The simple pleasures of a drink at the local - a chance to meet friends and socialise - are for now tantalisingly out of reach as pubs remain closed under the current ‘lockdown’ restrictions. Whether its beer, cider, a glass of wine, or a lemonade, the difference between a drink at home and a drink in a favourite pub must can be keenly felt by many at the moment: because the pub is much more than just a place to get a drink. At the heart of many towns and villages it is meeting place, music venue, the home for darts, skittles, pool and quoits teams, a place to eat, and in some cases too a bed for the night for visitors.
The central role pubs play in our community has been highlighted recently as many became hubs for food distribution and other services during this pandemic. Unsurprising then that the pub has been an inspiration for many writers over the years, including our own Forest authors and poets too. “Zat wi’ all yer butties, W’en all yer work be done”, wrote poet Keith Morgan in ‘Zupper at the Local’ (in Albert’s Dree Wi’ker, 1985) highlighting the role of the pub as a place of companionship and leisure at the end of a working day. In another masterful work of dialect poetry Keith turned to the specific pleasures of a drink, in ‘There Byunt Nothin’ Like Good Ale’ (in The ‘azards o’ Chimuck Szwippin', 1978). Aware too of the dangers of too much, or the wrong choice of drink, in his poem ‘Guzzlin’ Stuennem’, he featured the legendary local cider that was, according to Keith, “A filthy evil brew” (also in Albert’s Dree Wi’ker, 1985). When things get back to normal, keep an eye out for the next opportunity to hear Keith performing his poetry.
Many years before Kieth Morgan took up his pen, poet F. W. Harvey (known as the Gloucestershire Laureate) was a well-known pub regular in and around Yorkley after he moved there in the 1920s. Harvey wrote the lines “Sing a merry bottle-song; Let the tankards clink!”, in his poem ‘Song for My Sons’, and in his poetic tirade ‘A Curse’ (both poems from In Pillowell Woods and Other Poems, 1926), he listed all the damnations he wished visited on a local landowner who wouldn’t allow a pub on his estate. As Harvey biographer Anthony Boden puts it (in F. W. Harvey Soldier, Poet, 1998) “Will Harvey, deprived of his beer, knew no mercy!” According to Brian Waters (in The Forest of Dean, 1951), so popular was Harvey in the Forest that one of his poems once hung on the wall inside the The Jovial Colliers pub in Lydbrook. Though that poem is no longer there, lines from present-day local author and poet Maggie Clutterbuck are painted on a wall inside Parkend’s Fountain Inn.
For Harvey, like many other Forest authors, the pub was a place to socialise but also a place to pick up stories, sometimes versions of the same stories appearing in several different local writers’ work. The pub has also been a place for writers to practice and develop material in front of an audience before eventually being published. For poet Joyce Latham it was doing a turn in pubs, clubs and at ‘smoking parties’ that allowed her to develop her talent as a poet and story-teller before her poems were printed in the local newspapers, and later in a series of popular books. Joyce herself is remembered in the West Dean Writers Mural painted by artist Tom Cousins on the outside of the former Masons Arms (also known as Help Me Through the World) pub in Coleford. It was only as the mural was being unveiled that Joyce’s family pointed out that she used to work in that very pub.
The role of the pub, and especially the social club, as a venue for local talent was one of the many themes explored by Dennis Potter in his book The Changing Forest (1962), something he returned to in his television drama serial The Singing Detective (1986) featuring scenes filmed at Berry Hill Club. It was a pub too, The Angel Inn in Coleford, that publisher and Forest Bookshop owner Doug McLean chose as venue for the recording of local writers for the 1981 album Forest Talk. The record features Forest writers Winifred Foley, Harry Beddington, and Keith Morgan, as well as local singer-songwriter Dick Bryce, and it is claimed that if you listen carefully you can even hear the pub’s toilet being flushed in the background.
They quickly realised the importance of the pub to the residents of Parkend, writing in the book that “we had bought more than just a building”, and that “Along with the pub came a large ‘family’ of regulars, all of whom shared a very special affection for, and dedication to the Fountain Inn.” Alan and Michelle carried out a major refurbishment of the pub, reinstating visitor accommodation and introducing food, and also filled the bar with artefacts from Parkend’s industrial past. Though they admit that the number of artefacts on display have been ‘thinned’ during their most recent renovation, plenty remain in the pub to give an insight into the history of the village. The interior also boasts an impressive mural by Tom Cousins depicting Parkend’s Warren James, the leader of the 1831 anti-enclosure riots in the Forest of Dean.
As the book details, Alan and Michelle’s alterations to the pub are only the latest in a long history of developments to the building as it evolved from its 1834 origins as a small beer house, through its expansion and redevelopment in the 1840s (including the addition of its notable bay window) as owners responded to growing clientele of local industrial workers and visiting commercial travellers in the nineteenth century. The book is amply illustrated with drawings and photographs depicting the building’s architectural evolution, but it is far more than a simple account of the pub as a building.
This fine book tells the history of the Fountain Inn through the fascinating stories of the individuals and families who have run, and at times owned, the pub over the years. Amongst these was the remarkable Eliza Burgham. Married to the son of Redbrook Brewery owner Thomas Burgham, when her husband Henry died in 1869 she inherited the brewery. Alan and Michelle explain how Eliza not only took on the running of the business (unexpected for a woman at the time) but also expanded the number of pubs the brewery owned, including the purchase of the Fountain in 1872. They note that soon after taking it over Eliza’s company was referring to ownership of The Fountain ‘Hotel’ in Parkend and it was still known as such until the mid-1930s when it reverted to being the Fountain Inn.
