Dylan Thomas Depicts a Wintry Pub, 1947

The Welsh poet and essayist Dylan Thomas enjoyed beer rather too much and it’s no surprise that pubs often crop up in his writing, and that their atmospheres are so brilliantly evoked.

Return Jour­ney’ was writ­ten for the BBC in 1947 and we came across it in Quite Ear­ly One Morn­ing, a 1954 col­lec­tion of Thomas’s radio scripts. You can find the full text today in var­i­ous books in print today such as the Dylan Thomas Omnibus.

But, by way of a taster, here’s the pas­sage in which Thomas describes vis­it­ing the Hotel (a pub) in a bleak post-Blitz Swansea in search of his younger self:

The bar was just open­ing, but already one cus­tomer puffed and shook at the counter with a full pint of half-frozen Tawe water in his wrapped-up hand. I said Good morn­ing, and the bar­maid, pol­ish­ing the counter vig­or­ous­ly as thought it were a rare and valu­able piece of Swansea chi­na, said to her first cus­tomer:

BARMAID
Seen the film at the Ely­si­um Mr Grif­fiths there’s snow isn’t it did you come up on your bicy­cle our pipes burst Mon­day…

NARRATOR
A pint of bit­ter, please.

BARMAID
Prop­er lit­tle lake in the kitchen got to wear your Welling­tons when you boil an egg one and four please…

CUSTOMER
The cold gets me just here…

BARMAID
…and eight­pence change that’s your liv­er Mr Grif­fiths you been on the cocoa again…

After a pas­sage in which Thomas describes his younger self (“blub­ber lips; snub nose; curly mouse­brown hair”) there is a won­der­ful non sequitur from the bar­maid…

I remem­ber a man came here with a mon­key. Called for ‘alf for him­self and a pint for the mon­key. And he wasn’t Ital­ian at all. Spoke Welsh like a preach­er.

…and some more cus­tomers arrive:

Snowy busi­ness bel­lies pressed their watch-chains against the counter; black busi­ness bowlers, damp and white now as Christ­mas pud­ding in their cloths, bobbed in front of the misty mir­rors. The voice of com­merce rang stern­ly through the lounge.

The final sad com­ment on pubs in this sto­ry reflects a com­mon expe­ri­ence across Britain dur­ing the post-war peri­od:

NARRATOR
What’s the Three Lamps like now?

CUSTOMER
It isn’t like any­thing. It isn’t there. It’s noth­ing mun. You remem­ber Ben Evans’s stores? It’s right next door to that. Ben Evans isn’t there either…

(Fade)

Why Drink Brains?

You’re in Cardiff, why drink Brains? Thriving micro scene nowadays…”

We popped to Cardiff yes­ter­day, a city nei­ther of us knows, and had a poke around the pubs in between bouts of archi­tec­tur­al appre­ci­a­tion. The main things we want­ed to achieve on this pre­lim­i­nary recon­nais­sance mis­sion were (1) to vis­it the Tiny Rebel bar and (2) drink some beer from Brains, the dom­i­nant local fam­i­ly brew­er, as near to its home as pos­si­ble.

The above ques­tion was put to us on Twit­ter by vet­er­an beer appre­ci­a­tor and Guardian let­ters celebri­ty Kei­th Flett (Twit­ter, blog), who spends quite a bit of time in Cardiff, when he noticed us Tweet­ing about a nasty, but­tery pint of Brains Dark.

It’s an under­stand­able ques­tion and we’re on the receiv­ing end of, or see, sim­i­lar every day. It can be frus­trat­ing to remote­ly observe some­one miss­ing all the good bits of a town you know and fear­ing that they’ll be judg­ing it harsh­ly by the places they do end up. We used to get a bit like this when we saw that peo­ple had been to Pen­zance and vis­it­ed The Crown but not The Yacht, for exam­ple.

