The Canterbury pub scene in the 90s was a riotous joy

The Old City Bar in Oaten Hill in the late 90s

It’s fair to say that I spent a fair amount of time in the 1990s nursing a hangover.

As far as I was concerned this was the golden age of the pub, that time when you go from being an underage drinker secretly tipping weak lager down your neck in a park to being legally able to buy a pint of beer in a Canterbury boozer.

It must have been about 1990 when I was first served in a pub by the late, great Charlie Passey of the Bell and Crown in Palace Street.

Four of us had rocked up on a Friday night and peered through the window.

“Look at that bloke behind the bar,” I said to my friends as we studied Charlie’s white hair and thick-rimmed specs. “He’ll never serve us.”

The Canterbury Journal’s Alex Claridge (front) out with friends

You might have guessed by now that we were underage – not that this seemed to matter.

As soon as we walked up to the bar, Charlie piped up. “All right carrot head,” he said to my ginger mate. “What’ll it be? Four lagers?”

We’d arrived, we’d found our drinking home and we loved it. The Bell then, as it still is now, was a superb pub.

I just remember being made to feel very welcome, no matter how badly we behaved.

I recall one friend standing on a table downing his eighth pint in one go to mark his 18th birthday.

Once all of us had turned 18, we felt we could properly explore all the pubs. I spent a lot of time at The Dolphin in St Radigund’s when it was a proper boozer run by Graham Dash. And who could forget that little bloke John who manned the door and bid you farewell with a “be lucky” or a “be careful, son”.

The Jolly Sailor and Simple Simon’s were favourites for young people and students. Every Friday night in the 90s they were absolutely rammed.

Also on the drinkers’ route was the Cherry Tree in Whitehorse Lane. It was the spiritual home of regulars on the scene like Mark Jennings, Ben Pick, Warren Beasley, Roger Atkinson and some lad from Hersden nicknamed Weasel.

By the late 90s I was drinking in the Old City Bar, run then by Alan Russell. He ran a tight ship, did Al, and didn’t put up with any idiots.

The dance floor at Studio 41

Later he left and opened what became the Blind Dog of St Dunstan’s while Shamsi Kabbara, who had been his number two, took over.

These were the days of 11pm licensing hours and back then we were of a mind that when the pub shuts, the drinking carries on at the nightclub.

Shamsi would lead us down to Alberry’s to finish the night off. If we didn’t fancy that, we always had Churchill’s and Studio 41 in St George’s Place, neither of them still with us.

Also, no longer here is another fixture of the 90s scene: the pub at the bottom of Dover Street which underwent numerous changes of name.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but I remember it being called Gator’s, Fat Piggies and Buddy Allen’s before it later became Bar Extreme and most recently The Bing sex club. It is now being redeveloped for housing.

Some nights were so boozy that we suffered memory loss, spending the next day piecing back together where we’d been and what we’d one.

I’ll still never forget stopping for “a rest” on a bench in St George’s Street in the early hours of a Sunday morning before finding myself being roused by four grinning coppers, one of whom asked: “Have you got a home to go to?”

Some of the pubs and some of the characters may have gone, but it often feels like the golden age of pubs in Canterbury hasn’t ended.

Happily, it’s still as good now as it was in the 1990s…


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