Buying a Country Pub, Part 4
The alterations were duly completed, with nicotine stained beams being erected everywhere and plaster work painted nicotine white to give that aged look. I actually found a beam with an old date carved into it which I put in a secondary position to make it look genuine rather than putting it in obvious view. A scavenge round the local junk dealers produced a wonderful array of old furniture and wall hanging clutter, which gave the right atmosphere in the end. I was very fortunate to buy a vast amount of green Wilton Haircord carpet, which was like plain Wilton but a lot tougher, it also matched a lot of the rubbish that came in on the farmers boots and could be hoovered up easily without staining.
The alterations meant that the door to the Snug Bar now opened on to the main bar as well. This created a slight problem since there was a step down inside the door, we placed notices everywhere saying “Please mind the step” to no avail. People would walk in and say “Isn’t this nice” lose their footing and fall headlong into a table and ultimately the floor. We moved the furniture back more than a body length, lifted the carpet and put three layers of foam underlay under the carpet, this finally solved the problem. Various customers had a fright but nobody hurt themselves.
One thing that we did discover during the alterations was when we lifted the raised wooden floor behind the bar. This had been fixed years before with gaps between the boards, consequently not only was there a nasty sticky black mess, but a vast quantity of old coins which had been dropped through the gaps. A lot were pure silver and quite old which I sold to a coin dealer some months later.
The alterations seemed to be approved by the majority of locals and the early holiday makers, which was quite a relief, since one frequently heard these terrible stories of an old pub being changed and business drying up because of general disapproval.
We had been up to Yorkshire during the Winter and stopped at a pub on Ilkley Moor for lunch. The pub was miles from anywhere and absolutely packed, when I asked about food I was told pay a fixed price and eat what you like. There was this enormous buffet and people piling up their plates and no staff, it seemed crazy but it was working extremely well and I thought after last Summer this is what we will do.
I told everyone that we were going to have a buffet with everything from fresh Salmon to cheese and depending what they had as the main meat which determined the price, they could eat as much salad as they liked. Everyone thought I had gone mad and I said we would put it on trial for a week. At the end of the week we had taken three times as much as we did normally with virtually no waste. People only took what they could eat and liked, cutting down the major waste problem of garnish which most people leave, if they are not salad eaters.
The Salmon, which I extracted from the river, used to be done in cutlets getting eleven or twelve to the fish, cooking it whole and offering as much as they liked taking it off the bone, we used to get sixteen portions to the fish, mainly because wealthy elderly ladies used to buy it and a cutlet was too much for them.
In the height of the season the meanest customers were the rather snooty, townies doing Exmoor. Having discovered that they could have as much as they liked, you would see them discussing a strategy in a group, unfortunately they seemed to think all members of the Staff were deaf, blind and infirm. They would arrange for one person to take a plate and pile it as high as possible with the cheapest salad, then take three forks and share it in the garden out of sight. I would then take a smaller plate from under the table, put two large lettuce leaves all over the plate and one piece of cheese (being a cheese salad) in the middle of the plate, making it impossible to pile it high and also present them with one knife and fork smiling sweetly. This worked every time, fortunately for us the majority of people were fine but there are always the few that seem to be determined to short change someone especially on holiday.
One Oriental visitor saw the Salmon and asked for a Salmon Salad. He then said would it be alright if he had just rice and none of the other help yourself salads, when we told him that he could, he took the whole bowl of lightly curried rice and tipped it on his plate, much to our amazement and amusement.
We found numerous people appearing saying that we were in the Egon Ronay Guide, which we knew absolutely nothing about. Our catering in those days was very simple compared to our present standards and the only reason that we could think of for being mentioned was possibly, whoever came round had been given genuinely fresh salmon which I had caught before the pub opened that day. My ingenuity at providing a continual source of fresh salmon every day from the river was very stretched some days and bordered very close to the illegal. The challenge was great fun being an inveterate catcher of fish, the river was spectacularly beautiful and helped remove any hangover from the night before.
The river is a raging torrent at the bottom of a very steep valley with mainly scrub oak planted on the slopes, supposedly planted for ships timbers giving them a natural curve caused by the steepness of the sides. The river is a mass of pools with short waterfalls and large slippery rocks to clamber over. The salmon tend to be in the most inaccessible places and I have returned many times thoroughly soaked clutching a broken fishing rod, having slipped on a wet rock and fallen into the torrent, extremely sobering.
