A pub with a view of a slice of history
10:17am Thursday 15th August 2013 in News
IN the shadow of beautiful Tintern Abbey, it's fitting that the historic building's former head custodian now runs the Anchor pub. EMMA MACKINTOSH reports.
"AFTER many wanderings, many years of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs, and this green pastoral landscape, were to me more dear, both for themselves and for thy sake."
As William Wordsworth put it, in terms of scenic backdrops, you would struggle to beat the Abbey at Tintern, and just yards away - for thirsty poets and tourists alike - lies the Anchor pub.
The Abbey was founded in 1131 AD during the reign of Henry I, by the Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow, Walter Fitzrichard de Clare.
Consecrated in 1301, the Abbey was almost destroyed 230 years later during the dissolution of the monasteries and today it is a dramatic, intriguing shell of its former self.
The area, in which visitors can see England and Wales simultaneously and has been painted by J M W Turner, is still steeped in the Abbey's history and an estimated 350,000 visitors came to the village last year to see it.
Landlord of the Anchor, Geoff Dawe, 60, and his partner Kate Arnatt, 49, who was head custodian of the Abbey for 25 years, explained how one of the Anchor's central walls is the 12th century entrance gate to the Abbey grounds, where the artisans lived and worked.
Complete with slipway to the river where boats used to come in, the archway can be seen in the courtyard of the pub.
"All the records of the Abbey were lost in the civil war, when Raglan Castle burned down in 1646 during a horrible siege, but we know the ferryman's service originally ran from Tintern to Gloucestershire and parts of the cottage probably date from the 1500s," said Mr Dawe.
The rest of the building was a cider mill with a stone roof which was later topped with slate.
In the 21st century the Anchor comprises the Ferryman's Restaurant, one of the oldest complete parts of the building; the Cider Mill Bar, complete with original mill wheel; the Garden Room restaurant and cafe; and function room, decorated by Graham Maiden from Aardman Animations in Bristol.
Beneath the Ferryman's Restaurant, through a discrete wooden door, there is a 'cellar' which shows the original height of the building (much lower than it is now), and contains a pig salting table which may have been used by the ferryman.
The Anchor has been a hotel for more than 150 years, starting in the Romantic period when tourism developed and Wordsworth wrote about the Abbey and Turner painted the Wye.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, the religious buildings became impromptu domestic dwellings and big items like fire lintels ended up in local people's homes.
The last long-term landlord before Mr Dawe was Alan Butt, who came to Tintern in 1978 and ran the Anchor for 18 years.
Mr Butt recalled finding an old sale notice from around 1870, at the Anchor in which the Beaufort Hotel, the Anchor and the Rose and Crown were sold for 550 guineas.
"The Duke of Beaufort won huge tracts of land on this side of the river for raising the armies of bowmen at Agincourt, and that is why you find his name all over Monmouthshire," said Mr Butt.
"He was told in 1870 to pull the Abbey down as it was an eyesore, but at the time the equivalent of Cadw stopped it and saved the place.
"He gradually sold off his land this side of the river because it was difficult to administer to."
Mr Butt remembered one barmaid, the late Maggie Sadler, who worked at the pub for 80 years, from the age of 12. She liked the place so much that Mr Butt surprised her by arranging her 100th birthday there.
He also described his predecessor, a man known by everyone as "Mr Nick", who ran the bar in the 1960s and 70s and sold the place along with the Beaufort Hotel to start St Pierre golf club in Chepstow.
Mr Butt campaigned for 12 years to get the Abbey lit up, he said, and you can even see his dog Dolly's paw prints in the concrete in the courtyard of the pub - but not for long, as it will soon be replaced with flagstones.
He experienced the pub flooding 13 times - once a regular occurrence when the Lime Kiln stream and the Wye converged after heavy rain, but something which thankfully no longer happens, said Mr Dawe.
When Mr Butt first took over the Anchor, the average landlord's pub tenancy was 21 years. By the time he left, it had reduced to 21 months, due to a government report in the late 1980s which tried to prevent breweries having a monopoly of pubs, and instead opened the market up to large corporations.
Mr Dawe is believed to be the first owner and landlord of the Anchor since the Duke of Beaufort, and is about to start a £50,000 refurbishment of the pub, including cast iron gutters, restoring the original windows on the ground floor, laying flagstones in the courtyard rather than concrete, and new leadwork on the roof.
This is on top of a new children's playground which is almost complete, underfloor heating throughout (which removed the need for anachronistic modern radiators) and a village cricket pitch on the field to the side of the pub.
Along with business partner Pollie Harrington, Mr Dawe has spent around £1 million on the place so far, he said.
"You are like a steward," said Mr Dawe, who used to run a residential home. "You are constantly maintaining it, it's a labour."
The area is packed with wildlife and television programmes are regularly filmed in the basin containing the Abbey, including David Attenborough's 'Life of Birds' which concentrated on the pub because of its large sparrow colony.
At the end of June a seven-foot seal found its way up the River Wye, which flows at the back of the pub, as it was catching salmon.
All this has contributed to visitor numbers increasingly dramatically, said Mr Dawe.
"Last year was the Abbey's busiest year with 72,000 people paying to get in, and around 350,000 visitors in total," he said.
Famous faces like Kevin McCloud, Gryff Rhys Jones and Michael Portillo have dined at the restaurant in recent months and coach parties of South Africans, Australians, Italians, Norweigans, Canadians and Japanese tourists are regularly catered for.
In the corner of the restaurant is the Priest Hole where celebrities and important guests can have a private table, tucked away from other diners, and in the Garden Room there is even a living olive tree, brought from Portugal and now growing in the ground in Tintern.
The beer at the Anchor is treated with great care, with the cask ales kept on hydraulic racks which tilt very slowly as the barrel empties so as not to disturb the sediment.
It is also twice-fermented, giving it more flavour, and the staff have been sent on brewery courses.
"I have developed a passion for the place," said Mr Dawe. "You are only ever a steward, you are never the owner. Hopefully by the time we have finished here it will give the place another hundred years of future."