We always had to dig deep on the final hill, which became progressively steeper until about 40 yards away from the pub. When you arrived, panting with exertion, almost unable to get off the bike, there was usually an unoccupied bench outside to flop down at. In minutes, you would be drinking from a pint of Brewers Gold or Oscar Wilde, looking at the surrounding woods, feeling the sun and the breeze, thanking the universe for being alive.
Such was my anticipation last Friday, September 11. A noted day for disasters. Hadn’t tackled the hill for a couple of years. So it was good to get to the top in one piece, aged 63. Wheezing like a dog, but cleanly, as The Viper came into sight. It seemed quiet for a Friday lunchtime. No cars parked in the adjacent space across the road. And no voices drifting through the warm air. Intuition whispered a terrible message. ‘Ah fuck, surely not?’
It stood there. Stark and still. Doors closed. No seats or benches. Weeds littering the grounds where I had marvelled at the sheer pleasure of drinking beer with friends.
Behind me, Martin groaned at the miserable view. We peered in through dirty curtains at deserted rooms. No sign of life. Mooted the idea of breaking in and seeing if we could find a couple of leftover bottles from the local Crouch Vale Brewery.
Back in Blog 227, I logged the demise of another country pub (the Three Elms, near Mashbury), and the wider decline of rural pub numbers. It isn’t an unexpected trend, as people stay within drink-driving limits and buy their alcohol from supermarkets. Unless you are serving food good enough to draw repeat visits, or have loyal, thirsty locals, running a country pub has become a slow ticket to extinction.
But the Viper! Shit. It was iconic, as if a space craft had blasted a clearing in the woods at Mill Green, Fryerning (about 7 miles southwest of Chelmsford) and planted the most perfect pub. A literal oasis.
I remembered listening to the landlady talking outside a few summers back, as she watered her roses. It had been a brilliant summer’s evening, but there were only half a dozen punters spread around the lawn. My impression was that she wore a brave face.
Not sure when she called it a day. A bit of rooting around on the Internet showed it had closed by the end of 2019, due to a “quarrel with the pub owner”. Maybe she couldn’t pay the rent.
All I can do is pay tribute with memories. I remember jumping in a taxi with Maureen and our friends Jono and Gina almost 20 years ago, so that we could drink ourselves happy in the lovely snug public bar. We did just that. Must have shoved many twenties and tens into their till. The conversations were free, happy, absurd and probably pornographic. The same taxi took us home hours later. A 14-mile round trip. The felicitations never let up.
For Jono and I, it was a deep sacrament to cycle there and neck a few ales. The route outwards was uphill for significant stretches, hard work, but often tempered by the sight of deer in the fields and woods, and sometimes bats flying above us at night, amid the never-diminishing anticipation. Just the first sight of the place was enough to get you high, as your lungs heaved and puffed from the climb. Conversations were a release of the imagination, a dive into the surreal and the impossible, a brew of lust and laughter. We confided our fears and dreams, and it felt like no other time. As well as Jono, I also went there regularly with brother Neil, and a couple of old friends, Tony and Steve (see Blog 10).
The Viper was where I drank my first single malt. On a December evening. A warm habit to acquire. Tony fell into a ditch on the way home, jumped back on the bike and pedalled on as if nothing had happened. Neil and I turned up on our bikes one midweek evening in 2018 to find a beer festival getting underway. I enjoyed a cinnamon-flavoured ale. Maureen remembers the shade of the surrounding woods on hot days.
Even when time was called, the experience was not over. Because what goes up slowly can come down very fast. In the dark, Viper Hill, as I think of it, was always a reckless thrill. With a few pints inside, the initial descent was mesmerising, with gathering acceleration and wind whistling past your ears. Halfway down, lit sparsely, the road quickly bends right, enough that you need to be in the middle or already braking if nearer the edge. Nobody ever came off, but I nearly shat myself a few times, with the distraction of Jono’s rebel yells breaking concentration yet adding to the madness as you somehow surged forward into the darkness at speeds of at least 30 miles an hour. Into a dip, up a small rise and then another swift, curving descent before the route levelled out.
Magical and legendary.
And so Martin and I re-enacted it on Friday. After lunch at the nearby Cricketers pub, now unhindered by any competition, we came back to Viper Hill.
Plenty of daylight, but that bend hasn’t softened. My tyres strayed worryingly close to the undergrowth beside the road, pumping a surge of adrenalin that made the next few hundred yards feel like I was 19 again.
It’s a dry life without a bit of risk. I’ll miss the Viper.