There is a village near us called Stoke Lacy, which is famous for being the birthplace of the Morgan car. But Morgan left, and now there is only one major company operating out of Stoke Lacy. In these parts, any company with more than 10 full-time employees constitutes major. And the Wye Valley Brewery has 15.
I went on a tour of the brewery the other day, given by the engaging managing director, Vernon Amor, whose father Peter started brewing beer 20-odd years ago behind a pub. A few years ago, having grown too big to operate even from the aptly named Barrels, in Hereford, the Amors bought the premises in Stoke Lacy from the cider-makers, Bulmers. But as Bulmers don't care too much for competition, the Amors had to sign a covenant promising - on pain of being drowned in scrumpy - that they would never, ever make cider. Which in a way was a shame, for cider had been made on the site since 1727.
Fortunately, the Amors had no intention of making cider. They stuck to what they knew best, which is very fine cask beer. I know it's very fine because I've sunk one or two casks myself since coming to live in Herefordshire. They are an outfit with community spirit, too, consulting the parish council on what to do with five acres of land that came as part of the Bulmers package. And there's nothing a parish council likes more than to be consulted, I can tell you. About pretty much anything.
Another nice touch from the Wye Valley Brewery is that they name their beers after local heroes. One was called Brian Hatton, after a local artist killed in the First World War, and another after Violette Szabo, née Bushell, the first Englishwoman to receive the George Cross. She was parachuted into France to help the French Resistance, and in saving a key agent, held off an entire German platoon with a sten gun, before being overwhelmed and subsequently executed. She was 23 years old. The very least she deserved was to have a beer named after her.
My own favourite among Wye Valley's beers is Dorothy Goodbody's Wholesome Stout. Dorothy was the strikingly attractive daughter of a local hop farmer, Sam Goodbody, and her hourglass figure is immortalised on tens of thousands of bottles. Yet Dorothy, unlike Violette and the others, is entirely fictional. The stuff about her father was invented, Vernon Amor told me, because they thought she ought to have a history.
Still, if her history is fictional, her future seems real enough. They have just started exporting her to America, although there the beer goes by the name of Dorothy Goodbody's Stout, the surgeon-general having taken exception to the word "wholesome".
I learnt all that in 45 minutes, not to mention the finer points of brewing. Did you know that the process involves crushed fish intestines? I didn't. Anyway, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Wye Valley Brewery tour, which is free and takes place every Tuesday and Thursday. First you've got to get to Herefordshire, but I can wholeheartedly recommend that, too.
English to a 'T'
We all have our own ideas of what spectacle best typifies England and Englishness, but it is only at this time of year that most of them become manifest.
For some it is the dull "thwock" of a leather ball against a willow bat, on a picturesque village green somewhere, perhaps with a stout matron in a flowery dress preparing sandwiches on a trestle table, and a couple of youths vandalising a nearby bus shelter. For others it is the verge of a country lane ablaze with daffodils, or a London bobby in his shirtsleeves, or a steam engine rally, or a chap punting his beloved along the Cam, or an eight-mile Bank Holiday tailback. For me it is the sight of genteel folk in late middle-age having tea and cake outdoors on a Sunday in April, in rainwear.
There is a place near us called The Garden at The Bannut ("The Bannut" being the name of the house attached to the garden - itself named after a tree in the grounds), which I had been meaning to visit for ages. On Easter Sunday, with Jane and the children away for the weekend leaving me to crack on with writing a book, I treated myself to an hour off and decided to tootle along the A44 to the aforementioned garden.
I have seen finer gardens, even on the A44, but few which so encapsulate a certain kind of Englishness. It is owned by Daphne and Maurice Everett, an elderly couple who deserve all the admiration in the world for looking after their acres so lovingly, and resourcefully charging people £2.50 to wander round. As I followed the trail, I wondered whether my in-laws, no mean gardeners themselves, should do the same.
The garden has been open to the public for five years. They have a little tea room, serving tea from leaky teapots, and home-made cake, including, of course, Bannut cake. On Easter Sunday there were plenty of folk partaking, most of them sitting outdoors despite the slight chill and faint threat of rain, and talking in hushed tones so as not to disturb the people talking in hushed tones on adjacent tables. It was so English I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. So, being English, I did neither.