Historians and sociologists recognise the importance of the public house in community life, and most sizeable villages have at least one such establishment. Rather more such houses than could be expected in a village of its size were for many years been available in Harwell, and it is to these “pubs” that villagers and visitors alike have come, at lunchtime and at the end of the working day, to meet friends and to relax whilst drinking the local ales. Besides serving refreshment the pubs have also traditionally been the focal points for competition, and friendly rivalries have existed between one establishment and another as to which team or individual was the better at the playing of darts or dominoes, cribbage or Aunt Sally. Many a story has been recounted in our public houses, the telling of each being embellished at the lengthening of the hour; many a song has been sung, the enthusiasm of the choir often being a measure of the quantity of ale that has been consumed. Each public house had its own character, and amongst its customers, its characters.
The Chequers was on Wantage Road, and it was outside this house that one dark night, more than seventy years ago, the village policeman was brutally murdered. For many years the Chequers was run by Mr and Mrs Day, descendants of whom are still living in the village. Wells of Wallingford were the brewers who supplied them with good strong ale, which at least one man living today wistfully recalls buying at 2d per pint.
The Crispin is in Burr Street and for many years displayed a fire insurance plaque on an outside wall; without such a sign, significant delays could occur when emergency action was required. During the second world war, when beer was in short supply, this pub was known locally as “The Iron Lung”; this name arose from the practice of locking the doors so that those within could not get out, and worse, those without went without; to ensure entry customers arrived early and in large numbers. In order to serve a customer it was necessary to descend to the cellars to draw off a glass of beer from the barrels, which in those days were not fitted with pumps.
The Crown was in the High Street. During the great fire in 1852 the property was saved from destruction by a Mr Walters, who is reported to have spent several hours extinguishing burning embers as they alighted on the thatched roof of this house. An annual event that took place in the Crown was the sale by auction of the cherry crops. The fruit was sold whilst still on the trees, as much as £1600 being paid in the early 1950s for the crop in an orchard off the Reading Road.
The Kicking Donkey, formerly the Queens Arms, was in Burr Street. This house took its name following an incident when a donkey was taken into the bar, with unfortunate results; for it is reported that much ale was spilt as a result of the antics of the high spirited animal. For many years Alf Gerring kept this house and a notorious terrier named Bonzo; it was said that Bonzo was trained to snap at the ankles of visiting Aunt Sally players about to throw at the doll. In 1977, in celebration of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II a team from the Kicking Donkey successfully pulled a team from the White Hart in a tug of war across the brook.
The White Hart, situated at the northern end of the High Street, is in part an Elizabethan house, modernised and enlarged in recent years. During construction work two deep wells were discovered and are today a prominent feature in one of the bars. Originally a bakery, the White Hart has served as a public house for 350 years, and in former days as a coaching inn, with adequate stabling for horses in its yard. A bowling alley was for many years a popular amenity at this establishment. Until its recent modifications there were 52 doors in the White Hart, one for each week of the year!