Whilst enjoying a rare idle moment recently, I decided to jot down my favourite ‘Desert Island Pubs’ – the ones where, assuming one could instantly teleport free-of-charge to anywhere that took your fancy, you would head straight off to, albeit in some sort of descending order, presumably. I didn’t actually get as far as determining the order of preference, but of all the top boozers on the list, the Lord Nelson in Brighton would rank pretty high up.
I’m not completely sure why I like this place. It’s not a free house, being a Harvey’s pub, but as their Best Bitter rates at the summit of my classic beer preferences, that’s a help. It can be difficult to get a seat, and is often very noisy, with obscure ditties blasting out over the sound system occasionally doing their best to ruin the conversation. But if ever my football travelling takes me in the vicinity of Brighton railway station, I make time to pop into the Nelson for a couple or maybe more.
My love affair with the pub probably began in 1990 when I was in the town with my bride-to-be and I fixed her up with snazzy engagement ring. So if ever I needed an excuse to arrange a weekend in Brighton, I reasoned that a 20th Anniversary return trip would be good enough. That should have been in December, but heavy snow at that time meant moving it back a couple of months and finding a suitable date – which also had to be when Whitehawk FC were staging a home game. Hey, c’mon!
So after delegating kid-sitting duties to the in-laws, we head off down the M1 in the wife’s little KA (capable of 0-60 eventually) and after a brief wet at a country pub just off the A23 – where the chatty landlord regales me with a lengthy story about the Lewes Arms in Lewes, with which I am already familiar – we arrive in Brighton in the teeth of a gale. I barely have time to deposit the wife in the hotel, and point her in the direction of where the best shopping is to be had, before jumping back into her motor and negotiating the short but tricky route to the Enclosed Ground, home of Isthmian League South newcomers Whitehawk FC.
I’m sure this place must be quite picturesque on a tranquil summer’s day, sitting as it does in the shadow of the South Downs hills, and the recently-carved (2001) White Hawk. But today is anything but tranquil. The drizzly rain is squalling, the wind gyrating, and there’s the dullness of the bleakest winter’s day. There are a few other football grounds in the immediate vicinity, but it does seem that the ‘Enclosed Ground’ of Whitehawk enjoys a little bit of refuge from the elements. The small covered terrace at one end, set slightly to the side of the goal, does afford almost complete protection from the biting wind, and I pitch up there.
That’s after I’ve checked out the bar, which has a dearth of available seats and and is a complete black hole when it comes to decent beer. What’s more the only TV is showing horse-racing! At a football ground? It’s a point not lost on one of the Sittingbourne fans I overhear chuntering later. At half time they are showing the rugby – tough luck if you want to know any footy scores. I fare little better in Fanny’s of Hanover’s snack bar, where their definition of ‘various pies’ is either Cornish Pasty or Sausage Roll. Various indeed! I think I’ll pass.
There’s not a big crowd today, A dozen or so exciteable away fans join me in the covered terrace, where they fill their spare moments by discussing ways of raising money for their cash-trapped club. How times change. When I last saw this team, they were winning away at Burton Albion in 1993. They were enjoying the patronage of a rich benefactor at that time, and several coachloads turned up at Eton Park for the match. 18 years on barely a dozen have managed to get down from Kent, and sadly not many of the best-looking ones either, a fact they are happy to concede when talk briefly turns to the possible commissioning of a fan’s calendar. The idea is quickly shelved!
The home side are enjoying a good season, and sit third in the Isthmian Division One South. Their visitors today are not too far below them, and I am expecting a decent game. The first half, however, is quite forgetable, the wind and heavy pitch contributing to 45 minutes of fits and starts and nothing for the purist, save for a firm header from Whitehawk’s towering No.10 which nudges the home team in front on 30. On a slope overlooking one goal, a guy in a 4×4 grits it out. He had rolled up well before kick-off to grab the best non-paying view of the game, but was the only one seeking to gain such an advantage. The rest of us mugs have to pay.
Things liven up on 60 when the same No.10 demonstrates his dominance over hesitant defending by notching his second of the match. Ten minutes late it’s all over bar the shouting, thanks to an incident which seems only apparent to a furiously flag-waving Lino. The ref hauls a Sittingbourne man out of the players huddle and brandishes a red, and he doesn’t want to go quietly. Transpires he’s been unsportingly acquainting an opponent with a knobbly part of his arm, unbeknown to the ref. Sadly for him the Lino is a little more eagle-eyed. The Hawks press home their extra man advantage and score two more before the close, raising the entertainment level ever so slightly in the process.
And so back into Brighton and the promise of an enjoyable evening in the Lord Nelson, supping some Harvey’s Best. But my mind’s already working overtime on any good reason to get back down here again soon. My attention is drawn to an article in one of the local free-sheets about progress being made on the new stadium for Brighton & Hove Albion at Falmer, due to open next season. But of course, Salvation is at hand! I’ll just tell the missus we’ll be celebrating the 22nd anniversary of our engagement, and it’s to be in Brighton again.I’m sure she won’t mind….
Programme: £2 from a man just inside the gate. Attractively-designed but rather thin on content.
Floodlight pylons: The traditional four
Parakeets: I was hopeful but aside from a couple of noisy magpies it’s shitehawks all the way….
Toilets: Behind the main stand
Tannoy music: None
Club Shop: No
Player with the quirkiest name: Whitehawk’s Darren ‘Zola’ Budd