Father Forgive Me!

Father Forgive Me!

Batswell sits amidst the crop seas of central Hertfordshire. It’s a pretty community full of tudor overhang and cottages whose roofs are in a permanent state of suspended collapse. Wood-warped beams, lopsided masonry, doorstep boot-scrapers and cascades of wisteria scaling whitewashed walls represent the soul of this village. Like many settlements in the area, it’s basically just a street. If you drive through, buildings appear by each side of the road, cluster, and then peter out. Keep going and you’ll hit similar gems a few miles down the road whether it be Whitwell, Codicote or Kimpton.

To denote public rights of way, herbicide is used to scorch out pathways through farmers’ plots. These access routes are often ochre in colour cutting straight through the majestic green. You creep up on villages from over their shoulder and penetrate their very heart first. It’s telling how many times the main footpath in ends up intersecting with the location of the public house until you realise it makes perfect sense; cars weren’t always a staple of the landscape. In Batswell, the pub this leads to is the Whetstone Inn.

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I arrived in Batswell at the start of May and found it festooned with that most evocative emblem of rural England: bunting. Triangles of coloured fabric were draped over and across everything.

I could hear the sound of jollification seeping through the pub’s weathered walls. There were the shrieks of children mixed with the babbling bass of adults. Trying to look nonchalant, I edged past the dark windows to try and make out the silhouettes of the pump clip parade and get a handle on a pub I’ve never been in. Crowds on the inside might have deterred me if it felt like walking in on a private party, but it didn’t seem too busy. I realised that most of the human commotion I could hear was actually from the beer garden round the back. Another detail as I crept past: there was a banner hanging over the bar in the manner of the flags displayed during the World Cup. It read “Happy Hanging Day 2017”.

A portly man in his late fifties emerged from the side of the building cradling a cigarette, his lighter sparking. We almost collided and he startled. He clutched his chest theatrically. We did that bizarre rite of apologising to each other simultaneously. He was wearing what earlier in the day might’ve been a smart white shirt but it was crumpling now and half untucked at the waist. He had stonewashed blue jeans that were at least two sizes too tight.

“Ere for ‘angin day?” he asked. He was jovial and quite tipsy. A combination of the springtime sun and early drinking had flushed his cheeks.

“No. I didn’t realise it was on. Just walking through.” but then I paused, “What is hanging day exactly?”

“Ooh blimey,” he goggled in disbelief, “well don’t be a stranger. You missed the main event but come in and ‘ave a look. I’ll introduce you to Pam and Kev”.

I resisted. In truth I wouldn’t have minded a drink and to tick this pub off from those unvisited on my list but didn’t want to get pulled into anything by an unknown quantity. I assumed the named couple were landlady and landlord. I didn’t have much money on me either. In cash terms, only enough to buy for me which would be social heresy. He insisted. He made the cigarette glow with a few motivated sucks and took it down to the filter. I started trying to find excuses but he waived them aside.

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“Bloody state o’ me!” he said looking down at his gut. He forced his shirt back in. “What you need mate, is a glass of serisea and a pecky.”

He’d said the magic word. I’d heard of serisea but had never found a place that still brews it. It’s basically a strong traditional cherry ale from Hertfordshire. The word serisea must come from the french word for cherry – cerise (the “c” is pronounced as “s”). It sounds as though the word is being used as a verb in the passive – cerisée (“cherried”) or maybe it’s just the word being vocalised in an english accent. Maybe neither of the above. In any case, I’d finally stumbled on a pub actually serving it.

What a pecky was in terms of a drink or food item, I’d no idea.

A century ago, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire were the epicentre of Britain’s cherry trade. These counties were even more renowned for cherries than wheat or water cress – their other main exports. The varieties are still out there growing in back gardens but unrecognised. There are varieties such as Circassian, Doesn’t Split, Dangler and Hertfordshire Black. This harvest’s been long forgotten but was reflected in pub names like the Cherry Tree (ex-pub, Wheathampstead) and the Bunch of Cherries (now the Speckled Hen, St Albans).

He introduced himself as Les and led me into the pub via a side door. There was a cinema foyer warmth to the inside lounge from the aged carpet and burnished oak bar. There were also those twee red papery lampshades beloved of pubs the country over capping the light bulbs in the walls. This front section had wooden tables and chairs rather than settles or stools. It obviously served a lot of food most of the time but right then, nobody was sitting apart from an observant presence by the hearth. On closer inspection, his dog collar revealed him to be a vicar who watched me with interest. Everyone else stood in converse. As I gained on the bar I heard someone address Les:

“You ent’ caught another one ‘ave you? Poor bugger!” I grinned back at the room in general.

I could see through the bar to the next room where people were also standing. I realised that everyone in this half was male and everyone on the other was female. Though I noticed, I didn’t make much of it at the time as folk often congregate down gender lines; conversation topics can often cause that. So can hen and stag dos.

There was a gorgeous oak brewer’s barrel behind the bar tilted forward on chocks. It had some age judging by the patination on the metal hoops. The colour of the wood suggested it had been re-used many times over many years. The year was written in chalk over the tap but I could still see the faded scrawls of previous years’.

“Kev! This is Alex!” barked Les “He was just walking through.” Kevin was a man of slim build with a publican’s manner. Watchful, officious, and clean-shaven with polite dimples. His pressed shirt was impeccable. He proffered his hand and and I shook it.

“Pleased to meet you Kevin. It’s Alec actually – like Alec Guinness.” I said.

“So finally – someone with a touch of class!” he slapped the bar. There was some audio feedback from the other locals to that.

“Glass o’ the red stuff please – on me!” called Les. I objected. I wanted to know whether card payments were possible but I couldn’t think of any acceptable social route to ask this now without it being completely awkward. I also wanted to know how alcoholic the beer was. From what I’d read, serisea was like a barley wine.

But we’d managed to enter at precisely the wrong moment because the barrel had literally just exuded the last drops and a sludge of yeast. I saw a small measure at the bottom of a pint glass left on the bar. It was beetroot in colour and had a pink candy froth head. Despite being gravity dispensed, it looked well carbonated.

