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.

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“I don’t do food”

A week in Suffolk had me thinking about what makes a pub different to a restaurant. On the way we drove through Yoxford, a village just off the A12. I remembered some 30 years ago renting a holiday cottage in the village across the road from The Blois Arms, an Adnams pub. In those days, over for a quick pint – the landlord gave us a friendly welcome and asked if we were settled in to the cottage (he knew what was going on in the village).

His only interests were his customers and Adnams’ beer. “This is the only Adnams where John Adnams drinks beer, he’s more of a wine man you know.” How right he was. Our pints were enjoyed whilst he proudly told us he didn’t do food, we could bring a jug for filling and “lift up your little girl on to the bar so she can talk to us as well – here’s a sweetie for later”. In modern parlance it was a wet-led community pub. The pub was closed in 2007.

Blois Arms Yoxford Copyright Adrian Noble

I don’t want this to seem like a diatribe against Adnams – any brewer that produces a fine winter brew like Old Ale gets my vote. It’s a very well run business with a strategically sound diversification of the brand (that’s enough marketing speak) – as my son said, “they’ve really got it sorted”. It’s just that my week in coastal Suffolk (NW3 by the sea) made me realise that, for some areas of the country, pubs focussed on beer are heading for extinction.

By ‘focussed on beer’ I don’t mean there’s no food or that most of the turnover is from beer – it’s more complex than that. When I walk into a pub I want it to feel like it’s a pub, not a restaurant with a counter to place my food order. I want it to be different – not like every other pub. Faced with stripped pine tables and bare floorboards, large menu blackboard, all the tables in the bar set for lunch, it’s clear that if I only want a pint I’m not really needed.

You know the type of ‘pub’ – with no space for mingling I start to think I might as well be at a Carluccio’s or some such. There’s a danger in standing about because you’re likely to get mown down as another ‘trio of locally-grown sausages with cheddar mash and luscious onion gravy, artfully arranged’ passes by your pint.

I’m all in favour of food, particularly after a stroll, and I realise that’s where the margins are for pub operators. What I’m concerned about is that there is a risk of pubs forgetting why they have a unique character. Pubs in Southwold like the Lord Nelson and the old bar at the Harbour Inn still say loud and clear we’re a proper pub and everyone is welcome. Perfect for when you’re in need of rehydration after a windy walk along the beach.

However they feel like a declining breed amongst the identikit ‘gastro-style’ pubs that are beginning to be the only option in some places. What was once an interesting food-led diversion for the pub trade is becoming boring. It’s not fashionable, it’s dull and unimaginative. And fads often become outdated and require yet another expensive re-fit in short order.

If it don’t feel like a pub, I don’t think it is a pub, as the landlord of The Blois Arms might have said.