The Parson and the Publican in Craswell

PUBLISHED: 13:50 11 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:41 20 February 2013

The Parson and the Publican in Craswell

The Parson and the Publican in Craswell

Our men on a mission round off their appearance at Hay Festival with a dinner to write home about

St Marys in the words of the Parson

Theyre meeting at the box office at 7pm, and they wont all be there on time. Then it takes a good half an hour in a bus to get here. So what do you think? Twenty to eight? That sounds about right, I reply as I arrange copies of the latest edition of Herefordshire and Wye Valley Life on a table in the vestry.

The Old Licensed Victualler steps through the door into the warm evening sunlight and the silence that is broken only by the sound of birdsong. Then I hear it the tap, tap on the snuff tin and I rearrange the pile again.

Gentle reader you will be surprised to learn that we are a little nervous. We are in the delightful surroundings of Craswall Church and about to host the second of our outings for visitors to the Hay Festival. Event 890 to be precise, described in the Festival Programme thus: Craswall Priory (ruined) and Parish Church lure the Parson and the Publican to their wonderful setting, nestling in the bosom of a hidden valley in the Black Mountains. A convivial supper in the Bulls Head to follow. All of it true except the bit about the Priory ruins and the Bulls Head. The former was deemed too inaccessible even for our doughty bus driver and the latter too unreliable in its hours of opening to entrust to it the appetites of five and twenty hungry, thirsty seekers after enlightenment.

We agree that waiting by the kissing gate provides the best place for the bus to pull in when the grinding of gears reaches our ears. The OLV tugs at his cravat and I give my shoes a surreptitious rub on the backs of the trouser legs. Were on. With that the bus rattles to a halt, the doors opens and a jolly looking bunch of chaps and chapesses disgorge with a view to an evenings entertainment.

Whilst the OLV is fully occupied helping the ladies down the step with a solicitous arm my attention is distracted by the Volvo that pulls up in a cloud of dust to the rear of the bus. A cheery face appears from out the open window, Is this the mumble walk? Im asked. Well not really. I reply, More an amble around a church and then off to supper. The Publicans knees are not up to anything more.

Given the changes we had made I have a horrid feeling that a walker has strayed into our definitely non-energetic enterprise. Oh, says he, I must have followed the wrong bus. Can I stay? The OLV and I are always of the-more-the-merrier school of thought so I warmly encourage him to do so and the would-be walker joins us on a church crawl heading with the others towards the church.

Long and low, Craswall church is a simple building with a single roof line topped by a small wooden bell-cote. As far from grand as it is possible to be this is a church for farming folk who for generations have struggled to make a living off the upland pastures. Nothing fancy in their lives or their church, no unnecessary or expensive frills or furbelows yet it speaks of their determination to gather together for worship, education and fun.

It seems the church was built when the Priory was suppressed in the 1460s for being a foreign foundation and the suggestion is made in the guide book that the east window was relocated from there evidence of both recycling and the ever thrifty hill farmer I suggest. Beautiful in its simplicity the interior of the church is furnished with free-standing wooden pews, whilst around the walls are numerous large wooden pegs upon which one imagines the men would hang their hats, although it is hard to believe that there were ever as many people in the church as there are pegs so they might well have had other uses as well. At the east end the sanctuary is simple with altar, pulpit and modern stone font providing all that is necessary for Divine Service. Although very plain, traces of pre-Reformation decoration remain on the roof timbers above the altar where delicate flowers and foliage point to a more colourful past. At the west end a gallery, lit by a dormer window, provides extra seating up a narrow stair. Under the gallery a small door leads to a vestry.

In the 18th century the west end was separated by a wall from the rest of the church and this space used as a schoolroom entered through the substantial porch. Originally linked through an arched opening to the church this was blocked up to make a much smaller door. The OLV suggests that those at the back were fed-up with the draughts.

It is fashionable these days to talk about making churches more available to the community and this is to be welcomed but it is not new. Craswall church has been doing just that probably since it was built. The schoolroom is just one example. When a new school was built in the 19th century this room was used by farmers to store their fleeces in before they were taken down the hill.

