Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

06 March 2020

Over breakfast in a brewery, Malcolm Guite meets an unusual man

I WAS having breakfast in the brewery at Hook Norton, tucking into my sausages, cured with Old Hooky ale, when a remarkable figure strode in, still glowing from from some early-morning labour or other, took a pint from the bar, and wandered over to my table to pass the time of day.

He had curly silver hair and a luxuriant white beard, which framed a face, brown and wrinkled with the weather, but creased with a smile, and something of a twinkle in the eyes: a real countryman’s face. He wore dark moleskins tucked into long boots, a checked shirt, faded waistcoat, and, to crown it all, a trim black bowler hat from which his white curls emerged and flowed down to his collar.

He introduced himself as Roger, and it turned out that he was the brewery’s drayman, who looked after their great shire horses and drove the dray to deliver their beer to local hostelries. Perhaps he had noticed my own broad hat and similarly silver hair and beard, and sensed a kindred spirit — I certainly felt a kind of kinship.

Glancing up at him, and taking in both his appearance and his job, I felt that, had he stepped through that door 100 years ago, nothing substantial would have changed. But if he seemed “out of time”, he was certainly not out of place. He was entirely in keeping with that old Victorian tower brewery, its five storeys, rising jauntily, their odd tiled roofs and darkened beams jutting out here and there like a jumble of small cottages haphazardly piled on top of one another. It was just the setting for such a man, as was the malthouse kitchen where we breakfasted.

He told me a bit about the place: how the water is pumped in from their own well by a steam engine, still working since it was installed in 1899; how each morning they “mash in”, and then someone climbs the rickety stairs to “rouse the beer” by hand using an old wooden paddle; and how, at last, the fermented beer is set into casks and loaded on to the dray, where he sits up behind their two great shires, Nelson and Commander, and sets off on his rounds.

I would have liked to stay to hear more, and to look around the place, but I had to be on my way to a brewery of another sort; for I had been billeted in Hook Norton by the Bloxham Literary Festival, and I finished breakfast hastily so as to go and fulfil my engagements there.

Bloxham is billed as “a literary festival with a theological slant”; but, as the day unfolded, with such a rich and rousing variety of topics and theological flavours, and with so many lively and thoughtful speakers — from historians to poets, from novelists to painters — it seemed to me that it might be better to call it “a literary festival with a theological ferment”.

The phrase “a theological slant” no doubt alludes gracefully to Emily Dickinson’s dictum “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”; but I found the day’s events not so much slanted as alive and bubbling. I thought of the man whose job it was to “rouse the beer” at the top of the Hook Norton Brewery, and decided that my own job as a poet might be rather similar: to rouse the already rich mix brewing at Bloxham — not with an old paddle, but with a new poem.

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