The Cheapest Beer in Town and a Warm Welcome to All
When I mention to some of my friends that the Avalon Club has asked me to write about them for Normal For Glastonbury they are surprised and curious. They wonder at what goes on behind the stately facade of this Edwardian building in Glastonbury’s High Street, having never set foot inside themselves. I must admit I shared their reticence, being under the impression that it was still the ‘Conservative Club’, imagining it as a haven for born and bred locals that would not be at all welcoming to an incomer like myself.
I had once crossed the threshold – dragged in by a local businesswoman as we tipsily walked past after a Chamber of Commerce Christmas Dinner. I mentioned I’d not ever seen inside and she grabbed my arm, pulling me through the front door, shouting “I’ll introduce you! They’re very friendly!” I felt a huge wave of social anxiety, then great relief when she said “Darn, they’ve just closed”.
Consequently, I was delighted to receive a very friendly email from the club asking me to come and visit and meet some of the regulars and I was keen to accept. So, on a blisteringly hot day in mid July I went for a guided tour of the building. Although the welcome from Club Secretary Kelvin Miller was warm, the club itself was pleasantly cool thanks to the air conditioning. It’s a feature you won’t find in any other venues in the town.
Past and Present
The Avalon Constitutional Club was built in 1910. For many years it was home to the Town’s Conservative voters, suits and ties were mandatory, the local sitting Conservative MP was President. What’s now one large bar was originally two rooms, the reading room, where all the daily newspapers were laid out and the bar. In the olden days women were only allowed in the reading room and up until the 1970’s they couldn’t become members.
For the past few years the club has cast off it’s stuffy atmosphere and proscriptive rules, it no longer has a political affiliation and the Conservative Party no longer play any active part whatsoever in the club. I asked Kelvin what the word Constitutional means in the name of the club and he suggested that a visit there was simply a chance to “stretch your legs and have a pint!”
The club is keen to widen their appeal, particularly to younger people and want to let everyone know that membership is open to all – you just need to be over 18 and not known for misbehaving in the local hostelries! You don’t have to live locally to join, the club has quite a few members from all over the country. Some are regular visitors to Glastonbury and use the club as their “local” when they are here, some are people who were members and then moved away but have continued their membership for when they come back on visits.
The club is run on a not for profit basis, so all profits go back into the club and the maintenance of the building. The committee are volunteers and the staff are dedicated, sticking with the club throughout Covid and coming up with ideas to bring in more members. Many of the club’s activities raise funds for a children’s Christmas party, to which Santa himself makes a special visit.
A Guided Tour
Kelvin showed me around the club so I could see what members get for the £14 annual fee. Non members are welcome at lunchtimes, when they can enjoy the club’s bar, and food.
The Downstairs Bar
The club boasts the cheapest beer in town: a pint of Thatchers for £3.30 and a double vodka for £3.50. They have a choice of gins and are starting a cocktail club with their resident ‘mixologist’ Cheryl. There’s a jukebox, a pool table and regular events. One of the most popular is the Kit Kat Club on Saturday mornings, it’s very informal and a great opportunity for the more senior members of the community to get together. Kelvin tells me they start chatting over coffee but by lunchtime they’ve moved onto wine.
There’s a small partially undercover outdoor smoking area on the ground floor and the club is about to open up their new roof terrace for outside drinking.
The club has a fully fitted kitchen where they prepare food Thursdays to Saturdays and Sunday Roasts.
The menu is standard British fare with daily specials at very reasonable prices – only £7.20 for scampi, chips and peas for example. There’s even a 20% discount for senior citizens on a Thursday lunchtime. Sunday Roasts are £10.50, or two courses for £13.50 if you’re tempted by one of their home made desserts. A kids two course dinner is only £7.
The Function Room
Entering the large function room on the first floor of the building, I was impressed by the beautiful wooden ceiling, which gives the impression of being in the Hull of an upturned ship. There’s plenty of light from the windows overlooking the High Street, which include delicate stained glass panels featuring birds. The walls are decorated with large photos of the Tor and surrounding countryside by Glastonbury photographer Mike Jeffries.
The Avalon Club team are proud of their sprung dance floor which is made from the finest Canadian Maple, imported specially by the Chairman of the club at the time (who just happened to own Snows Timber!) The floor was laid by the same two men who laid the dance floor of the Hammersmith Palais and the Tower Ballroom Blackpool, where one of the heats of Strictly Come Dancing takes place each year.
The function room has its own bar, it is available for private functions and is a popular venue for birthday parties, christenings and baby showers. There’s seating for 80 people and a very reasonable hire charge of £50 for half a day or £100 for a full day’s hire.
The function room is used for karate and yoga classes and they are very open to suggestions for other uses, they are keen to host dance classes as they had a regular ballroom class from 1972 until a couple of years ago. However their flamenco classes were short lived, the dancers heels were simply too loud for the downstairs drinkers to tolerate!
The Snooker Room and Skittle Alley
There are two full size snooker tables, both over a hundred years old. One is kept for league matches, the other is available as a practice table. They are only £2 for an hour’s hire. There’s also a pool table in the bar.
The Avalon Club has a Skittle alley, home to four skittle teams.
The Centenary Room
The Centenary Room is ideal for small groups and meetings, it’s available for hire for only £10 an hour and accommodates up to 30 people. The local chess club meet here.
The bar is accessible with wide doors but unfortunately the toilets are not, the club are planning to install a disabled toilet and hope to find the funds to fit a lift so customers who use wheelchairs can access the upstairs function room.
