Friday, 26 March 2010

From the fabled Beehive: or, private vices, publick benefits

Having grown up in what Recusant nails as the 'banker' part of Gloucestershire, I wasn't reared on locally-produced cider. The drink was usually first encountered in sweet, bottled form at the back of the village hall hosting that week's disco. And then when you were old enough to drink in pubs it was rarely drank straight, usually being consumed as an ingredient in that devil's own drink, the snakebite - but still from the keg and so mass-produced, fizzy and characterless.

My first consistent exposure to the proper stuff - that is scrumpy - came whilst I lived in Bath. I shared a flat with a chap who played rugby for Bath Football Club (as it still was then) located on the erroneously-named Quiet Street, a Georgian canyon linking Milsom Street and Queen's Street. The place was very cheap, very leaky and at the top of five flights of steep stairs.

We used to drink our scrumpy - this was back in the early-90s - at a pub called The Beehive. I think it was somewhere up Lansdowne Hill and was a proper, old-fashioned cider house. They may have sold beer but only incidentally. It featured lots of wood, including a sawdust floor, and smelled of pine boards, fresh wood-shavings and a mixture of pear drops, fag smoke and urine.

It seemed to permanently host a number of fellers of indeterminate age, who we thought of as cider-heads, but a more visual description would have been cider-noses (all a cheery and vibrant red) or cider-eyes (all watery and bleared). Perched unsteadily at the bar, they didn't move much, just shuffling periodically to the gents and back.

We used to begin our evenings there, which is why I picture it infused with a golden evening light, not unlike that found in a clear example of what we were drinking. Usually a pint; a pint-and-a-half if we were feeling bullish.

Anyway, the combination of this modest pomaceous libation with our five flights of stairs invariably proved lethal to our prospects of spending the whole night's sleep under a duvet. I guess the scrumpy acted as a sort of depth charge, its full effect only becoming evident late in the evening. One would wake in the permanent darkness of the stairwell, mouth not unlike the dusty floor of the distantly-remembered Beehive, wondering where the hell you were, before recommencing one's interrupted assault on the summit and its comfortable bed.

I'm conscious that this is hardly an advert for the healthy benefits of cider as part of a balanced and mature approach to alcohol. But, hey, I don't care! Blasted preachers!

But what I do think really sad is the loss of places like The Beehive, which I found had been converted into another bland wine bar sort of place when I went to look for it a few years ago. Yes, it was home to a number of alcies but, as we know, these people haven't gone away, they just sit at home, lonely and even more immobile, their red noses dimmed by the ghostly light of a cathode ray tube.

It's sad to lose one of those minor cultural peculiarities that help make one city different to another; making Bath different to Winchester or Cambridge or Gloucester. I for one don't want to live in a homogenised, pasteurised culture of crappy blandness. And that's one reason to be very annoyed at a Government that in withdrawing a sensibly encouraging tax benefit has so casually put the boot into a traditional, indigenous industry that is productive of a distinctive and enjoyable cultural by-way.

But we should not despair! Here's some encouraging cider protest history. To help the current protest along constructively, here's a very sensible compromise that this government or the next should adopt. I shall be posting it to the Facebook protest group's Wall. As I think someone recently said: "oo-ar, we can!"


Gadjo Dilo said...

Cider had a strange role in the pub when I was a lad. A friend of mine hated the taste of beer, but would have been labelled a homo if he let this be know. So he had to tell everyone that he had an allergy to hops and drink Strongbow instead. He hated Strongbow too, but not quite as much.

mahlerman said...

Although I'm as keen as the next man to pile in and give this government another good kicking, I think the attack on cider is just another brick in the wall of homogeneity that we have all suffered in the last decade or so c/o the Blair/Brown axis.
The shift is not just cultural, but also geographical. We northern european protestants have traditionally been uneasy with pleasures of the flesh, and the payoff from that can been witnessed after 11.00pm in the streets of any major British city - let's call it a forced jollity; we WILL have a good time. And they do, on the terms they have been led to believe are likely to produce this state, even if involves urinating against a parked car, or headbutting a pensioner returning from Bingo.
Head south in Europe (as I do, thank God, quite regularly), and it is all much more relaxed. Walk the warm streets of, say, Rome or Madrid, and the people have the same income to dispose of, are the same age and, broadly speaking, have the same unspoken desires. What they don't seem to have, and if they do it is well locked-away, is the hell-bent need to pack all the pleasure into a six hour period.
The word verification just below this box, that I am about to fill in, is the word 'duche'. It was part of the phrase - 'duche-bag' - that was hurled at my wife last year when I was foolish enough to take her out the dinner in London, and walk back to the car through Soho.

Brit said...

I can't abide cider, which is a bit like a Geordie hating newky brown and fighting.

Sophie King said...

