Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate

This morning, David Martin asked us if we knew anything about Cave’s Solid Beer. We didn’t, but we do now; here’s what we found out.

CSB, Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate, was founded by George Gordon Cave in Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire – now part of Milton Keynes – in around 1898.

Cave was born in London in 1841. He worked in various parts of the UK including Bristol, where he shows up in the 1871 census as a ‘hotel keeper’, and Merthyr Tydfil where, in 1881, he was working as a brewery engineer. By 1891, he had arrived in Fenny Stratford and was a brewer, full stop.

His own firm, CSB, specialised in producing beer extract for shipping overseas using a patented method of Mr Cave’s own invention.

Amazingly, you can see what is probably some packaged solid beer in a photo from around the turn of the century hosted at the Talk About Bletchley website – wooden crates marked CSB CAPE TOWN.

Here’s a brief description of CSB from the Leighton Buzzard Gazette for 5 May 1903:

During his whole time in Fenny, Mr. Cave had been working at these patents, the object being to produce beer in condensed form to save enormously on the carriage of it to foreign countries and the colonies, where it could be developed under his patent process.

And here’s a note on the company registration from the International Brewers’ Journal for 15 June 1898:

Cave’s Solid Beer Syndicate Company, Ltd.,with a registered capital of £25,000, divided into 25,000 shares of £1 each, to acquire from Mr. George Gordon Cave, of Fenny Stratford, the invention protected by Letters Patent No. 2,889, of 1894, for improvements in the treatment of yeast and any further improvements and additions thereto, and all further patents granted to the said George Gordon Cave in respect of the invention above mentioned, together with the right to apply for letters patent in any foreign country or British colony in respect of the invention of any improvements thereof or addition thereto, and for the manufacture and sale of ale and beer in a solid and compact form for export as at present authorised by the Excise officials.

A few references in later local history publications refer to Solid Beer as being sold ‘in slabs’ for reconstitution with water but this syndicated news article, published in various local papers on or around 8 November 1900, specifies, as we suspected, that it required fermentation before drinking:

The Central News learns that the military authorities in South Africa have reported favourably upon the latest invention in the way of concentrated beverages, known as ‘solid beer’. This is a jelly made from malt and hops, and by its use beer, said to very wholesome and palatable, can be made anywhere and fermented, the process being exceedingly simple. practically indistinguishable from beer brewed in the ordinary manner, and it can made with equal facility and success in hot or cold climates.

That’s backed up by earlier instances of ‘solid beer’ as a synonym for ‘malt extract’, this being one of those products that people kept claiming to have invented every few years.

Here’s an example from 1856:

Will the inhabitants of London ever carry their beer in their pockets? A question, this, not so strange as at first may appear; for a Moravian, M. Rietsch, has invented a mode of making what may be termed solid beer. He brews a malt-extract; he bitters it with hops and sweetens it with sugar; he concentrates it by heat; he pours the thickened mass into wooden boxes lined with tinfoil; and he sells it in this form. The purchaser, when inclined for a draught of beer, takes some of the concentrated extract, dissolves it, ferments it, and — lo! the beer appears. It is obvious that the only question here is — not whether such beer can possibly compete with draught beer where brewers and malt and hops are plentiful — but whether it may not be a valuable addition to the commissariat stores of travellers or sojourners in distant and ill-provided countries; since the concentrated extract is suited for keeping.

Here’s another reported by the Scientific American in April 1870:

The age produces some queer paradoxes, and none more so than in the results of manufacturing science. In former days it was the custom to buy bread and even beef by the yard; but we believe that it is only in the present day that we can get our beer by the pound. By a very simple process, introduced by Mr. Mertens, the wort, after being made in the mash-tub of malt and hops in the usual manner, is sucked up by a pipe into a large vacuum (exhausted by an air-pump), and then persistently worked round and round while the moisture is evaporated. The wort emerges from its tribulations with a pasty consistency, and is allowed to fall from a considerable height into air-tight boxes, in which it reposes, like hard-bake. It soon gets so exceedingly tough that it has to be broken up with a chisel and mallet, and in that condition is easily sent abroad, or to any part of the world, for people to brew their own malt liquor.

