The Parson and the Publican in Monmouth
PUBLISHED: 01:16 25 April 2012 | UPDATED: 21:18 20 February 2013
The Parson is The Reverend Ian Charlesworth. His co-writer, and navigator is watercolourist and former innkeeper Richard Stockton. Join their journeys across Herefordshire and the Wye Valley every month in Herefordshire and Wye Valley Life
In the words of the Parson
Starting in London and culminating in Fishguard, the A40 has brought people into Wales from time immemorial
On a magnificent spring day the A40 has brought us to Monmouth and appropriately we are taking a mug of coffee in an old coaching inn. I always think that there is something rather romantic about these roads that for centuries have carried traffic across the country. Starting in London and culminating in Fishguard, the A40 has brought people into Wales from time immemorial and no doubt in that time many will have ended up here where we sit having a lovely cup of coffee.
We are in Henrys Caf in what was once the Beaufort Arms a coaching inn where Nelson cuddled Emma and, so we gather, the Rolling Stones enjoyed a pint. Now cheery ladies offer steaming mugs instead of foaming flagons but it doesnt take much imagination to hear a coach clatter through the arch and across the cobbles to come to a jangling halt under the canopy opposite the great bow window where we sit. A wrought iron balcony overlooks the yard; no doubt a prime spot for observing the great drama of the mail coach arriving. The longer I look at the scene the more the sense of having seen it before comes over me. I turn to the Old Licensed Victualler (OLV) and suggest that thoughts of funeral parlours fill my mind. Muttering about occupational hazards and time of life the OLV stomps under the arch and into the main square. Later on I learn from a well-informed
daughter that some scenes from Dr Who involving an undertaker were filmed there so I feel justified, but for now he is pottering towards a man in the square.
It will have been the model of an aircraft in the mans hands that attracted him and as I follow in hot pursuit I speculate if this is a memorial to all those boys who were transfixed by Airfix models. I could never quite get to grips with the combination of glue and little bits of plastic which always seemed to end up stuck to the newspaper Mother insisted I covered the table with. For others, hours spent inhaling the fumes from those tiny pots of paint and tubes of glue was time well spent. However this is a tribute to the late Mr Rolls of Rolls-Royce fame who was born nearby. High on the front of the elegant, stone Shire Hall behind him Henry V waves his sword to ward off any pigeons that make it through the netting that protects his gilding from unwanted adornment. He was born in the castle here and the square bears the name of Agincourt.
I like to educate as well as inform and entertain and so I attempt a potted history of the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War. Not convinced he is listening I give him a few bars of the Agincourt song as recalled from school days. Look here, he interrupts me, a music shop, with real music. All thoughts of trying to broaden the OLVs knowledge are forgotten as I plunge in. It is the copies of G & S scores that attract me and the sheet music for choirs that keeps me browsing. The small choir I sing with is planning a summer concert themed to mark the Diamond Jubilee in some way, so finding a setting for four parts of a piece by Queen has to be a bonus; as well as music from Singing in the Reign perhaps?
When I emerge with a bundle of music to offer our conductor the OLV is wandering away up the road. I catch up with him outside a couple of bookshops. He never can resist a table of books and he happily thumbs through a selection of titles. Next door is another bookshop with the door open and an inviting aspect and so we bimble in and browse to our hearts content. The wider space of the main street sloping down the hill towards the river is easy on the eye but most of the shops, with a few notable exceptions, are those that will be found on any high street. The much more intimate space of Church Street is a delight of little shops and galleries.
As well as the bookshops there is a chemists with balance scales, pestles, mortars and other paraphernalia of the pharmacists art displayed in the slightly bowing window. There are boutiques, a fine-looking butchers, a greengrocers and a theatre. This last looks wonderful; a set piece from the 1920s or 30s. A tiny frontage no wider than the surrounding shops declares that The Savoy Theatre is here with red paint and gilded mouldings. Posters present a lively range of forthcoming attractions. We can only assume that it blossoms into a remarkable space behind but a commissionaire is keeping watch and so we move on. Later as we lunch I see a stream of schoolchildren pass the window clutching programmes. It is the serendipitous joy of discovering places like this that makes our wanderings so pleasant. That and lunch of course which is now on the agenda. The OLV is giving his full attention to the choice of venue.
In the words of the Publican
As I dig into my delicious pigs cheek slowly braised in cider my mind wanders back to offal deeds
When it comes to choosing a venue for lunch my old chum the Parson and I have very clear criteria to aid the selection. Information from like-minded souls, gastronomic guides, dodgy feedback from punters with little knowledge, indigestion and bad attitude on the Wide World Inter Web is gathered to give us a shortlist of about three or four probables before we depart. When we arrive in town we give them the once over and then usually end up somewhere else entirely that catches our eye.
