The Legend of
Brother John of Tavistock Abbey, Devon
by J. Henry Harris
B R O T H E R
J O H N O F
T A V I S T O C K
The Legendary Origins of Devon Cider
In the olden times the finest orchard land in South Devon was the property of Tavistock Abbey. They also held fine orchards just over the border in Cornwall, and the good brothers used to travel there every season to make cider and have a frolic. Sometimes the good old cider, being no respecter of persons, even got into the good brothers' heads. Now, the best of cider is a trifle sharp to the palate - the natives call it rough - and the brothers were in the habit of making some rare good stuff. That reserved for high days and holidays, however, was sweet cider made in empty wine-casks. One season, the wine-casks falling short, the Abbot of Tavistock drew up a sort of prize competition, offering something tasty to the inventor of a process for making rough cider sweet without the use of wine, which, I suppose, worked out expensive and encouraged more drinking than was allowed under the tippling act.
For a long time, things hadn't been going very smoothly between the monks of Tavistock and Old Nick, or, as he is known in Cornwall, Old Artful. He was constantly prowling about the place, picking up little bits of information, and making the good brothers uncomfortable. Well, he chanced upon the prize competition notice. It was up on an old door covered over with cast horse-shoes and vermin nailed up for good luck, and to keep his Satanic Majesty out. However, there he was, and there he read the notice.
That season very obliging little old man turned up at the orchards, and offered his services. He was taken in to do odd jobs about the pound-house, and as he wasn't particular about his bed, he was allowed to curl himself up in one of the big empty cider-casks. Unfortunately, after the work was over for the day, the good brothers had other fish to fry, and thought no more about the little man; but the strange workman was most busy when he was supposed to be sound asleep.
Of all the brothers of the Abbey, Brother John was keenest on winning the prize for turning rough cider into sweet, and he spent hours in the pound-house alone, spoiling good stuff, without getting one foot further forward. "Damn my old buttons!" said he, after yet another failure. It wasn't so much the language as the temper of Brother John which attracted the notice of the little old man who slept in the cask. He whispered something which made the good brother turn pale and tremble in his shoes. Brother John was not above temptation, it is true, but he was a brave man for all that. He concealed his intentions so well that the stranger was off his guard and slept in his cask, leaving one of his cloven feet sticking out of the bung-hole. Brother John bided his time, then covered the bung-hole and arranged for such a flow of cider to enter the cask onto the sleeping stranger, that his quandary would be settled. Was this Old Nick or not? Old Nick it was and, when he awoke, he was so hot with fury that the cider bubbled in the cask, and he disappeared, leaving the strongest of strong smells of brimstone behind.
Brother John kept the evening's events to himself, not knowing what might come of them; but when he tasted the cider his eyes sparkled, for it was as sweet as honey. Thereafter, whenever sweet cider was wanted at the Abbey, he would pour it rough upon the fumes of burning sulphur and, lo and behold, it became sweet. It was Old Nick who gave away the secret to Brother John, and he was smart enough to take note. A Devon man calls sweet cider matched, on account of its connection with old Brimstone. Brother John did not patent the process, though Old Nick tempted him; but the old monk was too wide awake to have his fingers burnt by patent lawyers and their agents.
Next Cornish Saint or Sinner
Edited from "Cornish Saints & Sinners" (1906)