Our Village Parliament

Will Jones’s Somerset bumpkin character Jarge Balsh first appeared in print in 1925 and thereafter in a series of books, article and radio broadcasts. The last book, Our Village Parliament, written in the late 1940s, is set in and around an important institution: the inn.

Like the oth­er Jarge Balsh books it is nar­rat­ed by a city man in stan­dard Eng­lish, while the yokels’ speech is report­ed in a ver­sion of north Som­er­set dialect: “I da zee, accordin’ the ‘The Rag’ thaay bin a meade a vine mess on’t now in Par­lia­ment”, and so on. Here’s how the nar­ra­tor opens Our Vil­lage Par­lia­ment:

Away back in in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, in days when motor-pro­pelled vehi­cles had not begun to dis­turb the peace­ful seren­i­ty of the coun­try-side, and when the rur­al land­scape lay yet unsul­lied by poles and wires for con­vey­ing elec­tric pow­er or for receiv­ing the dis­tract­ing sounds sent out through the ether; men were wont to fore­gath­er at the vil­lage inn to dis­cuss local top­ics and world events.

The pop­u­lar night was pay-night and Fri­day acquired an added impor­tant from the fact that the local week­ly news­pa­per was pub­lished on that day. The nation­al dai­ly papers were tak­en only by a select few who had to be con­tent with get­ting them a day late by post.…

A detailed descrip­tion of the ‘King William’ kitchen with its chim­ney-place like a small room and the extra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters which make up “woold Moth­er Bark­er’s” clien­tele would but bore those read­ers who have met them in oth­er records by the present writer.

Though the action of the sto­ries in the book takes place in the pub it is not pri­mar­i­ly about pubs. There are nonethe­less some nice details:

Time, gen­namin, please,” broke in the voice of Mrs Bark­er. “Let I zee your backs tonight an’ your feaces at ten-thir­ty, mar­ra’ mornin’.”

There fol­lowed the usu­al ref­er­ence to watch­es which seem­ing­ly agreed that the King William clock was “vive min­utes in front o’ the Church clock – how a hit nine o’clock”, but our land­la­dy stout­ly main­tained the verac­i­ty of her time­piece.

Over­whelm­ing tes­ti­mo­ny that her faith was jus­ti­fied came from the Church clock itself, which inter­rupt­ed the argu­ment by strik­ing the fatal hour. Mrs Bark­er paused in the mid­dle of a heat­ed sen­tence and turned out the light.

And so we all went home.

Bat­tles between the reg­u­lars and Mrs Bark­er over clos­ing time are a recur­ring theme through­out the book (she is anx­ious about the new tee­to­tal vil­lage con­sta­ble) as is her stingi­ness with the oil lamp, “so dif­fer­ent to the glare of the elec­tric bulb”.

Jarge Balsh as depict­ed in 1926.

Chap­ter III is an inter­est­ing one to read in 2018’s cli­mate of polit­i­cal divi­sion con­cern­ing as it does the wis­dom of dis­cussing pol­i­tics in the pub. It opens with a gloom set­tled oved the “old tap-room” as Jarge Balsh and Abra­ham Nokes sit sulk­ing hav­ing dis­agreed over the ques­tion of “Nation­al­iza­tion and Pri­vate Enter­prise”:

If I had my waay, thaay as do arg’ on pol­i­tics out­side a polit­i­cal meetin’ should be shut up togeth­er ’til tha’ learned on anoth­er bet­ter. Whut good do ’em do wi’ ther’ blitherin’ I should like to know?

Else­where there are pas­sages con­cern­ing pub seat­ing…

He who made the first set­tle must have chuck­led with Satan­ic glee after hav­ing test­ed and proved the poten­tial mis­ery con­tained in the thing… Not being blessed with even aver­age adi­pose tis­sue I can only endure the expe­ri­ence by press­ing a hand on the seat either side of that por­tion of my anato­my so essen­tial for the act of relief. This redis­tri­b­u­tion of pres­sure cer­tain­ly affords relief to the angle-bones but at the same time is incon­ve­nient to one requir­ing the use of his hands for inhal­ing cig­a­rette smoke and imbib­ing cider… I might have men­tioned that its back ris­es straight from a seat which is noth­ing else but a nine-inch board.

