At Michlestone-Y-Vedw, a mile or more up a country lane from the umbilical artery that linked Cardiff to Newport, stood the Cefn Mably Arms. It was, and still is, a country pub of the old school. It lived a country style with real brass plate and copper jugs lining the lounge walls. Whether the doors were open and the house vibrant, or if it was quietly snoozing waiting for the bolts to be drawn back, it was its own, almost cloistered community. Inhabited by special country people who shared in an atmosphere of warmth and geniality. Even the rustic regulars who might never count wealth amongst their assets, had an amiable countenance not always found amongst their urban cousins.
A mere ten miles or so from the heart of a bustling city and yet a different country. To young eyes, the place and the people who congregated there combined to radiate a quality of life that was rich, mellow and permanent. In the refined atmosphere of the public rooms, people talked and others listened. The talk did not always revolve around the harvest or the milk yield or other farming tittle tattle that you might expect from a country pub, yet otherwise it was like living an everyday story of countryfolk. Tom Forest could have stood in the tap-room with his back to the fire and nobody would have been a bit surprised.
Occasionally, a 'Meet' would assemble at the front of the pub with a host of people and a very large pack of beagle hounds that eddied and flowed like a living whirlpool. With their tails permanently erect and curled at the tip, the dogs reminded me of a car park full of fairground dodgem cars, bustling this way and that. There was the odd mounted rider dressed in the traditional pink, but it was not a full 'Hunt' where all the participants are mounted. During a Meet, most folks followed the dogs on foot, although I am sure the fox cared little either way. On just one such occasion, a large group photograph of perhaps forty people was taken outside the front, and later framed to hang in the small entrance hall. And maybe the sense of permanence had some justification when in 1987, nearly thirty-five years later and some twenty years after the pub left family hands, I found the photo still hanging in the same spot and the little lad in short trousers was standing in the front.
The walls of the Cefn were built to last and the outside had a rock solid countenance that has obviously shown contempt to the elements for generations. It was rumoured to have been a small monastery where the monks brewed their own beer before it became licensed to the public. It was also supposed to have been mentioned in the Domesday Book. More latterly, in the nineteenth century, it was known to have been a meeting place for a Friendly Society whose members drew up a rule-book and paid a subscription of one shilling. I can recall seeing the rule-book being handed round the lounge for inspection.
The building is set well back from the road, which even then conveniently left a large car park at the front. Some potential parking though is taken up by the massive girth of an ancient oak that itself must be several hundred years old. To this day it is one of the mightiest oak trees that I have ever seen. There was then not a lot housing in the neighbourhood. The odd farm, a house here or there, and a small row of old farm workers cottages. Yet the pub was very much a local focal point, nestling as it does alongside St Michael's Parish Church, which in turn was flanked by the village school, now inevitably a private residence.
The church has its own little claim to fame in that it is one of the very few where the central aisle is on a slight incline so that any prospective bride and groom really do walk up the aisle. It became the focus of attention when a long forgotten crypt was re-discovered under the main body of the church. It was found to contain a number of tombs and caused quite a splash of local publicity for a day or two, before obscurity closed around its sleepy walls once more. Otherwise, the most striking thing about the little church was probably its incumbent, who, without fail after every Sunday morning service, would slip discreetly into the pub next door for a half or two of bitter. It mattered not that the six day opening laws meant that the pub remained closed on Sundays, it was a ritual that was in keeping with the time and the place. He slumbers peacefully now, in the churchyard, handily placed to keep one eye on the pub and the other on the church.
Amongst the earliest recollections I have of the Cefn, is one of an old hand-worked water pump that took some energetic levering up and down, but once it was primed, gushed water at quite a rate into an old stone trough. Facing the building from the outside, it was on the left-hand side, tucked in a corner up a couple of well-worn steps, next to the gentlemen's stalls. Until a modern 'ladies' was added to the lounge, the only proper toilet for family and customers alike was a gloomy and smelly little tin privy hiding in the corner of the rear garden.
The garden itself was quite modest but always very orderly and well groomed. I suspect that this was as a result of the efforts of a 'man' casually employed to keep it that way. I could not imagine either Auntie Marge or Auntie Mu wielding the business end of a trowel to keep the weeds at bay. And she was always Auntie Mu to us kids even though technically she was our step-grandmother. She was after all, only two years older than Dad.
