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|
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|
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|
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!
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!