If Somerset is the undisputed champion in the production of cider, then our neighbouring county of Dorset must not have many rivals when it comes to the brewing of beer.
Dorset beer is not gaseous, chemical lager, but is something more authentic, more distinctive, more filled with character. On draught, or in glass bottles, it has a taste of timelessness. It is a taste that has to be acquired. After years of drinking cold, fizzy lager, English ale had become unfamiliar. Fursty Ferret has become my favourite, an amber ale from the Dorset town of Blandford. At £1.85, a bottle bought in Sainsbury’s is a weekend treat.
Each bottle brings a recall of lines from J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, where a bottle of ale was a weekend indulgence.
Set in the summer of 1920, the novella features Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War whose experiences of the Western Front have made him an atheist. Like many of his former comrades, Birkin is destitute and finds work restoring a mural in a remote Yorkshire parish church. Prepared to pay him for the work, the vicar is not prepared to pay for board and lodge for Birkin who sleeps in the belfry of the church and sustains himself with a meagre diet:
I didn’t work to set meal times and came down the ladder when I was hungry. And, in the middle of those hot August days, I usually cut two rounds of loaf and a wedge of Wensleydale and took it outside to eat. On Saturdays and Sundays, I had a bottle of pale ale; weekdays, water.
Since reading those lines more than thirty years ago, a bottle of ale has had the capacity to bring back the scenes described by Carr – the medieval church, the small village, the Methodist chapel. It has the power to bring memories of the characters in the novel, each of them fulfilling their assigned roles in times when all certainty about how to behave, and what to expect from life, had died in the mud of Flanders.
The plainness of Birkin’s lunch did not prevent an imagining of the experience of eating it: the softness of the bread, the crumbling of the cheese, the sweetness of well water; the sense of satisfaction in opening the bottle of beer on a Saturday and a Sunday knowing that no work was expected. Perhaps that is why the bottle of ale has become a pleasant experience each week: it is associated with the awareness that there is no work until Monday.