Notable Pubs: The Milestone, Exeter, 1985–1988

"Pub with no beer"

There have been repeated attempts to test the idea that the identity of the pub need not be tied to alcohol. The Milestone, which opened in Exeter in 1985, was one such experiment.

On the book­shelf at the Drap­ers lurks a yel­low­ing copy of the Wordsworth Dic­tio­nary of Pub Names, a cheap 1990s reprint of a book by Leslie Dun­kling and Gor­don Wright first pub­lished in 1987. The nam­ing of pubs is an area of study requir­ing more pinch­es of salt than most, and the book is not with­out its inac­cu­ra­cies, but flip­ping through it over our Sun­day night pints, we often find some nugget or oth­er, and that’s how we first heard of the Mile­stone:

The pub sells only soft drinks, non-alco­holic beers and wines. It was set up in 1985 by the Devon Coun­cil on Alco­holism and the Exeter Com­mu­ni­ty Alco­hol team to help peo­ple with a drink prob­lem. It is in the base­ment of an office block, and those who named it clear­ly see it as a high­ly sig­nif­i­cant step.

A con­tem­po­rary report from the Liv­er­pool Echo (20/11/1985) offers more infor­ma­tion:

Mr Mur­ray French, chair­man of Exeter Dis­trict Health Author­i­ty, will pull the first pint – or rather pour the first soft drink – at noon [today].

The pub, com­plete with pool table, dart board and the usu­al bar fit­tings, is the brain child of Exeter Com­mu­ni­ty Alco­hol Team.

Mr Stan Ford, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Devon Coun­cil on Alco­holism, said: “The main aim is to pro­vide an envi­ron­ment where peo­ple can get the atmos­phere of a pub with­out alco­hol.

A lot of my clients have asked where they could go if they stopped drink­ing. There was nowhere. Now there is.”

Laud­able as this might sound, it’s hard to imag­ine any­one con­vinc­ing friends who are still drink­ing (pos­si­bly heav­i­ly) to come to a tee­to­tal pub, and how­ev­er con­vinc­ing the fac­sim­i­le, there’s no deny­ing that an air of mer­ri­ness is an essen­tial part of the plea­sure of the pub.

With­out booze, it will just feel like a youth club, won’t it?

There’s a cer­tain inevitabil­i­ty to the next men­tion we can find in the news­pa­per archives, from the same news­pa­per for 25 Octo­ber 1988:


Britain’s first alco­hol-free pub, the Mile­stone in Exeter, Devon, is to close next month after three years. It failed to attract enough cus­tom.

This feels like the kind of thing that might have gen­er­at­ed the odd aca­d­e­m­ic paper or offi­cial study but, if so, we can’t find them online, on this side of a pay­wall.

It would cer­tain­ly be inter­est­ing to see pic­tures of the Mile­stone, or to hear from any­one who remem­bers (not) drink­ing there.

Ashburton Pop: What We Know

Illustration: a cork flies out of a stone bottle.

This lost Devon beer style came to our attention flipping through A Scrapbook of Inns a few weeks ago and we’ve since done a bit more digging. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

The best sin­gle descrip­tion of Ash­bur­ton Pop comes from John Cooke, born in Ash­bur­ton in 1765, whose auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal pam­phlet Eng­land For­ev­er was pub­lished in 1819. We can’t find a copy of the orig­i­nal but for­tu­nate­ly is quot­ed at length in William Hone’s Table Book from 1827. Cooke wrote:

I rec­ol­lect its sharp feed­ing good taste, far rich­er than the best small beer, more of the cham­pagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bot­tle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report loud­er than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its con­tents would fly up to the ceil­ing if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bot­tle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an after­noon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bot­tles, their reck­on­ing bit eight-pence each, and a pen­ny for tobac­co. The pop was but twopence a bot­tle.

A foot­note to the 1817 edi­tion of Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health con­firms that high car­bon­a­tion was a defin­ing fea­ture:

There is a par­tic­u­lar kind of beer brewed at Ash­bur­ton in Devon­shire, very full of fixed air, and there­fore known by the name of Ash­bur­ton pop, which is sup­posed to be as effi­ca­cious in con­sump­tions as even the air of Devon­shire itself.

For what it’s worth J. Hen­ry Har­ris spec­u­lat­ed in 1907 that “it was prob­a­bly some con­coc­tion intend­ed to rival white-ale”, anoth­er famous Devon odd­i­ty.

Our attempt at Cor­nish swanky beer, which we reck­on is in the same fam­i­ly.

Ash­bur­ton Pop was said to have died out between 1785 (Cooke, via Hone) and 1804, the lat­ter date being giv­en by an 1816 source. Cooke also says that the recipe was lost with the death of the brew­er. Lat­er sources men­tion sur­viv­ing Ash­bur­ton Pop bot­tles bear­ing the name of what was prob­a­bly the brew­er, Richard Halse, and dates of 1771 or 1773. It was appar­ent­ly revived in some form by William Michel­more, land­lord of The Roy­al Oak at Ash­bur­ton, no lat­er than 1835. He died in Sep­tem­ber 1846 aged 68. (West­ern Times, 12/09/1846.)

