(Some of) The Best Years of Our Lives

25th November 2021

For six years in the ‘80s I worked at The Ostrich Inn, at Colnbrook, near Slough. It was one of the best times of my life (hence the blog title!), having just escaped an horrendous marriage – but that’s another story. At the Ostrich I discovered how provincial and narrow my life had been in Barrow in Furness. I’m don’t mean to cast aspersions on Barrow – I love my hometown – but growing up in the 70’s it was definitely not a hotspot of cultural and fashionable diversity. It was a typical industrial Northern town, and its position on a peninsula on the North-West coast meant it was remote and somewhat isolated. The M6 was, in those days, a good 90-minute drive down winding country lanes. There was no passing through Barrow en route to anywhere else, unless you wanted a dip in Morecambe Bay. Nowadays, of course, it’s much different; the meandering roads that were the A590 are now a fast dual carriageway for the most part which efficiently transport one from the M6 directly to the heart of the town. And of course, with today’s technology, Barrow is no longer a backwater, out of touch with the modern world.

Again, I’m digressing, this was not meant to be a treatise on growing up in Barrow in Furness! I simply wanted to explain that moving from Barrow to somewhere just a stone’s throw (well, only 20 miles) from the exotic and lively metropolis of our Capital city was something of an eye-opener to a hick from the sticks like me.

The Ostrich was owned by the Lamont family; Derek Ross Lamont, his wife Brenda, and their two children, Simon and Sandra. The Lamonts were very upper crust; they lived in Emsworth, near Chichester in Hampshire, and only came to the Ostrich for the day and a half each week that were the managers’ time off, usually Sunday all day and Monday mornings. Unusually, it was Derek and Brenda who interviewed me for the job – that was the manager’s role, but when I’d called to request an interview, a Sunday was the only day I could go, and so I met Derek and Brenda instead.

I can’t imagine what they must have thought of me. At the time, I was working as a barmaid, and sharing a house at 66 Harrison Street with two other girls, Liz and Yvonne. Liz and I both worked for Ray Beecroft and his wife Pat, who were licensees of the Theatre Bar in Cavendish Street at the time. It was Ray that encouraged me to try and better myself; he said I was good at the work, and great with customers and that I was wasting myself in Barrow – I should go to London and work in one of the posh hotels and make something of myself. I started looking in the Situations Vacant columns of the broadsheet newspapers thinking that they would show national jobs that the Evening Mail or the Barrow News would never hear of – and there was no Internet in those days! I spotted the ad in the Telegraph: “General Assistant required, Live-in, All Found” so I thought I’d give it a go. I rang up, got an interview – great! Now, how was I to get there?

An old friend, my first love in fact, (the one before the disastrous husband,) came to my rescue and offered to take me in his car. I was sorted – it looked like things were going my way. Until the Friday before the interview when he called me to say he couldn’t take me after all; his car had broken down and he couldn’t get the parts until Monday. Oh no!

That night as I worked my shift, I bewailed my situation to anyone who would listen and another knight in shining armour raised his head and said – “I can take you, if you like?” It was one of our regular customers, who also happened to live in Harrison Street. I didn’t know Bob very well, but I leapt at the chance that I could still get there to meet my fate on the Sunday. There was just one drawback – our transport would be a Honda Goldwing motorbike, not a car. I have nothing against motorbikes; my aforementioned first love sold and worked with them and I had spent many an afternoon in his family’s business workshop watching with fascination while he tinkered with them. The smell of a garage workshop still has an effect on my libido more than 40 years later! But the prospect of a round trip of almost 600 miles on one was something else altogether!

But I had no choice, I had to make the interview by 1pm on Sunday. My saviour suggested that we set off by no later than 5am to ensure a timely arrival – the journey should only take around 5 hours, but to allow for breaks and unexpected delays, we were giving it 8 hours. I should dress as warmly as possible, even though it was August; at 5am it could be cold in the mornings, and to allow for the wind-chill factor and the speed of the motorbike it was better to be prepared. All I can say is that had my prospective employers seen me at 5 am they would have said, ‘don’t bother’!

