A pint of Bays Gold for my non-existentialist friend, and me, I think to myself as I sit in the White Hart in the small town of Wiveliscombe. Drinking alone, are we, the man in the unwashed clothes at the bar seems to say when he looks at me. Well not really, I think back at him, I’m waiting for photographer Bill (good website, see it here) in a bar in a town, which in the past, I’ve called the Burton-on-Trent of the west (a bit of journalistic hyperbole which I won’t repeat now). Ah here he is wearing his Somerset Levels cider boots (he’s done some great snaps of the cider life, which I suspect he is starting to live), and we head off to the Bear across the road, a pub I have been visiting since 1996 — it had one landlord who was a total pot valiant and was alleged to have placed microphones at the bar because he reckoned that the staff of Exmoor Ales (five mins away) was conspiring against him. What I like (and have always liked) is the community aspect of the Bear, as well as a healthy selection of beer. But what I am interested in now is Butcombe’s intriguing keg ‘gateway’ beer Blonde as well as Veltins. The Butcombe beer has a sweetness that is almost reminiscent of a light fruitcake plus liquorice notes though I found the harshness of the finish a bit off-putting. Asked the young barman how it sold and he thought well, while a youngish lad, mate of his, said he enjoyed it now and again. Maybe a gateway. The Veltins was superb: vanilla, bitter lemon, crispness on the palate, dry finish, another swig please. Out into the town because I told Bill that this was a beertown, once and now. Hancock’s started brewing here in 1807 and were then bought out by Ushers in 1959 (they were then called Arnold & Hancock) and the brewery closed (it was a chicken shed or something for a while). Brewing boomeranged back in the late 1970s with Exmoor (then called Golden Hill) followed by Cotleigh. Exmoor is in the old bottling shed of Hancock’s, while Cotleigh are down the hill in a purpose built place. Despite the two breweries being so close you could lop a weighted bottle-top down the hill from Exmoor and hear it rattle on Cotleigh’s roof, there’s a real difference between their beers. The old brewery still stands above Wivvy, while a walk around the town brings you face to face with the attritional warfare that pubs have been engaged in during the 20th century. A few years ago, the local civic society (I think) organised the mounting of plaques on the front of all those houses, which used to be pubs. So we have nice ceramic designs (Wivvy is always a bit arty I think, hippy if I’m being ungenerous) for long gone pubs such as the Anchor (a fish), the Bell (a bell) and Noah’s Ark, whose design I cannot remember — but I would love to know why it was called Noah’s Ark. It was a small cottage in a terrace, down an alley and I wondered when it closed its doors. I think we counted about 10 former pubs and you just wonder what life was like when all these pubs were open and thriving. A beertown — was the beer palatable, would it have been totally different from what we drink these days (I think John Keeling, Derek Prentice and Ron Pattinson answered that question comprehensively at Fuller’s recent tasting of their XX Strong Ale), were the pubs any good? We shall never know. And that’s maybe just as well.