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.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Louis van Gaal
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own