Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Bretforton, Worcestershire

The old ways

Finding myself in the Worcestershire village of Bretforton at a few minutes past 12 noon, I decided to take a quick look in the local pub, The Fleece. It’s a pub I knew about already, because it is owned by the National Trust and very old. The timber-framed building was originally constructed in the 15th century as a farmhouse – online accounts call it a longhouse, that’s to say a traditional type of small farm house with accommodation for humans at one end and for animals at the other, although it could just as likely have been fully occupied by the farmer and his family. It’s not clear to me exactly when it became a pub, but it was enlarged in the 17th century and much of what remains dates to that time. The building was still in the same family, the Byrds, and their descendants remained there until the last of the family, Lola Taplin, left the inn to the National Trust in 1977. It was, I believe, the first working pub in the Trust’s care.

The building was nearly destroyed in 2004, when a spark set alight the thatch that then covered the roof. Such a fire can take hold very quickly and destroy a building with a wooden structure. However, no one was hurt in the blaze and a rapid response from six fire brigade crews, from the landlord, from locals who rallied quickly to remove most of the building’s precious contents, and from the staff of the National Trust, saved much of the building’s structure and many of the contents. It was restored, but with a tiled rather than a thatched roof, and hospitality, which had continued meanwhile in the adjacent barn, was restored too.

The building’s exterior still looks striking, with its simple old sign and ancient woodwork, but the interior is even more special. In many ways it doesn’t look as if it has changed much for a hundred years. There are open fires, old furniture including a marvellous curved settle, and a remarkable collection of old objects – copper jugs, pots, andirons, even a set of handbells. There’s also a fine array of 17th century pewter that reputedly belonged to Oliver Cromwell – he is said to have exchanged it on the way to the Battle of Worcester, but I’m inclined to treat such stories with a pinch of salt.

One extraordinary tradition that I’ve seen in no other pub has been kept up at The Fleece: that of chalking or painting white circles in front of the hearths, to protect the building from witches, who were said to enter down chimneys.* If this seems even more unlikely than the storey about Cromwell, I can tell you that such beliefs were prevalent in earlier centuries and in rural areas old traditions died hard. I have a book from the 1940s showing a photograph of a woman adding more whitening to the circles in The Fleece – perhaps it’s Lola Taplin herself. As another drinker observed to me, with a humorous grin, ‘I’ve been coming to this pub for years and I’ve never seen a witch in here, so they must work!’

All in all, The Fleece is a lovely pub, a fine and unique place to while away a little spare time over a pint or I’m told, to come for an evening meal. I have a feeling I’l be back soon.

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* This kind of belief is, of course, a historical can of worms. Prejudice against women who were accused of being witches, often with no grounds at all, sometimes simply because they professed knowledge of traditional healing practices in times before modern, scientific medicine, was rife in earlier centuries.

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