In praise of Allendale

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Snow poles!

Whilst I scribble about pubs and strolling about, the beer often seems incidental. From debates with my mate, Clive of IPA, I realise that beer is now more contentious than politics or religion. More to the point what do I and my jaded taste buds know? I knows what I likes and it ain’t a mango sherbet sour in a can. Draught Bass from a jug is exciting enough for me.

However from my walking forays in the North Country one brewery stands out for me. In the Lakes and Northumberland, Allendale has become my first choice whenever I see it. I’m always suspicious when I see a wide range of beers from a small brewery but whatever the beer style Allendale seems to have it right.

Refreshing, not over hopped, but always interesting isn’t a bad start. Like another favourite, the Yorkshire Dales brewery, here’s a small brewer that knows its craft. Their brews are in no way dull, they manage to get an old grump like me to try new flavours. It’s also no bad thing that Allendale’s pump clips are a work of art and the pubs that serve their beers seem to be a cut above. The Northumberland Arms at Felton, Tweedies in Grasmere and Twice Brewed near Hadrian’s Wall are a good introduction to pubs that know what they are doing.

To top it all their bottles* seem to retain the quality of their beers and can be bought from the brewery en route across the North Pennines from Hexham to Barnard  Castle. To go all Shell Book of the Road on you, one of the most beautiful drives in an undiscovered corner of Northern England.

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All praise then for a craft brewer that only started in 2006 yet seems to have mastered the traditions of English brewing as well as developing a creativity to produce interesting brews. Bless ’em.

*Also available at Tebay Services on the M6.

Local pubs for local people?

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Nice bit of masonry, Adrian

I was in the Twice Brewed pub near Hadrian’s Wall recently. We were intrigued by their maps of the UK and the World with pins to show customers’ home locations. A pub in the middle of nowhere and a World Heritage Site, it’s not going to get much of its trade from local residents.

Whilst I suspect those from far away are more likely to pin home (more space and more reason), the maps illustrated how important visitors of all kinds are to pubs. Perhaps the word ‘local’ leads many publicans to focus on local trade – the regulars. Regulars – that’s regulars at nursing a pint, not buying food and letting the landlord know how important they are, perhaps?

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GBG pubs I’ve never been to?

The Twice Brewed had a range of real ales in good condition (Twice Brewed bitter, Cragnook Well, Trade Star from Firebrick and Wagtail from the wonderful Allendale). Their food was easily restaurant class and the welcome was perfect. But perhaps most importantly we felt like guests.

In the wise, and now ancient, words of Richard Boston, “Customers should remember that the pub is the guv’nor’s house, and usually his home,and should behave like guests”. I didn’t see any hand-written notices telling me to take my boots off, ‘no children near the bar’, or informing us that THESE ARE NOT PUBLIC TOILETS. I was merely expected to behave like a guest, welcomed at the bar and given a chance to choose my beer. I felt as welcome as the next man, regular or not. Few pubs can now afford to be like The Slaughtered Lamb (in American Werewolf in London) with regulars staring up from their beers and muttering about the moors at night.

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Tail waggingly good

Most ‘Locals’ aren’t local any more and the idea that local trade will see you right is outdated. That makes the complaints of many such as retiredmartin and pubcurmudgeon about keeping to published opening hours ever more valid. A visitor faced by a closed door is unlikely to try it again.

There was a time when visitors were the icing on the cake. These days, for some pubs, they are almost the whole Battenburg. If landlords would realise where their customers are coming from they’d not be left with crumbs.

They do know what they’re doing

I’ve recently visited a couple of freehouses that may show a new source of business skills for the licensed trade (as my publican grandad called it). Very different pubs but equally well run from a customer angle.

I was told by my mum (daughter of an Allsopps’ maltster) that I was taking her to a carvery for lunch. Definitely not my cup of beer, this was going to be all plastic food and smooth beer. As ever my mum was right about The Greyhound at Woodville. (One for retiredmartin, Woodville has a road called The City.)

The food was freshly made, very tasty and tremendous value. The 100 seat restaurant area was almost full on a Monday lunchtime with grey hairs much in evidence but also clearly the place to be dragged along by an elderly parent. It was very friendly service but business efficient with plenty of IT in use for ordering.

