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.

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”

Do People Realise Breweries Have Gone?

In Exeter the other week we got talking to a bloke leaning on the bar in the pub.

He told us that he goes to the pub most days because, being sin­gle and in his fifties, the alter­na­tive is an emp­ty flat: ‘The pub is like Face­book for me.’ He told us an excel­lent sto­ry about being in a Glas­gow pub while Shane McGowan of the Pogues held court.

Even­tu­al­ly, though, we got on to the sub­ject of beer and we trot­ted out our usu­al line: that Devon’s a bit of a weird case because it does­n’t have a big trad-fam­i­ly-region­al brew­er like Adnams or Wad­worth.

Well, there’s Heav­it­ree,’ he replied.

Heav­it­ree does have pubs across the city and the region, often brand­ed ‘Heav­it­ree Brew­ery’ – we saw one in Teign­mouth, for exam­ple – but the firm has­n’t actu­al­ly pro­duced any beer of its own since 1970. The brew­house was demol­ished ten years after that.

How could he not know this?

Which made us won­der how many peo­ple don’t realise their own ‘local’ brew­ery no longer exists, or is now a sub­sidiary of anoth­er firm (Ring­wood), or a ‘zom­bie brand’ (Man­n’s, Gale’s), or is a com­plete­ly new brew­ery using an old one’s trade­marks (Tru­man).

Hard­core beer geeks like us obsess over details of own­er­ship and his­to­ry but, bar­ring the odd scan­dal, most peo­ple (gen­er­al­i­sa­tion klax­on) don’t, just as we don’t keep tabs on who owns which car firms these days, or which choco­late bar brands.

A Vivid Memory

When I was at nursery and just starting school, my parents ran a pub in Exeter and many of my earliest memories are from this time.

Late­ly, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the day I ‘helped’ my tac­i­turn Lan­cas­tri­an Grand­pa with the stock-take.

I don’t remem­ber it all that clear­ly – I was four – but there are few almost still images and short frag­ments of play­back, cut togeth­er in a mon­tage.

The weath­er was grey but must have been warm because I’m sure I was wear­ing shorts. I’m also sure I was sat on an upturned crate, in the yard by the cel­lar door.

The cel­lar itself was white­washed, cold and damp, with spores on its breath.

Gramps was wear­ing his black Har­ring­ton jack­et with the red tar­tan lin­ing, grum­bling as he shift­ed bot­tles around with yel­low-stained, tough old hands. He was prob­a­bly smok­ing – he was always smok­ing – but I can’t remem­ber for sure.

There was a blue plas­tic crate full of bot­tled beer with blue labels – light ale, I sup­pose – right next to me for a long time. The caps were bright blue and smooth, pret­ty and but­ton-like, and I remem­ber cov­et­ing them.

Then a crate full of root beer in glass bot­tles land­ed in front of me. I asked what it was – is it like cola? He told me. I pestered him to let me try it. Even­tu­al­ly, he grumpi­ly popped open a bot­tle and then went into the bar, still mut­ter­ing, to pay for it.

But I hat­ed it so much it made me cry. (Which is prob­a­bly why I remem­ber this moment at all.)


On walking through the door of the Rusty Bike in Exeter we noted with pleasure the comforting aroma of wood smoke.

It’s an earthy, whole­some kind of smell that trig­gers cer­tain assump­tions in the prim­i­tive human brain:

I am home, I am warm, food is one the way.

Open fires have long been asso­ci­at­ed with prop­er pubs. The Cam­paign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide used to be spon­sored by the Sol­id Fuel Advi­so­ry Ser­vice dur­ing which time a sym­bol appeared to show whether a pub had a real fire or not. The 1984 edi­tion was a ‘real coal fire’ spe­cial with a two-page adver­to­r­i­al on their appeal.

As it hap­pens, though, there is no open fire in the Rusty Bike.

Oh, yeah – we’ve been smok­ing pigeons all after­noon,’ said the red-eyed young man behind the bar, pos­si­bly sup­press­ing a sooty cough.

But it turns out that does­n’t real­ly mat­ter: the smell was enough to make it feel as if we’d walked into a snug vil­lage pub, pos­si­bly via a 100-year time warp, rather than a mod­ern gas­trop­ub a five minute walk from Exeter Prison.

(PS. We’re no food crit­ics but the great big hunks of corned beef at the Rusty Bike struck us as aston­ish­ing­ly good, as did the pig cheek frit­ters. It’s part of the Fat Pig brew­ery estate and, though the beers are quite home­ly, a strange­ly coconut­ty cask ESB was just the job. We did­n’t try the smoked pigeon.)