I first experienced the special space of the 8 Bells in Beaminster Dorset in early summer 1977.
My mum had moved to the village but I hadn’t seen her for about 2 years as I had either been at sea gallivanting around central America or having a laugh with shipmates from various vessels whenever I did arrive for a week or so in the UK.
I though it high time I paid her a visit and made my way to the Dorset village where she lived with her new chap, a genial but slightly weird fellow who was postman.
They lived on the outskirts of the village on the Broadwindsor road (just opposite the home of the now legendary Henry vacuum cleaners).
After the telling of tales of derring do of the last couple of years (the edited version to my mum) I decided to check out the village pubs to see if there were any good ones to frequent and also if there was anyone who was likely to enjoy a spliff or three as was my want in those days.
My first stop was the Knapp Inn (we will return here later) which was a tiny little snug and bar type pub that was friendly enough but seemed to cater for a more elderly clientele than I was looking for, being only 19 years old at the time.
The next stop closer to the center of the village was the Royal Oak and that was more of the same as the Knapp except without the friendliness or character.
It should be said that at this time (ie the late/mid 70’s) in the rural areas of the UK there were many more pubs about and they all mainly survived with various days of the week being given over to pub sports teams like darts, long alley skittles, table skittles, crib, dominoes and bar billiards etc. Most pubs had teams in many different leagues so had a guaranteed few in most nights of the week.
At that stage they hadn’t mostly all become “restaurants that used to be bars” that now infest the countryside and often prefer people not to just turn up for a drink without eating as well, which is the sad fucking blight that has befallen most decent old rural boozers.
I think the breathyliser may have had something to do with the decline of the more isolated pubs as well.
It had to happen I suppose with less and less people employed in agriculture, the insidious start of second home ownership (holiday homes occupied for two weeks a year and the odd weekend) pricing locals out of the villages as more people became “inheritors” in the general dash for cash inspired by the foul bane of Thatcher.
This meant that people all spent longer at work trying to afford labour saving gadgets in their home that they had to borrow ever increasing amounts of money to buy from ever increasingly eager to lend lenders which in turn meant they had to spend more time at work to make more profit for the banks but in turn had less time and disposable income for their own leisure. (whoops off on a political rant tangent there for a moment)
Pubs were only open from about 11am till 2.30pm and again about 6pm till 10.30 most nights, except 11 on a Saturday.
Sunday opening was 12 till 2 and 7 till 10 (if at all) so if you were a young seafarer used to drinking in countries that had always embraced 24 hour bars the it was important to find a pub that did “lock ins”, the delicious nirvana of after hours, slightly illegal drinking that always seemed to be a bit naughty but was also well worth the effort.
My next stop was the White Hart just off the village centre and when I entered the public bar things started to look up, at least as far as the clientele were concerned. The 6 or 7 slightly hippyish looking characters who were in the pub that day are still mates to this day.
As an aside the landlord, who’s name escapes me, was a great big fat miserable bloke with the look of an ex copper about him (which turned out to be accurate). When he wasn’t behind the bar one of his equally corpulent and, it has to be said, miserable daughters would be on duty.
It is normal to undergo a certain amount of surreptitious scrutiny of the sort any “newbie” gets when never seen before in a pub and as I ordered my pint there was bit of that going on which I forestalled by asking if anyone fancied a game of pool. That lead to several more games of pool and plenty of chat about how I had turned up in the village, what I did , what they did, what other pubs were about, where bands played, where to get a smoke etc etc. A little later they said they were popping down to the 8 Bells for a couple and did I want to join them.
“Does Snow White need a stepladder?” says I and off we go for the two minute walk to what would turn out to be a 36 year (and counting) acquaintance with the 8 Bells, or more accurately, the myriad of magnificent characters that frequented it.
A corner setting just below the church and off the main square of the village, the Bells was build of hamstone and the downstairs facade was a heavy studded oak door was flanked on the left by a large mullioned square bay window and on the right a smaller version of the same . On stepping inside there was another door which the opened into the bar from a sort of internal storm porch I guess is the best way to describe it.
Working from left to right was the bay window with built in benches all round but a bar billiards table in the middle of it. (It was moved later as the pub became ever more popular and a table was installed that would seat 6 to 8 at a squeeze and gave them a view of “up the lane” to the square.)
The benches followed round to the next wall with a table infront of them, and then to an open fire with a bench the other side running to the bar. There were 4 low slung 60’s style bench seats (that could seat about 6 to 8 with some budging up and buttock juggling) with a low table near this.
Then the bar itself with 4 high stools with backs facing the main door and window. The bar was polished wood and behind were two large shelves that held 4 casks of the local brewery’s beer (Palmers) called BB and IPA beer and two cider barrels.
