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.


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.

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.

Cakes and ale – a Northumbrian amble

A week’s walking following the coast, castles and Coquet river beckoned as we rolled into Rothbury, some 30 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne. The town was in full swing with the local pipe band touring the pubs of the town. It always seems a touch fraudulent to be drinking on the night before the walk but as ever we made an effort boosted by the prospect of four SIBA guest beers at the Queen’s Head.

Sadly Whatpub let us down – it was a roll-call of Deuchars (surely the northern equivalent of Doom Bar), Pedigree and Abbot. On the drinking front it was a disappointing night for local beer. The Turk’s Head was packed to the rafters with the pipe band and its followers, suggesting it was the best pub in town although the beer range didn’t excite. We pondered the dead hand of limited beer selections available to Punch-drunk tenants.

Rothbury to Warkworth

Ever hopeful we strode off on our circular mixture of the Inn Way to Northumbria, St Oswald’s Way and St Cuthbert’s Way. We started to get a feel for the big Northumbrian views we could expect in the week. We crossed the Coquet onto the old railway line high on the southern bank of the river – on the far side was William Armstrong’s Cragside. We passed over the river at Weldon Bridge. The spick and span Anglers Arms was open for business but with a long walk ahead we pushed on, now on the north bank.


St Michael & All Angels

Felton was a welcome sight – after 12 miles we strolled by the attractive church with a hidden roof, dating from the 12th century, and it was a toss up between the Northumberland Arms or the café. The beer pulled us in and although it was gastro pub/restaurant the beer and welcome was perfect. The ruby Curlew’s Return and Golden Plover were superb. Not a surprise given that Allendale never disappoints. We’d be back later.

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Welcome to Warkworth

As ever you never get a finger post when you need it and we added a few wayward miles via Acklington before seeing Warkworth Castle ahead. A beautiful village with the Coquet looping round and the castle (much improved by Edward II to keep the Deuchar drinkers out) looking down the hill. Our billet for the night was the aptly named Sun Hotel across the road from the castle. Our evening was a pint of the reliable Cumberland Ale in the Hermitage Inn followed by a few pints in the bar of the Sun Hotel – the friendly brewery tap for Alnwick’s VIP brewery. Whilst a wedding party had demolished their beer supplies they managed to roll out their Village Copper – a good standard bitter.

Warkworth to Embleton

Over the river with a prospect of beach walking ahead, we strode on to Alnmouth wandering through links golf courses (most of them welcoming visitors for tea & lunch) and the dunes. A sunny walk around the estuary of the Aln and a welcome cuppa in the Tea Cosy café. Alnmouth looked in fine form – all very prosperous and  good-looking pubs just when they were closed. We pressed on – more golf and at last the chance to stroll along the huge Northumberland beaches with gannets diving offshore.

The village of Craster offered more tea, and the kipper smokehouse blackened by the years but still in fine form as our later breakfast would confirm. Dunstanburgh Castle ahead and grand views over Embleton Bay. Now came the difficult part of the day. Could the boys be persuaded to ignore the turn to Embleton (our stop for the night) or press on to one of my favourite pubs, The Ship at Low Newton-by-the-sea?

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The perfect pub

We moved on with me facing punishment if it was closed. 4.30pm on a weekday and it was in its usual busy but gentle swing. At the back of a horseshoe of NT cottages, almost on the beach and with its own brewery it never disappoints. A pint of their blonde Sandcastles at Dawn and a half of the dark wheat beer, Sea Coal made it difficult to stir but it was back through the dunes to Embleton. The Grey’s Inn was a proper pub with plenty of hand pumps but why so many blonde beers. I was saved by the Alnwick Amber – as the brewer says “an all day session ale if ever there was”.