In the lat­er 19th cen­tu­ry ref­er­ences to Ash­bur­ton Pop only turn up in polit­i­cal com­men­tary, like this from the West­ern Times for 03/06/1881…

Sir Stafford North­cote deliv­ered his long-bot­tled speech at Man­ches­ter on Wednes­day.… [He] was primed accord­ing­ly; but a more flat and vapid effu­sion was nev­er poured forth in pub­lic than the ora­tion of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Leader, on Wednes­day. “Ash­bur­ton Pop” is a brisk pota­tion, tak­en at the right moment, but a brief expo­sure to the air takes all the life out of it. Sir Stafford’s “pop” won’t stand the open air of pub­lic utter­ance.

… or this cod­ed satire from the Exeter & Ply­mouth Gazette from 17/07/1852, signed ‘John Bar­l­ey­corn’ and addressed to the town’s vot­ers ahead of an upcom­ing elec­tion:

By the bye they say, good ale is drunk at Barn­sta­ple, but his Lordship’s brew­ery turns out tip­ple too bit­ter even for his fam­i­ly cir­cle there, and cer­tain­ly would not suit the taste of you my friends, accus­tomed to excel­lent Ash­bur­ton Pop, of which with your per­mis­sion, I will now drink to our next mer­ry meet­ing, nev­er ceas­ing to reit­er­ate the com­mon-sense patri­ot­ic prin­ci­ple that “Eng­land and every Eng­lish Inter­est ought to be pro­tect­ed against the rival­ry of the rest of the world.”

Assum­ing that, even ref­er­enced jok­ing­ly, these are accu­rate descrip­tions of the beer itself, we might gath­er that it (a) foamed quick­ly but didn’t retain a head; (b) was sweet rather than bit­ter; and © was to some degree still a top­i­cal ref­er­ence, i.e. still in pro­duc­tion as late as 1881, or at least gen­er­al­ly remem­bered.

After this ref­er­ences to Ash­bur­ton Pop only appear in the con­text of his­tor­i­cal notes and queries columns, often repeat­ing the Cooke quo­ta­tion above, and some­times sug­gest­ing that it was a pre­cur­sor to mod­ern bot­tled beers.

So, for now, we don’t have much sol­id advice for those want­i­ng to recre­ate Ash­bur­ton Pop, but as none of the sources men­tion unusu­al ingre­di­ents, e.g. gin­ger or raisins, you could prob­a­bly do worse than this:

  1. Brew some­thing along the lines of a fair­ly basic gold­en ale.
  2. Then fol­low the method for Cor­nish swanky beer giv­en here: fer­ment with baker’s yeast; allow a short fer­men­ta­tion in a larg­er ves­sel before bot­tling with corks; when the corks start want­i­ng to escape, after a day or two more, drink it, while it’s fresh.

Reflecting on Devon Beer

Vintage map of Devon showing Beer Head.

About two years ago, when we still lived in Penzance, we were approached by the editor of Devon Life magazine. He wanted to introduce a monthly beer column and reckoned we were the right people to do it.

We pushed back: we didn’t know Devon well, although Ray spent some time there as a kid and we’ve often vis­it­ed; and the fee they were offer­ing would bare­ly cov­er the cost of research­ing the col­umn. Still, he was insis­tent, and there was some­thing inter­est­ing in the idea of focus­ing on one coun­ty and fer­ret­ing out what there was to be fer­ret­ed. So we said yes.

Over the course of 20 months we wrote about notable pubs, brew­eries, bot­tle shops, nuggets of his­to­ry, and spe­cif­ic beers. We made spe­cial trips to Cock­ing­ton, Exeter, Exmouth, New­ton Abbot, Ply­mouth, Tavi­s­tock, Teign­mouth, Tiver­ton, Top­sham and Totnes, and con­vinced peo­ple from var­i­ous oth­er places to come to us at The Impe­r­i­al, AKA our Exeter office. We don’t claim this makes us experts – you have to live in a place, ide­al­ly for years, before you can real­ly say that – but it did give us a deep­er sense of what is going on than we’d oth­er­wise have acquired.

When the col­umn came to an end at Christ­mas, we took a bit of time to reflect on what we learned, and to draw some con­clu­sions.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Reflect­ing on Devon Beer”

Tucker’s Maltings Beer Festival, At Last

It’s been running for 24 years but we only made it to our first Tucker’s Malting Beer Festival, in Newton Abbot, Devon, last week.

In the last few years when we might have gone, we’ve either been work­ing or on hol­i­day. But maybe we’d have made more effort if we liked beer fes­ti­vals more, which we don’t, because:

  1. Eight dif­fer­ent beers is about the most we can han­dle between us in one ses­sion so 250 is over-fac­ing.
  2. Our two favourite places to drink are (a) the pub and (b) our sofa; hangars, barns, indus­tri­al spaces, town halls, church­es, and so on, come way down the list.
  3. There’s too much flat beer, not helped by being served in unwashed glass­es that get stick­i­er with each pass­ing hour.

