Back to Britain - Part 8: Barnstaple
Of all the bars in every part of the world that one that holds the most strange as well as the best memories for me is the Corner House in Barnstaple, Devon.
This is probably because the Corner House isn’t the sort of place you would go into because it looks quaint. It’s the sort of place you go to if you are a local and your liver has been picked accordingly.
You wouldn’t visit the corner house by choice; nor would you live in North Devon by choice. It happened one day when my editor called me in after I had been working at head office for about two months.
“We want to send you to a district office.”
“Oh Good – as long as it’s not North Devon,” I joked referring to the Siberia posting.
“It’s North Devon.”
So I drove north for hours on muddy roads, past cows and rural nothingness; past strange smells and winding roads and decaying barns and trees bent out of shape. But mainly rolling emptiness. Obscure rolling emptiness.
As a destination Barnstaple tends to make you wonder why people live here. It’s surrounded by beautiful rolling hills but it’s dowdy and contains some pockets of urban deprivation. You work in the timber yard or the timber yard and you drink to dull your surroundings.
My colleague Mike – not his real name – was known as the Rock of North Devon because he’d been here for so long, a droopy jawed thick set individual with a beard and an oversized coat Mike was definitely old before his age. And disaffected as well as good company on a good day. He lived in a small village that was as poisonous as it was pretty. His plans to open his home to people with mental disabilities caused much trouble in paradise.
Some days Mike would come into the office with his head in his hands. “Ugh Cedric got out last night and walked round the village.”
“Well that’s not so bad.”
“He was walking round the church yard with no pants or underpants.
The solution was the Corner House, although I never spent as long as Mike down there at lunchtimes due to the fact I would end up too squiffy to work.
At first I was impervious to its charms. To say the formidable lanlady Roxine had not exactly caught on to the customer service malarkey, is something of an understatement.
“Go on – order one of her eye lid and ringpiece sandwiches,” Mike would goad me and then chuckle to himself as I made the mistake or ordering what was nominally a ham sandwich past 2 pm.
“Don’t you realize it’s one minute past two,” Roxine would scream, fixing her big old bad eye on me.
Even when the order was timely the service was nothing short of frightening.”
“This yours,” she’d scream, as the plate containing this inedible piece of meat raced down the bar past my head. People wonder why I persevered. Perhaps because the alternative was rubbery cheese or the pickled eggs in a bag of crisps that Mike swore by.
I don’t think Roxine ever accepted me as a local, with my metrosexual reporter’s mac. Or maybe she had already seen a long line of reporters come and go.
The locals were people like Buddy who sat hunched over his pint, flicking dandruff off his coke bottle specs and on the bar, rarely imparting his wisdom. But when he did it was well worth it.
“Your buddy’s your buddy’s your buddy,” he’d declare, before lapsing again into silence for about six days.
There was another taciturn character called Gordon who only became animated when talking about the virtues of “maggot galloping.” An explanation really was not called for.
We didn't interact much with these characters but we spoke at length with Tony, an accountant in his 70s who was such an avid Bristol Rovers fan, he'd told his wife to hop on a bus when she was about to give birth to their first born because Bristol Rovers were playing in an important cup game.
Buck, an elderly and somewhat repulsive gentleman who was a local councillor, was positively verbose. He’d talk about the good old days before political parties and his bizarre life ambition to hang strings of condoms from a local viaduct.
When Buck went quiet I’d start to get nervous. When a smile split his features it was time to head for the hills. Buck was renowned for his nose curling flatulence. As people moved away in droves he’d slam the bar triumphantly and count.
“That were a five along,” he’s declare if his fart displaced five people from their seats at the bar.
By 2.30 pm Mike would look positively crestfallen when we’d have to walk back to the office. But sometimes he’d import a few cans of wine and sit at his desk until at 4.30 p.m. – right on cue- there’d be a heavy sigh like a locomotive sloughing out of the sidings and he’d declare: “I can’t go on.”
He introduced plenty more junior reporters to the Corner House but I was glad to hear recently he had won the lottery and doesn’t need to go on being the rock.
Buck is sadly no longer after letting off a 17 along one night in his sleep and setting off an explosion; I imagine Tony's long gone too and his ashes have been spread on the pitch at Bristol Rivers. Who knows about Buddy. He’s probably still there at the Corner House bar 15 years on, chewing on eyelid sandwiches and declaring: “Your buddy’s, your buddy, your buddy.”