Saturday, 7 May 2011

My Village, My Home, My Life - part five

Yes, I know. I know. I said that the last one would be the last one, but I've changed my mind. Self-indulgent it may me, but I'm enjoying myself, and a few comments have encouraged me to keep it going.

Hill Street, Penycae
I went back to Penycae last Sunday to have a look around, and refresh my memory. I travelled around the lanes outside of the village to remember the walks taken in my youth. I took this photograph looking down Hill Street, with Lampit Street on the left. The house in the middle is where I lived for the first five years of my life. I'd always believed that the original cottages were pulled down and another house built on the site. On looking at the house a lot closer, it seems to be of an age from the late 1940's, and I now think that the original two semi-detached cottages have been knocked into one dwelling.

Continuing past the house on Hill Street, you pass over the Pentre bridge, with the river flowing beneath it. Just past the bridge, higher up the bank, (you can see a white house to the right of mine) lived the first girl I was ever keen on. I was only about 5 or 6 remember, and never told anyone about it. To be honest, I'm as useless today as I was then about mentioning feelings to females. Our respective families were quite close, and I remember walking up the steep path to their house from off the road. There were fruit hedges on either side of the pathway lined with the biggest, juiciest gooseberries you could ever imagine seeing. We ate loads of them, and I still love gooseberries to this day.

Hill Street Shop
The shop on the left was at the top of Hill Street, opposite the War Memorial. The picture was taken around 1973. The then owners had bought it the year before, and they say that the deeds to the building were 150 years old then.

There are two things that I remember about that shop when I was growing up. One was the range of sweets you could buy, that you could get from nowhere else locally. The weekly treat while very young was worth waiting for. The second thing that I remember is being absolutely terrified of the daughter of the shop owners. I have no idea why - time has been kind and erased this from my memory. It must have been of sufficient scale though, as my sister has occasionally referred to it. Terrified I may have been, but the need for sweets was all consuming in an age of general austerity, and purchases were made with the speed of a Usain Bolt.

Two doors up from the shop nearer Chapel Street stood the Cross Keys pub (I'll return to this later). Built at the back of the pub was the Post Office and the men's Barber Shop.

The Barber's shop was a small room where I used to have my hair cut on a Saturday morning every 4 - 6 weeks. Prior to going to secondary school, the style (don't imagine for one moment that there was any style about it) was fairly short on top with a parting down the left side. A pudding bowl, suitable to the size of your head was placed on it, and all the hair cut off that was not hidden by the bowl.

On going to secondary school, I rebelled. I had enough problems in school to cope with without the shame of a pudding bowl haircut. I needed a more sophisticated look. Unfortunately, the Barber had two styles available. One with the pudding bowl and one without. I think that the hair styles in the three periods of my life - junior school, secondary school, and everything after - could be summed up by one word, crap.

Pub Map of Penycae
The village during its history had thirteen pubs, but only two of them remain in business today.
  1. Wheelwrights Arms
  2. Bricklayers Arms
  3. The New Inn
  4. Royal Oak
  5. The Anchor
  6. The Cross Keys
  7. The Bird in Hand
  8. The Queens
  9. The Black Horse (still operating)
  10. The Cross Foxes (still operating)
  11. The Eagles
  12. The Red Lion
  13. The Anchor Pub
  14. Name Unknown
The Anchor Pub was opposite our house in Hill Street. It was the only pub in the area that had a thatched roof. A pathway down the side of it led to the Recreation Ground. It is said that a famous Welsh boxer (though I can't seem to find his name) used to train in the stables at the back of the pub - a bit like Rocky.

Unfortunately, on the 26th June 1953 a stray spark set the thatch roof on fire, destroying the pub. We moved from Hill Street in 1953 to live on the farm. I don't know if the move was before the fire, or after it. The Pentre area of Penycae was an interesting place to live.

Wales has always liked its beer. It may seem as if Penycae had a lot of pubs, but this was nothing compared to Blackwood (in South Wales area now known as Gwent), which boasted in 1842 to have one pub for every 5 inhabitants.

