My longest pub crawl – The Strathmore Challenge

A combination of excitement, fear and complete panic is now whirring round my head. A week today I head to The Strathmore Arms in Holwick, Upper Teesdale (in North Riding, Yorkshire or County Durham depending on your preferences). Why – just so that I can walk all the way back some 300 miles to the only other Strathmore Arms in England by the end of September. And write a few blogposts on the way.

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As a lover of pubs and breweries since a young age (not much choice if you’re from Burton) as well as hill walking, a 300 miles stroll seemed like a good idea at the time. Doesn’t everyone need a challenge after leaving the shackles of full-time working?

Why the Strathmore Challenge – it’s all Google’s fault. Trying to find the date of the Hertfordshire Strathmore’s beer festival last year I googled Strathmore Arms and found another one in England. (Yes I know there’s another in Glamis, Scotland – The Strathmore Challenge II maybe.) Like flies to cowpats, the idea attracted fellow travellers and so for most of the journey I’ve an excellent cast of family and friends.

My walk takes me through some of the finest parts of England. Finest being defined as great walking, breweries and pubs. From The Strathmore at Holwick (beers being Strathmore Gold plus Allendale perfection) the walk heads down the Pennine Way with a first stop at the Tan Hill Inn – famous for being bleak, in the middle of nowhere and American Werewolves. Next it’s Askrigg and its Yorkshire Dales brewery and on to Kettlewell – hopefully the WI will have covered up by now. From there we saunter down Wharfedale stopping off at the brewery of the same name in Ilkley. Sadly it’s a Saturday so we’ll make do with the Boltmakers’ Arms in Keighley before a wistful look at Timothy Taylors.

After Bronte country it’s a couple of days of brooding moors around Greater Manchester before reaching Hayfield of TV’s The Village fame. On into the Peak District with a stop at Thornbridge Brewery at Bakewell and overnighting at Litton, no doubt bemoaning the fact that the Three Stags’ Heads at Wardlow Mires is shut for the night. Then a stroll through limestone country staying at the ancient Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton before heading to Burton. After a wave at Marstons and visits to Burton Bridge Brewery and the Tollgate at Calke I head through the hunting country of rural Leicestershire (Parish brewery) into small but perfectly-formed Rutland (Grainstore at Oakham).

From Uppingham I head south through Oundle (Nene Valley) and Shefford (Banks & Taylor) and after a final overnight in Hitchin it’s a short stroll to St Paul’s Walden to The Strath down south. After all those miles, breweries and no doubt the occasional pub, mine’s a pint.

And finally a quiz question: Which centenarian had connections to all three Strathmore Arms?

Note: I understand that these days it de rigeur for beer bloggers to reveal any free drinks. I can exclusively reveal that I will be welcoming any opportunity to taste with open arms. I might even write nice things unless it’s that mucky London beer that I’m offered.

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Seeking pub perfection

There’s been much talk on the blogosphere on the ideal pub, loss of pubs and whether the craft beer vibe has improved the drinkers’ lot. As I’ve wandered around the highways and by-ways of England over the last few weeks I’ve pondered my own version of pub perfection. Of course while the journey is worthwhile I’m no nearer the holy grail of pubs and despite all the ‘stuff’ on the internet the only real clue is when you open the pub door.

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Glass half full

As Richard Boston describes the quest for pub perfection in Beer and Skittles, “the worst are detestable, the best are unique contributions to human happiness.” In nearly 40 years we’ve had many changes but the pub search goes on. In many ways one of the abiding strengths of pubs, compared to UK Limited’s increasingly homogenous offering, is that you never know whether you’re going to be a step closer to finding perfection.

A few thoughts from me – some gems where the opening of the pub door has proved worthwhile including old favourites and some new joys. As I like a pint after a stroll I make no apologies for concentrating on rural pubs – there’s plenty written about urban pubs elsewhere.

Peak perfection

Mapleton sits on the softer southern edge of the Peak District with walks along the Dove and cycle trails nearby. The Okeover Arms is next to the surprisingly grand Church of St Mary designed by James Gibb (architect of Radcliffe Camera and St Martin-in-the Fields, London).

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The sign of a good pub

From the outside the pub is nothing special but it’s a tidy pub inside, the young lad gave us a friendly welcome and the beers tasted good with plenty of choice including local ales (Swift Nick from Peak Ales, Ynot from Leatherbritches) plus Jouster from Goffs in the faraway Cotswolds.

It’s a well-run pub, with advice on local walks and very good food, although it’s not one of those places that is a restaurant in all but name. There’s plenty of space to just have a drink and it feels like a pub. Pub perfection = friendly welcome; good beer (local interest always good); a good-sized bar area and not all set for eating.

Sussex Best

A trip to the south coast took us to East Dean and The Tiger Inn near Seven Sisters via the John Harvey at Lewes. As Harvey’s Best is my favourite bitter the brewery tap never disappoints – always a joyful moment to see the barrels in a line in the bar and plenty of other hand-pulled choices from across the road.