A couple of years ago, we wrote about the tendency in journalism to get excited about this kind of beer innovation – instant beer! Beer in pill form! The Keurig of beer! And so on. But none of these Victorian ‘solid beers’ were any such thing – only proto-beers, requiring further work on receipt.

Still, clever stuff for the time, requiring ingenuity in processing and packaging, and we can imagine soldiers thousands of miles from home were glad to have something even vaguely resembling the ale they were used to drinking in Blighty. Our guess, pending further research, is that an army cook could take a block of this stuff, unwrap it, pound it up in warm water, chuck in dried yeast, and a week or two later have drinkable beer to serve up to the troops.

Unfortunately, George Cave died suddenly in 1903 at the age of about 62 and the company was wound up before 1914 when the premises was advertised for sale.

As ever, more information, especially if it’s based on primary sources, would be welcome.

Stew with a lid

You are here for deprogramming. Everything you thought you knew about pies is wrong. Listen to me – listen carefully: even if it has no pastry base, it is still a pie.

You might have a preference for a pie with a pastry base.

That might be how your Mum made pies, or how the speciality pie of your hometown is made.

But none of that means ‘stew with a lid’ is anything other than a legitimate pie.

Ah, ‘stew with a lid’ or ‘casserole with lid’ – one of those off-the-peg witticisms that’s been bludgeoned to death through repetition in the past decade.

I can’t work out where it originated but as with ‘Never drink in a pub with a flat roof’ I’d guess it was with a comedian on a panel show, or in an observational stand-up act.

Unfortunately, as well as becoming a tired gag, it’s also become the basis of a kind of only-half-joking dogma. ‘That’s not a pie LOL!’ the fanatics say on Twitter and Facebook, giving both barrels to TV chefs who fail to comply with standards of correctness.

In 2017, TV cook Mary Berry made a potato, cheese and leek pie on her programme Mary Berry Everyday. Instead of lining the pie dish with pastry, she put the filling directly into the dish, then put a strip of pastry around the rim to which she fixed the soon-to-be pie-crust before baking.

People, as they saying goes, ‘took to Twitter’ to berate the then 81-year-old.

Twitter screengrab: "That's not a pie".

After all, what does Mary Berry know about baking?

The tone is often one of weariness with what our society has become, the coming of the baseless pie yet another symptom of the decay of moral standards. ‘Since when…’ these complaints sometimes begin.

I’ve even come across one chap who seems to think PIE is an abbreviation for ‘product is encased’ and that this concludes the debate. (See also: port out, starboard home.)

The thing is, all these people are just wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion – they are simply incorrect.

Look at any historic British cookbook and you’ll find numerous recipes for pies with pastry bases and pies without.

Jane Grigson’s English Food, first published in 1974, collects regional recipes from family cookbooks and obscure volumes. It gives us several baseless ‘stew with a lid’ pies including rabbit pie, Cornish charter pie based on an 1883 recipe, chicken and leek pie from Wales and Dartmouth pie from an 1880s recipe.

Nell Heaton’s similar compendium of Traditional Recipes of the British Isles from 1951 – a by-product of the Festival of Britain – has, for example, Shropshire pie:

For the filling use young rabbit and far pork seasoned with pepper, salt and sweet herbs. Add a grating of nutmeg, the chopped liver of rabbits, chopped onion and apple and a few currants. Add 1 pint broth, then cover with pastry made with 2 lb flour, 1.5 lb butter or lard or mixed, the yolks of 3 eggs and a little water to make a fairly stiff paste. Bake in a quick oven for one and a half hours.

And Mrs Beeton, for goodness sake, has this:

Beeton pie recipe with no base.

I think a few things have caused this weird dogmatising of the definition.

First, there’s a reaction against mass catering. When I was a teenage chain pub waiter, I saw at unfortunate close hand how ‘our delicious homemade steak-and-kidney pie with rich gravy’ came into being.

  • Heat plastic pouch of pre-cooked brown goop.
  • Snip corner and squeeze it into the pie dish.
  • Take pastry toupee from warming shelf and plonk on top.
  • Serve.

Look back at Berry, Grigson, Heaton and Beeton – pastry base or not, pie tops and filling are cooked together. The filling flavours the pastry which helps to cook the filling by, uh, acting as a lid under which it can stew.