From inner to outer, I wore the following layers: my usual underwear including tights, then another pair of knitted tights and a pair of socks. A pair of jeans adorned my lower regions and a pair of thick woollen fishermen’s socks over them. The only boots I could fit my legs into with the additional layers was a pair of size 9 sturdy rubber wellingtons. Tres elegant, non? On my top half I wore a thermal vest, a t-shirt, a polo-neck jumper and a thick fisherman’s sweater, with a woolly scarf around my neck and over this array I wore a thick blanket coat. A pair of leather biker’s gauntlets covered my hands over a thinner pair of woolly gloves. Unfortunately, Bob’s spare helmet was an open-faced one, so I had another scarf covering my face and nose and a pair of aviator sunglasses that might, with luck, shield my eyes from the worst of the wind. I could barely move, so thick was my apparel, but I waddled my way, rather like an enormous Paddington Bear stuffed toy, out to the street where our trusty steed awaited. It was fun trying to get me onto the pillion – I couldn’t lift my leg up high enough with all the padding, but eventually, with a struggle – we were off! In truth, I don’t remember a great deal about the actual journey except that we were lucky – the weather was beautiful so at least we didn’t have rain to contend with.

We fetched up in Colnbrook early, thank goodness, at around midday. We rode through the village and found The Ostrich along the main street; fortunately, a little further along and on the opposite side of the road there was another pub, the George. Bob suggested we stop there and have some sort of refreshment and I could use the Ladies’ room to make myself look more presentable for the interview. It worked perfectly; the timing was just right, as pubs in those days only opened from 12 noon to 2:30pm on Sunday afternoons, so The George had only just opened and we were the first customers. I had remembered to pack some suitable clothing, so while Bob chatted to the landlord and ordered us some coffee, I went to change.

At around 12:50pm I walked across the road to the Ostrich; the entrance was an ancient wooden door located under the coaching arch, but it unlatched easily and I walked to the bar where Derek and Brenda were playing ‘mine hosts’ and another couple were serving. It was pretty busy, but not over much; I found out later that weekends were much quieter for business than weekdays, since the vast majority of patrons were businessmen. I introduced myself to Derek who was nearest, and he and Brenda took me back out and across the car park to where their flat was located. Like the pub itself, the flat was all Tudor oak beams and was furnished with graceful antiques. The interview was quite informal and Derek was effusive and quick to put me at my ease. He had a very deep rolling voice – years later he was interviewed on the radio for some reason and I thought I was listening to Roger Moore!

When the interview ended, we walked back across the car park, I noticed that the Honda was parked there; Bob had decided to come over to wait for me here instead. So, I asked if it would be okay for me to use the Ostrich ladies’ room to change back into my travelling clothes, which was how the Lamonts discovered my mode of transport. When I was ready, they waved us off on our way.

Bob asked if I fancied a sightseeing tour of London from the pillion of a motorbike, just in case I didn’t get the job and might not come back south any time soon, so I agreed. We spent the afternoon riding around the Capital taking in the major sights. By the time we’d finished, had something to eat and set off back home it was getting quite late. I was so tired that at one point I had to ask Bob to pull into the motorway services for a break because I’d found myself nodding off, relaxing my grip and almost falling off the bike! Not a nice thought when storming up the M6 at 80+ mph! We finally arrived home at 5 am on Monday morning – a full 24 hours since setting off.

I don’t know if I’d impressed the Lamonts with my personality and experience, or they just thought that anyone who was mad enough to come all that way on a motorbike for an interview must be keen and couldn’t be all bad, but I got the job!

It was at the Ostrich that I learned about so many things. Far from being the usual village pub, the Ostrich had a history; its foundations dated back to 1106 making it the third oldest inn in Britain after the trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham and the Fighting Cocks at St Albans. It was notorious; there had been ‘murder most foul’ carried out there by one medieval landlord named Jarman. Wealthy travellers staying alone at the inn might find themselves in the ‘Blue Room’. This was a bedroom above the kitchens, and during the night, the bolts would be pulled from the hinged bed, which then tipped the unsuspecting guest into a vat of boiling liquid. His goods and chattels would then be appropriated by the infamous landlord and his wife, and the body thrown in the nearby river. Before he was hanged for his crimes, Jarman admitted to more than 60 murders! In the bar of the Ostrich there used to be a glass case with a mock-up of the bedroom with the kitchen below, and when a lever at the bottom of the case was pulled, the bed tipped up showing how the murders were committed. This notorious Blue Room was situated behind the wall at the back of the upstairs bar, sadly used only for storage. It definitely had an atmosphere that left me chilled to the bone, and several people claimed they had seen at least one apparition up there, so, if you believe in that sort of thing, I guess it must be haunted by some of those murder victims, at least.

Being so close to Heathrow airport, the Ostrich was popular with visiting dignitaries and celebrities. Downstairs in the pub/bar area, customers had to come and collect their orders themselves at the bar. Upstairs we waited upon expense-account businessmen out to impress their clients with long expensive lunches ending with stilton, vintage port and cigars.

