The Rifleman’s Arms in Chilkwell Street, Glastonbury, is a proper pub. It’s the pub I measure all other pubs against, if there’s a Platonic Ideal of Pubs then the Rifle’s, as it is affectionately known, is it. I first drank in there when I came to the town for the 8.8.88 Free Festival on the Tor, and when I moved to Glastonbury in 1993 it became my ‘local’. The pub has buckets of atmosphere with its dimly lit, low ceilinged 16th Century front bar, stone mullioned window frames, old wooden tables and roaring log fires in Winter.
After the house I lived in in Wells Road, The Glastonbury Institute of Gracious Living, was sold in 2007 the landlord gave the old pine wooden table to the pub, where it now sits in the snug, having had a piece cut out to accommodate the large belly of a regular customer.
So many pubs nowadays have carefully contrived ‘quirky’ interiors with knick knacks and road signs and old farming implements adorning the walls. These are supposed to suggest a sense of history I suppose, but it’s clear the pub chain has sent an interior designer to a warehouse that specialises in antique tat, for the kind of boozers that have kicked out the locals, and get their scampi and chips and lasagnas bought in ready made and frozen in a lorry. I hate these pubs, They are boring and soulless and bland and so is their food and their customers. The Rifleman’s has the history and atmosphere, that these pubs seek, but fail, to emulate.
I know little about the history of the Riflemans, except that there was a butcher’s shop on the site in the Medieval period and that the oldest part of the pub dates to the 16th Century, I can’t find much online except this article on ‘Pubs and Inns with a literary connection’:
“Six pubs feature in John Cowper Powys’s powerful novel A Glastonbury Romance and three of them are in Glastonbury itself. ‘The George & Pilgrims’ is described in the previous entry, ‘Dickery’s’, now demolished, stood in the former cattle market and ‘St Michael’s Inn’ can be identified as the seventeenth-century Rifleman’s Arms at number 4 Chilkwell Street, where licensing laws were liberally interpreted.” The article goes on to say “The Rifleman is unfussy and the dim lighting and low ceilings help convey the very real impression of antiquity.”
The pub’s fortunes have gone up and down over the years. When I first visited the Rife’s was the centre of massive regular gatherings of bikers, with thousands of choppers lined up in the car park. In the early 90’s it was the place to go on a weekend, with regular bands and a fantastic Sunday Roast for £4. John and Bett were landlords of the ‘firm but fair’ variety and Big Bob Wilson kept the unruly in check while collecting glasses. It’s had a few managers since then, some great, like Tom, and others who didn’t seem to be able to grasp its particular magic and keep their clientele. It even closed down for a while which was very sad.
There are thousands of funny stories that took place in the Rife’s. One of my favourites concerned a character called Septimus, who looked a little like a psychedelic Captain Birdseye. When John and Bett were still running the pub John was confused to find money on the bar each morning, he was sure it hadn’t been there at closing time when he’d securely locked all the doors. One night he decided to solve the mystery, so he turned off the lights and sat waiting in the bar. After a short while there was a noise from the chimney breast, and out climbed Septimus, who then helped himself to the pump and left the cash on the counter. At the time Septimus was a big drinker, but he became teetotal in his later years.
Another story was one I was witness to. I was in the Ladies loo and had put my rum and coke on the cistern. In the cubicle next door was my drunk friend who I shall refer to as ‘R’. R decided to climb onto the toilet seat and look over the cubicle wall, spying my drink she climbed further up onto the cistern on her side and reached over to grab my glass. The cistern and the toilet gave way, crashing to the floor in a shower of tiny pieces of porcelain, and the inlet pipe gushed out water in a torrent onto the floor. R couldn’t bear the thought of the landlord (Ivan at the time) thinking she had destroyed the toilet simply by sitting on it, and so had to confess her crime. Needless to say I found this hilarious and like to remind her of the incident at least once a year.
Perhaps it’s the short walk out of them town centre that puts them off, but the Rife’s doesn’t seem to have the problem of perpetually drunk and boring clientele clogging up the bar. Rather, you are bound to encounter an interesting character or two, I recently met an older American woman there with a very funky haircut, when I complimented her on it she revealed she was had moved to Glastonbury having retired from working with Vidal Sassoon in San Francisco and was hairdresser to numerous Hollywood stars in the 60’s.
I chatted briefly to the new managers, Rob and Aieda. Despite never having been to Glastonbury before deciding to take on the pub, they have the laid back attitude and enthusiasm, that the place needs to bring it back to the lively local it was. I’m very impressed with how they’ve handled the revamp – they’ve cleaned it up without destroying any of what makes it special. The Pool Room and the Back room where bands play have been redecorated with tasteful panelling and new flooring, while the more historic front and back bars have been cleaned up but left essentially the same – even the old red and white tiles. The toilets are now enormously improved, which means you can now enjoy a game of pool without being overcome by the smell of wee from the Gents.
The pub stocks a good range of beers and ciders, including Orchard Pig’s ‘Philosopher’ which is my personal favourite (although I wish they’d get some Maverick in too!). Two pints is my limit, I did write an earlier draft of this post in the Rife’s after two and a half pints, but I had to start again as I can’t read my notes….. For bitter drinkers there is ‘Butcombe’ (note for drinkers from out of town this is pronounced ‘Buttcum’. Yes, really). Those popping in for a pint while on a spiritual quest may enjoy a pint of ‘Holy Grail’, brewed in Yorkshire by the Black Sheep brewery this is, according to the poster a ‘Golden Ale tempered over burning witches’. I’m not sure if this will make it more or less popular in Glastonbury.
John the chef took on the kitchen back in July and is knocking out some tasty, inventive and well priced meals in the tiny kitchen. We’ve eaten there twice in the last couple of weeks. Both times I’ve gone for something from the Specials menu. The fish pie was excellent – plenty of fish and a lovely crispy topping. It came with roast veg and beer battered samphire (a salty sea vegetable). The samphire was really very good, my only complaint being there could have been more of it. Next time I had the Thai Pesto noodles which were very good, with lots of healthy fresh veg and plenty of prawns. The Yorkshireman had a burger with sweet potato fries and coleslaw both times, he prefers the King Arthur’s burgers and hates coleslaw, so he was happy to have something to complain about. Autumn opening times for food are Tuesday – Friday 12 – 3pm & 6 – 9pm, all day at the weekend.
There’s plenty of parking behind the pub and it’s only a short walk to the Chalice Well & White Spring, the Tor or the Town. They’ve built a new raised sun terrace out the back which expands the outdoor seating even further, It’s the perfect place for viewing the sunset with a pint, and now you even have a view of the Tor. John the chef is holding a party on the 22nd October 2016 to celebrate his birthday, so if you haven’t been to the Rife’s for a while that’s a date for your diary.
If this post sound a bit like an ad that’s because I’d like to see this pub as lively as it was in the old days. They aren’t paying me, but if Rob and Aieda are reading this mine’s a Philosopher! With good food, regular bands and dance nights they are already getting the customers in, and they are planning to continue the Rifleman’s seasonal events like Egg Sumo Basho at Easter. For more information visit the Rifleman’s Arms Facebook page.
I’d like to review Glastonbury’s other eating establishments for a ‘Top Ten places to eat in Glastonbury’ post, along with other review posts to make this blog more useful to those visiting the town. If you’d like me to feature your business please get in touch. For another pub review please see this post on The Sheppey Inn in Godney.
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