It is said that Wales has been brewing beer for 4000 years, and enjoying every minute of it. An 1850 report on public health in north east Wales stated, "Drunkenness I found complained of, by all parties, as the disgrace of Wrexham". The historian Russell Davies said in 2005, "The real opiate of the Welsh was alcohol. Alcohol was a thirst quencher, a reliever of physical pain and psychological strain, a symbol of human interdependence, a morale booster, a sleeping draft and a medicine. The hopelessness of destitution demanded a short-cut to oblivion".

We often hear today about marketing policies (offers on drink by supermarkets and pubs), youth drinking and binge drinking as if they are all new, and life was so different in the past. Look at some examples.

Marketing - in 1836, One Merthyr Tydfil publican was found to be offering three drinks for the price of one as an early morning special offer.

Youth drinking - in 1891, the popular novelist, Daniel Owen complained that pubs "were now filled with empty-headed youths, not old enough to shave, drinking like animals and going home in a worse state than any animal".

Binge drinking - in the 1830's, members of the Ebbw Vale Temperance Society were allowed two pints of beer a day, similar to the current recommended maximum for men of 3-4 units per day. However, problems arose when some adherents decided to save up their weekly beer allowance in order to knock back 14 pints at the weekend. The Society soon moved to the view of total abstinence.

Wales' love of rugby is well known, as is the fact that it went hand in hand with drink. The period from 1964 to 1979, when Wales won seven Triple Crowns and England failed to record a single victory in Cardiff, led according to John Davies to "a redefinition of the characteristics of the Welsh" from "puritan chapel-goers" to "muscular boozers who were doubtful whether there was any life beyond the dead-ball line".

Through pressure from the religious communities and the temperance movement, the Welsh Sunday Closing Act was passed in 1881 which meant that no pubs could open on a Sunday in Wales. This was the case until 1961 when every local district in Wales could separately vote whether to open pubs on Sundays in their District. Wales gradually became 'wet' on Sundays from 1961 to 1996, when the local government district of Dwyfor became the last district to lift the ban.

When pubs were closed on Sundays in Wales, people came up with all manner of creative ways to get a drink. In Penycae, buses came to the village on a Sunday to take people to Oswestry for a drink - this was a small town just across the border in England. This was one of the benefits of living near the border with England.

There's a wonderful story of ingenuity in Penycae concerning the Cross Keys pub. There was a house next door attached to the pub, and the house owner and pub owner agreed to knock a hole in the wall between the pub and the living room in the house. Drinkers would go to the house and be served drink through the hole in the wall, so technically people were not drinking in the pub on a Sunday. I loved the description given to me that the pub was closed, but the house had lots of friends.

Throughout Wales there were examples of man's cunning spirit. In the 1890's, Cardiff's Hotel de Mari arranged for gatherings of up to 2000 men on Sunday mornings to meet at a disused clay pit, where barrels of drink were provided free of charge in return for a 'voluntary' fee. Drinkers also made use of a clause in the legislation allowing the provision of drinks to genuine travellers, by walking to the next parish for a pint. Finally, one very enterprising brewery sought to take advantage of the ban by selling 'Sunday sustainers': two pint flagons of beer that could be bought on Saturday to drink on the Sunday.

I'm strangely proud that my village had its fair share of cunning plans to get a drink on a Sunday. We've spent a lot of time on drink here, which was important to my village, and I hope that the wider context has been of interest. Let me finish by pretending that we're in a pub quiz, and ask two questions.
  1. What is the highest pub in the United Kingdom? - it is the Tan Hill Inn, Yorkshire at 1,732 feet above sea level.
  2. What is the remotest pub on the British mainland? - it is The Old Forge in the village of Inverie, Lochaber, Scotland.There is no road access and it may only be reached by an 18 mile walk over the mountains, or a seven mile sea crossing. See
Until next time, when I may subject you to stories of my first job on leaving school.

1 comment:

  1. Hello John,
    Was delighted to stumble across your blog. We live in your old house now! Pen-y-bont. The history of the building is a bit vague. Some of the walls on the left side are very very thick, I think they might be part of the original cottage. Apparently the windows in the front are Edwardian.
    Thanks for posting the picture of the Anchor pub. We'd heard about it and how it burnt down, but had never seen an image until now.

    All the best,
    Anna & Francesca