The Parson & the Publican visit All Saints Church and Castle House Hotel, Hereford
PUBLISHED: 14:37 14 November 2013 | UPDATED: 14:45 14 November 2013
The Reverend Ian Charlesworth is rector of five rural parishes in the Wye Valley, co-author of this monthly article and driver to and from the churches and hostelries visited. Richard Stockton is watercolourist, sat-navver (or as The Parson prefers to call him, sat-nagger), and an expert on country inns, having run one himself
All Saints Church in the words of The Parson
“This is it,” I thought. “He’s having a seizure of some kind.” For standing beside me the Publican had gone slack jawed and a little glassy eyed; the large white cup was trembling in the saucer he held in his right hand and he had stopped in his tracks. It was a very public place for this to happen and right at the top of the stairs which, if he fell backwards, could make things tricky but as my mind sped through all the things one ought to know at such moments I was pretty sure I could get him to hospital and still be in time for a luncheon to which we had been invited. “Well I’ll be,” he exclaimed reassuringly, “Will you look at that.” After many years of visiting All Saints Church in the centre of Hereford, I had forgotten the rather intimate carving of the disgruntled carpenter at the top of the stairs to the balcony, but it certainly caught my companion’s attention. I am not sure whether it was the flexibility or the detailed workmanship that flabbered his gast but the Old Licensed Victualler (OLV) was certainly impressed.
A café in a church is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, some might think it disrespectful but to me it seems the perfect use of a prominent building that would otherwise stand locked and lonely in the middle of town when everyone was out shopping and only “This is it,” I thought. “He’s having a seizure of some kind.” For standing beside me the Publican had gone slack jawed and a little glassy eyed; the large white cup was trembling in the saucer he held in his right hand and he had stopped in his tracks. It was a very public place for this to happen and right at the top of the stairs which, if he fell backwards, could make things tricky but as my mind sped through all the things one ought to know at such moments I was pretty sure I could get him to hospital and still be in time for a luncheon to which we had been invited.
“Well I’ll be,” he exclaimed reassuringly, “Will you look at that.” After many years of visiting All Saints Church in the centre of Hereford, I had forgotten the rather intimate carving of the disgruntled carpenter at the top of the stairs to the balcony, but it certainly caught my companion’s attention. I am not sure whether it was the flexibility or the detailed workmanship that flabbered his gast but the Old Licensed Victualler (OLV) was certainly impressed.
A café in a church is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, some might think it disrespectful but to me it seems the perfect use of a prominent building that would otherwise stand locked and lonely in the middle of town when everyone was out shopping and only open its doors on a Sunday when all the shoppers had gone home. Now it provides a lively and warm welcome and the best bacon sandwich in town (according to some young critics that I know). It also gives us the chance to combine coffee and church visiting.
The way the adaptations have been made is worthy of note. Uncompromisingly modern they are slotted into the shell of the building without, it seems to me, detracting from the strength of the church’s fine medieval structure. Pale wood, stainless steel and frosted glass contrast with limewashed walls and dark, polished oak and it works. Observed from below, the balcony resembles the hull of a boat, an ancient analogy for the Church.
As we sit at the far end of the balcony and my chum restores his equilibrium we are able to view the activity below. Chilly shoppers shed welcome layers, enjoying the warmth of their coffee, whilst harassed mums take a well-earned break. An elderly lady is assisted to her seat by her daughter who then goes to fetch refreshment for them both, and goes back to get sugar, and again for some more milk. I point her patient forbearance out to my companion but he is engaged by the intricacies of the roof above the south chapel. Each peg is clearly visible as is the older timber in contrast to the more recent restoration. It is a testament to carpenters of many generations.
As we pass back along to the stairs we are much taken by the view of the stained glass windows afforded by our lofty elevation. Designed to be viewed from a distance it is enchanting to be able to see details that would have passed a viewer by before the alterations. In a depiction of Christmas, a little boy is holding a train marked with GWR, for instance. Once more at ground level, we enjoy the fine carving of the stalls in the chancel. The misericords are well worth a second glance. If this was the work for which the carver – represented in graphic detail upstairs – was unpaid, then he had a point. The chancel is a lovely space and although completely open to the busy café, it retains a sense of being just a little apart. It is still a holy space.
The heavily carved altar table fills the centre of the space and forms a nice juxtaposition with the light wood tables beyond. For those who would turn up their noses at such an enterprise as Café@All Saints then this serves as a neat reminder that a shared meal is at the heart of what takes place in our churches week by week.
I turn to make this point, profound I thought, to the OLV only to find him deep in contemplation of the fine pulpit and not paying the slightest attention to me – not unusual I think when me, him and a pulpit appear in conjunction. There is much else to appreciate in this fine church, the wall painting of the Annunciation to the right of the High Altar, the bread shelf to the side of the café area. All these fine features of a good church are, I suspect, over looked by the average shopper in search of sanctuary from the cold but then I suspect it was ever thus.