The problem with the mass-catering pie of the 1990s was that it didn’t feel like a complete dish. The cut corners were all too visible. The stew and the lid were not as one.

Secondly, as regional variations have disappeared and home-cooking has dwindled, the meaning of pie has narrowed.

For many people, it has become only the enclosed handful in a tinfoil tray you get at the chippy or at a football match, or that you find floating in gravy on a sturdy pie-and-mash-shop plate.

Those can be great – at their best, a wonder of mass production, integrated and satisfying, magically portable – but they’re only one take.

If you want to play the game of industrial vs. artisanal (maybe you don’t – who has the energy?) then a baseless pie, cooked at family size and dished up with a serving spoon around the dining table, is arguably more authentic.

Finally, I think there might be a north v. south thing going on.

Of Grigson’s pie recipes, those with a base tend to be northern, such as Cheshire pork and apple pie and Westmorland lamb pie.

Elisabeth Orsini’s 1981 The Book of Pies seems to back this theory up: for example, Leicestershire pork pie has a pastry base, Devonshire pork pie doesn’t.

Pies are complicated, they contain multitudes –  multitudes stewed beneath pastry lids.

News, nuggets and longreads 10 August 2019: sexism, shandy, Smithwick’s

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in beer and pubs in the past week, from the Great British Beer Festival to comedians in pubs getting bladdered.

Undoubtedly the biggest story of the week, making it into multiple newspapers and even on to breakfast TV, was the fact that this year’s Great British Beer Festival was decisively, convincingly welcoming to women. Here’s how Rebecca Smithers reported it for the Guardian:

Drinks that have fallen victim to crude stereotyping – such as Slack Alice, a cider described as “a little tart” and pump clips featuring scantily-clad buxom women – have been banned from this week’s event at London’s Olympia which is set to attract tens of thousands of visitors… The blanket ban goes a step further than a new code of conduct launched by the campaign group last year… All 1,000-plus beers, ciders and perries available at the festival have been checked to ensure they adhere to Camra’s charter and strict code of conduct, which sets out its commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

This seems to chime with the experience of women who were actually at the festival, such as beer industry veteran Rowan Molyneux (who also happens to be in the photo at the top of the Guardian article).She had this to say on her blog:

From the start, there was a general feeling that this year was going to be different. The news that beers in keykeg would be present seems to have piqued people’s interest, for one thing. It signalled that CAMRA was taking a step into the modern world, and that mood carried throughout the rest of the festival. Take this year’s charity of choice, for example. I never thought I would see Great British Beer Festival attendees being able to donate to Stonewall and wearing stickers that state “Some people are trans. Get over it!”

Melissa Cole also seems to have been won over:

This all sounds pretty good to us, goes far beyond the tokenism and half-hearted gestures of the past, and sets up CAMRA well for the future.


Kilkenny

Liam at BeerFoodTravel has put together a comprehensive set of notes on pre-20th century brewing in Kilkenny, Ireland. A dogged and detail-focused scholar, we always enjoy reading the fruits of his research, especially when he’s battling to bring down bullshit brewery backstories:

The early brewing history of Ireland is often quite murky, and trying to pinpoint the exact position of breweries and the brewers that operated in any give location is quite a tricky job until we get to the era of commercial directories, better record keeping, accurate maps and archived content of newspapers. Even after that point the history and development of breweries is difficult to track, especially beyond The Pale. Kilkenny’s brewing history is similar in one way but somewhat different in another, as much of that history is difficult to clearly see due to being muddied by decades of marketing spiel which has been repeated and reprinted over the years.


Beautiful beer glass.

Jeff Alworth challenges an often-repeated assertion in a piece entitled ‘Are Pilsners really the hardest beers to make?

The difficulty of a pilsner is its simplicity, but the difficulty of a good IPA is its complexity. Brewers must harmonize much stronger flavors, and this presents its own challenge. Figuring out how the hops will harmonize, when there are dozens of hop varieties available that can be used in thousands of combinations, and jillions (technical term) of combinations when you consider all the opportunities during the brewing process to add these thousands of combinations of hop varieties… The idea that other beers are “easier” to make is refuted by all the mediocre examples out there. How many crap IPAs have you had? Is the batting average for excellent IPAs any better than excellent pilsners? Not in my experience.


