Saturday 4 May 2019

Queer Beer in the Mendips

Because we had decided not to visit our house in Spain this spring we decided to take a few trips out in the motor caravan to enjoy our own lovely country. The first was in May Day week and we decided on a trip to the Mendip hills - an area that I have often passed through, but never explored.
The first objective was the interestingly named village of Chew Magna (they like their Chews in the Mendips), but the place was clearly motor caravan averse so we squeezed through it and drove to the only other objective of the trip: the nearby Chew Valley Lake. This was perfect. The map showed a picnic site beside the lake and it was great: spacious and not too busy, it overlooked the extensive lake and the only charge was £2 per day for parking. It also had a restaurant, a take-away and toilets – a motor homer’s dream.

Having found a good spot for the motor caravan I set out on a walk alone and entered the lakeside area ignoring the ‘fishermen only’ sign. I followed the collapsing grassed embankment and soon came to two fishermen. Would they object to my presence? Not a jot. They were local good old boys with an accent that I warm to because I grew up surrounded by it (like coming home) and we talked and laughed for some time. They were very different characters. The first I met wasn’t fishing, his rod lay on the bank so we were soon talking about the lake and such. We could see most of it from this location though an island opposite hid some of the shore. Together they told me about its origins, where to go for birding, and where to get a permit. The first claimed there was a drowned church in the lake; the second that there was a farm and that he had met the farmer who wasn’t at all resentful of the flooding which took place in 1953 to form the lake/reservoir to keep Bristol throats quenched and baths full. I asked them about the local pub but on that they were evasive, saying only that it did not keep normal hours.

That evening Margaret and I walked into the village and soon found the local pub with its fading sign. That fading was a sign in itself – the place was pretty rough inside and out. As soon as I entered the public bar a scruffy old chap hunched over a table demanded, “Where you from an’ what you doing ‘ere?” Perhaps surprisingly I found this amusing and non-threatening.

I was delighted to see three hand pumps on the bar and that one of them dispensed Butcombe’s Rarebreed , a great favourite beer of mine which I ordered without a pretest. It was decidedly odd. There were tastes present that I had never detected in Butcombe’s beer or any other. It was not off, just queer. By this time Margaret was peering around with disgust at the peeling paintwork and the advanced neglect of the place. Meanwhile the old chap (actually younger than us) gave me a long diatribe about his country upbringing enlivened with many spirited bouts of swearing. Nonetheless I found his experiences interesting especially the part about having his own cow at the age of seven and making butter from her twice-daily milkings. There were also tales of shotgun incidents where he sometimes shot multiple birds with just one cartridge.

After a while we retreated to the lounge bar where I ordered a different beer, yet it too had this queer mixed-up taste. While I supped I watched Margaret observing the barmaid at work, her eyes growing wider as she watched. She suddenly turned to me and said, “I know why your beer tastes odd”.

“Should I continue to drink it?” I asked, concerned.

She said yes, but doubtfully. Afterwards she told me that the barmaid tipped the spillage tray from the other pumps into the pint she was pouring! We were all drinking beer cocktails!

Next day we moved to a small car park near a bird hide that looked across the lake. The view from the hide was splendid, but the variety of waterbirds was not that exciting. We saw tufted duck, coots, mallards, swans, Canada geese and great crested grebe. Of these the latter were the most interesting as a pair perfored their oddly charming mating dance. And we did hear a cuckoo. It’s a long time since I had heard that lonely, lovely cry. Coincidentally, I also found some cuckoo flowers (identified by Margaret) on a meadow near the lake.

That night we walked to a very different sort of pub which did serve Butcombe’s beer in perfect condition and there met another local who told us of his life as a leather worker and ardent motorcyclist (probably got the order wrong there). This place was more of an eatery than a pub, but both beer and food were excellent.

Our final night was spent at Lacock, a picturesque village in Wiltshire much used for filming. Despite its dedication to tourism it was a pleasurable place to stroll around and the dominant building, the Abbey, was absolutely beautiful. However, the pubs were not so much fun so I, uncharacteristically, used my phone to search for another one nearby. I drove there with the intention of sleeping in its car park, but great plans can go astray: there was a notice on its front gate saying that ‘Closed for Filming’. Unbelievable. Fortunately I had passed another as we drove there and hastened back to it. Called the Bell, it did not look much of a place from the roadside, but inside a warm welcome awaited. As I eyed the line of beer pumps and the notice celebrating its choice as the local CAMRA pub of the year, I asked the landlord if we could sleep in his car park. “Of course you can,” he replied affably, “and thanks for asking”. Nice end to a nice trip. Freedom.

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