Living close to the law

It was suggested to me that a “cider house” was a sort of bar or cafe. If it was, it was a meaning very different from the meaning of “cider house” in our family.

The maternal grandparents of a first cousin once removed lived at the end of Windmill Road in High Ham.  Uncle Jack Cox had kept a cider house in the barn that adjoined his home (I assume he was called by his full name to distinguish him from the other Uncle Jacks in the family).

Cider houses were unlicensed drinking places, they were rough buildings in which friends and neighbours would gather for conversation and drink.  Perhaps they only lasted as long as the cider lasted, perhaps they were more permanent. They had a legal status comparable with that of a síbín in Ireland.

The cider house did not meet with the approval of Aunt Florrie, Uncle Jack Cox’s wife, who, wanting to be rid of the illicit drinkers one evening, drew a bucket of water, stepped into the cider house, and threw the cold water over those assembled – including the local police constable who had stepped in for refreshment.

The story is retold with amusement, but also as a reflection of attitudes to the law.  The law was always there for guidance, rather than something to be observed to the letter.

There was a history of minor infringements: vehicles without proper lights, tax discs being out of date, mechanical deficiencies. There might also have been the odd contravention of public order rules.

I remember having my first pint of beer in a pub when I was fourteen. I used to drink a concoction of lager with a shot of blackcurrant juice. By the time I had reached legal drinking age, I drank real ale.

At no time would anyone in our community have regarded a teenager having a pint with his Dad as a breach of the law, nor would they have seen after hours drinking, buying untaxed cider, or minor traffic infringements as illegal activity.

There was law and there was common sense, and we believed in living by common sense.

It is presumably to such “common sense” that the Prime Minister appealed when talking about the response to which Covid-19 for which he had hoped. The aspiration seemed to be for a middle way between a legalism that would make life miserable and an irresponsibility that would show no regard for anyone. What the Prime Minister might have suggested was “cider house rules,” acknowledging that people would make their own choices, but insisting they would be sensible in what they did.


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