A quick apology from Kevin who immediately press-ganged Les into the two-man task of mounting another barrel onto the chocks from the cellar. I noticed a pulley system above the bar consisting of a three winch set fed by what looked like multicoloured mountaineering ropes with a hook hanging at one end. This had been obscured by the “Happy Hanging Day 2017” banner.

Before disappearing into the cellar with Les, Kevin pulled through a pint of a local pale ale – Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebbs, and as I got my wallet out (even though I hadn’t ordered the beer), he told me it was on the house. Result. I scatter-gunned gratitudes. This gave me a chance to have a proper look at the surroundings whilst holding a prop.

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I nodded a shy greeting to the other punters and got a general return. The red carpet extended several meters from the bar until its edge revealed pale flagstones. Near the door that linked this bar to the other, the stone flooring became darker. It looked centuries worn. Also on the bar were four oven trays covered in foil. On them were rows of small reddish breads or sponges. Each portion seemed to have a filament or string attached.

I glanced into the other bar and witnessed a woman duck down like she’d gotten on her knees. There was a male after all – a boy standing with his arm raised. He dangled one of the breads above the woman’s face by the thread. Her eyes were shut. She uttered something that sounded a bit Italian and the child popped the treat in her mouth. This was met with cheers and encouraging coos towards the lad. Rising again, she pulled the string from her mouth and chewed on the cargo. Something red oozed from her lips. She caught the sauce with her finger and sucked on it. Whatever it was looked sweet but I was perplexed as to what I’d just witnessed. I was going to have to ask Les about this when he got back.

“First time in Batswell?” The voice cut through from behind me. The vicar I’d noticed earlier was watching me with his fingers knitted over his chest. My bewilderment had amused him. He too looked to be in his mid to late fifties but was in good shape. He wore a smart black T shirt under his dog collar and the shepherdic look of clergy wasn’t compromised by it. He had dark chinos and I noticed that his left foot was in a cast, hence, probably, why he was the only one sitting.

“I’ve walked up from St Albans.” I replied. He raised his eyebrows.

“Well that’s quite a yomp. Are you familiar with Hanging Day?”

“I’m not sure. I think I read about it. Is it connected with beating the bounds in St Albans?” I seemed to be on the right track. “Civitas versus ecclesia.” I added. I impressed myself by my last comment – and was even more surprised that I could remember the year – 1327. The quote was from a book and the words had obviously lain in wait like a sleeper cell waiting to ambush fellow anoraks.

Beating the bounds is a tradition in May whereby a throng – made up mostly of local school children led by the mayor – traces the outskirts of St Albans banging drums. It’s to symbolise the town’s citizens proclaiming their freedom from the mighty established church. All I knew is that this led to repercussions by the church on tithes further out where it reacted antagonistically by increasing its grip over local trade and taxation. The fact I knew this made the vicar light up and he gestured at one of the chairs at his table. I looked back for Les. It seemed rude to abandon him and the reverend read this.

“Oh don’t worry – Leslie and Kevin will be a while. Those barrels are precious but they weigh a ton.” he pointed at the ropes in the ceiling. “I saw you scrutinising those. You’ll see the sight of the next barrel being raised through the floor in a few minutes. It’s been rigged up like that since before the war – different ropes and fixtures, of course,” he leant forwards, “and have you had serisea before?” that magic word again.

And so I spent some time at his table. I learned that his name was Peter Stone but I could call him Peter, Vicar, papa or even pop. Not being a church-goer, I called him Peter. He told me something I’ve never realised about serisea – it’s been traditionally brewed as a sacramental drink and is also used for the blood-red filling in the breads; these turned out to be the “peckies” Les alluded to earlier. The church of England has less emphasis on the role of the Eucharist than the Catholic or Orthodox church, but instead of red wine representing Christ’s blood, serisea – a high abv cherry barley wine – was used instead in this parish. This was a revelation to me. To my astonished ears, this made Hertfordshire more beery and ecclesiastical than even Belgium! He went on to tell me about another ancient tradition which would further establish that: the privilege of altar.

The privilege of altar is deliciously British. It’s when the local clergy transform part of the public house (The business bit – meaning the bar) into an altar. This means that the Eucharist is actually performed in the pub and the vicar becomes both shepherd and landlord.

“If it wasn’t for this…,” he indicated his foot injury, “I would be serving behind the bar now. Mind you, glad to be avoiding moving the casks downstairs if I’m honest. I always end up putting my back out. I’m not really just sitting here drinking – I’m delegating!” he winked.

A little girl with dark hair appeared through the doorway connecting the bars. She paused at the edge of the crimson carpet and folded up neatly and silently into a sitting position on the floor. Peter noticed my attention drawn to her. She ogled me curiously, her look reflecting coyness and impishness in equal measure. She was clad in a denim dress over white tights and blue trainers. Her scalp hoisted up a pair of short pigtails in blue bows. But what was most striking were her eyes – she had a green eye and a blue eye. It was almost like the piercing stares of two people at once.

The vicar’s own eyes got dewy.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” I nodded – she was. He lowered his voice to a whisper “It’s called heterochromia.” I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard of it but went to try and impress.

“Isn’t that what David Bowie had?” I ventured. This pleased Peter. He straightened up like he’d just been given a feed line and raised a finger.

“Ah. No. Mr Bowie’s condition was anisocoria – his pupils were of different size whereas this angel has different coloured irises.” he relaxed back again smug and allowed himself the indulgence of quiet laughter. “Not bad for a man of the cloth, eh? I had a poster of Ziggy Stardust on my wall as a teenager,” he raised his voice, “but all that really means is that Hayley over here is very very special, doesn’t it?” he addressed her directly, “but then we already know that don’t we sweetheart?” Hayley beamed in return.

The vicar rose with a controlled grimace from his lame foot and limped over to the bar where he snatched a pecky from one of the trays. Hayley flipped around into a kneeling position with all the eagerness and agility of a Labrador puppy. The vicar let the pecky hang before her.

“Pater dimette me!” she squealed. The titbit disappeared and she scoffed it gutterally, her eyes even more backlit than before. She jumped up, hugged Peter and gambolled away into the women’s lounge.