The family wash was a major weekly event. It turned the covered but otherwise open veranda at the rear, into a busy laundry full of gas boilers, scrubbing boards and huge hand cranked mangles capable of cracking coconuts. The drying was done outside on fine days or on a line rigged up under the veranda if it was wet. Either way, airing the clothes was always done on a giant rack lowered from its resting-place high on the kitchen ceiling. Operating the rack was achieved by a system of great rope pulleys that were something of a mystery to me.
Actually, the kitchen was always called 'The Dairy' and was formed by an extension to the main body of the house, though it had been added many years previously. Whenever that had been, the builder was a good improviser because when he found he hadn't enough flagstones to quite finish the floor, he nipped over the wall and pinched one of the gravestones to finish it off. No-one might have known, only he laid it with inscription side up for everyone to see. Though what it said exactly I cannot now recall. I do remember more than once being bathed in the huge white stone trough which, together with its attendant scrubbed wooden draining board, served as the kitchen sink. There was plenty of farmhouse china in blue and white bands in the dairy and if there wasn't a mass of pots and pans arranged on shelves around the walls, there should have been. It was that sort of kitchen.
Harry Head took the Cefn around 1930 when he gave up his job as manager of the Welsh Cold Stores apparently on a whim. Certainly he married Muriel Tamplin without first letting anyone in the family know. Muriel had been working in the Esplanade Hotel in Porthcawl and no-one had an inkling of what Harry was about until he had already become publican, bridegroom and if not exactly a country squire, then a country gentleman designate at least. Harry was an opportunist and one of life's gamblers. When things were good he bought the best and entertained in style. When things had been bad, and he was an inveterate poker player, the food on the table had sometimes only arrived with help from the pawnshop. But for the next twenty years things were mostly good and Harry feted and entertained a large circle of friends and acquaintances. Provided of course, that they were gentlemen, landowners or businessmen with whom he might share a cigar. Amongst others, members of the Bertram Mills circus family were made welcome more than once, during their annual tour. Ham and egg suppers at the Cefn gained a popularity far and wide and brought good custom to the business.
There was a maid, Evelyn, who lived in. She was a lovely lady and very professional. She was always dressed in a long black smock and starched white apron and cap. Domestic by day, she served and waited on tables in the evening. She eventually retired to live with her sister Stella, in the village of Llysworney in the vale of Glamorgan. Sometimes, when things were especially busy, Stella was brought in to help as well. Harry was fond of Michaelmas goose dinners, when around twenty-five guests were fed and watered in some style. A large stilton cheese was produced and a bottle of fine port was passed around the table- with the left hand of course.
Farmhands and tradesmen may have been tolerated in the tap-room, but they didn't get much change from Harry. He was a stern, sometimes cruel man, who did not bestow the honour of conversation lightly. Perhaps a throwback to the Victorian era from whence he came, there were not many who got passed calling him anything other than Mr. Head. Even within the family there were those who had not the courage to use his Christian name, and found his company nothing less than an ordeal. I was not yet seven when he died of pneumonia in January 1952, so he does not figure very largely in my memory. Yet the nailbrush that he wore under his nose for a moustache does provide a prickly recollection of an occasional good night kiss for a youngest grandson.
The central doorway into the pub opened into a small entrance hallway with a door on the left into the lounge and a door into the tap-room on the right. Each of these three areas had a serving hatch from the small square bar that occupied the centre of the building. Behind the lounge was the family sitting room and at the rear of the tap-room was the dairy. Behind the bar was the 'cellar' where huge wooden beer barrels were chocked and tapped, and left to settle on well worn flagstones. When a pint was ordered at the bar, the glass was taken to the cellar and the ale drawn straight from the barrel. There were no pumps at the counter.
After Harry's death, his youngest daughter, Marjory, a 41 year old spinster, continued to run the pub with her step-mother Mu, as well as working full time for the furriers Swears and Wells in Cardiff. Once upon a time in her youth, she had become engaged to a young man from the garage at Castleton where she left her bicycle to catch the bus into work in Cardiff. The relationship came to a sudden end one weekend however, for reasons she never divulged. There is a somewhat implausible suggestion that the suitor had suggested eloping to Gretna Green, at which Marge had thrown up her arms in horror and disowned him at once! Whatever the truth, she vowed never to look at another man again, and so it was.