Fitted with a large shuttered window and a fireplace, I dare say it has seen its fair share of meetings both sacred and secular. Outside we draw attention to the stone seat that runs around the south and west walls of the church, the court for hand tennis on the windowless north side, of which faint red lines can be traced in the plaster, and the cockpit in the north west corner of the churchyard, now overgrown with trees. It is not hard on an evening such as this to imagine the locals gathering to pass the time in gossip, flirting and games.

The company and the discussions are so engaging that it is just as well that Nick the Festival Steward is keeping his eye on the time. With a gentle tap on the shoulder he reminds us that we must be moving on and since I notice that the OLV is getting a little carried away with the talk of games and flirting in the churchyard I join him in gently shepherding the flock to the awaiting charabanc.

White Haywood Farm, Craswall, in the words of the Publican

It was the smell, says Pauline, that unforgettable stench of rotting flesh. She looks wistfully towards her husband, the only other witness to that terrible trauma just 10 years ago.

We are sitting around the delightful little bar set in the corner of their tastefully restored, 400-year-old barn/restaurant. We are at the end of an enjoyable evening my old chum the Parson and I, that magical, winding down time when after service, if one is lucky, one may get to know the hosts a little better over a privileged nightcap.

As fast as we could help the ewes with their lambs up this end, she continues, they were being killed down that end. She points remotely to the other end of the barn.

Luckily the girls were spared all that as they had to stay away when foot and mouth struck the farm. She looks at Rebecca and Abigail, their young daughters who had waitressed and looked after us so efficiently during the evening.

The person I felt most sorry for though, she says in her typically unselfish manner, was my dad, for although retired, overnight his farming was finished; all the blood lines including his beloved Radnor sheep which he had bred and nurtured over the years ended that day.

It was over a week before they moved the carcasses, says Philip, husband, father, farmer, barman, waiter and no doubt pot-wash when the need arises.

Theirs is a not an uncommon story of hill farmers struggling to make a living in the face of all the odds. After every animal except the donkey was slaughtered these fourth generation farmers looked at ways to diversify. A talented, self-taught cook Pauline started making savoury pies and quiches which she sold at the busy little Thursday market in Hay-on-Wye. Demand grew and encouraged by her success she started providing Sunday lunches in the farmhouse.

The big decision was made four years ago when the old stone barn was converted into a restaurant. Philip went off to pull a pint or two at the nearby Bulls Head and is now a dab hand behind his little bar dispensing amongst other beverages some excellent pippin juice from Gwatkins Moorhampton Park Farm in the next valley at Abbey Dore.

The secret to their success is simplicity; meat reared and given free range of the lush green pastures and natural spring water coming off the Black Hill is cooked and served by the family.

We were welcomed into the spacious stone barn and of course made our way to the bar where Philip and one of the girls were serving. An American lady wanting something local was recommended the cider and the absent walker insisted on buying a bottle of wine; hoping someone will help him out with a glass or two. No problem there, says my old chum the Parson, hovering like a kestrel eyeing up a plump vole.

Seated, we are brought to order by the dulcet tones of Pauline who, used to calling the cattle and Philip to lunch over the distance of a couple of fields or two knows how to captivate the audience.

No complications of menus she bawls, for tonight its roast pork, beef or the vegetarian spinach and mushroom wellington. Pad and pencil? Not on you life; up go the hands and like sheep between hurdles we are counted. The decibels rise so I can only see the ecclesiastical head nod at the offer of another glass of the tinto by the friendly absent walker. Slices of pink beef appear with crispy roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings like mother used to make, accompanied by steaming jugs of rich gravy and bowls of al dente vegetables. I sit with a family from Derbyshire whose growing son consumes the remains of every vacant vegetable bowl. What an appetite.

Puddings are classic, with treacle and walnut tart coming high in the batting order and a really naughty thick creamy Pavlova smeared with Paulines home-made lemon curd a generous chunk of which I notice is placed before the old codger.

We are much taken with White Haywood Farm restaurant and B & B and it is clear that we are not alone in this. Our departing guests, one and all, declare it to have a been a splendid evening.

Senior Management informs me that an impending visit of family from distant shores is threatened. I have promised them Thursdays famous fish and chips. Besides as we left Pauline offered to show me the bedrooms next time and who knows Philip may be shearing.

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