'Ginger Beer Makers and Mush Fakers', 1877.

Mark Dredge has both a new website and a new book on the way, on the history and culture of lager. As a side investigation, he’s been looking into the history of shandy, or shandygaff, with reference to primary archive sources:

[The] first mention for lager and lemonade that I’ve found… [is] from 1870. It comes from the Spanish city of Seville [and was reported in] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. It’s interesting to me that there was a lager brewer in Seville in 1870 – that’s early for lager’s spread into Spain. I also like that it was served with a ladle. I’d like a shandy ladle.


Louis Barfe

If you want something to listen to as opposed to read, there’s this by historian of light entertainment Louis Barfe for BBC Radio 4 on the connections between drinking and comedy.


Finally, the usual mischief from Thornbridge’s in-house provocateur:


For more links and good reading check out Stan Hieronymus on Mondays and Alan McLeod on Thursdays.

Brewing in Georgian Bristol: smells and cellars

When I’m not obsessing over beer I sometimes obsess over architecture which is why I’ve been reading Walter Ison’s The Buildings of Georgian Bristol.

It was first published in 1952 and revised for a second edition in 1978. It mostly comprises fairly dry research into buildings and street layouts – who designed or built what with reference to original contracts, whether the pediment is segmental or not, and so on – but you won’t be surprised to learn that there are a couple mentions of brewing that leapt out.

The first is with reference to Queen Square, which you can see from Small Bar on King Street, to give a beer geek friendly reference point. Originally marshland, it was divided up into plots from 1699 and built up between 1700 and 1718. It had a dual carriageway running through the middle for most of the 20th century but is these days once again a peaceful public space.

Ison quotes from the city records for 1699 which include the terms of what we would now call planning permission for the first house on Queen Square:

[No] Tenement [is] to be lett out to any sort of Tenants particularly no Smiths Shopp Brewhouse nor to any Tallow-Chandler or to any other Tradesmen who by noyse danger of ffire or ill smells shall disturbe or annoy any of the Inhabitants who shall build neer it…

This was a classy development for well-to-do folk and it wouldn’t do for it to pong or otherwise exhibit evidence of people working. These days in Bristol, breweries tend to be on industrial estates – the logical conclusion of this kind of zoning regulation.

The second reference comes in a description of the development of Portland Square from 1788. Here, Ison quotes for a sale notice for the middle house on the south side of the square from 1812:

[The house contains] three arched under-ground cellars, a servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room, back-kitchen, larder, brew-house, and other offices…

A brewhouse is an interesting addition to a large, fashionable house as late as the early 19th century. Other houses nearby seem to have had wine cellars rather the brewing facilities, at least according to Ison’s notes, so the owner of this one was clearly one of us.

But who did the brewing? What did they brew? Where would we even start looking to find out?

Main image: detail of ‘The Mansion House at the corner of Queen Square looking along Queen Charlotte Street’, Samuel Jackson, 1824, via Watercolour World/Bristol Museums.

A Nice Cold Pint at the Winchester

“Take car. Go to mum’s. Kill Phil, grab Liz, go to The Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”

The above line in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, accompanied by a cartoonish wink and the raising of a pint of lager by Pegg, spawned a meme and summarises a whole (pointedly flawed) philosophy of life.

Shaun of the Dead is one of the all-time great pub films. Few others feature a pub so prominently as both a location and in dialogue; hardly any make a pub so pivotal to the plot. Shaun’s attitude to the pub, to this particular pub, defines his entire personality and directs the course of his relationships.

It has an added resonance for me in that, for several years in my own flat-sharing twenties, I lived around the corner from The Winchester.

And, to be clear, I don’t mean that I lived near a pub that was like The Winchester: the actual pub you actually see in the actual film was about four minutes walk from my house in New Cross, South London.

It was called the Duke of Albany and I never went in.

Why? I was too scared.

I was, in general, fairly brave, regularly drinking in several pubs near my house that others might have balked at – the kind of down-at-heel, last-legs places where it was a choice of Foster’s or Stella, and everything was ripped, stained, broken, or had initials carved into it.

The Duke of Albany always seemed next level scary, though, perhaps because it was a Big Millwall Pub. Or maybe because it was on a backstreet rather than the main road – the only street, in fact, where anyone has ever tried to mug me. I have a faint memory of there always being dogs outside and I don’t mean 10/10 floofy internet doggos – real face-chewers. You couldn’t see in, either, which meant walking through the door would have been a pure gamble.

