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CJ Stone's Britain: Hops and glory (Burton-on-Trent)

Updated on July 17, 2017

The Guardian Weekend February 7 1998

Once, Burton-on-Trent meant beer, and beer, Burton-on-Trent. Where better, then, to down a pint?

There were four generations of Burtonians at the table with me: the grandmother, the mother and the daughter, who was pregnant with the fourth. The grandmother was blind. The mother guided her hand to the plate with the Bakewell Tart on it and moved the tea. “The tea’s at one o’clock, Mom.”

“That’s nice,” said Gran. “Have we seen the material yet? What colour is it? What’s Lisa having?” Mom smiled; Lisa rolled her eyes. It was the fourth time they’d heard these questions.

“Yes we’ve seen the material in the market. It’s green, a nice shade of green. Lisa’s having a bacon-and -mushroom sandwich.”

“A bacon-and-mushroom sandwich. That’s nice. Why are we buying the material again??”

“To make cushion covers, Mom – for the lounge.”

“What colour is it? Have we seen it yet? What’s Lisa having?”

I’m sitting in the Sarnie Bar, next to the market in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire. The sky outside is heavy, threatening rain, but it’s nice here. Plain and homely, full of shoppers with scarves and bags, and market traders in white coats, all drinking tea and smoking. It’s a proper café. All-day breakfasts, jam sponge with custard, chips. The menu is hand written, DayGlo signs all over the walls.

I’m feeling frazzled after a night at a B&B decorated with ducks. Ducks on the wall, along the stairs, in the bathroom. Ducks on the cistern. Ducks everywhere. I’m not sure what I’m doing here. Normally, when I visit a town, I have a contact, but I don’t know anyone in Burton. I lived here once, for six months, 25 years ago. I lived with my Aunt Else and Uncle George (now both dead) and I worked as a dustman. That was a good job. The crew had three main tasks. There was Pullin’ ‘aht, Chuckin’ in and Tekkin’ back. I did the Tekkin back. We worked from 7am-11am every day but Thursday, when we did Friday’s shift too. Thursday we went to the pub. Friday we drank tea. We worked hard the rest of the time. We ate our sandwiches leaning against the truck, with the smell of rubbish.

I went to Burton a weedy hippie, and came back with muscles. I also returned with a taste for beer. It was Uncle George’s fault. He used to go to the Star and Garter on Grange Street every evening at six, smoke ten Number Six tipped and drink four pints of Marston’s Pedigree. And I’d join him. Pedigree was the first beer I ever really enjoyed. Brewed in the traditional way, in the wood, it’s still one of the best beers in the country.

Historically, Burton and beer are synonymous. Well, it had an abbey too, before the Dissolution. But even the abbey made beer. Several 13th Century charters refer to it, and the names Coupere and Breuster among the town’s inhabitants at the time indicate an early specialisation in the trade. In 1620 Burton Ale was being sold in London – at the Dagger in Holborn and the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Road. By the 19th Century Burton’s India Pale Ale circled the globe. The town was also an inland port, trading with London, Hull and the Baltics. What was it selling? Beer, of course.

I went to Burton a weedy hippie, and came back with muscles. I also returned with a taste for beer

I went on two of the town’s trails. There was the Abbey Trail and the Brewery Trail. There’s not a sign of the Abbey on the Abbey Trail, but plenty of breweries on the Brewery Trail. Trouble is, they’re all owned by Bass. Bass dominates the skyline of Burton, as well as the brewing industry. Bass flags fly everywhere. Bass towers with Bass symbols, Bass offices, Bass factories, looking like giant six-packs of lager. Which is a pity. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 64 breweries in Burton. The day I arrived, Bass had taken over Carlsburg-Tetley, meaning there are now only two. The other one is Marstons. It must have been a wonderful, strange place with all those breweries and tens of miles of rail-track crossing the town centre.

The breweries also had a tradition of taking their workers out for day-trips to the seaside. I read this fact on the wall of a pub. It was a theme pub. In Burton-on-Trent, the theme of theme pubs is how the town brewed beer; before there were any theme pubs that is. On Friday June 16, 1893, I learn, 15 trains left Burton for Great Yarmouth via the Midland and Great Eastern Railways, carrying up to 10,000 brewery workers and their families, taking their customary beer allowance with them. A notice reminded them, “This is our first trip to Yarmouth: let it therefore be said that Bass & Co’s employees know how to behave themselves, and that all returned home perfectly orderly and sober.”

Well after this I went back to the Star and Garter. The Star and Garter is a proper pub. It’s exactly the same – the same high-beamed ceiling, the same shabby wooden tables and chairs. Same lino floor. Same perfect pint of Pedigree. It was 7pm on a wet Wednesday, and packed. I could imagine my wiry Staffordshire uncle sitting at the bar, as he was accustomed to, sipping his pint and calling everyone “mi duck”. “Mi duck” is a Burton term of endearment. Maybe that’s why they had so many ducks at the B&B.

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