When the author Arthur Ransome’s name is mentioned, people automatically think of his classic children’s book, "Swallows and Amazons". In 1937, Ransome published "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea", which was the seventh book in the series about the Walker family (the Swallows). The book is set in a new location, on the other side of the country from the Lake District, and sees the Walkers staying at Pin Mill on the River Orwell just downstream from Ipswich.
Like many people, I have fond childhood memories of "Swallows and Amazons", although I never progressed to reading any of the other books in the series. The reason though, for me mentioning "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea" is that last Friday I managed my first visit to Pin Mill, and its famous waterside-pub the Butt & Oyster.
Pin Mill is a hamlet on the south bank of River Orwell, which is tidal at this point. It is close to the village of Chelmondiston on the Shotley peninsula. The settlement was once a busy landing point for ship-borne cargo, a centre for the repair of Thames sailing barges and home to many small industries such as sail making, a maltings (now a workshop) and a brickyard.
Like my home county of Kent, the east coast of England has a long history of smuggling, and Pin Mill and the Butt & Oyster pub allegedly played key parts in this. Pin Mill has been the subject of many paintings and photographs, and is a popular yacht and dinghy sailing destination.
The Butt & Oyster is best described as a traditional 17th century inn. It is famed for its setting on the bank of River Orwell and the fine views it offers across the estuary. To take full advantage of this, there is a substantial amount of outdoor seating to front of pub, and this is very popular on sunny days. The Butt & Oyster can get very busy in summer and also at weekends, and has been long renowned for its food menu, which includes a number of fish dishes.
There are three separate rooms inside, connected by a corridor with flagstone floors, and along with the main bar, there is a small snug, plus a much larger dining room. There are some high backed settles plus a large open fire in main bar area, making it very cosy on cold winter days. The pub has featured in a number of films and was once used as a filming location in an episode of the TV series Lovejoy, when it was known as "The Three Ducks".
I’m not quite sure when the Butt & Oyster Inn first registered on my consciousness, but I imagine I think I must have come across it in a book of old inns. Looking back through my collection of pub books, I noticed the pub is listed in Classic Country Pubs, written by former CAMRA Good Beer Guide editor Neil Hanson, and published in 1987.
Back then the pub belonged Tolly Cobbold who were the dominant brewery, not only in the Ipswich area, but across wide swathes of Suffolk, and even spreading into adjoining counties. Tolly of course, have long gone to that great brewery graveyard in the sky, and their impressive Cliff Brewery, fronting on to the waterfront in Ipswich, is currently the subject of a number of redevelopment plans, which could see the buildings converted for residential or commercial use. Somewhere along the line, the Butt & Oyster was acquired by local brewing heroes Adnam’s, and is now one of the Southwold brewer’s flagship pubs.
It was a pub I had wanted to visit for a long time, but despite making regular trips up to Norfolk, there never seemed sufficient time to divert across to the Orwell estuary, and the tiny riverside settlement of Pin Mill. It wasn’t until I looked at a more detailed map of the area, that I realised just how do-able it was to divert off the A12 - A14 junction at Copdock to the south of Ipswich. The acquisition of a Sat-Nav made the whole process even easier.
Last Friday therefore saw me diverting off the A14, convinced at first that the Sat-Nav was taking me the wrong way. However, when I saw a sign for Chelmondiston followed by an initial glimpse of the River Orwell, I knew my instincts were wrong and I needed to put my trust in technology and follow the instructions. (This has actually been the case on several other occasions, and I have slowly learned to trust the device).
I passed under the impressive Orwell Bridge which carries the A14 over the river, and before long found myself driving along a relatively peaceful B1456. I soon reached Chelmondiston, and just past the centre of the village I turned off down a narrow lane towards Pin Mill.
As I approached the end of the lane, I saw a sign for a car park along with a notice advising motorists there was nowhere to park along the shore, so I followed the instruction and found a small “Pay & Display” area. I actually managed to grab the last free space, so that was a bonus; as was the fee of just 30p for an hour’s parking.
I then walked the couple of hundred yards to the end of the lane and down a slope to the shoreline. The River Orwell lay straight ahead, whilst to my left was a motley collection of old boats. On my right, was the legendary Butt & Oyster, with its outdoor dining area appearing to rise straight out of the water.
After stopping to take a few obligatory photos, I hurried inside and headed first for the Gents. On he way back I took a quick look into the small and cosy snug, before turning right into the main bar. I was pleased with what I saw, specially as the bar was everything I imagined it to be. With a tiled floor and wood-panelled walls, the crowning glory was the bay window which looks out over the estuary. There was a family group sat at the table which occupies the window space, whilst on the opposite side was a rather jolly party of walkers.
I made my way to the bar, and whilst waiting patiently to be served, had time to admire the row of beer casks stillaged behind the bar. There were four Adnam’s beers available; Southwold, Ghost Ship, Regatta and Broadside. As I was driving, I opted for the Southwold which at £3.90 a pint was better value than the pub I would visit later in the day; see previous post. I scored it at 3.0 NBSS, and the only thing spoiling it was the "stylised" Adnam’s glass.
I found myself a seat, just along from the window, and sat down to enjoy my beer and to soak up the atmosphere of this timeless old inn. The bar staff were fairly busy, as were their colleagues in the kitchen, but both seemed to be coping admirably. The dining room, which leads of from the main bar, also seemed busy, but was nowhere near completely full; even though the food offer looked really good. Perhaps the dull and overcast conditions outside had deterred any fair weather visitors, but I was just glad the pub wasn’t totally packed out.
I only stayed for the one pint, as I still had a fair way to go to reach my pre-booked bed and breakfast place, a few miles to the south of Norwich. Before returning to the car, I took a short walk along the shoreline, stopping to admire the views and the boats, whilst soaking up the atmosphere of this almost hidden nautical haven. I took quite few photos; some of which you can see on this post.
I am certainly pleased that I made the effort to visit both Pin Mill and the Butt & Oyster, and can clearly see why, eighty years ago, Arthur Ransome fell in love with the place and used it as the setting for one of his best known books.