Returning to the subject, the privilege of altar (as Peter impressed on me) also explained the separation of the genders: there is a long held belief that females cannot work or help behind the altar to the point that babies, depending on sex, are baptised either in the nave or at the altar. Only the boys get the latter privilege because only boys can become priests. The church of England is more progressive in this matter as it actively ordains female vicars but this changes from diocese to diocese. We were still in the diocese of St Albans which publicly promotes women vicars. Here, though, the preference parochially was for how it used to be.

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It dawned on me that this was why Hayley had stopped at the carpet’s edge – beyond it constituted the altar. She was a girl and so stayed back.

There was then a public spectacle: Les re-appeared, gave Peter and myself a salute, swiped and made three peckies vanish with a muted incantation, threw the threads aside and proceeded to open a floor hatch behind the bar. He reached up – exposing his flocculent bare gut – to grab the hook and yank at it to feed the rope down into the cellar. Presently, a barrel wearing a truss with an inbuilt loop for the hook rose from the floor. The rope quivered from the weight. I heard the growl of a motor. Les steadied the pod’s slow ascent and with great care, it was lowered onto the chocks. This, I thought, must be why it was called Hanging Day.

Plonking himself back down at the table, Peter couldn’t suppress his adoration.

“She really is the most beautiful little girl. Absolutely besotted!” his joy was contractive. He collected himself, saw in me a hive of questions and made himself ready. He answered the one I’d had since before I’d even walked in: “pecky”. Now I knew it was a bake which traditionally included a serisea-based custard. It basically acts as the sacramental wafer but is much tastier and as Peter opined at one point – “almost sinfully indulgent” – which ironically will bring us to the name. Why is it dangled on a piece of string? And what were the words Hayley had said? I assumed, because of the religiosity it must be Latin rather than Italian as I’d fumbled earlier.

He leant towards me again

“If I said the word “Peccator”, would that mean anything to you?” I asked him to spell it and this enthused him further but I didn’t have a clue. I hazarded a guess: something to do with fish. This was incorrect. “It means sinner.” he stated.

So: Peccator gets shortened in English to “pecky”.

I also discovered that peckies are actually supposed to be in the shape of a human figure but that the ones on the trays had risen too much in the oven so this was difficult to make out. There used to be a similar thing in St Albans a hundred years ago – popladys – these were baked around Easter to represent a female form: Mother Mary. Hot cross buns reputedly originate from St Albans too. I was startled to find that the strings the peckies are on signify the figure being hanged from the neck. Peter thought this might originally have been a reference to Judas hanging himself after his betrayal to Jesus, but admitted it was just conjecture.

Finally, Peter then explained that “Pater dimette me” means “Father forgive me”. It’s also a Christian sacramental custom. And so to round things off – my final assumption about hanging day being about the barrel of serisea needed to be confirmed. It must be about the brewing and raising of a sacramental ale.

“So, Les told me I’d missed the main event!” I said thinking of the original barrel. I imagined a custom of it being tapped publicly for the first time.

“Quite so.” Peter gave me a tentative look. “Would you like to retire to the garden? You go ahead – I’ll get there eventually. I’m a bit of a cripple at the moment – wish I could heal myself….maybe I lack faith.” he fingered his dog collar. “A lot of people are hostile about Hanging Day so may I say it’s a pleasure to meet someone so interested in history and tradition…… tell me – do you have the faith?” I understood the question – I’d hoped we wouldn’t touch on it, but being with him was like being a schoolboy again in the presence of a history teacher with genuine passion for his subject. In the lounge, I could sense the reverence people held him in. He was patrician-like; a sage. He saw all and counselled on all.

“No,” I answered, “I’m an atheist.” his look of disappointment seemed token. He more acted like someone who’d been handed a challenge.

“Maybe you just don’t believe yet….” not wanting me to feel awkward, he dropped it and gestured to the side entrance I’d entered by. “Shall we?” with that, we made our way out to the beer garden. As we left the lounge he added “This year, not so much a Peccator as a Peccatrix.” whatever that meant, I looked forward to seeing it.

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There were more people in the beer garden and the sexes mingled. There was a cluster of tables covered with white cloth. Further oven trays bore the remaining pecky rows. Aged wooden picnic tables bore the weight of punters’ backsides. The acoustics – the conversations rumbling in tandem, the clink of glasses, the abandonment to embarrassing laughter and the kids baying for attention – could’ve been bottled and exported.

The centrepiece was a white pole that stood in the middle of the children’s play area. Something I hadn’t expected was the effigy of someone that had been hanged from its crossbar about twenty feet up. The hangee was slouched in an odd position: it was standing but twisted at the hip so the body curved. Its full weight was on the ground but the noose kept it from slumping over. The dummy’s hands were tied behind its back and wrapped in a CostCutter plastic bag. Another was covering the head. I pondered that the one at the back was to hide the fact that hands are difficult to mould – maybe there was just hay or sponge sticking out from the sleeve ends. It was odd to have one over the face – perhaps a crappy gallows hood. Possibly it was even to keep it dry in case of rain. Some long purple locks poked out from under the hood the same colour as a goth’s hair – they’d gone to the trouble of a wig.

“Is that supposed to represent a woman?” I asked. My enquiry was drowned out by the rampant squeaking of a horse see-saw on a spring. A boy rode it vigorously lunging backwards and forwards before crying someone’s name and scampering off. The fixture continued to head-bang frenziedly by itself.

A finger tapped my shoulder and I turned to see Les. I apologised for leaving his guardianship. He just laughed. His cheeks were even redder and I could hear he was starting to slur. His shirt had again liberated itself and he pushed a wine glass into my left hand. The liquid inside was the colour of red wine but cloudy and with the pink froth I saw earlier. I still had half a pint of Fanny Ebbs in my right hand.
“Is this the serisea?” I asked pointlessly. I motioned getting my wallet out but he made bodily clear that that would only cause opprobrium.

“Ere!” he said, “which cherry type was used for this year’s ‘angin’ day?” I didn’t follow his meaning “Dangler!” he slapped my arm and pointed at the effigy “Dangler!” he shrieked again. My head twitched to avoid a gob of flying spittle as tears were on the verge of breaching around his sockets. I coughed up a smile and managed some laughter.

“Cheers Les and thanks very much for that.” I hoped that underlined things.