And although most drinking was keg and soft drinks, there was clearly enough throughput in the restaurant and adjoining bar to produce a decent pint of Pedigree. But perhaps that’s what you should expect from a chain, although as far as I’m aware the only other pub in this chain is The Mason’s Arms at nearby Donisthorpe. The owners clearly know how to run a hospitality business.

Secondly on our travels to the North Pennines we stopped in Barnard Castle for lunch and randomly selected the Old Well Inn, another free house. Friendly welcome from the family and beers ordered. Pleasantly, I was asked if I wanted any crisps or nuts with the drinks – that’s what I like, a business that seeks add-ons. My thoughts – this is someone used to running a business.

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The beers (Mother’s Ruin from Mithril and Guzzler from York) were in excellent condition, as I suspect even the TT Landlord might have been. The food included the home-cooked Butter Chicken, curry of the day. Best curry in a pub ever by far. Bit of a clue there. As I was tucking into the curry and had guzzled the Guzzler there was an enquiry as to whether I wanted another beer bringing over. Now I’m thinking, note to pubcos  – don’t bother running training courses for new licensees – just send them here to be customers. They’ll learn more.

Beers were praised and the son talked knowledgeably about the beers and keeping them in condition and holding them back until they’re ready to go on the bar. As Mrs WM complained about her failure to order curry it was suggested we should call in for lunch on the return trip home or perhaps come up and stay for their curry nights. Tempting sales pitch.

Unlike incompetent referee Keith Stroud at St James’ Park, the licensees of these freehouses really do know what they are doing. What’s the secret to running free houses in a difficult business environment? Well for a start both pubs are run by Indians (by birth/origin) with business experience. And as Mrs WM suggested it’s no bad thing to run a freehouse with a committed hard-working family in tow. Friendly welcomes, efficient business practices, and excellent soft sell techniques will win over customers. And perhaps as it becomes difficult to bring in chefs from the sub-continent and running Indian restaurants loses its appeal, there’s a chance that we have a new source of skilled pub operators coming into view. I hope so, we need them.

Subsidised coffee shops and sheds for middle class blokes

I have a business idea that I hope the Chancellor will support. It’s a chain of coffee shops in small towns where the market wouldn’t support a viable coffee shop business. The first financial requirement is already available with small business rate relief for many vacant premises.

My next stage should be easy given that coffee shops play an important role in community cohesion. I’d like the government to reduce taxes on small coffee producers so that I can then buy cheaper craft coffee for my shops. And also I’d like the government to legislate to stop nasty property owners getting a change of use on existing coffee shops given their key role in the lifeblood of the community and world peace.

I’m also hoping to get subsidies for small sheds for groups of middle class, middle-aged blokes but I hear that micro pubs have in effect already achieved that target.

The point of all this rambling? I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.

The risk is that we could hasten the decline of the traditional pubs beloved of those on the Draught Bass wing of beer blogging. (I wonder how many pubs with just one real ale are in the GBG.) But perhaps that’s what most folk want?

 

Dickey the Donkey and the Perfect Pub

As CAMRA paddles round in circles whilst battling dodgy craft, I thought I’d continue my search for defining pub perfection. We set off on a stroll from the main part of East Bergholt, deep in ‘Constable Country’.

Our friends tell us we are doing a short stroll to a pub (with no food) called Dickie’s; but that’s not what it’s really called. There’s another one to add to my pub perfection list. Surely pubs known by an alternative name are always good?

We amble out of the village (the protest signs against major expansion insist that East Bergholt is a village not a town) and across the fields to arrive at the Royal Oak with a sign including the usual Charles II in the tree. So why isn’t it called Charlie’s?

The local lads are out the back playing petanque before the pub opens. We try the front door just before opening time and the landlady opens up with a friendly greeting and insists we leave our walking boots on. Inside it’s a Greene King pub that’s thankfully missed the corporate makeover. Quarry tiles on the floor and mock wooden panelling that reminds me of my grandad’s pub in the 1960s and the simplicity of the Duke of York at Elton in the Peak District.

We enjoy a pint of Nethergate’s Growler – tasting like tradition in a glass, but I suspect if I was in a blindfold even the GK IPA would have tasted fine. We admire the mish-mash of stuff in the snug including the photo of Sgt Bilko and his mates drinking beer. We convince ourselves it was taken in the pub but the landlady admits its just something her husband put on the wall – “he’s like that”, she says. Nowt wrong with a touch of idiosyncrasy.

