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Secret Drinker reviews Medway's oldest gay pub, the Ship Inn, Rochester High Street


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It was the biggest day for the English national team for more than half a century but one pub declared itself a footie-free zone, gave the chef a day off and ignored all the hysteria.

Popping into the Ship Inn at the Chatham end of Rochester High Street for a lunchtime loosener before the big match I walked past a local enjoying a smoke on the doorstep before realising it was the barman.

Right on the border with Chatham, I almost missed the Ship Inn on Rochester High Street, but I’m in good company according to the barman 'as most people miss this one'
Right on the border with Chatham, I almost missed the Ship Inn on Rochester High Street, but I’m in good company according to the barman 'as most people miss this one'

Ben the bartender followed me in, switched on the lights and explained his boss hates football so took the decision to open a little later at 1pm as he didn’t expect many customers.

I ordered the closest thing to bitter on tap, a pint of Shipyard Pale Ale while Ben explained his boss has three other pubs and always paints them the same shades of purple.

However, apparently the top man isn't loving the colour here and is planning to change it to blue – I agreed anything would be a huge improvement.

A real ‘purple patch’ – I must have had my mind on the footie because it took me some time to notice just how many different shades of lilac, mauve and violet have been used around the pub
A real ‘purple patch’ – I must have had my mind on the footie because it took me some time to notice just how many different shades of lilac, mauve and violet have been used around the pub

At this point my host, who’s worked at the pub for five years, shifted the conversation dramatically when he spotted someone approaching the synagogue across the road.

He explained it closed down some time ago and now only opens for special occasions so he likes to be neighbourly and keep an eye on the comings and goings around the place.

It’s a pity, he says, but the community isn’t big enough to justify keeping the synagogue open but they won’t let it go because of the cemetery at the back.

The colour scheme continues in the dance bar on the left had side of the pub but is broken up by the brick-look wallpaper.
The colour scheme continues in the dance bar on the left had side of the pub but is broken up by the brick-look wallpaper.

His observations on the local Jewish community were interrupted by diminutive Molly who entered the bar through a door at the back wearing a massive England shirt at least seven sizes too big for her that looked more like a dress.

Although Molly, and Ben, and the boss, all live above the pub she generally works at another of his pubs, which was planning to show the footie.

She proceeded to ask Ben’s opinion whether her shirt should be worn off the shoulder or not, but when he claimed ignorance and suggested she ask one of her many gay friends she turned and asked my opinion?

Cocktails on tap – there is currently a selection of three on offer but Ben assured me a new fourth cocktail will be added to the list very shortly
Cocktails on tap – there is currently a selection of three on offer but Ben assured me a new fourth cocktail will be added to the list very shortly
Slabbed wall-to-wall, the outside area at the back of the pub is quite extensive
Slabbed wall-to-wall, the outside area at the back of the pub is quite extensive

Whether I was pre-occupied with concerns the Azzurri would beat us on penalties or was simply sleepwalking and failed to notice the massive Rainbow flag on the ceiling where everyone else was flying St George's, it suddenly dawned on me, this is a gay bar.

As I was the only customer in, I took the opportunity to explore the place in more detail and discovered a 100% paved outdoor area, more rainbow flags, a purple pool table and cocktails on tap.

Returning to the main bar, Ben decided now I’d got the measure of the place it was time to educate me further.

Photos on the bar wall clearly show the Ship Inn has a considerable history. But, adding the detail and colour of the pub’s fascinating past falls to Ben behind the bar
Photos on the bar wall clearly show the Ship Inn has a considerable history. But, adding the detail and colour of the pub’s fascinating past falls to Ben behind the bar

Apparently his mate recently compiled a history of Rochester High Street and proudly informed me the pub is over 500 years old and Medway’s oldest gay bar – not only this, but he confidently declared that the purple dance bar on the left, complete with its brick-look wallpaper, was the site of the first arrest and conviction for buggery way back in the days of Henry VIII.

Never afraid of a swift conversation change, Ben next explained that whilst the whole place had recently been redecorated the gents missed out as the builders ran out of time.

He was adamant no expense had been spared on the ladies and, as they are much better and no-one was around, he insisted I take a look. However, as an ex-plumber, he also felt it necessary to tell me ladies are much less careful with their toilets and at one point they were getting through three seats a week. I just agreed they looked much smarter.

The gents, with its lengthy stainless steel urinal, might appear a bit tatty next to the rest of the pub but I thought it was okay. However, plumber/barman Ben was determined I should take a look inside the ladies and I have to agree it is much better finished.
The gents, with its lengthy stainless steel urinal, might appear a bit tatty next to the rest of the pub but I thought it was okay. However, plumber/barman Ben was determined I should take a look inside the ladies and I have to agree it is much better finished.

Tantalisingly there was a blackboard displaying several meals – and roasts are usually available on a Sunday – but to be fair I had already been informed food wasn't being served because of the big match.

I found my visit fascinating but I’m the first to accept this was no ordinary day at The Ship, which apart from a ‘normal’ Sunday when it closes at midnight, has a 2am licence every day.

Thursday is, I’m reliably informed, particularly popular as it’s karaoke night.

It was an interesting experience to be the only customer in and have the full attention of a chatty barman but I might need to revisit to sample the real Ship Inn.

NB, I haven’t had a chance to verify Ben’s historical references...

The owner insisted his pool table was recovered in purple baize and went to a fair bit of trouble and expense to get it done. However, he’s not as concerned about the clash with the fireplace surround
The owner insisted his pool table was recovered in purple baize and went to a fair bit of trouble and expense to get it done. However, he’s not as concerned about the clash with the fireplace surround

Ship Inn, 347 High Street, Rochester ME1 1DA

Decor: Incredibly purple, the place has been fully decorated, with the exception of the gents, but the heavy, dark beams don’t do the shades of violet and lilac any justice. **

Drink: The Shipyard was okay but I switched across to the Kronenbourg, which was also fine, though perhaps just a little on the flat side. **

There is a TV screen in the dance bar but, given the pub lights weren’t even switched on when I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see it was not on
There is a TV screen in the dance bar but, given the pub lights weren’t even switched on when I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see it was not on

Price: Everything on tap seemed to be £4 a pint. The Fosters was slightly cheaper but Molly and Ben couldn’t decide between them whether it’s £3.80 or £3.90. ***

Food: Sunday roast would usually be available but the boss was so sure no-one would be eating out because of the footie he had given the chef a day off.

Staff: Ben, ably supported by his comic sideshow Molly, provided great entertainment and was, by some distance, the best thing about this high street pub. ****

The food on the blackboard looked reasonably priced, but with the chef nowhere to be found I didn’t get the chance to sample so much as a fish finger sandwich
The food on the blackboard looked reasonably priced, but with the chef nowhere to be found I didn’t get the chance to sample so much as a fish finger sandwich
Viewing the back of the pub from the outside the age, and the size, of the building is very clear
Viewing the back of the pub from the outside the age, and the size, of the building is very clear

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