The Strathmore Challenge – the awards

In over 300 miles of walking I went in a few pubs, had a few beers and visited a few breweries. I always had the opportunity to drink regional independent beers often from the county where the pub was located. And I was fed and billeted from Co Durham to Hertfordshire in some fine establishments.

Best Pub: The New Inn at Peggs Green, Leicestershire – a place that offered a friendly welcome, excellent beers and that elusive ‘atmosphere’. (I’ve excluded the pub perfections at the beginning and the end as it didn’t seem quite right and I didn’t want to be responsible for a duel on the A1 hosted by the Earl of Strathmore.)

Best Brewers: Yorkshire Dales, Askrigg; Wharfedale, Ilkley; Burton Bridge, Burton; Parish, Burrough on the Hill – all true lovers of their craft (in the proper sense) and pioneers in the micro-brewery world. Rob, Stewart, Geoff, Bruce and Baz couldn’t have been more welcoming to someone interrupting their busy lives.

Best Beer: Howgate, Yorkshire Dales – I’d never have expected to choose a light blonde beer before the trip. But it just goes to show there’s a beer for every occasion. In this case the first pint of the night, in The Crown at Askrigg, was refreshing with just the right level of bitterness.

Best Pie: King’s Arms, Askrigg – a steak pie filled to the brim with the finest ingredients.

Best B&B: The Old School House, Bolnhurst – invaded by my travelling circus of walkers, wives and a car recovery vehicle, they offered calmness, generosity and a fine breakfast to send me on my way with a spring in my step.

Best Food: The Plough, Bolnhurst – very much a pub restaurant but excellent food, good beer and very relaxed.

Best Tea Shop: The Bulwick Village Shop, Bulwick – a grand place to sit in the sun in a lovely village. And the pub next door looked good as well.

Best Footpath Signposting: Leicestershire – whether on the Leicestershire Round or on minor paths.

Thanks all for a memorable trip.

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The End is Nigh, but I’ll have a beer before I go

The last big day was a marathon followed by a 5 miles stroll on Sunday morning and the weather was set for perfection. Bolnhurst to Hitchin, a surprisingly deserted landscape for an area so close to London. Plenty of country lanes (and boy racers) sped me along to Moggerhanger to meet two men and a dog. We walked past a pub in Ireland (there’s a first) and headed off to Shefford. Friends (and parents to the others) met us on their tandem to guide us to the Brewery Tap for the B&T brewery..facebook_1443440097045

Pleasant enough pub with decent own ales and guests. A local dark mild in Hertfordshire shocker. Strangely old-fashioned sort of place compared to pubs I’ve seen over the last few weeks. We pressed on over the fields and the occasional village to arrive into the estate housing of north Hitchin. After 3 weeks of rural England it was all a bit of a shock. Traffic, towns and people. A night at the Sun Hotel (Greene King) and the strange North Head and South Head option for the font for the IPA. Best stick to the Argentine Malbec.

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The following day it was south out of Hitchin to the walk’s final destination – the Strath down south. A walk via Preston over in no time and Danny the landlord brings out my pint – worth walking 300 miles for a free pint. Bottles of Peak Ales’ After the Walk seemed appropriate.

Strathmore Danny & Ian

Any half-decent beer blogger would report on what was on the bar – this time I forgot. All I can tell you is that there are two Strathmore Arms in England with excellent beers and they’re both worth a walk, perhaps between them. Cheers to Danny down south and Selina & Anthony up north – wouldn’t have done it without you..

For Pete’s sake let’s have a beer

Last day for strolling with Pete and we’d got a grind it out 22 miler to deal with. South out of Oundle and down the Nene navigation for a while and then on to Barnwell – castle remains, high church spire and the last of the ‘Cotswold’ stone villages.  The 16th century Montagu Arms with its local ales looked perfect in the morning sun – at this early hour we pressed on.

Farm tracks and country lanes delivered us to the perimeter of RAF Molesworth, otherwise known as a USAF air base since 1951. We were hoping for a bit of jet action but then worked out there wasn’t a runway. It’s a centre of ‘military information’ with 600 personnel in the middle of nowhere. The USAF are reportedly leaving soon.

More tracks and the joys of walking along the B660 brings us to Bolnhurst. A night out at the local Plough. As gastropubs go this is at the top of the pile. Superb food and good beers including Adnam’s Southwold,  a Langton rugby special as well as Tribute. More of a restaurant but excellent nevertheless.

