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Helmdon Historical Articles

Memories Of The Bell Inn

A Centre of Social & Sporting Life

in the Seventies and Eighties

an article by David Brookhouse

The public house, The Fat Landlord in Church Street, was originally called the Bell. It has always been a free house. Albert, my father, had bought it in 1953.  After a time I left my employment to help him, and then with Carol, my wife, I took it over as publican in 1972.

The Bell in the late 1950s

In 1953 it had a tall tree in front of it and a petrol pump selling Regent petrol to those requiring four gallons or more. Captain Lees from Falcutt House was an account customer. It was a major and somewhat lengthy operation to get petrol. You had to wind the handle six times to get one gallon and by the end of that time you were nearly on the floor!  In the front of the building was a cycle rack.

David Brookhouse (left) Carol Brookhouse (middle) serving at the bar.

Publican David Brookhouse.

Inside the pub.

To the right of the pub, adjacent to now-named Bell Close, was a wooden building, the dance hall, called the Bell Hut, which became quite a focus for the village.  It had a maple floor and inside on one wall there was painted in big letters the sentence CRY AND YOU CRY ALONE. There were facilities for drinks and light refreshments.

Aerial view of the Bell and the Bell Hut taken in the 1960s.
The Bell dance hall.

The early dances had no band but we used 78s and a turntable, with amplification by big speakers at each end of the hall.  Many of the first occasions were a bit of a shambles as no–one could dance so my Mother and I gave dancing lessons.  Later we held regular dances on Saturday evenings with the local band The Mellochords.  The dance hall was also used for dinners and meetings for local organisations and even table tennis. It was converted into a dwelling in the late 1950s and demolished later on to make way for the development in Bell Close.

A Bell Darts team (left to right) David Wilcox, Rex Jessett,
Tiger Ayres, Ray Jessett, Pete Somerton, Chris Jessett, Howard Jessett,
Tim Wheeler, Bob Salmons, Janet Wheeler

There was a darts board and skittles which you played on a table.

Myself and Carol were the distribution point for the prescriptions in the village, a chore later taken over by Harold Seckington at Seckington's stores in Station Road.

The pub provided outside bar facilities to places like The 20 Club in Brackley, and as far away as Northampton and Oxford.   In fact, we always provided refreshments of one kind or another and this photo is of a pub menu from the mid-70s.  We were the first place around to do a takeaway service.

A 1970’s menu of basket meals, probably around the time of the Jubilee, lists rump steak at £1.25.  Happy days!

In time there was a Bell cricket team and a Bell football team (both teams often to be found playing the Sports Club), also a five-a-side football pitch, and at various times we organized pool, snooker, dominoes, golf, tractor pulling and banger racing.

A Bell cricket team which played the Sports Club Back row (left to right): Bob Salmons,
Roger Sykes, Arthur Balch, Peter Burns, Barry Smith, Tony Oxley.
Front row (left to right): Dec Winmill, Taff Jones, Fred Eaton, Geoff Watson,
Nobby Somerton David Brookhouse in the middle (manager).

A 1960's Bell football team we thought would be the winning side!
Back row (left to right): David Brookhouse (manager), Phil Coy, Arthur Balch (trainer),
Howard Jessett, Geoff Watson, Taff Jones, Fred Eaton, Brian Peart, Phil Brooks, Barry Smith
Front row (left to right): Chris Passinger, Pete Somerton, Dec Windmill,
Peter Burns, Jamie Passinger.

From time to time team mates attended functions like beer festivals - a great way to raise money for charity.

Left to right: David Brookhouse, ?, Julian Fielding, Phil Coy,
Pete Somerton, Howard Jessett and Arthur Balch.

I am afraid that some of the success we had at football and cricket did not carry out to the water polo into which the pub ventured.  The team got banned from the pool!

For many years The Bell sponsored an Elva racing car owned by Bruce Brown.  The transporter was an old bullion van, painted bright red. As well as the racing car (hard work to push back up the ramp when it was time to go home!) the transporter had a portable bar and had to carry all the beer.

The Bell racing car with its transporter at Le Mans.

Refuelling at the Bell.

Some in the village may still remember the big marquee.  It was the social draw of the village for it hosted so many wonderful events. It covered an area from the back of the building right out to the road.

Many events were held there and a lot of money was raised for charity.  Once we had a grand draw, the first prize being a television set, with all the proceeds going to the children’s ward at the princess Marina Hospital in Northampton.

There is no doubt the greatest coup in our time at the pub that we pulled off were the visits of the gospel choir The Gospelairs, who in time became world famous.

Poster for one of the eagerly looked
forward to Bell charity events.
They came to Helmdon for perhaps three years and played for several Boxing Day events. They were servicemen and women, dressed in smart uniforms of black, gold and blue, from the 3rd American Air Force base based at Upper Heyford.  People came to hear them from miles away.

Charity events on Boxing Day were held for a number of years, the Yard of Ale competition always being very popular. We also had carol singing.

Our charity fund raising efforts were recognized by this certificate of appreciation which shows an example of the Bell’s fund raising effort: £2.500 was sent to the Princess Marina Hospital, Northampton, in December 1980.

Certificate of appreciation for charity fund raising.
We had a fair bit of land at the back of the Bell, roughly covering where Bell Close is today. This was where I started the poultry farm with but twelve hens.  However in the end it housed 50,000 chickens in big chicken sheds fed by a large hopper.

The chicken sheds that stood where Bell Close is now.

The tall chicken feeder.
We sold the pub and land and retired as publicans of The Bell in 1988. We gave the Helmdon Fellowship the remaining funds in the charity account, going to Northampton with Eileen Collett to buy crockery and cutlery which is still in use today.  We have fond memories or our time there, particularly of all the people who were regulars – some of whom we still see today.   Today fund raising has been taken over by various village organizations but I am pleased to think that in its time The Bell made a significant contribution to the social life and sporting life of Helmdon and to charity.

David Brookhouse

As told to Audrey Forgham, self-distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic!

Editor’s note: In retirement David was chairman of the parish council from 1982 – 1988, and Carol has been the backbone of the Helmdon Fellowship for Retired People, taking over in the 90s after Geoffrey Gulliver and Eileen Collett.  She is still at the helm today.
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