A Bene, a little bit of dope & sherry by the pint

When People In Common first moved to Burnley in 1974 it seemed whole terraces of houses could be condemned and demolished on the whim of a council official. The story was that the council used a crude rule of thumb to decide the fate of a terrace. If on inspection there were only one or two soil pipes showing on the rear of houses – indicated how many houses in the row had inside toilets and bathrooms – then the terrace was earmarked for compulsory purchase and demolition however sound the houses were. Members of PIC were involved in a Burnleywood Action Group that was set up to fight to save houses from demolition – with some limited success arguing that with some small improvement the houses had at least another 25 years life in them.¹

One of the strange results of the 1970’s mass demolition and clearance of houses in the area was to leave a sort of urban desert dotted with oases of public houses. Sometimes literally as in the case of The Britannia pub that stood as a solitary building while all around it had been demolished. There seemed to be more public houses per acre in Burnleywood than anywhere else I had lived. There was; The Woodman, The Stanley, The Britannia, The Royal Butterfly, The Borough, The Rifle Volunteer, The Oxford, plus at least two working mens clubs without counting the Burnley Miners Club which was on the way into town. Which begs the question, given that a third of houses had gone who was doing all the drinking?

Well we were doing some of it. But while we frequented all the above hostelries at some point during our time in Burnleywood, and some of us did argue (unsuccessfully) at one point that our communal pocket money should be tied to the price of a pint, none of the pubs would have been open if they had been relying on our custom. As well as the many pubs just down the road there were other rather quirky alcoholic delights that I was introduced to in Burnley. I had never come across the rather exotic Stones Green Ginger wine before and would occasionally nip to the off-license on Oxford road to treat ourselves to a bottle..The same off-license also sold sherry by the pint. You could go in with a jug and they would fill it from a plastic barrel – I think I did go and get a jug full for Xmas one year just for the novelty of it.

Perhaps the most unusual alcoholic beverage served in Burnleywood was at the Burnley Miners Club at the bottom of Plumb Street. Where the largest amount of Benedictine in the world is consumed. Why a french herbal liqueur, supposedly made with 27 herbs & spices to a ‘secret Benedictine monks recipe, should be a favorite tipple of Lancashire miners is a tale that goes back to the end of the First World War. When in 1919 the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – better known as the ‘Accrington Pals’ – was based in the Le Havre area waiting to be shipped back to England. Just some 20 miles from ‘Le Palais Benedictine’ where the liqueur was distilled.

…. It was inevitable that the camp would have a relatively relaxed atmosphere. Everyone, officers and men alike, looked forward to going home for good. There was plenty of free time – time to sight-see, and to dine and drink in the cafes and bars in the area. ….. It is possible that, in 1919, parties of the Pals visited the distillery. What is more certain is that Benedictine was sold in every café and bar in Harfleur and Le Havre. Men whose physical condition had suffered in years of fighting, or were still recuperating from wounds and sickness, all agreed that ‘a Bene’ had medicinal properties and a fortifying effect. The liqueur rapidly became the Pals favorite tipple. So when they returned home to East Lancashire, it was inevitable that they began to ask for ‘a Bene.’

The Accrington Pals and the Benedictine Connection

And so after the war Benedictine became a favorite drink across East Lancs. Where in order to keep out the winter chill a uniquely Lancastrian way of drinking it was invented – the Bene’n’ot . a ‘Bene’ with added hot water. Which can still be purchased at every home game of Burnley Clarets football club to keep yourself warm on the terraces.

I don’t want to give the impression that we were a bunch of drunkards at People In Common. I just thought that as I had covered Sex & Rock’n Roll in other posts I’d better say something about ‘drugs’. While alcohol was most definitely our most common recreational drug and Trevor and Derek did try their hand at home-brewing both beer & wine with mixed success (Don’t try pea pod wine!) We did dabble occasionally with other substances.

One hazard of communal living is that now and then you are likely to stumble cross another members secret, or as it turned out not so secret stash at some inappropriate moment. Be it the couple of home grown cannabis plants on a window cill, commented on by the estate agent you are showing round “Nice tomato plants!” Or having to explain to a small child why there is a tray of tiny mushrooms drying in the airing cupboard. Most of us tried a little bit of dope now and then. Some more often than others – but none of us to the extent of a visiting bricklayer who had come to give us a hand building a kitchen extension. He would roll a joint after breakfast before starting work and then have a couple more throughout the day whenever we had a break. Quite how he still managed to lay bricks in any sort of a straight line is a mystery.

Magic mushrooms were a different matter – definitely more of an acquired taste.Or the potential effect of them was. Like most drugs they tended to heighten whatever mood or head space you were experiencing at the time. So if you were fairly chilled and happy then you generally felt more so, with a bit of an added psychedelic twist. But if you were sad or worried you could be come deeply upset, or decidedly paranoid. And then the psychedelic twist could turn somewhat scary and into a ‘bad trip’. Psilocybin mushrooms were fairly common in grassland and you could spot them (and be spotted) if you walked along with your eyes kept firmly looking down at the ground. The trick in finding them, was supposed to be to eat the first one you found and then you would ‘magically’ be able to spot more. One of the best places locally to find them was a stretch of grass at the bottom of Townley Park. A rare case of municipal mushrooms, or tripping on the rates.

It turned out that having one generation with some experience of soft drugs can help the next generation when they come to experiment in their later teenage years. And other adults in a commmunal setting can find it easier to give sensible advice than parents might. ” If your going to try cannabis make sure you don’t get accidentally hooked on tabacco at the same time.” Occasionally though sensible parenting did pay off. One day Kate took a call from Finn asking for some advice. They had taken some magic mushrooms and one of his friends was having a ‘bad trip’ – he thought the flowers in the garden were out to ‘get him’! ” Kate gave some calm advice on what to do to keep his friend safe. While in the background she could hear other incredulous friends saying ” He’s phoned his mum? – to get drugs advice! ” I think our ‘cool parent’ rating went up a notch or two after that.

And finally a word about tobacco. We never had many smokers, nor any really heavy smokers at PIC. Not that that made it less controversial. There were a couple of times that it became a group issue.The last time after quite a few years of having no smokers in the group there was a complaint about someone having a quiet smoke in their private room as being against our ‘smoking policy’. Which started a search through old minute books to find out exactly what our policy was. (Most of us were under the impression that it was – No Smoking in communal areas, but OK in your own room.) After a lengthy trawl through minute books ending up going back at least a decade to the previous time smoking had caused a controversy. It turned out that amid heated debate back then about whether it was OK to smoke at meal times, in the presence of children, or at meetings. We had come up with the compromise policy of “No Smoking 6 – 8 PM. At other times be sensitive.” With a lovingly illustrated No Smoking sign by Kate.that used to be up on the wall in Clarence street. And as we hadn’t changed it since that was in effect still our ;official’ policy. Which sort of goes to show that collective memories can be as hazy as any individuals.

Notes: 1. It turned out that most of the houses did have another 25 years life in them. The area being comprehensively redeveloped in the early 2000’s. All the houses previously owned by People In Common and Burnleywood Housing Co-op were eventually demolished as part of the Elevate program.

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