Returning to the road once again, a swift ale could be enjoyed in the near-by George Inn at Alstonfield, which though being more of a restaurant with a bar, has a decent enough ale selection and a ready crowd of Friday evening drinkers. Alternatively, a walk over to Wetton and the Royal Oak could be attempted through the delightful and endless sea of green, though this pretty little pub set in a village almost entirely owned by Devonshire Estates was a distinctly below par experience when last sampled – disappointing as with slightly more enthusiastic staff and a better choice of drink, this could be a cracking little pub.
My sights however, by now well fuelled with good ale, were set upon a haunt known and much beloved to me, a place I can confidently count as simply one of the top ten taverns of our native land. Weaving back south, the dramatic landscape suddenly gives way to the relatively mundane A52 toward Leek. Charge along, skirting the Park boundary, until one arrives at the long string of grime encrusted houses comprising the little hamlet of Waterhouses. Turning left by the dismal looking Ye Olde Crown, follow the road as it enters the somewhat incongruous surroundings of one of Europe’s largest cement processing plants. Persevere, the experience is fleeting and only serves to sharpen the contrast with the wonderful bastion which waits just up ahead on the right.
– The Yew Tree Inn
Cauldon, Waterhouses, ST10 3EJ
As soon as you set eyes on this pub, you just know it’s going to be amazing. Artfully rickety, totally unaltered, shabby and weather-beaten signage and, just to reinforce the point, an enormous and unkempt Yew Tree growing bang outside the beautiful front door.
Alan East is the second generation of his family to run the Yew Tree, inheriting it from his mother and aunt, and is in the process of training up the third. He is a man perfectly suited to his appointed task; modest yet respected, genial without being obsequious. Staining before his fine curving C1960s plywood bar, Alan will dispense superb Midland ales from his antique pumps – all for around £2 – ring up the bill on his ancient solid brass till, and offer the hungry a choice of home-pickled eggs and fresh pork pies served on proper plates with a variety of condiments. The help now being offered by younger members of his family also means the once slightly limited opening hours have recently extended, as has the choice of drink; Weston’s Scrumpy on handpull and a barrel of mild racked behind the bar.
Alan’s other great interest in life, also inherited from his mother, is the accruing and occasional dealing in antiques, curio and Victorian tat. Thus, the Yew Tree doubles as a licensed showroom for his collection – an experience like drinking in the world’s greatest junk shop; half Steptoe & Son, half Uncle Monty’s Chelsea residence. Elaborately carved high backed settles, cast iron and copper top tables, old pianos, pews, clocks, daggers, polyphones, stools and Civil War muskets litter the three interconnecting rooms, lending the interior of this pub a pleasing colour scheme of nicotine yellow, Formica red, green leather and a medley of dark mahogany and walnut. It will take you several visits to view it all.
The first time I sought out this wonderful pub, within five minutes of taking a seat in the bar I was cursing the fact I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag. By the time 2½ pints of delicious Burton Bridge Bitter had been rapidly consumed, I was all set on taking up permanent residence under one of the roomier evergreen shrubs in the tumble-down pub garden. As Orwell himself will tell you, there is no such thing as the perfect pub … but the Yew Tree comes as close to utter perfection as this correspondent has yet found.
The Yew Tree, along with a list of notable others (many featured in this column), is however one of those pubs which fills me with a growing sense of despair and intolerance towards the ‘average’ pub. Everyone reading this will know what that entails, everyone will have crossed a perfectly promising looking threshold to be greeted by the same old parade of predictable crap; the paint by numbers pub interior. Swirly carpet, knocked together rooms, pretend horse brasses, standard lager, name badges, below par beer, frozen scampi, oceans of chips, blackboards written on in chalk effect marker, inexplicably bad piped music and an overarching air of make-believe corporate rustic – a desperate and wildly inaccurate attempt to recreate the heritage interior which would have doubtless once existed, ironically long ago destroyed by the self same corporations. Their efforts though seem like a bad Disney’s version of Merry Ol’ England – done without the large budget or underlying morals – while the sheer reach of large pub companies and their dim-witted design departments mean this ‘average’ formulaic pub is inflicted like a plague across our land, stamping out originality, local vernacular and any sense of character or identity.
Then, just when you begin to lose all hope, a revelation. You happen across somewhere like the Yew Tree, like the Barley Mow, like the Tuckers Grave of Falkland, like the Square and Compass at Worth Matravers, the Payton Arms of Stoke Lyn or Blue Flame of Nailsea – pubs which on the surface run very different operations but which share the same glorious rejection of the ordinary and the average, places which make you realise a simple truth. There is no need to ever set foot in an average pub, and there is simply no excuse for their existence. People should reject these bland and uninspired abominations, until the big companies who own them realise the error of their ways or die an ignorant and fool-hardy corporate death. And then, long may these special pubs and their wonderful custodians endure, and faithfully and ardently, may they be protected by those who understand and value them.