the Harrow, West Ilsley

the Harrow, West Ilsley

In the spring of 1996, a young man mounted the ridgeway – the ancient backbone straddling the high grounds of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. It was a path he’d already known for years. He was catalysed by the social revolution that would one day be ushered in – the fresh air and rampart feel to these high causeways only breathed oxygen into these dreams. He was also deeply into Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and the Moody Blues at a time when guitar-based pop music enjoyed a sudden comeback. A period of long summers ensued.

In the inside pocket of his denim jacket was a qualification: it was his birth certificate. The document was a foot wide by two foot long, the sections neatly filled in with fountain pen by Gwynedd Council and it had to be folded up like an Ordnance Survey map. It proved he was eighteen years old. His destination was the Harrow in West Ilsley – the first pub he ever went in to legally order a pint.

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A week ago in the early summer of 2017, I decided to try and relive this experience by retracing the fourteen mile round walk from my parents’ house. I did so quite lamely: my left foot is recovering from plantar fasciitis; a step can feel like treading on a steak knife. There’s also a healing flesh wound. But never mind that. There’s a pub to get to!

In 1996, I was like a boy queuing for the fun house peeking through the canvas to glimpse the attractions within. I wish I could go back and know everything again. Youth is nothing to be ashamed of but at the time, ignorance was indeed bliss. Ever since, each month has been a repeating loop of delaying the bank balance dipping under before each dawdling pay day.

Back in that year before setting off, I’d gone through the yellow pages to ring the Harrow in advance to confirm the opening times. It feels so weird writing this now. Two decades ago pubs didn’t have websites and even if they did, I had no mechanism to view them.

Today on the internet, the identity the Harrow promotes induces the bends because it seems that as it goes forward, it’s actually going back in time with the vintage motor cars and fox hunting themes. The local hunt – the Southern Shires Bloodhounds – stops there for refreshment. Twenty years ago this was completely unknown to me.

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entrance to the Harrow, West Ilsley

If I’d known about the fox hunting connection at the time, I’d never have gone into the pub because I was a militant vegetarian. In fact, I was a militant in lots of things – that’s because I was eighteen. My vegetarianism lasted eleven years ending one day when I worked for the NHS: a portion of battered cod a patient rejected beamed itself into my mouth instead.

Over the course of the lapsed time I’ve forgotten some of the walk’s details. I don’t find the paths straight away and make quite a few wrong turns. I couldn’t recall a gravel drive outside one farm and one copse seemed like it had moved. I was still able to read the land though. The curves of the landscape itself – including bronze age tumuli (they can’t have been relocated!) – kept me going in the right general direction but I did waste time.

I reflect on the hunt. Traditionally, once the fox is down, a blade is used manually to pierce the heart. A young boy – often the future hunt leader – is then summoned and blood from the open fount is marked across his cheeks in twin stripes by middle and index fingers. This act actualises what just happened and implicates the lad in it. You’re a part of this now, boy. This marking is also a handing over of responsibility but the practice is now rare.

This symbolic rite would make sense in the jungles of South America where the prey is cornered by bare foot hunters with just a flap of fabric protecting their genitals from a furious clawing. When the quarry could easily kill you back in the most gruesome way, you need all the rites, appeasable gods and superstitions you can grab at knowing that being turned to mince meat is a genuine possibility. On the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, fully clothed, booted and on horseback with a pack of vicious dogs where the prey has all the menace of a small Labrador though, it’s hard to see the struggle.

To me, the hunt is a travelling Gilbert and Sullivan production, not pest control, but I digress.

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a phalanx of oil seed rape. The yellow bloom has already been and gone

Wheat fields neighbour the expanses of oil seed rape. The ears of wheat are caught in the constant motion of a wind-borne tide, each wave heaves towards the walker with chattering swallows tumbling over the swells. The oil seed crop is far more stoic; individual plants will twitch grudgingly to acknowledge the shifts in air pressure but never commit as a company. Occasionally the canopies do shake in the wake of a red-legged partridge sprinting blindly through its forest.

Though only being divided by Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire share many similarities but there is difference topographically. Both counties have a gentle landscape though Oxfordshire’s is more rolling. The dips and slopes in Hertfordshire happen abruptly – I think of the sudden plunges towards villages like Wheathampstead, Kimpton or Berkhamsted. The apexes of Oxfordshire are reached over a longer distance with a lower gradient. The effect of this is that when you’re making towards a distant summit, it never seems to get any closer. Such is the case with much of the ridgeway.

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the remaining cooling towers of distant Didcot power station

The cooling towers of Didcot power station used to be a blot on the landscape. This was fact. I even recall a canvas in a gallery in Oxford depicting each one as a giant cigarette (if things had evolved slightly differently, a modern day vape would be more appropriate as it was clouds of steam that used to pour out – not smoke). Now, with their purpose redundant, people are waking up to their awe. They stand like giant sentinels in the Oxfordshire landscape as mysterious as menhirs or pyramids but on a godlike scale. These formations are now a testament to human endeavour.

Reed bunting, whitethroat, corn bunting, skylark, yellowhammer and linnet sing and twitter and drop from sight as I near. Over twenty years ago, their distant ancestors did the same for a younger version of me. Above, the glaring blue vault humbles us all as tiny animals.

Hobbling through pasture, I become the eye in a whirlpool of fleeing sheep that only have two reactions to my approach: grass munching obliviousness and blind panic with nothing in between and each bleat is as individual as a human voice.

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After the next stile, there is a paddock inhabited by a black stallion. His musculature ripples with a near metallic sheen. He watches me, wondering whether I’m worth leaving his patch in the sun for – I’m not. He flicks his mane like he’s in a shampoo advert and turns his attention back to the champ. I’m wonderstruck. I move on in envy.

I finally descend on West Ilsley after two and a half hours on the ridgeway.

Before going to the Harrow, I have a nosey around the village. West Ilsley was the original home of Morland Brewery in 1711 but when I lived in the area, I’d assumed it had always been based in Abingdon as it’s on all the livery. The move was only made in the late 1800s. Morland beers are part of the Greene King portfolio now and most only exist as spreadsheets. Bottles of Old Speckled Hen in supermarkets and off-licences are likely all you’ll see of it.

There’s a cul-de-sac called the maltings. Though that’s a name used arbitrarily across British estates, in this case it probably reflects the past. The way the drive slopes up makes me think of barrels being rolled down towards a dray horse and carriage. Nearby is Morland Close. There’s a well in a front garden. It looks a bit too twee and ornamental to be genuine but on closer inspection, the well wall is actually made from a cask base. As I wander around, I notice casks that have been recycled as flower pots and hogsheads as water butts.

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The character depicted on the plaques is reputed to be George Morland – one of the lineage’s many sons. It’s claimed his father would keep him locked in a turret to paint! Morland senior would milk his offspring’s talents by making money flogging his work. In turn, George would smuggle canvases out to his friends at night and spend the proceeds on “frolic and self indulgence”. This shouldn’t be difficult if you belong to brewing royalty. This tale seems a bit too fairy in my opinion.

