Linked to Sunday Scribblings
Previously in A Chequered Career….Sadly things were going downhill back at the Stage Door Bistro. I suppose I hadn’t realised how vital it was to have the proprietor on the premises……Finding a buyer was no problem at all; the bistro was a much loved part of Eastbourne’s social life…… In 2003, The Brewers Arms was 250 years old. It had served beer every day since 1753……my youngest daughter Penny moved into the spare room.
CHAPTER 20 - WHEN I WORKED IN A WINE VAULT; A PLACE OF MYTH AND MYSTERY
By 2004 I had been running the Brewers Arms for six years. I was tired. For six years I had been getting up early to sort the cellar and take in deliveries, I’d been driving every day to Hailsham to collect bread, pay in cash at the bank or go to the wholesale cash ‘n carry for supplies. I would return just in time to open the doors then managed a packed pub until about four o’clock when I would attempt to close up. I then had a short break from the customers whilst I got ready for the evening session. Open again at five thirty and then work flat out until midnight or later. I tried to take one day off a week, but I didn’t find it easy. I would be upstairs in my living room but I kept looking out of the window to see how full the car park was. I’d stand at the top of the stairs to listen out for the till ringing! I would often invite customers up stairs to watch a video with me. More often than not I’d end up downstairs sitting on a bar stool! I was faced with a choice. The six year lease I had taken on the pub was about to expire and I had to decide whether to take on another six year tenancy or walk away. For the sake of my health I took the latter.
The Brewer’s Arms was taken over by a family. Sadly they got it wrong, and in no time at all they found themselves struggling. The regulars started drifting away, preferring to travel to the next village rather than walk to the pub they’d known all their lives. To raise money they sold the antique bicycles and any artefacts of value. A year later they walked away and the pub was taken over by a Michelin starred chef and his brother. They changed it from ‘shabby chic’ to minimalist; pale green walls with a few carefully chosen paintings, and modern furnishings. It became gastro-pub. A couple of years later, I drove past to find it boarded up with ‘for sale’ boards outside. It was eventually sold to one of my old competitors and to all accounts it’s back to running reasonably successfully.
I had about a month to find a job. I had never had a day without work since leaving school over forty years ago and I had no intention of starting now. I also needed a home! Penny now had a boyfriend and we decided that the three of us would find an apartment to share, at least for the time being. They found us a beautiful little maisonette in the country village of Five Ashes and we set up home together.
I came across an advertisement in the window of the local branch of Unwins wine merchants. They were seeking trainee shop managers. I had nothing to lose by applying, and a month later I found myself at their training centre in Dartford. After a week-long induction course I was sent to a training branch in Royal Tunbridge Wells where I worked alongside another Keith who was to show me the ropes. During the next few weeks I learned everything there was to know about running a wine store. I sat internal exams and even embarked on a wine diploma course.
I then had to wait for a branch to become available and during that time I was given the task of looking after branches while managers were on holiday or away for whatever reason. My favourite branch was one of the other Royal Tunbridge Wells stores; there were three in the town. Mount Ephraim shop was high up above the town centre with a wonderful view across the common and the rooftops. Imagine my delight when I was told that the manager was to retire and I was to inherit it. And so I took over the branch and thoroughly enjoyed running it
The shop was full of character. On entering, you walked down a short flight of steps into a tunnel along the walls of which were racks of wine. Thirty feet into the tunnel was the shop counter. There was then a wall, behind which was an office and store room. Twenty feet further on was another wall with a door in it beyond which was a damp, dripping, echoing tunnel leading off into the black distance.
Needless to say it had a lot of history; most of it myth, much assumed, a lot made up and mainly exaggerated! It is thought that these vaults have stood there since around 1700. It has always been speculated that they served as a hiding place for smugglers on their way from Rye to London! Whilst researching for myself I came across this:-
The Sussex Daily News of 1938 contained a report which gives us a tantalising glimpse of what may be beyond the door. Evidence has been found from time to time of underground passages below Mount Ephraim and these would have served as an admirable hiding place. Several years ago boys who were playing on waste ground discovered some caves and it is believed that these at one time linked up with the wine vaults on Mount Ephraim. The wine vaults themselves are in the form of a narrow underground passage extending for 75 yards. The walls and ceiling, made of brick, are in an excellent state of preservation and the temperature of the vaults varies little either in mid-winter or summer. At the end of the passage is a small well. To-day there is only about two feet of water in it and the well is covered over because the dustman fell down it the other day.
Sadly I didn’t take any photos of the shop itself, but I do have one of the tunnel beyond the wall, and I came across a picture showing what it looked like a couple of hundred years ago before a building was plonked on top. You can just make out someone coming up the steps!
Things were really looking up, literally! However, what happened next came as a complete surprise and a bit of a shock.
To be continued