Saturday 12 October 2013

Notes From Home - Part IV

- The Lamb and Fountain (aka Mother’s)

57 Castle Street, Frome, BA11 B3W
 So much a part of the cultural heritage of Frome that long term landlady Freda Searle has become the town’s collective matriarch. Her pub, more commonly known as ‘Mother’s’ than its formal designation, ranks as one of most unaffected and sublime of drinking houses in the well stocked county of Somerset.

 Into her early 90s, Mrs Searle no longer serves these days but can occasionally be found of a lunchtime sitting by the bar tenting a vodka and tonic, and is happy to talk to new faces as well as her crowd of devoted regulars. Like all great pubs though, the family have come to the rescue and the second and third generation of Searle women share the duties of the house, the youngest granddaughter putting in most of the hours behind the delightful Formica topped bar.

 The pub is hidden in the twisting back streets above the well known antique and tat emporia of Catharine Hill. Upon finally finding the right location, there is little to advertise the fact this rambling tumbledown building is indeed still a functioning tavern, save for the handwritten sign giving the name ‘Lamb and Fountain’ and the raucous laughter emanating from the open front door. Entering with confidence, one arrives into to a narrow corridor with off-sales hatch and a door on the right leading to Mother’s living quarters (her notably authentic C1960’s kitchen is sometimes on display if the door is left ajar). The pub rooms are on the left either side of the servery, one at the front, one to the rear, one small the other large. Both are plain and gratifyingly utilitarian, with a comforting air of threadbare elegance. The larger rear bar commands impressive views over the roofline of old Frome - a pleasing swathe of terracotta tile and chimney pot - and houses a mix of the older, more sedate regulars who are often more concerned with the Daily Express Crossword than anything you may have to say to them. The rear portion of the pub also has the added quirk of being propped on a set of rusting stilts, in perfect defiance of any modern building regulations, and adding a mere suggestion of danger to the enjoyment of your excellent and very cheap Rich’s cider or draught Doom Bar.

 The front bar plays host to Mother’s world renowned collection of porcelain ducks, as well as a great variety of Frome’s more discerning class of drunks. Your mere presence in this tiny front room will inform to the assembled regulars that they probably know you from some earlier cider sodden afternoon session, even if they don’t, and will immediately proceed to tell you all about Dave from No.65’s new car, Big Sally’s impending divorce settlement and the tragic plight of Ted and his latest curry related atrocity. Banter and good humour flow easily in this little parlour, aided in no small part by cider and the natural disposition of the local custom.

 The sheer and ill-designed steps to the gentleman’s lavatory hidden immediately behind the door also feature, as does the entrance to the catacombs underneath Frome located in the self same gents. If you are lucky, you may be treated to the amusing spectacle of 15 or so burly caving types emerging mid-tour from behind the toilet door, bedraggled and filthy, to enjoy several rapid pints before returning down the steps to the gents and never seen again.

Monday 16 September 2013

Notes From Home - Part III

 - The Hunters Lodge

Old Bristol Road, Priddy, Wells, BA5 3AR.

 Many people forget that the Mendip Hills march belligerently across the northern end of Somerset and their relative height, rising from the marshy Levels, leads to a stark contrasts in the aspect of the land and the ferocity of the weather. Just below the huge communications mast above Wells, sits a lonely chunk of moorland, some despondent looking sheep, a cross-roads and an old pub.

 Here is another fine example of what is missing from so many pubs up and down the land, and which almost by default crafts an exceptional hostelry; continuation of ownership. This pub has been in the watchful hands of Dors family for three generations, and the fourth is currently in training. Originally a farm which had a licensed room to supplement its sheep business, the pub slowly became the mainstay of the operation (although current governor Roger still has a few acres under pasture). Nothing much changed in this utilitarian agricultural pub, until the early 1960s when Roger inherited and ‘did the old place up’. The result is an eclectic, delightful and surprisingly mellow mixture of flagstone, authentic brass and inglenook with curved deco woodwork, Formica and tat.

 Three bars, set around a single servery, each have their own distinct feeling. The public bar is as it should be: Spartan and child free, with not a scrap of shag-pile or upholstery to be seen. Here the local farming community and other hill-folk mix in good, and occasionally raucous, humour with the new money finding its way slowly up the Mendip escarpment. Good, micro-brew ale is racked behind the bar and dispensed into proper handled and dimpled glasses, unless otherwise requested, at a price which can keep even the hard-up drinking most of the night. The little Snug to the right of the entrance usually hosts a few Mendip geriatrics, supping at the same schooner of sherry they ordered some days ago, but who will generally involve you in their conversations of declining moral standards and the dark agenda of the EU. Finally there is the Family Room at the back, reached by a separate entrance from the street frontage. Barbour clad parents often walk here to park their broods in the ample garden adjacent, while they heal their fraying nerves with buckets of Wilkins' Farmhouse Cider by the fire.

