Sunday, 6 March 2011

inns & taverns: the mermaid's purse

A whitewashed port tavern with steep slate roof, it's spattered sign shows a pouch-bearing mermaid.  Gulls raucously roost on the gables as melodic foreign songs escape from within.  The open oak door is guarded by a mermaid figurehead frozen mid-wink.  Few travellers mention it in tales despite such accoutrements. In many respects, it is considered unremarkable.

This two-storey tavern resembles many of it's coastal kin.  Shutters against the elements are shut over the windows but the door ia wide open. Inside is a plain porch with a second iron-bound oak door.  This grudgingly opens to a crowded  I-shaped taproom.  Overhead beams are studded with scrimshaw lucky charms and verdigris icons of sea and storm gods.  The walls are dingy, smoke-stained and lamp-lit.  Carved tables and chairs are filled with drinking locals singing ancient songs about the sea.  Doors to the left and right lead to his-and-hers' earth closets, an enclosed herb garden and a kitchen smelling of the sea's bounty.

Patrons enjoy a dark malt ale or orchead cider, a rough-edged dry cider served from a snout jug. Food is limited in variety.  Most patrons enjoy allecoat, a porridge seasoned with mashed fish.  Those feeling a bit more flush enjoy fish stew or boiled mussels served with garum.  Oatcakes and a thick lemon curd help round out the fare; small jars of curd and a piquant savoury relish are sold to travellers with a generous markup as a sideline by the inn.

Staff here are few but notable.  A local beauty works the bar, fending off amorous advances with salty wit and innuendo rarely seen off a pirate ship.  The chef is a quiet, ill-tempered man who smells of fish and vinegar.  The owner is rarely seen outside his cellar, where he brews the ale and cider that keeps the Purse running.  Years of good service, small gifts and occasional magic have commended the staff to all the locals.  This has been repaid with fierce devotion and the occasional blind eye.

The Mermaid's Purse is not known as a guesthouse and while it has rooms to rent, these are nearly permanently occupied.  Rooms occasionally come free at seasonal festivals when a guest moves on - the room is typically big enough for a single person.  The price is expensive and the room is basic but private with feather mattress and covered chamber pot.  Most guests are here to do business, rarely spark curiosity and are seldom missed.


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