The ‘lads’ come in for a well-deserved pint acknowledging us on their way through the bar and asking after our walk. (Back to East Bergholt along the Donkey Track since you ask.) We wander back past the well-fed horses and we’re happy that the world is good and populated with folk with a smile on their faces.

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Laminate feed a speciality

 

That was my most worthwhile pint for a while. So there’s more to add to the pub perfection list.

  • Pubs that aren’t called by their sign name
  • Landlords for whom the pub is part of their personality
  • Where everyone gets a welcome

PS As for the name, Dickey is East Anglian dialect for donkey and the pub is thought to have been called the Kicking Donkey beer house in earlier times.

 

 

 

Beers, Walks and Old Slippers

I needed to get back into this walking and pubs lark – where better than to head to old Peak District haunts. The plan was to saunter round the White Peak with a lunchtime pub stop, but as increasingly is the case, Monday wasn’t a good day. A quick bit of interwebbing showed six decent pubs around Youlgrave all closed on Monday lunchtime.

Grudgingly I accepted it might have to be Greene King at the Farmer’s Boy but I was saved, yet another pub website with the wrong opening hours, it was closed as well. For some basic country pubs it strikes me that fancy websites that they struggle to maintain come a poor second to running a Facebook page with simple info on beers, food and opening hours.

Thankfully the Lathkil Hotel at Over Haddon was open and the walk was on. We gathered outside the YHA in the old Co-op in Youlgrave. (As the rooms are named after old Co-op departments I hear you can bed down in Ladies Underwear.) Lovely weather as we headed down to the River Bradford. Heron, Kingfisher and limestone cliffs – it was going to a good walk. As we moved past the rare breed sheep at Alport, they seemed to look mournfully at the signs advertising their demise for £90 a hogget.

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Onwards along the old trout beds of the Lathkill, walking past fully-laden DofE youngsters trudging on cheerfully. How about a DofE award for seniors involving beer knowledge and grumbling? We passed the site of the medieval village of Conksbury and crossed to the other bank watching Dippers racing atop the water.

Up the track into Over Haddon and time to reacquaint ourselves with the Lathkil. I’d not been in for a few years but it’s still owned by the same family and like every good country pub it felt like finding a pair of old slippers. As comfortable as ever – good food and like many places round here an excellent choice of beers including brews from Hartington, Blue Monkey and Springhead. The Springhead Bitter was a classic walking bitter – almost rehydrating don’t you know. I’d never heard of them, despite their pedigree of 25 years of brewing.

Refuelled we went back down to the river and headed westwards to meet Cales Dale and a stiff climb up the Limestone Way on to sheep fields. It had been the perfect White Peak walk – dales, stiles through drystone walls, a welcoming pub and I’d lied about the distance. We followed our noses back down to Youlgrave and scuttled off to Dale End for home-made cakes. Not a distance to deserve cake but enjoyed nonetheless.

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Next day we went north to Little Hayfield and went up and over Lantern Pike. Again it was a lunchtime punctuated by pubs advertising open when they were closed so we pressed on into New Mills with two difficult filters on the pub selection. We didn’t want Robinsons (sorry Mudgie) and it had to be open. Not easy this close to Stockport.

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At least the local pie was a good alternative to the missing barm

Running low on hope we shuffled into the Pride of the Peak. With Spitfire and Timothy Taylor on offer we weren’t thrilled. (Stonch’s recent post on TT Landlord goes some way to explain my aversion to the beer outside Yorkshire.) Anyway this was the last saloon in town and it was TT Golden Best so we gave it a go. Wonderful pint from a friendly landlord. He topped the beer quality by suggesting that as they’d stopped serving food why didn’t we get pies from the bakery over the road and bring them back. Top man. I’m all for #murkshaming but it’s also worth letting a bloke when his beer is top notch – he seemed quite pleased that I’d had the best pint of TT outside Yorkshire.

A quick bus ride back to Little Hayfield, more cake and then to the food-centred Lamb Inn at Chinley. A really good pub at what it does and a fine pint of Wren’s Nest Bitter from Glossop’s Howard Town brewery. Sometimes difficult to find an open pub but the chances of a decent pint seem to get better every year.