More exam­ples can be seen in the response to Tandleman’s vis­it to St Albans before Christ­mas. His report made no claim to being The Defin­i­tive Guide and looked like just the kind of gut-instinct ram­ble we tend to pre­fer to reg­i­ment­ed guide­book tick­ing but peo­ple couldn’t help respond­ing with lists of the pubs he and E ought to have gone to instead, with an implied silent scream.

These days there’s almost nowhere in the UK that doesn’t have a cou­ple of pubs pre­ferred by the local cognoscen­ti and a quick bit of Googling or search­ing Twit­ter means that there’s real­ly no excuse for wast­ing time and effort on sub-stan­dard venues in a strange town.

Except that, for one thing, it’s half the fun. Being told exact­ly where to go and what to avoid is like using cheat mode on a com­put­er game, or look­ing at the answers on a quiz. Try­ing to fath­om the pol­i­tics, dynam­ics and cul­ture of a place you don’t know is a kind of puz­zle and unless you’re on a mis­sion, or per­haps a com­mis­sion, then feel­ing your way around and mak­ing wrong turns is what makes it stim­u­lat­ing. Espe­cial­ly if you know you’re going to go back some oth­er time, as we do with Cardiff, and Tan­dle­man made clear he intend­ed to do with St Albans, so a few duds don’t real­ly hurt in the long run.

Then there’s the fact that the hive mind is some­times wrong, or at least tends towards the safe. In the last cou­ple of years, as we’ve got braver and more adven­tur­ous in our pub-going, we’ve dis­cov­ered lots of love­ly pubs that nobody ever seems to rec­om­mend, as well as a few bloody awful ones that lots of oth­er peo­ple seem to love. And we do pre­fer pubs to bars, and espe­cial­ly tap rooms, towards which so many social media rec­om­men­da­tions seem to steer.

Final­ly, there’s the impor­tance of mak­ing our own judge­ment. If we swerved Brains because every­one else told us to we’d feel as if we’d been lazy. If we’re going to say Tiny Rebel is bet­ter than Brains we want that to be on the basis of hav­ing actu­al­ly drunk a fair bit of Tiny Rebel and a fair bit of Brains in dif­fer­ent places at dif­fer­ent times, rather than just going along with the pre­vail­ing view. We have a soft spot for old fam­i­ly brew­ers, too, so there’s cer­tain­ly no guar­an­tee we will pre­fer the prod­ucts of the micro-scene.

Ulti­mate­ly, if you want to know a place you have to expe­ri­ence the mediocre as well as sup­ping at the cream. You don’t know Lon­don if you’ve nev­er felt slight­ly scared in a dark­ened under­pass; you don’t know Corn­wall if you’ve been to gen­teel St Ives but not down-to-earth Redruth; you don’t know most towns or cities if you’ve nev­er been in the sub­urbs on a wet after­noon.

GALLERY: Home Front Beer, WWII

We recently discovered the Imperial War Museum digital archive which is (perhaps surprisingly) crammed with pictures of pubs, beer and brewing.

Here are some of the best shots of ‘every­day life’ on the home front dur­ing World War II shared under the terms of their non-com­mer­cial license. (Click the ID num­bers to go to the IWM web­site for big­ger ver­sions and more info.)

A mixed group of uniformed men and a barmaid.
Allied sol­diers in a Lon­don pub, 1940. © IWM (D 1725)
A dimly lit pub with soldiers in discussion.
Home Guard mem­bers in a pub in Orford, Suf­folk, 1941. © IWM (D 4852)

Con­tin­ue read­ingGALLERY: Home Front Beer, WWII

Pembrokeshire – great place for walking and drinking

The Grif­fin Inn, Dale, Pem­brokeshire, Wales

The Pem­brokeshire coast path, in South Wales, fea­tures 186 miles of gor­geous cliffs, hid­den bays – and the occa­sion­al won­der­ful pub. I don’t mean that there are lots of pubs and only some of them are won­der­ful – more that pubs are spaced quite far apart in this part of the world, pos­si­bly some­thing to do with wide­spread Non­con­formism and there­fore tee­to­tal­ism. There are excep­tions, for exam­ple Lit­tle Haven has three pubs, and I’ve already writ­ten about Sol­va. They must have been very sin­ful places. Con­tin­ue read­ing “Pem­brokeshire – great place for walk­ing and drink­ing”

