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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.