I approached the hanged form and scrutinised the dummy at close quarters. It had a bulge around the hips and chest. It certainly looked like it was supposed to be a woman.
“Who is she supposed to represent?” I enquired. I considered the basics. “Is she supposed to be a politician or a reality TV star?” I suspected the latter as the victim had been clad in a grey Umbro tracksuit. I looked back at Les who didn’t seem to understand my question. Peter appeared behind him clutching at the tables for support.

I put both the half pint of Fanny Ebbs and the glass of serisea down on the corner of a bench and went to have a proper look at the face. Surely they’d bothered to make one under the supermarket bag if they’d done the hair. Maybe I’d recognise the likeness of a celebrity. I tried to nudge the corpse but it was as heavy as lead. Possibly the clothes hadn’t been stuffed with straw but with sand or carpet. It wouldn’t budge. Instead I raised the edge of the carrier bag. A blowfly rasped under the crumpled plastic logo and flew out.

Version 2

I stared at the face of a teenage girl. Her brown stare was like glass. My thumb came into contact with her soft cheek which was still tepid. My interference upset a river of drool that coursed over the braces on her bottom teeth – the strand elongated, then retracted around a lip piercing. The stream re-poured mixed with a blood yolk. Her chin was glazed from the recent effulgence of saliva. A glut of red mucous hit her white Adidas trainer.

The ring around her neck was dark brown from the cut of the rope.

Weightlessly, I backed away – my torso a barren cave. I’d left the constraints of my body. I drifted through the silence. I saw Les’ face sporting a twisted gurn of confusion. I then passed to the vicar – Peter’s head was in his hand; something terrible had just dawned on him. I panned over the other grotesques gathered around – I was their focus. Groups in the background stopped their unheard conversations and cast their lights on me.

I propelled silently through Les and Peter like a spirit. I could feel no emotion but taste sodium and feel the cold press of zinc in my stomach. The building walls passed me. I haunted the street and glided towards a red beacon in the distance simply because it was a red beacon in the distance. I put the phone booth between me and the last few moments, saw my boots stop and align. My hands landed on my knees and I watched a torrent of pale vomit brake over the edge of a rockery.

I didn’t stray from that nook. I recall my voice on the mobile phone saying I’d found the body of a girl that had committed suicide or been hanged but the voice was detached from mine. It gave my name and location. I still don’t know why I mentioned suicide. Maybe it had been. Perhaps there had been a tragedy but things would be okay; optimism in spite of evidence.

Time passed.

Presently, a blue light pulsed – reflected off and through the glass in the windows at the street bottom. The patrol car approached and I ambled into the road to be seen. There were two officers. The driver’s side window lowered and the woman officer addressed me. She introduced herself as PC Mills.

A few metres from the corner of the pub, she asked me to wait as she and her colleague – a young man in his twenties PC Hayes – entered the garden and public lounge respectively. She was immediately blocked by Les in the doorway.
“You can’t come in ‘ere! This is the altar! On ‘angin’ day this area is sacroshanct. Men and boys only!” Les was snarling. He was also increasingly drunk but PC Mills was unfazed.

“I’m here to inspect the premises after reports of a dead body and ask questions, Sir. This is Police business.” Les looked past her to me. He glowered. All prior friendship had been wiped.

“This is to do with that cunt, ain’t it?!” He stabbed a finger at me. “We invited ‘im in. We give ‘im a drink – bring ‘im into our pub!” Spit was flying again. I readied myself. I was aware that Mills and Hayes were standing in a practiced formation. However, PC Mills backtracked and spoke to her companion. She asked him to go inside with Les for questioning instead as she couldn’t compromise religious custom by going into the lounge. I listened dumbly. Les made his look of betrayal linger for as long as viewable as he was ushered back inside. Again PC Mills told me to stand at the corner and not to leave. She spoke into her shoulder radio and disappeared into the garden.

I waited and could discern the calming tones of Peter being questioned. I expected people to come around the building but all was quiet. No drama erupted. After a few minutes I heard crunching on gravel and she returned. She was again issuing orders into her radio. I heard her request for the ambulance team to be stood down. She said she had a suspected HRP and was still investigating. I then recognised PC Hayes coming through on the radio frequency from inside the Whetstone Inn where he’d been questioning Les. Finally she addressed me.
“Can you tell me why you called for the emergency services, Sir?” I understood the question. I was just confused why she was asking it.

“A girl’s been murdered.” My answer sounded like a question.

“No. And don’t say that again. Repeating a smear against a religious practice could be used in evidence against you. I’m duty-bound to record that you repeated that. A woman has been judged according to the laws of the society she lives in. You can’t subject this community to your own ethnic bias. That’s now recognised as a crime by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Version 2

“How old was she?!” I gurgled, “sixteen? What did she do?!” She raised a hand.

“Listen – the vicar’s not going to press charges. He says he thought you were aware of what was going on but was mistaken. He’s giving you the benefit of the doubt. Do you know what a HRP means?” I shook my head listlessly. “It means Harassment of a Religious Practice. Have you been in the dock before?”
The question didn’t land. She asked it again.

“Yes” I answered ”Years ago I was in the magistrate’s court and was done for reckless driving.”
Officer Mills rolled her eyes at this.

“So you got a slap on the wrists and a fine, right? Believe me this is more than wasting Police time. You could be in the dock facing a charge of hate crime if charges were pressed. Do you understand, Sir?”

PC Mills changed her timbre and started talking to me in a conciliatory vein. I felt the relief physically. I also realised how tired I was. She explained that she’d had to stop things from escalating and that it was increasingly being seen as a priority for Police forces to avoid confrontation with religious groups.

Once PC Hayes came back out from the inn, he and PC Mills exchanged a nod as if to conclude business. She then advised I go the kitchen to speak to the licensee who’d asked to see me. Her name was Pam. I recalled that Les had mentioned her a short lifetime ago before I even crossed the inn’s threshold. That was the last I saw of the officers.

I was loath to see Pam. I didn’t want to talk to anybody and wasn’t legally obliged to. But I was miles from home and had the fear that over the long tramp to St Albans across the crop fields I’d be constantly looking over my shoulder. I pictured a blotch covering the centre of the Hertfordshire map – a no go area from now on. But then I also felt that meeting Pam might help get closure on this experience and I honestly wasn’t sure what to envisage. I imagined a woman with her knuckles white from fury but there was the vanishingly small possibility it was someone wanting to apologise or make up. I suppose my pride was that wounded that that hope was in there somatically rather than logically.