Though not strongly built, Marge threw the great wooden barrels about with a practised art, but usually accepted the offer of some male brawn when it came to the full ones. A very capable woman in every sense, it seemed a little incongruous that she had a pathological fear of spiders. Every weekday Marge would finish work in Cardiff, catch the bus to Castleton and then cycle, or more latterly ride her moped the one and a half miles to the Cefn. After her evening meal, an hour or so later would find her in the bar until closing time when clearing away and cashing up would start. One last chore every night saw her working her way round all the ground floor windows, placing and closing thick wooden shutters that were firmly bolted into place. Two women in a country pub found security in routine and a very overweight labrador dog called Penny.
Some of the people who put in an appearance at the Cefn could have inspired a Giles cartoon. There was inevitably one or two who had the refined air of retired army officers but who could have been shoe salesmen for I really know. And there was Little Alf, a dapper little man in country tweeds and polished brown boots. He was in his early nineties when he took me for a day out at a local point-to-point meeting. And he still knew enough to put one over on the bookies for us both to come away winning a few pounds, even in my case, with stakes of only half a crown.
One couple might easily have fallen from the pen of a cartoonist. Ruben and Joan were every young boy's imagination of Lord and Lady Docker. He was tall, red faced, portly and had a shiny bald head. He had a haughty laugh and would certainly have drunk malt whisky. I expect Joan's favourite tipple would have been pink gin. She was tall, elegant, and had ruby red lips and thatched blond hair. She dressed in classic style and spoke in a cultured drawl which belied a reputed free and easy background lived in and around Tiger Bay long before she met and married the good natured but rather gullible Ruben. I wish I could remember what car they drove. It was certainly very posh- perhaps a Jaguar, yes it must have been; they couldn't possibly have had anything else!
Mind you, Auntie Mu herself had more than her fair share of character. She was the perfect partner for Harry's somewhat pretentious ways, and could wear furs with distinction. A woman of ample figure, she wore heavily styled glasses, strings of pearls, three chins and a blue rinse hair-do. Nevertheless, she was a warm and generous person with bags of personality and had no trouble running the pub, with Marge's help, after Harry's death. Mind, she probably spent more time sitting on the public side of the serving hatch while Marge was on the business side of it.
Mu always made a lot of fuss over her lapdog, which was variously a white highland terrier called Scottie, or later a long-haired dachshund named Goldie, who was far more astute than she looked. At a small family gathering in the sitting room after hours one evening, Auntie Mu was sitting in her usual armchair. She had placed her glass of gin and tonic on the floor beside the chair. Goldie jumped down from that capacious lap and did a couple of circuits of the room in and out of a few legs. Satisfied that no-one was watching, she sidled over to the nearly full stem glass, picked it up in her teeth and carried it off underneath the table. There she covertly lapped it dry before returning it empty, back to where she had got it from. I witnessed this quite amazing little feat in appreciative silence and delighted in Auntie Mu's subsequent puzzlement with undisguised glee. All the more because Goldie had by now returned to her usual laptop position, wearing nothing less than a smugly contented look on her face.
It came as something of a bombshell when, in 1968, Mu suddenly died at the age of 68. And within a few weeks Marge was whisked into hospital with circulation problems and had her right leg amputated. All of a sudden the Cefn was gone, and the reality was a far cry from the illusion. When the accountant had done his sums, poor Marge was left with nothing more than debts. After a lengthy recuperation staying with Mum and Dad, her sister-in-law and brother, she moved first into a tiny bed-sit and then into a sheltered flatlet in Cardiff. Despite the warning leg operation, she continued to smoke heavily until lung cancer finally saw her off in 1983 at the age of 72 years.
There are nothing but fond memories of the Cefn. When I was a little lad, I stayed the weekend there with a pal. And for no better reason than we were 'going country' we spent our pocket money on a couple of axes from Woolworths. We hid them at night in the double bed we shared, but needless to say they were found in no time at all. A solemn court of enquiry was held in the morning but once explanations had been given, the axes were duly handed back with words of caution, but never a mention was passed back to mothers or fathers.
Christmas mornings at the Cefn were a warmly anticipated routine. The snug solitude of the tap-room with high back oak settles arranged around the glow of an open fire, and a grandfather clock that usually chimed but sometimes forgot. The lounge, or coffee room as it was often known, was larger and far more spacious, and the principle venue for family festive gatherings. Christmas lunch itself was usually a mid-afternoon affair for which we always returned home. Occasionally though, the lounge was the scene of a splendid dinner and I have a vivid recollection of digging for sixpences buried in a giant Christmas pudding. Later, the lounge might be turned into a rugby pitch where 'tries' were scored by mixed teams who fought to succeed in stuffing balloons either through the serving hatch at one end or up the chimney at the other. So perhaps it was not always that refined after all!
