Waiting for The Stokies

At its best the pub, particularly a new tick, should offer uncertainty and release its tales slowly. Seemingly nothing is happening, but everything is happening. The human condition to be gently observed.

The TV series (and now a top notch play for any pub lovers) Early Doors had a similar quality in its beautifully scripted tales of a back street Manchester boozer. Simple characters revealing complexity in an existential whole. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to visit a pub with similar qualities.

We strolled from Longnor in the Staffordshire/Derbyshire borderlands and over the other worldliness of Chrome Hill, descending towards Earl Sterndale and the Quiet Woman pub. A pub I’d walked past before but always at the wrong times. Now was our chance to let it reveal its secrets. It looked nothing special from the outside apart from an open door.

We wandered in, no-one behind the bar and three young folk chatting by the fire. Are you alright, we were asked. We slowly realised that this was the pub code for a further question or statement. A bit like the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions but more polite.

Little changed over the years, unspoilt wouldn’t do it justice. GBG stickers all the way back to the 1970s adorned the bar, local pork pies sat invitingly, in a nostalgic sort of way,  under a plastic lid with mini Bakewell Tarts alongside. On the beer front, it was Wainwright, Burton Bridge Mild and Marston’s Burton Bitter (none of that Saddle Tank nonsense) on offer. A Marston’s Low-C bottle opener and a Pedigree Bitter ashtray harked back to an earlier time. The sort of pub that CAMRA was formed to protect.

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A photo to gladden the heart of the regiment.

The lad in the corner offered to get us a pint. We accepted a Mild in perfect condition and a Bitter that was suppable. A couple of pork pies and we were set up for a perfect pub lunchtime.

Act 1, Scene 2…the kids left, a couple came in silently and Ken the landlord appeared from out the back to serve them. How he knew they had come in was beyond us. Are you alright, he says to us. I’m just going to move this table as The Stokies come in every Wednesday. We were puzzled by these mythical creatures who were about to appear and why they needed a table at a right angle to ours, but no chairs.

Ken walked to the front of the bar and picked up a small children’s snooker table top. Like a slow-moving magic trick…he flipped it over, placed it over the existing table to reveal the table skittles top. The fixing of the pole was a work of scientific intrigue. He explained it had to be bolted into place with a high degree of accuracy. The ball must just touch the metal pin on the board. A few thou’ out wouldn’t do as my dad would have said.

And then The Stokies arrived. A happy miscellany of travellers ready for serious business albeit in a well-established routine. The Canterbury Tales sprang to mind as we watched Stanley the Tool Man (it was the graphic images on his yellow braces) play Hank Marvin’s younger brother (the glasses always give the family link away). To our excitement they told us that the pole needed re-adjusting..it needed to be highly accurate. Oh and could we move to the next table as they liked a bit of space around the skittle table.

Let gentle battle commence. I can’t recall a time when a pub game has been so carefully played…backs bent to line up the ball and release points calculated by these masters of pub physics.

As the game moved on a couple in clean walking gear arrived but made no move towards the bar. Instead they held out a mobile and asked if anyone could help. Obviously they wanted a photo taking in a traditional pub so I offered to help. No, they wanted help with the walking route on their phone. The route started at this pub they insisted and was near Owler Bar and Burbage Rocks and the A5127.

Ken and I agreed their walk was in the moors near Sheffield and showed them the places on the OS map. No, they insisted the postcode for the start of the walk SK something or other placed them at the pub. We all agreed that was the postcode but not for their walk. Advice from us on proper maps didnt seem to be greeted with applause. They turned tail and exited pub stage left.

Gently disturbed by the exciting goings on, we needed more mild and then headed back to Longnor via unnecessary diversions up High Wheeldon and the hill out of Crowdecote. What do we know about finding the correct route? Two pints of beer and pork pies do that to a couple of old blokes. At least we can find a proper pub.

 

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Have we become obsessed about choice?

A wonderful stroll in the western end of the Peak District had us wondering why choice is so important these days, particularly when it comes to beer.

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Hi ho Trig point

Starting at Tegg’s Nose we looked towards Macclesfield and South Manchester and headed up through the woods towards Shutlingsloe. Up and down the Cheshire Matterhorn we were now ready for a pint.