There was a single concrete step leading up to the kitchen doorway which, thankfully, didn’t face the beer garden. I somehow knew that the only reason the crowd wasn’t congregating around me was that Peter was standing them down, but I could still hear them speaking under their breath following the Police intervention – it made being an audience to it all the more intense. I forced myself not to listen to the individual words and concentrated on the emphysema of the kitchen extractor fan instead.

The door was ajar. I heard a woman’s voice say: “Come in, love.” no emotion could be attributed at this point. Pam was a stocky woman. Her greying blonde hair was bundled up in a top knot. She wore a white blouse and white jeans. She stood leaning against a tumble dryer with her arms crossed. Despite this firm body language, the impression she gave was of someone trying to gauge another. Her expression was quite soft. Perhaps there was even hurt. I lowered my gaze. When she spoke, her tone was controlled.

“Why did you call the Police? It’s horrible to have the Police visit on a day of religious celebration. The children thought we were in trouble. It really upset them.” I was careful about what I shouldn’t repeat.

“I didn’t know hanging was legal in Britain. That’s why I called the Police.” My answer was steady. Nobody moved.

“Do you hate us?” She waited. The silence prompted her clarification: “Do you hate Christians?”
I said I didn’t. I told her I had relatives who are Christian. I was raised Christian. “All we want is the same freedom as you have – to express ourselves.” she shifted “We want a meaningful relationship with god. It’s about family.” she sighed and some of the tautness left the atmosphere. “You’re not a father are you?” I shook my head. “No. I can tell. Are you married?

“Separated.” I whispered. She nodded and contorted an insightful smile

“Might’ve guessed. Well if marriage was truly sacred, if you had children to love and bring up, you might understand why Christianity is so important. It’s about love. It’s about family” I felt numb but nevertheless asked the right question.

“Did she suffer?” I demanded. There was a pause. She blinked. “Did the girl suffer when she was being hanged? How long did it take for her to die?”

“She transgressed!” Her voice was more pointed but still level, “We have a duty to protect our children from the devil. She will have to account to god now!”

“So why didn’t you let her live and leave god to judge her?”

“Because what if other children followed her example? What if they turned their back on god too? What if we couldn’t persuade them back on the right path and they never found heaven?!” her voice broke at the end and she lost composure.

This removed the charge that had been in the air leaving behind two people that hated each other. Suddenly Pam drew me to her and pursed her lips on my forehead. Under her breath, she blessed me. She framed my head in her arms and pressed her breasts into me. They were soft. Her perfume was soporific. I hadn’t expected this. I became wilfully limp until she released me.

She left the room. I could see a section of the bar through the archway. The trapdoor was still open in the floor in front of a row of boxes with perfect holes cut in. Each contained different flavoured crisps. Bizarre – I continued to notice the minutiae despite having seen a murdered girl. Maybe it had been someone else that had witnessed it. She returned bearing a glass of serisea and holding a child’s hand. It was Hayley.

I stood in the doorway which led to the front of the Whetstone Inn, around its side and off to the seraphim rape fields of Hertfordshire and away from Batswell back into a land in which I felt safe. Pam put down the glass on the sink drainer close by my hand.
“It’s about time you put this away, love. It’s good stuff and it’s on the house. Would be a sin to waste it.” I scanned her face for any brazen humour but there was just sincerity. She looked down at Hayley who was gazing at me. The sharpness of colour in those eyes were the livid blues and greens of forget-me-not and stonecrop – droplets glistening on morning meadow. Hayley lifted her arm. A pecky jerked on its noose. She looked up at Pam with hope. Suddenly the little girl was unsure – fearful, even. She couldn’t read this situation.
“It would mean so much to her if you’d kneel.” I shook my head. “After she saw you with papa in the lounge, she went on and on about you. She’d really like to…….do you this honour. All you have to say is Pater Dimette Me – Father forgive me.” I dropped eye contact and shook my head again. I started to turn but Hayley trotted up to my trunk, her face turned up. Water was her eyes – jewels gleaming from the depths of pregnant wells.

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Tasting notes:

The serisea had an aroma like fruit compote or the succulent pink flesh in a rhubarb crumble. It was tart on the verge of sour but a generous malt blanket wrapped around it keeps this firmly in ale territory. The alcohol (in this case 10 abv!) comes in around the fourth sip whereupon I felt my pores dilating as my cheeks competed with the purple/red of the drink. The feeling’s a bit like the warmth of cognac. After a glass, you start seeing petals open on the periphery of vision. The pecky starts off bland and salty but this is cut straight through by the flood of cherry jelly that bursts from the centre. This is its design and gives it both wholegrain bread and oozing sweet Hartley’s jam. It’s very carby. The serisea and the pecky really do compliment each other like a sharp red wine with Kirschtorte.

temperate intentions

temperate intentions

Letchworth Garden City is an odd place but well worth a visit. Its oddness is the attraction.

Around a dot on a map – the old village of Letchworth – a new garden city was envisaged by quaker Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s. The idea was for social reform – for people to live in a community where they could breathe fresh air, reconnect with a countryside idyll and escape the smog of industrial Britain.

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The new garden city was designed and laid out by urban planners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and went on to inspire garden cities the world over. Its success was possibly because it was devised without the central diktat that often accompanies new age projects. It left its denizens or “pioneers” to decide matters rather than a preacher.

I came here to complete the Letchworth Garden City Greenway – a thirteen and a bit mile path that circles the town, but also to check out its beer culture.

Tracing the circuit has twice defeated me now. Even the woman in Tourist Information who gave me the map – a native since birth – admitted she got lost when she tried to follow it.

Within minutes of leaving the town centre, I find my first marker badges at the entrance to Standalone Farm and I’m soon exploring rolling crop fields. Church spires and water towers appear in the distance like the masts of ships on the heaving sea. The landscape sits somewhere between rural and urban. The soundtrack is a combination of roads rumbling and the celestial symphony of skylarks.