And that fortress character is, of course, exactly why Shaun chooses it as his base for the zombie apocalypse.

The pub In Shaun of the Dead, though it is The Duke of Albany, isn’t the Duke of Albany. It represents every decent but unpretentious, tatty but not grotty, functional neighbourhood pub in London.

As such, it is lovingly, carefully depicted, Edgar Wright’s hyperactive camera swooping in on resonant details: a cowboy boot tapping a brass rail, the fireworks of the fruit machine, textured wallpaper varnished with nicotine, and frosted glass that speaks of privacy and mischief. TV screens, flaming sambucas, glasses that only just barely look clean…

It’s an attempt to depict a real backstreet, outer-rim London pub, not the romantic Olde Inne of popular imagination. An ideal, sure, but not a fantasy.

It picks up on threads laid down in Spaced, the cult TV show that launched the careers of Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. One episode in particular, ‘Back’, the opening to series two from 2001, features a Matrix-like fight sequence in a very real-looking, unglamorous pub.

You might discern a progression, in fact. In Spaced, about post-adolescence, pubs are important, but just part of the mix alongside nightclubs, raves and house parties. By Shaun of the Dead, with characters staring down the barrel of 30, pubs have become the default, with fancy restaurants and dinner parties the threatened next step. And in The World’s End, pubs have definitely become a problem, something to be shaken off with maturity.

Simon Pegg has said as much outright, in fact, acknowledging last summer that he had stopped drinking, and describing The World’s End as a way of admitting his problem with alcohol.

Re-watching Shaun of the Dead recently both Jess and I were struck by the extent to which the specific pub culture depicted has already begun to fade out of existence. The portrayal of a lock-in, for example, gave us a rush of nostalgia for the world of drawn curtains, low muttering and conspiratorial glee.

The Duke of Albany closed a few years after the film came out and is now flats. When I visited New Cross last year I found that other similarly rough-and-ready pubs had also disappeared, either re-purposed, demolished or gentrified into something fundamentally different.

The Windsor had some of the old Winchester atmosphere, though, with chat about pool cues being broken over people’s heads (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) and elderly drinkers whose faces told stories.

But would I hole up there during the end of the world? No chance. After all, man cannot survive on scratchings and Extra Cold Guinness alone.

Out of the loop

A milk carton of IPA.

I ended up sat in Bottles & Books on my own on Friday night, hovering around the edge of a conversation about beer that made me feel totally ignorant and out of touch.

Bottles & Books is our local craft beer phantasmagorium, with fridges full of cans, a wall of bottles, and a few taps of draught beer served by the third and two-thirds measure.

On Friday, the discussion turned to IPA, and it was when I heard this sentence that I knew I was out of my depth:

Brut IPA died a death fairly quickly, didn’t it? And NEIPA just tastes a bit… old fashioned. It’s all about the Hudson Valley style now.

Hudson Valley? Is that a region? Yes, but it’s also a brewery, as profiled in this article, which has a headline apparently designed to annoy conservative beer geeks who already think brewing has been fatally compromised by the amateur tendency:

Hudson Valley Brewery Makes Beer Based on Instinct, not Instructions

Sour IPA is, I gather, the long and short of it, and sure enough, when Jess and I went to the Left Handed Giant taproom yesterday, there was one on the menu.

We gave up trying to stay on top of trends years ago but there was something intoxicating about all this new information, all the names and details, that made me think… Should we try?

The odd educational eavesdropping session probably wouldn’t do us any harm, at least.

Soon After Opening

Soon after opening I came down to the public bar in the plain old pub in the plain old part of Exeter that traffic flew through, dusting everything black and shaking crumbs from the cracks, following Mum for no special reason other than that following Mum was my default course, and knowing soon that I would be sent upstairs, away from the optics and the enticing piano, away from the plastic sign advertising hot pies and pasties, away from the plastic Babycham Bambis and unbelievably, unthievably massive porcelain ashtrays.

