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 (c) 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.

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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.

A Kingsand-Cawsand Pub Crawl

A short way across the water from Plymouth, in what is sometimes called the forgotten corner of Cornwall, lie the conjoined coastal villages of Kingsand and Cawsand, blessed with four pubs between them.

We arrived on foot along the South West Coast Path just as the day was growing dimpsy and the evening fires had been lit. Dipping down from the cliffside into town we passed pretty pastel-coloured cottages, mostly holiday homes shuttered and hibernating.

We were momentarily anxious: what if the pubs are seasonal? Then we passed the Rising Sun, with its old Courage cockerel and peeling paint, the windows of which glowed with orange light. Someone with their back to us in the window seat laughed so heartily their whole body heaved. This seemed to bode well for our pub crawl.

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Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide, published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.

2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bottom right… And here’s Mr Sheppard on Twitter.

3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.

4. It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.

5. There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.

8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.

(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)

We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!

Three Decent Pubs in Plymouth

In the past, we’ve struggled to find great places to drink in the old naval city of Plymouth, just over the border from Cornwall in Devon.

The trick, it turns out, as in many other cities, is to look outside the central ring-road: two of our new discoveries are in the suburb of Mutley, which is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The Fortescue, Plymouth. Leaving the station and heading along the bustling Mutley Plain, we stumbled upon the Fortescue by chance. The building dates from 1905 and has a couple of nice Art Nouveau touches, but inside is a bare-bones and rather old-fashioned CAMRA pub.

On the way to the Plymouth Argyle football ground on a match day, it was crammed with mostly middle-aged men minding their own business. The beer line-up wasn’t what we’d call exciting — several from Hunter’s of Devon, Jennings’ Cumberland Ale, and St Austell HSD — but we couldn’t fault the condition in which it was served.

The pricing was pretty keen, too: a pint of c.4% bitter is £2.98, but the barmaid asked if we had CAMRA membership cards on us (we did) bringing it down to £2.68. If we’d had also had some CAMRA Wetherspoon’s vouchers on us, that would have knocked off another 50p.

If you’re, ahem, ‘cost conscious’, like brown bitter, and the company of blokes, then this is the place for you.

Double Diamond at the Hyde Park. Sitting proudly at the top of Mutley Plain like a down-home Palace of Versailles is the Hyde Park Hotel. Recently the subject of a preservation battle, it re-opened last week as a 1970s retro theme pub. (With thanks to Sam Congdon for the tip-off.)

The building is festooned with breweriana from enamel signs advertising Vaux to an illuminated Brewdog shield. Inside, a cosy, womb-like double-bar set up has walls covered in what must be half a million quid’s worth of vintage signs, keg fonts and advertising materials. On discreet TV screens, 1970s TV ads plays on loop. We spent ten minutes goggling at the museum exhibition before turning our attention to the bar.

The Plymouth Herald article suggested that Watney’s and Double Diamond would be on tap. As we suspected, though there is a  glowing plastic Red Barrel on the bar, it is being used to serve Caffrey’s. To our amazement, however, DD was indeed on offer.

Along with Watney’s Red, it was one of the beers at which CAMRA targeted its ire in the 1970s, nicknaming it ‘K9P’. (Geddit?) Now down at 2.8% ABV and brewed in small amounts for the northern club market, the landlady, Pat, had managed to find a supplier in the West Country. It looked pretty — golden and glowing, with a fluffy white head — but tasted of… nothing. Water, dental fillings, and perhaps vegetable peelings. Here’s the amazing thing, though: after Double Diamond, a pint of Dartmoor Legend, not the world’s most exciting beer, suddenly tasted like nectar, with a sweet maltiness and leafy green hop character amplified in contrast with the blandness of the keg bitter.

Along with more retro keg beers (Worthington Best Bitter), several cask ales and a fridge full of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beers (from Brewdog, Westmalle, and so on), and an onsite brewery is due to start operations soon.

If you’re a beer geek on holiday in Devon, this is a must visit, and would be a great place to read your copy of Brew Britannia.

Bread & Roses, Plymouth. Finally, we made our way back through the city centre and out the other side in search of another Sam Congdon tip, the Bread & Roses.

Housed in another nicely preserved Victorian pub building (The Trafalgar, 1897) on on Ebrington Street, which feels a bit like Hackney in East London did 20 years ago, the B&R opened as a community-run social enterprise last summer. The quirky décor (oompah band LPs, Action Man dolls in knitted jumpers, furniture from house clearances) didn’t strike us as contrived or forced.