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this is a peeking black squirrel and the inspiration behind Letchworth Gardens City’s first town centre pub in the 1970s

I get lost pretty quickly. I negotiate my way though wave after legion of tidy closes and crescents. Communal greens here are huge. Last week I was ejected from the Greenway into an industrial estate. You feel like a bit of a prat finding yourself on a building site with binoculars and camera. The builders probably thought I was a niche pervert. The week after my trail goes dead and I trudge along the main road from Baldock. The binoculars do lend an advantage here: you can read roundabout signs a long way in advance and decide whether or not to swim through the blue exhaust fumes in that direction or turn back.

Back in the town proper, walking around Letchworth Garden City is a bit like wandering around an elaborate film set. The buildings are faithful reproductions from around the Tudor age – old enough for lichen to have accumulated on the pitched roofs but too young for any subsidence or warp. Historical buildings minus the history. These green streets of tidy period cottages look ideal – but it also makes them creepy.

The Spirella building – what used to be a clothing factory – is so vast that to get it all in one photo, you’d have to take it from satellite. It earned itself the moniker Castle Corset. It just seems too big for a British venture and in fact this is the case – the company was from the US.

In a way, the pioneers that came to settle here were proto-hipsters. They were generally middle class and associated with the arts and crafts movement. They were big on theosophy, vegetarianism and ascetic clothing – namely smocks made from Ruskin flannel from the Isle of Man and sandals even the middle ages wouldn’t touch.

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the Settlement used to be the Skittles Inn. In summer locals would line along the long seated stoop with glasses of Cydrax

Apart from some private clubs and hotels, Letchworth Garden City didn’t have an actual beer pub until the early 1970s when the Black Squirrel (no longer there) was included in a new town centre redevelopment. In fairness though, up until that point the temperate intentions – from families who witnessed the capital’s gin melancholy – were democratically instituted each time through local vote. They opted against for most of a century though there was friction amongst some men that the vote kept not going their way because the women’s vote (mostly nays) was included here before the Suffragettes gained it nationally.

There was a public house instituted by the First Garden City L.t.d called the Skittles Inn that served food, had a skittles alley, a library and sold absolutely no alcohol. Instead, the staples were Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and Cydrax – a non-alcoholic apple wine. Lover of beer though I am, I can appreciate a public house that kept men sober – especially with the high rate of what we’d now deem violent alcoholism in many working families.

But let’s never forget that it was this vision of Ebenezer Howard’s that also inspired prince Charles to cough up the hideous settlement of Poundbury; a village that sounds like a discount home store but has less class.

The early citizens employed the word temperance correctly – to temper something is to moderate, not to forbid. The First Garden City L.t.d also ran two more pubs about a mile from the town centre: the Fox at Willian and the Three Horseshoes in Norton. Both were allowed to serve alcohol. So if you wanted a pint, you simply girded your smock and went for a stroll in those sandals to get it.

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the Fox at Willian with All Saints church peering over its shoulder

The local Wetherspoons is called the Three Magnets and is a decent gallery in itself showcasing the garden city’s history. Wetherspoons pubs are good at gathering local curiae and being museum-lites. There are, for instance, paintings of Ebenezer Howard and information plaques about Spirella corsets that changed the manufacture away from whale bone.

But maybe what’s most interesting is the reason behind its name: the Three Magnets is based on one of Mr Howard’s diagrams about the formation of society. The first two magnets are the town and the country – the pros and cons for people living there listed for both. The third magnet – representing the garden city – is attributed with the amalgam of the pros for the first two but none of the cons. Idealist? certainly. If the pub’s name used current jargon, it might be called Ye Three Socioeconomic Pull Factors

If our boy Howard were alive today he’d absolutely love Powerpoint.

But the jewel in the crown here isn’t the Wetherspoons, courteous as it is to its host, but a newcomer: the Garden City Brewery down the picturesque shopping lane called the Wynd (as in WIND-up toy).

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Every Thursday some cask ale in stellar condition is tapped and served from gravity along with some guest beer engines. If you’re lucky, you might also get your chops around a Bedfordshire Clanger – a home counties take on the Cornish pasty with meat at one end and fruit at the other. The pudding side has score marks in the pastry so you know which end to devour first.

Spring Saison is the perfect thirst quencher. A 5.3 ABV spritz of a beer; it leaps over the gullet and fizzles on the roof of the mouth. Then the glass is empty. To CAMRA members, £3 a pint. Proof that a trip to Letchworth Garden City is good for you.

The venue is filled with light. It’s airy, colourful and tidy. Donations are made from some of the beers to local charities so even in its own way, Garden City Brewery keeps the local legacy of community and betterment alive.

You can still get a feel for Letchworth’s new life roots: it’s to be seen in adult education centres, urban farms, an NHS clinic calling itself a wellness centre and the International Garden Cities Institute.

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a pint of the brewery’s own Armitage ale and a Bedfordshire clanger. Neither lasted long.

For its size, Letchworth now has at least the national average of pubs. So what caused the city to abandon its spirit of temperance? Well the context that spawned its necessity faded. Britain’s industrial age passed away so the very thing the garden city was set up to escape – the drudgery of the factories, mills and pits – disappeared from Britain.

During the queen’s coronation, members of the first migration celebrated together and reminisced about the difficult first few years while the town was being shaped. Many people that left for this corner of Hertfordshire really did find a better life in the long run. This re-imagining is what makes Letchworth Garden City’s odd outlook so unaligned with the rest of Britain.

 

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Watford has provoked fear in me for some time because I’ve usually driven in and its road system was designed by Hieronymus Bosch. Circling the town centre, you build momentum through centrifugal force and are either flung from the circuit into deep Hertfordshire or brought in by its gravitational pull. In fourth gear, you realise you need to cross four lanes of agitated motorists in the space of twenty metres. You exit like a dart to breach a chicaned car park entrance. I’d recommend drinking Red Bull before attempting it – in fact, the traffic could be sponsored by it.

I didn’t need to worry about that this time though, as I got the train that shuttles between St Albans and Watford Junction which is a genuine delight. It trundles back and forth along a route of just six stops and takes but sixteen minutes. Each time it sets off after a station, a recording of a “ding ding!” is played. I thought I could hear Ringo Starr’s voice narrating.

