A time capsule in Topsham: The Bridge Inn
PUBLISHED: 11:28 30 May 2017
Jessica and Ray write about beer and pubs on their blog Boak & Bailey. Their book Brew Britannia was published in 2014 and won the British Guild of Beer Writers' Gold Tankard award
When the real ale revolution of the 1970s kicked off it gave a particular boost to breweries and pubs that had resisted the urge to modernise. The Bridge Inn at Topsham is one example. It has been a pub since the 18th Century, and under the stewardship of the same family for more than 100 years, but gained its current cult status only in the last 50.
In the mid-20th Century the big brewers who owned most of the country’s pubs went on a spree of modernising and rebuilding their flagship properties. Only pubs that were out of the way or of little apparent value escaped their attention which meant that by the 1970s they looked like relics.
Then, along came the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) – part of a general trend to value rustic over industrial, natural over chemical, and organic over composed – and pubs such as The Bridge came to be viewed as treasures. “Rambling and ancient with hardly a lightbulb over 20 watts” read the entry in the 1976 CAMRA Good Beer Guide.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that The Bridge had good beer, and lots of it. The more CAMRA members came to the pub, the more the pub catered to them, until by 1978 it was offering what was then a remarkable variety – seven or eight different real ales at any one time.
CAMRA didn’t create the pub preservation movement but it grew up alongside it and certainly gave it new momentum. The Bridge was actually given listed status in 1952 but is also now one of the jewels in CAMRA’s sadly too-short list of heritage pub interiors.
Geoff Brandwood, author of the wonderful CAMRA publication Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs, describes it as a “glorious old pub… one of the most unspoilt in the country.”
The opening hours are a relic, too: it closes for several hours every afternoon, as if the 1988 Licensing Act never happened.
What really makes The Bridge remarkable, however, is that it is no museum – it still works as a pub, regardless of its historic value or architectural merit.
On our visit during the dregs of winter we found it aglow with warm light, dim in the corners, with an arcane culture all of its own. There are the signs, for one thing, a passive-aggressive laying down of the law: “Nothing ever changes at The Bridge – we are still No Smoking! (Including e-cigs.)”; “Please remember this little parlour is not a public area and is regarded as our family sitting room.”
There is a bar, just about, but most people were being served in the corridor, hovering by the door of the aforementioned parlour which leads directly to the cellar where pints are not pulled but poured direct from the cask.
We sat in the Tap Room enjoying the warmth of the open fire, listening to the murmured conversation of locals and admiring the folksy crocheted beer mats. The only hint at the 21st Century was the contents of our dimpled mugs: Thornbridge Jaipur, a distinctly modern American-style IPA at 5.9% and £4 a pint. Glorious.