Soon after opening and the old sailor was in his usual seat with his quivering dog and a bulb of brandy glowing like a port-side harbour light on the table before him, in his grey Mackintosh black at the cuffs, in his knocked-back flat cap, in his steel-capped shoes that anchored him in place. I had a sketchbook to show him and folded it open so his quaking, tobacco-cured fingers could trace my pictures of bombers, tanks and submarines, but not battleships, thank goodness not battleships, like the one that burned and bubbled away into the Java Sea beneath him in 1942, taking half his mind with it.

Soon after opening and nicotine-tinted frosted glass softened the light, warmed it, and weakened it so that the far corners stayed black as bottled stout. Last night’s spills and cigarettes, twenty years of dust in the carpet, and the gush of pumps into buckets, trailed the next turn of the cycle – another round of hands in pockets and make it a double, why not, and dirty playing cards sliding through puddles, darts drum, drum, drumming into a board more hole than fibre.

Soon after opening the jukebox came on, and immediately we rocked down to Electric Avenue, we wouldn’t let the sun go down on us, the Eton Rifles, Eton Rifles, Eton Rifles, Agadoo doo doo – centre-less seven-inch records grabbed and flipped into place, clunk click every trip, as a silhouette in a shadow-black leather jacket loaded coins into the machine with one hand, greasily-fingered pint glass in the other, knee bent and foot tapping. The small sound made the room emptier, a form of wishful thinking.

Soon after opening and the stocktake concluded in the mushroomy undergut of the pub where the walls wept and Grandpa spat gold into his handkerchief. Scuffed plastic crates, pulled from pub to pub, brewery to dray, hurled and stacked and left to bleach like elephant bones in cracked-concrete, weed-riddled yards. A short pencil, the tip of the tongue, a tally kept on the curled page of an orange Silvine notepad from the newsagent by the Jewish cemetery – lemonade times two, cola times three, light ale, brown ale, tonic, American, pineapple, tomato, orange – the carillon chiming of scurf-necked nip bottles snatched and shaken, stacked and taken, arranged into towers and walls.

Soon after opening in the bar where my brother learned his first words which, yelled from a window at a passerby, were the shame of the family – pub words, not real world words, not words a grown man would say before his mother, let alone a fat-cheeked cherub in his terry-towelling nappy before the whole world – more men arrived, with skinny wrists and slip-on shoes, and took up post at sentry stations on benches and at the bend of the bar. Pound notes were snapped flat and primped and pinched between fingertips to be passed across – “Have one for yourself, love?”

Soon after opening the moment came for me to cross the the plum-coloured curlicues of the wall-to-wall, towards the door marked PRIVATE, towards the dark stairwell and the dusty steps with toenail thick white paint at either side and the centre stripe of bare board, up to the flat where 80 years ago commercial travellers dried their socks on the fireguard and eyed their sample cases with sorrow.

With apologies to Dylan Thomas.

Everything We Wrote in August 2018: Old Haunts, Wheat Beer, Bierkellers

Here’s everything we wrote in August 2018 in one handy round-up, from blog posts to magazine articles, via a blizzard of social media.

This was our lowest output since April this year, pressing family and work business for both of us meaning that we just didn’t get round to the huge list of posts we’re itching to write and have half-drafted in our heads.

Anyway, never mind — what we did turn out wasn’t bad, and we’re hoping to find time for a bit more writing over the course of this blessedly empty weekend.

If you think all the effort below is worth anything do consider signing up for our Patreon (with yet more exclusive stuff) or just buying us a one-off pint via Ko-Fi.

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in August 2018: Old Haunts, Wheat Beer, Bierkellers”

Old Haunts #3: The Fountain

The front of a pub with a brewery sign.
The Fountain in 2007.

I was astonished to turn round and see a bloke with his arm round my Dad’s shoulders at the bar of The Fountain.

It looked like a standoff. Neither Dad nor the stranger was talking, just staring at each other. I couldn’t read the situation at all.

The Fountain is the one pub in my hometown that anyone ever seems to recommend, and it’s been that way for a couple of decades.

It’s not the kind of place you’d send anyone out of their way to visit but it’s always had vaguely interesting ale and a proper pub-like atmosphere.

When I happen to be back in town and need somewhere to meet my oldest friends, that’s where we often end up. We’d found it fairly welcoming as teenagers and young twenty-somethings.