Whoever he is, when I was growing up, that man painting in the Morland plaque was known locally as “the piss artist”. Unfortunately, when you see these beautiful decorations now, they’re usually on someone’s house – ex-pubs.

As I gain on the Harrow, I notice that the pub sign has been felled. There is just a stump where the pole bearing the frame crowned by the shining Greene King crest is on the website.

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when I was growing up, this character was known locally as the piss artist

I enter for the first time since 1996.

Walls on the interior are painted dark red and green and divided by pitch beams from which hang pewter tankards. The fox hunting theme isn’t evident though there are a couple of vestiges: two brass hunting bugles are fixed facing each other above a doorway (but you get them in every rural pub in the country), and I spy a hunting-themed cushion on one of the armchairs in the public lounge. Now every frame, photo and painting is dedicated instead to horse racing. This links to the local landscape with its many stud farms.

Instead of the card pump clips that make up colourful canopies in pubs the land over, there is a neat row of the plastic shields still mounted on their brackets. They jut proudly over the bar.

I get a shot of the beer engines because I have a few seconds at the bar by myself. Getting an SLR out of a rucksack on the inside of a public house can feel as wrong as getting out a rifle with a telescopic sight and aiming it at the punters, so it’s the only inside image here. I’m puzzled that none of the beers are from the Greene King range.

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hmmm. Neither a Morland nor Greene King based selection

I have the fortune to speak to the landlord who’s run the pub for twelve years. He tells me it’s not owned by Greene King anymore. The Harrow pub is now owned by a property consortium called something like Hawthorn Investments (the Hawthorn part is right at least, I got confirmation when I repeated it back to the landlord). Maybe it was they that decided to ditch the hunting vibe. He also stressed with visible pride that this pub was the first ever Morland pub. Considering the brewery was but a moment’s walk away, this used to effectively be the taproom.

From the halcyon days of Britpop, I distinctly remember a coin-operated one-armed bandit or a game of that ilk. It stood to the right of the bar – huge and red – and was based on the TV show Only Fools And Horses. When one of the customers put money in, the theme tune would crank up.
“no income tax no VAT, no money back no guarantee” In fact it was bloody annoying, not least because I loved the series and this was ruining it by association. You could also buy chocolate with your pint. There was a row of Crunchie and Yorkie bars with fluorescent cards as price tags.

I try and pick out where in the pub I used to sit until I realise I never did – I’d always take the pint outside like it and I were contraband. Also, there was a sense that I could only be there on best behaviour. The adults around the bar had priority. I still identified closer to school pupils than to men and women. There is still a residual stamp of that to this day when older pub goers are around. Respect for elders has always been firmly imbedded. These days, realising they’re often quite civilised, I’m more likely to speak to them.

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the rules of cricket are a mystery to me. The players all retreated to the club house and never came out again

If I didn’t know I’d been here in 1996, I wouldn’t have recognised the interior. I think this has more to do with me never looking up or around when I was eighteen. I’d just wanted to get that beer and squirrel it outside as fast as possible.

I choose Good Old Boy Bitter from the three ales and take it out to the garden which overlooks a live cricket match. As I sip the pint, the game descends into a hand shaking competition followed by rabid clapping.

Good Old Boy is dark like bitumen or molasses. The taste is of caramel and I’m reminded of bygone adverts for Mars Bar that boasted sugar, glucose and caramel as completely separate natural ingredients; they’d each spray like ejaculate against a black backdrop. There’s a tingling bitterness here but none of the sharp exoticism of modern new world hops.

I’m serenaded by an unseen corn bunting. A red kite drifts overhead on a heat thermal and then the weather starts to cool.

On the road into a bucolic village and with its unique sloping lawn and front row seat to the cricket, not to mention its easy access to the M4 and A34, this pub would make a desirable dwelling and in truth, when I researched the Harrow for this post I was surprised it was still here. On the market as a house, it would be snapped up on the same day of sale by some lucky hedge fund manager faster than you could say lost community asset.

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mural done by a local school of king Alfred defeating the Danes (the battle might’ve been in nearby Compton). This work predates 1996 and is on the wall of a pedestrian tunnel that goes under the thundering A34

And what of the clientele? Well apart from the weirdo who limped in with a notebook and SLR, there were business men who sounded like they were from Leeds. A group around the bar – some of whom then served behind it – sounded more south London. Outside, two men sat before the front entrance. They definitely had the local Oxon twang and were likely farm workers judging by their weathered hands, bare legs and cargo boots. The lack of high-vis clothing ruled them out as civil engineers. Though Oxon is indeed a posh county, the rural accent is strong. “Afternoon” is pronounced “aaa-dernoon” or even “aaa-ernoon” with only a glottal stop in the middle by older people. If you really want to hear it exercised, visit Didcot on market day.

So the pub – though difficult to get to by anyone who doesn’t live in West Ilsley – is still a local in a wider sense. It also has these points going for it:

I know for a fact that the pub has a brown sign indicating a place to eat on the A34 but it hasn’t become a restaurant. It’s lucky to have two large separate rooms. When I was there, the main room which hosts the bar was only populated by drinkers. Food must make up a lot of its income but the dining room’s hidden by dint of architecture.

However the horse racing theme was decided, it does reference local business and so links a public house with its surroundings. I’d rambled (more accurately trespassed) over gallops to get here – they’re an absolute luxury to walk on – so springy.

Good Old Boy by West Berkshire Brewery is a locally brewed product. The two pints I had (I drank the Tribute too) were adequately kept. The choice is safe and conservative but it wouldn’t have turned anyone onto cask ale.

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just over seventy years to the day…

I opt to walk up the road out of the village to get back to the ridgeway. This necessitates leaping up onto an overgrown bank four feet high every time I hear the growl of an engine. I realise I make the same sounds as olympic weight lifters each time I alight. I never used to. The skylarks are no longer singing in symphony – just some isolated solo efforts as the light weakens. I get back to my folks’ house an hour and forty five minutes later just as the sky deepens to night.

In twenty years’ time I might come back again and reflect on how much of Britain has vanished since 2017 and how much of me has vanished with it trying to work out why I thought the way I do now. What was going through that young man’s tiny mind as he approached forty? Whether the period of long summers really did ensue after 1996 I shan’t research, but I have a feeling that looking back, my days now will seem bathed by soft light.

if Roger Moore were a pint…….

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A few years go I was showing my parents around the cathedral in St Albans. The nave happened to be closed to the public, but lots of private functions happen in there so it wasn’t unusual. What was a surprise was the fact that the massive organ started playing the James Bond theme tune. Considering we’re used to hearing it plucked out on the strings of a bass guitar or cello, to have it echo magisterially from the organ pipes was a surreal experience.

Well, it turns out Roger was there in person accepting an honorary doctorate of arts from the university of Hertfordshire. The Saint used to be filmed at Elstree studios a short drive away so it’s an area Roger knew well.

