Work and play at the PackhorseThe controversy about the dropping of the word Easter from Cadbury’s Egg hunts, despite being exposed as fake news, also showed that Easter is a very ancient tradition which, wherever and in whatever religion it is celebrated, marks a new beginning, a rebirth. So it was very appropriate that it was on Easter Sunday that a pop-up bar opened at the Packhorse at South Stoke to mark the new beginnings of the pub. This is not the first such event, but it’s clear that visible work is now progressing to bring back this pub to its former glory as the centre of the community.
Not all the work involves actual hard graft – besides the craftsmen busy at work with their tools, there is also research work in progress. The secrets the building is giving up as inappropriate alterations are removed are revealing a surprising history. For instance, there’s the splendid fireplace exposed on the ground floor in the south room, now carefully restored and repaired by Nigel Bryant (Master Mason and Conservator) and his talented wife, Becky.
The fire surround is certainly seventeenth century and may be older. Dendrochronology has revealed that some of the floorboards are older than the building was initially believed to be. Floorboards and fireplaces could, of course, be recycled – building materials often were because they were expensive while labour was cheap – but there is a real sense of excitement among historians that the building has a longer history than was first believed. So some of the Packhorse team have been delving into the archives and have come up with a new theory. They are asking themselves if it was built as a church house. It is, at present, just a theory but it would increase the importance of the Packhorse both to Somerset historians and to the community. Although there are a lot of church houses in Devon they are much rarer in Somerset, so this would be an exciting discovery if true.
However, history was not on the mind of the many people who turned up to enjoy the chance to have a drink at the Packhorse as they had done in the past. Honey’s cider was one of the tipples on offer, as was Abbey Ales’ Bellringer, but in good old Somerset pub tradition, there was also some cider made from local apples, pressed at the open day at the pub last October. It was, as I was warned, mouth-tinglingly dry, but once I’d recovered from the initial shock, I could see how a good cider could have replaced white wine. It is known that, after the restoration of Charles II, cider moved considerably up-market, competing with fine wines from the mainland of Europe. The king himself enjoyed drinking it and the price went through the roof.
There was plenty going on during the day. There was an Easter egg hunt for children, music, a plant stall and a busy cake stall. Given the number of four-legged visitors, it seems clear the pub will have to be dog-friendly. It is certainly on Islay’s list. If the pub can attract this number of visitors by word of mouth and social media for a one-off event, without being able to offer cooked food (beyond homemade cakes baked by local people) it shows how well it could do when it is established.
Events like this are a rebuke to the naysayers who said it closed because it wasn’t supported. This is a building which has been at the heart of the community for centuries, perhaps even more so than was earlier suspected. It was heartening to see it so busy.
I hope to return at a later date to investigate the historic features which aren’t, at present, on show to the public – I will put up photos when I’ve been.
Good News and Bad.
Over the Easter weekend we received some good news – an application to convert the Red Lion at Ampney St Peter to housing was turned down. This pub was a real gem, with just two rooms as the pub and no bar counter, but perfectly served beer. It was a Mecca for pub and beer enthusiasts but the death of the landlord had seen it close. Now it looks as though the present owner will have to rethink her refusal to accept offers to run it as a pub.
Sadly, however, while chatting in the garden at the Packhorse, we received the unwelcome but not unexpected news that Tucker’s Grave is on the market. Watch this space for more news.