Last Updated : 03/12/06
An evening in Ilminster, Somerset, November 2006 - by Gazza.
t's not often I go somewhere in the UK that I've not been to before, and even less often that I’ve never heard of the place, but that was the case with Ilminster! I was working on an Alliance & Leicester project and touring around Dorset and Somerset replacing servers in High Street branches but, for reasons best known to themselves, my company had booked me into a hotel in Ilminster when the next day I was to be working in Yeovil ... work that one out!
I was slightly confused by this as I was sure there were more hotels in Yeovil but - secondly and more importantly - I’d never heard of Ilminster and, on investigation, it seemed so small that I doubted there would be more than a couple of pubs there, hardly sufficient for an hours wander, and I finished work at 11:00! My job completed, I drove along quiet A-roads in the sort of drizzle usually reserved for the Welsh Valleys until I arrived in Ilminster where I immediately saw two pubs; that was a start then, I thought to myself, as I parked up at the hotel.
By 12:30 I was checked in to the posh and comfy Shrubbery Hotel where I spent the afternoon furiously trying to complete my report of our recent visit to Latvia; writing beer reports in work time always gives me a happy glow! I desperately resisted the urge to go for a wander but, by 17:00, the urge had become too strong and, like the weak-willed spineless git I am, I gave up and trudged out of the hotel to see what delights Ilminster would dazzle me with; I had a list of six pubs culled from the internet to try out, plus the two at the village entrance, and was hoping that between the lot I could at least sample a few local beers… although secretly I didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything at all given my usual luck in such matters.
A pint of red curry, please.
One bonus I noticed straight away on my way through to the front door was the hotel bar which, in defiant contrast to almost all other hotel bars, had three handpumps dispensing Butcombe bitter, Cotleigh Tawny and some S&N crap; this was some much-needed insurance against nothing being available locally and at least meant that I’d have something cask conditioned to drink that night after all…
With the drizzle having blown itself out and replaced by a damp stillness, I trudged along past the sadly brewery-less Brewery lane and down to my first visit, the Royal Oak, located at The Cross to the south of the centre. On the way I passed a few pubs but, being so early, they were still firmly closed and so I plodded on until I reached my destination… to find it closed and in the process of being turned into a Thai restaurant! A quick about-turn which would have made any Sergeant-Major proud ensued and back I went to the centre of Ilminster hoping for more luck there, although given my recent experiences in Taunton and Christchurch I wasn’t very hopeful.
I stood outside the George, North Street, for a minute or two having a good lurk; it looked a little too winebar-like for my taste but, seeing two real ales on the bar, I bit the bullet and went inside. Sadly, one of the beers was off (I don’t know what it was, but I’ve not seen the pumpclip before) leaving Otter bitter as my only choice – which isn’t really a hardship as I’m a big fan of their fruity, hoppy beers. The atmosphere was relaxed and civilised, despite me being the only customer (plus some kitchen staff), so I tucked into the Otter and wasn’t disappointed; it was an amber, rich, bitter, fruity beer with a resinous, bitter, full malty taste giving a complex, tasty and very good drinking beer and scoring a very respectable 4 on the Gazza scale – a very good start, but one hell of a high bar for the subsequent pubs to try and reach.
As usual, all downhill from there.
I carried on along Silver Street to the Dolphin, finding it to be a Wadworth pub with 6X and Henry's IPA on cask. As they’re not my favourite brewery I resisted and carried on up the precipitous hill to the High street where the Bell was sat high above the road, looking very Cotswoldy with it’s beige stone façade. It was still closed with no sign of life, but a gaze through the windows soon told me there was no real ale available and so it was another quick about-turn back towards the hotel.
Next up was the Crown on West Street, a handsome-looking pub still wearing the Ushers branding. My lurking proved unsuccessful as the sole handpump was hidden behind a drinker sat at the bar, and whichever window I peeked through he always seemed to be just obscuring the pumpclip with one part of his anatomy or other so, as a last resort, I poked my head around the door to see what beer he was so cleverly hiding. Only one cask ale was available, Wells Bombardier, so I hurriedly grinned at the barman before stepping back into the street in the hope he’d think I was simply a passing village idiot and not chase me with a pitchfork for daring to enter his pub and then leave straight away without buying a drink! (You never know in these rural parts…)
Well, that was the centre done and dusted, and as I saw the time had only just crept past 18:30 I knew that my earlier premonition had been right and I would be destined to drink Butcombe bitter at the hotel bar that evening! Down the road I trudged, past the hotel, and downhill to the roundabout where two pubs were ripe for a quick lurk; the first was the newly-built Stonemasons, a Banks' pub serving a new estate of pompous-looking houses, which predictably only had Banks’ bitter and Pedigree on cask – no thanks!
Just to knock the final nail in my evening’s coffin, the other pub I’d seen on the road, the Lord Nelson, was closed and boarded up and looked as if it had been for a while… shame, as the still extant sign claimed it had been a free house! Nothing for it, then, but to trudge back up the hill to the Shrubbery hotel, (a Best Western) for a superb meal accompanied by a couple of pints of Butcombe bitter; I’d not sampled this beer for many years but was amazed by it’s chocolatey, bitter complexity and, in a mad moment of generosity, awarded it a score of four on the Gazza scale! I was back in my room by 21:00, nursing the remainder of my second pint, and reflected that Ilminster wasn’t such a bad place after all… despite none of the curry houses doing Nargis kebabs!
In common with many other rural villages / towns, Ilminster has a spread of pubs which must excel at something to survive, but serving an imaginative range of real ales obviously isn’t their raison d’etre. It could have been worse, as all pubs except one (and that wasn’t open) were serving real ale, but unfortunately almost all of it was the cruddy regional junk I refuse to drink such as Wells, Banks’ and Wadworths; the only pubs serving micro-brewed beer were the George and the Shrubbery Hotel, and happily both scored an excellent score of four for their beers, both local and both well-kept.
It just goes to show that when local beer is that well kept you don’t need a bar full of scoops, it’s probably a telling insight into my current attitude towards scooping that I felt just as happy drinking Otter and Butcombe, beers I’d scooped a good ten years previously, as knocking back a host of nondescript “winners” at a beer festival, although a new local beer would have crowned the evening well. How times change.
© Gazza 03/12/06 V1.0.