 Mobile phones are strictly prohibited throughout, as is moving the furniture or rushing the landlord. Exceptional value, simple but pleasing food also features during trading hours, and there is also a large function room and skittle ally if you have need of them. Go especially when the weather is at its bleakest, when this portion of Mendip becomes a little piece of wind-blasted Hebridean heath, and sit inside this warm bastion of civility as the tempest batters impotently at the door.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Bourton-on-the-water: The prettiest shit-house in England.

 I recently holidayed in the Cotswolds. Now, I hate a great deal of the Cotswolds - or rather I hate what has been done to the Cotswolds over the last 20/30 years. There is no doubt that at one time it must have been a truly stunning area; beautiful pastoral farmland enclosing time-forgotten little villages, looking as though they had grown out of the landscape and peopled by honest hardworking country folk of a modest and good humoured bent. Today though, virtually all that once made this area special is gone, swept away under a tide of London money, suburban housing, Farrow & Ball, pony paddocks, tourists and Range Rovers. Business (ecumenical stonework mainly) has taken me to this part of the world on many occasions meaning I can safely say that, bar a few little islands people have forgotten to spoil, the Cotswolds must vie with Cheshire, Surrey and Knightsbridge for the title of most over-moneyed, culturally barren and disconnected of lands in Britain.

 One morning, the group I was with requested to leave the nice little corner of north Gloucestershire we were staying in (actually the Vale of Evesham, but has been enveloped by the Cotswolds thanks to the work of greedy estate agents who keep expanding its boundaries) in order to ‘see the sights’. Regrettably, the warnings I issued about the dinky bourgeois tourist towns clustered around the Fosse were not heeded and I found myself on a sticky Monday afternoon in August trapped in one of the worst places I have ever had the misfortune to enter: Bourton-on-the-Water.

 I would rather spend a cold wet afternoon wandering around the fish gutting yards of Peterhead than 10 minutes of Bourton in the height of tourist season. The little town was utterly engulfed; bus after bus lined up in the car park, pouring two thirds of Coventry, half of Birmingham and most of Japan into the single long street by the river. The average age was 65, the average weight 19 stone. Every scrap of grass was covered with sprawling people, every bench occupied, every pavement an impassable morass of the doddery, the camera-wielding and endless ranks of pushchairs. It was as though a madman had built a little market town in the middle of a large municipal park, or else created a huge open-air and overly popular exhibition of Richard Curtis’ England. I found myself wondering, as I absentmindedly kicked small children into the stream, what brought all these people to this nasty little town? Why here, what’s the attraction? Clearly I was missing something.

 It cannot purely be a sense of history, after all lots of places in England are old - indeed some far older than Bourton and have a much more interesting narrative than this sleepy little backwater. By the same token, it cannot be the ‘unspoilt’ nature of the place - the town is like looking over the ravaged carcass of what England once was, a corrupted and ruined husk trampled underfoot by the hoards and cynically usurped for the purposes of fleecing the gullible masses who pass through. To that end, the town’s shopping is beyond a joke- where once there would have been butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, there now exists a vast parade of pointless and pretentious boutiques selling the very worst kind of tasteless crap, artfully displayed in delicate little gatherings; the kind of shops which ought to trade under the single generic name ‘Tat: Old and New, Equine and Chintz’. In fact the nearest thing to reality on the main street is a lone branch of the ever present Spar, left almost ironically and presumably for the convenience of restaurant and shop workers - no one can possibly live here.

 Finally, I am aware this blog is primarily about pubs. Bourton’s pubs are certainly not worth travelling for - in fact there aren’t any. There are a few buildings which outwardly profess to be pubs, but in reality they are like the rest of the town, a shoddy and risible sham trading on the lure of jam, Jerusalem and a delusion of adequacy to hoodwink the weak-willed, the unimaginative and the naïve.