There were a couple of local cask ales on offer (a mild from Teignworthy and Avocet from Exeter) along with various ‘world beers’ on keg and in bottles. O’Hara’s stout went down nicely; a bottle of Tripel Karmeliet seemed paler and cleaner than the last time we tried it; and Bristol Beer Factory West Coast Red was a spicy, toasty delight. Laverstoke Park Farm Organic Lager was a dud — mostly bland except where it was a bit rough — and Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale was too much sticky toffee pudding for our tastes.

Neither this pub nor its beer selection would turn heads in Bristol or London these days, but it’s quite exciting for this part of the world, and a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

PS. Can anyone give Justin any more information about a cask version of Double Diamond he drank in the mid-90s?

Lessons for Beer Street from Gin Lane

Plymouth Gin Distillery, Devon, UK.

By Boak

Last weekend, seeking to avoid what could easily have felt like five wet Sundays in a row in Penzance, we spent a couple of days in Plymouth, and made like tourists. Activity one: the Plymouth Gin distillery tour, where we learned a lot about beer.

We don’t drink a lot of gin, but my Mum’s partial, and I’ve been buying her bottles of ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’ gin as presents for a couple of years. Plymouth Gin rates itself as the most artisanal of the big brands, if that makes sense. But… the base alcohol is produced in Scotland; the gin is bottled in Essex; and most of the process is automated. “Here’s where our distiller loads the botanicals himself, through this hatch,” said the tour guide. “That’s what makes our gin handcrafted.” At this point, her voice was drowned out by the sounding of the bullshit alarm.

Lesson one, then: unless you’re talking objects, ‘handcraftedness’ really is a poor measure of quality.

The tasting stage of the tour was the real eye-opener, though. First, we were talked through the various herbs and spices (‘botanicals’) in the recipe and couldn’t help but think of Belgian Witbier when talk turned to coriander, cardamom, lemon and orange peel. It was when things got tactile that a bulb really went on: crushing the small-seeded Russian coriander used in Plymouth Gin, we realised it is nothing at all like the earthy, woody Indian stuff we use at home. It smells more like lemons or lemon verbena, and extremely pungent.

Lesson two: coriander is a more complex variable than we’d appreciated, and we need to experiment more.

We’d never even heard of Orris Root which the guide tells us is used mostly for its ability to help keep essential oils in suspension in the gin.

Lesson three: there are more herbs and spices to play with in brewing than we’d previously been aware, some of which might be very useful.

After all that, we enjoyed our complimentary gin and tonic at the end of the tour, but, being beery people at heart, found ourselves itching to brew a gin-inspired Wit sooner rather than later.

The tour costs £7 per person and takes about 30 minutes. The cocktail bar upstairs also happens to have a small selection of bottled beers including Brewdog Punk IPA and Anchor Steam.

The Barley Wine of the English Rhine

Warfleet Brewery -- the Barley Wine of the English Rhine

Dartmouth, Devon, with the holiday season well over, is the perfect place to get lost in time, amongst bent-backed, half-timbered Elizabethan merchants’ houses and the remains of fortifications from war after war. Just out of town, along the coast path, is Warfleet, where there used to be a brewery. In the drizzle, we read a tantalising reference on an information board, and then, back in town, asked about it at the museum. The staff were very helpful, but couldn’t find much information in any of their books or folders of clippings. As is often the case, however, the internet held the answers, thanks to an excellent local history group.

There was brewing in Warfleet by 1840 and, by 1853, it was a ‘well accustomed brewery’, according to a note of its availability for rent in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (13 Dec):  ‘The Brewery is of stone; it has two coppers, one of twenty-seven barrels, the other of twenty-two barrels, with Coolers, Refrigerator, &c., in proportion.’

In 1875, a someone called Madocks took it on and, by 1882, Madocks & Co were running weekly advertisements in The Dartmouth Chronicle, boasting that their town-centre office was in ‘telephonic communication with the brewery’. Each advert was headed with an illustrated device bearing the text ‘The Barley Wine… of the English Rhine’. (The river Dart is steep-sided and broad at this point, and Queen Victoria noted a similarity with the Rhine when she visited in the 1840s.)

Prices were listed for Pale Ales (numbers 4, 3 and 2); Burtons (4 and 2); India Pale Ale; and ‘Light’. But was the ‘barley wine’ of the slogan a specific product — an ‘old ale’ or strong beer — or just a snappy phrase used to describe beer in general? (And chosen at least partly because it rhymed with Rhine?)

In 1926, the Brewery was ‘amalgamated’ with Heavitree of Exeter (taken over), and ceased brewing in 1929. Since then, the building has been used for various purposes, though a plan by a Ministry of Agriculture man to turn it into an experimental poultry farm in 1948 was turned down.

Almost every town in Britain had at least one brewery. What about yours?

Scans of the Dartmouth Chronicle at the Dartmouth Archives Local History Project.
The Story of Warfleet by Ray Freeman. (Link to PDF.)
The British Newspaper Archive.