So it is that having very nearly popped in and booked a table on our perambulations at a short-listed runner we stand with our noses pressed against the window of Bistro Prego in Church Street. The blonde behind the little bar smiles at me so we enter.
Quiet today, says I, looking around at the immaculately-laid yet vacant tables.
Different from yesterday, she replies, we were so busy we had to send out for help up front. Where would you like to sit?
Now I have a theory about bums on seats which is people draw people, so thinking we are doing the damsel a favour we sit right smack bang in the window. Although catching a glimpse of our reflection as we peruse the list of runners it is possible that any prospective punter would hesitate before entering at this sight of the ones left behind after the Old Peoples Parish Outing has gone home.
What caught my eye, apart from the smile, was the proliferation of offal on Pregos menu. With the continually rising price of meat, offal is fast becoming a vital ingredient for chefs to help maintain their margins.
I know the ecclesiastical antenna
will hone in on the calfs liver and the pigs cheek is too tempting for me to pass up.
With a cold glass of Grigio, I bemoan the demise of the old-fashioned pork butcher.
I well remember, says I to my old chum three brothers who ran a palace of porcine products in the Black Country; the youngest of whom was not blessed at birth with the best of looks. It was rumoured that people would cross the street as the pram approached rather than look upon the unfortunate child. With his bonnet on he was likened to a weasel peering through a hay bale and was cruelly given the nickname of Giblets.
My bowl of steaming mussels arrives and the old codger winds his tagiatelle around his fork with panache.
Thankfully, I continue his looks, like the ugly ducklings, improved with age. In fact with his curly brown hair and cheeky brown eyes he was popular with the ladies, one could say Oldburys answer to Errol Flynn. Sadly the entrails tag stuck. The business prospered and at about the time of the introduction of the breathalyser they bought a new Bedford van.
The pastoral finger hesitates at scraping any vestiges of sausage and borlotti bean sauce loitering on his plate.
Yes, I am that old.
The Parsons main course arrives: cubes of tender liver in a rich, deeply-flavoured gravy accompanied by the smoothest of potato pure and as I dig into my delicious pigs cheek slowly braised in cider my mind wanders back to offal deeds.
Giblets was allocated the shiny new van with bold lettering on the side and each week he would collect the live pigs from Tenbury market. Once settled on a bed of deep straw in the back of the van they would snore contentedly, unaware of their fate. On this particular day after consuming many pints in The Oak, young Giblets was diverted by the promise of something warming from a young lady in Bewdley. After a few nightcaps of his favourite rumn black our hero got back into the van, by now well over the limit as decreed by Barbara Castle. It was only after he had driven some miles merrily whistling The Happy Wanderer that he realised he had company on the bench seat. One of the pigs, obviously bored with his companions, had left his warm bed and climbed over into the passenger side. Now he sat square upright on hams and hocks looking through the windscreen at the passing, darkened Worcestershire countryside and the lamp-lit villages. When the road swung left so did the pig, while on a sharp right hander the pig was nearly touching the cheek of the driver. And so the odd couple drove through the night towards the industrial metropolis.
Quite suddenly they found themselves in a queue of traffic with members of the constabulary shining bright torches, breathalyser in hand, checking for miscreants over the new appointed limit.
Imagine the scenario, I say to my old chum. Giblets, somewhat concerned for his livelihood feels moisture upon his furrowed brow and above his quivering lip. His new friend however seems intrigued with all the attention and leans forward to secure a better view of the action his snout touching the glass. With the drivers window wound down they edge towards their fate. Torches are trained upon them passing over the driver they linger upon his passenger, signs of considerable bewilderment appear on the faces of the constables as they glance at each other and then back to the individual on Giblets left. As they turn back towards the driver their expressions take on looks of pity for a member of the human race who is so downtrodden that he has to endure the company of such a strange-looking companion who can only be transported at night. Suffering enough they think, and Giblets drives through, his companion giving a sideways, nonchalant glance at the dark blue helmet.
The rustic red brick and simple pine furniture of Bistro Prego reminds me somewhat of the old Walnut Tree outside Abergavenny, so when we learn that the chef/proprietor has spent some time with the great Franco we are not surprised this is outstanding Italian cuisine.
After our espressos and a glug of iced water we bid farewell to the cheerful smile who thanks us for our company. Well, Ive heard whispers that we are likened to the Marches version of Laurel and Hardy. I catch a glimpse of our reflection as we depart. Now I always get them mixed up, which one has the bowler hat? Is it Stan or Ollie?