Propaganda-style mural at Tucker's Maltings.

Hav­ing said that… Tucker’s Malt­ings was fun. It’s one of those events that isn’t just about beer, and that isn’t just pop­u­lar with CAMRA mem­bers and tick­ers.

It gen­er­ates a mer­ry buzz around the town of New­ton Abbot, a place which isn’t oth­er­wise on the tourist trail – ‘It’s a fun­ny old place’, as one attendee said to us – much as Waltham­stow Vil­lage Fes­ti­val used to in the days before full-on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, or as Bridg­wa­ter Car­ni­val does in Bailey’s home town.

There were faces we’d seen at oth­er fes­ti­vals (for exam­ple, a con­tin­gent from Corn­wall CAMRA), gangs of young lads with sculpt­ed quiffs and mus­cles on dis­play despite the chill, age­ing hip­pies, age­ing rock­ers, age­ing punks, rug­by fans, a stag do or two, stu­dents from Exeter Uni­ver­si­ty, local dig­ni­taries (New­ton Abbot’s may­or is a ven­er­a­ble old gent with some­thing of the Ger­man bur­go­mas­ter about him), and teams of brew­ers from up and down the West Coun­try in brand­ed polo shirts hav­ing it cor­po­rate­ly large.

Peo­ple were drunk, in the 18th-cen­tu­ry Dutch paint­ing way, and occa­sion­al bouts of danc­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly that half-walk-half-boo­gie mer­ry peo­ple some­times do while car­ry­ing brim­ful glass­es.

What­ev­er the spark of life is, the qual­i­ty that puts the fes­tiv- in fes­ti­val, Tucker’s Malt­ings has it. We’ll def­i­nite­ly go again.

Dis­clo­sure: we paid for entry to Fri­day afternoon’s ses­sion and for beer tokens; Guy Shep­pard of SIBA/Exe Val­ley, who is on the organ­is­ing com­mit­tee, bought us a half each while we inter­viewed him; and we were giv­en free entry to the first hour of the ses­sion that fol­lowed.

The Lesser-Spotted True Red Lion

Last weekend, we stumbled upon The Red Lion overlooking the Dart Estuary in High Dittisham, Devon, which is not only a true inn, offering both booze and accommodation, but also the village shop and Post Office.

Approach­ing from the road, our first impres­sion was of rus­tic dishevel­ment: the sign has fad­ed in sun and rain, the white­wash and weath­er­board­ing have streaks of rust, and a bench out­side is fash­ioned from upturned milk crates and a warped plank.

Did it look much dif­fer­ent in 1944 when the estu­ary below teemed with land­ing craft prepar­ing for D-Day? Prob­a­bly not.

Inside, the trap­pings of its mul­ti­ple func­tions, and prepa­ra­tions for the upcom­ing hol­i­day sea­son, gave a some­what chaot­ic feel. There was a pile of para­sols here, racks of children’s toys there, cakes and pas­tries bal­anced on the end of the bar, while fur­ni­ture in the process of being moved from one place to anoth­er made the back room feel like a house clear­ance auc­tion. But it func­tioned per­fect­ly well, and the clut­ter was at least authen­tic – far prefer­able to a job lot of horse brass­es, ‘vin­tage’ nau­ti­cal or agri­cul­tur­al tat, and old Reader’s Digest abridged nov­els being arranged about the place.

Though there were hand-pumps on the bar, pints of Palmer’s Cop­per Ale (Dorset, 3.7%) were fetched from the cel­lar. They were per­haps too cool for some people’s tastes, but not ours, and were oth­er­wise in per­fect con­di­tion. An amber-brown, vague­ly tof­feeish beer with the accent on bit­ter­ness rather than aro­ma, it was hard­ly excit­ing, but fit the mood admirably.

We drank on a deck at the rear of the build­ing which pro­vid­ed a Cin­e­mas­cope view of the busy riv­er buzzing with tourist boats and yachts, and of the lush green, inter­mit­tent­ly wood­ed hills on the oppo­site bank. (Green­way, once the coun­try home of crime writer Agatha Christie, is a minute’s ride away across the water.)

Though it was in need of a tidy and a lick of paint, this back yard came clos­er to the feel of a Bavar­i­an beer gar­den than any­where else we’ve been in Britain and yet, at the same time, could not be any­where but in Eng­land: above the pur­ple-grey slate rub­ble tow­er of St George’s church to our left flut­tered the red cross of the nation­al flag, while down­hill was the high thatched roof of a cot­tage around which new­ly-arrived swal­lows were swoop­ing.

We’d hes­i­tate to call the Red Lion some­thing spe­cial – it is too hard at work serv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty to pret­ty itself up – but it is some­how per­fect in its imper­fec­tion, and refresh­ing­ly hon­est.