We served quality bar food, and I was employed to staff the ‘new’ olde-worlde Elizabethan Room restaurant upstairs, with the Jacobean function room adjoining. In 1980 when I started there, the restaurant area had just been refurbished and it was beautiful. Three enormous booths covered in red velvet took up most of the floor space opposite the enormous open fireplace, where through the winter we burned huge logs. Each booth could seat up to nine people at a table made of rough-hewn slabs of oak which were varnished to a high polish. Either side of the fire place was a large settle, covered in the same red velvet fabric, and another of the oak tables, with regular dining chairs on the other side. These tables could seat 7 at a push. A wide counter with folding stained-glass windows separated the bar from the dining area. The room had a high pointed ceiling and featured the bare wooden beams common to many Tudor buildings, but these were all genuine old oak, interspaced with wattle and daub panels, plastered and painted magnolia. Light was supplied by a vast central chandelier made from a cartwheel and wall lights scattered light around the room. The Elizabethan Room had an atmosphere all of its own and I fell in love with it as soon as I started work there; it became my domain – Elizabeth in her Elizabethan Room!

At first, I was homesick for Barrow; although there were eight full time live-in staff working at the Ostrich, the eight were made of two couples with me among the four other singles; but when it came to my weekly time off, everyone else was working. I was very lonely for a while, and considered returning home. Then I gave myself a good stiff talking to; I couldn’t expect to make new friends if I stayed in my room not venturing out! I took my courage in both hands and went one Sunday lunchtime to the Star and Garter, another pub in Colnbrook. Bill Rudge, the landlord, was fantastic – once he learned I was working at the Ostrich he introduced me to all the locals in his pub, and I never looked back.

As live-in Ostrich staff, we shared two houses, four people to each. One of the staff houses was part of the Ostrich building, on the other side of the coaching arch from the pub proper. The other staff house was located a down the high street, and was a semi-detached house called – oddly – ‘Lizbeth’. The ‘all found’ part of the deal meant that food was provided for us – and excellent it was too. Each house was allotted a weekly amount of bacon and eggs for us to cook at home for breakfasts. The kitchen prepared a hot meal for us to take home after our lunchtime ‘session’ (each day there was a procession of us carrying covered hot plates full of food down the High Street). Then, during the evening session, we would be asked at some point if we wanted a supper, when we could choose various options such as sandwiches, pies, soup, etc for us to take home at the end of the working day. In addition to all this, we were paid the princely sum of £50 per week out of which we contributed £5 to cover utilities but that was our only living expense.

I shared Lizbeth house with one of the couples, Janice and Martin, and a young man called David. The house was built to the same plans as my grandparents’ house in Amphitrite Street; downstairs two ‘reception’ rooms were used by the couple as a bedroom and a living room and a communal kitchen. The two double upstairs rooms gave David and I our accommodation with a small box room for storage and the communal bathroom. Once we’d all got to know each other better, Janice and Martin kindly made their living room communal too, so we could all socialise together.

Janice was a feisty Welsh girl – we were almost twins; her birthday was the day after mine. She didn’t like me very much at first; she was the ‘head’ barmaid at work and was a hard taskmaster. Her fiancé, Martin was the Head Chef.  Standards were very high for all of the staff at the Ostrich, it was almost like being in the military when you were on duty. There were routines for every job so that it was always carried out to the same level regardless of who did it. If working in the bar or the restaurant, staff had to be alert, ready to greet any customer with a welcoming smile as soon as they entered, even if in the process of serving another customer. Woe betides anyone caught sitting down when behind the bar, we could stand ‘at ease’ but had to be ready to serve at any point. Likewise, working in the kitchen, everyone was taught the recipes and preparation techniques so that the food was of a consistent high quality, regardless of the person producing it.

Our immediate boss, the manager, John Fairhurst-Walsh was a character. He was quite eccentric, and would check and inspect that the everything was clean and to Ostrich standards. He didn’t like me at first either, but I think that was because he was used to hiring his staff and didn’t like being presented with someone he hadn’t interviewed. He also seemed to be under the impression that ‘northerners’ were some sort of sub-species, but once he’d got used to me, I enjoyed working with him; we became quite close in the end, and good friends.

Eventually we all became the cliched ‘big happy family’ and I made lifelong friends with some and remain so to this day. Janice became my best friend; she and Martin plus David and Kate, (his eventual partner) and me and Trevor, my second husband, spent many fabulous Christmases together after moving on from the Ostrich. Janice and Martin moved to various managerial jobs before settling finally in Poole, Dorset where they bought a house. Sadly, they split up eventually; she wanted children, he didn’t and the resulting chasm was too deep to cross. In our turns, David and Kate, Trevor, and I all went our separate ways.

