Of all the ways to promote your pub and get more people in, having a bunch of locals paint their faces black and stand outside might not seem the wisest at first glance.
As we arrive at the Salutation Inn in Ham, Gloucestershire, I see my wife do a double take and start to frown. I hurriedly explain to her that this has no connection with racial prejudice and dodgy acts like The Black and White Minstrel Show: the Morris dancers outside the Sally are continuing a centuries-old tradition of facial disguise that allowed people taking part in festivals and other activities to do so without the fear of being recognised and punished.
People tend to ridicule Morris dancers for their bells and handkerchiefs and their skipping along on summer days. I’m glad to have encountered their dark side during my journey into rural cider culture. In the winter, Morris troops look more sinister and forbidding, like giant crows in their dark, ragged garments and top hats. They are so much more obviously part of a deep and powerful tradition than their summer counterparts.
Styx of Stroud Border Morris are dancing outside the Sally to commemorate Apple Day. Behind them, a makeshift stall sells pulled pork rolls with stuffing and apple sauce. There’s apple bobbing, and later, a talk and tutored tasting from me, all made easier with the help of a range of some of the best ciders produced here in the Three Counties of Hereford, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, with the odd grudging nod to somewhere called Somerset — a foreign country where they allegedly make cider too.
Apple Day was devised in 1991 by the charity Common Ground as a way of celebrating nature’s bounty and diversity, and drawing attention to the threat posed by corporate homogeneity. Supermarkets now only sell a handful of apple varieties that are chosen mainly for how perfect they look rather than how they taste, which seems silly when there are over 4,000 different varieties grown in the UK alone.
The scheme worked: Apple Day is a simple, flexible idea that was taken up by schools, farmers’ markets, churches, the National Trust, and anyone else looking for an excuse for a party. It was instituted on 21st October to celebrate the apple harvest getting into full swing, and is now usually held on whichever Saturday falls closest to that date.
This is the first Apple Day the Salutation Inn has held under its new owners, Peter Tiley and his wife Claire. They moved here from London 18 months ago to pursue Pete’s dream of running a pub and, eventually, brewing his own beer. This is a course of action that most existing publicans would advise a couple in their early thirties to avoid, but the Tileys have hit the ground running.
Since they took over, the Sally has been named 2014 Pub of the Year by the local Dursley and District Sub Branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, again by the county of Gloucestershire, and again by the South West region. Pete now has the national title in his sights, and will also be hoping to push ahead in other awards, having been a finalist in the Taste of Gloucestershire Food and Farming Awards this year too.
These Apple Day celebrations are a perfect example of why the pub has succeeded in such dramatic fashion. The quality of ciders available, and the way they are kept, shows a great understanding of range and cellarmanship. The events keep the pub busy and vibrant all day long, guaranteeing a steady flow of feet through the door and cash over the bar.
But talk to the regulars and you soon realise that the real skill is not just in persuading people to come to the pub and part with their money. That’s just a sideshow to the real business of bringing together the community of which the pub is part. People are curious and openminded, learning to trust that if their local landlord thinks this is going to be fun, it probably will be. Old hands who have been drinking here for decades speak warmly of the young whippersnapper and even smile patiently at his attempts to introduce fancy London craft beers to farmhands. (The stronger ones actually sell quite well, because like the cider, an American-style IPA at 7% ABV 'gives you value for money').
You could think of Peter Tiley as being lucky in that his pub is in the heart of a cider-making region. But Apple Day cuts all ways.Any country pub has a Morris troop nearby and fits the mould for an event like this, even if your closest cider maker isn't that close. And for any urban pub, it’s a perfect way to embrace a bit of the countryside. As events go, whatever kind of pub you run, it’s another big, busy day for October, a week or so before Halloween.
If you do it as well as the Sally Inn, it could lead to even more than that.