Cider days

The last bottle is being drunk. Four half-litre bottles came as part of a Christmas hamper that also included an assortment of cheeses and crackers.

Harry’s Cider comes from the orchards of Harry Fry in the village of Long Sutton in Somerset. Having been baptised in the parish church, it is a village dear to my heart. It is a place of memories and continuity.

Harry’s Cider has the taste of the cider I remember from my younger days. ‘Medium and sparkling’ says the label for the Applemoor variety.

Its taste is far removed from the gaseous liquids found in most pubs. The taste is full and crisp. The gentle aroma evokes times in cornfields under August sunshine, it evokes the laughter of teenagers sat outside the pub of a seaside town, drinking the pints of sharply dry cider bought for them by indulgent parents. It evokes the apple time, the orchards of trees laden with red fruit, the scents of autumn beginning to fill the Somerset air.

Harry’s Cider is also far removed from the scrumpy drunk with bravado by foolish teenage boys. Rough cider made in local farms, with no hygiene, no quality control, and no idea whatsoever of the alcohol content, it could have a detrimental effect both on head and on the gut.

Raising my glass to my lips, I recalled a story told me by an Irish farmer who spent years working on building motorways in England.

There was a Saturday when I lived in Brierley Hill when some of us went out for the day. We went to this cider house, a place full of these huge wooden barrels; strong stuff. We sat and ate our lunch and drank cider from the barrels. ‘Don’t be drinking too much’, said the man.

I had three pints and when we were leaving I stepped outside into the sunshine and didn’t feel well. ‘I’ll sit on this wall a minute’, I said to the man with me.

‘What wall are you talking about?’ he asked. There was no wall there.

We got back to the boarding house and I told the landlady I didn’t think I would be down for tea. I crawled up the stairs and slept till Sunday dinnertime and, even then, woke up feeling drunk. The man with us had drunk six pints and had driven us home. I stayed off cider after that.

One half-litre bottle of cider is quite enough for me.

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So near, and yet so far away

In 1981, the 1960s seemed a different world. Going to the Monsters of Rock Festival in Castle Donington in August of that year, AC/DC, the band at the top of the bill, seemed as far removed from the bands that played at Woodstock or the Isle of Wight as those bands were removed from the rock and roll groups of the 1950s. Yet, in memory, 1981 seems part of the present, whilst the 1960s seem part of the past.

The temporal perception was challenged today.

A colleague aware of my magpie-like inclinations handed me a brochure that some forebear had brought home from a holiday forty years ago.

Discover Weardale, Allendale, S. Tynedale might have been a publication with a very specific geographical locus, but browsing through its pages there is a sense of engaging with a time that was very definitely not part of the present.

Published in 1981, the guide has more in common with the world of two decades previously than it has with the world of someone reading it in 2023. There is a sense of homeliness, a sense of security, a sense of a world that seemed more settled.

Of course, the perception of 1981 as a time that was stable and predictable is entirely nonsensical. It was a time of violence and instability, a time when the world was in the state of flux, yet the world that filled the television news headlines did not intrude upon the pages of the guidebook.

Among the cultural artefacts to be found are advertisements for accommodation. One might have had bed and breakfast for £4 and an evening meal for £1.50 extra. Most of the establishments had three digit telephone numbers and hardly any included a postcode in their address.  (What use was a postcode to someone seeking a bed for the night? It gave no information about how to find a place). Hotels advertised amenities such as central heating and a television lounge.

One inn includes its menu, presumably to entice visiting tourists. The fare is that of former times, with prawn cocktail appearing among the starters, gammon and pineapple included among the main courses, and sherry trifle being on the dessert menu. The landlord of the inn is titled ‘mine host’ at the foot of the advertisement.

One of the larger hotels has forty rooms, it says that it is ‘unlicensed,’ but also that it has a ‘sauna.’ There seems an incongruity between the absence of alachol and something as exotic as a sauna.

With its pen and ink sketches, hand-drawn maps, and diversity of fonts, the guide is very different from anything that might be published today. In 1981, it would have been a definitive source, for where else would you look for information?




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A disused station

Joining the Facebook group, ‘Disused Stations,’ I wondered what it was that prompted a fascination with former railway stations, some of which closed sixty years ago.

Among my railway books, there is one with a particular capacity to revive vivid memories from early childhood days. Branch Lines Around Chard and Yeovil from Taunton, Durston and Castle Cary by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith was published in 1999.

There are photographs of Thorney & Kingsbury Halt on the Yeovil to Taunton branch line. The authors note that ‘the halt was brought into use on 28th November 1927, but there were few dwellings in the vicinity. It was more than a mile north of Kingsbury Episcopi . . A siding was ‘provided on 21st November 1932 for the Nestle and Anglo Swiss Condensed Milk Company.’

The branch line did not survive the Beeching cuts and was closed in 1964, the track and salvageable parts of the station were sold. The salvageable parts of the station included the flagstones from the platform. The removal of the flagstones represented the removal of the last vestiges of a station

I remember my uncle’s white Bedford van being reversed towards all that then remained of the railway halt. The back doors were opened and flag stones from the platform were loaded into the back.

It seemed like the end of a world. Taking the stones from the platform would mean that the trains would never run again; that something was gone forever from life and history.

Asked now to find Thorney Halt, I would be hard-pressed to do so. Perhaps there are still signs that once one could reach the world from this hidden corner of rural England by taking a train to Taunton and from thence to London. Google Earth shows traces of the former track bed, but if one didn’t know that a railway had run through this place, would it be discernible as anything more than a farm track?

Thorney Halt still has the power to evoke a sense of uncertainty.

