The Bridge: A Publican's Life


The Bridge, Topsham

“It's really a living museum with beer,” Caroline Cheffers-Heard says, describing the role of looking over the Bridge Inn. She is the fourth of five generations who have served as publicans for one of the central institutions of Topsham: her great-grandfather Alford bought the pub in 1897. She considers herself and her predecessors “custodians for life for this ancient building,”  first constructed in the 1500s.

But just because she and her family have been maintaining a historic landmark and running a thriving business doesn't mean they've been resting on their laurels. The women of the family have run the Bridge since 1935, and each of them held an additional career. Cheffers-Heard was a midwife, and her mother was a nurse, and her daughter, Rhiannon, is a stage manager. While Caroline doesn't presume that the family tradition of running the pub will go on indefinitely, she says that the different generations have always worked together to run the pub, which may be why it's survived thus far. 

It's clear that this is a special place, even aside from its rich history. Caroline is adamant that the Bridge is a place where “a stranger can come in and have a conversation.” Although times have changed for many pubs, the Bridge still serves as a sort of community parlor. It's a quiet pub; there's no piped in music or jukeboxes, and cell phones allowed inside. Local clubs often meet here, and there's a lived-in coziness that makes the pub feel like home away from home.

 Of course, not even the Bridge is immune from changing times. Caroline describes the increasing availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets as an economic hit to the pub community. This change, which occurred only in the past 30 years or so, has changed how pubs are utilized in the community. The publican was the gatekeeper to what alcohol was served before it was sold in supermarkets, and so the pub was literally the place to drink.

“Of course, it's not all bad,” she admits. “You would like to think that now people are drinking beer at home with their families. Parents used to park their kid outside at a table with a packet of crisps and a Pepsi.” But now that children are allowed in most areas of the pub, “Friday nights, it's like a crèche in here.”

The past 30 years have seen a grand change in the makeup of Topsham itself. In the 1970s, Topsham was a major student community: Caroline remembers students working in the pub for her mother. The increase of student accommodation within Exeter has likely swayed the student population to stay within the city, although increasing living costs may also be a factor. Due to the rising expense of property win Topsham, most locals have moved away. Still, she says that the patrons of the Bridge are diverse in their age and in their origins: it's a popular spot for residents and visitors alike.

No wonder: the Bridge has been ahead of the time in implementing changes that have jarred other institutions. “We ceased smoking years before the government imposed bans,” Caroline says, citing a policy that originally was to prevent fires in the pub. The Bridge has also always used local produce in its kitchen. Originally, this way the only way to purchase food, but even as distribution has been streamlined through supermarkets, the Bridge has continued to support local farmers and growers. They've kept their menu simple too, focusing on high quality, basic dishes that highlight their excellent selection of beers and ciders.

In any case, the Bridge is doing something right: Queen Elizabeth II made it her first and only official pub visit on March 27, 1998.

“Please write the date down, people are always getting it wrong! It was 18 years ago.”

When I asked Caroline what her favorite beer served in the Bridge is, she admits that she doesn't really drink at all, “as a family, we're not very good at drinking.” Her great-grandfather, the one who bought the pub, was a teetotaler, and her daughter is the same. This predilection to sobriety is likely just one of the many secrets to their success in running the Bridge, a pub that continues to respect its roots while growing into the future.

The Bridge is open for lunch from noon—2:00pm , and is open for evening drinks from 6—10:30pm Mondays to Thursdays, 6—11pm Friday and Saturday, and 7—10:30pm on Sunday.

Text and photos copyright by Andrea Lindquist, 2016