I find it hard to lament the disappearance of grubby places that smell of wee. Perhaps it's a male thing.

Recusant said...

Well described, Gaw. Cider drinkers are never great talkers when compared to the beery fraternity.

There's a cider house called - although you'll see no sign - The Monkey Puzzle, on the road from Pershore to Upton-on-Severn which only serves two drinks: dry cider and a bit less dry. The potion is passed over the half-door in whatever vessel is to hand and then consumed in one of the outhouses that have thatching so old and decayed that I'm sure that last time I looked it had potatoes growing out of it. The welcome is not 'welcoming', but everyone is happy in their grumpiness and guzzling of strong cider at £1.50 the pint. It'll be gone within the next ten years because that sort of pure rural life has all but ceased to exist and is certainly not attractive to anyone under 60.

jonathan law said...

When I started pub-going (late 70s into 80s) it was quite normal for the smarter places to refuse to serve you cider, of any kind, in the saloon bar: ask and you'd be redirected, fairly curtly, to the less salubrious 'public'. (Do these old class distinctions between bars still apply anywhere?)

I don't greatly care for cider but I do love an orchard -- don't we all? -- and the threat to these last remnants of some old, gnarly, lichenous, bittersweet, red-and-gold dream of England seems somehow intolerable. Good piece on James Russell's bucolic Bristol-based blog here.

worm said...

As young (13 year old) cornish lads, we quickly learned that the best way to obtain cheap alcohol with no questions asked was to visit a local farmer, armed with an empty 5 litre plastic bottle. The resulting purchase of scrumpy, dredged from an open tank, was invariably foul and sulphurous smelling, (and rumoured to contain various things like horse dung and rats) but it got you ridiculuosly pissed in about 20 minutes flat. After 20 minutes was when the vomiting began. For this reason I have never really had more than a sip of cider since. Even thinking about it makes me gag. :(

mahlerman said...

No 'perhaps' about it Sophie - it is, for sure, a 'male thing'. Any doubts, read Worm above...

Sophie King said...

As my ten-year-old daughter would say, "eeeeew".

zmkc said...

Absolutely wonderful post.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: Why not a nice glass of white wine? Or a pint, if this seemed cissy.

Mahlerman: It is pretty awful, isn't it? I think there's more of this thing about as kids are wealthier but it's certainly always been around. And I guess you could take comfort from the fact that Soho is actually approachable at all at night, given what it was like thirty or so years ago with all the titty shows.

By the way, I wrote this on binge drinking:

Brit: Perhaps it's because you're an alienated intellectual?

Sophie. Ay, it takes all sorts. Anyway, I suspect it was the other customers rather than the place that smelt of wee.

Recusant: That sounds great. I will try to visit. BTW here's a recommendation from me:

Jonathan: I started going to pubs probably about five or ten years after you and I didn't come across that - I suppose it was a Somerset thing.

I don't think many appreciate how important cider is to our threatened orchards, which you so beautifully describe. It's a strong motivation in my opposition to this tax.

Nice blog.

Worm: Ha! Nice one. But just think, it could have been Thunderbird wine or alcopops.

z: Thanks, you're very kind!

Hey Skipper said...

Once upon a previous life I was at a pub in Cornwall.

Behind the bar was a glazed porcelain jug with a pastoral scene on the front.

Under which were the words: "Cornish Scrumpy - Legless but Smiling"

You just have to like straightforward marketing.

Judging from the comments here, perhaps I should hang my head in shame for liking Strongbow.

GOR said...

During consecutive summers in the last two years of my secondary education our headmaster decided that what we needed was a school trip on a Saturday to Brighton. Partaking was immediately discounted as being 'uncool' .(mainly due to the Saturday element)until one of our number revealed that it would allow us to drink the fabled Merrydown Cider which was sold in a seafront pub. Quite how a fifteen year old obtained this information remains a mystery as does the fascination for the strongest alcoholic drinks by those least equipped to cope with them.We all cajoled the trip money from the bank of mum and dad and arose at 6am on the appointed day. Following a gruelling five hour coach journey we were by pure chance decanted outside the correct pub. Upon entering the hostelry and despite our obvious youth we were happily served with pints of Guiness and Merrydown.During the next forty five minutes consumption of two of these brain destroyers had the desired effect leaving us with only enough processing power to cross the road, crash onto the stony beach and puke. We then made small cairns from the stones which served to both cover the puke and act as a memorial to our triumph over authority. Laying comatose for the rest of the day we were scooped up by the coach at 5pm and sank back into oblivion until collected by parents back at school around 11pm. At the Monday debrief and bragging session we all agreed that our time had been well spent and that overall the day had been great value for money.

Gaw said...

GOR: Ah, the innocent joys of youth... I bet you reminisced about that for months!