Aug 5 2011

South-West Cider Special

We are in a bistro in Minehead. The owners have made an effort to make the place look vaguely upmarket but then hired Maureen. I ask if the soup is vegetarian. She looks at me baffled and silent then retreats into the kitchen.  A voice sanguinely calls, ‘well, it takes all sorts Maureen.’ I strongly suspect we are the all sorts. An old woman shuffles in wearing luridly hued crocs.

We are staying in Devon for a few days visiting my family and I have decided to hate it to show my recently forged allegiance to the north. I have an ice cream at Tarr Steps; a Tudor slab bridge on Exmoor and it is a disappointing ice cream with no bits in it. This almost seals it. Then I remember the cider. I love a good cider and despite many places in the north having at least one decent bottled or draught apart from the acidic abomination of Strongbow, I realise how I miss going into random pubs and choosing an obscure and deadly apple based brew. This is the first time I have had both a baby and been in the southwest, cider capital of the world. I begin to bitterly resent the baby.

Day 1-Tarr Steps Inn-Thatchers Gold-a popular and pleasing cider, fizzy and light. The Tarr Steps Inn itself is darkly cosy, well heeled and gunny but the beer garden is outstanding and pleasingly free of wall mounted dead things.

Day 2. The aforementioned Minehead has no local hostelry that looks cosy, cidery and begging for a badly behaved baby to lunge at peoples soup of the day but it is certainly better than my sister’s description of ‘chavvy and worse than Morecambe.’ It is pretty, pleasant, has an excellent steam train station but charity shops sell what can only politely be described as utter crap.

On the way back we stop in Dunster, a touristy medieval village. Dunster is almost too obviously lovely and I try to dislike it but one look at a bowed and bulging window frame and I come over all a quiver. We do not look round the castle because it costs money but buy an assortment of soft overpriced fudge, which instantly warps together. I decide I do not like Dunster then go into the Luttrell Arms, a 14th century topsy turvy hotel of such antiquity that the second floor leads onto the beer garden. A Cheddar Valley cider is enjoyed here, orange and flatly evil -the barmaid cheerily states it can be anything from 6% to over 8% and that it is often enjoyed by folks in the village with a shot of gin in it. Good denizens of Dunster, I respect you. And am slightly scared by you.

The beer garden is even more beautiful than Tarr Steps, large, flower bedecked and pock marked with wooden tables leading onto fields with the view a cacophony of squint-eyed roofs and chimneys. Although I suspect things are mostly squint eyed after a few hours here.  Some other people are sitting blissfully reading a newspaper or book, an amber pint glass by their side. I think the baby can stay at grandma and grandpas next time we come here. Then I look at the food menu and see there is no vegetarian food. I could not have afforded it anyway when perusing the prices of the other main meals but I can at least afford to feel annoyed that paradise has been blighted.

Lynton and Lynmouth- I have a guilty fascination for a good tragedy and Lynton and Lynmouth are famous for the night in 1952 when a freak flood claimed many lives here. In the unmanned museum you can look at the sleeping bags of the dead.

I have an eye wateringly priced half of Thatchers Dry at the Rising Sun, £1.75 and cards are not taken for less than a tenner. The rural men propped casually at the expensive bar in the tourist resort are complaining about the levels of tax in the England. I feel like recommending a Wetherspoons or a pub cheaper and not constantly photographed by Americans if they’re that bothered. We lack the cash to go up the famous water powered funicular so do the agonising walk up to Lynton, admiring between gasps, the sea.

Day three- It is the best place I have ever ever been to. The Highwayman Inn near Okehampton is like the inside of my head. It is unspeakably ancient and so discombobulating it feel like being in a dream. And that is before the pint of welsh cider. There is even the shape of an enormous shoe built against the fabric of the building, a shoe I remember playing in as a child but is now cobwebbed and full of rubbish. One bar is a replica of a ship’s captain’s table, there is a faintly terrifying wishing grotto where stuffed foxes and badgers entwined by fairy lights stare out into the gloom. There are china fairies, skulls, gargoyles, monks, and skulls. We sit at a table, which is made from a pair of bellows. The owner is fey, beautiful, blonde and serene and startles us all by calmly saying she has been here for fifty years. They do pagan weddings here and I turn to my boyfriend but he has fled, terrified and claustrophobic and sits in the carpark next to a warped rotund and locked little playhouse I remember again from my childhood. I do not want to leave. My boyfriend is already starting the engine. I cannot describe the place. You will assume I am exaggerating. Look at the website…

…and just go. I buy a wine bottle filled with local scrumpy. I regret it later, even being reduced to the cardinal sin of actually having to add ice to it, due to its astringent and acidic elements. I should have just added the fudge from Dunster.

Day 3- We leave the baby at grandma and grandpas. We are in Woods, Dulverton

at noon. It is a place where local men prop up the bar with a pint but also sells artichoke linguine at twelve quid a pop. We have come out for a meal to enjoy the pleasure of not eating with one hand whilst trying to contain the furious lunging baby but after looking at the prices I have a Cornish Rattler instead, the best cider of the trip, light, refreshing, not over sweet or dry but somewhat potent.  It is like an attractively arranged abattoir inside; every dead thing you can imagine is reduced to a stuffed head with a cigarette in its gaping death mask head.  I think Maureen would like it here.