Yesterday morning, in the few minutes between waking and getting up, Buckfast was on my mind: the word, the abbey, the tonic wine. The tonic wine was mentioned on BBC1’s “Question Time” last week, which is probably what started all this. (More about that later on.) Yesterday afternoon, on his “Sounds of the 70s” radio show, Johnnie Walker read a message from someone in Buckfastleigh and that triggered the same thoughts.
Buckfast Abbey is in Devon, near Buckfastleigh, on the edge of Dartmoor. I attended a wedding there in the summer of 1992, an old university friend marrying a woman whose family lived nearby. I was halfway through a ten-year period of not drinking alcohol. I had given up the booze in 1987, in my 20s, and took it up again in my 30s, in 1997, for reasons that you can read about here.
In the early 1990s I rarely left London at weekends and when I did the journey times were always much longer than anticipated. There were three weddings for which I was spectacularly late in those years: one in St Alban’s (just in time for the exchange of vows), one just outside Southampton (in time to see the bride leaving the church and getting into the limo) and the one in Buckfast. For that one I was delayed for over an hour getting past Stonehenge, long enough to see the ancient monument from my stationary car, but would rather have been travelling fast enough not to see it. There was a funeral down in Southampton too in the early 1990s, for a cousin who had died in his teens, but I wasn’t late for that one.
Down in Buckfast there was plenty of time after the wedding and before the reception for me to buy some postcards from the gift-shop, something I have usually done when visiting a cathedral, abbey or mission. I have a large shoebox full of cards and tourist guides from just about every town and major religious building that I have seen, right back to a mid-70s school trip to St Alban’s. I also bought a bottle of the tonic wine made by the monks of Buckfast. That bottle survived at least three house moves intact. I can picture the shelf in the cellar where it sat for many years, unopened. Eventually, after I had started drinking alcohol again, and realizing that the bottle had been untouched for something like 17 years, I opened it and poured it down the sink. I didn’t taste a drop from that bottle, and have still never tasted the stuff even though it is more widely available than it was 25 years ago. Apparently it is the drink of choice for many people north of the border.
That’s why it was mentioned on last week’s “Question Time”. The first question was about new pricing policies for alcohol in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament is proposing legislation to fix a minimum price of 50p per unit. This means that super-strength ciders and beers will no longer be sold at their current low prices. Right now there are 3-litre bottles of super-strength booze that can deliver you your whole recommended weekly limit of 14 units for under £2.50. While discussing the topic the crime writer Val McDermid referred to the monks of Buckfast and how they could ease the burden on the NHS in Scotland by using plastic rather than glass bottles. This episode of “Question Time” will be on the iPlayer for another few weeks and you can hear Ms McDermid at 4:40 on this link. As she says:
“Another thing I would really like to see happen is the monks of Buckfast putting their products in plastic bottles, because this would ease the burden on the NHS in Scotland from people not being hit over the head with glass bottles of Buckfast on a Saturday night … this is a major problem, people get drunk on this stuff which is like a sort of version of … vodka and red bull, it’s alcohol and caffeine. They get into fights, they become violent, they hit each other over the head with it. Go into a Casualty department in Glasgow on a Saturday night, it’s full of people being injured by this sort of thing. And the monks won’t put it in plastic bottles because little old ladies in the south of England don’t like plastic bottles [for] their tonic wine.”
Unlike “little old ladies in the south of England” and Glaswegian Saturday night drinkers I’ll continue to avoid the Buckfast brew. I’d like to see the abbey again though.