Embleton to Bamburgh

Fuelled by a breakfast of Craster kippers we looked forward to a gentle stroll through the dunes and along the beach – a day of sand and castles. We walked through the nondescript Beadnell and back on the beach to Seahouses. Despite the amusement arcades it’s not a bad place for fish & chips by the harbour and a pint of Cullercoats’ Lovely Nelly in the Olde Ship Inn. Room after room stuffed full of nautical memorabilia – quite a dusting job.

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Anyone for croquet?

With Bamburgh Castle ahead. the Farne Islands and Holy Island in view, the next stretch has to be one of the UK’s finest beach strolls.


Not a bad place to stroll

A place to ignore the ridiculous inland coastal footpath route. An early finish and we sat in the sun watching croquet on the edge of Bamburgh cricket ground. As one of the gang said, Chris Gayle would love to get the ball over the castle walls. We stir ourselves for Bamburgh’s fine tea rooms and a small piece of cake. A night in the Wynding Inn – good gastropub food and couple of local ales – Hadrian and Tempest breweries.


Small slice please

Bamburgh to Wooler

We resisted the temptation of a lift from our B&B host and made a damp start and trudged along the road westwards but we were soon rising up and gaining views, reaching Outchester Ducket – a solid 18th century tower. A walk through sheep fields brought us to the warnings of the footpath crossing on the East Coast Mainline. Phone the signalman or dire consequences with 100mph trains will result. Permission to cross granted and thoughts of non-English speakers finding themselves on the front of the 10.20 to Edinburgh. A run across the A1 and a quick cup of tea at Belford golf course and on through the attractive village.

Now at our most northerly point, with spectacular views over the coast and Scotland, we left St Oswald and battled our way along footpaths through Forestry Commission land (oh the irony of a sign saying ‘Walkers Welcome’) and emerged wrongly at the base of the Colour Heugh rocks. After much scratching of heads we caught up with St Cuthbert, minor roads bringing us to Westwood Bridge over the River Till. Our destination of Wooler was in sight but only for a moment as St Cuthbert sent us up the moorland path. We tumbled through the bracken and emerged at the Wooler Milk Bar for vital refreshments.

A wonderful B&B for the night, The Old Mill, and ready to explore the delights of Wooler. A pint of Hadrian Border’s Tyneside Blonde (we were expecting to see brown roots showing through) was the local choice. Odd to see Bombardier as the only alternative. Maybe we were having a bad run but the town pubs in the likes of Rothbury and Wooler had been disappointing on the beer front.


Clegg & Compo

Next day we headed in to the Cheviots for a 10 miles circular following St Cuthbert again until we headed south over Common Burn. Yomping across a grouse moor brought us to a grassy bank in the sun – one of those old blokes Last of the Summer Wine moments where life feels good and it’s difficult to move after stoking up on sandwiches. We headed north-east to re-join our pal St Cuthbert and back in Wooler it was tea shop time with a hefty slice of Border Tart.

Alwinton to Rothbury

We grabbed a lift with reliable Ron’s Taxis to Alwinton to the south of Wooler. It was a day of thinking what might have been as we seemed to spend the day looking through the windows of remote village pubs. There’s still a long way to go before we reach the end of pub closures. Up here the town pubs seem to struggle to attract the visitors and many village pubs survive until the owner dies or incomers make a lifestyle choice to run a pub. We left Alwinton, sadly missing out on the Rose & Crown and caught up again with the River Coquet. On to Harbottle and a look at the Star Inn. Limited opening and a sad notice saying the pub might not open due to ill health.

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Point of sale at The Star

Another battle through near impenetrable forest with army shelling booming in the Cheviots and we emerged into Holystone. A private house with the Salmon Inn pub sign still hanging, reflecting recent planning battles to save the pub. Imagine a day’s fly fishing on the Coquet and then pints in the Salmon – grand days of yesteryear no doubt. We moved on, avoiding rampaging heifers – much snorting and ground shaking and that was just the walkers. Lunch on a bend in the Coquet, a few meanderings and we picked up a footpath through endless fields of waist high crops. Outside the National Trails and National Parks footpath maintenance and signage these days seems poor – odd for places that need the tourist trade.

