Sunday 5 September 2010

A Shropshire Lad

15st 6lb, 6.6 units. Yesterday we paid a family visit to Shropshire. Not the world’s greatest adventure, you might think, given that most of the time we live within three miles of the Shropshire border. But we actually drove a whole 48 miles to the pretty hilltop town of Bishops Castle, which looks like it ought to contain an apostrophe but appears not to in most usages. Though I now see from their website that the town council calls it Bishop’s Castle and I guess they should know, so we’ll run with that for now.

We went to meet some old friends of mine who have a country home in Shropshire and seemed keen that we should meet halfway between their house and ours. But this would have meant ending up in an area that neither of us knew at all, with all the concomitant risks of choosing a boozer that sounds all right on the internet but turns out to be completely sh*t, as so many of them unfortunately do. Whereas Mrs H had fond if perhaps slightly painful memories of a walking weekend in the Bishop’s Castle area, while I have been aware of the place since the early 1970s, when I joined the Campaign for Real Ale and purchased my first copy of The Good Beer Guide. In those days The Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle was one of a tiny handful of pubs left in the UK that brewed their own beer on the premises.

My friends conceded that Bishop’s Castle was near to where they lived, but seemed strangely reluctant to reveal where that actually was. Perhaps the greatest achievement of our trip was wheedling out the fact that their actual location is Clun – famously picked out by A.E. Housman, along with Clunton, Clunbury and Clungunford, as one of the quietest places under the sun. Perhaps they want to keep it that way.

Having agreed on the geographical location, much debate ensued about the specific pub where we should meet. The Three Tuns was the place Mrs H remembered and I had heard of. Ah, but it had de-listed our friends’ favourite cider a few years ago, and the lavatories used to be grim. The Castle Hotel, on the other hand, had nicer gardens and a car park. So we went there, and very pleasant it was, too. The gardens were indeed lovely, they sold dog biscuits in the bar (though not pork scratchings, sadly), the ale was good and there was nothing to complain about in either the food or the service. By the time we left the gardens were full of members of something like the Bishop’s Castle Sketching Club attempting landscapes of the place, which lent it a quality pretty much like stepping onto the set of Little Britain.

We repaired to The Three Tuns after lunch and I drank a pint of their very own 1642 ale. Since I had waited almost 40 years to taste one of these legendary home-brewed ales, it is slightly saddening to report that I preferred the stuff at The Castle. The other customers were friendlier there, too. The Boy, who had behaved impeccably in the Castle garden, now started staggering around the bar like a miniature inebriate, approaching complete strangers while repeating his favourite word, “Dadda”. I intercepted him before he laid his sticky hands on another grey-haired party, with the words “That’s not your Dadda”, and heard the beginnings of a grumble, “Well, I’ve been accused of many things in my time, but …”

To be fair, I’d probably have said something on broadly similar lines before I had a son.

I was glad to leave, on the whole. We then struck up a conversation with a bloke at the door of the brewery, who gave us a potted recent history of the place. Which, like so many pubs and breweries, has apparently passed through troubled times. The brewery came close to being turned into holiday flats under its previous owners; the new ones have invested a small fortune in tarting it up but it is no longer directly connected with the pub next door, which is run by Scottish & Newcastle. All too complicated for me after three pints. We wandered down the long, steep main street, pausing to take a look around one of the country’s smaller and duller railway museums, with me reflecting that it was going to be a bloody hard slog pushing The Boy all the way back up again in his buggy. And it was.

Given that I had drunk the aforementioned three pints of beer, it seemed sensible for Mrs H to drive home. It is not often that I think that. But at least I had visited a place that had been on my “to do” list for 40 years. Apparently there were only three other pub breweries listed in the first edition of The Good Beer Guide and they are all still going strong, so perhaps in due course I will tick those off, too. At the present rate of progress I will be finished some time in 2118.

On the way back we stopped for petrol and I found that the garage sold a confection I have been thinking about nostalgically for some days now, but which no-one appeared to sell: Caramac. It wasn’t exactly as I remembered it, but it also wasn’t as much of a disappointment as most things remembered from childhood when one tries them again half a century on.

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