Perhaps it derives from a childhood sense of mystery that the railway had been closed, that childhood questioning of everything, that need to ask why there was no longer a railway. Perhaps it is about a curiosity as to what had happened to the rest of the station, didn’t railways stations have all sorts of things, tracks, signals, signs? Where had everything else gone? Perhaps the uncertainty comes from a sense of memories being lost.

Now the omnipresence of smartphones would ensure that no detail of the branch line or the stations would ever be lost, but in the mid-1960s, who would have thought such things worth the expense of photography?

Perhaps no child looking back in sixty years time will feel such a sense of loss.

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Paul Selby, Hamlet, and Sebastian Faulks

It was late-September 1977 and our English A-Level class were an unprepossessing group of Sixth Form College students. Standing at the front of the room, Paul Selby, our tutor, must have felt it was going to be a challenging two years.

Being contrarian by nature, I remember thinking that the subject was one to be endured and lacked the substance or relevance of my other two A-level subjects, history and economics. Inclined to the hard Left in politics, I regarded the study of English Literature as bourgeois self-indulgence.

Paul Selby taught with passion and no more so than when he was teaching Shakespeare. Hamlet was our text for that autumn term and the teaching sought to engage us with the characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

‘Who cares about what was going on in Hamlet’s mind?’ I thought. I couldn’t understand why Paul Selby attempted to explore the psyche of someone who had never existed, what was the point?

I wasn’t interested in the affairs of the court at Elsinore. Were there a character with whom I identified, it was Fortinbras, the violent and hostile Norwegian monarch who sweeps away the renaissance values of the Danish court. Fortinbras was a man of action, Fortinbras would have made a revolutionary.

Paul Selby must have been annoyed at times with the lines of questioning I would pursue. Hamlet, for me, was a dithering narcissist.

Of course, I missed the point. I was trapped in a two-dimensional world more akin to the comic strips of the boys’ own comics than to any perspective that might have recognized the profound understanding of human nature that is expressed by Shakespeare in the play.

Perhaps Hamlet was annoying because it challenged those sat around the room to think about themselves. Perhaps it was annoying because it caused me to think.

Long after much else has been forgotten, those lessons linger in the memory. The gentle patience of Paul Selby with an obstreperous seventeen year old and the probing of the mind prompted by the lines of the play.

In a few lines in Snow Country, Sebastian Faulks identifies both the source of the discomfort caused by Hamlet and the reason for its endurance in the memory decades later.

‘And Shakespeare?’

‘He’s a case part isn’t he? My father had a theory that by having characters explain their thoughts and desires he made people aware for the first time in history that they all had minds of their own. Before that, they appeared to one another as two-dimensional. That woman was often angry. That man was often sad. He kept sheep, she made shoes. They gave each other names to signify these things.’

‘Are you saying he invented human nature?’

‘It’s what my father thought.’

‘So every play-goer standing in the mud thought himself a Hamlet?’

‘Once you’re awake to the possibility, it’s hard to forget. It’s a thought you can’t un-think. Like the moment the first man or woman achieved self-awareness. There was no going back, no return to what our ancestors might have been.’

Paul Selby didn’t just teach us English Literature, he introduced us to thoughts that could never be un-thought.

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A teacher who feels like Owl

I have the First Years after lunch tomorrow. Their capacity for tangential thinking seems to become magnified when lessons are in the afternoon. Yet they haven’t yet developed the skills for diversion possessed by the Year 8 students in the school in Weston-Super-Mare where I did my teacher training.

Talking about a religious artefact, I commented, ‘It’s not something that you would buy at Sainsbury’s.’ (Why had I mentioned Sainsbury’s? Because there was a huge branch directly across the road from the school).

The comment had been a mistake.

‘Sainsbury’s is very expensive, sir.’

‘Is it? Well, I was just using it as an example of a supermarket.’

My qualification of my comment had come too late. There ensued some seconds of debate worthy of a noisy House of Commons. Lidl and Aldi and Morrisons were mentioned as places that were cheaper. Tesco had its adherents. One girl declared, ‘we shop at Waitrose.’

The conversation had been both annoying and impressive, at that age I would have had little idea of the difference in prices between retailers.

I had been trying to teach a lesson on Sikhism.

‘Three, two and one – and quiet. Thank you, Year 8. We’re not talking about supermarkets, we’re talking about what Sikhs wear.’

There had been a look of disappointment on some of the faces, the robust discussion of supermarkets could clearly have continued for some time. I resumed the lesson but wished I had had a copy of Winnie the Pooh stories  to hand. We clearly wanted to talk about different things.

Owl and Pooh had wished to talk about different things the day that Christopher Robin led them on an ”expotition” to the North Pole.

“They had come to a stream which twisted and tumbled between high rocky banks, and Christopher Robin saw at once how dangerous it was.

“It’s just the place,” he explained, “for an Ambush.”

“What sort of bush?” whispered Pooh to Piglet. “A gorse-bush?”

“My dear Pooh,” said Owl in his superior way, “don’t you know what an Ambush is?”

“Owl,” said Piglet, looking round at him severely, “Pooh’s whisper was a perfectly private whisper, and there was no need – ”

“An Ambush,” said Owl, “is a sort of Surprise.”

“So is a gorse-bush sometimes,” said Pooh.

“An Ambush, as I was about to explain to Pooh,” said Piglet, “is a sort of Surprise.”

“If people jump out at you suddenly, that’s an Ambush,” said Owl.

“It’s an Ambush, Pooh, when people jump at you suddenly,” explained Piglet.

Pooh, who now knew what an Ambush was, said that a gorse-bush had sprung at him suddenly one day when he fell off a tree, and he had taken six days to get all the prickles out of himself.

“We are not talking about gorse-bushes,” said Owl a little crossly.

“I am,” said Pooh.

I wasn’t talking about supermarkets, they would have liked to have done so.

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