Monday, 6 April 2015

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Eight - Ridley's of Hartford End

 This article, the 8th in this occasional series, takes a look at the Essex firm of T.D. Ridley & Sons. The company’s origins go back to the mid-19th Century, but 150 years later, Ridley’s beers were little known outside of their immediate trading area. The firm made it into the 21st Century, only to see the company chairman, and some of his fellow directors cashing in their chips by selling the company to Greene King in 2005. What follows is a personal look back at the company and its beers.

The Essex brewers T.D. Ridley & Sons were a relatively small concern, who owned 67 pubs, in and around the county town of Chelmsford, plus the surrounding villages. They were based in the small hamlet of Hartford End, approximately eight miles to the North-west of Chelmsford, just over halfway between the county town and the small town of Great Dunmow.

Ridley's Hartford End Brewery
The company’s origins date back to 1811, when William Ridley married Maria Dixon, the daughter of a mill owner at Hartford End. The couple soon took over the mill, and in 1814 their son Thomas Dixon Ridley, was born. He grew up to take charge of the business and in 1841 married Lydia Wells, who came from a Chelmsford brewing family.

Within a year, Thomas had built his own brewery close to the mill. A string of mainly country pubs was added over the years and TD Ridley & Sons Ltd became known for its mild and its bitter and, in later years, for beers such as Witch-finder Porter and Old Bob.

Despite the fact that the brewery was just 30 miles or so from London, Ridley’s were not very well known outside their immediate trading area (except to beer enthusiasts that is!). This meant that in order to enjoy the company’s beers it was necessary to travel to the Chelmsford area.

I first made this journey back in the mid 1970’s, with a friend from university. We were staying at his father’s house in Ilford during the summer vacation, and as we both had a keen interest in real ale, and were young and relatively fit, we decided to cycle to the nearest Ridley’s outlet. According to the 1974 Good Beer Guide, this was a pub called the Black Horse, situated in the tiny village of White Roding; a distance of 26 miles.

I am only aware of that distance now, after having looked up the journey on Google Maps. Had I known it was that far 40 years ago I don’t think I would have let my friend’s enthusiasm for sampling new beers persuade me to get in the saddle and start pedalling! Apart from it being long and quite arduous, I don’t remember much of the journey. For that matter I also remember little about the pub or even the beer, but after cycling that sort of distance I would have poured anything down my neck in order to slake my thirst and numb my aching limbs!

Several years later we discovered that Ridley’s PA was a regular beer on the bar of the Traveller’s Friend at Woodford Green. This was much easier to get to, as it was just over 20 minutes walk away from Woodford Station on the Central Line. Here I do remember the company’s PA Bitter as being very good; low in gravity, but well-hopped and nice and refreshing.

Those brief dalliances with Ridley’s were to be my last until some 15 years later, when as secretary of my local West Kent CAMRA branch, I organised a trip to the brewery. The visit took place in the autumn of 1990, on a bright and cheerful October morning. Our party set off, by mini-bus, to travel the 60 odd miles from Tonbridge to Hartford End.

Ridley's Brewery on the banks of the River Chelmer
The brewery was sited on the banks of the River Chelmer, in a truly delightful and very rural setting. According to the company's publicity material, the brewery buildings were only visible from a distance of 400 yards, no matter from which direction they were approached. This certainly proved to be the case, but the sight of the brewery emitting clouds of steam, whilst working away in such idyllic surroundings, was certainly a sight to gladden the heart.

Most brewery tours take place in the early afternoon, to allow the essential brewing tasks of mashing and boiling to take place before crowds of curious visitors start streaming all over the place. It also enables, particularly in the case of some of the smaller concerns, one of the brewers (or even the head brewer himself) to conduct the tour in person. A brewer can, of course, explain the process in far greater detail than the guides employed by some of the larger companies, and I have been privileged to have met some extremely interesting and knowledgeable brewers in the course of these visits.

Ridley’s was no exception to the afternoon rule, and our tour was not scheduled to begin until 2-15pm. I had however, made allowances for this and, bearing in mind my comments earlier about enjoying good beer in unspoilt pubs, had made enquiries as to the nearest local Ridley’s house. Actually I cheated slightly, as one of my companions on the trip had visited the brewery earlier the same year, and had suggested a pub called the Compasses, situated in the nearby hamlet of Littley Green.

I had phoned the brewery, a few days prior to our visit, primarily to double-check that everything was still in order. I asked the receptionist if she could recommend a pub where we could get something to eat. She confirmed my friend's choice, although she did admit to a certain element of bias. This was because although she worked as the receptionist at the brewery during the day, she was in actual fact the landlady of the said Compasses. Her husband ran the pub at lunchtimes, and she assisted him during the evenings. She therefore had no hesitation in recommending the pub, and yes, as they knew we were coming, they could provide food.

