Cheap booze puts nail in coffin of Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild

PUBLISHED: 17:00 16 October 2019

Graham England, Barbara Cook, David Clarke, Stephen Hodges, and Philip Hembrow at the 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.

Graham England, Barbara Cook, David Clarke, Stephen Hodges, and Philip Hembrow at the 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.

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The Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild has shut its doors for the final time after 64 years.

Peter Howard, Graham England and David Clarke at the 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.Peter Howard, Graham England and David Clarke at the 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.

At its height, the homemade winemakers group had around 90 members but with the advent of cheap commercial wine their numbers dwindled to just under 20.

Originally the guild began with a letter by Alec Spoor - which his friend Basil Waye forced him to write - to the then Welwyn Times on December 17, 1954.

Both beekeepers had thrown themselves into the winemaking craze after several successful mead making competitions and wanted to get others to join.

The letter had the desired effect and around 30 people showed up to the very first meeting in April 1955 in the Backhouse Room on Handside Close.

Stephen Hodges giving out samples of his 1987 home-made Madeira wine at the 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.Stephen Hodges giving out samples of his 1987 home-made Madeira wine at the 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.

David Clarke, who was president of the guild up until its closure on October 4, said it was a little funny that "we've hired it from the teetotal Quakers".

The winemakers continued to bring samples to tastings and run monthly talks in the same location.

However, as the only one still making his own wine, Mr Clarke said closing was the only option.

He said he was "very sad" about the decision, but is grateful for the experiences he has had.

The 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.The 60th anniversary of the Welwyn Garden City Winemakers Guild. Picture: Submitted.

"One we met the Queen Mother [Queen Elizabeth II's mother] and she came over to our wine tent at a fair [in WGC ] and we gave her a glass," he said.

"And she said can I have another - so we had to find another bottle."

WGC's Bob said though he never made any wine he will miss the talks and the people.

"Years ago, I used to play badminton and someone there asked me to come along and I've stayed ever since," the 91-year-old said.

Former programme writer for the guild, Stephen Hodges, 62, agreed it was the talks that kept him coming back for more.

The winemakers have hosted archaeologist Tony Rook who discovered the Welwyn Roman Baths, the Young Lovers' actor David Kossoff and Madame Tussaud's wax model maker Paul Bainbridge.

But, despite the great speakers over the years, the guild could not hold back the decline in winemaking and the changing times.

"Well you see it used to be a thruppence a bottle and this is when you earned just seven and half pence a week," Panshanger resident Peter Howard, 89, explained.

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"I used to make wine before joining the guild and won some competitions at Campus West.

"And then the guild approached me around 40 years ago. But now no youngsters are interested in it."

Elise Anderson said drink driving and smoking laws also played their part in reducing numbers.

"Things change and you just go with the flow as your grow older," said the former pharmacist.

"We'll all still remain friends

"I will miss the Christmas dances though. We always had fancy dress and punch, which was lethal."

Mr Hodges, who used to work for Woolmer Green's chocolate maker Lessiter's, also pointed to the cheapness of commercial wine.

"And I just have other hobbies now," he said.

Over the years the guild made excursions to France and Germany to sample their wines as well.

"It was funny, we went to this one vineyard that had grapes growing in all directions," Mr Hodges said.

"And then there was this very fruity mulberry tree so [the guild members] completely forget about the grapes.

"We always used traditional [homemade wine] ingredients like elderberries, rosehips and figs, you see."

Once they made a parsnip and banana wine.

Now the guild has dissolved it will return membership fees back to fee payers, with any remainder going to Isabel Hospice in WGC .

Former president Mr Clarke said as many ex-guild members have given him equipment to give to new recruits over the years, he needs to find somewhere for that to go. "I've got it all over the place," he said.

The 72-year-old said he will continue to make his own wine as he has lots of fruit trees, berry brambles and grapes in a greenhouse.

If you are looking for a winemakers society nearby then Stevenage Amateur Wine and Beermakers Guild still meets on the first Thursday each month at 8pm in Bedwell Community Centre, as does the St Albans Winemakers Circle in the Charles Morris Hall in Tyttenhanger Lane.

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