Driving to the in-laws always follows the same pattern. Stopping at Heston Services. Missing the M4 exit to the M5. Annoying ghastly people by sticking tenaciously to the speed limit on the North Devon Link Road. And finally passing over the mighty Torridge Bridge, wondering if the pubs below us in Bideford have got any better. They never have.
The pub know-all appears at my elbow, as suddenly as the shopkeeper in Mr Benn. He’s wearing a golf club jumper. He has a sniff and looks at the young barmaid, who wasn’t even disagreeing with me. “He’s right, my love. It is off”. Well, thanks for that, but I know my beer. The pint of Clearwater’s Real Smiler – the Joiner’s Arms only alternative to the ubiquitous Doom Bore – was so vinegary and sour I actually winced as I brought it to my lips. The barmaid quickly swaps the Smiler for a Sharps. “Nothing wrong with that” says Know-all, winking at the barmaid and taking a pull on his pint of Doom.
Actually, there was quite a lot wrong with it. It was flabby and well on the way to stale. Standard issue in Bideford’s pubs. I got down half of it and switched to Thatchers, cold and fizzy from the keg. Well, I like it – and they can’t get that wrong.
The Joiners had just reopened after a period of closure, and you could tell. We were in there to see Enigmatic Bluesman ™ Jim Crawford, and until his fans filled the place up, it had the atmosphere of a house that had been empty for a few years. It had always been one of the few fairly reliable pubs in town, but suffers from being out of the way of evening trade, high above the Torridge Estuary in Bideford’s crows nest. In this day and age you’ve got to be a pretty special pub to get the punters through the door. And Jim Crawford isn’t going to play there every night.
About six pubs have closed in the town in the last few years, and to be fair, most of them deserved it. One of the casualties was the Talbot – known universally as ‘number ones’. It didn’t die through lack of custom, rather because of the headaches it caused the local costabulary. I only went in once, curious to see what was behind the frosted glass. And like visiting an abbattoir, once was enough. Here’s part of my 2006 review, back when I was Albert Campion on Beerinthevening;
“…The Talbot is in a league of its own. The interior is reminiscent of the Golden Heart of Spitalfields… all deep brown wood panelling, topped with 70s curry-house flock wallpaper. The barstaff were a mother and daughter team with several dozen tattoos between them. I am quite sure they could literally drink you under the table and still subdue a drunken sailor. The patrons were of the professional boozer variety, Stella drinkers to a man, with an above-average number of facial scars among them. None of this you would guess from the outside, because you can’t see in through the opaque glass. Sadly, we didn’t see a repeat of the time when one of the patrons decided to go to sleep lying in the middle of the floor, where he remained, unmoved and ignored, for the next six hours.”
And then something happens to restore your faith.
I’m down the road in Westward Ho, shooting beach huts for the picture library I supply. I’m a bit obsessed with these huts. These aren’t the chic Farrow And Ball hideyholes of Sheringham and Southwold. Westward’s are blue-collar retreats, originally for the working families of Bristol, Gloucester and Cardiff who’d be holidaying in the chalets and caravans on the slopes above the beach. The huts have been nibbled away by new developments, though maybe a hundred cling steadfastly on; much-loved getways with memories of the Beano Summer Special and Hocking’s Ice Creams. Daybreak. Seaview. Lazy Daze. Attila The Hut. All now shuttered and hushed for winter, rust already blooming on padlocks.
The air is suddenly full of white marbles. It takes a while to register that these are large hailstones. They hurt. Camera in bag, tripod over shoulder. Time to try a new pub, then. The Westward Arms.
It isn’t just new to me – it’s new to everybody, having opened only last july. Brave in an era of ten or so pub closures a week. It’s built on the site of the unmissed and thoroughly unimpressive Buccaneer Bar, pulled down in 2008. Two storeys of distressed oak furniture with floor to ceiling windows looking out over the bay. The food is meant to be good. I’m not expecting much from the beer. I walk in to the sound of Mumford and Sons, little balls of ice bouncing around on the wooden floor. It’s monday afternoon quiet. Just me and an elderly couple.
There are Cask Marque badges everywhere. It’s clearly a big deal. ‘We’re not like other places round here’ they are saying. ‘Try us’. I put my long-held doubts about the Marque to one side and order a St Austell Tribute. Instantly, the number of good pints I’ve had in Bideford reaches 5. That’s 5 in 20+ years of visiting. But this is better than good, it’s outstanding. Delicious. Tangy, floral and fresh. The head lacing the glass. I’d forgetten how good a pint of Trib can be.
The old lady toddles up to the bar. ‘Have you lost something?’ she asks the barman, holding up a tiny pair of swimming trunks she’d found under her chair. The pair dissolve into laughter and the trunks disappear into a box of lost items. Mumford’s saying he’ll paint his spirit gold.
What’s next? Real Smiler? Not after the Joiner’s. Korev Cornish Lager? Too cold. And didn’t Boak and Bailey give that a drubbing in a review? St Austell Dartmoor, then. Malty sweet. Warming. A beer to chew as you delete unwanted pictures from a memory card. Slips down quickly. 6 good pints in 20 years. Might even start believing in the Cask Marque. The hail becomes a rain shower and then stops. The early evening sky is by Turner. Might catch the last light. I leave with a wave from the barman and a goodnight from the old couple, now discussing the new statue of Verity up the coast at Ilfracombe. Candles are now on the tables, anticipating evening trade. Mumford are still singing. Do they only know the one song?