Although the Community Ledge set out to showcase people who deserve recognition ‘for being a stand-out member of our community’ we felt it time to extend our range to highlight a standout place. So this week we give you The Horse & Groom Pub, the oldest pub in St Leonards and a legend in the community.  

David Sansbury (Dave), the Landlord, is also known as a gourmet of the Hastings lunch circuit so will no doubt enjoy one of the famous pies supplied by our sponsor, the Albion Pub (a pub that is itself developing legendary status).

Forget for a moment the important role played by the afternoon support group for elderly men that starts at 12 noon on the dot and just think about the number of schemes that have been hatched around a pint of beer at the Horse & Groom. As pointed out by our first Community Ledge, Alison Cooper, Transition Towns Hastings was born out of a discussion “in the Doom & Gloom” (don’t be put off by the nickname).

But why so many discussions? What strange alchemy draws such a wide range of interesting people to the pub? How do they find each other and get to talking? Creating a pub that in many ways resembles an 18th century coffee house is a complex process and a lot of credit has to go to the landlord, Dave Sansbury.

And what of its past? In the 1830s, according to Pubs of Hastings & St Leonards, the Horse & Groom had ‘news rooms’ “where they employed ‘Sunday readers’ to recite the newspapers to the assembled customers. It goes on to say that: “Amateur politicians, dubbed ‘warm politicians’ would gather to listen, argue and criticise issues of local and national government.” Maybe there are echoes from that period still alive in the pub, certainly many “warm politicians”.

Credit for establishing what Dave Sansbury terms the “self-selecting” nature of its customers has to also go to his predecessor, John Woolloff, who is rumoured to have kept a baseball bat behind the door as part of his ‘self-selecting’ enforcement process. 

Dave has kept up the tradition by making it clear when people are not welcome. As he puts it: “Every landlord has to be a referee.” Having described customers as needing to have “the right disposition”, he clarifies that: “They’re all decent people from whatever walk of life they’re from. We make sure it stays like that.”

But newcomers shouldn’t be concerned, you’re more likely to get a warm welcome and end up chatting to someone: or be left alone to read the paper or play a game of chess. Dogs get a particular welcome – as long as they behave.

Before taking over nearly 25 years ago, Dave had been a customer for 12 years so knew the pub well. He was encouraged by another regular, George Bingham, so that it could remain what was already a talking pub. George, who died nearly five years ago, was not only known for his community engagement but also for holding court with a diverse group of the local ‘thinkers’. As described in an obituary in the Guardian, he would “cover a staggering range of subjects; always well-informed, frequently hilarious and never boring.”

And that reveals one of the extraordinary characteristics of this pub: otherwise ordinary-looking people so often have an interesting backstory – something you wouldn’t know unless you got to know them well. Other pubs might have the odd ‘celebrity’, but at the Horse & Groom it’s the sheer quantity of connections that stands out. 

Just taking one current and one former member of staff: a bartender used to tour with well-known author and former member of the Slits, Viv Albertine, (but now makes bespoke hats), a former cleaner at the pub (and regular drinker) used to be an international ballet dancer. And so it goes on.

Dave is well aware of the innate advantages of the pub. It’s in a good location, being able to draw on a diverse demographic and also benefits from being a free house. Then, having referred to the fact that it attracts the ‘intelligentsia’ of the town, he clarified that it’s a pub ‘for all interests’. 

The eclectic mix is summed up by another customer’s experience. Having recently arrived in town, he asked Dave about who the customers were. Indicating two who were talking together, Dave told him: “That one’s a dustman and the other’s an international art dealer.” 

It was just a couple of weeks ago that a customer said: “There aren’t many places you can sit reading Russian literature and be told by someone standing at the bar that you’re reading an inferior translation.” On the other hand, there’s no lack of pub banter – and as one customer put it: “The smokers patio has the best gossip in town.”

And of course, “there’s free specialist advice on any subject if you talk to the right person,” as one regular said. That’s particularly true for building work: general builders, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plasterers, they’re all here (and inevitably one is the son of a famous film stuntman and another won against Brian Jacks, the Olympic Judo champion, at the Albert Hall – many years ago).

Another regular sum up, saying: “It’s the beer and the craic”.  So what about the beer, still important to the modern drinking man? Answers from two other customers on why it was such a good pub were: “The high standard of beer” and “The cellar is immaculate”. Although beer isn’t everything it certainly provides a solid basis on which other aspects can develop.

Another thing, essential for a talking pub, is the good acoustics – as well as an absence of other intrusive noise such as background music. It’s no good ripping out the carpets and curtains to go all minimalist and then not be able to hear yourself talk above the shouting of others (shouting because of the bad acoustics).

But there is music, now: live music from time to time. This was introduced after pub regular Pete O’Donnell arrived on the scene and persuaded Dave to “give it a go”. Did this later lead to Pete’s appointment as band leader at the Ritz in London? Clearly not but it’s a nice thought.

Since then, the Horse & Groom has established itself as a unique music venue, appreciated by musicians for the response of the audience. But live music doesn’t make money, Dave says: “It’s about keeping the community interested.”

At this late stage women might be wondering if they are included. Perhaps not mentioning them up to now is just an indication that they are treated the same as anyone else. There are times that men outnumber the women, but they shouldn’t be put off. It’s a self-policing pub as well as self-selecting. 

For a pub that was opened to benefit the itinerate workforce that came to build the original St Leonards, it has certainly come a long way. A parting comment from the current custodian of the tradition, Dave Sansbury: “For someone who used to milk cows and sell antiques, I think I’ve made a good fist of it.”

• Read our other Community Ledges
Alison Cooper
John Knowles
Claudine Eccleston
Alan Turing
Rachel Holtom
Ruaidhri Guest
Erica Barrett
Jane Grimshaw

• And read what it takes to be a Community Ledge here

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