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:

MILLSTONE

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.

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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.)

Smoke

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.)

The Samuel Jones, Exeter

The Samuel Jones opened just before Christmas and is an outpost of Cornish brewing giant St Austell, occupying a converted warehouse on Exeter’s riverside.

If you weren’t in the know, you might not realise this ‘smoke and ale house’ is a St Austell project. Branding has been kept to a minimum, and the décor is more stylish than most of their Cornish estate — polished copper, reclaimed wood and exposed pipework, which make it feel pleasingly cluttered, warm and, for want of a better word, ‘cool’.

That ‘coolness’ is somewhat undercut by the evidence of corporate management: staff in matching waistcoats, scripted greetings, floor supervisors with earpieces, and a slick EPOS system. On our visit, it did, at times, feel a bit like a posh Harvester, though never downright soulless, perhaps because it was so buzzing, with almost every seat, from armchair to bar stool, occupied from the moment we arrived mid-afternoon up until we left.

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The Beer Cellar, Exeter

In the last year or so, Exeter has gained two drinking holes which make craft beer a key part of their offer.

Until recently, the stretch of the West beyond Bristol was short on Belgian, American and ‘new wave’ beer, and Exeter in particular seemed ripe for the plucking. We’ll look at St Austell’s new ‘smoke and ale house’ The Samuel Jones tomorrow, but first, here are some long-matured thoughts on The Beer Cellar.

Taking over a box-like unit previously occupied by a Chinese noodle bar, the Beer Cellar opened at the end of 2013. The people behind it also run the sister Cornish breweries Penpont and Firebrand, as well as owning adventurous off licences in Launceston and Truro.

Despite a superficial resemblance to the Rake at London’s Borough Market, when we first visited the Beer Cellar almost exactly a year ago, we didn’t take to it.

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Falling in Love

This weekend, we visited two ‘craft beer’ bars which were new to us, and failed to ‘fall in love’ with either of them.

That doesn’t mean we hated them — far from it — but nor did we react as we did to the Sandford Park Alehouse in Cheltenham the other week: they didn’t lure is into staying for just one more, or cause us to sigh with satisfaction. We couldn’t settle.

Settling is what happens when we can get really cosy, or the atmosphere is so good we don’t care about being comfortable. (It’s nice to get both.) Great beer is important, but we don’t tend to fall in love on the basis of beer alone.

That last conclusion we reached at the Fat Pig brewpub, the third new place we visited, on Saturday afternoon. The beer didn’t strike us as amazing — variations on honey-sweet blonde ale in the main, though we were impressed with a wonderfully dry stout — but the pub made us feel happy. The Fat Pig, there and then, had it.

Was it something to do with the quality of the light through the big frosted windows? The well worn bare wood surfaces? Good food didn’t hurt. If we lived nearby, we thought, we’d be happy to have it as our local.

But it is the definition of subjective: you might go there on a wet Wednesday evening and wonder what on earth we saw in the place.

We’re hoping to write about the Beer Cellars (Exeter) and the Teign Cellars (Newton Abbot) in more detail in a future post fairly soon, when we’ve had chance to pay return visits. Perhaps in a different month/week/day/hour, there will be more chemistry.

The Old Fire House, Exeter

Last time we went to Exeter, we struggled to find any outstanding beer, but various commenters, and some blokes at a beer festival, told us that we’d missed the best pub: the Old Fire House on New North Road.

We nearly missed it again.

Going in in the middle of the afternoon, we saw several pumps for ‘real cider’, but no beer. Puzzled, we turned and left. Outside, we scratched our heads, Stan Laurel style, and decided to try again. This time, we gave ourselves time to adjust to the gloom and realised that there were several casks on the back wall, labelled as if at a beer festival, along with a blackboard.

The beers could have done with a bit more condition, but there was no faulting their freshness. Dark Star Hophead, our 2010 beer of the year, and one we miss sorely since leaving London, was as delicious as ever. Titanic Centenary was also a surprising success — an almost green, Champagne-like yellow, and with enough hop aroma to compete with the Dark Star.

Only one thing bothered us: a pervasive aroma of vomit. We assume this was a temporary problem caused by the residual effects of someone, you know, vomiting, but then this wouldn’t be the first real-ale-focused pub with a B.O. problem.

