Category Archives: Somerset

John Ridd on Beer

We’re both reading R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone at the moment — a pleasingly booze-filled novel.

Published in 1869, it is set in the 17th century, and the following passage occurs when the hero, the burly Exmoor gentleman farmer John Ridd, is a guest at the house of a ‘foreign lady’ near Watchett in Somerset:

John Ridd, uncredited illustration c.1893.
John Ridd, uncredited illustration c.1893.

“Now what will ye please to eat?” she asked, with a lively glance at the size of my mouth: “that is always the first thing you people ask, in these barbarous places.”

“I will tell you by-and-by,” I answered, misliking this satire upon us; “but I might begin with a quart of ale, to enable me to speak, madam.”

“Very well. One quevart of be-or;” she called out to a little maid, who was her eldest child, no doubt. “It is to be expected, sir. Be-or, be-or, be-or, all day long, with you Englishmen!”

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VIDEO: The Miner’s Arms, Priddy

Bloody typical — we could have done with this before Brew Britannia went off to print.

We’re still exploring the recent release of British Pathé documentary footage to YouTube. Our most recent discovery, above, includes the only images, still or moving, that we’ve come across of the interior of the Miners Arms at Priddy, Somerset.

Paul Leyton — the tall, grey-haired patrician character who buys the bucket of snails from the old feller in the footage above — was a former pilot who lived with his family aboard a converted double-decker bus for a time after World War II. He went on to be a leading figure in Britain’s space programme, left in a huff, and took on the Miner’s Arms in the early sixties. Snail farming and frozen food were his main obsessions, and he didn’t start brewing until 1973.

The Miners Arms brewery was among the first of the new wave that kicked off what we’ve called the ‘rebirth of British beer’.

At which point, we are obliged to suggest that — ahemyou ought to order a copy of our book to find out more.

Think You’re Hard, Then?

William Badger Pope c.1930.
William ‘Badger’ Pope c.1930.

William ‘Badger’ Pope, born in around 1878, was a psycho who caused trouble in the West Country city of Bath in the years before World War I. Local papers from around the turn of the century are full of stories about his ‘foul mouth’, and of him stealing, sleeping in dustbins, assaulting people (both men and women), and, in particular, chucking them in the river.

He was, of course, perpetually drunk, and most often found in the pub. It was there that, in his most benign moods, he entertained people with fairground side-show tricks — biting the heads off live rats he kept stuffed in his shirt, or stealing ladies’ hatpins and driving them through both of his cheeks. When he was feeling punchy (which seems to have been most of the time) he would find a bloke he didn’t like the look of, snatch his beer glass and empty it on to the pub floor, before taking a seat to wait for the fight to begin.

He was almost as good at evading the police as he was at drinking and fighting. He might, for example, climb up the maypole outside the Waterman’s Arms like King Kong and wait them out, or, even more effective, dive into the river and swim to the other side.

With characters like Badger about, landlords had to be hard, too, and even Badger is said to have respected (feared) Septimus Smith, who ran the The Shamrock. He was famous for wrestling customers, with a free pint on offer to anyone who could get their hands around both of his wrists at the same time. He could also carry three sacks of cement at once.

Yikes. If you need us, we’ll be in the lounge at the hotel, in our Sunday best, sipping sherry.

We read about Badger in Kegs & Ale: Bath and the public house, published by Bath Industrial Heritage Centre and Millstream Books in 1991. It’s out of print but our secondhand copy cost 1p.

More Dregs from the Drip Tray

Truman's London Stout.

These are a few bits and pieces that didn’t warrant a blog post of their own.

  • Mini book review: Beers of Britain by Warren Knock and Conal Gregory (1975). This oddity was recommended by Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson in the intro to his book The English Pub in 1976. A slim paperback, it takes the odd approach of reviewing pubs by region in prose, rather than, Good Beer Guide style, with alphabetical entries. Worth reading for (a) an informed but view that isn’t CAMRA propaganda; (b) to find out what beer in your town was like forty years ago; and (c) for the occasional nugget, e.g. St Austell didn’t pasteurise their keg bitter in the seventies. A little dry for our tastes, though.
  • An account of election time in the eighteen-thirties, from Recollections of Old Taunton by Edward Goldsworth (1883): ‘The elections in Taunton were a disgrace to all England. The first candidate’s arrival was made known by several hogsheads of beer being rolled on the Parade. It was then drawn off in buckets, pitchers, and jugs, and most of it consumed on the spot; the effect of which was soon both audible and visible, by singing, shouting, swearing, and fighting among the men, and screaming, cap-tearing and hair-pulling by the women… The second candidate would do as the first, and in addition would issue tickets for obtaining beer at public houses…’ As a result, when asked by the Poll Clerk how he had decided who to vote for, a local called Simon Duffer replied: ‘I hear they gives away the most beer.’
  • We were pondering the ages of CAMRA chairs in the early days. We don’t know how old Chris Holmes or James Lynch were The first, Michael Hardman, was 25 when he took the job in 1971. Christopher Hutt (1973) was 26. Gordon Massey (1974) was 27. Chris Holmes (1975) was 30. Chris Bruton (1976) was 31. James Lynch (1978) was 32. Joe Goodwin (1979) was 31. Tim Amsden (1980) was 29. When did CAMRA last have a chair under the age of 35? It would take a pretty ambitious character to pull it off today. (UPDATED after correspondence with James Lynch, July 2013, and further research.)
  • You all saw this long post we wrote on West Country brewers Starkey, Knight & Ford, didn’t you? Good. Just checking.
  • We’ve been posting some things which are too short to blog but too long to Tweet over on Facebook, by the way.

Beer that’s proud to be cheap

Moles VFM beer pump clip.

A while ago, we wrote a post suggesting that ‘craft’ brewers should take on the challenge of making a beer with the intention of knocking it out cheap. Moles of Wiltshire, founded in 1981 at the height of the ‘real ale craze’, have done just that, with a seasonal brew called VFM — value for money.

We came across it in the Crown, one of few Bridgwater pubs with a bit of life, and a commitment to ‘real ale’. ‘It’s brewed to be sold at about £2.20 a pint,’ said the landlord, ‘for February.’ (Their brochure actually suggests an even lower price-per-pint: £1.99.) He certainly seemed grateful for a product which gave him half a chance to compete with Wetherspoons, and the ability to keep up his real ale offer through the post-Christmas doldrums.

It wasn’t a great beer, but it wasn’t bad, either, at least by the standards of a town where Butcombe Bitter and Wadworth 6X are considered adventurous, niche products. In good nick and served cool, just how we like it, we were happy to drink more than one. It wasn’t especially weak (3.8%) and was about as obviously hoppy as many other beers of the same style. Its made, they say, with First Gold hops and Maris Otter malt, rather than floor-sweepings and bag-ends. So how did they achieve the target price point? Damned if we know. (We’ve emailed them to ask and will update this post if we get a reply.)

Keith Reynolds from Moles says: ‘We significantly lower our margin in order to provide a good price to the retailer so it can be passed onto the consumer, at a particularly slow time of the year in the trade, to generate sales.’

It has certainly helped us clarify our thinking on something: beer brewed to be cheap isn’t a bad thing; but cheap beer marketed as a premium product, at a premium price, is a con. VFM doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is.