Saturday, 5 January 2019

Carew Arms, Crowcombe, Somerset

One of the great pleasures of visiting pubs in far-flung parts of the country, quite apart from the patently obvious pleasure of enjoying local beers in someone else's 'local', is the opportunity to savour our precious stock of 'Heritage Pubs'. Those rare, sometimes historically important survivors, which through good fortune or design remain relatively unspoilt by too much in the way of unnecessary 'progress'.

Which is not to say that a commitment to maintaining tradition and heritage should mean these great pubs lack modern comforts. In fact many of them manage to juggle the ever increasing demands of customer expectation, like fine dining, craft beers, and inside toilets (the famous Monkey House excepted!), without the need for an all-encompassing modernisation that strips out much of the pubs true heritage. By which I mean the 'social' history of the pub, as represented by quirks of architecture, fixtures and fittings, and of course the traditional pub games I like to highlight on this blog. Because it's aspects like these which play an important role in maintaining local distinctiveness in an increasingly homogenous world, and besides which, they've served customers perfectly well for generations, so why change for change sake! At their best, those pubs which we might designate as Heritage Pubs are attractive for all the right reasons, and in fact represent most peoples ideal of what the great British pub should be.

The West Country, and Somerset in particular, seems to have more than it's fair share of genuine heritage pubs, perhaps a result of the region being that little bit more far-flung than more central counties of England. A rural isolation that effectively cushions the area from the very worst examples of interior design trends and transitory fashion. Three cheers for 'far-flung' then!

The Carew Arms in Crowcombe is one such example. A grade II former coaching inn, located in a beautiful village on the edge of the Quantocks. This is no chocolate box fancy though. Very much a working hostelry which features a highly regarded restaurant, letting rooms, and a well-used skittle alley. The heart of the pub, and the principle attraction for pub-lovers like myself, is the lovely flagstone-floored farmers bar (below). Scrubbed pine tables, basic bench seating and a high-backed settle adjacent to the fireplace, with old photos and taxidermy on the whitewashed walls. It's the kind of bar that in the depth of winter, when the stove is running at full blast and the local ales are tasting fine, it would be very hard to leave without a heavy heart.

Of course the real beauty of a pub like the Carew is that it remains at the very heart of the village community it serves, not merely a museum piece for tourists like myself to admire and photograph. The Carew is very much a locals pub that's also welcoming to visitors, and as such it maintains many of the pastimes that make a pub truly a local, including the local West Country speciality, alley skittles.

The Skittle Alley is one of the more interesting ones in the area, located as it is in the pubs former stabling block, a relic from its days as a coaching inn on the road from Taunton to Somersets northern coast. The individual compartments of the stable have been retained, and cleverly incorporated as seating areas along the length of the alley. In fact, despite appearances, the alley is quite a modern construction, the original now the pubs dining area.

The Carew is the home alley of a couple of skittles teams, both of which are currently mid-table in the Watchet & District Mens Skittles League. This is a winter league of three divisions and various cup matches, summer skittling in rural areas like this being the exception, with seasonal work and holiday commitments taking precedence for many of those that play.

Skittles remains remarkably popular throughout the West Country, with participation bucking the trend of many other areas for the game in that it's still something that younger players take an interest in. Perhaps this can be partially explained by the long tradition of the 'Sticker-Up', whereby youngsters are encouraged to earn a little extra pocket money of an evening by returning the balls and sticking the pins back up during a match (note the refuge for the stickers-up to the left of the frame). In fact some leagues have a dedicated end-of-season competition for the volunteer 'stickers-up', sparking enthusiasm in the game, and helping to foster the important social side of skittling from an early age.

Boules is played on a Pitch at the rear of the Carew Arms, as it is at many other pubs and clubs in the area and throughout the country now. Competition has developed quite rapidly from small beginnings in 2001, to the current 20 teams in the West Somerset Boules Association.

The Restaurant, formerly the pubs Skittle Alley