There was a time when Hay on Wye was not the gentrified Borders outpost of Bloomsbury and Notting Hill it is today after 30 years of Literature Festivals. When we hung around there a lot in the Seventies it had become the burgeoning ‘Book Town’ with up to 40 bookshops following in the footsteps of ‘King’ Richard Booth, who declared ‘home rule’ from Hay Castle in 1977.
Yet on market days it still felt the fiefdom of rough-hewn farmer folk from the Black Hills, their Welsh lilt heard in both stony chapel and smoky pub. The latter served a decent pint of Draught Bass is you were lucky, but some of the Welsh ales were thinner than sheep’s piss.
We were rescued in that same year,’ 77, by word of a new brewery – Penrhos. Its beers could apparently be found in the Llanthony Priory Hotel 12 miles south of Hay. A daunting quest, though, in our Citroën 2CV. The route is over the Gospel Pass, at 1,800ft the highest in Wales and heart-stopping both for its beauty and its narrow bends.
They were serving the Penhros Bitter by hand pull in the tiny bar of the hotel next to the ruined 12th century monastic remains. We had negotiated an overnight stay in the turret room. En suite it wasn’t – just a water jug for our ablutions and steep spiral staircases to the pissoir. It was to prove a hazardous schlepp with a torch in the wake of copious samples of the nectar. Honeyed and pure, ‘nectar’ was for once appropriate.
Next pilgrimage would be to the pioneering microbrewery responsible. It would take us a similar distance north of Hay into the heart of Herefordshire cider country to an organic project scattered with the stardust of Monty Python star Terry Jones’s involvement. A very naughty brewer?
You wonder what has brought on this à la Recherche de Penhros Perdu nostalgia? The sheer serendipity of an obit in Opening Times, one of the best CAMRA regional mags. Part of the reason, when the November/December issue dropped, I turned to the appreciation of Tony Allen first was that my nurse daughter had looked after him in his last days. She liked the man as much as I liked the pale and hoppy beers he crafted at his Phoenix Brewery at Heywood near Rochdale.
Penrhos apparently inspired him to become an independent brewer. He was working for Bass in Runcorn in 1980 when he read an article by Richard Boston, who promoted the resurgence of real ale in his Guardian column as well as editing his own eccentric eco mag, Vole, funded by Jones. The pair had now apparently joined with a certain Martin Griffiths to launch their own tiny brewery. Not the regular occurrence it is today.
Tony was hooked by the Penrhos aim to make a small amount of top quality beer. So he persuaded them to let him travel down on his four Bass rest days each month to help with the brewing. Indeed he had a hand in the creation of Penrhos Porter, reviving a dark beer style that had almost died out.
Penrhos Court its last legs in 1971 when Griffiths paid just £5,000 for the near derelict 15th century manor house at Lyonshall near Kington and embarked on a Sisyphean 30 year restoration project.There was still a mountain of work ahead when we visited to sample the beer and eat at the organic restaurant, the first to be Soil Association accredited, created by his wife, nutritional crusader Daphne Lambert. I still have her inspirational 2001 cookbook, Little Red Gooseberries based on what she taught in her cookery school.
We were familiar with the area, drawn by the traditional cider revivalism of the late Ivor Dunkerton along the road in Pembridge. The Cider Barn there is in the safe hands of the next Dunkerton generation; Griffiths and Lambert have been gone from Penrhos a decade and it is now a luxurious holiday home complex with an attractive cafe.
A far cry, though, from its maverick heyday when it hosted the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen (they rehearsed a soon-to-be-recorded Bohemian Rhapsody there) and Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield, who lived six miles away on Hergest Ridge. Al Gore visited too. All must have been smitten by the glorious banqueting hall with a minstrel’s gallery and crux beams.
Less spectacular was the cattle byre that serial brewery builder Peter Austin converted into the Penrhos brewery. He had been enlisted by Griffiths, Jones and Boston and out of it flowed a trio of impressive cask beers, made with British malt and local hops. I recall Penrhos Bitter (OG 1042) , Jones’s First Brew and Penrhos Porter (both OG 1050) as beers ahead of their time. We even lugged a wooden firkin home for one Christmas, insouciantly forgetting it would be a 300 mile round trip to return the ‘empty’.
Launched in 1977, the brewery formed just one chapter in a remarkable 30 year epoch for Penrhos; it shut in 1983, the year the Pythons released The Meaning of Life with Jones creating the ultimate glutton/food critic, Mr Creosote. Beer continued to play an important part in Terry Jones’ life (which ended sadly in 2020).
In 2003 he contributed a piece to the 30th edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide. It was titled My Love Affair With Beer and confirmed: “Beer, for me, is more than something I like drinking. It’s a litmus of civilisation. If the society is making good beer, then it’s a healthy society… Real ale is a civilised drink. Keg beer is a dead parrot.”