Finally we reached Thropton desperate for a pint. The Three Wheat Heads beckoned with Allendale’s Golden Plover and Mordue’s Workie Ticket quenching our thirsts whilst we extracted grass seeds from our boots in the garden. We passed the Cross Keys – yet another neat village pub that didn’t fit in with our schedule that day. Up the hill out of Thropton and on to the high road into Pondicherry and Rothbury. Tea & cakes and back to our billets before heading off to the aforementioned Northumberland Arms at Felton for Allendale beers and quality nosebag.

All in all a fine week of walking that gave us coast, river and moorland. Some decent pubs but also time to reflect that all is not well in England’s pubs – some with not much idea, some with not enough business but thankfully some that recognise if you’re good and interesting the punters will come.

Beers in Peak Condition

A wedding and a week in the Peak District was always likely to go well when preparations started with picking up three kegs at Burton Bridge. A drive through the open air 4×4 car showroom that was travellers parked up en route to Appleby horse fair led us to the brewery. A cheery welcome at the brewery, loaded up and off to the Peak District before returning for a quick pint at the ever-friendly Devonshire Arms. The day before had been wine delivery duties and a pint at the excellent Smith’s Tavern in Ashbourne – the Marston’s family of beers plus the occasional surprise.

Great to see young folk like my daughter and son-in-law recognising that good beer has to be part of wedding festivities – not sure that many brides take the toast with a tankard of Burton Bridge Bitter but it’s the way forward.

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Finish that beer

Despite valiant efforts amongst the wedding folk, Sunday left us with some Golden Delicious. Sun shining, great views and casks on the limestone wall, it was a moment close to perfection for the massed ranks of wedding followers. Desperate not to waste any Burton Bridge, the last few pints were decanted into any old plastic bottles and fizzed up on ‘dispense’ with canned London Pride. Not quite up to the standard of recent exotic mixes of Boak & Bailey but we couldn’t let go.

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With apologies to Burton Bridge

With no beer left we decided on a walk round Carsington Water – not the most exciting stroll but it did lead us to divert across the fields to pretty Kirk Ireton and the fabled Barley Mow. We sat outside and a chap (he was indeed a proper chap) popped his head out of the door and told us the sun was nearly over the yardarm and be ready to come in a couple of minutes.

A Jacobean house that feels untouched by time – we awaited the venerable Mary to come to the serving hatch. A patient wait made worthwhile as we stared longingly at the array of local beers, gravity served, from the dark through to Hartington IPA and the lightness of Peak Ales’ Summer Sovereign. Seven ales in a small village pub and we wondered on the state of them. No need to worry they were peak perfection and with all at £3 a pint it made it easy to do the sums. Those Derby Drinkers must make some effort to keep the beer turned over. The Barley Mow is the overnight stop on Day 11 of my September beer walk through England – I can’t wait to go back.

The following day we headed up Dovedale (guaranteed no crowds or tubbies beyond 100m from the car park), then Milldale for our lunchtime stop at the Watt’s Russell Arms. Wary of Peak pub opening hours we’d checked the website only to reach the pub door to see a closed sign – if you’re going to have a website get the hours right.

Another mile led us ever thankful to The George at Alstonefield and pints of Marston’s various brews. With a firm ‘no picnics’ sign in the pub window we took our pints across to the green for our own scoff of wedding leftovers. I do wonder whether it’s time for non-gastro country pubs to change tack and say you’re welcome to eat your cobs at our outside tables whilst you drink our beer. Walkers can’t stroll in hope of a sandwich but are ready to part with cash for a beer or two.

As an example, the superb Derby Tup at Chesterfield even sends you next door to pick up a bap and bring it back. We headed back on the beautiful drystone edged lanes above Dovedale – meadows bursting with buttercups and clover, all with a phenomenal pollen count. Britain’s most accessible national park but so easy to find a bit of solitude. We skirted round Bunster Hill ready for a cuppa by the Dove.