As well as the history of the building and its owners, what makes this concise 64 page book such an impressive and rewarding one to read is the broader social, economic and legislative background that Alan and Michelle have included as context for their history of the pub and the people connected to it. Picking out just one example, they explain how the counter bar was not a common feature in early beer houses but was adopted after the 1820s as public houses sought to mimic the appeal of the elegant gin houses popular at the time. This same influence saw the introduction of “ornate mirrors, etched glass, polished brass fittings and lavishly tiled surfaces”. As well as these national developments All Hands to the Pumps, also provides a great introduction to the history of Parkend; the changing fortunes of the iron works; the coming, departure and eventually return of the railway; and the School of Forestry, all providing valuable context for the history of the pub. As Richard Daniels MBE notes in his foreword to the book it “contributes to the wealth of history books written about the Forest of Dean”, delivering more than simply a history of the Fountain Inn alone raising “awareness of the important position our local pubs hold within the area’s heritage landscape”. Alan and Michelle’s understanding of the evolution of the public house, its role in the community, and its need to respond as a business to the changing needs of its customers suggests the Fountain Inn is in safe hands and will remain at the heart of Parkend for many years to come.
The present restriction to trading may sadly though see some pubs cease trading for good, once much-loved local institutions and businesses simply unable to survive. Unprecedented in modern times as the current pandemic is, the normal ebb and flow of pubs’ fortunes have seen many come and go over the years. On further investigation it sometimes easy to think that almost every old building in the Forest was at one time a brew house, public house or inn at some point in its past. For a truly encyclopaedic record of just that, see Heather Hurley’s 2004 book The Pubs of the Royal Forest of Dean. The book is no less than an attempt to give an account of every pub there has ever been in the Forest. Chapter One, ‘Inns, Taverns & Beer Houses’ provides an introduction to the topic nationally as well as locally, whilst Chapter Two ‘Brewers, Cider Makers & Wine Merchants’ details many of the local drinks makers in the Forest and the wider region. The remainder of this 300 plus page book is a geographical tour of the Forest of Dean, complete with maps, locating all its past and present drinking establishments. The book is packed with black and white photographs of contemporary pubs (too many of which have sadly closed down since the book's 2004 publication), current pubs in their past, and many once thriving pubs now long since converted to homes or in some cases simply demolished. This book is also rich in reproductions of old advertisements, directory listings, and auction posters for the sale of pubs. A tour de force of research the book also includes relevant extracts from several works of Forest literature, including Dennis Potter’s The Changing Forest (1962), and Winifred Foley’s A Child in the Forest (1974), whilst Keith Morgan’s poem on the pleasures of ale (mentioned above) is reproduced in full. Heather also includes several contemporaneous newspaper excerpts of relevant local news stories, including drink-induced crime, so perhaps it is no surprise that ‘the bears’ story makes an appearance in the section on Ruardean pubs.
Sad though it may be to see pictures of many once-fine buildings such as The Feathers in Lydney, The Bridge Inn at Cinderford, or The George in Mitcheldean that have now gone forever, this engaging book also details the rich history of the many fine Forest pubs that continue to thrive to this day.
If you’re able to track down a copy (Cinderford library hold a reference copy), the booklet Forest of Dean and Ross-On-Wye Pubs: A Critical Guide (1981), is evidence of how much our expectations of pubs, in particular the food on offer, have developed in recent years. The book marvels at the fact that The Saracen’s Head at Symonds Yat offered a lunchtime menu featuring not only steak pie and soup but also “a litany of other delicacies, such as Ravioli, Prawn Cocktail and Smoked Mackerel”. The book’s author, Jon Hurley, also noted with some annoyance each establishment that hosted a Space Invaders machine. The time-capsule nature of this fascinating ‘pub critic’ booklet is reinforced by the list of once pervasive drinks brands such as ‘Worthington E’, and ‘Double Diamond’.
As touched on in All Hands to the Pumps, the Forest has a rich history of beer brewing and cider making itself, and it is this history that Steve Pritchard and John Saunders* detail in their book A Drink in the Forest (2010). Reading their book, we discover that there were once breweries in villages such as Blakeney and Ruardean, in Coleford, and in Cinderford too (in more recent times the home of the Hawthorn Brewery, and then Freeminer Brewery). 1868 saw the establishment of a significant brewery operation at Mitcheldean by local man Thomas Wintle. A large building was erected and, as the authors note “the brewery was a success”. It continued as an independent company until 1930 when it was taken over by a Cheltenham brewery operating it until 1937. Afterwards the building was taken over by Rank Xerox.
As well as the makers of beer and cider the book also details some of the wine and spirit merchants, and the many mineral water and soft drink manufacturers once based in and around the Forest. Again, this is another wonderfully illustrated book, and amongst the colour photographs are pictures of enamel advertisements, including one in blue and white for Royal Forest of Dean Mineral Waters “Manufactured at The Olde Speche House” [sic]. Within the book’s 112 pages is the history of a once vibrant and varied local drinks industry, and whilst most of the companies listed have long ceased trading, the book could perhaps be seen as a history merely of the first phase of what is now a resurgent local scene for drinks makers. The successful Severn Cider, based at Awre, is now just one amongst many Forest cider makers for example, such as McCrindle’s cider, and Jolters Press. And though the Freeminer Brewery is sadly no longer operating, successful local beer makers in the Forest today include Longhope’s Hillside Brewery, and the Bespoke Brewing Company based in part of the very former buildings of the Mitcheldean Brewery.
As many of us patiently await the safe reopening of our local pubs, it’s no good pretending these fine books about Forest pubs, their landlords and landladies, brewers, and drinks merchants; and Forest poets odes to the pleasures (and perils) of a sociable drink are any substitute. But they might, just, offer a small diversion whilst we bide our time until re-opening time.
*John followed up with his another, even more detailed account, in 2012 with Breweries of the Forest of Dean, Monmouth and Ross-on-Wye.