You have probably noticed that this year is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta (despite what you might have read, it was never signed). I went down to the exhibition at the British Library and had a look at a couple of the four surviving 1215 copies, one of which looks like a piece of blotting paper which has been left in an oven. However, it’s not the appearance but the contents which matter. Disappointingly, it turns out that few of the 63 clauses have much relevance today, and it seems that some of it was medieval point scoring, for example, clause 50 which reads ‘We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers’. Beware if you research your family tree back too far, and you discover that you are related to one of the persona non grata.
However, clause 30 is still relevant today ‘There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.’ True, it doesn’t specify that your pint should be served in a stamped glass and that anyone serving short measure should spend two years in the tower, but I think that the intention is there.
Look at any advertising for beer, and you most likely will see a pint with a large frothy head. This is great for the vendor, as it means that the customer is paying for what is largely air, but there is no denying that is what some people want. It may be that they have been conditioned by advertising over the years to accept this, or that they buy into the northern tradition where anyone receiving a flat pint would not be best pleased. Personally I have spent enough time down here in East Anglia to appreciate the southern tradition of less head and more beer.
What can be done? Before the hand pump became the symbol of cask beer, many pubs in the north and midlands used to dispense beer using an electric pump which automatically measured a half pint into a glass. This allowed oversized glasses to be used and the customer could have a full pint and a head. You can of course use oversized lined glasses with hand pumps, and the Kings Head at Shouldham is an example of a pub which does just that. These tend to be unpopular as it sometimes happens that the customer receives slightly more than a pint, and this affects the profits, so we are stuck with the current system. Still, as trading standards say ‘If customers consider that the amount of frothy head served is excessive they can ask for the glass to be topped up to a reasonably acceptable level.’ It doesn’t quite have the clout of the Magna Carta, but don’t be afraid to ask. Any decent publican will comply with good grace, and after a while they will start to recognise you and fill your glass automatically.
You have probably missed the Magna Carta exhibition by now, but if you are a regular traveller to London, here’s a tip. Register on the Parcel Yard website. The Kings Cross pub sends out free pint vouchers every few months.