The Bear and Key Public House

The Bear and Key Public House. Published August 1946.  

To the music of the horn, the clattering beat of the horses’ hooves, the stage-coach turned off the road and rumbled to a halt in the big inn yard. A welcoming cheer went up from the watching crowd as the driver, no mean man, jumped down from his high box seat and, graciously accepting the pint pot of foaming porter held out to him by no less a person than the hotel landlord, raised it to his lips and drained it to the last drop in double- quick time.

One after another the passengers descended from the caravan in which they had been boxed up for hours and, some of them showing a dignified unconcern, some laughing and chattering, some grumbling, some yawning and rubbing sleepy eyes, crowded into the big kitchen and found comfort, ease, and everything they wanted in the shape of food and drink round the blazing pile of logs in the open fireplace.

It was a memorable night for everyone, especially for those who were in any way connected with the management and running of this delectable place of rest and refreshment for both man and beast.

Its very name, “The Bear and Key,” gave the traveller within its walls a soothing sense of security. Ans at that time, the year 1703, security as we understand the meaning of it was more of a dream than an actuality.

So the company gathered round the blazing fire in the big kitchen had good reason to feel content with their lot for the time being. No pistol-brandishing highwayman had held up the coach on its lumbering progress across the darkening English countryside and relieved them of their fat purses stuffed with golden sovereigns and guinea pieces. Now they could relax and, while the rum, port and sherry went round, talk of what was happening in London and retell the latest gossip of facts and rumours concerning Queen Anne’s Court.

They would, of course, be full of praise for the victories that were being won on the Continent by the troops under the command of the Duke of Marlborough – that great Churchill who, as another Churchill of a later day was likewise destined to do, save England from shattering ruin and black defeat.

It was in that year – 1703 – that “The Bear and Key,” oldest commercial hotel in Whitstable opened its doors for the first time. We are told that it was first called “The Baron’s Quay” hotel, a name derived from the adjacent causeway known to us as the Horsebridge and later contracted to its modern title.

Though numerous alterations have been made to it in the course of its long existence. “The Bear and Key” still retains its old-world solidity. When you pass through its rooms, constructed and furnished with an eye for the well-being and homely comfort of those using them, you can imagine that the ghosts of the travellers who found shelter and good cheer under in bygone days are all around you.

Some of them are in the lounge, maybe, looking at the ancient model of a clock, a clock that was called the “Act of Parliament Clock” because it was hung up in taverns for the benefit of those patrons who could not to pay the tax imposed on watches by Parliament in 1786. Having no watch, and wanting a drink, you nipped into the tavern to find out the time. That was what you told the wife when she wanted to know where you had been! “The Bear and Key” is the only hotel in this country of that name. 

Many well-known people have stayed there, admirals, generals, musicians, artists, writers, men who have been famous in all spheres of human activity and achievement. Like all his predecessors, the present proprietor, genial Fred Appleton, has always made it his aim to preserve the best features of the hotel. He and his wife, who is prominently associated with her husband in the management, have been host and hostess there now for 28 years. They came there just after the end of the first world war. The hotel escaped damage while that conflict was in progress. But it was not so fortunate in the late war. It was very badly knocked about in 1940 when the German air raiders appeared one morning and indiscriminately dropped their bombs on the town. The roof was badly shattered and much damage done to the ballroom and other parts of the building. Business, however, went on through it all.

Have you ever before heard of a house in which, for over two hundred years, only one person has died and only one person been born? “The Bear and Key” has that distinction and it must surely be a very rare one.

Speaking of some of the distinguished people were frequent visitors at his hotel, Fred Appleton has interesting memories to recall of W. Steer, the black and white artist, and of artists in oils and water colours who came regularly to Whitstable to paint the wonderful sunsets which can be seen here as nowhere else on the Kentish coast. Trader Horn, who gave the world such vividly written descriptions of life in the wild, was often to be seen as a guest at the hotel.

The last stage-coach drove into the yard of “The Bear and Key” a long time ago, so long a time that it has been forgotten, and in its place we have the motor car. There is no room now on the roads of old England for the stately, old stage-coach and its fine spirited horses. Drivers, horses, coach-horns sounding melodiously over hill and dale – all have vanished from the scene. But they were things that were indissolubly knitted into the colourful fabric of our national history and will never be forgotten. The “Bear and Key” is a standing reminder of those past and faraway things. Good luck to it.

Written by Ernest Brindle in August 1946. Transcribed by Brian Baker in November 2012.

Footnote Feb 2019: The building is now a Prezzo, with the upper floors now containing flats.