The week just gone has been one of devastating events so the news of Roger’s passing should only have dragged emotions even lower but it hasn’t. His death seems to have acted as the trigger for warm reflections and wistful grins. It’s certainly how I reacted. It speaks volumes about him.

So as a small commemoration to him I ask this: if Roger Moore were a pint, what would he be?

Obviously we remember him for Martini, shaken not stirred, but that’s also owned by the other actors who have played Bond. And yes he advertised Banks Bitter – he could shift units of anything – but it isn’t really him. He’s more evocative of a Scotch or a Bourbon on the rocks. Maybe even a dry red wine but there is a beer out there suave yet solid enough to be associated with him.

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Moore was masculine essence packaged in a feminine elegance. The curves of his face were quite womanly, his blue eyes quite, dare I say, pretty. And yet this only enhanced his manliness. His laid back way of acting like he wasn’t trying only accentuated that macho swagger further, and to top this, there was the man that never took himself nor the characters he was playing too seriously. He somehow pulled off giving a performance that was straight yet tongue in cheek at the same time. How exactly can your performance be both rugged and kitsch simultaneously? Only he knew.

Even his name was evocative and naughty.

I recall a line from Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge (a creation who idolised Roger Moore): “Nobody else can wear a safari suit with such degree of casuality”

When Graham Norton interviewed him a shot was shown (pictured) to the camera. Graham stated, “Not many people can get away with peach” Roger could. He could actually wear a bobble hat and look sexy.

Fullers ESB is deep and fruity. It has a charm that suits slow drinking – this quality seems to be amplified when it’s served in its special goblet. And check the colour – it’s the same as the iconic shot of him in that shirt. ESB is the only beer in Britain that has got away with having a stalked glass that doesn’t immediately make the customer feel like a ponce. It endures on the credentials of the beer so when I order one and add “In a lovely glass, please”, the beetling curmudgeons at the bar can’t limpen the wrists. They know it’s too virile for mockery.

The glass the beer is in is graceful yet muscular. It could get away with wearing a pink silk cravat whilst overcoming henchmen with its bare fists on the roof of a speeding lorry.

A heavy fruity beer served without self-doubt in a British pub in a girly glass? It gets away with it. A pint of Roger Moore – I mean – ESB, please.

Here’s raising an eyebrow at you, Roger.

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.

little look at the lack of local lagered Lager

A few weeks ago, I helped a friend to move into a house in St Albans. It was the first hot day of the year. Hours were spent muling boxes and furniture up and down the hill. The house in question overlooks a pub’s back garden, so once the new bed was assembled and the Allen keys put away, there was only one destination….

The occasion didn’t call for cask beer but for something colder on keg – something with a bead of condensation edging its way down the glass…..

Lager.

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In this case, the brilliant Pilsner Lager by Meantime Brewing. I’d had it from bottle before but that was nothing on this experience. A golden refraction was projected onto the outside table by the sun as transcendent as a stained glass window.

The surface churned as the liquid sank into my pores. Sucking sounds emitted from me like tidal water draining down a chalk cleft – it felt a bit like being scrubbed from the inside. It had a pungent straw nose and a desiccating counter-wave came back like the tilting sea. By my estimate – seven minutes elapsed until the glass was empty.

Lager accounts for around 70% of beer sold in UK pubs – a huge market. But how come so few British breweries are exploiting it?

Many large established breweries have brought one out to stand in their tied pubs – Fullers Frontier, Marstons Revisionist, Greene King’s Noble and St Austell’s Korev etc. Some are quite good. But then what? New (and smaller) British breweries are now more likely to have a Saison or black IPA in their portfolio than a Lager.

I decided to take stock of the breweries in Hertfordshire to see how many Lagers I could pick out. I then expanded the search to the counties that border it: Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex. I sent out some Tweets to beer bloggers that inhabit some of these realms. Just to bring the number up to a round hundred, I then included a handful from Oxfordshire and Suffolk too.

This summary is based on brewery websites but some weren’t found. Several others have no online presence but people have listed their beers on sites like Untapped. I contacted a few breweries directly for confirmation. This research isn’t scientific, just, as the title says – a little look.

I’m not including ales that have been brewed with traditional malt or Lager hops – of which there are quite a few. There is, for example, a Weissbier made with ale yeast by the Foragers in St Albans, a Lager ale made with German malt and hops at Mersea Island Brewing and a Kölsch-style beer brewed by the Brewhouse & Kitchen in Bedford. But these beers are still ales.

The results: Hertfordshire has one Lager producing brewery – Mad Squirrel (formerly Red Squirrel). Essex has Wibblers and Brentwood. Bedfordshire has a dry hopped Lager by Wells & Young. Lovibonds of Oxfordshire has a keg Lager. Most pleasingly is a gem in Buckinghamshire – Bucks Star Mideltone Pils. Out of the hundred brewery test sample, that’s all I’ve found – six out of a hundred.

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Hornes Brewery website was a delight to find. Though there’s no Lager, you get introduced to the brewery’s goats

Nothing can stand in for a Lager in terms of summer refreshment. Not to sound too much like a Heineken advertisement, it’s about the depths it plunges to and how quickly.

So what’s stopping our local breweries?

I spoke to local established and amateur brewers and got three not mutually exclusive answers:

The first is that there would only be business during the summer. I understand this up to a point but don’t think the main Lager brands suffer the rest of the year. I think this reflects a brewery’s overwhelmingly cask-drinking audience that wouldn’t usually touch the style.

The second concern is that there’s still a tangible resistance to Lager simply by its association with keg. I find this is true more in the rural counties than in the cities. A few years ago, I used to be anti-Lager for reasons which are now obscure but it had a relationship with CAMRA tropes (I should add – by the enthusiasts rather than the brewers). I was misguided but not alone. I maybe thought Lager was only made with chemicals by big businesses and real ale wasn’t. There’s truism there rather than actual truth.

The third and prevailing reason is that any Lager worthy of the name needs to take a fermentor hostage for four to seven weeks whereas an ale could have filled that vessel once every three to five days and made money back multiple times. This restriction would be even more of a problem with the single barrel brew pubs across the country; the time taken by equipment to lager Lager (that wasn’t a typo – the first one’s the verb, the second’s the noun) would be more economically spent making a higher number of ale gyles instead. In effect, lagering means an extended period without profit.

Bigger breweries do have the facilities. McMullens’ passion for brewing has always seemed tepid so it doesn’t shock me there isn’t a Lager, but it does surprise me that producers like Oakham Ales and Elgoods don’t. The latter even has a cool ship now for spontaneous beer but no Lager in its roster, so even Lambic has leap-frogged Lager.

So we’ve ended up with a parallel wet culture: the beer style that’s been on the bar of every pub in Britain since before my conception is extremely rare from local breweries. The cash just keeps being handed over to Stella, Fosters and Heineken instead while, in a separate world a few inches away, the success of local breweries blooms across the hand pulls.