Before Mum and Dad moved out of town, it was the most common place for us to settle at the end of family pub crawls, and I remember the odd Boxing Day session there.

I’ve got a suspicion it might have been where Jess had her first pint with my parents, too.

In short, I have a soft spot.

Mum and Dad started visiting again recently after they popped into town on some errand or other and dropped into the pub on a whim. They found it under new management and were pretty well charmed by the current landlady, a no-nonsense, energetic young woman who seems to have The Knack.

I could certainly see a difference. There wasn’t only the typical Butcombe Bitter of the region but also Fuller’s Oliver’s Island — an interesting beer to encounter in Somerset — and the pub felt alive. People spoke to me at the bar — “I’m from London. I came to visit my aunt in 1973 and never went home.” Conversations took place between one table and the next. There were old boys and youngsters, all mingling quite happily, drinking whatever they wanted to drink, from lager to scrumpy to wine to cask bitter.

But then this bloke grabbed hold of Dad, and kept hold of him.

“Uh… Do you two know each other?” I asked eventually.

The stranger looked startled that I even had to ask.

Then more white-haired men turned up, surrounding Dad, and a sort of mass Somerseting occurred: “’Ow be, boy?” “Bloody hell, ‘ow be, Dave?”, “Ginger!”, repeat.

Mum had to explain what was going on. These were the boys Dad grew up with on a council estate in the countryside, all prefabs and concrete, built to house munitions workers during World War II. They had spent the 1960s being tearaways together, stealing cars, starting bands, starting fights… All of them were now 70 or more years old, some of them still living on the estate.

It turned out that although Dad hadn’t seen most of them in years, even decades, they had been keeping tabs on his movements and had discussed him from time to time in their regular meet-ups at The Fountain.

It was weird to see Dad acting like a teenager again, laughing as he remembered the time he and his pals tried to make wine from rhubarb. I wanted to take a picture but didn’t dare disrupt the moment but it looked pretty much like this:

The Lads of the Village.

When we left the lads all took turns to tell Dad to drop into their regular sessions more often than once every 20 years, and he said he would.

I wonder if he will.

Christmas in the Pub, 1983

A 1980s photo of two boys in a pub.

In the picture above you can see the aftermath of Christmas present unwrapping in the bar of the Artillery Inn, Exeter, probably at around 6am, on 25 December 1983. That’s me on the left with my little brother Tim at my side.

We’re wearing wigs left over from the pub Christmas panto in which my Dad played Widow Twankee. He wore clip-on ear-rings, a bra stuffed with newspaper, and a pinny. The make-up treatment made him look like Mollie Sugden in Are You Being Served, despite his ginger moustache. Another member of the cast, then a student at Exeter University, went on to be a top-flight news cameraman at the BBC.

My brother is wearing his favourite underpants. His favourite trick when we lived in the pub was to escape from the flat, scramble down the flight of stairs behind the off-licence, and burst into the pub wearing only those Y-fronts. He would then run screaming down the entire length of the bar before disappearing out of the back door. I reckon he was addicted to the customers’ laughter.

In the background is a box for the Return of the Jedi edition of the Millenium Falcon with a yet-to-be-stickered X-Wing fighter protruding from the top.  Among the good things about my parents running a pub was the amount of space it gave us to run around in when the doors were closed and I have a memory, which I think was from this Christmas or maybe the birthday that followed, of racing with speeder bikes through the chair legs which for the purposes of play were the great redwood trees of the forest planet Endor.

My brother is drinking a bottle of R. White’s Orangeade, another perk of life in a pub being ready access to the worst (best) soft drinks. I guess being allowed that at breakfast time was a Christmas treat.

One of the downsides to living in a pub was that Mum and Dad worked late the night before and then Dad had to disappear for a few hours around lunchtime on Christmas Day to serve the regulars. Having talked about it with them since I know Mum and Dad found living where they worked difficult and even at the age of five I could pick up on the stress in the air.

On the window you can just see the words ‘Merry Xmas’ sprayed in decorative snow — the wrong way round, really, if it was meant to be viewed from the street. There were also artful drifts of snow in the bottom corners of each frosted pane. Unfortunately, when Christmas was over and the fake snow got wiped away it took the nicotine stain with it so that people were being wished the ghost of a Merry Xmas for months to follow.