When the wind threatens to drive into your bones, when the rain batters down upon the earth sending even the rats diving for cover, when the clouds billow upwards, darken and thunder, refuge must be sought for the weary of soul and the wet of scrotum. When the sun breaks cover and warms the blood, when blue skies light up the cloths of heaven with light, when stillness of breeze barely moves the pink cliff top thrift, unbounded joy will require a bibulous reverie.
Both refuge and reverie can be found within the white stone walls and black beamed timber of the Driftwood Spars pub in St. Agnes.
You can get there by walking the coast path eastwards from St Agnes head or by cycling or driving down to Trevaunance Cove from the village. The road meanders down the narrow valley flanked on either side by old mining works, the spoils of which are still visible.
You will see the ruin of an engine house up on one side of the slopes. These reminders of tin mining, of Cornwall’s ambiguous glory, are common in this part of Kernow. Most episodes of Poldark will have featured these granite industrial monoliths; roofless towers with bare gable ends stripped of wooden roof trusses and almost always accompanied by a now smokeless chimney. They stand as a testament to man’s ambition, determination, greed and folly. The industrial revolution has one of its birthplaces within their walls. Fire, steam, grit, profit and misery are the very fabric held together by the determination, of the granite blocks they are made of, to never to succumb to the elements. This is but memory. Time has worn them down, just as mining wore down the health of miners into their too early graves.
Only the sea cries for them now.
The pub sits just up from the cove. Close enough to smell the salt and just far enough away for spring tides and October gales to crash impotently on the beach below. The coast of Cornwall is renowned for its danger to shipping. Shipwrecks line up in skeletal formation, the wooden ribs of their hulls mostly submerged, and are home to conger, bass and pollack. However, some were so close to shore that their beams provided building material. The Driftwood used the spar beams in its construction in the 1650’s and before its current use as a pub, it housed a tin mining warehouse, a chandlery, a sail making loft and fish cellar. In the 1900’s it became a hotel and bar.
Walking through the porch is a walk back in time. The massive beams above your head start telling their story before you get to the bar. The voices of sailors’ seep from the deep-set blackened grain of the wood. The masters’ orders for ‘heaving to’ or ‘reefing’ the sails whisper between the gaps between them. The beams creak and groan as if straining against a force 10 off the Azores, but they soon settle into peaceful, silent and robust load-bearing overhead. To the left, as you enter, sits a granite lintel over the fireplace big enough to make you wonder how the hell it got there. In winter, the fires crackle and spit their warmth into the beery conversation. Upon the floor, patrons’ dogs sleep or sniff, or both.
The clientele is a mixture. St Agnes veterans, locals who ply their trades both professional and manual in the local area, second homeowners betrayed by their mostly home counties accents and cultural appropriation (they know which comes first, the cream or the jam), tourists from everywhere and Manchester, and the occasional ‘celebrity’ who has a recognisable face, but you can’t quite place it. They could be a minor East Ender, a has-been pop star or a literary critic. They will of course also live in London. This eclecticism in patronage saves the ‘Spars’ from becoming the haunt of the banjo playing classes with dodgy haircuts, dodgy manners and body odour.
One of the most important features of the place is, of course, the beer. Just across the road is a brewery. The ‘Driftwood Spars’ brewery to be precise. The range and quality just has to be experienced to be understood. The Campaign for Real Ale has succeeded, the brewery is a testament to dedication, experimentation and the love of a good piss up. A star among the brews is ‘Alfies Revenge’; the sort of ale liable to relinquish one of embarrassment and inhibition in equal measure. It promises velvet and delivers a bittersweetness. Just like a highly strung, but gorgeously pretty, girlfriend. You would wish to deeply inhale the perfumed aroma of both in any case and lose yourself in a hedonic mist of semi-erotic longing.
Like your first girlfriend, this is a beer to remember, to savour, to care for, to spend money on and only to regret if you lose yourself too much within its company. It will however be faithful, when you come back from tasting, at other times forbidden fruits, it will still be there for you asking no questions.
Pork scratchings are optional.
Take your choice. Sit at the bar and risk a discussion about Mozart, Brexit or the risqué joke overheard on the radio. Or, take a seat at a table to just be quiet and take in the 400 years of atmosphere. Clay pipes and shag, illicit trades of both contraband and sexual, complaints about tax and the government, which pasties are the best, malt whisky and rum, dimpled beer glasses and food begging dogs, talk of the decline of manners and social media…all have taken their own place at the bar. Some, of course, are not allowed in any more but have etched their being into the solid fabric of the place.
Outside a gale may hammer the window, but you are safe within in a timeless void of experience.
Bleddy ‘ansum me bewdy.