By the time we finish our perambulation the enemy is against us and we depart the warm welcome for the chilly streets to make out way to the aforementioned luncheon. An irresistible invitation has been forwarded from the Editor to attend a relaunch lunch in her place and although there is little chance of us adding to the lustre of the occasion in her inimitable fashion, we have scrubbed up as best we can, paying particular attention to removing the snuff stains from the OLV’s waistcoat.
In the words of The Publican
What is a deconsecrated chicken pie I enquire, in a whisper to my old chum the Parson? I had taken a surreptitious look at the menu and as we were amongst such distinguished company, I did not want to appear as dull as Senior Management considers me to be. “Which glasses have you got on?” he responds a few moments later. “Why, the tinted ones”, says I, “The ones I look at life through, the ones that make the pippin juice appear bursting with autumn sunshine, make halves into pints and the tankard always half full.”
Then with what I call his ‘Brain of Britain’ look which he puts on when quoting Virgil or Homer (he’s such a swat) he says in a determined sotto voce “De-constructed” causing the great and good of Hereford to turn a questioning look upon us. I really must visit my friendly optician again as I embarrass the old codger if I squint through the monocle in mixed company.
We are in the newly refurbished restaurant of Castle House, Hereford’s riverside, boutique town-house hotel chatting to the movers and shakers of the city. Councillors, headmasters, retailers, the media and glamorous ‘gels’ who design appealing interiors. What hope, I wonder, for a dusty specimen such as I in their company? So imagine my elation when the efficient and attractive Paula Snow takes me gently by the arm, thankfully not the one clutching a large glass of something cool and white, and guides me towards the dining table saying as she does so that she will have to split the boys up since they are outnumbered by the girls. I think I have reached a place the old Parson claims a greater familiarity with.
The table is long and covered with starched white linen and matching napkins. Chintzy curtains on brass rods pick up the olive green of the walls; tasteful paintings of bold citrus trees with Greek style urns hang above old-fashioned style radiators and discreet spotlights in the ivory ceiling add extra light to the gold shaded wall lights and large pained windows. The de-constructed chicken pie is what it says it is. A roast supreme of chicken with skin removed and served separately as a crispy triangle. The small circular pastry lid covers a melee of wild mushrooms and pancetta; a mashed potato and leek patty is decked with a crisp potato wafer sail and a delicate volute sauce complements and completes the innovative dish. Claire Nicholls, the young and talented head chef, is keen to source as much as she can from local producers and is fortunate that the owner David Watkins’s farm is less than 10 miles away and provides the kitchen with pedigree Hereford beef with the classic yellow fat, sadly a rarity these days.
This is passionately serious food that the brigade turns out under Claire’s watchful eye as is proved in the pudding which is a miscellany from the orchard. A tiny, creamy crème brulee hiding some concentrated apple sits next to a clever crumble parfait with a shot glass of mulled pear toddy to ease it down.
As we purr gently back through the lanes to a warming fire memorable meals of a fowl nature parade through my mind. This was a meal entirely right for its setting and time. Intricately executed to provide the sense of simplicity and great depth of flavour, a good dish for a winter’s day. I think back to an early summer day of long ago when a fishing chum and I happened upon a hostelry nestling on the banks of this same river. We were further upstream where the black and white cottages are replaced by stone and sluggish water is bright, rippling over smooth grey rocks into swirling sun dappled glides where the salmon run.
The innkeeper bade us welcome and served us pints of cool beer from a jug straight from the cellar. When we enquired if it were possible to partake of some lunch, he told us if we were prepared to wait awhile, we could join him and his wife after shut tap. We took our tankards and jug, I seem to remember down the path which was bordered by lush green vegetables, scrumping blackbirds darted, pinking at our approach and we sat at a table right on the river bank. There was a fruit cage part of which was partitioned off and glossy dark chickens scratted, clucking contentedly bathing in the dry sun drenched dust.
After the sole mid-day customer made his unsteady way up the lane the lady of the house appeared and laid cloth on the table, shortly followed by our host clutching another jug of ale – a jolly cove who much enjoyed his fishing and gardening. Lunch was one of his chickens with gravy made from the juices in the bottom of the pan and stock from the boiled giblets, avidly consumed by the house whippet and collie in turn. New potatoes and fresh garden peas were the perfect accompaniment. A bowl of strawberries from the fruit cage rounded off a perfect repast.
The innkeeper insisted we stay for the evening rise and fish for the plump brown trout which fed where his stream entered the main river. I somehow remember that the rods stayed on the top of the car and we dozed on the riverbank listening to the song of rippling water and dreaming of plump birds.
This article is from the February 2011 edition of Herefordshire Life magazine.
For more from The Parson and the Publican, also known as The Reverend Ian Charlesworth and Richard Stockton, visit: www.theparsonandthepublican.com