Smugglers roll out barrel against the excise men

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The Independent Online
When the mist rolls in off the sea you can almost hear the thudding hooves of the smugglers' horses as they race up the valley carrying their precious hauls of contraband away from the prying eyes of the excise militia.

Often the "Gentlemen" would take refuge in the old alehouse in this corner of East Sussex, known as Smugglers' Valley. Now, 200 years on, the countryside has hardly changed around the tiny hamlet of Exceat, near Newhaven. The alehouse is still there - and the fight against the militia men is still passionately fought.

A group of regulars at The Golden Galleon have formed a society with a common purpose. The beer is no longer smuggled on to the premises, merely carried up to the pub from the tiny brewery outside, but it is dispensed from behind the bar - and what's more, it's duty free.

The Gentlemen Entrepreneurs Nil Taxation Society (Gents) was formed in protest at what members see as the excessive duty levied on beer by Her Majesty's Government. In France, drinkers pay the equivalent of around 4p a pint, but in this corner of the European Union the taxman takes 25p.

The Gents are prepared to fight to the bitter end. Well, almost - a building society account is holding the duty for which they might be liable, just in case. But Alan Edgar, secretary of the club, is confident it will not come to that.

"We buy the raw ingredients, not the alcohol, and then it is dispensed in the bar using a system of chits. So, as we're not selling beer, we don't have to pay duty."

As far as the letter of the law is concerned he would appear to have a point, although Customs and Excise, who have been informed, are keeping a beady eye on the situation. It would seem that as the rules stand they can do nothing. But if too many people jump on the bandwagon it could be in their interest to test the case in court.

And while Mr Edgar remains sanguine, all around him in the packed lunchtime bar, Gents (both male and female) are waving their membership cards at the barman and drinking deep.

It costs pounds 25 to join, and that entitles members to 25 pints. The money represents the cost of the raw ingredients, which they then own. This means they do not have to buy the beer for a second time once it has been brewed. Each time someone orders a pint, his card is clipped until he has finished his share. After a corkage charge and "rent" to the brewery, beer works out at 62p a pint.

Reg Vousden, whose family has lived in the Cuckmere Valley for generations and who is probably descended from the original "Gentlemen" who so inspired Kipling, said: "It's so stupid that the French pay so little duty and we pay so much. We were told when we went into Europe that things would be equalised - otherwise what is the point?"

A Smuggler's Song

by Rudyard Kipling

Five and twenty ponies

Trotting through the dark -

Brandy for the Parson,

`Baccy for the Clerk;

Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,

And watch the wall, my darling,

while the Gentlemen go by!