Following the turn of the century I’ve exhausted time, boot tread and body whilst walking the hills, dales and coast of England, with occasional excursions over the borders. Inevitably the need for rehydration and rest has opened many a door of pubs and b&bs. The walks have focused on the beauty of the national parks and AONBs at a time of increasingly bleak national austerity and division.
So what’s my experience of our top grade countryside and its pubs & beers? Are there common issues that have affected this bloke and his mates grinding out the miles? Has the experience changed the mindset of someone who’s gone from 35 years of working in London (and living thereabouts) to move to the Peak District?
Our serious walks initially followed the excellent InnWay trails of Mark Reid. The clue’s in the name, extended pub crawls that appealed to me and the boys. We’ve done many of the ‘organised’ routes and moved on to design our own routes across the country often returning to the strollers’ land of milk and honey, the Yorkshire Dales. Beautiful countryside, lovely pubs and beer.
Whilst we still expect to knock out 80 miles or more in a week, we admit to days getting shorter, accommodation getting better and our evening beer consumption shrinking. Quality not quantity.
Where are we?
Our walks seem to be getting more difficult to follow despite mapping apps. Austerity seems to have taken its toll on our rights of way network. We’ve learnt that footpaths and bridleways outside the national parks and national trails are often nowhere to be seen on the ground. Even in the national parks we’ve noticed, in recent years, that the quality of path maintenance and signage declines quickly when you’re away from the road. In gloomy conditions on high moorland a post is usually missing in action, or at best upended and rotting.
One of our number is now a national park volunteer warden and he explained why it happens.
“Well you see, we’re audited on the quality of our work and for footpaths that is done by looking at the signage at the roadside. So, we check those places and replace the signs if needed. That way our performance is rated as good.”
“Yes but we know that 100 yards in, the footpath is hopeless”, we argue.
“But we’re not judged on that”, comes the response.
Over the years we’ve noticed increasing numbers of named walks dreamed up by public bodies, obscuring the detail on Ordnance Survey maps. It seems that the powers that be imagine that coming up with a named route will massively increase tourism… a grandiose but flawed gesture. Often initial capital spending is followed by a lack of basic maintenance.
There are footpaths on OS maps that were washed away years ago, or require a mad dash across a dual carriageway, and of course the symbol for pubs has become pointless, as closures mount up. I suspect cutbacks have left the OS struggling to cope with the most basic updating.
Too many routes, not enough quality.
I’ll have a pint of Bass, please
On the beer front, I remember a time when we were excited by a couple of local beers like Black Sheep and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord on a bar. We’ve moved on to expect three or four cask ales in even the smallest village pub. Often beers we’ve never heard of, dreamed up by a brewery we don’t know.
On the other hand we’re thrilled when we see quality beers from microbreweries such as Yorkshire Dales and Allendale on the bar.
Sadly in recent years we’ve taken more beers back to the bar to staff who aren’t sure what it should taste like. I’ve even been asked to taste beer the staff aren’t sure about.
Too many beers, not enough quality.
What you having, Ian?
Pubs seem to us to have become more homogenous but at the same time less ‘open to all’. Even in rural areas, the pastel shades and swirly fonts of gastro pubs have appeared with bars lined with multiple hand pumps and menus aiming to outdo War and Peace. Many of them unable to serve a pint of reasonable quality and a sandwich where the filling tastes of more than cardboard with dressing.
We’ve thought and argued about our top 10 pubs of our walks over the years. For me, I mourn the passing of landlords such as the chap from the Falcon at Arncliffe who told a visitor enquiring about the temperature of a bottle of cider…”chilled, I can’t even tell you if it’s got any bloody apples in it”. Those idiosyncratic pubs in secret corners offering an insight into a secret world.
However, I celebrate the excellence of the likes of The George at Hubberholme, the Black Swan at Ravenstonedale and the Early Doors micropub in Skipton. Very different pubs but all places where you’re welcomed as an old friend no matter how infrequently you stop by. In a world of hospitality, it seems strange that there are only a few who enjoy dealing with people and are capable of looking beyond the sweaty grubby exterior of a walker to someone who might well have some cash to spend.
Too many landlords, not enough quality.
It’s a Terry Pratchett story
My perception is that we seem to have developed a national psyche obsessed by a simplistic numbers game to solve a desperate need for performance measures. A sort of bizarre aping of the private sector at a time when good businesses think carefully about softer measures.
In this brave new world of measuring everything but nothing, more beers on the bar is good. Shiny new footpath signs at the roadside are good. Quotes on pub walls are good. But none of it really makes any sense in describing quality.
I’m reminded of how the education sector has headed towards a ‘sausage factory’ approach without much thought to the real quality of the product beyond the superficial numbers. An industry of ‘measurers’ has developed for whom there is a belief system reminiscent of the creatures who live in ‘The Store’ in Terry Pratchett’s Truckers. Are we so afraid of letting people exercise their own well-honed qualitative judgement over what’s good and bad?
Minding my own mind and yours
What else have I learned from this walking ,scenery and pub lark? Of course people are what count. Strangely it’s those creatures who make a remote rural area and its pubs so special. And of course my mates who’ve walked the miles with me. Weary from our walking, but happier in mind and body. Talking bollocks, interspersed with mindful stuff.
In the majority of pubs on my walks I’ve been able to join in the conversation or not as the mood has taken me. Of course I could have stayed in London and been the bloke on the tube who talks to people. I’m now normal for the Peak District.
I leave the last words to a retired London fireman I met in the Tan Hill Inn. He explained his theory from years of dealing with the public, “80% of the population are good people and have interesting tales, 10% are decent folk but don’t have much to say, and the rest don’t have anything to recommend them. Do you really want to miss out on so many interesting people by avoiding the unpleasant and boring folk?”.