Tuesday, April 11, 2017

THE BEER BEAT: St. Radegund Free House, one of my favorite pubs in the world.

Regrettably, my paean to St. Radegund Free House in Cambridge, England must begin with the sadly belated report that former landlord Terry "Bunter" Kavanagh died five years ago at the age of 75.

Kavanagh's 17-year stint as landlord of St. Radegund ended in 2009.

The pub is a maelstrom of variety, in no small part courtesy of its patrons. But getting the pub to this point, holding it together, providing the glue, setting the tone, arguing the toss and belligerently ruling the roost has been Terry. He's seen B52s fly over Cambodia. He's done Bali and the Falklands. He's ushered countless students through evenings of unbridled alcoholic vice. And he's pissed in each barrel to make sure it was up to scratch.

Where else but Radegund would you find a cricket ball blessed by the Pope?

Returning years later, I ask barman Timothy Haire who those men (‘Hash House Harriers’) were. “A drinking club with a running problem” is his reply. He tells me of evening runs through Cambridge, following a flour trail which eventually leads to the St Radegund. The pub also boasts a rowing club and a cricket team, both founded by the late, much-loved landlord Terry ‘Bunter’ Kavanagh.

This quote must be rendered in bold.

The reason I look back on the pub with such fondness is not the beer (which was great), nor the spirits (also well chosen), but Terry's presence and the way he forged a community of regulars through sheer force of his personality. This approach is becoming rarer and rarer - and is something I miss from the pub experience.

I first patronized the Radegund during a trip to Cambridge in 1998.

My second and most recent visit came in 2001, as documented in the behind-the-bar photos above. I'm with Terry and my old friend Mark Stewart, who was working near Cambridge in 2001.

In 2006, NABC made a few batches of an English-style ale called St. Radegund. Here is the article, with only slight editing.


In 1998, my longtime friends Russell "Roz" Tate and Jason Masingo were in Cambridge, U.K., doing summer program course work. Dr. Donald “Uncle Don” Barry and I joined Roz and Jason for three days of intensive pub crawling and extensive research into the phenomenon of cask-conditioned ales.

My friends already had settled on the ideal venue for “real” ale: The St. Radegund. It’s the sort of pub we’d all like to frequent, with a small but well-selected range of libations and three hand pumps pouring fresh and superbly tended English ale.

The landlord, Terry Kavanagh, turned out to be one of those larger-than-life drinks impresarios glimpsed periodically in literature, but in this instance flesh-and-blood, warm, garrulous and welcoming, yet unwilling to suffer a fool for the sake of a pound. There need to be more like him.

This web comment (see link above) says it all:

“My only concern about the place is that its life expectancy is linked to that of Terry the landlord's liver.”

In 2006, when NABC’s brew crew of Jesse Williams and Jared Williamson announced their intention of making an authentic English bitter designed expressly for the Rich O’s cask cabinet, it seemed like an obvious step to honor the St. Radegund with naming rights for the ale.

But who exactly was St. Radegund?

The pub's name derives from a 12-century Benedictine nunnery in Cambridge that was dedicated both to St. Mary and St. Radegund; Jesus College later was contructed at the site of the nunnery.

For the rest of the story, we turn back to Roz Tate, currently an adjunct lecturer in history at Indiana University Southeast:

The early-medieval line of Frankish kings was the Merovingians. They were rulers of the Franks during the collapse of the Roman Empire and during the beginning of the Dark Ages. It was they who moved the Franks out of Germania and into the area we now call Belgium after the fall of Rome in the west.

Clovis was the most famous of the Merovingians. He ruled the Franks from AD 481 to 511. It was Clovis I who expanded Frankish rule into the lands we now call France. Clovis died in 511 at Paris. His kingdom was divided between his 4 sons. The one you need to know is Clothar I.

Clothar was king of 1/4 of the Frankish kingdom until his brothers one by one died from illnesses or in battle.

Clothar then became King of all the Franks from 568-561, when he died.

(NOTE: You will see the following spellings of his name: Chlothar, Chlotaire, Clotar, Clothar and Lothar. The last, "Lothar," is inaccurate! There is no Frankish King Lothar in the 6th century. In fact, Lothar I does not come along until the 9th century. Clothar is the most accurate and the best choice.)

Clothar had 4 wives, one being Radegunda. Here's how it happened.

Radagunda was born c.520 into the house of a minor Germanic king, who feuded with his brother for power over the German Kingdom of Thuringia. Around 530, the uncle won the feud and killed his brother. This left Radegunda orphaned, but controlled by her uncle, who now ruled Thuringia.

In 531, Clothar crushed the Thüringen army and took control of the kingdom AND Radagunda, whom he eventually married. Clothar had 4 wives, but Radegunda is the only one you need to know.

Clothar felt threatened by Radegunda's brother, so he had him killed. This so hurt Radegunda that she ran away and turned to God for salvation and comfort. She decided to found a nunnery at Poitiers (Christianity was spreading throughout western Europe during this time, so ANY new churches/nunneries were big deals in Rome).

She was successful. Apparently, Clothar felt some remorse over his murder of Radegunda's brother, so he fronted her some cash. The nunnery became famous and the legend of Radegunda began to grow. There are stories of miracles that were performed by her, including the curing of infirmities of all kinds, leprosy and there are also stories of her extreme kindness. There is also a legend of her single-handedly slaying a dragon (a popular story of the time period, symbolic of Christianity's victory over paganism/evil).

In reality, she took the cross herself, but did not become abbess of the nunnery, just a very famous nun. Radegunda died on August 13, 586 (some say 587). Her funeral was three days later, and it was attended by Bishop Gregory of Tours and the priest/poet Fortunatus, who became Bishop of Poitiers in AD 600. Both men left behind historical writings of her life.

Spellings you will see are Radagunda, Radagunde and Radagundis, the first being most common.

She was canonized and is now St. Radegund, patron saint of Poitiers.----

Half the batch of NABC’s commemorative St. Radegund Bitter will be served by hand pump for the next few weeks. The other half will be poured by the usual CO2 dispense.

The recipe used will remind some drinkers of NABC Beak’s Best, but it’s a different ale, with all English malt and a bit sharper hop bite. The abv is in the vicinity of 5.7%, making it milder than most NABC beers but stronger than most cask ales in the U.K.

Remember that by using the cask breather, we’re able to prolong the life of the naturally-conditioned ale, so you’ll have ample opportunity to indulge in the sort of scientific sampling that we undertook back in Cambridge in ’98.


St. Radegund may no longer be a "free house" in the strictest terms, as Wikipedia suggests it is tied to the Saffron Brewery, but no matter. The new landlord has refurbished the interior, and the pub lives to pour another day.

In closing, there's a schizophrenic exterior kaleidoscope that should be addressed. First, my photo from 1998.

Then, 2012.

Finally, 2016.

Long live the Radegund ... and cheers to the late Terry Kavanagh.

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