Wednesday, 23 January 2019
IF you head to South Oxfordshire you will get lost. The lanes are so intricate, and the hamlets so remote, that your satnav is more likely to lead you through a river than to your destination.
But it was long before the days of such technological wizardry when my friend Ralph Allwood and I decided to visit the Crooked Billet.
This pub had been strongly recommended by a friendly colleague on the staff at Pangbourne College, where we both taught, and we were anxious to find it.
So, armed with vague directions, youthful determination and the one-inch Ordnance Survey map, we set out in winter in Allwood’s ancient, rusting apology for a Ford Anglia in order to locate it.
The Crooked Billet, we had learned, was in a village called Stoke Row. Like everywhere else in Oxfordshire, it was across the Thames from Pangbourne. We had to navigate a toll bridge and drive up a notoriously steep hill.
The tollkeeper was a deeply hostile, cantankerous old villain who had clearly missed his vocation checking passes into Colditz. He glared at us, sniffed, gave the Anglia a disparaging glance and took our one and sixpence with bad grace.
Undoubtedly he was hoping to see, on our return, a Ford Anglia with brake failure heading at missile speed down the hill and straight into the river.
We made it to Checkendon, the village before Stoke Row, without incident apart from an icy skid and twice getting lost, but our resulting optimism was misplaced. Taking a lane to the left because it looked promising, we found ourselves heading up a farm track that got narrower and narrower before opening out in front of a large, rambling dwelling with a verandah across the front that gave it the look of a mid-Western ranch. It was clearly not the small thatched pub we had been told about.
But I suddenly remembered that our admirably well-informed colleague had mentioned that there was one pub, the Black Horse by name, that was even more remote than the Crooked Billet.
You had, he had said, to turn left in Checkendon up a narrow lane which turned into a muddy track, and the Black Horse was half a mile further on; there would be no sign, nor any other indication that it was a pub, as only locals knew it was there. Perhaps we had found it by chance!
By now Allwood and I were ready for a beer, though not nearly as thirsty as his pitiful, wheezing Ford Anglia after its struggle up the steepest hill in Oxfordshire.
We disembarked and entered through the low doorway. There was no-one there. A log fire blazed between the chintz armchairs. Ancient photos of local lads heading proudly off to the Great War graced the yellowing walls. There was no bar. We had made an embarrassing mistake — it was clearly someone’s front room.
We were just beating a retreat when two smiling, delightful ladies of advanced age appeared from nowhere.
“Yes, my dears? What are you having?”
Well fortified by a couple of pints of Arkell’s (the concept of drink-driving was unknown in those days), we headed back up the track to the main road, turned left and got very, very lost indeed. We were in Northern India, in Uttar Pradesh; we had clearly taken either the mother of a wrong turning or some dodgy beer.
Ahead of us was the magnificent superstructure of the Maharajah’s Well, at 112 metres as deep as the philanthropic pockets of the ruler of Benares who had financed it.
The Maharajah’s Well is in Stoke Row; we had found the right village, but the pub was called the Cherry Tree and there was no sign of a Billet, Crooked or otherwise.
We decided to try to repeat our luck and took a random left-hand turn. The lane curved charmingly down into the Chiltern beech woods and there at the bottom was the pub, nestling in its valley, a perfect corner of England.
Smoke spiralled up from the chimney into the winter twilight. Seven wheelbarrows full of colourful cabbages decorated the forecourt. Round the side of the building were old sheds and a big pile of timber.
Happy, though the short day was now getting colder, we thought this could turn into a splendid evening, and entered.
Again, there was no bar but, armed with our experience of the Black Horse, we bravely stood our ground. We looked around.
The small stone-paved room was mostly occupied by an enormous fireplace, in the centre of which a few logs, dwarfed by their surroundings, were attempting to keep out the cold.
There were chairs all round the walls. In each was a local, gazing up at us with misty incomprehension as if we were from Mars; Pangbourne is almost seven miles from Stoke Row, and in a different county, so we might as well have been. People from the next village have to show their passports here.
The landlord’s name was Nobby. He was also the barman, but as there was no bar he had nothing to do, and his assistant Andy helped him in this arduous task.
Nobby sat in his rocking chair by the fire, smoking, drinking, chatting in a desultory monotone to the other locals and periodically calling out to Andy to fetch more beer.
We were duly served with Wadworth’s finest, straight from the barrel — we hadn’t even noticed the steps down to the cellar until Andy appeared from its depths, ales in hand.
It was at this point that things started to go badly wrong, as Allwood made his memorable error.
Though wrapped in a capacious black full-length woollen coat with the collar up, his face half hidden behind a scarf, he muttered, “Blimey, it’s cold in here”.
Here’s a tip for a Martian, so do pass it on should you meet one: don’t commence negotiations with an implied criticism of earthlings. Anyway, it is a privilege of the English to be rude about English weather.
All the locals gave Allwood the sort of disgusted look that an Aussie quick bowler gives a Pommie tailender who is not out first ball.
One of them rose magisterially to his feet, marched outside to the woodpile, came back in with half a door under his arm and slung it on the fire. “That should warm you up, mate.”
The pine caught quickly and before long there was a merry blaze. The room became cosier. Allwood even considered removing his coat.
Andy fetched more beer. A few relatively friendly remarks began to be exchanged, warming up the mood to match the temperature. The fire blazed merrily on, then a bit too merrily, until, with a roar that sounded as if a passenger jet had just missed the chimneypot, the chimney caught fire.
If you have never heard a chimney fire, you will think that I am exaggerating, but I am not — it was almost deafening.
A scene that had been as static as an old black and white photograph abruptly turned into an action movie.
One of the locals went off to telephone the fire brigade, while the others finished their beers and went outside to watch the fun. The room rapidly filled with smoke, to within a foot from the floor. Great balls of red hot soot crashed down the chimney and rolled across the flagstones, making the smoke still thicker.
Through it we could just make out Nobby by the glow of his cigarette end. Quite unbothered, beer in hand, gently rocking backwards and forwards, he lit another fag: “Get these gentlemen another beer would you, Andy? After all, it saves paying the chimney sweep, doesn’t it?”
There was a screech of brakes, the jingling of a bell and the door opened with a crash. In came an impressive number of local volunteer firemen, all in an excellent mood as their dull, pre-Christmas evening in front of the television had suddenly turned into an exciting excuse to go to the pub: “Evening, Nobby. Evening, Andy. Orright?”
When they saw how much burning soot was on the floor — there was now a distinct danger that the whole building would be lost — they beat a rapid retreat and came back in two at a time with the emptied wheelbarrows and their firemen’s shovels.
The barrows, piled full of still blazing soot, were wheeled outside. More firemen appeared with a hose. They squirted water up the chimney, achieving very little but adding steam to the impenetrable fog.
Nobby sat on peacefully in his chair, observing proceedings with pleasure, and suppressing any temptation to cough by further deep drags on his cigarette.
Allwood and I, unable to breathe any longer, headed for the door.
Outside other firemen were spraying water on to the thatch, concentrating on the area round the chimney stack. Even from here the roaring of the chimney was impressive.
What was that directly above the roof, heading for the stars? An enormous column of flame, some twenty feet high, solid as a stick of rock, was jetting forth from the chimneystack up into the night. The Crooked Billet looked like a small Etna, or an enormous firework.
By now it was dark and Allwood and I looked up at the winter sky. I turned to him and said: “Next time you feel cold, don’t feel you need to set fire to a pub. An extra jumper would do the job nicely.”
• Next week: Crunch... The Dean of Windsor sends his love, another short story by Andrew Mackay.
24 December 2018
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