It’s my last big walk  tomorrow – 25 miles to Hitchin, it’s been a walk and a half, 300 miles through the centre of England.

Tapping Dick’s Extraordinary

Off from Uppingham and onwards to Oundle through glorious Rutland villages. First Bisbrooke and then Seaton home of last night’s George and Dragon. Next it was the magnificent Harringworth (or Welland) Viaduct – the OS and the Rail Authority can’t seem to agree on the name.

Across the A43 and into the pickled village of Bulwick, Northamptonshire. Tea shop, deli and jam/pickleproducer – not a bad place for a stop. Sadly too early for a stop at the Queen’s Head, Bulwick with its four local real ales. Field paths and country lanes brought us to Oundle. It could have been Oakham or Uppingham and none the worse for that. Lovely buildings many of them connected to the school.

Staying in The Ship, time for a pint of some citra-dominated Hophead or other. All OK but a bit of a sad bar with not much sense of community. In CAMRA guide for 2015 but not my glass of beer. We head off to the Nene Valley Brewery’s Tap and Kitchen bar and restaurant on the edge of town. All stripped back metal and timber, it was a smart but relaxed fit-out with good food (mine was Vietnamese/ East Midlands fusion) and unsurprisingly good beers and lagers including an extensive guest list.

A pint of Dick’s Extraordinary Bitter, a fine malty chestnut ale, and Simple Pleasures, a light pale ale made for a good evening. It’s worth a visit to the Tap and Kitchen whether for beer or food. It reminded me of the chilled-out approach of the New Zealand brewery eateries such as Hallertau. It’s a good way forward for our independent breweries.

Tough life behind the bar

Deposited back in Burrough on the Hill an it was almost  a day off, a stroll to the Grainstore brewery at Oakham and then down to Uppingham. A day of lovely villages where churches and houses are all built in the glowing Cotswold-type stone. Somerby, Cold Overton and Ridlington read like something from behind a deli cheese counter.

After a bit of confusion at Grainstore, it’s photos of William in front of the mash tun,  after pint of Osprey, and discussions about the issues of the duty threshold and their half and half line of hand pumps along the bar for tight sparklers and otherwise. In my words, southern flatheads and northern thickheads of beer.

After refuelling on a pastie from the butcher in Oakham I head south towards Brooke village. Beautiful church and the lichen-spattered gravestones glowing in the afternoon sunlight. This was Rutland at its best. A look towards the mediaeval village of Martinsthorpe and on through Ridlington after a chat with the friendly Geordies trying to get power cables across the road as traffic raced along the road. Mad f-&££#rs seemed like a fair description.

Scrambled duck eggs seemed like a good idea for breakfast and I strolled up the drive of Bancroft Lodge. Usual chat followed and kindness of a stranger happened yet again. Don’t bother paying me, put the money in your charity kitty. Most people are generous to a stranger and a cause. Are we harnessing this natural English generosity to the full?

I wander in to Uppingham sorting out provisions for Thursday’s lunchtime nosebag, good to see butchers surviving in these small towns.In meet my next walking mate Pete off the bus and we go with the in-laws to the George & Dragon at Season, another perfect Rutland village.

A great little pub with good food. It’s full for a Wednesday evening but for much of the week pubs hereabouts have to offer half-price meals to entice the punters. Draught Bass and Grainstore 1050 on offer. Beers always good here. Interest from the landlord about the walk, but I know it must seem like a stroll in the park to a couple who used to organise treks in Nepal. It feels good from our side of the bar but I realise how hard is life the other side. Lovely people, lovely pub but such hard work to be successful.

Beer to bost your bonce

Day 15 of the Strathmore Challenge and it was Woodhouse Eaves to Burrough on the Hill. Little in the way of pubs en route but a possible brewery at the end.

The Leicestershire Round footpath was going to be companion for most of the day and so it was across fields, over the Grand Central steam railwayline and round Swithland Reservoir next to the massive quarry to the south of Quorn. Past the Butter Market in Mountsorrel and then along the River Soar Navigation. This was to be a classic central Midlands stroll.

I abandondoned the Round in favour of a road under the A46 imagining an old folks walking group attempting a 50m sprint across the A46 using the official route. Past the restored buildings at Rearsby Mill it was field paths all the way to Gaddesby. Sign to a pub, the Cheney Arms. Pint of Everard’s Original and quick nosebag of one of those stupid mini-baguettes.