…and pub fires:

In the hearth fire, beneath the huge chim­ney, the butt ends of oak tree branch­es blazed and crack­led mer­ri­ly. Mrs Bark­er pro­vid­ed the branch­es and her cus­tomers pulled them along the floor as the ends became con­sumed on the hearth. The pleas­ant aro­ma of burn­ing wood per­vad­ed the atmos­phere and the cider, for which the King William was not­ed, left one lit­tle more to desire.

There’s also what feels like an ear­ly use of the word “ban­ter” to describe the par­tic­u­lar kind of blok­ish back-and-forth that, for many, is the very point of the pub, and notes on judg­ing the con­di­tion of cider by sound: “I do like to yur it go znick! znick! when I da put it to me yur.”

In short, if you’re after a por­trait of pub life as it was in the ear­ly to mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, that has­n’t already been milked to death by anthol­o­gis­ers and quo­ta­tion­eers, and that focus­es in par­tic­u­lar on coun­try life, then this might be the book for you.

Our paper­back edi­tion, dat­ing from around the 1960s, cost us about four quid, and there are plen­ty of copies around.

You can read more about Will Jones and Jarge Balsh in this com­pre­hen­sive blog post by a rel­a­tive of the author.

Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two home­towns to think about, of course, both very dif­fer­ent to each oth­er: Ray grew up in a small indus­tri­al town in Som­er­set, Jes­si­ca in east Lon­don. That led us to reflect on what they might have in com­mon and that, we realised, was the long absence of any brew­eries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brew­ery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien – geograph.org.uk/p/2098447)

Waltham­stow was once home to the Essex Brew­ery, found­ed by the Col­lier broth­ers in 1871 and tak­en over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brew­ery oper­at­ed until 1972 after which it was demol­ished but retained a pres­ence in the form of the brew­ery tap pub which trad­ed in one form or anoth­er until rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly when it was con­vert­ed into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brew­ery Tap in 2014.

So for the entire­ty of her child­hood and youth, there were no E17 beers – not one beer brewed in a dis­trict of around 100,000 peo­ple.

The SKF brew­ery in Bridg­wa­ter in 1969. (Via the Brew­ery His­to­ry Soci­ety.)

Bridg­wa­ter was sim­i­lar­ly once home to a large ‘prop­er’ brew­ery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was tak­en over by Whit­bread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF pranc­ing horse sym­bol on their faces, with his Dad sigh­ing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as waste­land, then an unloved swim­ming pool, and final­ly a car park. A town with a pop­u­la­tion of around 30,000 had no brew­ery to call its own, and loy­al­ty to no out­sider brew­ery over any oth­er.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some con­clu­sions to be drawn from what hap­pened next, though. Things began to change in Waltham­stow when the Sweet William brew­ery at the William IV, just over the bound­ary into Ley­ton, began trad­ing in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 – a seri­ous, well-regard­ed brew­ery whose beers actu­al­ly turned up in pubs, and whose bot­tled beers were every­where for a while. (Dis­clo­sure: very ear­ly on in the life of this blog, and their brew­ery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bot­tle of every­thing they made.) As of 2018 there are mul­ti­ple brew­eries in Waltham­stow prop­er includ­ing Wild Card and Pil­lars, as well as sev­er­al on indus­tri­al states in its bor­der­lands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridg­wa­ter, mean­while, still has none. There was briefly a Bridg­wa­ter Brew­ery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actu­al­ly in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer was­n’t wide­ly avail­able in town. There are some in the coun­try­side around but (as of Ray’s last sur­vey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their prod­ucts. In fact, we see more beer from Quan­tock at our new local in Bris­tol than we ever have in Bridg­wa­ter.

