The ale tasters of Alcester Court Leet
PUBLISHED: 10:54 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:36 20 February 2013
It's a tough job but someone's got to do it . . . Rachel Crow and Stuart Purfield join the official ale tasters of Alcester Court Leet.
Its an average mid-week spring evening in Alcester. The locals are enjoying a convivial drink in the Turks Head, when the relative calm is suddenly disturbed by three loud raps at the door announcing the arrival of the Ale Tasters of the towns Court Leet.
Regulars look on amused, visitors bemused, as the collection of Court Officers, dressed in their distinctive ceremonial red and black cloaks, white gloves and frilly jabot, take their place at the bar.
Hush descends as the Town Crier in tricorn hat unfurls his scroll and proclaims the purpose of their visit. Whereupon, amidst jovial banter, the Ale Tasters sip, sniff and savour their free pint.
Originating in the 12th century, the Court Leet was once part of a powerful feudal court system set up when the Crown granted the Lords of the Manor the right to take the law into their own hands within their estates. As well as having criminal jurisdiction, the Leets officers ensured that peace was observed and standards met in such matters as food, drink and agriculture.
There are only about 30 Court Leets across the country today, three of those in Warwickshire at Alcester, Henley-in-Arden and Warwick. The legal jurisdiction of the Court was abolished in the 1970s, but elected officers still preserve its ancient traditions, perform a civic function and raise money for local causes.
In Alcester, officers are elected annually in October and presided over by the High Bailiff. This years incumbent, Mike Clark, has been a member of the Court Leet since 2002.
A lot of the things I get involved in are just for the High Bailiff and are interesting and I meet a lot of people, but something like this with your crew around you is an enjoyable evening.
The Court Leet is one of the things that makes Alcester a little different and adds a bit of colour.
There arent any qualifications to become an Ale Taster, but both post holders this year just happen to also be members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) and as Morris Men appreciate tradition.
I was proposed at the annual elections by a friend who thought I would be good for the job. You dont turn down a job like that, laughs Pete Neale. He and fellow Ale Taster, Alan Whitbread, are serving their debut year with the Leet and wholeheartedly embracing the duty.
I wanted to get involved in the Court Leet purely to put something back into the town, explains Pete who has lived in Alcester for three years. We also put on a lot of functions throughout the year, raising funds for charity.
The ale tasted, the landlord is duly presented with a certificate and sprig of evergreen to hang above the door to indicate the beer to be good, wholesome and fit for the people of this manor. With 15 hostelries to visit, they break up the tasting over three nights throughout the year five pubs in one evening is enough for all but the most dedicated
Traditionally Court Leet officers are men but there is one robed lady officer in the crowd.
Janet Honnoraty is the countrys only female Ale Taster. Representing Southwark Court Leet, a national court, her husband, Mike, has served as an Officer in Warwick for many years.
I wanted to get involved with the Leet due to the history of it, she says, and hopes in due course to join Warwick, one of the few Court Leets that accepts lady officers.
Drawn from all walks of life, officers of the Court share one thing in common: a strong interest in their respective town.
Official Bread Weigher, John Bates principal function takes place at the annual Assizes in June where hell verify the freshness and weight of the bread. Were here now to promote the town and uphold the old customs. Its a community function really, to my mind, he explains.
This sentiment is echoed by Constable Andrew Dyer, who enjoys being part of a respected body within the community where he was born and bred, and by the Courts oldest serving officer, Bob Allard, who in his 30th year performs as the Affearor, who traditionally set the level of fines.
Membership of the Leet can also open other doors. Town Crier David Parkes, by day landlord of the Cottage of Content at Barton, near Bidford, was elected in 2006 and last year was asked to compre for the Alcester Male Choirs 30th anniversary concert at Birminghams Symphony Hall.
If you asked me six years ago if Id go out in front of hundred s of people dressed like this and ring a bell I would have laughed at you,
but it gives you a bit of an ego trip really.
Erick Wilson, responsible for maintaining the waterways as Brook Looker, sums it up well: Its just quite good fun. If there werent things like the Court Leet in Alcester it would be just another ordinary little town.
Alcesters Court Leet
Lord of the Manor is the Most Honourable Henry Jocelyn Seymour Marquess of Hertford (whose seat is Ragley Hall).
Official roles are:
Steward of the Manor
Deputy Steward of the Manor
Immediate Past Bailiff
Town Crier & Beadle
Two Ale Tasters
Two Bread Weighers
Two Fish and Flesh Tasters
Surveyor of the Highways
Searcher and Sealer of Leather