The Cefn was an era. It played an important part in family life and a generation of young Heads grew up in its warm embrace. Everyone's childhood memory contains a character or two here and there and the Cefn seemed to be full of them. It was part of the order of things and it was going to stay that way forever. Well for nearly forty years it did, and perhaps in some ways, it still does in the mind's eye.
Christmas Day 1946 and the 8th May1994
On Christmas Day 1946 Harry Head sat in a wooden chair on the car park outside the front of the Cefn and had his photograph taken with his six grandchildren. Forty-eight years later, those six grandchildren gathered once more to have their photo taken in their same positions. (Since by then Harry would have been a hundred and twenty-one years old, he could be excused for not being there.) They came from London, Southampton, Woking, Sutton Coldfield and Cardiff and this time they brought their spouses, their children and all but three of the grandchildren with them. Forty-three of Harry's descendents came to have their photo taken too. The South Wales Echo sent a man to cover it.
We took over the pub for lunch and had a splendid family meal followed by a couple of light hearted speeches. By a happy coincidence, a group of war-time Land Army girls were also celebrating a reunion at the Cefn on the same day. Malcolm, who had spent the war years at the pub, had a fine old time swapping stories on what had happened over the intervening fifty years.
In 2004 I followed a curious trail that stretched over sixty-seven years.
In 1937, Harry Head, licensee of the Cefn Mably Arms, entertained three of his friends. One of these was J.C. Walker who was then the cartoonist for the Western Mail and Echo in Cardiff. Walker had recently drawn a cartoon of Harry and it was hanging in a frame on the wall of the lounge behind the friends when they had their photograph taken. Moving on fifteen years, shortly after Harry's death in 1952 at the age of 79, one of the regular customers at the pub, Bernard Pendlebury, who had been friendly with Harry, asked his widow, Muriel, if he might have the cartoon.
In 1989, I came into possession of the photograph of the group taken in 1937 and, with my father, George Head now dead, I asked my mother about it. She explained how disappointed my father had been when he learned his stepmother, Mu, had given the cartoon to a customer, Bernard Pendlebury, because he much admired it and had asked for it. George felt that as Harry's son he should have been asked before it was given away. I made a mental note to try to get it back if at all possible, but somehow, living in Sutton Coldfield, the opportunity never arose. Even though, in 1994 in the run up to a family reunion held in the Cefn at which some forty-five family members attended, I visited the pub and found Bernard Pendlebury sitting at the bar. I introduced myself and we chatted about the old days, but because I momentarily forgot, I did not mention the cartoon to him.
In 2001 when moving into the house at Coryton Rise, back in Cardiff I came across the 1937 photograph and rather than put it away again I propped it up on a shelf in the bedroom to remind me to do something about it before it was too late. I looked at it often and each time I did, I resolved to visit the Cefn again. The opportunity finally came when my brothers Malcolm and Gerv and their wives Gill and Diana came to stay for the weekend in April 2004. We went to the Cefn for Saturday lunch and this time I took the photograph with me. Bernard, of course, wasn't there but talking to the landlady, Mrs. Matthews, we learned that he was still alive and living in the nearby bungalow that he had always lived in. But with difficulty now with walking, he no longer visited the Cefn. Undeterred, Malcolm and I went to the bungalow to see him. His wife answered the door and led us to a small sitting room at the back. As soon as we walked into the room, our eyes were drawn to the cartoon hanging on the wall! Only last Christmas their son had had it cleaned up and reframed to hang back in pride of place.
We had a chat of course and caught up on some news and when we explained the reason for our visit the cartoon was soon handed over for copying. The original has gone back to Bernard, but even so, after more than fifty years, a copy at least is back with three members of the head family even if it did skip a generation. George, I think, would be happy.
Since then I have had a cartoon done of George himself by a local man in Cardiff. It was done from a photograph of course and is a pretty good likeness. And since I had one done of myself some twenty years ago there are now cartoons of three generations of Heads. It would be nice to think that my sons Ben and Matthew, and indeed my grandson Morgan in time, might also have one done and continue the tradition.