In each case (beer and cider) there was one settling and one ready to go.
There were mirrored shelves with some glasses on them and optics Rum Whisky Brandy Gin Vodka attached to the front. Next to the bar on the right in a small alcove was an old looking fruit machine (which remained for the next 10 years and took only 2ps) then a door out to the rear indicating toilets.
Following right was another area with a dart board, wall mounted juke box and some more seating dotted about the place and in the window.
The overriding sense I (and many many more after and before me) experienced on entering was “This is it!!!”
What a wonderful vibe.
It must have been on the most perfect set of lay lines, or the planets were aligned with the plankton in the Adriatic on the day it was built, or the builders involved had all been loved up, but whatever the reason the 8 Bells had that special, homely, welcoming, safe, embracing, warm, party invoking, loving feeling that very few buildings have.
The Bells had it in abundance and it had me hooked from the first moment I stepped in the place.
The landlady at that time was a tall thin woman called Margret who carried the presence of an austere schoolmarm straight out of the pages of a Hardy novel. Her normal attire of smart navy blue skirt suits with white blouse with Cameo broach at the neck, seemed more suited to a trip to a sunday church service as opposed to pulling pints in a bar.
That said once you got past the initial frostiness she was a hard working pleasant woman who had been left to run the pub after the husband had either done a runner with a customer or died (I cant remember which). She always had the look of being ever so slightly disgusted with something or wishing to be somewhere else, but she performed her role with dignity and due care if not a little coldly on occasions. I don’t remember her laughing much except in that sort of slightly exasperated way that some people do.
What she presided over was a renowned “cider house” ie a pub that sold a lot of cider, and because it sold a lot it was always fresh and enjoyable. (there will be a separate blog on the golden nirvana called the “cider triangle” which is situated in the area where the three counties of Dorset, Somerset and Devon meet.)
My new pals had asked me if I drank “Skry” (the local nickname for cider from the barrel) and I most certainly did, but one of them suggested I try a VC .
This most glorious of drinks is made up of cider (rough) and a top or dash of Vimpto which turns it into your most favourite fruity tasting drink (with the kick of a mule) you could possibly imagine.
Margret ran the Bells for about the first 2 or three years of my usage and then whilst I was at sea a transformation took place that was to take the Bells to another level and made it one of the most popular pubs for many miles around.
I returned after a few months away on a vessel working down in central america and so, as was normal after a long trip, I was all bronzed up, fit as fiddle and flush with cash. I had become quite a popular new addition to the pub and party scene in the area over the previous three years and had developed a bit of a reputation as someone who turned up from some exotic location (after months away) for a few weeks, had a whale of a time normally surrounded by laughter and occasional mayhem, burning the candle at both ends (and in the middle) and would then go dissapear back to sea for a few months.
I had arrived back in the middle of the week on a lunchtime and as normal made a beeline for the Bells. I looked in the window as the cab dropped me off and saw just one old local at the bar and someone I didn’t recognise behind it.
I strolled in, plonked my bag down and said my customary “Aye Aye landlubbers”, and the lady behind the bar broke into one of the loveliest, warmest, most welcoming and genuine of grins and said in a wonderful full Brummie accent “Ohh Hello, so you will be the Bentley I have been hearing about then. I am Ann the new landlady”
And so began a friendship which lasts to this day.
I found out they had moved from a pub up near Shepton Mallet and had been running the Bells for about three months. Later that evening I met her husband Colin who although 6’5” and with the physique of a rugby player was also a wonderful warm friendly and ready to smile person. Their marvelous children Lisa and Richard (well into their teens by then) shared their parents wonderful smiles and gusto for life and fun.
Over the next few months they slowly transformed the place with their warmth, generosity of spirit (and letting you run a tab when skint) and zest for fun without really doing any alterations as such to the decor, although the bar billiards had to go to make way for the ever increasing number of people who began using the pub.
As I mentioned earlier in those days not every pub had to turn itself into some sort of phony gastro experience and in the Bells, if you were lucky, there might be a cheese and onion roll available or the occasional delicious winter soup of curry that Ann would make. That said we didn’t go out to eat, we went out to go on the piss and have a laugh which was always a distinct possibility in the Bells.
Some of the nights there are worthy of a blog post on their own merits so I wont waffle on because you really did have to be there to get it.