Easter came and went, again in a blur, but much more successfully, the alterations gave us more capacity and greater efficiency, we had been there a year and it seemed to be getting easier. Familiar faces started appearing, they all remember you and expect you to remember them, fortunately we developed a wonderful system of talking and prying to get an inkling as to who they were without offending them. Fictitious phone calls had to be made to check to see if anyone else on the staff knew who they were.
The total resident population of Rockford was no more than twelve people. The next door neighbour was a retired clergyman and his wife, called the Reverend Plummer, affectionately known as Rev by all and sundry, he was a delightful character with a fund of humorous stories.
One of which concerned the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The old Bishop died and wanted his ashes sprinkled on the Quantock Hills, the new Bishop carried this out during which time the wind changed direction and the new Bishop said he could taste the ashes for weeks.
Having been told this story a few weeks before, I had gone fishing at Dulverton and the owners of the lake asked me to give some instruction and help to a beginner, which I duly did, they were somewhat reserved in their introductions and it was only after the beginner had left, that they explained that it was the new Bishop of Bath and Wells, I would have loved to have asked him if the Rev’s story was true.
Opposite, beside the river and adjoining our car park was Tom Chester and his wife, who ran the Pottery Shop. They had witnessed all the antics of my predecessor, very much at first hand, since they had been keepers of the keys to the pub on numerous occasions when unsuspecting residents had been left in charge, they had also fed the animals when they had realised that he had gone off and left Sam and a Golden Retriever locked in the bar. The Golden Retriever had been the main influence on Sam making him think that he was a dog, Sam having been brought up with him from a kitten.
The house next to us on the opposite side from the Rev contained Ray Beasley and his wife, his wife’s family had owned the pub during the War and for many years. Ray had taken it over after his father- in- law retired, from the stories the antics had not changed at all, only the mode of transport had become mechanical, rather than horse drawn.
Ray had a reputation for extracting vast numbers of Salmon from the river by any method he considered fit and transporting them in an old pram with the bottom removed and wood piled on top to avoid scrutiny. Times have not changed except that to fill a pram with Salmon would be a major exercise and be far too conspicuous, in addition any attempt to be seen to be carrying more than two fish in a day was illegal and the Bailiffs were extremely vigilant, especially as far as I was concerned and certain associates.
Ray was always looking for the opportunity to gain a little extra. The Deeds of the property said that I had to pay him ten shillings a year for crossing his property to reach some other land we owned, it also said that he had to contribute to sewerage costs, since his sewerage discharged into our system. He occasionally came into the pub, usually accompanied by visitors and not often by himself unless he wanted something. On this occasion he sidled up and asked if I had read the Deeds and I said that I had. He then said that he had to collect two ten shillings for two years crossing his land, I said that it was fine and gave him a pound note, which he put in his purse, I then pointed out that he had to contribute to emptying the sewerage chamber, to which he replied that no-one had ever charged him, I replied that I hadn’t seen that written in the deeds and he therefore owed us fifteen pounds, one sixth of the last years costs, he rushed home and brought the money back and never asked for ten shillings again for crossing his land.
Crossing the river bridge by the car park led to the footpath to Watersmeet, but directly opposite were three cottages, all were used as holiday cottages, one was owned by a solicitor and his wife from the Thames Valley who regularly appeared and participated in the Exmoor madness.
The other house near us was called Doone Cottage with its’ own fishing and river frontage and was owned by a London Property Company and used for holiday letting. It was run by a very strange character who spent his time on his visits to Exmoor driving us all mad. His first appearance was with his Boss and they gave the appearnce of being extremely wealthy, there was considerable talk of all their other properties which he managed and from our point of view, a considerable amount of good seasonal business would be generated with the holiday letting. His next visit was vastly different he spent all his time asking one or other of us how to get the cheapest or easiest item for some obscure aspect of Holiday Letting or driving me mad wanting to borrow something, the first few times were acceptable but after several visits it began to drive us all mad. Because of his extreme penny pinching ways, we sent him on some glorious wild goose chases, this strange attitude was hard to understand since we all knew his Boss was a multi millionaire.
He had found it very hard to understand that it was impossible to get a TV picture at the bottom of the valley and spent hours juggling with different aerials. I had installed a system with an aerial at the top of the valley, which was capable of feeding all the houses in the hamlet with a superb picture. We made a point of not telling him that we had a highly sophisticated system with boosters etc. and he therefore tried even harder to obtain a picture after we had shown him our TV Picture. I was reluctant to have him plug into the system because I had visions of endless visitors complaining to me about the quality of the Television or picture, knowing the quality of equipment being installed by him.
