Regulars raise their pints to Auntie Mabel : FOOD & DRINK

The enterprising locals of Drewsteignton are doing their best to save a much-loved village pub, says Chris Arnot

Mabel Mudge, known to one and all as "Auntie", officially retired as Britain's longest-serving pub landlady on 4 October last year. It was her 99th birthday. In 75 years at the Drewe Arms in Drewsteignton, Devon, she presided over one big change: the installation of running water and electricity.

Two of those new-fangled electric light bulbs illuminate a glossy bar ceiling of deep, rich nicotine brown. The tongue-and-groove bench-backs are a faded shade of yellow, the walls covered by photographs of the village cricket team and advertisements forlong-deceased breweries. Plastic darts flights, resting on the mantelpiece, seem in danger of melting in the heat from the open log fire.

Regulars help themselves to Flowers IPA, drawn straightfrom the cask. Then they hand the money to Elaine Chudley, a long-standing member of the bar staff who has taken over the day-to-day running of the Drewe since failing health at last forced Auntie Mabel to take to her bed.

Mabel and her husband, Ernest, who died in 1951, were tenants first of the City Brewery in Exeter and later of Whitbread's. All the regulars agree that Whitbread's has been very good to Auntie Mabel. Sam Whitbread himself called in more than once and assured her she could stay at the pub as long as she liked on a peppercorn rent - a commitment he confirmed in an affectionate hand-written letter on her retirement.

But as one of the big brewing combines, Whitbread's is limited in the number of pubs it can own. Its shareholders prefer it to be profitable. "Ever since Mabel passed 80, we've been terrified that one day she might disappear and the next day the pub would be on the market," said Stephen Emanuel, a local architect. He is a member of the Save the Drewe Committee which wants to buy the pub on behalf of the regulars.

A "whip-round" in October produced pledges of £4,500 to buy stock. "We've made a profit on that," said Henry Morgan, who chairs the trading company set up by the committee. "This pub has never made a profit in the winter. It gets busy in the summer months when the tourists come."

Drewsteignton nestles in the hollows on the edge of Dartmoor, separated from the Exeter-to-Okehampton road by lanes as narrow and high-sided as a bobsleigh run. Between church and shop, the Drewe stands thatched and picturesque. The Egon Ronay recommendation plaque on the front wall, though, has caused some confusion and disappointment among visitors.

"They come roaring in here expecting heaven knows what delicacies," Mrs Chudley confided. "All I can offer them is bread and cheese and my mum's ham sandwiches." Her mum, Dorothy Fox, is 76 and has worked for Auntie Mabel since the Fifties. Her sandwiches made a big impression on an Egon Ronay assessor,wearied no doubt by microwaved moussaka, trout stuffed with prawns, Cajun chicken and other exotic dishes that now come under the heading of pub grub. Here he was served thick slices of white crusty bread, smothered with butter and clamped around generous chunks of home-cured ham.

Arrangements for more ambitious catering at the Drewe would be unlikely to pass muster with environmental health inspectors, although the committee is installing a new wash-basin in the scullery. It is also holding fund-raising "food evenings" every Monday. A rota has been set up and each week a different member of the community prepares meals at home before ferrying them to the pub and heating them up on Auntie Mabel's old Rayburn.

My visit on Monday happily coincided with the turn of Susie Harrison who, with husband Chris, runs the Hunt's Tor Restaurant (recommended by the Good Food Guide but not, as yet, Egon Ronay). We bought our tickets from Mrs Chudley and formed an orderly queue at the kitchen door. Susie trained at Keith Floyd's restaurant in Bristol. Tonight she had produced a tasty casserole of chicken and black-eyed beans with mushrooms and onions, flavoured with cinnamon and garlic, cumin and coriander, served with rice, all for £2.

With bench space fully occupied, people ate with plates on their knees or, in Joe Nathan's case, resting on the hatch to the bar servery. A carpenter by trade, he had moved his family to Drewsteignton from north London. "We have a better social life herethan we did in London," he said, "but it totally depends on this pub. We don't have a village hall and, without the Drewe, everything would fragment." He knows fund-raising nights in the pub will raise nowhere near enough money to buy it. Henry Morgan estimates they would need about £250,000 to acquire the property and do the necessary structural repairs.

The Save the Drewe Committee intends to apply for funding to preservation charities and there is talk of putting in a bid to the Millennium Fund.

After all, here is a rare institution: an English ale-house virtually unchanged from the end of the 19th century. Too many villages have seen their local ruined or closed altogether. Here is a chance to keep one alive and also provide a fitting memorial to Mabel Mudge.

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