Alcohol and birding

My birding was once linked to a vibrant drinking culture.

Cue wavy lines and fading image....

A weekend (or a longer stay) at Dungeness saw me looking forward to the pub sessions as much as the time spent birding. The closest public house to the bird observatory was (and still is) The Britannia. This pub would never win any awards in a 'Picturesque Inn' competition. It is a single storey building that has, in recent years, been opened up into a cavern that prays to the God of fish and chip suppers rather than the olde worlde charm of convivial beer supping. When I was a regular (1976 - 1991) the pub could still boast separate public and saloon bars. Although we didn't recognise it at the time, the place did have a certain amount of charm, which was cruelly ripped out when the walls were knocked down to open it up, producing the feeling of sitting in a school canteen. My time spent in this establishment took many guises: mid-summer might see me wander over as the light was fading to have just a sneaky pint; mid-winter could involve waiting outside until the landlord opened up for the evening, staying until he chucked us out. Poor birding might encourage us to drink during the window of opportunity that was lunchtime opening (this was before the relaxation of the pub trading laws). Being in an out-of-the-way place, closing time was relaxed. On one occasion, the landlord, in need of his sleep but keen to carry on taking money from a large group of beered-up birders, handed us the keys and told us to lock up and switch off the lights when we left. It was two in the morning at the time. The pub served as a meeting place for birders staying in the area and on most spring and autumn evenings you could almost guarantee the presence of like-minded souls to chat about birding. The chances were, however, that birding wouldn't be on the conversational agenda for long!

The Britannia wasn't always the pub of choice. We had spells frequenting The Pilot (mainly for darts during the summer of 1979), The Ship (during 1981-1983, with incredibly long pool tournaments and a brilliantly stocked juke box) and The Woolpack (way out on the marsh and thus needing one of us to stay sober or run the risk of a driving ban). Such sessions needn't (and often didn't) stop when the pubs shut. Many was the time when we would return to Keith Redshaw's (next door to the observatory) to carry on drinking, while listening to his wonderful collection of albums or to demolish a bottle of single malt in the observatory common room.

There are incidents born of such alcoholic intake that have, over the years, become legend - but it is wise to draw a veil across them to save the reputation of numerous individuals. It is no wonder that our ability to find rarities during this time was so poor.

One of my most memorable weekends involved arriving at DBO on a Friday evening, bumping into a certain birder who now resides at Littlestone, and drinking until dawn on the Saturday morning. We then went straight out birding, (punctuated for 'lunch' in the Britannia) before taking part in one of the famous 'moat barbeques' that was one-part pork chop and 10-parts alcohol. I think sleep finally beckoned at 4 AM on the Sunday morning (before birding commenced once again three hours later). I couldn't do it now - in fact I would weep with tiredness by midnight on the Friday if it were to happen this autumn. It wasn't big, it wasn't clever but it was incredible fun.

Back at home I had my regular watering holes and chums to visit them with, most notably Dave Eland. He seemed to know every pub in the south of England (and quite a few beyond). It was a fact that wherever we stopped for a pint (and he would ensure that we did when out birding) he would bump into somebody that he knew. It could be a tiny pub at the end of a country lane that we had just happened to come across - he would walk in and be greated with "Hello Dave! Fancy meeting you here!" We started to frequent The New Inn pub in Sutton. One or two of our birding mates started to come along and before you could say "I'll have a pint" the Thursday night birders evening had formed. Between 1980 - 1995 we met up almost every week, with a cast of characters that included Stuart Holdsworth, Nick Gardener, Steve Broyd, Bob Hibbert, Andy Merrett and Alan Greensmith. We had a rolling cast of supporting birders that popped in from time to time. On one occasion on American birder turned up unannounced as he had heard about this Thursday gathering back in The States. The locals took this invasion in good hunmour, with as many as a dozen birders taking over the tables by spreading out maps whilst planning trips, showing slides of birds from their latest foreign holiday, checking out newly published books, chewing the fat and sharing thoughts. Our venues changed over the years, moving to The Red Lion in Cheam, The Railway (also Cheam) and finally The Plough in Sutton. It all broke up when the nucleus started to move away from the area.

Drinking and birding. For me, they used to go hand-in-hand. But not any more. A lunchtime drink would see me fast asleep in the afternoon. An evening session would wreck the following day in the field. It's a young man's pastime - at least it is to this old fella...


Marcus Lawson said…
Not Dunge, but one of our best ever sessions was on the Scillies in '89 when we went through the night and emabarked on the Birdrace the next day which needless to say we won! This was in spite of Tony Clarke insisting that he could have auk sp as a species! Happy Days gone by and just remember Steve - you don't have to drink to enjoy yourself!!

Shame about the Brit, he closes up now as soon as the last meal has been finished. Lock-ins are certainly a thing of the past!
Steve Gale said…
When I spent last July down at Dungeness, I didn't go in the Brit once Marcus - how times change.

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