Our pub week finished at The Sycamore (yes click-throughers that Robinson’s website is dreadful) at Parwich, a southerly Robinson’s pub and multiple pints of Iron Maiden’s Trooper. The beer was an excellent darkish brew but consternation from the landlady that the heavy metal imagery on the label puts off regular real ale drinkers. Just like the rest of the week we persevered and drank on.

Like Derby and the much-improved Burton scene, the Peak District is becoming a grand place for fine local beers and friendly chat.

Gone for a Burton?

I recently spent a few days in my home town of Burton, and like many other places, the UK’s capital of brewing seems to have followed the trials, tribulations and, more recently, triumphs of the beer world. After those years when Burton Bridge Brewery seemed to fly a lone flag of independence in the face of lager factories and takeovers, the glorious Coopers’ Tavern was abandoned by Bass as its brewery tap, and the Bass Tower was rebranded as Molson Coors it feels like we’re over the worst, at least for local drinkers*.

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Gone for a Burton

The closure of pubs by the big chains and the financial advantages available to small brewers have created opportunities for those who spotted market gaps. Whilst the metropolitan centres often feel that they’re leading the way, changes are afoot across the UK and Burton’s catching up.

Burton Bridge offered proper pubs in the town and Joules revived the Coopers but the town centre only offered the inevitable ‘Spoons, The Lord Burton, for those seeking a decent choice of beer. It’s been all change in the town in recent weeks (see the article by Nik Antona in the Burton Mail [23 May] for more details).

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The Dog Inn – normal service resumed

I hadn’t stepped into The Dog Inn since the days it was the domain of Dave Mackay of Tottenham and Derby fame. Strange to think of yesteryear when top footballers often left the pitch to spend time in pubs (sometimes as a landlord).

The Dog lost its way but it’s now been taken on by Black Country Inns. They’re a small chain brewing classic West Midland ales and offering a good selection of other hand pulled beers using swaps. As well as real ales, craft keg is also expected shortly. The landlord’s rightly enthusiastic about his pub & beers and the pub is pulling in a happy band of customers. (A thought – these days shouldn’t a pub called The Dog Inn have an outside area lit by flashing torches?).

Just down the High Street in William Worthington territory, the former Blue Posts was home to my younger Bass drinking days and like The Dog it’s gone through endless fizzy lager based concepts only to come out the other side to be opened as The Crossing Ale House and Kitchen (part of a small Derby-based chain). Whilst I’m not convinced about fish & chips in a wooden box it does provide a gastro pub and more beer choices in the town. With a few micro pubs opening as well, the drinkers’ life in Burton is much improved.

I finished my visit with a stroll down Station Street towards the Allsopp’s end of town. It’s impossible to walk past the Coopers and Burton Bridge Brewery’s Devonshire Arms – both too tempting. The Devonshire is the epitomy of an ‘old school’ pub. Nothing fancy but for my visit it was the perfect mix of a friendly welcome, a good choice of reliable and good value BBB beers (none of your mucky London beers here) and regulars welcoming visitors into their discussions.

After many years the old home of Britain’s brewing is living up to its reputation. Who’d have thought it, Burton as a destination for beer drinking and a League 1 football club. It’s time for a visit.

*Apologies to lovers of Pedigree, as I’ve said before it’s just not my cup of barley water.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Paddling in New Zealand craft

Beer is reflective of its country and beer in New Zealand’s no different. Telling it how it is, refreshingly honest but accessible to everyone is how New Zealand and its beer came across to me during a month long trip. There’s much to learn in NZ for UK brewers and pub operators and still much to be proud of about UK pubs and beers. For drinkers it’s a great trip.

