When I wrote of medieval ale houses, I had in mind old Flossie Lane’s establishment.
Flossie’s grandparents acquired the licence to sell beer and wine from their front parlour to the local farmers back in the 19th century. Nothing grand, mind you, a rough hewn oak table, a bench for those who were minded to stay a tad longer, a blazing fire to warm knurled hands. The keg of beer and the convivial company were all that mattered.
Time was that the older Lanes were both laid to rest in the churchyard, and Flossie’s parents took over. No need to change the parlour, but a grand new Butler’s sink appeared in the back room, with space underneath for the beer keg, and one o’ they fancy earth closets at the end of the cabbage patch for those caught short.
Flossie grew up here, and by the time her parents made their way to the village churchyard, back in 1935, she was steeped in the tradition of hosting the conversation in that small parlour. She made a few changes, outsiders had moved into the village, so a sign went up outside – The Sun – to let them know that this was no ordinary house. An Oxo tin now lived on the shelf above the Butler’s sink; where the local farmers had settled their account when the harvest was in, the incomers paid cash. The earth closet acquired a water supply and a modern toilet. A tiled grate in the inner sanctum. Modest improvements, but in the family tradition, nothing too rash.
In the house next door, young Reg Martin’s family had started selling stout boots and Tilley lamps to the farmers that called in to see Flossie on their way home. The business prospered, and soon every room in the house bar one was filled with clothes pegs and Jeyes fluid, farm gate latches and balls of string. Reg saw no reason to change anything when his parents died, a little tinkering maybe; he stayed in his tiny room and moved his parent’s bed out to make way for the paints and papers that the farmer’s wives were demanding. On a winter’s day, Reg would be ensconced on a chair squeezed into the corner of one of the cluttered rooms, in front of a bright coal fire, offering advice on everything from lambing to bread making; whatever you were in search of had to be found unaided, with directions helpfully shouted out by Reg. If it was not in stock, he would arrange delivery within days – we spent some £10,000 with Reg over the next four years whilst restoring a house, he was an astute business man and could squeeze a better discount from large manufacturers than we could.
Neither Reg nor Flossie ever married, they had devoted themselves to perfecting the art of running their businesses.
Flossie was in her eighties when I first met her, but the consummate hostess still. Opening hours had become a tad erratic, and after the first flurry of customers she would retire to her armchair in the corner of the room and leave us to make the journey to and fro the beer keg ourselves. The Oxo box was still the till, and her faith that honesty would prevail was never shaken. She could engage anybody in conversation, no matter how shy, on every subject under – well, under ‘The Sun’. Evenings were raucous, I remember the night a local Doctor arrived, well fortified by ‘nips’ from grateful patients, and proceeded to throw a huge basket full of chestnuts on the blazing fire without first pricking them. Within minutes we were all forced to take shelter under the old table, behind the door, where we could, as the hearth turned into a Gatling Gun, peppering us with red hot chestnuts. ‘Eeee, yer daft bugger’ said Flossie, and ordered the Mayor to take his ukulele from under the stairs and give us all a song.
In the 1990s squirrels had become a gastronomic delicacy far away in London; village game keepers caught them and sold them for 50p a brace to our local butcher. When word reached us that they were being re-sold in London for £15 each, Flossie had decided that Leintwardine should have a ‘Squirrel Mayor’ so we gained a mayor with his chain of office comprised of a string of squirrel tails.
Reg left us in 1994, went to join the legion of Martins and Lanes in the churchyard, but Flossie soldiered on, faltering slightly at the turn of this century when she had a fall on the night of the inauguration of the 13th Mayor – naturally she insisted that her customers be not disturbed by such an event. By the time she returned to her normal snug corner, a comfortable armchair had been installed, an electric fire – wonders! – and the clientele had organised themselves into a rota to run this ancient alehouse.
Not a lot has changed in the last decade, there is still no bar, no till; opening hours pay only scant attention to modern licensing laws, the sign has come down to deter rubber necking tourists…….but incredibly, Flossie, now well into her nineties, continues to entertain the locals and take centre stage in her unique ‘watering hole’. She and ‘Hudson’ the dog have acquired a piece of carpet over the pamments in their corner of the ‘bar’, the dog was feeling the cold!
A hardy Shropshire Lass indeed, who has paid no attention whatsoever to the modern view of ‘how’ a bar should be run, she knew that it was about warmth and conviviality – not Health and Safety ‘ishews’ or electronic gadgets. To this day she doesn’t sell spirits, she knows her regulars prefer a nice warm glass of ‘Hudson’s’. It ain’t broke – why fix it?