England's West Country: Still the apple of our eye
Inside the breezeblock ciderhouse, the air is cool and damp. The atmosphere is anything but. Six ruddy-nosed Scotsmen, down for the week, merrily poke fun at each other around a Formica table, a tankard in each hand and a few crumbs of cheese in front. Next to them, four large barrels of cider - two sweet, two dry - sit in a row, hissing out the day's cider to any pilgrim who turns up with an empty glass. The wall opposite is covered with photographs and cuttings, including an interview with the late Clash singer Joe Strummer. Encircled is his description of happiness: "chilling in Somerset with a flagon of Wilkins' Farmhouse Cider". No-one here today would disagree.
At the centre of it all is Roger Wilkins, a burly, gregarious, faded Teddy Boy in overalls and wellies. He purposefully strides around his farmhouse, making sure that every visitor is welcomed and quenched. He has been making cider here for some 50 years, after learning the trade from his grandfather. "I was weaned on this stuff," he says, raising his ever-present tankard of green-yellow cider to his lips. "I've been drinking it since I was five years old. And I've never had a bad head."
The reason why Roger does not know the meaning of the word hangover is the same reason why his cider is so revered, why people will travel 400 miles to sit in his draughty farmhouse. It is just apples. He adds nothing bar a teaspoon of saccharine in the sweet barrels. "I test everything by taste," he says. "I know exactly what it should taste like at every stage." Wilkins Cider is how cider used to be before the big brands cleaned it up - rough and ready, with the occasional piece of floating pulp and a sharp tang. The head might be fine, but after a couple of pints, the unsuspecting punter won't be able to work their legs.
Three times a day, the hubbub in the farmhouse falls silent as Roger begins a pressing. Bags of apples are poured into the mill and ground into a pomace. Roger spreads it over a lissom, a wooden board covered in a rough, porous cloth, and repeats the process until he has made up a "cheese", eleven lissoms in total, which is wheeled on rails to the press.
The large vice squeezes down upon the cheese, and the apple juice drips to the trough below. Roger scoops up a palmful, slurps it down and nods, satisfied. There is a murmur of approval from the congregation as he begins to build the next cheese. "I've been coming here every day for 40 years," whispers the man next to me. "I never get tired of watching this."
The sign on the wall of the Tuckers Grave Inn leaves visitors in no doubt as to the primary purpose of this tumbledown country tavern: "Drink hard cider as much as yer please. Loose yer teeth an bow yer knees. Sours yer gut an makes yer wheeze."
Perhaps not the most inviting prospect for recent converts, but for the hardy souls crammed into this front room-disguised-as- a-pub there is nothing better than a tankard of gut-souring cider, and nowhere better to drink it than Tuckers Grave Inn.
A ring of seats is arranged around a flickering fireplace, the air filled with the chat of the regulars - Roger "Cravat" Bonsall, resplendent in synonymous neckpiece; Graham Clylee, proud veteran of "every cider pub in Britain and Brittany"; Stuart Delbono, young farm hand. Each holds a tankard of the near-fluorescent orange Thatchers cider that landlady Glenda Swift pours from the barrels piled up under a window. There is no bar here; that would signal a divide between punters and owners. Rumour has it this room was once the lounge of Glenda's house, adjacent to the bar, but she would get so many people popping in for a drink and a chat that she turned it into the main room of the pub.