Flights totalling nearly 24 hours mean it’s important to maintain discipline to avoid horrendous jet lag so no alcohol for me – until that Pavlovian response (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference to NZ meringue) when the trolley wheels could be heard. I’ll have a beer please, and out popped a can of ABC Stout from Singapore (Heineken’s Asia Pacific Brewery who also own Monteith’s in NZ) – no % alcohol labelling so it must have been re-hydrating. My walking mates and I have developed a theory that anything 3.8% or below is sufficiently close to water as to be re-hydrating.

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Can’t say no

A bit like tinnies on a train, it’s permissible for drinking standards to drop on a plane but a few ABCs, and that NZ staple, Speight’s on the last leg were perfectly acceptable ways of whiling away the hours. Speight’s, and many of the big NZ ‘craft-promoted’ names (Mac’s and Emerson’s), are part of the giant Lion Nathan enterprise based in Oz but Japanese-controlled. It remains a puzzle to me that the beer brand giants across the world (often managed by Brits) now seem capable of nurturing craft and traditional brands but in the UK only seem to neglect them. I expect that we will see some significant craft brewery acquisitions in the UK by the big players over the next few years unless they continue to be lost in their world of big tasteless keg brands?

Back to the beers – off to a mate’s place and an opportunity to nurse a Mac’s Great White wheat beer. Decent beers, an interesting range and readily available in all good stores, Mac’s became a standard until the great campervan disaster. Mac’s bottles have those ring pull tops that always seem such a good idea. Want to create the aroma of a brewery in your camper? Why not drive along a bumpy road and soon your floor will be awash with beer as the tops go flying. Those crown corks are there for a reason.

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Craft at the bleeding edge – must be the saison for it

Off to Hallertau Brewery, north of Auckland for food and craft beers. A few regular beers – pilsner, pale ale, red and plenty of specials (including blacks, porters and bitters) this seemed to be the craft beer theme for the trip.  With the tightening of drink drive legislation in England & Wales seeming inevitable, there are useful lessons for UK craft breweries from Hallertau and its ilk. Reasonably close to a large population centre but remote enough to require car transport, it’s picked up on the wine estate trick of food, drink and sometimes live music. Not fine dining but good NZ classics and paddles of beer made for a decent evening for all including the driver and well-behaved kids. Surely an ideal approach for someone like Thornbridge to increase the brewery tour spend and widen its brand positioning?

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Hallertau’s finest

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Close to the action

Supermarkets regularly offered Mac’s, Epic and Tuatara with Monteith’s and Emerson’s in some regions. Tuatara’s APA and Pilsner were ideal for those warm evenings – plenty of hop flavours but subtly done, worth savouring and good with ‘fush n chups’. Sadly I failed to get round to tasting enough of their range. Epic, whether pale ale or lager, to my taste seemed hops for hops sake. Epic’s description of their Pale Ale, “in fact there are 23 (hops) crammed into this bottle. Many brewers would call that ‘insane’. We call it flavour.”, reminded me of the PR obsessive end of the UK craft beer spectrum.

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A lizard of a beer

On to Wellington and its chilled-out waterfront and the national museum. Typical Kiwi welcome in the museum, “here’s a map, go and see if you can get lost and break a few things. If you lose him he’ll be in Mac’s next door.” Imagine that at the V&A? Mac’s brewery tap was a grand place for a paddle with Mac’s Gold lager and Great White achieving favoured status. Again beer and food was the norm for craft beer customers.

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Halves don’t count

On the east coast of South Island we rolled into Oamaru and parked up the campervan on the edge of the harbour, close to the town’s Victorian Quarter – grainstores and their like, strangely reminiscent of Burton’s brewery buildings. Life feels good when you realise you’re parked only 200 yards from Scott’s craft brewery. Sunday morning farmers’ market and a few beers on offer at Scott’s including guests. Scott’s had the usual NZ craft range but also a proper hand pump for a guest on their brewery tap bar. The Twisted Hop Brewery specialises in English-style cask conditioned real ales.