A pub crawl in Solva, Pembrokeshire

The Ship Inn, Solva, Pembrokeshire, Wales
The Ship Inn, Sol­va, Pem­brokeshire, Wales

The small Welsh ham­let of Sol­va has three pubs with­in a hun­dred yards of each oth­er, and there’s at least one more up the hill in Upper Sol­va. Only the Har­bour Inn is men­tioned in the Good Beer Guide (2007) but the oth­er two are also worth some love.

The Har­bour Inn has the best loca­tion, and there­fore the lion’s share of the pun­ters. It has fine views across the har­bour and an ambi­tious menu. Beer-wise it’s a Brains place, offer­ing the reg­u­lar bit­ter and Rev­erend James. I have to say, I’m not a mas­sive fan of these two. Per­haps I’ve nev­er had a real­ly good pint, but they real­ly don’t do very much for me.

It’s cosy, and the young chap behind the bar was very friend­ly, although I didn’t much care for the old­er chap chas­ing fam­i­lies with chil­dren into their own spe­cial ghet­to. “Dogs are fine, it’s chil­dren I can’t stand,” he said cheer­ful­ly to a cou­ple on the next table from me. That’s Britain summed up for you.

Almost next door to the Har­bour Inn is the Ship Inn, which also dou­bles as the Spice Gal­ley, an Indi­an restaurant/takeaway. I’d nev­er been in this place before, and rather expect­ed it to be an unfriend­ly locals’ place. The bar­man ignored me ini­tial­ly, but I’ll give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt, as he may not have seen me. I’m quite small.

It’s a Marstons pub, so had Pedi­gree and Long Hop on. They’d just had a beer fes­ti­val, so on the oth­er two taps were spe­cials from that – some­thing by Banks, and Gold­en Thread by Salop­i­an. I went for the lat­ter, and it blew my mind. I don’t think I’ve had a bet­ter pint this sum­mer. It was in per­fect con­di­tion, with a creamy head, and a gor­geous hop aro­ma. Flow­ery hops dom­i­nat­ed the flavour but there were also hints of banana and clove in it. Won­der­ful stuff. I would have stayed to drink more, but I had one more pub to check out before the bus was due.

The Cam­bri­an Arms looks a bit like a hotel bar and also has inter­est­ing food. On tap they had Tomos Watkin’s OSB which has a love­ly heavy malt & mar­malade flavour. They also had Bevan’s Bit­ter, from the Rhym­ney Brew­ery. This was a good deal hop­pi­er than the TW, but beau­ti­ful­ly bal­anced. I also had their Rhym­ney Bit­ter in the Farm­ers Arms ear­li­er in the week, and was impressed. I reck­on that the Rhym­ney brew­ery is a wel­come new addi­tion to the Welsh brew­ing scene.

The Cam­bri­an Arms also had But­ty Bach, by the Wye Val­ley brew­ery, but I didn’t have a chance to reac­quaint myself with this delight­ful drop as I could hear the bus com­ing down the hill.

Boak

Sol­va is served by semi-reg­u­lar bus­es Mon-Sat between Haver­ford­west and St Davids. It makes an excel­lent end point for cliff walks from New­gale or Caer­fai, St Davids. Just give your­self more time for the beer before the last bus leaves…

The Rhym­ney brew­ery is a com­par­a­tive­ly new Welsh brew­ery. It was start­ed in 2005, but is keen to draw links between it and his­toric brew­eries from Merthyr Tyd­fil. It has an inter­est­ing page about these brew­eries on its web­site.