In our six years living in Cornwall we never made it to Saltash but the opening of a micropub prompted us to change that last weekend.
It’s an interesting place – a picturesque town on the shore of the estuary, loomed over by two colossal bridges into Devon, over the Tamar.
As is often the case with border towns, it is more pointedly Cornish than many places further into Cornwall, as if its job is to defend national identity against creeping Englishness.
It has quite a few traditional pubs. A friend who knows it well recommended The Two Bridges as the best of the bunch so we stopped there first, while we waited for the micropub to open.
It sits next to the railway station with a view of both the Victorian rail bridge by Brunel and the brutalist road bridge from the 1960s.
If you’ve been drinking in Newcastle, you’ll be familiar with how this kind of landscape feels. It’s probably not an exaggeration to call it ‘awe inspiring’.
The pub itself is a decent, ordinary local, without a whiff of pretence about it.
We sat in a corner drinking and listened to the chat around the bar. “He wore a mankini,” said one woman, in hysterics, “and he was walking up and down with one ball hanging out!”
Tall Trees, a seasonal special from St Austell, was a pleasingly spicy, piney red ale in excellent condition. The Tribute looked good, too, but we only stopped for one.
Up the hill to The Cockleshell
The main event was The Cockleshell, a micropub that opened in Saltash in the summer of 2020. Now, there’s brave.
Oddly, we’d heard quite a bit about it before it opened because its founder did his research in The Drapers Arms in Bristol, our old local.
As we remember it, one evening, he turned up with a copy of our book Brew Britannia he’d bought in a bargain bookshop, and we got chatting to him about his plans.
Later on, we found him working shifts behind the bar at The Drapers, learning about the nuts and bolts of the business.
So, does The Cockleshell feel like a clone of The Drapers Arms? Not at all, although it’s clear that lessons were learned.
There’s plenty of greebling, for example, with every surface covered with nick-nacks, oddments and vintage decor.
It’s not any old tat, either, but a serious collection of pub and brewery memorabilia, apparently collected over the course of years.
We particularly liked a perspex advertising sign for the defunct Plymouth Breweries.
The chairs and tables are well-worn and mismatched. Old wooden furniture – hat racks and dressers – has been repurposed to suggest Victorian cosiness in what is, after all, a former convenience store.
When you’re inside, there’s little clue it hasn’t been a pub for a century or more.
The main thing is that, for a micropub, it’s pretty big. You could fit The Drapers in at least twice.
Another oddity is that it operates on the basis of table service only.
That’s not uncommon in the micro-est micropubs, where no seat is more than a few steps from the bar, but quite unusual in a Cornish boozer.
Still, it worked well, and we never waited more than a few seconds before being asked if we wanted another round.
The beer selection skewed local with cask ales from Atlantic (St Columb), Castle (Restormel), Treen (Ponsanooth) and others. The exotic foreign keg beers were from TQ Beerworks (Torbay, Devon) and New Bristol Brewery in, uh, Bristol.
Despite its size, it filled up in the hour after opening, until there was a pleasant buzz.
One customer somewhat belligerently queried the rules written on a blackboard: “It says here not to discuss divisive topics. What about football? Does that count as divisive?”
“It means, basically,” said the landlord, firmly, “don’t be an arsehole.”
The Cockleshell is at 73 Fore St, Saltash PL12 6AF and is open every evening except Monday.