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The Seahorse and a Forgotten Mermaid

How many people know that the Seahorse was once the Mermaid? No folk memory of this name lingers in the village, although there is no shortage of legends as to the naming of the Seahorse. The Seahorse is now the oldest public house in the village, having outlasted earlier alehouses in the cottages below the church. The pub’s exterior proclaims that it dates from 1711 but there is no evidence to support this.

In 1615 the premises were known simply as Burtons and consisted of a cottage and garden. A clergyman, Luke Burton, sold it to lawyer George Duncumbe of Broadgates (now Debnershe, opposite the church). In 1681 Thomas Duncumbe, the rector of Shere, sold Burtons with its barn, garden and orchard to Shalford clothier Joseph Hicks. Hicks rebuilt the cottage: a deed of 1710 describes it as ‘newly rebuilt’, but internal features suggest that the oldest parts of the building date from the late seventeenth century.

Shortly before 1765 John Hicks and his wife Betty moved from Burtons to a newly built cottage adjoining. It is possible that at this point Burtons became an alehouse. The road was turnpiked in 1758 and the route later extended as far as Arundel. The increase in south coast traffic through the village was noticeable, and a new alehouse would have done good business. In 1792 both cottages were sold to a brewer, Thomas Cooper of Leatherhead, and subsequently combined.

The name ‘Sea Horse’ is first recorded in 1789 in John Hicks’ will (he was buried in the churchyard the following year). A manor court book later recorded the previous name, ‘The Mermaid,’ in order to identify the property but gives no other information. When the name changed and why is a mystery. Nautical pub names occur along routes to the ports and surely the Mermaid was intended to attract sailors. Shalford is not far from the Portsmouth Road and seamen who left Guildford via Quarry Street passed through the village. Occasional entries in the parish officers’ accounts record indigent sailors being given the customary shilling to speed them on their way.

Some theories see a connection between the Seahorse and the coaching trade, but it was never a coaching inn itself. After the roads were turnpiked business at the Guildford coaching inns boomed, with southbound coaches passing through Shalford on their way to Bognor, Brighton, Littlehampton and Arundel. Shalford was a ‘remarkably neat and genteel village charmingly situated on the road to Brighton,’ according to Pigot’s London Directory in 1823. ‘Our Street will become very pouplar [popular],’ wrote Shalford’s miller John Sparkes in 1822, ‘three stagecoaches passes daily.’ The present-day inhabitants of The Street may well wish they only had three stagecoaches passing each day.

Over time the Seahorse went upmarket. Successive owners, particularly the Austens, the local landowners, developed and extended it as a respectable inn. In 1822 Henry Edmund Austen’s improvements to the village included rendering over the timbered exterior of the inn, reroofing it and adding new stables. Its present appearance dates from these alterations. Later in the nineteenth century the Sea Horse became the venue for coroners’ inquests and farm auctions. A craze for pleasure boating in the 1860s made it a convenient stopover for people exploring this stretch of the Wey. It even became the Sea Horse Hotel for a while.

But in 1940 the Seahorse might have played an entirely different role. With the threat of invasion it found itself on the GHQ Stopline, a ring of defences designed to slow down a German advance on London. On a main road through the Guildford Gap the Seahorse featured in plans as a ‘defended locality’. At the back a wide anti-tank ditch from the Wey crossed Dagley Lane and extended across the pub’s garden: the Seahorse’s magnificent strawberry bed fell victim to the war. Concrete blocks were placed over the yard and a pillbox was built into the garden bank.

 

Loopholes for rifles were cut into the west and south walls of the pub. Outside three concrete blocks were erected with slots to hold a steel barrier to form a roadblock. One of the concrete blocks remains, marked with a commemorative plaque. Holes were dug in the road, to be filled with explosives. Fortunately the success of the RAF in the Battle of Britain led to Hitler turning his attention elsewhere, and the Seahorse was saved.

It nearly fell again in 1972. By then the structure was in such a bad way – ‘riddled with rot and worm’ – that the owners, Gales Brewery, applied to demolish and rebuild it and put eight new houses on part of the land. Fortunately the contribution of the old building to the character of the village was recognised and planning permission refused.

In 1997 the pub became part of Bass’s Vintage Inns chain, and only a public outcry prevented them discarding its familiar name in favour of ‘The Wise Old Owl’. At that point the Seahorse was transformed into more of a restaurant than a village local. It now belongs to Birmingham brewers Mitchell and Butler and has undergone several makeovers since 1997. Despite all the changes over the years the role of the Seahorse remains the same - supplying food and relaxation to travellers and villagers, a convenient meeting place for friends and families, and a well-deserved rest for walkers enjoying the countryside. Without the Seahorse Shalford would be the poorer: the pub’s place at the heart of the village is assured. But might one day a new pub sign somehow include a belated acknowledgement of the forgotten Mermaid of Shalford?

© Margaret Dierden 2012