 

 

Wheathampstead: spiritual home of the elephants

Wheathampstead: spiritual home of the elephants

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East Anglia boasts a proud array of representative art in its village signs and Wheathampstead’s is hard to beat. It bolsters the argument that Hertfordshire is actually part of East Anglia too. Both in canvas and logo, the traditional export is clearly visible: wheat. That’s the farmer with his scythe bundling it into sheaves. Wheat is also the town’s toponym – Wheathampstead simply means “wheat farm place”. We can also see the water mill on the river Lea (which was listed in the Domesday book), reeds and watercress, a bull, swan, cart horse and St Helen’s church.

However, this panel doesn’t include any elephants but really should. The reasons for this will become clear.

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a strong local history society make Wheathampstead an amazing village to visit

Each site of interest in Wheathampstead is viewable on a map by the main bus stop. Heritage leaflets are readily available in the pub, church, café, billboard and car park. Wheathampstead has a proper baker, butcher, tea room, chippy, Chinese takeaway, Indian takeaway, offy and Tesco Metro (come on – it’s where the residents will go the other 90% of the time). In other words, it’s the perfect English settlement. One single cash point greases the local wheels.

There is a green plaque system run by a very effective local history society. Virtually every building has a metal plate boasting an astonishing fact. Here’s one: this village with a population of just over 6000 used to have 26 pubs.

Many of those deceased public houses are still here as cadavers. Some of the pub sign brackets jutting from the walls of houses bare a pike over six feet long. Why so enormous? Arguably, it was an arms race to be seen over the competitors.

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26 bloody pubs!

Still trading, there is also the Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence, the Elephant & Castle in Amwell and the Wicked Lady and John Bunyan on the town’s outskirts. These last two pubs are linked into the local history by name.

John Bunyan was the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress; the chimney of a house he lived in stands opposite the pub. The wicked lady was Lady Katherine Ferrers – a noble woman who became a highway robber. Her story is intriguing and to me bears some similarity with Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and Stockholm syndrome. However, a 1970s film was more interested in bodice-splitting boobs. Michael Winner directed it – ‘nuff said.

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John Bunyan’s chimney stands opposite a McMullens pub of his name

In the village proper, only one pub remains – the Swan.

The first elephant:

The Elephant and Castle is a fifteen minute walk from Wheathampstead’s centre. It claims never to have not served cask ale in the three centuries it’s been trading. On my visit I’m astonished by the well sunken into the floor of the back bar – a feature I’ve not seen in any other pub (though I’m sure they exist). It must also be the oldest part – mining a well into the floor of an existing building doesn’t sound quite right to me. Building a roofed structure around a well makes much more sense.

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modern brickwork certainly but I looked down the well and IT’S DEEP

The pub is owned by Greene King and has a house beer brewed by Hardy and Hansons (also owned by GK). I listen as the landlord goes through the cask ales on offer to a father with his two boys. Every offering is currently golden. When he gets to the last beer engine I notice the uplift of pride in his voice.
“and this one is brewed right here in Wheathampstead!” He looks up and beams. This smile is withdrawn when he starts trying to pull Farr Brew through and the swan neck only ejaculates froth. The cask’s gone. His disappointment is genuine.

Between Wheathampstead and Amwell is the gorgeous brewhouse building of the Parrot (later Hope) Brewery which has been all but forgotten. A driveway issues up from the basement – originally for the dray horses. This was owned by the Lattimore family who advised Cobden on the repeal of the corn laws in 1843. The institution was a huge concern back in the day.

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the Parrot Brewery (later Hope Brewery). It’s a spa and hair stylist now

The second elephant:

In the nineteenth century, it was often remarked that before the sound of distant huffing or any plumes of steam could be discerned on the horizon, you could smell the train coming. It came with both fish from the coast and elephant dung from London Zoo. The latter was used as fertiliser on local flower nurseries – a valuable commodity.

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our Georgie guards this station 24 hours a day…

The railway station was one of the fatalities of the Beeching cuts in 1965 (Dr Richard Beeching was the transport minister. Over half of local rail lines were axed as car ownership grew and industrial traffic faded). For decades, the platform endured but was so completely overrun by vegetation that it took a modern archaeological team to find it!

With a huge amount of labour, love and both financial and material donations from local businesses, the station has been restored and is guarded by none other than George Bernard Shaw in wooden form as he waits for the next train to London. He lived in nearby Ayot St Lawrence and was treated with such prestige that if he was late for a train, the guard would hold it and all its passengers back until he showed up.

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a hard-working local

The Swan, like many last-standing pubs in Hertfordshire’s villages, is hard working and very spacious. The original structure was wattle and daub. On my last visit, I sat at the furthest seat away from a screen showing Arsenal v Man City. At the bar, a local had taken the pub hostage by shouting deafeningly whenever the former team got into the latter’s pitch half. There was no volume control to him. The woman in charge had a look on her face: the endurance of a necessary evil. When he got up to visit the gents, both the over-care in his negotiation and the redness in his face reflected the pints of Stella (I saw the chalice) that had passed through him.

The third elephant:

In 1940, elephants from a touring circus were brought down to the river’s edge to drink and their weight caused the concrete bank to collapse (Maybe the workers from the local plant nurseries followed these elephants around with an open casket hoping for a payload).

This bank is historical for another reason: standing at the centre of the bridge, I’m straddling two old countries before they were joined up. My left trouser leg is in the Danelaw. My right one’s in Saxon territory. The river Lea marked the border between the Danes and the Saxons. I can imagine them hurling Germanic F-words at each other across the water.

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absolute class – a mooring bollard in the form of a wheat sheaf

Wheathampstead has a local brewery. It’s actually a small hike away but the walk can incorporate something that makes even King Alfred’s struggle seem modern.

It’s amazing the history we don’t know. Both Devil’s Dyke here and Beech Bottom Dyke in St Albans (about seven miles away) are the remaining stretches of a massive boundary ditch. There’s also a more shallow depression between them called the Slad indicating it was part of the same earthwork. Parts of the modern remnants are sixty feet deep in some areas. Two millennia ago, they would have been deeper. It probably linked the river Ver to the river Lea. If it did, it was huge and must have taken generations to dig out.

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Devil’s Dyke. After Christianisation, many earthworks and stones acquired the “devil” prefix because they no longer fitted in with the theology

Bowing ash and alder trees seem to love these dykes as do the wrens that keep fluttering past into the caves hollowed out by their roots. Wrens live up to the double troglodytes in their Linnaean title. In April, these incredible man-made valleys turn purple from bluebell sprays.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler certainly helped make archaeology popular but was also a bit of a vandal. Modern archaeology is the discipline of uncovering, recording and re-covering – leaving things exactly in place for future archaeologists. He didn’t bother with that. He also asserted that this was the location where Julius Caesar killed native king Cassivellaunus. He never advanced any evidence for this as there wasn’t any.

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there is no evidence to this claim but it’s constantly repeated

So onwards to the brewery.