 To those who maybe planning a trip to this part of the world, go anywhere else but here: the Slaughters are pretty (but poncy) the Swells are pleasant and the Guitings are genuinely lovely. If it is a town you are after, Stow on the Wold is slightly less ghastly than Bourton and has one good pub (Donnington’s Queens Head), Chipping Camden is pleasant though disgustingly rich while Winchcombe, a 20 minute drive away, is a real delight. My advice to those who may find themselves trapped here would be to do as I did; kill or estrange yourself from whom ever inflicted a visit to this ungodly place upon you, get out quickly and never go back.

Friday 30 August 2013

A Good Gastro-pub: Do They Exist?

Recently, I went out with some friends over Bristol way for a bite to eat. Ordinarily, I would be happy with a few pints and a cheese roll in my local, but on occasion I do enjoy a good feed around and about. One bright spark suggested a local pub known for its food. Now, I treat any dining experience in a pub with due suspicion. Food in pubs is not something I am against per-se, but more often than not when entering a food focused pub, I am greeted with the sight of a disembowelled hulk of a once promising looking local, bedecked in a clumsy faux-rustic fashion, and served platefuls of ‘matter and chips’ prepared in industrial microwaves by an unenthused youth in stupid trousers. My rules for pub food (or more exactly, a pub which serves food) are simple - do it well or not at all, and never let the dry trade impinge on or drive away a pub’s mainstay of drinkers. After all, a pub without drinkers is...a restaurant.

 Suitably guarded, the party pulled up outside the Forage Inns group Bird In Hand of Long Ashton. We enter into the large public bar. There is a lively drinking session already well underway, every bar stool is occupied, every table filled and every glass making regular trips toward a mouth. Bath Ales Gem, Butcombe Bitter, the ubiquitous but still excellent Doom Bar and the justly prized St Austell Tribute are offered from hand-pull, the first and last are sampled and both are in truly fine form. The bar is bright and lively, the custom friendly and enthused and the décor pleasingly contemporary, white walls and scrub top tables - none of that faded half attempted pastiche tat which I so detest. We are even spared the usual hateful enquiry as to our gastronomic intentions as soon as the drinks order is lodged, which usually elicits a violent reaction from your correspondent - ‘and are you dining with us this evening?’ Indeed, it is up to us to disclose that one of the more organised members of the party has reserved a table in advance, just as it ought to be.

 We were then shown through into the considerably quieter eating area to the right, with places set, candles and small floral displays. The tempo here is calmer and refined, dimly lit and elegant. It is at this moment when I start to think, this is a pub out of the ordinary. The Bird in Hand just about defines what I expect from a really good food pub, dare I even say, gastro-pub. A proper bar area filled to the rafters with waifs and strays all carrying on in traditional riotous pub form, then separated off, a purpose built dining area for those interested in enjoying a good meal away from the frenzy of the boozy play-room - giving each set of clientele space to be.

Fish and Chips - and Pint.
 Menus are presented; a little typed piece of paper with a reassuringly small selection of changing dishes. Everything is made on site - ‘from the bread to the black pudding’ - while the fish is delivered daily, meat sourced locally and much of the herbs, mushrooms and such foraged from the surrounding country by the chef and his staff. I opt for the Provençal Fish Soup, followed by posh Fish and Chips (battered hake, celeriac chips and pea puree). It is, quite simply, one of the very finest meals I have had in a long time. Everything is delicious. I am reliably informed that the Brazed Lamb teamed with a powerful Sicilian red by the glass, was also excellent. We finished the meal replete and suitably merry, basking in the warm glow of a very rare and fine pub operation - someone in the set up genuinely understand what customers want, and how to accommodate it comfortably and considerately. We departed around 11pm, when the bar trade was still going strong, though perhaps lapsing into the dispassionate drinking phase as the toll of the evenings enjoyment began to be felt. I then spotted that the kitchen provides home made scotch eggs, sausage rolls and crispy pigs ears to the bar trade, for those who simply wish to line the stomach.

 The Bird in Hand is pub truly befitting the title of gastro-pub. It is a venue which places as much emphasis on the ‘pub’ part of that phrase as the ‘gastro’. The wet trade of the operation is a buzzing public bar selling good quality beer and cider to an appreciative audience. The dry trade manages to neatly avoid straying into the realms of an over-blown, expensive restaurant with rural pretense, though is able to provide a sophisticated and deeply impressive dining experience when required. It is heartening for this jaded hack, to find that such places exist among the mire of disappointing eating houses - both pompous and just plain crap - and that some people in the trade know how to use food correctly as a diversification of a pub's offering, while never forgetting the reality of what a pub fundamentally is for. 

Thursday 22 August 2013

Notes From Home - Part II

- 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.