Compasses, Littley Green
Thanks to my friend's directions, our driver found the pub, which was a couple of miles away down some rather narrow country lanes, with relative ease. So shortly before midday, in the warmth of the October sunshine, we disembarked outside the Compasses ready to sample Ridley's ales on their home patch. Before entering the pub I insisted that everyone present line up outside for a photograph - strictly for the record, but a quarter of a century later I have unfortunately  been unable to find it. We were of course expected, and the receptionist's husband made us most welcome.

The Compasses turned out to be everything a country pub should be. It was plainly furnished, yet bright and clean. It had a tiled floor with walls that were part match-board and part painted plaster. The decoration was provided by a number of framed brewery advertisements, (Ridley’s of course!). Last, but by no means least, was the beer. This consisted of Ridley’s PA (as their ordinary bitter was called), dispensed direct from a row of casks kept in a room behind the bar. It was superb!

Essex Huffers
I mentioned earlier about the pub providing food. This they did in the form of the "Essex Huffer", a large, soft bap-type roll, which apparently is traditional to that part of Essex. Various fillings were available; the huffers being of a size so as to be virtually a meal in themselves. I still managed to scoff two of them though, my excuse being that they helped soak up the beer!

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the Compasses before driving back to the brewery, for the commencement of the tour. Our guide, for what proved to be an extremely interesting look around, was the head brewer himself. Ridley’s brewed along strictly traditional lines and much of the plant was of a very traditional nature. As is usual with such visits, the tour ended in the sample room, where we were able to try several others of the brewery's range of beers, including a number of interesting bottled ones.

Most of us though were itching to get back to the Compasses. We had already checked that our driver was both willing and able to stay out for an extra couple of hours. In addition, we had introduced ourselves to Ridley's receptionist and, after explaining our wishes to her, she very kindly telephoned her husband and made arrangements for the pub to re-open as soon as the tour finished. We were thus able to enjoy an extra couple of hours in the Compasses, thereby rounding off a most enjoyable day out.

Some seven months or so later, I had the pleasure of re-visiting the Compasses. I was en-route to Norfolk, along with my wife and pet dog for an early summer holiday. We turned off the A12, and made our way to Littley Green where we stopped for lunch. I only had the one pint, as I was driving, but I did have a carry-keg which I got the landlord to fill up for me. Both the beer and the huffers were every bit as good as before, and the pub was just as I remembered it.

In 2005, Ridley’s were taken over by Suffolk-based, brewing giant, Greene King for £46m. Three months after the sale, the charming old country brewery was closed with production of some of the Ridley’s brands moving to Bury St Edmunds. Around 160 people based at Hartford End lost their jobs.

However, there is  more to both this account and to the Ridley’s story, and I aim to bring things up to date in a subsequent article.

Footnote: although they were ultimately responsible for closing the Hartford End Brewery, Greene King were not the real villains of the piece; that dubious honour goes to Ridley's chairman Nicholas Ridley and the company board, who approached the Suffolk company and asked them to buy the business.

According to a Guardian report at the time, Mr Ridley and his immediate family made a cool £11m from the deal, so not exactly small beer!


4 comments:

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Organised a British Guild of Beer Writers trip there in 2004, when Dave Wickett came along as Ridleys were brewing Pale Rider for him to help meet with demand, driving through the countryside from Chelmsford I turned a bend and there it was, a magnificent building in the middle of nowhere it seemed. One of the best positions I’ve ever seen a brewery in — pubs we visited were undercapitalised though so it wasn’t a surprise when it was sold.

Anonymous said...

My first pint of Ridley's bitter cost 17 pence. I remember it well.
Barely 6 years later the price rose to over 50p. I left the UK and sought my fortune elsewhere. My sympathies to those who were betrayed.

Nick Boley said...

I was brought up in Essex and after my parents moved to Braintree in '74, my visits home from university often involved Ridley's pubs. PA was a superb beer. I was also fortunate enough to visit the brewery on business (they hosted a meeting for me on beer analysis) which involved lunch in the Compasses. My colleague who was driving was not impressed, and the amount of work done after lunch was quite limited, but everyone enjoyed it. I also had 2 kils of Ridley's for my first wedding - my ex-wife's family were only 3-4 miles away. Wooden kils, 1 of PA and one of Hartford End, a superb stronger beer from the mid-80s. This latter was spirited away, half-full, from the reception by some work colleagues and apparently ended up in the staff club room at work for a few days until emptied.

Paul Bailey said...

Yes, a real shame that Ridley’s closed. In a way their story reminds me of that of King & Barnes, who ended up in a similar, under-capitalised situation. The board went cap-in-hand to Shepherd Neame who promised, at the time, to keep the K&B brewery open. Unfortunately, Hall & Woodhouse stepped in with a higher offer, which the board accepted. There was no promise to continue brewing at Horsham from Badger, and so the brewery sadly closed, shortly after the takeover.

Nick, I remember reading somewhere that Ridley’s stuck with wooden casks for quite some time. I don’t remember seeing any though when we toured the brewery in 1990.