Descending we arrive at Wildboarclough to search out the Crag Inn. Three hand pumps and only one in use. Kodiak Gold from Beartown in Congleton it has to be. Bit golden and over-hoppy but why should beggars for a pint be choosers.

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Informative and accurate

We ponder why we feel a bit disappointed with the lack of choice given that all we wanted was a beer, any beer, halfway down the hillside. We slap ourselves about for being ungrateful and tuck in to a Mycocks’ meat pie and chips washed down with another pint of cellar cool perfection.

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We’ll get it down

A bloke wanders in and asks for Peroni from under the tea towel. There was another lager, but clearly not enough choice.

Soon after a mum and son ask about food..are there any specials as well as the menu, err no. OK, I’d like the chicken salad but with tuna, goes the conversation. Everyone wants choices. The days of a single beer with cheese and onion on Mother’s Pride (and be grateful for it) are over.

We chat with the friendly owner who admits that a pub this remote has to be something of a hobby. It can’t offer a wide range of cask and a long menu. It’s not worth opening on a weekday evening. They’re now bottling water from their borehole to add a further income stream (sorry). It’ll be available with milk deliveries soon.

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How many shires do people want these days?

It’s too comfortable but we force ourselves onwards. Up the hill and then to Three Shires Head before more uphills to the closed Cat & Fiddle pub and on to the busy tea shop further down the road.

Robinsons are looking to lease the Cat & Fiddle but admit its pub days are numbered. Bizzarely they seem to think a tea room might work here. Prospective tenant thinks…remote location with a large tea shop less than half a mile away. Oh yes, a tea shop in a former pub is a brilliant idea. I could attract the punters with more choices than the one down the road.

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Old-fashioned SatNav

Do we really feel any better from the offer of ever-expanding choices. Endless TV channels and nothing you fancy watching? Will our demands for beer and food choices lead to the same problem?

Why pubs really matter

Forget the arguments about beer types…craft or cask doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things. It’s not world peace. Beer is merely a way of getting blokes to communicate. (The reason I only mention blokes will I hope, become clear below.)

I increasingly realise that pubs are one of the few opportunities for blokes (particularly those who are middle-aged & above and single) to provide the means to support each other. In terms of mental well-being, I realise that there are organisations such as the nascent men’s sheds movement and the bowls & golf clubs and their ilk, but men’s social networks in retirement are notoriously poor compared to women. At its best the pub offers the opportunity to talk if you want to, or remain silent, but yet be part of a community.

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We were in a rural pub recently and started to chatting to a group of old mates in for an unhurried lunchtime of a couple of pints. Eventually one of the chaps started telling us of his wife who had moved into a care home with severe dementia. The pub was a place where he could bring her in the early stages of her illness without worrying about what people would think. As we chatted, he felt able to talk freely about the issues of being a carer and the hole in his life after she had to move out.

We found out, when another left early, that he was a Falklands’ veteran who didn’t like to talk about his experiences of lost comrades. Of course his mates respected his silence, but they were there to talk about other stuff and ready to support him.

Another chap was recovering from a stroke and slowly sipping his pint, safe in the company of his friends…people who would judge him on what he said rather than the manner of his speech.

As the first chap said, as we left, “this isn’t so much a pub to us, as a way of life.”

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The best of pubs don’t judge, don’t ask who you are, or the value of your house. You’ll be given quiet space if you want, or friendly chat if that’s your choice.

In these days of limited public spending let’s remember the importance of pubs, the listeners behind the bar, and our fellow customers. We live in a rapidly ageing society and more and more people will live alone. Whilst I applaud CAMRA’s Community Pubs Month, there is much more to be done as the pub comes under more pressure, both economic and legislative.

Alcohol is subject to increasing scrutiny by health professionals and legislators. Pubs as outlets for alcohol products will inevitably come under the microscope. For some the pub will be seen as a means to breach government alcohol guidelines. We need more effort from the industry and CAMRA to improve recognition of the community, social and mental health benefits of the pub. A ‘public house’ is just that for many people.

We can all help each other, but let’s recognise the role of the pub in opening those doors to all.

