On our way to the Ross Cider Festival last weekend we popped into a pub which until fairly recently would have been considered a true cider-only drinking establishment, a real rarity from an age when even London boasted a cider house (run by Westons of Herefordshire). The Blue Bell Cider House is located on a quiet section of the Stratford upon Avon canal at Hockley Heath, and was formerly owned by the mighty H P Bulmer of Hereford. It would have serviced the needs of canal folk in the days when the canals were less tourist highways, and more the arteries of heavy industry. We can only imagine the kind of place the Blue Bell was in those days. Hard graft presumably led to hard drinking, and the isolated nature of many canalside pubs may have kept them out of the eye of sober authorities.
So what of the Blue Bell in modern times? I last visited this pub back in the 80's and it appears to have been extended a little since then. There is the ubiquitous covered smoking zone adjoining the car park, with most of the rather nondescript interior given over to dining. On the positive side, the original bar is traditional and relatively unspoilt. There's a well worn darts board, and a wide range of traditional cider mugs adorn the servery. These mugs are not just for show, there were plenty of locals drinking the cider when we visited, the perfect accompaniment to England's latest success in a one day cricket international. Outside are several tables overlooking the canal, and this is perhaps the pubs strongest point. Which brings us to the slightly sticky issue of the ciders!
The last vestiges of a cider drinking tradition in England are often to be found in the backstreet locals and isolated rural inns which have somehow escaped the curse of crass modernisation. The pubs themselves are often classics, unspoilt by unnecessary 'progress', yet still thriving businesses sought out by connoisseurs of our glorious pub heritage. The downside to this is that sometimes the drink offering has become stuck in a less attractive 'time warp' of its own.
The twentieth century obsession with mergers and cost efficiencies all but removed the ciders of smaller producers from pubs, in favour of the more 'industrial' offerings of the bigger producers. One legacy of this steady reduction in choice has been that many of these unspoilt cider pubs have a strong commitment to the cider brands they've always sold. At one point in the early 80's for example, just about the only 'traditional' ciders you would find in West Country and West Midlands pubs were Bulmers Traditional, and Taunton Traditional, pleasant enough national brands, but neither of which I would put in the same class as the 100% pure juice ciders currently being championed by the smaller craft producers.
Unfortunately the choice of ciders at the Blue Bell seem to follow this unwelcome tradition. Bulmers Traditional Cider (now made by Westons I believe), and Inch's Stonehouse Cider (formerly a well respected Devon cidermaker, but now made by Bulmers, or maybe Westons? so no longer a true Devon cider), both on handpump. In the interest of research I tried a half of each and was suitably unimpressed with both. There was a stack of empty Thatchers Cider barrels in the yard which would have been a better choice for me if it had been available, but if we visit again I'll stick to the beers of which there was a good range from small indepenant brewers. A traditional cider house it may be, but perhaps it's time for the cider range to move into the 21st century alongside the pub.