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The Stag Inn

Let the music play on

Written By Hannah Collisson

“I came down here to a party and never left,” says Alan Griffiths with a smile as he puts the kettle on. Apt really that he should be running a pub that embraces the many festivities of the town so wholeheartedly.

There is no shortage of live music throughout the week in Hastings Old Town, but tucked away at 14 All Saints Street, The Stag Inn has much to offer those who venture a little way off the beaten track.

This is the oldest pub in Hastings that still survives in its original state, claims Alan, who has done his research. Dating back to the 16 century, the exterior of The Stag is traditional, but here is a venue that has a reputation as the home of folk music in Hastings, and is consequently a place where many a lively evening is to be had. 

The regular programme of musical happenings is the life-blood of the pub and draws a diverse crowd, though the genre of music never strays far from folk and blues.

The likes of The Ingrid Pitt Orchestra, Stone Junction, The Moors, and the Cajun Dawgs are regular performers, the latter having been born out of a Cajun music night at The Stag. The most high-profile band to have taken to the floor is Skinny Lister, a folk six-piece (see page 22 of this issue). In fact, two of the members now call Hastings home, when they are not on the road that is.

Alan moved down to Hastings from Horsham in 1994 (originally from Surrey), and he has never looked back. Before taking on The Stag in 2009 which he runs with his partner Star, Alan has at various times been a gymnastics coach, run a media analysis company, worked as a chef, run a fish restaurant, and even nearby pub The Jenny Lind.

Alan’s vision for The Stag was to restore it to his idea of a traditional English pub. And simple values are at the heart of everything Alan does at The Stag, Alan explains. “The rules are simple - do your own thing but respect the place and everyone in it.”

Not just an ‘Old man’s pub’ the clientele spans across the age ranges. “We do attract quite a few young people, but they are the ones who get it – they like coming in here because they can sit down and talk. It’s how pubs were in the 1970s.”

Constantly evolving, The Stag is very different to how it was when Alan first took over in 2009, but in looking forward his vision very much looks back to the past for inspiration.

“It is a traditional pub without the traditional mentality. We tidied it up and started it out on the journey to where it is now,” he says.

This included getting rid of a dozen speakers scattered throughout the pub and garden, juke box, and drinks offers.

“I wanted to put it back as it should be (on its feet), and the way people remember it.”

There is a picture of the pub interior, hanging in the front bar, that is dated 1957. Alan says that people comment that it hasn’t changed at all since then, but he says it is more that he has changed it back.

“Visitors come in and are stunned that it’s so old-fashioned. It may look old fashioned, but does not have have an old fashioned attitude.”

He described the pub as a “safe haven” , which is not only recognised for the quality of its music, but for the quality of its ale (The Stag is listed in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide), and is a winner with tourists and locals alike.

“We keep our ales well and offer a different range to what you will find in most Shepherd Neame pubs. There are times you come in here and it’s quiet and gentle, but then the music nights change the atmosphere.”

And so to the musical offering. Each week is packed with regular events as well as the special events and festival celebrations. 

On Tuesday evening is the folk session, which has been running at The Stag for more than 40 years and is currently enjoying a resurgence. Anything goes as long as it is traditional English folk music - visiting musicians and singers are welcome to join in. Wednesday is bluegrass night, an evening of American folk music. Expect high quality musicianship with guitars, banjo, double bass, fiddle, and even accordion.

On Thursdays, the Hastings Shanty Singers take over the back bar, welcoming all to a sing-around. The third Thursday of the month the sing-around is hosted by Rattlebag, a local women’s a cappella group.

Tuesday afternoons the “very tongue-in-cheek” Bourne Valley Male Voice Choir, which includes Alan, rehearses in the back bar.

A recent addition is the ukulele strum-around which takes place on the third Friday of the month.

“On Saturdays we have started to put on bands regularly,” says Alan. They are electrified but not full-on rock bands. They don’t stray far from folk and blues.”

“I’m always trying to find something that’s not the mainstream, and am interested in creating something a bit different. We have allowed and encouraged it to develop in an organic way.”

“Our music policy means that you can still hear yourself talk over the music.”

Alan recounts a conversation where someone asked him about a band that was to play: “Are they any good?” before retracting the statement and saying “Actually, you always have good music here.”

In the pipeline are plans to offer emerging singer-songwriters the chance to play in the back room on a Sunday afternoon.

As well as fully supporting the town’s biggest events including Jack in the Green, The Stag is host to several events put on by Hastings Borough Bonfire Society, and is home to Hannah’s Cat women’s Morris side. It’s no stranger to an aftershow party either - The Spooky Men’s Chorale, the Unthank Sisters and Les Dernieres Trouveres have all headed to The Stag for post-gig music sessions.

This year the pub became even more immersed in the Hastings festival scene with the launch Hastings International Folk Festival in May. The idea was born in July 2013, when a group of regulars including Alan, were chatting at The Stag.

“The question was: ‘Why hasn’t Hastings got a folk festival?’”, he said.

So, he said, a committee of seven was formed and they took their idea to the venues of the Old Town. It was a simple format, that did not require a large amount of money to organise.

“We were selling the idea of a folk week to the pubs, at no cost to them other than the cost of the acts - they all said yes!

“The idea behind the folk festival was to try to get people who were coming down for Jack in the Green to stay in the town. It keeps the cafe’s and pubs turning over and gives people the opportunity to listen to some great music.”

Because individual venues were free to decide which acts to invite to play - the range of music on offer was wide, from an Irish music session in The Royal Standard to folk/funk at the Dragon Bar. The biggest name on the week-long programme was singer Barbara Dickson, whose performance received a standing ovation at St Mary in the Castle. More of the same is planned for the second folk festival next year.

Hastings is a special place says Alan. “Stuff goes on down here that you can’t find in major cities. We are so lucky, we would be culturally starved if we moved anywhere else. I love the way Hastings gets things done musically, and I hope it doesn’t change.”

He adds: “I just love running the pub - I don’t have to go and see my friends, they come to me, I only have to come downstairs, or sometimes sit upstairs and listen to the music!”

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