It’s the most rural I’ve been to and is situated on a farm. I pass through clouds of investigative St Marks flies, listen as yellowhammers, dunnocks and whitethroats compete vocally along the hedge rows and even hear a distant raven.

In Farr Brew I sit in that armchair to the left of the image below and it’s every bit as comfortable as it looks. I hear a call – a buzzard. As I sit facing an open barn door, outside is a grain silo, hedge and the white canvas of the sky. The buzzard comes into view circling lazily on a heat thermal and we share some moments together. As I sip the pale ale, my taste buds start sparking up and I’m aware that I’m subconsciously linking flavour and location through experience. Is it any wonder nostalgia’s such a powerful emotion?

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Farr Brew has one of the most comfy tap rooms in England

Somewhere in the cosmos the fourth conjunction between elephants and Wheathampstead is pencilled in for around the year 2040. I’ll keep my eyes peeled….

the Six Bells, St Albans

the Six Bells, St Albans

Going into night shifts is a brutal process but a staple of my life. It starts with enforced narcolepsy as you bludgeon your circadian rhythm into submission. Only four shifts in a row means you don’t fully adapt before wrenching yourself back into day mode. It’s like having the bends, hypoxia, being on the edge of sleep and feeling vibrations from caffeine in your veins all at once – something I drink plenty of in the middle of the night to stay awake. I worry about the cumulative effect this is having on me. Coming off the last night shift always feels like ending a tour of duty.

Is going to the pub for a pint a good idea? I don’t know but the desire for a bit of bleary-eyed people-watching on a Sunday afternoon out of the four walls of my home is vital.

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Previous posts have been about social intercourse. This one’s more about another pub potential: a bit of solitude when you need it.

This afternoon is my zombie time and people who know me are starting to recognise it – it’s the worst possible time to expect witty repartee from me. You might as well expect somebody on a drip waking from surgery to get up and start boxing. Not going to happen.

The gods measure us humans by set square and plumb to determine that exactly two pints of session strength cask ale is the right amount for a weekend afternoon. I take my time with them during the lull after the Sunday roast crowds have trickled away. Any more than two pints risks summoning Morpheus and slumber – the compulsion I’m trying to resist.

On the surface, I’m brittle, unable and even unwilling to socialise. Underwater, I watch the surroundings around me with detachment like I’m drifting around a fish tank. But something to do with body and mind trying to re-align makes me privy to nebulous thoughts played out across time. It’s not something I try and do but something that lies in wait for me.

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The Six Bells is a good pub to have these reflections in. On this occasion, it turns out to be more busy than I’d anticipated. I stand for a while before a small table becomes free under a TV screen. I have ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring – it’s refreshing like a blend of mineral water and honeysuckle. I land on the chair with gravity.

When I entered, there was a large group around one of the tables with about seven children. The kids soon zipped up and left. In their wake, they left behind reams of paper, felt tips, the smell of glue and two lovers whose faces were festooned with glitter and spangles. The couple look relieved to have weathered it and proceed to get into each other. It’s the man’s birthday. I spy the cards.

I take in the surroundings anew. I think of the lives gone before, the permanence of this bastion, springtime, ageing, renewal, death.

One of the four pines in the park was toppled by storm Doris a couple of weeks ago. The locals congregated around the recumbent bough. Kids crawled over it like bluebottles. There was a feeling that the exposed wound – the fatal breach – needed to be witnessed while fresh. Gathering around it constituted a wake of sorts. We needed to see the body for ourselves to actualise it; confirmation of the new reality without pine three. It’s the act of witnessing that makes it official. Only after that can you move on.

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The tree’s roots remained steadfast in the earth when its spine broke at the small of the back. This demonstrated that it had in fact been ailing.

Standing at the bar, I see someone I know and acknowledge them by lifting my index finger and raising my eyebrows. These signals also mean please move on.

This pub’s name references the parish church that stands two hundred feet away. It was renamed from the Bell (or even Le Bell) in 1739 to make it more modern when the church upscaled to incorporate six bells in its belfry. Another two were cast in 1953 to celebrate our own Liz’ coronation so this should actually be the Eight Bells now.

This village was once home to the working poor. So was Hampstead. If you can get a property here now you’ve done very well for yourself. There was a time before this pub was here. But there was also a time when the English channel was a stream. The flagstones of this floor might as well be bedrock.

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Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring

Before the road it’s on was ever tarmac’d it sold ale to the farming public. Before the nearby bridge that straddles the river Ver was built, it was drawing punters. Back before the grazing pastures became the landscaped Verulamium Park, it was already here. In fact, it’s been trading here since before the Reformation. The Six Bells predates the landscape of St Michaels around it but is still just a sprat to its wider Roman environs.

This pub is full of curios. Milk jugs and horse brass line the brickwork and window sills. Tokens from the agricultural and brewing past are lined up along beams and behind glass cases. Copper pans adorn the open hearth. Two guns are mounted above it. The ceiling undulates gently from age. The scattered lamps cast a light brighter than the sky outside.

But now I’m absolutely fascinated by a man standing over by the coat hooks staring at the television screen above my head. I can actually see the blank screen in stereo – a reflection in both lenses of his spectacles; two black rectangles. Pointlessly, I crane around to look behind my shoulder to confirm something I already know: the television is off. Yet he’s mesmerised by it. What a soul sees with his eyes might not compare to with what he’s witnessing in his mind. I wish I could see his thoughts played out in those frames.

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the drinks list in the Six Bells in the run-up to the Second World War

Lurking under the table of the spangled lovers (whose faces are reddening from booze and libido), is a french bulldog who emerges and starts masturbating using his paw – I’ve seen this behaviour before with the same breed. Because of their large heads and barrel bodies, they can’t bend to lick their genitals like most dogs. Their paws don’t have opposable digits either so they don’t get the best of either world. He takes on almost human form like a mini wanking Buddha on the floor. Round bloodshot eyes implore the room and its inhabitants as he tries to bring himself to climax. He looks like a little busker strumming an invisible banjo and the couple notice me snort my beer as, in my head, I overlay their pet’s labours with the voice of George Formby.

By current averages of longevity, I’m equidistant between the teat and the grave. I want a home from home where I can become a fixture. I fancy being an octogenarian or older and cranking my hearing aid up to listen to the increasingly alien and unknowable views of pub goers in their teens.

I’d like to be able to come to pubs like this for as long as I can. It’s something I want to have in my life for as long as I’m able to get myself (or for as long as someone can help me) into one.

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I try to take a shot of the self-pleasuring hound with my phone and this puts him off. He looks at me with disgust. Rude. I feel guilty now. What’s the world coming to when you can’t even have a quiet knee-trembler down your local without drinkers capturing it on their devices?

A few days after the fall, guys with hi-vis jackets and chainsaws came for the stricken corpse of the pine. They tore through it and stacked the giant’s vertebrae in the back of a trailer as neatly as cheese rounds in a dairy. I hope the pine is reincarnated through some skilled carpentry rather than burned.