You can look at this two ways: opti­mists will see small provin­cial towns as the next stop­ping point for the rebrew­er­i­fi­ca­tion (which is a word) process already expe­ri­enced by even the out­er­est (also def­i­nite­ly a word) of out­er Lon­don sub­urbs. Cyn­ics, on the oth­er hand, will sug­gest they’re being bypassed, per­haps mut­ter­ing some­thing about met­ro­pol­i­tan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Waltham­stow could sup­port one or two more brew­eries yet, and that Bridg­wa­ter sure­ly has room for at least one, even if like the (cur­rent­ly out of action) Ash­ley Down Brew­ery here in Bris­tol it exists pri­mar­i­ly to sup­ply a sin­gle microp­ub.

Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavi­s­tock last week we picked up a tat­ty copy of Exmoor Vil­lage, a 1947 book by W.J. Turn­er ‘based on fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion from Mass Obser­va­tion’. It fea­tures a chap­ter on pubs and social­is­ing called ‘Gar­dens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glo­ri­ous detail on beer and booz­ers were shat­tered with the open­ing line:

There is no inn in Luc­combe [in Som­er­set], nor any­where on the Acland Estate. The near­est is at Woot­ton Court­ney. There is vir­tu­al­ly no social cen­tre in Luc­combe beyond the doorstep and the vil­lage street.

Some of the men in the vil­lage, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in near­by Woot­ton or Por­lock ‘on Sat­ur­day or Sun­day – sel­dom both’:

Mr Gould remem­bers brown ale at three­pence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Woot­ton. To-day, on an old-age pen­sion, his vis­its are rare. His son is a tee­to­taller, and Bill Tame is anoth­er… Although Som­er­set is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Par­tridge is the only Luc­combe per­son who has it. Anoth­er farmer, Mr Stad­don, prefers beer.

The true Mass Obser­va­tion touch, more lit­er­ary than objec­tive in tone despite its sci­en­tif­ic pre­ten­sions, comes through in a descrip­tion of the men at their usu­al haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Woot­ton Court­ney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The pub­lic bar like most coun­try bars is small, with two tables, two bench­es, and not enough chairs… A vis­i­tor at about sev­en o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, look­ing tired and weath­er-beat­en, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luc­combe, sit­ting in a chair by the win­dow; a man of forty-five not from Luc­combe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, stand­ing lean­ing on his cane. Talk cen­tres on hors­es. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and con­ver­sa­tion round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoni­est one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in ques­tion is the Dunkery Bea­con Hotel which fits the descrip­tion – ‘a white build­ing with a veran­dah’ – but it does­n’t seem like­ly the bar is still there in any­thing like its orig­i­nal form. The walk from Luc­combe to Woot­ton Court­ney (or Courte­nay) is about 45 min­utes accord­ing to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bai­ley recalls hear­ing peo­ple in Som­er­set gen­uine­ly, un-iron­i­cal­ly say­ing ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger peo­ple had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Por­lock, the threat of inva­sion, Ger­man air­men and the Home Guard, choco­late rationing and oth­er then hot top­ics. (The obser­va­tions on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Amer­i­cans turn up (GIs, pre­sum­ably) they dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion with talk of farm­ing back home.

If the men were only occa­sion­al pub-goers, the women of Luc­combe hard­ly ever went, and the young men of the vil­lage aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and was­n’t a fre­quent drinker because he could­n’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go any­where else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clear­ly in var­i­ous bits of post-WWII writ­ing on pubs – the idea that men were aban­don­ing the pub not because it was bad but because home, fam­i­ly, gar­dens and allot­ments had become so pleas­ant.

If you’re inter­est­ed in coun­try life more gen­er­al­ly, Som­er­set in par­tic­u­lar, or Mass Obser­va­tion (this project was con­tro­ver­sial), then this book is worth get­ting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white pho­tos by John Hinde are also love­ly to look at, as are the charm­ing­ly peri­od charts and illus­tra­tions. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Ama­zon lists a cou­ple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book show­ing dis­tances from Luc­combe to key ameni­ties.