 

Completely Howgilled

My favourite walk in England beckoned. Sedbergh to Ravenstonedale across the Howgill Fells. Always a slog out of Sedbergh and rucsacs loaded with vittels.

Hills that look like pale green ghostly pillows lobbed randomly but perfectly. Up on to the Calf and views of Morecambe Bay, Lakeland hills (is that Great Gable and so on), and Ingleborough peering out again. There can be few more remote and silent places in England that offer so much with so few people about.

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We look down on valley bottoms with distant meandering streams and wonder how many people have ever been there.

In sunny weather it is a complete joy, we think back to days in Summer when poor visibility has led us to abandon the idea of walking up here.

After many miles of ridges, the long downward slope leads us off the fells and we wend our way through small upland farms, a tree nursery and boggy meadows.  Better field paths and minor roads lead us to the edge of Ravenstonedale to be lifted by the sight of the King’s Head.

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Obviously doing business with Marston’s…61 Deep and Mansfield Cask on offer. Why no local Jennings’? Out of curiosity I rehydrate on Mansfield. The blandest bitter I’ve had in a very long time. Not kept badly, it just seemed as if they’d used the cheapest ingredients in the beer factory and not much of them.

We wander on through the churchyard to arrive at our billet for the night, the Black Swan. A wonderful country pub hotel if ever there was.

A GBG regular, they seem to have a clever strategy on the beer front to keep their place. Black Sheep to keep the non-CAMRA punters happy and a couple of changing obscure local micros to meet the ‘needs’ of local CAMRA folk. Is this how it’s done?

The beer is fine and we rest our Howgilled bones and joints in preparation for a trip tomorrow on the Settle to Carlisle and a wander round Skipton. The Woolly Sheep beckons.

 

Dented but not broken

Today was a planned lazy day before we head over the Howgill Fells tomorrow. Four miles from Cowgill to Dent back on the Dales Way. Zigzagging between fields and the River Dee we managed to add a few diversions with a lack of concentration.

The sun breaks through, shining on hedgerows, packed with bluebells and wild garlic at its pungent best. ( BTW great for pesto with ground almonds, parmesan and olive oil.)

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Tea shop stops in Dent, and then the boys guiltily decide to add a few more miles in the afternoon sunshine. Out of Dent and upwards on a SW bearing alongside the beck to the Green Lane hugging the contours.

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Beautiful views from high above Dent to the other side of the dale where the Settle to Carlisle trains shuffle along, and to the west, the Howgill Fells saying try it if you’re hard enough.

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From Little Combe Hill we head down to Nun House Outrake, then back along the minor road to Howgill Bridge and more tea and cake…it’s that kind of day.

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We’re staying in the Sun Inn with its Kirkby Lonsdale brewery beers plus Farne Island and a few yards up the road is the George and Dragon, the Dent Brewery tap. Pubs buzzing on a Wednesday evening and locals advising on the best beers. For a small village we’re lined up for a good night.

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Dipping and wagging

As we walked out on a warm sunny morning life felt good. A spring in our step and Ed and Jackie’s best wishes beckoning us on round Hubberholme churchyard.

A 15 miler is today’s effort and there’s some consternation in the female ranks. Concerns disappear when you walk alongside the upper reaches of the Wharfe in Langstrothdale. To my mind it is the most beautiful of the river walks in the Dales.

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We hear Cuckoos and see Grey and Pied Wagtails and juvenile Dippers cavorting in the river. One moment the young Wharfe is dashing along and suddenly it’s gone to reappear later.

The sign at Nethergill invites us in for flapjacks and coffee. A farm with fine eco credentials bringing in school parties to experience rural life. We chat to the owner and hear how urban kids often come in with drooping shoulders and limited interest. After a few hours they are transformed.

I hope the Nethergill folk see a world famous botanist on the TV in 30 years time. Talking about how as a poor kid in Bradford he or she was inspired by a day at Nethergill. That would be deserved.

The landscape now gets bleaker and boggy underfoot despite the sunny weather. Massive deciduous reforestation is going on to restore the landscape. It’ll take time but already the Red Squirrel are back. The flat top of Ingleborough looms in the background reminding me of that vicious ‘up’ for the last peak of the Yorkshire Three.