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The Best of Sussex

Pub perfection = drinking an old favourite.

The Tiger, set in a village a short stroll from the coast, has its own micro-brewery beer as well as others (Harvey’s, Long Blonde from the local Long Man and Draught Bass). Sitting in the sun on the village green drinking a pint of Legless Rambler was close to perfection. Pub perfection = a good place to sit and enjoy a decent beer.

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A door worth opening

Next day we headed down to the Sisters and picked up the South Downs Way, then above Cuckmere Haven heading to the Plough and Harrow at Litlington, thanks to Jeff Bell’s recommendation. It is one of the best walks in Southern England. Jeff describes the pub in detail – suffice to say it’s a very well run friendly pub offering the full range of Long Man beers from up the street and good food. Copper Hop, Best and Session all tasted good and set us up for the walk back through Friston Forest. Pub perfection = a friendly place to quench the thirst and re-fuel after a proper walk, and wasp traps in the garden.

Strathmore Strolls

Recently, I needed to stretch the legs, and a walk from home to The Strathmore Arms across Hertfordshire always feels like throwing on an old jumper – a round trip of 18 miles or so, without much thinking about directions.

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Danny – a proper landlord

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A pub needs local character/s

I’m not sure whether it’s the best Strathmore Arms in England (cf. the only other one, The Strathmore Arms, Holwick – I’ll tell you later after I’ve completed my Strathmore Challenge) but it’s a very fine pub focussed on the quality and variety of its beers. And I look forward to a pint or more on Sunday 27th September.

The last time I looked the landlord has served 3,437 beers from 734 breweries but it’s not a pub just playing a numbers game – they’re willing to challenge and innovate using good craft keg to widen the choice. You can expect a chat with landlord Danny and the locals whilst you find a beer that suits you (or offers something different to your usual choices). In essence it’s a country pub with muddy boots resting and a welcome for all – it feels right when you open the door. Pub perfection = good quality beers, a pub of comfortable character & characters and a landlord who’s in control.

I’m not sure whether it’s a throwback to my grandad’s Fir Tree Inn, but I like to see a landlord* in charge. Grandad seemed to have few problems with being in charge but any sign of scrapping miners and he only needed to shout Snowy and all would be calm. Old English Bull Terriers have that effect on the rowdies. Whilst Al Murray’s pub landlord obviously bores for England his act often provides that redeeming warmth and ‘I’m in charge’ outlook that makes a good pub.

Ancient paths to perfection

A walk along The Ridgeway from Princes Risborough to Ivinghoe Beacon is one of the best in the northern home counties and even on a day when southern England was shrouded in rain it was a grand day to be out. Chalk ridges and ancient woodlands combine with views stretching far out to the north.

After nearly 20 miles we needed a beer and the Rose & Crown at Ivinghoe beckoned. Tucked away from the main road it’s very much a locals’ pub but we couldn’t have asked for a friendlier welcome from all concerned particularly given our bedraggled and tired demeanour. The ever-changing beers are always good but a pint of Guinness would have been fine given the warmth of the welcome. Pub perfection = the best of welcomes from the landlord, decent beers an added bonus.

Once again back to Richard Boston, “the guvnor has not changed since Chaucer described him in The Canterbury Tales….a solid citizen, forthright, sensible, well-informed, genial, slightly long-winded, a tactful arbitrator, all things to all men, laughing at jokes, settling disputes, organising games and outings.”

Rural Rides

A visit to the in-laws in Uppingham always gives a good chance of a decent pub and The Crown is the stand-out proper pub in the town. It’s a busy, neat & tidy Everards pub with their Tiger and Best but also a good range of other well-kept beers and for me the malty Double Mash from the Derby Brewing Company. Quite rightly it’s a local CAMRA pub favourite but most importantly the locals feel it’s their pub. Pub perfection = decent beer and community ‘owned’ in the widest sense.

Nearby Burrough-on-the-Hill offered Grant’s Free House. Renovated in the best possible taste (according to my mother-in-law) without being chintzy it remains a pub with its restaurant bit at the back. The landlord, and occasionally her mum, run a fine friendly pub with good beer and food. Always good to see people who care about the pub job.

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Friendliest of welcomes

There’s plenty of choice on good-value beer with the Parish Brewery next door. The Parish Special Bitter was a tasty brew but the Baz’s Bonce Blower at 12% was saved for another day. Pub perfection = run by folk who enjoy their work, good beer, good food (but no restaurant domination).

So what do I know…going back to Richard Boston’s description, I think the detestable are closing (and I’d prefer homes and convenience stores to moribund pubs) and the pubs that are unique contributions to human happiness are getting better but harder to find. Let’s keep trying.

Pub perfection = landlord running the ‘show’, a pub with character and characters, good beers (food on the side), friendly welcome, a door worth opening and a garden worth sitting in.

*Used in a gender neutral sense given that the term landlady always reminds me of 1960s seaside boarding houses.