On the walls, black and white prints from yesteryear of men staring back at the box brownie with stage fright have one connection to you: they once came here to unwind too. The closest I can get to knowing these people and their social mores is by tracing their outlines with my finger. They wouldn’t have recognised our morals, atheism or our liberal mindsets. Our converging gender roles wouldn’t have made sense in their world. If they could come back, they might even have trouble telling the men from the women.

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the remains of pine three

How can the British pub be so permanently here? Generation after generation, why do we keep returning? It’s like it’s a point of reference through time. Dependable – a stout bannister flanking life’s upward climb. As folk, we change out of all recognition but the Six Bells endures.

This pub has been here for about half a millennium. The local history extends way beyond that but I think of this: the Six Bells has existed as a public house for longer than the Roman empire ruled England and Wales. This pub has outlasted that empire and even watched while the British one rose and sank too. Within that flowing timeline, I want nothing more than to be depicted in a tapestry panel with pint in hand, raising it at the viewer.

There’s a quote by George Orwell:

“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

pride and prejudice

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In June of last year, I got back from a day at work and walked into a pub in St Albans. Standing at the bar was a friend of mine I’ll call Keith. As I approached, I heard doleful murmurs of consolation between him and the barman. Despite the glaring sun, he seemed to stand in shade. We greeted each other. I asked how he was doing. It went something like this:

“Weeell. Alright, I suppose, despite the obvious.”
“The referendum?”
He gestured with his hands, indicating the world in general, and then let them drop to his sides.
I told him I’d voted to leave the EU and he groaned like he’d just been winded.
“You as well?” he sighed. He turned away theatrically for a moment but then rose back up to his full height and we resumed. He told me he was worried about the border in Ireland. He had family ties there and talked of his memories of the troubles – something I have only vague and uninvolved recollections of. It’s a matter I hadn’t much considered.

And that was that. We accepted our differences. The referendum ended up just serving as a springboard for conversation. We improved each others’ evenings – me by letting him get his worries off his chest and him by the telling of first hand accounts to fifteen years of history (our rough age gap) I hadn’t been around in.

The crux of this post is this:

GOING TO THE PUB AND TALKING TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE IS GOOD FOR YOU.

Why did I capitalise those words? I think it was just to ensure that if you don’t read the whole post you at least get the point of it. Talking freely in a public place isn’t a given.

And don’t worry – I won’t try to persuade you to adopt any political position.

I’m not trying to make out that pubs are perfect vessels for debate. They’re only pubs. A book could be written about the history of pub violence (and if it were, I’d wager that for most of the UK, the catalyst would be football rather than politics).

The public obviously speak to each other in other locations like at the newsagent till (while I stand waiting to pay for a newspaper wondering whether to do the quiet cough). But the pub is where we stand or sit for a time without being in transit. The pub’s only equal in this respect might be the hairdresser where conversation is even more compulsory.

I’ve never been a university student so have no personal insight. This isn’t a kind of reverse snobbery boast but some context for my own impressions of students. I can be influenced by what I read about them. But the pub comes to my rescue in this matter too.

There is a young barman in one of my favourite pubs who challenges how I view a lot of people his age (nineteen) and younger, and their limited experience of the world. He is recently out of university. He got disillusioned by the same referendum. It was the first thing he ever had a vote in and he’s now of the opinion that it’s not worth voting. I really hope he changes his mind about that. At the bar – in fact – often running the pub when it’s crowded, he displays greater confidence and more advanced social skills and emotional intelligence than I did when I was his age. I was always chewing my lip and removing myself to the periphery of events. I still do a bit – but not as painfully so.

Despite his disillusionment, he hosts customers of all views – some have politicky nicknames (let’s say Brexit Bob, Tory Tom, Green Greg. You get the idea). But these monikers in the pub are used endearingly as he spends time in deep banter with them and gets on really well. When you converse with people in the flesh, respect comes as standard.

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In the context of university debating societies “no platforming” speakers as they might espouse opinions anathema to the student body, you wonder about the word debate and what happened to it.

I like social media such as Twitter and it goes with me to the pub. The smart phone can be a replacement for a lot of things but it’s actually a new limb.

I don’t think smart phones have killed the art of conversation. You can converse with others, and in the lulls, go back to the scroll. You can be unsocial if you want (sometimes you just want to be by yourself), but you can equally cut out the world with a newspaper.

If pub life followed the rules of social media, punters would come in to the Red Lion and interject into other groups’ conversations with aggression. They wouldn’t last long. Customers that slammed down others’ opinions as a matter of course would be at best ignored, at worst barred.

Imagine one little huddle’s member listening closely to another table’s conversation. He jumps up and shouts “Oh my god! These twats are against abortion!” His group responds by shouting in unison “Oh my god! What a bunch of twats!” right in front of said table. Has anyone experienced this in a public house? No. This is how it works on Twitter and Facebook, though.

The people you encounter in real life haven’t just pinged up on a mobile phone screen with a singular belief as their identity. They have a past and will have a future. Their complexity, physics, contradictions and essential humanity are there – you get irradiated by them when you meet them. People aren’t just three-dimensional in a physical sense.

There’s also the submerged understanding each of us has that our opinions, over time, change and we can rotate 180 degrees and 180 degrees again and still get no closer to fully knowing.

On social media, we tend to present ourselves as more knowledgeable than we actually are as our frantic fingers rip a hole into Google by looking things up we supposedly know in real time. We get away with it because we can’t be seen doing it. Words, terms, abbreviations, techniques, history, authors, activists that we “know” we might only have looked up three seconds ago.

How do I know this? Well I do and I don’t. I’ve done this myself online – claimed to know about a subject who’s Wikipedia page is still burning my retina. I also know some people online that I knew in real life first. My family, for example. And I know for a fact that unlike their online alias, they’re at least as much of an ignoramus as I am.

In pub life, this caper doesn’t work. Instead, we present as we actually are in all our dog-eared, imperfect beauty. Above each of our heads is a quota of empty space our potential should be filling. We’re like partially empty lava lamps.

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We can’t start to speak, then delete the words, quickly look something up online, search for the meaning of a word, then re-speak, backspace again to re-edit and finally give an answer when we’re in the Victoria. We are stripped to our nucleus as unrefined and unready beings with too poor and too unorganised a memory to give a column-space verdict.

That man or woman you know from the White Swan whose beliefs would incline you to wear garlic around your neck? Well, when you meet them in the Mucky Duck, you’ll be asking after their mother.

In the Boot, I’ve watched two men with completely opposite views initially go to overwhelm the other with an assertion and realise it won’t work – the opposite party will not convert and what becomes a bottom line to agree on is re-set in order for the conversation – socialisation at close quarters with a fellow ape – to survive. They make noises a bit like ships’ horns before collapsing back into social mode in the Hygge of the Gemütlichkeit. In the pub, to be right is relegated below the warmth of connection.