Neither Martin nor Janice, sadly, are with us now. In a tragic tale, Janice eventually got her wish; she arranged with a male friend that he would impregnate her, on condition that the baby was hers alone. She was ecstatic when she called to tell me she was expecting; she was 38 and had thought it was too late. However, the fates and her age conspired against her; the hormonal changes of pregnancy caused breast cancer and to ensure eradicating it early enough she would have to have immediate chemotherapy. But she refused to either abort or harm her baby with the chemo and held out until the baby could be delivered prematurely with the best chance of survival; Jack was delivered at 25 weeks. When I went to see them, he was in the neo-natal unit and could have fit in the palm of my hand. But Janice was euphoric – at last she had her baby and she finally agreed to start a course of chemo, but it was too late. She died just before her 40th birthday leaving her son in the care of her younger brother and her niece in Wales.

Martin and I lost touch for a long while, but a couple of years ago, David, with whom I’d always kept in contact, got in touch with me and said that he and Martin and Kate were planning to get together at the Ostrich sometime soon and would I like to join them? I was overjoyed and looked forward to it happening. As it transpired, Martin had been diagnosed with cancerous tumours in his brain and was terminally ill, but he’d wanted us all to meet and remember all the happy times we’d had. Sadly, he died last year, before we’d managed to meet. I was so, so sad to get the news.

But again, I’m digressing. It was at the Ostrich that I met so many interesting people, including some famous ones; Phil Collins, Donovan, Kevin Keegan, Susan George and even Marie Osmond! It was at the Ostrich that I tasted foodstuffs completely alien to my mother’s kitchen in Barrow! I had my first biryani whilst working there and tasted garlic for the first time! I fell in love with Martin’s Chicken Kiev from the very first bite.

We mixed with tycoons and millionaires; the rules were that staff were not allowed to spend time off as customers in the Ostrich, in order to prevent being over-familiar, but we made friends with our customers and were often invited to parties or clubs after we’d finished our shifts. The Queen Mother Reservoir is situated on the outskirts of Colnbrook, and at that time part of the clubhouse was Queens nightclub. Any night could be club night, though it was usually weekends that we went. We used to finish our shift at the Ostrich then dash home to change into our ‘going out’ clothes then get ourselves up to the club to drink and dance until 2 am. We developed a good relationship with the club owners (whose names I can’t quite remember – I’ll blame my age!) but I do remember the Manager, who was a guy called Jim Wiley. I think he was from Croydon if memory serves, but he was big into the 80’s club scene and was very friendly with Peter Stringfellow of London’s Hippodrome fame. Ostrich Staff were treated like VIPs at Queens and we had some amazing nights! It’s a good job we were all in our early 20s because we had to be back at work at the Ostrich by 9 am, all bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to clean the place and make ready for our daily customers.

I also met Trevor, my second husband whilst I worked at the Ostrich. When we became seriously involved after about 18 months of dating, and decided to live together, I had to leave my beloved job. The rules were that you could only live in the staff houses if you were in full time employment at the Ostrich. Also, that if you were in full time employment, you must live in the staff houses, that was the way the business was set up, and the wages paid accordingly. So, I had to make a choice – give up my job, or give up my man. I’d like to say it was an easy decision, but it was not. At the Ostrich, I had my work and my home, but I had been living a single girl’s life, without a serious relationship for eight years by that time and whilst I was surrounded by good friends, I was lonely for that special someone. Trevor offered me warmth and security and love and a relationship a world away from my last disastrous attempt. I think you’ve probably gathered what my decision was – I left the Ostrich and set up home with Trevor in Egham, Surrey. I found work in the Customer Service department of DHL International, rising to become a supervisor within 2 years of working there. I was lucky, I’d found another job that I loved – and the bonus was, now I was allowed into the Ostrich as a customer!

The Ostrich is still there, though of course it has changed a lot in the 40 years since I worked there. I went back once, a long time ago but it didn’t feel the same, I suppose I was a fool to expect that it would. But in my memories, I think of it how it was, and how it changed my life, and I’m truly grateful.

I guess that’s enough of my wallowing in the past for now. See you next week!

LH

By lizziehughesauthor

Hello! I'm Liz, a writer from Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire. I've lived here for nearly 20 years, although I'm originally from t'other side o't hill as they say around here. I'm from Barrow in Furness, which was in Lancashire when I was born - still, whether it's Lancashire or Cumbria, it still makes me a Northern Lass. That means I'm honest, straightforward and feisty. My current book is (very) loosely based on my family history, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty!) I'm hoping to publish in April 2022, or possibly earlier. Watch this space!

2 comments

  1. You held my attention from the very start to the very end, Liz. A fascinating account of ‘survival’ by a working class lass. Brilliant. Norm.

    Like

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