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At Cam Houses we turn off the Dales Way and a friendly farmer offers water bottle refills. A small gesture that means so much on a hot day. Lunch on the limestone outcrop at Cold Keld Gate on the Pennine Way.

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We leave the road for the Pennine Bridleway cum Ribble Way. A grassy track then gravel that wends it way twisting and turning until meeting the road near Newby Head.

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Descending rapidly we have fine views of Dent Head viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle. Steam train at 6pm…we’ll press on. Welcome to Dentdale says the sign. A private garden kindly welcomes Dales Way walkers and offers them the chance to rest their weary bones. Time for the last of the water rations to be shared out and flapjacks to be scoffed.

On to tonight’s billet, the Sportsman’s Inn. A simple place but we are but ordinary folk seeking simple victuals. Pub grub and ever changing beers mainly from small micros.

A golden Citra fuelled creation and a standard malty bitter. Can’t help but think this is Brewing by Numbers by companies subsidised by tax relief. Nothing special and well below the standards of, say,  a combination of Wainwright and Jennings’s Cumberland, or the impressive brews of Dark Horse yesterday.

 

Good Companions

A night in Grassington, before a few days walking in the Yorkshire Dales.  Dales Way to Hubberholme, thence to Cow Gill, a half-day stroll to Dent and then up and down over the Howgills to Ravenstonedale. Good walks and good pubs. Best crack on.

A night of guilt, no mileage in our boots but a few pints to set ourselves up in Grassington. A first taste of the new Tetley Pale brewed in Leeds. The Foresters is a fine pub with well-kept beer but the new Tetley was little more than a light ale, a bit thin and not much flavour. Wolverhampton’s finest Tetley’s Cask and Landlord were doing fine.

Next morning the sun shone as we emerged from the Black Horse. We bumped into Mark Reid of the Inn Way walks. A chap who’s done good work for rural pubs and walkers who like a beer. We swap tales of yesteryear about the Falcon at Arncliffe. For us, the time an American asked if the cider was chilled. I don’t even know if it’s got any bloody apples in it, came the response as the landlord blew the dust off a bottle.

Mark responded with the occasion a vegetarian asked about the menu. Pie and peas said the venerable Robin, the owner of the Falcon. What do you have for vegetarians? Peas, was the joyfully irascible response.

We battled our way out of the village past the film set of Dr Doolittle. It was me or Robert Downey Jnr. in the lead role but I preferred the hike. He probably needs the money…expensive habits, my only rider is Draught Bass.

Up onto the grassy tracks and limestone pavement northwards to Kettlewell. Curlews, and Oyster Catchers crying and Lapwings aggresively circling, this was a perfect morning. Orchids on the edge of the pavement as we spy Kettlewell for a late morning cuppa, this is the perfect day with good companions, as the great JB Priestley might have said.

We leave Kettlewell over the bridge and follow the riverside path stopping only for a bank side feast whilst watching a Stoat scoot up a tree with its black tipped tail behind it. Not a weasel as the old joke goes…

Q. What’s the difference between a stoat and weasel?
A. A Weasel is weasily wecognised and a stoat is stoataly different

We bravely ignore the calls of the much improved pub at Starbotton with its new friendly owners and press on to Buckden. Ice lollies and fizzy drinks on the green and a nod to the brave Polish airmen of the 2nd WW and their memorial high above on the Pike.

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The last gentle stretch into Langstrothdale, my favourite of them all. Home to Hubberholme, the resting place of JB and for us tonight. The George is the perfect pub…it just is, great beer, great food and the best of welcomes with fellow walkers swopping war stories. Ed, Jackie and George the dog busying themselves outside as we arrive. George is well known around these parts, the ladies at the YDNP information centre in Grassington had told me he’d settled down these days.

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That’s a view

 

I’m easily persuaded to have a Dark Horse bitter, malty and rich..northern to its core. Two other Dark Horse on the bar (partly outside for the summer), plus Wharfedale Blonde, Theakston Best and Black Sheep. I’m of the view that there are too many beers on most bars, but with Ed’s cellaring skills and a throughput of middle aged walkers everything is in top condition. The GBG gets it right.

A wonderful pie night in a wonderful place. All is good in this part of the world.