My rules for the plugging in to the aerial were various, resident pensioners free, working residents drinking in the pub five pounds per year, non drinking residents forty pounds of which we had none, letting houses twenty five pounds per year. This may seem a trifle expensive, but it cost a lot of money to install.
Our strange little man eventually realised after numerous complaints from his resident holiday makers about the TV quality, that we had a sophisticated system, he had also checked with the Reverend next door, who was not in the habit of pulling his leg, that the cost was very reasonable to plug in to. However when I told him twenty five pounds for a letting house he told me that it was too much and should be free, the same as the Reverend. I pointed out that they were charging a fortune for Doone Cottage and the residents were not retired. He then left saying he was not going to pay twenty five pounds and brought an aerial erector in who told him it would be cheaper to connect into our system. He then came back to me grudgingly saying he would pay the twenty five pounds, I said that he had upset me and it had now gone up to thirty five pounds, he then stormed off and talked to his aerial contractor again, eventually some weeks later returning saying he would pay the thirty five pounds. I was thoroughly enjoying myself and said it was now forty five pounds and would go up by ten pounds every time he dithered and mucked about. Much to our amazement he accepted, I contrived to keep a straight face and my Wife told me off for winding him up, I would like to stress it was not my intention to exploit anyone over the aerial, it’s just that some peoples attitude makes you kick back, as with toilet incidents.
The TV system was always a bone of contention when anyone new appeared, since they always assumed the service should be supplied free of charge, little realising that it had cost us several thousand pounds to install and we also supplied the electricity and maintenance.
When eventually Doone Cottage was sold and our strange little man disappeared, the new owner appeared and introduced himself asking about the aerial. I explained that as a working resident, drinking in the pub it would be five pounds a year, and jokingly added thirty five pounds a year if you do not use the pub, he very brusquely told me that he did not frequent pubs. He then left and proceeded to use the aerial without paying, it seemed ridiculous, all he had to do was call in for coffee or a soft drink occasionally and it would have cost him five pounds per year, the same as other non drinking residents. However I politely suggested that if he wished to use the aerial that he should subscribe, but he objected and I pulled the plug out. He then said that I couldn’t legally do this and I explained that there was no way that we would waste electricity and maintenance to provide him with a free service.
He then went through all the antics of his predecessor, eventually bringing in the aerial erector who had put up our system. The aerial erector came to see me and told me that I couldn’t disconnect him because he was a JP in South Molton, I’m not sure whether being a JP or South Molton was supposed to impress me. My reaction was fairly predictable I raised the price by ten pounds, since he was obviously fairly wealthy and it would help subsidise the costs of the less well off. He like his predecessor eventually capitulated, it would appear that television must have been his main interest since nobody ever saw him to talk to, apart from paying his TV charges.
I received a phone call some eight years later asking if I knew who had been responsible for erecting the TV aerial, since a recent purchaser of one of the cottages had laid claim to it and was trying to hold everyone to ransom, times do not change. I explained that it belonged to the Pub and that I had erected it, I then met the person who was trying to exercise his fictitious rights, plus arguing about car parking in front of his premises by Pub customers. Some people are determined to create acrimony, especially in a very small community, they seem to forget that life in the country, especially on Exmoor is dependant on your neighbours. The offending newcomer was very put out when I told him that he was totally reliant on the Pub for his TV picture and it’s a long Winter reading books. Unfortunately his acrimony had gone too far and his loss of face caused him to depart fairly quickly much to everyone’s relief. I must admit that I had forgotten to include the aerial on the deeds before I sold it.
The arguments over car parking at Rockford have been raging ever since motor vehicles came into the valley. I had found chains, painted beer barrels and signs saying, “Parking for Pub Customers only,” left in the beer store by previous owners. Tom Chester who owned the shop opposite had a small car park and used to erect a chain when he was closed. I suggested it would be mutually beneficial if we allowed parking on both car parks to customers of both establishments, since our trading times were in principal different, he agreed , we also directed non customers further up the road to another park where they were charged by the day. This worked extremely well apart from the Boss men of the National Trust, the ordinary workers with the NT always asked if it was convenient to park, but two specific gentlemen from their Head Office always insisted on leaving two cars all day, I eventually caught up with them, pointing out that it was for Pub customers, they replied that they were going to have lunch in the Pub but it wasn’t my pub it was the one further up the river and they were walking there and there was nothing I could do about it. Since I was unable to win this argument without towing their cars away at vast cost, I parked my car in the NT Staff car park at Watersmeet by the river when I went fishing, needless to say I had a letter from the NT threatening me with leagal action for illegal parking , I replied pointing out that they had no qualms about using my car park and therefore it was only fair that I should be able to use theirs, I heard no more, their car park saved me a long walk when I was fishing.