What made the 8 Bells so special was not only the arrival of Colin and Ann at exactly the right time, nor was it the vibe of the building itself, but the secret lie in the incredible eclectic mix of characters that called it their local or who drank there occasionally and when I started to write this I began to remember the names of some of the better known ones
Farmers – Builders – Nurses – Carpenters – Scrapmen – Binmen – Cabinet Makers – Cleaners – Army boys – Navy boys – Antique Dealers – Car Dealers – Drug Dealers – Petty Crooks – Proper Crooks – Poachers – Chancers – the occasional undercover Police Person (who were surprisingly easy to spot and to my knowledge didn’t get anyone pregnant) Factory Workers – Net makers – Digger Drivers -Stable lads – Secretaries – Supervisors – Civil Servants – Social Workers – Housewives – Managers – Dentist – Roofers – Retirees – Engineers – Labourers – Carpenters – Students – Seamen and one bloke who made rubber fetish clothing and I kid you not his name was “Richard Glidewell”.
So there it was, this wonderful mix of people all sharing a great pub. I knew of at least three generations of 16 to 23 year olds who passed through and then continued to use it until it was closed down by the brewery after pricing the rent beyond the reach of the capacity of the pub.
The bastards then turned it into a private house, rumour has it for their mother.
I confronted one of the brewery owners on the subject when he came into MrsB’s and my own bar to try and flog us some of his piss-water beer.
He couldn’t work out why our little cellar bar was outselling every other pub in the area for Stella (although it was the only draft beer we had) and I said that considering they owned so many I didn’t believe he knew what a good pub was as he had just shut down what was considered by many to be a classic, namely the 8 Bells. He said “You can rent it if you like”
I responded that as free man I didn’t have to enslave myself to a bunch of corporate gangster like themselves, and if they had any sort of compassion or sense of tradition, over and above shoving loot into their trousers, they would have let it (and a couple more similar great pubs already lost) run on peppercorn rents to keep the “country pub” alive.
He smirked that it wasn’t possible I said “yea right” and we left it at that.
Imagine my unfettered joy when MrsB is invited by the ever lively and bubbly Suzi, through facebook, that there is to be an 8 Bells reunion 16 years after it had closed and it was to be held at the Knapp Inn in Beaminster.
I found out in February and immediately booked flights from Rennes across the water and organised a hire car. I also e-mailed my back to back on the ship and informed him we needed to change our rota a little as I had a very important date to attend on May25th that I was not prepared to miss.
To say it was like walking into an incredibly happy time warp would not do it justice.
We arrived at about half 7 and it was already heaving with a few familiar faces out on the pavement having a smoke.
After a few quick hellos and hugs and “wow look at you’s” I needed to get the drinks so I ventured in to be met by a very familiar face that I couldn’t place and he stuck out his hand and said “I know your face but cant remember you name.”
I said “I’m Bentley and he gives me a huge hug and says “For fuck sake its been over 30 years Bentley, I’m Trev, Gibbers brother” and that was the start of several hours of similar re-unions full of laughter and reminiscing, with lots of “Oh Wow is that you’s” and “you haven’t changed a bit’s” and “do you remember the such and such night”.
If the world needed a boost of love and laughter and good feeling towards its fellow man then it received a massive dose of it on the 25th of May and it emanated from the Knapp Inn Beaminster and came form the shared camaraderie and happy memories of the regulars from the 8 Bells.
The first I saw of the Bakers was when I turned to see the daughter Lisa making a beeline for MrsB and myself, beaming her wonderful open smile, that could give light to a blind man, and it has to be said she looked identical to the last time I had seen her 17 or more years ago.
Then Colin and Ann were there for hugs handshakes as the “stars of the show” and I suspect they will be surfing on the wave of love they received for many moons to come.
We had taken our son and daughter now 23 and 25 to say hello as one of the last times Anne and Colin had seen them together Ann was a witness at our wedding when they were 2 and 4 so a few tears were shed but they were happy happy ones of fond memories and good times.
Later on I bumped into the son Richard who is as tall as his dad and nearly a carbon copy and also shares the genuine smile of someone who enjoys life for what it i
It was the local that MrsB and I spent many happy nights together when we first met and had fallen forever in love, and Ann still remembers the day when I first introduced Mrsb to her and when she had nipped out to the loo said “Oh Bentley she is adorable I can see why you are smitten”
Not everyone I remember from the regulars was there (in body) but then again they were never all there even on a busy night. (It could only hold 30 or so to seem quite busy, 50 to seem ram packed and 70 plus to be heaving and people having to use the courtyard out the back.)
As the years went by life moved along and people moved away or died or whatever, but that said all the characters absent and present were spoken of and remembered with great fondness.
Afterwards, in the days following the reunion, as I began to process the nights feelings and after effects I was split into two different emotions:-
one of fondly remembering a significant part of my youth where we all partied hard and enjoyed a special bond through the Bells and of course thought we were invincible;
and the second part was noticing for the first time the reality of my age and that, different from when the future seemed endless, I am now conscious I am using more and more of the less and less time that’s left.
Perhaps that’s why I enjoy it so much, but then again self diagnosing you have a terminal disease called “mortality” can have that effect on you .
Love and peace