Our final observation: this is one of Exeter’s more trendily decorated pubs; the crowd was young; and there was a bouncer. In this city, at least, real ale is cool.

Hunting for Ale in Exeter

A pint of Exeter Brewery 'fraid Not at the Waterfront pub

We couldn’t find many recommendations for pubs in Exeter on the Blogoshire, so thought we’d use our instincts and try out a few places on spec.

We started with the Wellhouse Tavern which is attached to Michael Caines’ hotel and restaurant on the cathedral square. We’re always interested when chefs say they like beer: it’s usually done in the middle of a spiel about how normal they are and how nothing hits the spot like good beer, after which they proceed to recommend Innis and friggin’ Gunn. Anyway, in this case, Chef or (at last his bar manager) turns out to have decent taste with five west country ales on offer, and not just the usual suspects. Standouts were O’Hanlon’s Stormsayer, a gingery, chunky 5% beer, and Bay’s Up and Under, a refreshing and moreish amber bitter. The pub itself can’t quite decide if it’s trying to be a real ale pub (large selection of beer), a party pub (bangin’ dance tunes and Jäger bombs) or a gastropub (sandwiches with pancetta) but definitely worth a look.

Thanks to the Baedeker raids, where there ought to be quaint backstreets and half-timbered buildings, there are post-war shopping complexes, and so the city centre seems short on pubs. We headed out of the immediate centre towards the Topsham Road and came across the White Hart. This is a proper, wonky old coaching inn with a courtyard, hidden rooms and cosy corners, despite attempts by Marston’s to turn it into a plasticky chain pub. Of particular interest is their unique house beer, Old Wallop (5.6%), brewed by Ringwood (part of the Marston’s empire). It’s got a really rich, chewy toffee character, set off nicely by that famous Ringwood yeast. Good stuff.

Down by the quayside, there is The Prospect, another large, historical pub. Unfortunately, they’ve gone even further down the chain pub route having done away with the cosy corners, leaving one great big echoing chamber. It feels like an upmarket Wetherspoons or a cut-price Pitcher and Piano. Cotleigh Old Haka, with Motueka hops, was in good nick, though, and the first beer from this brewery we’ve really enjoyed in a while.

The Waterfront, a few metres further along the quayside, was a pleasant surprise. From outside, it looked like a chain tapas bar but, inside we found attractive arched brick ceilings, friendly bar staff and regulars, and several ales in absolutely excellent condition. It’s the first time we’ve had O’Hanlon’s Yellow Hammer in a state where we could appreciate the subtle spiciness. ‘Fraidnot (4%) by the Exeter Brewery was the highlight of the trip — a golden ale with the kind of lip-smacking, doughy, bready malt flavour we associate with JW Lees Bitter and Bristol Beer Factory beers.

The Hourglass, around the corner on tucked-away Melbourne Street, is a fabulous old pub building with early 20th century brewery livery and some quirky decor, like a backstreet bar in Brussels. Lots of laptops and Moleskines about, if you catch our drift. It’s a pity that the beer was in indifferent condition and that the range included two from Otter (a brewery we just don’t get). They had another Exeter beer, Avocet Ale, which was herbal, watery and, frankly, weird tasting. This is probably an amazing place in which to drink red wine and philosophise but, on the beer front, we’d recommend the Waterfront over this.

It’s probably an indictment of the Exeter beer scene that one of our top recommendations is still the Imperial, a Wetherspoons that’s a ten minute walk from the station and occupies the old Imperial Hotel building, including its incredible orangery. The beer is reliably good and they have by far the best range of unusual local beer. We particularly enjoyed Bath Ales’ Ginger Hare (not very gingery, more like singed cinnamon UPDATE: and maybe not Ginger Hare at all, as Bath Ales tell us they’ve not done a cask for a while — did someone forget to change the pumpclip?) and Eddystone by South Hams  — a rare West Country beer with veritable hops!

We didn’t find any really top-notch pubs and began to realise the benefits of big regional brewers: with no St Austell or Fuller’s of its own, Exeter is being filled with invasive species: Marston’s and Greene King pubs. Not local and certainly not exciting.

Finally, a food tip: Lite Deelite is a very authentic Chinese/Japanese snack bar and restaurant on the Cathedral Square. We’ve been twice and been very impressed by the food on both occasions. The gangs of trendy Chinese students tapping away on their iPhones only add to the atmosphere.