Knowing how to talk together across the bar is a skill we learn. To speak to people with different views is not a burden but a privilege. To converse with folk who have had a contrasting experience to yours is enlightening – each person is like a separate piece of a jigsaw to a landscape you’re trying to put together. Also, meeting individuals and having a chinwag often deflates the stereotype you harboured of them.

As children, we develop this learning in the yard. As adults, we continue the voyage down the pub – the public space where you’re on the same level as everyone else. The students “no platforming” just want the rest of their lives to be a safe space. They would learn about their fellow humans, challenge their beliefs and expand their knowledge far more in the pub than in the closed conformity of the university commons room.

pub primatology

pub primatology

I am a voyeur. Not in the 1970s Robin Askwith “confessions of..” sense, but in a more holistic one. Wherever I am, I’ll be keeping a narrowed eye on those around me. I like to people-watch. This is just as true whether I’m drinking a pint, an americano coffee or sitting in traffic.

I love the body language of converse. At a table, men sit and lean back to talk to one another and raise their voices to be heard. Men seem to hold their abdomen proud so the chest and stomach are exposed to each other – often with arms folded back over the chair. Women are more inclined to lean in towards each other. In conversation, they often look like they’re playing poker – each holding her cards close. They sometimes keep a hand over their mouth – only removing it to talk. When the plot thickens, their eyes widen and necks extend to close the gap between them.

Women have also developed a way of removing their handbag from the shoulder and setting it aside that tells me they’re having or are about to have a row with their partner. It’s actually the over-care and the slowness with which the bag is put down that instills fear.

But with regard to pubs – they’re the best place to be a voyeur. The kind of behaviour I watch might also be dependent on the kind of pub I’m in. I’m going to call type A the singleton pub and type B the group pub. In a singleton pub, you enter alone then “become” part of a group around a bar (if you want to). In a group pub, you enter or congregate as a pre-organised group and stay insular from the others in the pub.

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Also, I’m not talking about tap rooms or breweries which I think have a more varied demographic to pubs.

Type A and type B represent the extremes with most pubs occupying the vast space in the middle. But how did these types even come about? Let uncle Alec try and tease a few threads apart.

The singleton pub, in my opinion, is a public house of long standing to which the interior has changed little. The culture of mainly just men going to the pub has endured enough to still be noticeable. By this, I mean that most “singletons” are men whether they’re in a relationship or not. Music is either absent or background only. Also, there’s a small television in the corner – usually with sport – that can be as equally followed or ignored.

I find that group pubs are often ex-restaurants. A restaurant has a higher stock than the pub and this perceived classiness still clings. They are venues that tend to be candle and soft light heavy. Flowers are another ingredient. Group pubs have more seating around the bar. Fewer people can stand – hence fewer singletons frequenting them. They’re also likely to play music so shouting is necessary. Again, this would deter the singletons. There are no televisions in group pubs, either.

Some of these pubs can make you feel like you’ve come to a swingers’ party alone. There’s nothing to do but to get a facial tan from the scroll of your smart phone while fondling the pump clips on your tod.

The more these demographics occur, the more they establish as the singletons and the groups seek out the places that reflect them. But then again, it’s just my theory.

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primatology observations from type A:

Wherever there’s a bar with men in, an odd posture is adopted: first, you lean onto your elbows and let them take the stress of about forty per cent of your body weight. Then, you try and put a hinge in the small of your back where there isn’t one by extreme arching. The effect of this would be quite provocative in other circumstances – you’re actually pushing your bottom out to form a shelf (I’m afraid I’ll return to the issue of male bottoms in pubs later. Please bear with me). Then you stand on one leg – usually the left – while your right one bends around it so only the toes at the end of it make contact with the floor. Straining on just one elbow, you could also hook a thumb through a belt loop of your jeans if you wished. Texans accessorise this look best (probably) with a belt, a couple of holsters and a tilted Stetson. Here in Britain, a rain-spotted copy of the Guardian and a brolly isn’t quite as manly.

The bizarre thing is that this position – public statement of male relaxation – gets really uncomfortable. After all that heightened relaxation you need to sit down somewhere to recuperate from it.

This is a learnt male behaviour you can see across the globe. This posture also advertises that the stander is open for business and proficient in a very special discipline: the fantastical and ancient art of bollocks – a language rooted in beer.

There is something magical about beer and bollocks. A few years ago I was in the Blackies’ (Blacksmiths Arms, St Albans) standing at the bar adopting the requisite position. At some point, I got talking to an Irish man who was also assuming the stance. Between us, over the course of a couple of hours, we put Britain’s farming problems to rights. I’m not a farmer and neither is he. I did once work on a farm near Loch Gruinart in the Inner Hebrides when I was sixteen (this actually sounds like bollocks but it’s true!) and that served as the basis for my authority. I eked this out to about thirty years’ experience man and boy with the environment minister having my number on speed dial. I was a consultant. He’d probably once owned a pair of wellies, so he was an expert too.

I’ve seen him about and we acknowledge each other whilst not being in the zone. We’re normal punters going about our business, but at a given signal, if both of us cross a certain threshold whilst being in the same pub, we can take on new identities again. I fancy the one where I almost qualified as a winger for the England Rugby team. If I can have that, he can have almost being a scrum half for the Irish one. That’s the beauty of bollocks.

Like Dorothy, all we need do is click our heels together. And raise the wrist….

primatology observations from type B:

I once witnessed a car crash of a first date – and, as I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll agree – last date.

There were some small tables and stools in that pub and this “couple” was sat at one. It gave the impression I was looking down from an elevated floor.

I could tell by their body language they didn’t know each other. She’d dressed up. He’s dressed down. I watched him laugh at something on his phone while she was trying to talk. I got the impression the venue was his choice. It was hard to tell whether she wasn’t into beer or just not into him or both. He was certainly into beer. He drank fast – having to go to the bar to get himself another pint as her stalked half pint glass stood virtually untouched.

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What had originally drawn my attention to them was actually two sides of pink mutton – his bare haunches squashed above the driveway to his builder’s bum. It was all on display and because it was summer, it had a dewy glisten-on too. His jeans and belt were too tight and his T-shirt too small. The effect it made was his rear seemed like a fat child’s face smiling at me. I smiled back but that wasn’t the worst thing – this was: every time he wasn’t using his right hand to hold his glass, he was tucking it snugly into the hind cleft like it was a docking station.

One grace might have been that his date was spared this knowledge as she didn’t have my view of the house.

When they got up to leave, he swiped her glass off the table and drained it in one go – waste not, want not. The look she gave was pure rennet. And then, dear reader. He attempted. To plant. A kiss on her. I’m not talking about tonsil-devoration but an affectionate lip-purse to the cheek. Instead, he puckered the dry air in the space her head had just taken evasive action from. He then proffered a hand (that one!) which was left hanging.

Meanwhile, her entire body channelled an arrow being fired at the exit and then she was but a memory of footsteps. He looked confused and hurt and I snapped my gaze to the ground as I thought we were about to make eye contact.