I was commuting to Watford to visit a unique local hero: Pope’s Yard Brewery – this way please ladies and gentlemen.

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under the road system can be more aesthetic than above it

Considering their almost walking distance proximity, the difference between St Albans and Watford is striking. St Albans is a cathedral city of strict masonry, building discipline and conservation areas but Watford feels very different. On the walk into town, it veers off in every architectural idiom at once. The office buildings at the top of Clarendon Road look like the round-cornered and smoked glass futurism of the 1980s and 1990s. The Victorian era Beech Grove Baptist Church boasts its ship-like hull. Then there’s the stocky frontage of the Palace Theatre, Edwardian in age. Deeper in, St Mary’s Church roughly dating from the 1200s squats awkwardly among the multi-storey car parks.

There is a tangible pride here too. It’s seen it in the murals on the walls along the subways that give pedestrians safe passage into the town’s heart. Watford is written in big colourful letters and illustrated in spray paint pictures.

The market here is an institution that goes back 900 years and still dominates. Part of it has been repackaged into a structure made from shipping containers and renamed New Watford Market.

The town centre is a bric a brac of chronology and style. It seems both up-and-coming and run down. Gentrification sits shoulder to shoulder with destitution. B&M Bargains neighbours Pret a Manger.

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does what it says on the tin

But there’s a creative energy here that St Albans is too prudish to acquire. St Albans has too much rectitude. Trashiness – a quality Watford has, comes with a kind of hunger for new blood. St Albans practices self-deprivation in this respect – its city centre looks like the browning photographs of itself from the nineteenth century and will be just as recognisable centuries from now. Watford is a bargain bin of civic projects. It’s alive.

St Albans is a tucked-in shirt, cobbled, IT manager-y, Waitrose-y, Jack Wills-y. You just know its pretty streets are heaving with conservation orders and neighbourhood associations that do mulled wine evenings – and they are! Whereas Watford has the freedom to keep redefining itself.

There’s an awkwardness to Watford too, though. When said aloud, it even sounds like it’s annoyed. The town’s chaotic but through some cosmic fairness, it’s just as difficult to negotiate through it by car as it is on foot. It’s like the town was planned to make life harder for both modes of travel without putting bias on either. Maybe the planners just got a fantastic deal on concrete.

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the flyover – Exchange Road soars straight over the town centre

And another thing, why does everybody cycle on the pavement here? I keep almost getting mown down.

Perhaps what tops it all is the brutalist concrete flyover careering straight over the main drag – Exchange Road built in 1972. That carriageway needs to stay because one day soon when 1970s brutalism isn’t the recent past but the sepia history, that structure will be as symbolic for Watford as the bridge is in Avignon. It will become a listed monument closed to traffic with a public walkway, visitors centre, viewing platforms and a sustainable coffee shop. Watford, the town on a roundabout, will become a UNESCO site.

A cold grey version of the Jetsons – vehicles orbiting in rings around the town and even soaring overhead on roads through the air. This was the future as we used to imagine it. Kudos to Watford for trying.

the best beers out in 2016

the best beers out in 2016

It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.

I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.

The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:

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One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.

The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:

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I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.

Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:

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I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.

St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:

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This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.

The Six Bells, St Albans:

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I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.

The Harp, Covent Garden:

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The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:

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In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.

Conclusion:

In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.

A call to arms – the pub division bells of Westminster

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I push through the glass door of the Blue Boar and ascend up a curving stair to be met with what looks like a concierge. He, like the others around and behind the bar, is dressed in a smart black waistcoat with a pressed white shirt gleaming through the lapels. Everyone sports a name badge.
“Is it okay just to come in for a drink?”
“Of course, sir – it’s a bar!” He gestures towards it. 
Outside the summer’s blazing. The fridges and beer founts glow in the comparative darkness making them all the more alluring.
“And er… I understand you have a division bell on site for MPs when there’s a vote?” Further words trail off as he arrests me with an eager beam. He turns and I follow him under glass cases housing models of politicians past and present. We come to a polished metal boss on the wall – I’m looking at my first ever division bell. 
 
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Around the palace of Westminster, division bells haunt six pubs and a multitude of restaurants, bars and clubs. They’re called division bells because when they go off they recall MPs to a vote. The MPs divide by chamber to vote into the ayes and the nays. 
 
Though I’ve included the Blue Boar as a pub, I’d make a distinction and call it a bar despite its pubby title. It’s dark and cool – shelter from the baking heat outside. It’s tidy, shining and clean but not sterile. The staff are friendly and perambulate as official welcomers. There is no cask beer but there is keg from Meantime so I climb up on a stool and hang my bag from a hook under the lip. I order a half of Yakima Red and it’s served in the brewery’s balloon glass with beads of condensation trailing their way down its bulge. It’s chilled, cherry-like, resinous and dry. It really hits the spot and is as photogenic as an advert.
 
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As you don’t pay up front, I do begin to worry how much this refresher might cost. When I settle, the bill’s served to me on a little tray and I’m relieved to find it’s only £2.70. For those of you channeling your inner Arkwright and screaming “Ow much?!”, anyone familiar with central London will understand that it could’ve been much worse. 
 
They let me keep the beer mat and I even leave a £0.30 tip. Visiting a cubicle in the gents, I find the end of the toilet roll has been folded into a point. After I’ve finished, I use my best origami skills to reinstate it. There are no hand driers – just laundered individual flannels. Absolute class.
 
I leave the Blue Boar and proceed down Broadway to my second destination on Storey’s Gate: the Westminster Arms – a Shepherd Neame pub. I walk in and it’s wood panelled everywhere. Soft leather stools describe the room’s circumference under neat elbow shelves. There is no furniture in the middle of the floor which means that when it’s busy, it’s a hive of humans buzzing in symphony. There are also upstairs and a downstairs rooms which are more for tourists looking to eat. I don’t explore them. 
 
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There’s a young man and an older man serving. Both seem to be French or Belgian so I suspect father and son. When you cross the threshold the elder asks “can I ‘elp you?” There are ceramic demijohns perched on high and I also notice some of the upper panelling at the wall/ceiling junction: old brewery advertisements proclaim Stock India Pale Ale (KK) and East India Pale Ale (AK). What I love the most is the pub’s original telephone number: simply Westminster 365. I’m looking for something else though. I approach the younger barman and get as far as the word division and he points it out on the wall behind me – it’s a beauty of walnut, bakelite and iron.
 