All fine but it was the chainey pub in all but name. Landlady looked sniffily at me as went through the lounge, boots in hand, and I felt like an extra in the Cornetto Trilogy. One of those pubs where they were following some regional manager guidance to the letter and reading the Morning Ad’s latest ideas but little in the way of that elusive ‘atmosphere’.

On to Ashby Folville and chance for some sheep nuzzling. Not some strange sexual practice but that moment when instead of running off as usual, one of the sheep wanders over to get scratched. My countryman friend Robert insists that they’re the ones that were hand-reared. Godd fun nevertheless.

I finally leave the Round and head to Burrough arriving just as my father in law pulls in to pick me up. The excellent Grant’s Free House just about closing but I manage to find Baz at the adjacent Parish Brewery. Another beer hero and reputedly the 2nd earliest micro-brewery behind BBB. He pours me a pint of Bitter from the cask outside. I’m still amazed as to how much is produced in these tiny spaces by essentially one man bands. Not the ‘awesomemeness’ of the latest kids on the block but good people who live by their craft.

We chat about how much the beer scene has improved since FIL joined CAMRA at the beginning and how I’ve drunk only regional independents beers all the way down through England. Baz passes a bottle of 12% Boncebuster for us to take home and we head off to my Uppingham billet.

A couple of pints at the Crown in the evening. Chat with the locals, York Pale Ale and Titanic Stout a solid finish to the evening. Sheep nuzzling and boncebusting – a fine combination.

Couldn’t even be on time for a brewery

Weather forecast was rain all day but my mum told me to “go and do that walk for me”. Fully kitted out for 6 miles of pavement bashing to the other side of Burton and a proper marathon distance for the day. I had a spring in my step, not many days when you’ve a brewery visit for 8 in the morning.

I passed Gates brewery (one bloke in a suburban garage) in Reservoir Road, Shobnall and the mighty Marston’s – bottler of most of Britain’s ales. The frontage buildings made me think – old fashioned veneer to a very modern business. On to the centre of Burton passing closed down pubs, Smoke Room etched on the windows of one.

Already soaked I get to the Burton Bridge Brewery. Always amuses me that what is reputedly Britain’s first micro-brewery has the now disparaging initials BBB – how wrong are the crafterati in this case. I went through the yard to the door marked reception knowing that the other side would be a bunch of cheery blokes. Morning – they turn round. You must be the walker. I am. You’re late they say with a smile. It’s all go as it’s the day to get the beers out to pubs but friendly chats, good wishes and a badge to wear proudly – I’m feeling better already.

Across the old Trent Bridge, a look up towards my old school then a slog up the Ashby Road out of town. Soaked but at least I wasn’t in the usual queue of cars trying to cross the river. Memories of family come flooding in, that will have to wait for a book. Get to Upper Midway and head across the fields in the direction of Foremark Reservoir – rolling wooded countryside but the rain keeps on coming. I call in at the Tollgate brewery but no one at home. All very tidy round here must be the cosmetic effect of the National Trust on the Calke Estate.

Now into the old Leicestershire coal-mining area around Whitwick and Coleorton. Scattered settlements and not even a bus shelter or church porch to eat my snap. Pass a pub that’s shut at Gelsmoor and feeling grumpy when I see a pub offering words of a friendly welcome. Cynically I think the reality will be, don’t come in here in those wet clothes. How wrong could I be?

The New Inn at Peggs Green is an Irish pub – not that mock Oirish nonsense and all false craic. These are folk who’ve known the pub trade all there lives, where it really does feel you’re part of the family and the regulars gently josh to make you feel welcome. I dripped happily and my tale unfolded and other stories were exchanged. Lovely Bass from a jug, and a Bath Ales rugby-themed beer as well as Pedigree. With its quarry tiles and little rooms it felt unspoilt, but in a perfect and gently ordered way. The pub as real hostelry, discuss. I’d now walked nearly 200 miles and found the New Inn. It was worth it to unearth a gem.

I pressed on happily passing the monastery of Mount St Bernard Abbey with long views to the north as the weather cleared across Charnwood Forest. Very strange, all stone walls and rocky outcrops – not what I’d expected. Under the M1 and across Beacon Hill, I’d made it to my destination of Woodhouse Eaves. Wet, exhausted but one pub and one brewery had made all the difference. Love ’em.