Meeting The Members
After my guided tour I met up with Committee Member and Membership Secretary Sandie Nicholson. We talked about the club’s desire to play a more inclusive role in the Town. I asked Sandie what the appeal is for her of the club and she tells me “I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself, a community within a community”.
Sandie is originally from York and moved to Glastonbury thirty years ago, she describes herself as “totally open minded abou new-age stuff” with friends in both camps. Like me, she can see both sides, sympathising both with the born and bred locals, some of whom feel their town has been invaded and taken over by the ‘Alternative’ community and the ‘Alternative’ community who sometimes bear the brunt of prejudice. She suggests that the labelling of some venues in the town as only for locals and others as only for ‘alternatives; has created a sort of ‘voluntary apartheid’ in the town, which she is keen to see break down.
From 1992 to 1999 Sandie and her husband were the landlords of the King William, known locally as the King Billy. When I first arrived in 1993 I was informed that hippies weren’t welcome in the Billy, but during Sandie’s term there I saw the Billy becoming more welcoming to all. She also ran a B&B for a while and was amused to see her guests arrive in suits but then come downstairs in their ‘Glastonbury outfit’ of sandals and tye dye.
Sandie explains that she’s never been a Conservative, but even when she first started going to the club she never felt that was a bar to making friends there. She recalls there were regular visits from David Heathcoat-Amory, who was the local Conservative MP at the time, stalwart members would stand to attention when he entered, but Sandie tells me he was always very personable and polite.
I ask Sandie if she has any funny stories about the club and she tells me there was a time when she was perplexed at repeatedly finding red wine in the chiller cabinet. Coming in on a day off she caught Roger, the lunchtime barman, in the act of loading up the chiller with bottles of red. Roger explained that he was simply following the instruction on the bottle: “Chile”. Sandie’s husband told him “That’s referring to where it originates from, Chile it’s a country in South America” to which Roger replied “Well me son, thing is, if ’tis much past Westhay I don’t know a lot about it!”
Derek and Sally Edmonds
I also met up with Derek and Sally, committee members who joined the club in the 1970’s. Sally’s Grandmother’s family, the Lukins, were founder members. Sally used to visit the club with her family, she tells me she first saw Derek dressed up in his fireman’s uniform and “took a liking to him”, they started courting when she was fifteen and have been together for nearly fifty years.
The club has been a major part of their life together, Sally tells me they really appreciate the friends they’ve made there “We’ve got to know virtually everyone who comes in, you know there will always be someone here you can talk to. It’s a safe place for women to come into on their own, I know if Derek was to go before me I’d still feel comfortable coming here and seeing my friends. We need younger people to join as we know we’re not going to be here forever”.
I ask Sally what the club was like in the Seventies: “All the Town’s business people met here, in their suits and ties, no jeans or shorts in those days. The local farmers used to come in on Market Day when we still had the cattle market. Skittles were very popular, we had six teams meeting here. As kids we used to sit quietly with our pineapple juice and crisps, we were very well behaved”.
Courtesy and kindness is still the order of the day here, no one I speak to can remember any trouble, even Wurzels’s gigs passed off without the customary punch up. There’s been some characters over the years, like Stan Durston who was called “the Mayor of Sharpham” and was known for his stories. Sally’s Grandad Bill Foster used to come in on Saturdays and she remembers her Nan had her own stool in front of the old One Armed Bandit machine, she’d play all night, much to the annoyance of anyone else who fancied a go.
I ask Sally what changes she’s seen in Glastonbury over the years. “In the Seventies you could buy anything you needed in the town, but it was very quiet here, even on a Saturday afternoon there was no one about. Yes, most of the shops are just for the tourists now, but it’s very busy, it’s good for business. We’re lucky we’ve still got the Co-op and Earthfare, Street and Wells have lost their High Street grocery shops. I don’t mind the way it is now, A lot of the people in Glastonbury are creative, the window displays are really artistic, the Town is really colourful and beautiful now”.
It was really heartening to feel so welcome in the club. Over the last year I had begun to wonder whether the perceived divide between the ‘born and bred’ locals and us incomers was deepening rather than healing, having seen some of the more extreme opinions from both camps expressed on some of Glastonbury facebook groups. Sally makes me laugh when she mentions an infamous facebook troll who, despite no longer living in the town, frequently claims to speak for it, condemning every change that has occurred here in the last fifty years, she looks wistful as she tells me “I don’t know what’s gone on with him, he was such a lovely little boy, with a mop of blond hair”. I’m grateful for the reminder that a small minority of very vocal people can give the impression of representing the whole when in fact most of us are kind and thoughtful.
I recently bumped into a couple of female friends in town and we were talking about my writing. I mentioned I was currently writing this piece about the club, to my surprise they said they’d visited very recently. They’d knocked on the door one evening looking for somewhere they might watch England playing football in the Euros. They were welcomed in, given seats with a good view of the TV and at half time they were given free pizza. They told me they had been made very welcome and that the club members could not have been friendlier.
At a time when social media has exaggerated and magnified differences to the extent that even friends are finding themselves on either side of a seemingly unscalable fence, it is gratifying to see one of Glastonbury’s oldest institutions extending the hand of friendship. I hope that by meeting together in such congenial surroundings we can help further community in the Town as a whole.
If, like me, you’ve not visited the Avalon Club before, do go along one lunchtime for a drink, a meal and a chat, I’m sure you will find yourself in good company.
You can keep up to date with the club’s news and events on their Facebook Page. You’ll find them at 50 High St, Glastonbury BA6 9DX (pretty much in the middle of the High Street), there are several town car parks nearby. This article was kindly commissioned by the Avalon Club. All text and photos copyright Vicki Steward.
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