- The Seymour Arms
Main Street, Witham Friary, Somerset, BA11 5HF.
Some people in this word will travel to the ends of the earth to broaden their horizons, I go to Witham Friary. This pub is a glorious, unconscious snapshot of how life once was in the pleasant pastures of rural England in days long gone. It is a pub which the modern world has forgot to ruin and, apart from the occasional new light-bulb, is still as it would have been in 1959. Even the crass intrusion of a till is spared in this wonderful time capsule; the coins and notes of the day’s trade are artfully arranged in a series of small wooden pots on the back of the counter. The pub was originally built as a large Inn by the Duke of Somerset’s estate to serve the railway station at Witham, where the GWR Mid-Somerset branch to Bristol via Wells and Yatton left the mainline. Sadly, the branch line and station fell prey to Beeching’s lunatic axe of the 1960’s, leaving this stately pile suddenly marooned in a rural backwater, to begin a new life as an unpretentious local tavern. Reminders of its previous incarnation can still be seen today, from the splendid ornamental cast iron sign to the former glazed hotel reception desk, which now serves as the bar. The two public rooms either side of the main corridor servery are simply furnished with old benches and tables, the public bar has bare flagstone floors and a dart board, while the Commercial Room (another reminder from its hotel past) is carpeted - after a fashion - with old service bells let into the walls and an antique bar billiard table for entertainment. The locally renowned smoking shelter, constructed of rusty scaffold poles with an old tarpaulin lashed across, also features.
It is, however, the wonderful mix of people from near and far that make this pub truly special. Well heeled devotees of good honest public houses rub shoulders with the cider-addled denizens of field and ditch, leading to a fascinating miss-match of accents, cultures and professions. This is a pub where all those who come are treated as equal, regardless of your wealth, education or state of sobriety, and everyone will have something to say - anecdotes regarding cider related mishaps with heavy agricultural machinery mingle with fascinating stories from ‘they outsiders’ about that exotic and distant place called London.
The pub serves no food, save peanuts and chocolate bars, but still carried on here is the time honoured custom of food days. Unbidden by anything save tradition, every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon customers come from far and wide to line the tables in the public bar with cheeses, preserves, bread, crisps, eggs, pickled onions, pies, apples and cold meats. Everyone brings something, so everyone enjoys something; a wonderful timeless expression of egalitarian countryside communal spirit, washed down with buckets of the wonderful Rich’s cider dispended from the cellar (£1.60 a pint at my last visit).
Jon and Jean, the long standing Licensees, were as much an institution as their pub, but sadly since my last visit I hear that Jon passed away in the Spring, while Jean continues to decline in health. Listening to either of them recall stories from their many years at the Seymour was a lesson in living history, from tales of the old railway men who would come of a lunchtime to enjoy 6 pints of rough cider before returning to work, to descriptions of other amazing old and characterful pubs near and far, many now sadly distant memories. For posterities sake though, Jon and Jean’s son and daughter have recently agreed to run the pub between them, securing this amazing old tavern for the time being.
A trip to the Seymour is always an experience for old hands and new comers alike - a genuine enactment of a world Hardy himself would have found familiar. Leaving the bar is always tinged with a sense of sadness, for more reasons than one. How wretched it is to live in an age where places such as the Seymour are not only rare but now seem so remote, so utterly alien to the modern, oppressive consumerist lifestyle that so many of us endure that they really seem like a place out of step with reality. England must have been a place to be envied when little taverns such as the Seymour were relatively commonplace, before the arrival of the trappings of modernity and the inevitable gentrification, sanitisation and purging of the countryside of all the character which once made it special. Fortunately though, those hateful forces are, for now, held at bay around Witham and so long as the Seymour carries on defiantly against the tide of vacuous incivility, a little corner of real rural England will always be found by those with the curiosity and imagination to seek it.