The Only Way is the Essex Way

We started at Flatford car park (one of Constable’s lesser known paintings, much like JMW Turner’s ‘DFDS ferry at Harwich’) and headed to Manningtree station en route to promised pub perfection. Our walk took us past Flatford Mill and over the River Stour into Essex. The hedgerows were awash with Blackthorn blossom leading to thoughts of a bumper sloe harvest in the Autumn. Whilst I’ve gone through the usual sloe gin and vodka routines, I don’t think I’ve ever seen sloe infused beer on a bar – probably wise if it was anything like my ill-fated attempt at Sloe Sorbet. Anyway we wandered on to Manningtree and its famed station café. 

As well as excellent coffee it has a good selection of beer including Woodforde’s Wherry and Nelson together with Olde Trip from Greene King. Apart from take-away coffee there was no time for us to have a drink before setting off for a couple of stops down the Mayflower Line train to Wrabness. We passed the old Edme maltings and other quayside buildings at Mistley. Evidently there’s something of a battle over public access to the quayside. Edme malt extract – a name to conjure a smile on the face of any incompetent home brewer of yesteryear.

At Wrabness we wandered across the line and past the community shop and licensed café. These Essex folk seem ready to use any type of venue for a beer. And maybe that’s the way it goes, whilst the traditional ‘pub for all’ disappears, there’ll be a range of places, mini-pubs, beer shops, craft bars, pubs in aspic, ‘spoons etc. Are we seeing the emergence of drinking venues for every type of consumer as illustrated by M&B brands and perhaps the idea of a ‘pub for all’ is a myth anyway?

2015-04-19 10.40.37

A sign of community in Wrabness

Down to the Stour estuary and it felt like we’d been drinking already as Grayson Perry’s latest folly, A House for Essex, appeared before us. Like Perry himself/herself, it’s amusing, different and bound to get people talking. Nearly completed, this green and gold edifice will be taking holiday bookings later in 2015.

2015-04-19 10.45.00

Grayson Perry’s House of Essex

We strolled along the Essex Way alongside the estuary with wood anemones and wild garlic (good for pesto) carpeting the ground. After walking along the edge of Stour Wood and Copperas Wood we emerged into Ramsey and went across farmland towards the salt marshes on the other side of the peninsula.

A long slog into Harwich along the sea wall and then down Barrack Lane into Old Harwich, going past Redoubt Fort and the treadmill crane on the way – you’d need a beer after working on that. Despite the best efforts of poor 60s and 70s development, Old Harwich still hangs onto its historic past and it feels like the community is making an effort. A replica of The Mayflower (it sailed from Harwich) is being built from the scattered timber in the yard opposite the station. Good to hear from a friendly local standing outside The Stingray pub in his West Ham shirt that they want more tourists to enjoy the place they cherish.

2015-04-19 15.26.30

Alma’s pub perfection

We arrived after 10 miles at the door of the Alma Inn and Dining Rooms gasping for a beer. I was promised perfection and here it was. How is it that sometimes you open a pub door and it just feels so good? Pub busy, a very friendly welcome at the bar and a sense the pub has a tale to tell. Excellent beers – IPA from Mighty Oak, a bitter from Harwich Town plus Adnams Broadside and Woodforde’s Wherry. No overdone gastropub fuss, just high quality food with more than decent quantities of Skate & Chips and Roast Pork. This is pub perfection served with a natural joy and pride that a chain can’t deliver. It’s worth a trip out from Liverpool Street. You could even stay overnight at the Alma – as the menu gently teases, dirty weekend anyone? Or perhaps just the Redoubt Beer Festival at the end of July.

Romans I

A well-deserved pint after a saunter across hills is, to my mind, close to perfection. Whilst I’ve recently wandered across the few hills that the northern home counties have to offer, it’s led me to think that pub numbers have still someway to fall. When I’m not tempted to cross the threshold there’s a problem.

Childwickbury & Gorhambury – a double to win over 12 miles on the flat

I headed out from Harpenden on a sunny spring morning – few hills but a great walk in prospect across grand estates to St Albans. Across the Common and off the main road to Childwickbury (thought to have been built in the reign of James II). Stanley Kubrick used to reside in the manor house and his wife now hosts the Childwickbury Arts Festival. For a brief time during the filming of Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise & Kidman lived in one of the estate houses causing much excitement in the coffee shops of Harpenden.

Back to the walking – it’s an easy stroll along the quiet estate roads and paths passing St Michael’s church (designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott) and banks of rhodedendrons and azaleas. After passing the main gate there are fine views across the pastures often interrupted by the wave-like fight of green woodpeckers. Plenty of opportunity to lean on the metal fence looking across to the stud farm that housed both Derby and Grand National winners in the time of Jim Joel.

The path then heads through the woods before emerging near Batchwood golf course with views of St Alban’s Abbey. I called in at my local hospice, Rennie Grove, to find out more about their work. (I’m fundraising for them with a 300 mile walk later this year. More details here.) And then it was time to grab a pork pie, too early for St Albans’ pubs, and head north through the Gorhambury estate along the Ver-Colne Valley Walk. (It’s on OS maps but there’s not much up to date info anywhere else.) Again it’s all estate roads and paths, very quiet until the Royal Mail man gave his impression of Lewis Hamilton. Odd how delivery speeds have declined whilst mail van speeds have increased.

The walk back to Harpenden starts with Roman Theatre of Verulamium built in 140AD and then a walk alongside the meadows. Gorhambury House, home of the Earl of Verulam, a palladian pile is open on summer Thursdays. The estate path down to the ruins of 15th century Old Gorhambury (English Heritage) is often open with views of the main house but my route was east across the meadows. I look back to view the Abbey in the distance – a pilgrims’ view if ever there was one. A heron wafts across the fields as I head towards the river and then a kestrel, shiny russet-backed in the sun, glides out of the willow plantation on a seemingly effortless flight.

2015-04-07 11.54.41

Pilgrims’ View of the Abbey

Across the Roman Watling Street (now the A5183) to follow the gentle meanderings of the Ver to Shefford Mill and then passing close by the working Redbournbury Mill – in times past, solid dependable buildings offering hard grind in more ways than one. Who’d think it’s less than 25 miles to London.

On the edge of Redbourn I was ready for a pint with Chef & Brewer’s Chequers pub across the field. Tempted, of course? Quick look at the PerfectPint website and it’s Landlord or Landlord. Whilst I can think of few finer pints than Timmy Taylor’s Best in the Falcon at Arncliffe I’m not convinced a dusty chain food pub with hardboard for a window is what I’m looking for to deliver a great pint. The sign for the next clairvoyant evening didn’t really attract either.They might have known I wouldn’t go in.

It puzzles me as to why pub boards and banners often announce the latest ‘fruitcake’ event and a medley of meals that I could spot by viewing a 3663 catalogue. Hardly any pubs give any info outside or on their website as to what beer they’re offering. Whilst Perfect Pint does a great job it’s surely worth a pub telling you the beers they sell. Isn’t that what they do?

I walked on homeward bound along the Nickey Line and the footpath through the Rothamsted Research estate – it’s a strange mix of bluebell woods, trial crops and High Court protected GM cereals behind fences and security men.

A short train ride out of London St Pancras to Harpenden and you have one of Hertfordshire’s finest gentle strolls ready and waiting. Time it right and you could fit in the Six Bells in St Albans and the Cross Keys in Harpenden with only the briefest of detours – both serving Landlord and much more besides. Why not try it?

More tales to come in Romans II.