100 Words: Checking in On Butcombe

Arriving in Somerset we’re greeted at the door with bottles of Butcombe bitter and their IPA.

Maybe it’s the exhaust­ing jour­ney, maybe the occa­sion, but both taste great – pure beer­i­ness and sweet Christ­mas tan­ger­ines respec­tive­ly.

Butcombe bottles in a recycling bin.

There’s more bot­tled But­combe with a bar­be­cue, along­side local scrumpy. ‘Cider then beer, you feel queer,’ says Bai­ley’s Dad. ‘Beer then cider… Makes a good rid­er!’

The Bath Arms, Cheddar.

Final­ly, lunch at the mano­r­i­al inter-war Bath Arms in Ched­dar with cool, per­fect­ly styled pints of But­combe Gold – a straight­for­ward, sat­is­fy­ing amber-coloured ale but with­out the stan­dard Bit­ter’s whiff of well-worn hand-knit­ted jumpers.

Sooth­ing, depend­able, decent. Good old But­combe.

Saisons Pt 9: We Lied, But This Really Is it

This is absolutely, positively, really the last of the UK-brewed saisons we’re planning to taste before the big final ‘taste off’ and the subject is Cheddar Ales Firewitch.

Seri­ous­ly – this is still going!?” We meant to wrap up before we took our month off but… did­n’t. And then, muck­ing about in Som­er­set, we came across bot­tles of Fire­witch, and realised we’d have to include it. That’s not least because Adri­an Tier­ney-Jones told us we real­ly ought to. (He has writ­ten about it here and, we believe, will be includ­ing it in his tast­ing ses­sion at GBBF.)

We bought three 500ml bot­tles of this 4.8% ABV beer @ £2.50 each from the tiny shop attached to Mill­white’s Cider Farm in Rooks­bridge, Som­er­set, not far from where it is brewed. The first we drank the same day, with­out tak­ing notes, but had a strong gut reac­tion: THIS IS GOOD STUFF.

Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters in 'ecto goggles'.
Beer-tast­ing appa­ra­tus.

Back home, sev­er­al weeks lat­er, with our pro­tec­tive beer-tast­ing and hint-and-note-record­ing appa­ra­tus in place, that reac­tion was the same. Even being poured into two glass­es from one bot­tle, it stayed pret­ty clear – the haze in the pho­to above is most­ly con­den­sa­tion – and was an appeal­ing gold­en colour. The car­bon­a­tion was high but there was no fizzing or gush­ing, and the head was almost chewily sta­ble.

The back­bone of this beer’s flavour is pithy, brac­ing, cit­ric bit­ter­ness: grape­fruit, we thought. (But not in the Hawai­ian-shirt-wear­ing ‘juicy banger’ sense – more as in ‘Blimey, this is a bit much at break­fast time!’). It might pos­si­bly be too bit­ter for some, in fact. There was also some dry-por­ridge-oat, bran-flake cere­al char­ac­ter, and a touch of plain salt and pep­per that it would be a bit much to call ‘spici­ness’.

It would­n’t quite pass for Bel­gian but nor is it a wacky ‘rein­ven­tion’ of any­thing – it’s just a sol­id, taste­ful, prac­ti­cal beer that we could eas­i­ly spend a whole evening drink­ing, espe­cial­ly giv­en its very civilised alco­holic strength. It’s a def­i­nite con­tender.

Som­er­set and sai­son are a good match, we reck­on. It’s an indus­tri­al-rur­al coun­ty where, in sum­mer, dust, pollen and motor­way pol­lu­tion get in your throat. Cider can deal with that, of course, but beer with a touch of funk and a bit of fizz is per­fect as well.

Next up in this series, a foot­note: we’re going to taste a cou­ple of Bel­gian saisons and some Amer­i­can ones to cal­i­brate before the final event.