A simpler time...
Last Updated : 31/12/11
here are few breweries left in the UK whose pubs are as unspoilt and – for want of a better phrase – old fashioned as those owned by the sepia-toned Donnington brewery of the Cotswolds. The brewery itself has survived despite many setbacks over the years, the most recent being the suicide of it’s long-standing owner, Claude Arkell, whose death resulted in the brewery passing to the Arkell family who, as they already had their own brewery in Swindon, immediately raised rumours of the final demise of Donnington. Happily – from a purely nostalgic point of view – things were left exactly as they had been for decades and the brewery and it’s 15 pubs continue to operate as normal.
I feel I should admit that I’ve never enjoyed Donnington’s beer even before my current hop obsession as their beers are, and always have been, of the now almost extinct style of English regional ales which, due to the cull of regional brewers in the last 30 years and changing tastes, have largely vanished from bartops in favour of very bland and/or very extreme beers. This has left the middle-of-the-road regional brews struggling to maintain their position and, with the recent sharp decline in beer sales due to a myriad of factors I won’t even begin to discuss here, beers such as Donnington's hang onto the bartop by the very tips of their scrabbling fingers.
I am only just past my 40th birthday yet I shake my head in wonder at the changes to the UK beer scene in my drinking lifetime, probably one of the most tumultuous in centuries, where the former “old order” of tied houses owned by regional brewers has been almost obliterated in the space of a couple of decades in favour of pseudo-freehouses tied via soft loans to pub companies without a brewery; when I began drinking almost every pub proudly declared the owning brewery (and most breweries then still did brew, although I witnessed the death throes of the regional brewers) and served just mild and bitter, whereas now the majority of pubs give no indication of what beers you will find inside – if any.
So, what has all this to do with Donningtons, you may ask? Well, I have recently been working around Oxford and, on my drive home, I passed a Donningtons pub immediately recognisable by Claude’s black and white lettering on the wall and beige Cotswold stone construction. Day after day I passed the Coach & Horses, every day wondering – with the same kind of curious fascination which makes people stare at motorway accidents – what the beer was like these days, whether I should stop for a swift half and if I'd be able to finish even a half. After a week, predictably, curiosity overcame my desire to get home as quickly as possible and I pulled into the car park just after 17:00 and made my way towards the door.
The coach and horses is a handsome roadside inn of indeterminate age totally in the mould I’d expected it would be; flagged floors, an unnaturally loud ticking clock, plain rustic rustic decor and an old bloke reading the paper sat at the bar; if you’d asked me to describe a Donningtons pub this is pretty much what I’d have gone for. I reached the bar and saw the brewery’s two beers, BB and SBA, were both available on handpumps which looked as antique as the pub itself; looking around, I couldn’t believe the pub had a huge turnover, being alongside a busy A road miles from the nearest civilisation, and wondered just what the beer would be like and how long it had been sat in the line...
My half of BB gurgled from the pump and lay limpid in the glass; hazy amber is probably my best stab at a visual description and, as I brought it to my nose, my worst fears came to pass; I’d assumed that the beer would be as bad as I remember it being, all toffee malt and no hops, but I honestly hadn’t been expecting diacetyl and caramel on the aroma and, for a few seconds, contemplated abandoning the glass on the nearest table and making a run for the door, cutting my losses and marking this down as a lesson learnt, but decided that as I’d made the effort to stop here I may as well give the beer a go despite my olfactory sensors screaming in protest.
The flavour was, unfortunately, just what I’d feared from the nose and previous experience with a flat, dull malty body, peardrop esters from – presumably – Whitbread B yeast, more than a suggestion of diacetyl and just about zero distinguishable hop or bitter characteristics, maybe a very slight suggestion of leafy dryness in the toffeeish malty finish, but that was it. Deciding there and then that I didn’t want to try the SBA, I turned my back to the bar and grimaced my way down the half pint, wondering who actually thought that this was beer worth paying money for and thinking that the death of regional brewers wasn’t – beer wise – such a bad thing if this was the standard of swill they had been producing; did all beer once taste like this, I wondered to myself, trying to imagine a world before hops and Brendan Dobbin.
After what seemed to be an age I plonked the almost empty glass on the bar and, saying goodbye, walked out of the door and back into the 21st century; as I pulled out of the car park I could almost imagine a sepia vale lifting and, as I stared into my mirror at the pub as it vanished around the corner, wondered just how long a brewery such as Donningtons can survive in the modern era falling, as they do, between the two stools of large-scale production and interesting beers; surely their time must be short for this world and, surprisingly, it saddened me to realise that I had just witnessed a different time, a simpler time, a taste of Ye Olde Englande, and I knew that such a thing was hanging by a very precarious thread and is in danger of obliteration by a garish, money-obsessed and lurid modern world which crushes everything in it’s path in pursuit of profit and has scant regard for history, flat beer or the sepia-tinted simpler age that Donningtons exist in...
Even though I dislike their beer more than most I’ve drunk recently I still have a sneaking admiration for Donningtons in that they haven’t changed their beer or outlook one jot despite life rushing forwards headlong all around them and I hope, I really do, that they can continue to exist and offer an alternative to the modern world; their beer – to me – showcases all that was wrong with the old regional brewers, but we need their pubs and sense of history as they are a living embodiment of a simpler age which has virtually disappeared and the UK pub scene would be a much poorer place without their idiosyncratic outlook... although I don’t personally want to drink their beers!