowed to serve in the bar until you had full product knowledge – you weren’t deemed fit to serve in the bar until you knew all about the wines and the backgrounds of the spirits. My grandfather in the village where I was born and grew up, he owned three of the pubs in the village, but none of his children, my aunts and uncles, went into the licensing trade, it seemed to skip a generation. I came over here and I’ve run nightclubs and hotels, every area of the licence trade really. Then when I moved to London (via Stroud and Leicester), to the Woolwich Road, the chap who owns this pub owned one there too, which I worked in. I came down here on relief once and fell in love with the place. And I said, when it becomes available, I want it. It did, and I got it! It’s like a joint enterprise now, managing the ‘wet side’ and the food operation is mine. This was 15th December, 22 or 23 years ago. I’ve been here ever since and I’ve no wish to move anywhere else. It’s a good life here, it’s friendly and we don’t get trouble. Why would I want to go anywhere else?”
Known as the Kentish Riviera, Lower Upnor was a popular family holiday destination which had a fairground, tea rooms, light railway and a bandstand and the traditional English sandy beach, ideal for sandcastle building. She found the selection of photographs (below) which we guess were taken around Edwardian times.
Being an English village, the weather was a talking point. Tracy continued: “I wasn’t here at the time, but I knew older people in the community who remember The Big Freeze of 1963. It was so cold, temperatures just plummeted and the river froze – you could have walked across to St.Mary’s Island! I doubt anyone tried though, just in case!” (Click here to view a BBC video of the frozen river, and here for a report from Kent Online.)
Barman Dermot is afraid of heights, so, naturally, he decided to go skydiving …
“My motivation was, my friend’s mother died of breast cancer and me being Irish, said I’ll do something. She has already has done around 70 jumps so I’ll said I’ll do one and she said “Dermot, you’re scared of heights, you’ll never do them!” I did though – I’ve done two now, and I’m due to do my third. We’ll come back here and have a big party! Upnor, it’s a nice village, everybody knows everybody and I know everything about everybody, the people are nice. It’s like Ireland, where I came from. People stop for a chat, they’ll make you a cup of tea, they’re friendly. And every day is not the same.”
“About 4am on a Sunday morning it was, we heard an almighty crash and found a car had hit the boundary wall of the pub. And the guy just jumped out and ran back up the road, he just left the car there. And he was completely naked! We’ve no idea why, but he was arrested although he wasn’t charged in the end. The insurance covered the wall. This was a different bloke to the Camouflage Lunatic Who Hangs Out In The Woods And Jumps Out On Dog Walkers!” (Surely a story that warrants further investigation some day!)
Sheila was born and raised in Upnor and is still here 77 years on.
“I was born in 10 Hill Road, then we lived in 8 Hill Road and when I got married I lived in 9 Hill Road! There used to be footpath up to Beacon Hill, where the radar station was – all very hush hush. The footpath is still there but badly overgrown. That was at the end of Hill Road. I had to walk up there to chattenden to go to school, via the footpath and across the cow field.
The bungalow owner up there had seven Doberman dogs and one time, they all surrounded me! I just stood still and gradually crept forward. It was when I was working at the venture centre, they just came round me one day, it was scary. Two of them came in the pub one evening. They weren’t aggressive, they just came and sat with Tracy and Noreen. We had a staffie who disappeared for two hours – been visiting the ‘boys’ we think – she was panting heavy when she came back anyway!”
Changes through the years
“They used to run a boat from Sun Pier to the beach, years ago ago, before the yacht club was built. The beach was a holiday destination, with a tea boat, it was concrete with a shed on the top. We used to have one bus an hour but on Sundays we had two buses an hour because the beach was so busy. They sold lemonade in the shop – we used to go and collect all the lemonade bottles and get the threepence back on them! We’d go along with a bag, pick all the bottles up and take them in the shop and get the money!
“At the end of the green there used to be a seat, almost like a loveseat but for more people, we used to play over there. That was a sand pit, they used to dig the sand out there and there used to be a big tin shed at the bottom of our garden where they used to make the bricks years ago.
If you walked down the beach you can see all the bricks, they called it the barge drive, because the barges used to pull in there.
This was this one time when a school (Brunswick Park, I think) came down to stay for the week. One girl who hadn’t been allowed to come, jumped on the coach with her friends anyway – they only found her when they got here! She had no clothes with her but whether she was taken back home or wangled the week, I can’t remember.”
The six degrees of separation theory
John Smith has lived in Upnor for 24 years now, an ex-pat from East London, like myself.
“I’ve been down here 24 years, came down from Poplar in London. Just got fed up with Poplar, then I got married and lived in Ilford, then moved to Forest Gate. I was working with a friend who lived in Cliffe, came down for Sunday lunch and fell in love with the place. No idea where any schools were or anything but we found out. You couldn’t get more different from Forest Gate to Upnor.”
So whereabouts in Poplar? Only, friends of mine live there.
“That’s where my friends live!”
“That’s where my friends live!”
“My sister Joanie lives at number x”
“That’s where my friends live!”
“Joan? And Julie? Get away!”
Turns out John is my friends’ Uncle John. It is a small world, isn’t it?
“Have you been back?” he asks. “I went there a little while ago – couldn’t park!”
From hospital waiting room to eclectic decor
With a renovation of The Pier having taken place, the interior did look rather sterile. Tracy’s son Steve went on the hunt for paraphernalia. He now scours boot fairs and find all sorts of trinkets and river themed odds and ends to create an authentic and original feel to the pub.