DSCF3869Often when a two thirds majority is needed to pass a motion, the speaker (currently conservative MP John Bercow) will shout “empty the lobbies -divisiooon!” and the bells will then sound for exactly eight minutes.
 
 
I order a pint of Master Brew and sit at the window. Like the decor, the beer glows like burnished oak. On the taste buds it’s treacly and malty. It’s desperately English and reminds me of a Werthers Original dissolving on the tongue with a background hint of leaf litter. I never used to regard staple Shepherd Neame beers in this way – this has come about due to the comparative harsh, garish and aggressive souls of modern craft brewing. When you go back to them, older bitters taste more and more like Nesquik.
 
To get to the next pub you to go straight past Parliament Square and the east wing of the houses of parliament then traverse one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Britain to visit St Stephens Tavern. It’s one of a handful of London pubs run by Hall & Woodhouse, aka Badger from Dorset.
 
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Both the interior and exterior of the pub are amazing. The outside is a sloping goods delivery access that looks directly at Queen Elizabeth tower (remember – big ben’s actually the bell inside). It’s at once a cacophony of sound – vehicles beeping, engine noise, tourists, people playing music – and complete serenity. I think it’s the surrealness of facing a postcard brought to life that takes the auditory sting out of it. The staff all have ear pieces – they’re “plugged in” – like the agents in the Matrix.
 
Inside the ceiling seems to make a bid for the sky and the windows follow them all the way up. Each vertiginous pane is also etched and has its own taylor made curtain which in turn has its own taylor made cords with tassels. Mirrors behind the bar are backlit. There are double-topped circular perch tables (similar to a cake stand on top of a coffee table). There’s a TV screen on mute showing BBC parliament.
 
Most beer engines dispense Fursty Ferret but there’s also Tanglefoot and First Call. I order a pint of the latter. It’s dark, sweet and tangy. Again, it’s been awhile since I had any of these beers and part of me wonders if they forgot to add the hops.
 
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In the run up to the division, the preceding debates can last hours so many members of Parliament scurry off to nearby watering holes instead and remain there until their respective bells ring.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I gaze up at the division bell which I saw as soon as I walked in. It’s high up the wall here fronted by a grille. It looks like the bottom half of a grandfather clock; an actual clock face right above it bolsters that comparison.
 
I choose to cross back over the road and walk directly under the Queen Elizabeth tower in order to cross Westminster bridge and backtrack along the southern bank of the Thames. It’s worth it just to photograph the palace over the water. I cross back over Lambeth bridge into Millbank to get to Romney Street and the Marquis of Granby – a Nicholsons pub.
 
The Marquis of Granby is a one room pub. It’s busy but most of the customers stand outside. There are luxurious burgundy leather couches and copper-topped tables. Two electric chandeliers give the interior a yellow feel. In a recess behind the bar, I’m surprised to see four casks on gravity tilted forward but none of them are yet ready to dispense. I opt instead for a pint of Trumans Runner – it’s dark amber and balances the malt with a sharp citrus zest. It’s the best thing I’ve had on cask today.
 
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The obvious question pops out and a woman behind the bar points me towards it. She surprises me when she says that it was going off every half hour on the day the commons voted on whether to keep Trident – Britain’s nuclear defence system. I presume there must have been other votes on the day. 
 
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Members of Parliament have just eight minutes to get to the relevant chamber in the palace of Westminster and vote. Once the eight minutes are up, the chamber doors are barred.
 
 
 
 
 
The Marquis’ division bell is the most interesting thus far. It looks a bit like a pair of binoculars mounted on a wooden noggin. Below it, a few sentences about its function have been hand painted in italic. Spotting my interest, a woman called Prue gives me her own little hand written card. So far I’ve been impressed by the hospitality of staff in all the pubs – especially since they’re toiling in one of the most tourist-saturated slices of the capital. They’re true grafters.
 
The next stop is on Parliament Street for a pub that stands virtually opposite Downing Street. The Red Lion is a Fullers pub. The inside needs to be visited to be believed: there are round window recesses perfectly encompassing their round tables. Hogsheads are also used to put drinks on. Behind the bar, and arguably forming it, is a one-piece wooden scaffold accommodating clocks, bottle shelving, ceiling columns and fridges. There are political portraits on the walls and two massive chandeliers. Even the hand pumps are taylor made – the most sturdy brewery-branded pulls you’ll see.
 
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On the downside, the Red Lion has the least majestic division bell so far to the point that the woman serving is quite apologetic about it. 
 
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I order a pint of Oliver’s Island and take a few oblique shots with the camera. Because of the crowd, I can’t get a straight shot at it. As you’ll see – my photo is as underwhelming as the bell.
 
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Members of the public and tourists often run outside at the ringing of the bells – they assume it’s the fire alarm.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The last stop is a Taylor Walker pub called the Prince Albert on Victoria Street. The division bell is upstairs in a dining lounge with restrictive opening hours so it’s actually a return visit. When I go upstairs to immortalise it, it’s a beauty. The twin bells gleam in the peachy light.
 
To get from here or indeed the Blue Boar to a voting chamber in the house of commons within eight minutes would require an MP to break Usain Bolt’s sprint record in my opinion. It’s not just the length of Victoria Street or Broadway, but having to negotiate the traffic lights around Parliament Square and then getting into the palace and its labyrinthine corridors itself.
 
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When you think about it, lots of MPs must stagger through the chamber to vote when they’re under the influence of alcohol.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Prince Albert interior is a mecca to Victorian pomp and confidence. The colours are walnut, burgundy, cream and black. Every pillar, table, elbow shelf and chair leg seems individually turned on a lathe. Light is multiplied through mirrors behind the bar. All the windows including the panes on the saloon doors are etched. I have a half of Trumans Swift – it’s golden, clean, dry and lemony.
 
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It seems our MPs would rather be out drinking than taking part in a debate. Perhaps they’re more like us than we give them credit for.
 
I found that the pubs containing division bells are utterly proud of them and keen to point them out. Most installations look lovingly polished too.