We were the same species. I was feeling humiliation, shame, impotence all on his behalf. I felt like a beetroot roasting in its skin because I knew that there was more that connected me and him than separates us (though not the hand down the trousers!). His inability to read other people is something that goes to my core – I have personally been human illiterate too many times. And yet there I’d been “reading” his companion perfectly from a safe distance as he fulfilled his own dire prophecy.

If you want to know yourselves, then scrutinise the people around you. I find that the pub is the best place to people-watch as it exposes our quirks and vulnerabilities through the gentle unwrapping of alcohol.

Harvest Pale – the gateway beer

About a week ago I scanned the beer engines in a local and decided to have a pint of Harvest Pale from Castle Rock Brewery. This beer was awarded the Champion Beer of Britain by CAMRA in 2010 – roughly the time I started nurturing a serious interest in beer.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve had a pint of Harvest Pale. Like Landlord, Doom Bar and Tribute, it’s on permanently in pubs far from its home town – in HP’s case Nottingham. In my hunt for the new, I often neglect it simply to endlessly chart the rotating guests on offer.

It’s completely clear, golden and glowing with a glossy white head. There’s a grassy aroma as we’ve now come to expect from ales of this hue. Citrussy notes tantalise the lips before it’s even been transported across the gullet. These observations could be describing any number of modern pales.

It’s only after this initial introduction that an old school sweat returns; the humulone spritz segues into the warm greasy pastry from beers I moulded my palate on in the 1990s. This malty depth used to be hidden in plain sip as it haunted every pint of amber or golden cask ale.

The malt bringing up the rear – as dominant as the hops at the front – only registers now. It’s a character in itself and yet it’s been displaced during a time frame of little over six years. Taste and smell are hardwired to memory which otherwise fades. This is what makes this beer so special – it’s a sudden flashback to how things always were – suffixed onto the bouquet and palate of how things have become.

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There are other culprits that have had similar associations footnoted to them like Summer Lightening and Exmoor Gold, but this one is for the beer connoisseurs of my vintage. I don’t go back far enough for those beers to be game changers to me.

History gets faster and faster meaning the rate of change keeps accelerating. Culture turns. Social media pushes things forward. We strike out at the constantly new. Everything is in flux and few people are keeping tabs.

It seems that more has happened to beer in Britain in the six years since Harvest Pale won Champion Beer of Britain in 2010 than in the decades before it. For example, I don’t bat an eyelid when I see a DIPA on cask now. They’re being made by rural breweries who up until recently were trading on kitsch farming nostalgia on their pump clips. However, this time last year I’d never even had a DIPA via any dispense!

In 2010, CAMRA couldn’t have realised quite what a chimera this beer was. We talk of gateway beers but this made me think more of a bridge linking new beer with the old. For that reason, I now believe Harvest Pale is one of the most significant cask ales ever produced. I just never appreciated it up until now.

 

suckled by a mannequin

suckled by a mannequin

On Monday I saw an image of a young child simulating being breast fed by a shop mannequin. It was tweeted by Acton Ales and retweeted with revulsion by Melissa Cole (the disgust was directed towards the brewery for other reasons beyond the scope of this post. Donald Trump, White Knight – you can look into it). I also discovered that Acton Ales isn’t in west London but Northumberland.

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I’ve not included the picture here. It’s not because it’s controversial it’s just because I don’t know who the boy and his family are and whether or not they want to be spread across the internet. To see the original image, just go into Melissa Cole’s or Acton Ales’ Twitter feed. Instead, I’ve put this charming image of a rose snapped with my phone in the Boot in St Albans.

The brewery originally posted the picture with a reference to knowing your first taste of their beers which is a terrible pitch. If their beer is synonymous with breast milk, then the shot needed to be of a genuine breast otherwise it’s basically saying their ale is a shocking disappointment – a mannequin’s nipple is bloody bakelite! In any case, there are no details with the image and nobody has commented on it.

That should have been it but my thoughts have gone off in all directions at once. The image won’t leave me alone. I actually treasure it. But why?

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here for your enjoyment – a cute little frog from St Albans

Here’s a description: the child looks male and isn’t much older than a toddler. The context is suspect. For a start, the mannequin torso is standing on the floor too low for perusal by shoppers so it seems a bit set up. It’s wearing a summer dress and the straps have been pulled away to expose the bust. The child’s left hand is on the right bosom and he’s sucking the teat of the left bosom (something I learned from a Richard Dawkins book that we always get wrong – it’s the mother that suckles, the infant sucks).

I don’t think a child would intuitively go up to a dummy and do this because it’s a lump of moulded plastic. In the care of sniggering teenage relatives who showed him what to do? Probably. I think I can see a bit of knowing mischief on the boy’s face like he’s in on it and trying to suppress a smile.

Acton Ales and its misguided way of promoting itself aside, I’m not sure if I’m creeped out by the image or amused by it. This got me to thinking about the country we’re viewing it in. We don’t generally like these kind of pictures in Britain. I can’t help imagining a group of Italian or Greek mothers loving an image like through the prism of matriarchy. I went to school in France for three years. What struck me when we first moved there is that frontal nudity is on the shower gel adverts in between ad breaks on children’s television. In fact, nudity was everywhere and this was before the age of the internet.

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The French version of blooper reel shows and Candid Camera often has things very much like this – breasts being exposed by babies. Shows in Italy go even further. They’re a bit like the 1970s “confessions of” films with Robert Asquith to our eyes. Tutti Frutti – a 1980s strip show – was first commissioned by Silvio Berlusconi.

This photo is also a good representation of apps like Untappd – sucking at the nipple in pursuit of the holy grail and finding that nothing lives up to expectation. Aren’t beer tickers just like this young boy desperately seeking the elusive five stars? It’s a testament to negative publicity – disappointment can be more cathartic and occupy a greater number of column inches than approval which lends much less to the creative process. We love whingeing more than we do being satisfied.

20160129_145630Another thing it makes me think of is beer obsession and breast feeding and a possible link between the two. Is the need for beer linked to our most fundamental desire to be wet nursed? Are the genes that drove that hunger still with us decades later? It’s something I’ve often cogitated over – especially when sipping a sweet stout or a mild. They just feel like milky nourishment. For substantial research, I’d have to read up on work by paediatricians, nutritionalists, primatologists and evolutionary biologists.

It also made me look into myself and I’m not proud. It made me realise that if I did find myself the last of mankind after waking up to discover the human race gone, between draining bottles of beer from shop shelves and cleaving open tins of food, I’d definitely be sneaking around the upper floor of Marks and Spencers groping the mannequins too. It’s only the layers of inhibition, self-respect and public disgust that stop me from acting like this toddler in the first place. Obviously it would take time for these safety mechanisms to be eroded – potentially hours. I know. Horrid.

So there you have it. A stream of consciousness from one picture on Twitter. I needed to get these thoughts off my chest (come on – you knew it was coming). I hope the boy’s healthy and happy. I’d recommend following Melissa Cole because she’s a professional beer writer. Have a look at Acton Ales too and make up your own minds.