I am partial to exploring English market towns in the Welsh Marches with their black-and-white timber framed houses, the suggestion of the quiet passage of history, the shop-fronts, and the passing vans drum-rolled with the names of Joneses and Evanses whose descendants came from a different place.
I am also partial to pubs in this part of the world, pubs that suggest to me the permanence of time and the submergence of old rivalries and the pursuit of joy that a well-poured pint brings. The partiality of which I write extends, naturally, to an amber-gold hued pale ale whose hop character beats away in the glass with the lightness of an angel’s wings, followed by the firm clasp of dryness and bittersweet-ness in the finish.
So on a Friday morning in May, when the sun was benign and the air a gentle exercise in hand-holding, I waited at a bus stand in the drab, stray-dog-blues bus station of Shrewsbury about which both the lonely and the purposeful shuffled. On this day I was going to take an explorative journey to a pub in Bishop’s Castle, a small town embedded in the Marches and on the way to the hills and higher mounts of mid-Wales.
After an enchantment of an hour’s journey through the woodlands and uplands of Shropshire I disembarked opposite the late 19th century hulk of the Boar’s Head, where words stretched across its facade demanded that we passers-by ‘Drink Eat Dream’ alongside an etching of two glasses of wine.
So that was me, a committed beer-drinker, excused the company of the Boar’s Head. The town was quiet and still, as if it had missed its wake up call and was trying to shake itself free of the slyness of sleep, though elderly residents ambled along the pavements with the relaxation of those with a regular pension, passing irregular placings of blue plaques that remembered the town’s lost pubs. Waiting the interminable wait between 11.30 and midday’s opening time I took myself to a bench close to the old church, the brazen musicality of birdsong in the background.
Why am I here? I wrote in my notebook. I am here to visit the Three Tuns to drink beer that has been brewed at the back of the pub in an old Victorian brewhouse. I am here to explore my feelings on a return to a pub and village I last visited over 20 years ago when the world and I were much younger.
As I sat on a bench waiting for a pub to open I reminded myself about spring’s capacity to encourage exploration, for, as TS Eliot once wrote when he was alive, We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time. Like the fame that Eliot enjoyed in his lifetime and still enjoys in the afterlife, there was also a certain amount of renown attached to the Three Tuns.
In the 1970s when people began to concern themselves more than they had before about their beer, the pub was only one of four brewpubs left in the country, a quartet of survivors, whose existence harked back to the 19th century when a seemingly angelic host of pubs would produce their own beer. However, the Three Tun’s history went back even further than Queen Victoria. A pub and brewery had been on the site since 1642, with some claiming that the brewery was the oldest in the UK
On this somnambulant just gone midday spell of time in the Three Tuns I seemed to be the only drinker in the main bar but I didn’t really care as the XXX that was brewed not that far away gleamed in the glass with the self-confidence of a beer that knew how good it was. There was a rich citrus-like amiability on the palate that induced me to take deep, wholesome gulps and, as if in the shadows of a dream, I found myself at the bar again ordering another pint.
This time I explored the pub and settled in the public bar a man looked at his phone, a half-full glass on the counter in front of him. A door opened and another man brought in the shine of spring and sat on a stool next to the man on his phone. ‘Had a horrible morning, an angle grinder with cut brushes, horrible,’ he said with a Welsh lilt to his accent. ‘I’ve even got a black belly button, don’t know how that happened.’ His companion muttered his condolences.
Spring dressed the interior of the Three Tuns with a sprightly brightness, the exact reverse of the sombre autumn day when I had last visited 20 years before. At the time, the bar was a staging post for three people, one man and two women, middle-aged and dressed in black, discussing a funeral they were about to attend. As I remembered this long ago conversation, it seemed it was entirely in tandem with the mood of the pub on that autumnal day of gloom and memory, but now on this luminous, enthusiastic day the mood of the pub had changed and I was happy in my exploration and went to the bar for another pint.