I’d like to tell you more about their Challenger Bitter but it was snaffled by Mrs TWM before I’d taken more than a sip. A brewery to look out for if you’re after a taste of Blighty. Like many businesses, Twisted Hop had to relocate after the Christchurch earthquake. The city still reels from the commercial aftershocks of the earthquakes – damaged buildings still subject to endless arguments between owners and insurers and to us it seemed difficult to spend the tourist dollar.

The Botanical Gardens near the centre of the city was an obvious place of safety for those escaping collapsing buildings in the CBD and it remains a tranquil haven for many. On the last day of our trip I enjoyed a Three Boys IPA in the café next to the glasshouses. Christchurch still has much to do but even craft brewers can play their part in raising spirits.

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Well done boys

The beer scene in NZ felt less exclusive than the craft and real ale camps in Britain.’ Want to drink decent beer, you’re welcome’ seems to be the general approach. It’s no surprise that the beer consumers’ association is called SOBA – gently irreverent and without pretention is the Kiwi way. The result is a bigger market open to all. Even small towns often had a small pub cum craft brewery as an alternative to the traditional ‘hotel’ bar in the town that I suspect was a home for the old six o’clock swill.

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Ready for a beer mate

As someone who doesn’t like their beer saturated with hops I’d still recommend New Zealand – the choice of beers is exceptional, all topped up by great scenery and the friendliest of people. I probably missed out 90% of the craft beers available in NZ but for what it’s worth Three Boys IPA was my best of the trip but a can or two of Speight’s after 19km on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing wasn’t far behind.

In praise of hipsters and homes

It’s easy for old miseries like me to slip into disparaging comments about hipsters i.e. younger people who are concerned about their appearance and willing to try new stuff. I suspect older folk had much the same attitude about the young metropolitan types who fuelled the growth of the Firkin pubs long ago. A trip to see the husband and Wife of Bath led me to question such attitudes.

First off, a stop at the Marlow Brewery Co to pick up some Rebellion Ales and reinforce drinking prejudices. They have truly made the brewing of ‘brown beer’ an art form. The ever reliable IPA provided the backdrop to the weekend and you can’t beat their lovely Roasted Nuts. For those craft brewers who belittle ‘brown beer’ I’d ask can you produce a beer to the standard of Harvey’s Best and Rebellion IPA?

A saunter along the Bath skyline and brought us to the Bath Brew House pub. Once a grotty pub in a modern block it’s had a craft beer bar makeover and as a result it’s packed to the rafters, mainly with younger folk. It offers hand pulled cask and craft keg including the products of its on-site brewery. I suspect it wouldn’t exist without the ‘hipsters’. And whilst pubs like the Bath Brew House might not be top of my list they are one of the few games in town for pub growth. They provide for a growing market in some locations and give me the chance of a decent pint in reasonable surroundings. For that I’m grateful – the Buxton Brewery’s keg Rednik Stout was as good as ever.

Thinking about my old trade of location analysis led me to consider how to select craft beer pub locations. Sufficient numbers of people with well trimmed beards, plaid shirts, clean work-style boots employed in graphic design, media and the trendier end of IT together with overheard references to BBC 6 Music might be a good start. Perhaps Joules should take note?

As myself and others have said these young folk would need to be forced into failing back street boozers and dead roadside pubs and so to preserve pubs at all costs is destined to failure. I’d argue that we need homes rather than failed pubs and so I’m happy that the vote to tighten planning regulations failed. Greg Mulholland’s assertion that outdated regulations protecting launderettes justify increased barriers to market-led development always seemed weak to me.

Recent articles in the Morning Advertiser report that, according to Christie & Co, average sale prices for pubs are on the rise (it’s not so good north of Milton Keynes) and Fleurets’ data suggests that the retention of freehold sales as pubs is at a five year high. Life for pubs is improving but slowing down the redevelopment of unsuitable locations would benefit no-one.