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The Bridge Interviews

Graham Drinkwater

Graham Drinkwater

March 2023

We met Graham at Castles Butchers and Farm Shop on Burford High Street. Graham has been a butcher virtually since he could stand on his own two feet. As a very little boy, he had a blue smock and a very blunt knife, and was allowed to scrape the bones at WJ Castle at Northleach, where his dad was manager in the late 1950s. Later, aged 11 and 12, he earned pocket money as the delivery “man” – on a butcher’s bike. For an extra five shillings (25p) he would scrub the wooden cutting table. He’s now still a valued and respected member of the Burford WJ Castle’s team, along with Will, now the manager, and Aaron, who is learning the trade.

Graham moved to Northleach in 1958; his dad had taken on the management of WJ Castle butchers there in 1952. The family lived above the shop. He attended Northleach Primary School and Bourton-on-the-Water Secondary School, leaving school before his 16th birthday (as you could in those days), and started work for his dad just before his birthday in August. He said of that moment of choice of career “It was easy to fall out of bed and go downstairs to work”. Monday afternoons and evenings saw him at vocational college in Cheltenham. An older lad from the Northleach shop drove them both into Cheltenham, as Graham was too young to drive.

Graham was a star pupil, winning the top student cup at the end of his two-year course, setting the scene for later successes. In the 1990s while managing the Burford shop, they were finalists in the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) Best British Butcher Shop of the Year. Earlier, at Tetbury, the butchery team won the MLC British Window Display of the Year, which needed them to win individual displays in beef, pork and lamb. The lamb display was chessboard themed, with crowns of lamb for the King and Queen, a rack of lamb for the castles, and stuffed noisettes for the pawns. For a Scotland v England Rugby World Cup match they displayed haggis at one end of the window and English beef at the other to win another best window prize.

When he was 28, the owner of WJ Castles, Jesse Smith (of Jesse Smith butchers, Cirencester) recognised Graham’s potential and offered him his first manager role at Billy Pearce butchers in King’s Stanley, outside Stroud. Graham moved there for five years, living above the shop, and then went on to Tetbury (another Jesse Smith butchers). Here he married and brought up the family – a son and a daughter - while living in Rodmarton. But the house there was small, and he’d inherited the Northleach house, so before very long he and the family moved back, and Graham commuted.

At that stage, Graham knew the manager of WJ Castles butchers at Burford, Mervyn Hoare. Many readers will recall Mervyn’s cheerful presence in the Burford shop and the posters his young daughter used to draw, displayed on the shop walls. The owner of the Jesse Smith group of butchers, Richard Hawes, was keen to maintain good relationships between the shop managers. Graham speaks of them getting together for national and regional “Q Guild” events. The Guild was intended to be a quality mark for butchers, and to promote high quality meat to consumers. Graham met Mervyn at such events. When Mervyn died (at far too young an age), Graham was offered the manager role at Burford, and has been here ever since. Mervyn’s sister-in-law, Jane Tunnell-Westmacott (of “Ma Westmacott’s pies”) worked for Mervyn and then for Graham for many decades.

A quick aside into the story of the Burford shop. The building is owned by the Walker family of Asthall. Henry Walker married Mr WJ Castle’s daughter, Nora. Graham remembers meeting Mr Castle when he was very young – the lasting impression: “a big bloke with a beard”. They met in “the Oak Room” at the back of the shop. Henry’s son David has passed the building on to his son Matthew. After Mr Castle senior retired, Henry sold the lease to Nurdon & Bell. They changed the business name from WJ Castles to Nurdon & Bell, and trade dropped off significantly, so they changed it back again, which it has remained ever since. After them came Sidney Hawes, who passed the lease to his son Richard. Richard’s twin sons John and David now run the business, which is an empire extending beyond all the shops mentioned except King’s Stanley, to include a couple of very new farm shops, in Cirencester and between there and Cheltenham.

What of Graham’s family? Son Jon did begin to train in butchery at Burford, but preferred the buying side. Currently he’s moved out of the meat trade and is developing skills working in the building sector. Graham thinks he’ll come back to meat in the end. His daughter Jo works for the National Trust at their Swindon HQ, and specialises in food labelling.  The apple hasn’t dropped far from the tree, then!

Lots has changed in the Burford shop over Cedric’s lifetime’s memory. He remembers that as a very little boy, the till was down a corridor on the left of the shop as you look at it. You picked up your meat, weighed it on a piece of greaseproof paper, then wrapped it in sheets of white paper, then went there to pay. Many a family used the clean outside sheets for children’s drawings. Now, loose meat is packaged in biodegradable packs, with single-use plastic increasingly a thing of the past. The pre-packed meat is in polystyrene trays and cling film, but there is an aspiration to move away from that in due course.

Cedric remembers that the front windows used to be small panes of glass. He can’t recall when the big plate glass window was installed, but it was an utter revelation at the time – so modern! Inside, twins John and David Hawes have invested a lot in recent years, re-aligning the business to changing consumer patterns. Much more visibility is now given to the take-out side of the business, with pies, filled rolls, charcuterie, bread and jars of sauces the first things you encounter. That whole counter and window display used to be fresh meat.

The real revolution from Graham’s perspective was the development of refrigerated display cabinets. Before them, the meat had to be displayed every morning (a 6.30am start was normal) and put back into the meat safe for the evening. Another significant change has been the rise of oven-ready meals. They buy sauces in, then Graham and Will decide how to use them. Not so very long ago, Bert Edginton used to do all the salt beef preparation for WJ Castles, using his own secret spice recipe. The Q Guild provided one of their popular lines - the chicken “cushions”. Graham says that food-safe elastic bands (essential for the cushions) have revolutionised some oven-ready work.

These days, Graham says it’s nice not to have the responsibilities of being a manager. He enjoys putting ondisplays and meeting customers, and has no plans to retire. Will says “whenever he has a week off he comes back saying how bored he was.” That said, if you visit the tennis club at Northleach, you’ll find trophies with Graham Drinkwater on them. He joined the club at 14 and plays tennis still – though not so competitively.

How about famous customers? Anne Robinson and Gary Kemp are among familiar faces at the Burford shop. At Tetbury one customer wanted a brace of pheasant. The shop was busy, and Graham had to move some customers to get them. Evidently he just got on with the transaction. “Didn’t you notice her?” “Who?” Didn’t you spot the bodyguard?” “Where?” “Didn’t you see the green Jaguar?” “No”. Graham had failed entirely to recognise HRH The Princess of Wales, aka Princess Di!

Ruth Reavley - roving reporter

Graham Drinkwater
Graham Drinkwater
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