One of the main attractions of a country pub in a tourist area are the amount of people that return every year, usually at exactly the same time. Some of them love to be recognised and feel that they are really visiting locals, even though they live hundreds of miles away.
The whole of the life cycle of Exmoor can be defined by regular visits of these same people, the Fliers from Biggin Hill, the London Taxi Drivers, the HTV crew, the Ad Men from London, the Car Workers from Land Rover, the Austin 7 Club etc. Each group seemed to create a separate range of funny events and stories.
The majority came down to Exmoor for the riding, not serious riding, but fun riding on the moor, which eventually ended up in one or other of the pubs. The ponies, when required would find the quickest way back home across the moor, totally unaided, carrying their exhausted and frequently lubricated cargoes.
On arrival at Brendon Manor, being the nearest stable to the pub, Dudley would dispense more whisky and milk, until opening time, when they would come down the hill and fall into the pub. How Dudley ever made a profit with the amount of whisky he dispensed free of charge I will never know.
One of these groups came from Camberley, organised by a very dapper, good looking character who never seemed to have a wife. Until one day when she came with him, she looked considerably older than him, but wasn’t, she was fairly large with a strange sing song voice and could on first appearances be described as bovine. In fact when we had all got over the shock of seeing two people who were apparently so totally different, she was extremely nice and a lot of fun, in spite of this dreadful voice, she also always seemed to be talking, which her husband readily confirmed.
He explained that her jaw had to be wired up for six weeks, because of some mishap and he said “It was sheer bliss ,” and possibly accounted for the strange voice.
On a normal after hours drinking session, she was explaining that her fifteen year old son, who looked like his father, was being a trifle troublesome and she decided to check his bedroom for signs of his possible activities, whatever they were. She eventually found a piece of paper with “If you want Sex ring Camberley ??????”, she was absolutely horrified and after a couple of days plucked up courage to ask him, visuallising her fifteen year old associating with known Call Girls etc. He said “Oh that’s nothing I was going to give it to Dad.”
Following this little tale she left for the “Loo” using the old one at the back of the pub. We carried on drinking and after about an hour someone realised that she had not returned, she had by this stage had a considerable amount to drink. I rushed to the “Loo” and found her in an alcoholic distressed state. She had sat down rather heavily on the loo seat which had cracked pinching her bottom, she had then proceeded to stamp on the floor to attract attention and pushed her foot through the floor, trapping her foot. The floor was never very good and suffered from rot any way. We decided that her husband was the best one to extricate her from this chaos, which he did with howls of laughter.
She emerged and in her funny voice said “It was a very nasty experience.” Which became the pass word for anyone using that “Loo,” in future.
One very dismal evening at the end of the Winter, three very sombre characters appeared looking for food, drink and accommodation.
We arranged all this for them and as the evening became more liquid they explained that they were on their way to Cornwall to collect the body of a friend who had died. They had borrowed a Hearse and felt that their recently departed friend would appreciate them having some liquid refreshment on their way to collect him. The Hearse was parked in the car park, causing a certain amount of reverence by entering customers, and discreet enquiries as to whether we may have had suffered a recent loss.
By this stage a full blown practice Wake was in progress, needless to say a large proportion of locals appeared and a heavy night ensued. The Hearse departed in the morning a little later than scheduled and we all waved good bye.
It made an interesting discussion point during the day and at about seven o’clock in the evening the Hearse reappeared complete with coffin, much to our amazement. The three sombre character climbed out and said that they thought it only fair to bring their friend back since they had enjoyed themselves so much the night before.
I had visions of the coffin being propped up in the corner of the bar with a pervading smell of dead bodies and discreetly asked them about their friend. They told me he would be fine in the car park since he was unable to drink, so they left him there for the night and another party ensued. I kept checking the car park expecting something to happen to the Hearse or coffin, visualising being struck off as a Landlord for allowing bodies to be left in the car park unattended. It was bitterly cold that night, which was probably a good thing for the dead friend.
The three sombre characters drove off again the next day, later than their schedule and we never saw them again, whether there was a body I will never know, but it was certainly a new approach to a country pub crawl.
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