The Way We Were: Memories of The Swan

The Swan Inn after it was burnt down
The Swan Inn after it was burnt down

Quick, fetch me a brandy. I haven’t been this gutted since Westlife disbanded. Yes, the old Swan at Milton Keynes has burnt down.

And that hasn’t been so gutted since the last fire in 1970, and it’s indeed ironic that scenes of the pub once featured in the film ‘The Night of the Big Heat.’

As for the contemporary mine hosts they had been bombed during the war, but displaying the true Blitz spirit the landlady vowed to go on, saying “It would be a shame to see a modern one go up in its place.”

Thankfully the thatched charm was soon restored, and from the days before the New City many of us retain fond memories of this quintessential English country pub. Yet even with the advent of the New City memories still linger, for in the embryonic days of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation it proved a favoured haunt for those of us employed at the Tree Nursery, which was situated in the village.

In fact still vivid is the time that during one imbibe a kindly landscape contractor offered ‘Digger’ a Players No. 6, without disclosing that an explosive pellet had been stuffed down the cigarette’s tip.

Indeed, all seemed well, until while bowling back in the Corporation’s battered old van an almighty bang exploded our alcoholic torpor, and through a smoky haze could be faintly discerned the traumatised figure of Digger, staring in shock and awe at the shredded remnants of his No. 6, and muttering expletives that would have made a trooper blush. Oh, happy days.

The Swan dates from the 17th century, although there may have been an earlier premises on the site, and in the mid 19th century was kept by Thomas Pinkard. He was succeeded during the later century by Mrs Mary Pinkard, and then Miss Harriet Deacon, until, around 1906, Arthur Kemish Bird became the landlord.

A good sportsman, who loved village cricket, he was also a keen bell ringer, and in 1924 was one of the church ringers at the dedication of the newly restored peal. The Birds were a large local family, and in their home since 1742 had been in the village at No. 22, which in recent years was discovered to be of ‘cruck’ construction, making it the oldest domestic building in the district.

In fact with a timber yard and workshop at the back, members of the family were renowned estate carpenters for the Finch family, who owned the village. As for other employments, George Bird was the parish clerk in 1854, and Elizabeth Ann Bird was the mistress at the National School in 1869.

In the late 1870s John Bird was the village shopkeeper, until this employment became the preserve of Mrs Mary Bird for many years. But regarding Arthur Bird, he died aged 78 in 1942, having been predeceased by his wife was survived by a son and three daughters.

To one of these, Mrs A.E. Hall, the licence of the pub was then transferred, since she had managed the business for him for the past 15 years.

One tradition of the pub was that if the great elm tree should wither then no more babies would be born in the village, but its demise was caused by a vehicle crash in a high speed police chase in 1989.

MKDC then presented the villagers with a new elm, which in June of that year was planted on the village green by a 75 year old resident.

Despite the fire damage to the pub, a semblance of normality will be hopefully resumed before Christmas by employing temporary accommodation, which will also have been hopefully found for the resident ghost, which is reputedly either a grey lady, or a ‘short stumpy’ field worker.

On which subject, another family of long association with the village, being the postmasters at one time, were the Hartups, and at the Tree Nursery we had an agreeable old gent by the name of Joe Hartup, who was employed on odd jobs. One day he had been about his business as usual, but that evening or night he sadly died, and the next day while in his workplace I suddenly sensed a strange and surreal ‘other worldly’ presence.

A spiritual indulgence? Perhaps. But more likely just an over indulgence of spirits in the bar of the Swan, during the previous evening.