Smiling and clearly nervous, Caroline Cheffers steps through the low threshold and down onto the floor of the Malt House. Only on special occasions does she typically draw the bolts on this great and dark room for airing and, if necessary, heating. And now the reason, the special occasion, does emerge immediately behind her: Queen Elizabeth II, serene and regal, pocketbook in the crook of her elbow, steps down as well and makes her way towards the video camera.
Even on the small computer screen, I recognize the passage from which they’ve just emerged. It seems unlikely. Narrow, dust-laden surely, even after a thorough wash, the route is filled with the moldy residue of centuries. It extends between the Malt House and a stone cellar where casks of various ales reside. This is the Bridge Inn’s inner and most ancient terrain, a route typically frequented only by staff. Yet Her Majesty is smiling in perfect order, seemingly indifferent to primeval grime. Her predecessor, the original Elizabeth, no doubt exhibited a similar sangfroid. That would have been some four-hundred years ago, when this inn’s timbers were already time-worn and weathered.
I’m studying the video from four-thousand miles away and nearly two decades after the Queen paid her call. Friends have long regaled me with stories of the Royal Visit, but it has only just occurred to me that with a little searching online, I might be able to conjure a visual record. As it happens, my wife Wendy and I are about to return to Topsham, the small town in Devon, for another academic year. As so often in such a moment, I’m worried about all that may have changed in my absence. I’m aware, too, of course, of my own trajectory of change and of the memories and stories that go with it.
Clutching her black patent-leather handbag paired with sensible shoes and gloves, the Queen continues to beam as if reviewing a parade. Clearly, she has long understood that every gesture, every wince will be noted. Now the moment arrives for her to approach the bar that stands just inside the main door.
At his post stands Norman Cheffers, Caroline’s father, ready to greet his sovereign. White haired, jovial, and a bit portly, Norman alone of those present actually belongs to Elizabeth’s generation. As a token of his fealty, the patriarch presents her with a small brown bottle of ale. Even if the label’s not quite visible, I know it features 101 in bold print and a hand-drawn sketch of the old inn. Dark and rich, the special ale has been brewed to hallowed recipe; it also celebrates the century and more his family have served as custodians here. Norman’s is the third generation, though family tradition has seen actual management pass from mother to daughter. Too often have the menfolk wandered off to fight their wars or to ply their trades or simply to dawdle. It’s Caroline who sees to the day-to-day operations, with her mother Phyllis having passed some years ago.
Norman is beaming, his magnificently bulbous nose rampant. Accepting the tribute, his Queen hefts the bottle appreciatively in her gloves. She is gracious and deliberate. Yet I sense her momentary conundrum. What is to be done? What if the gift is bobbled? What if it explodes? Her diplomatic mien—her poker face—gives nothing away. Yet as soon as courtesy allows, the monarch conveys her trophy to a discreet adjutant. Elizabeth’s teeth remain fixed and visible, her thin, firm lips ever smiling.
If some twenty years earlier, in 1976, my own introduction to English pubs took place right here at the Bridge, so too does this occasion represent the Queen’s first official visit to such an establishment. But of course, it’s no accident. In the wake of the roiling debacle of Princess Diana’s life and sudden death, Buckingham Palace has scripted this event as part of a new initiative. Once again, it has been left to Elizabeth, the Monarch and Matriarch (in 1998 already into her seventies), to lead the charge. Her family’s image is to be humanized. Henceforth, the Royals are to be made out as less removed and arrogant, more harmonious in their brushes with common folk.
Does it work? For all the planning, choreography, and heavy cleaning in preparation, the Queen’s pilgrimage to this longtime redoubt of the middle classes figures as hardly more than a quick drive-by. Not a drop of the inn’s famous ales passes her lips, though along with the bottle presented by her father, Caroline Cheffers does send along a full case of the special 101 brew for Prince Philip.
No one knows just why Buckingham Palace has singled out this particular establishment. Nor, apparently, does Caroline. Or not that she will let on. Surely it has to do with the inn’s great age, as well perhaps as the longevity of its managing family’s tenure (longer in truth than the ruling family’s in Windsor).
To observe her in the video, however, Caroline is clearly in thrall to her sovereign. (And in 2015 she will be invited to pay a return visit to her new Friend’s digs in London). My friend Marc Millon, along with other locals, has taken to calling her inn “the Royal,” partly in jest, but also to signify.
All of this accrues to local lore. But it also highlights other aspects of the Bridge Inn’s defiant resistance to change. Maybe the elderly Queen paid her respects precisely because the Bridge remains vibrant and viable in its own right. It’s not yet been grizzled into an Olde English Pub for tourists. Nor become another sports bar or gastro-pub or electronic casino. Other hostelries across the country have tried to adapt but lost the struggle to survive. Some, quietly, have simply given up the ghost.
Two decades earlier, I was startled awake in the backseat by a sudden lurch across a stone bridge and onto a forecourt of gravel and old pavement.
Without any warning, my friend and former professor John Ward has pulled off the road. It’s only three hours since he’d fetched me from the port in Southampton.
Before us stands a strange and rambling building. Or no, it’s not really a single edifice—I realize as I unwind myself from the car—it’s an assemblage of two or three smaller sections or rooms, some of plaster, some of brick, others with exposed half-beams, all clearly very old and all very pink. They lean into each other with a kind of awkward, jaunty grace. Above, their roofs jostle in a great contention of tile and slate and shingle.
As we walk towards a broad wooden door half-opening onto a cellar, I spy an older man with an apron and mop of white hair handing pints of beer across the threshold to a scrum of customers. A smaller mug of blackish ale comes into my hands.
Cautious, I sip.
Oh. It’s dense and lovely. Sweetish, in a dark, nutty way, and very smooth. I’m silently disappointed only to be spotted the half-pint.
The rest goes down easily enough.