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.

Intolerant moi, perhaps just a little bitter

A day-long saunter around the villages of Hertfordshire and too early for a pint at the Green Man at Sandridge (tapped from the cask, their Abbot has to be one of the best around) and so it was on to the John Bunyan at Coleman Green for a pint of AK. It’s a reliable pub in rural isolation and whilst I’m no fan of McMullen’s beer, the longstanding landlord and family have always kept a very good pint and offered a friendly welcome. For me and others the pub is more important that the beer.

It’s the pub that counts  Copyright John Bunyan (the pub not the bloke)                                                          

The pub family were grappling with the latest EU regulation on allergens and intolerances in respect of food and drink. ‘How do we word the sign, where do we put it, and we can’t say exactly what’s in some of our food and drinks’. I’m no UKIP libertarian but (don’t they ‘they’ always say that…) given local authorities like nothing better than new legislation, it seems it’s something else for landlords to worry about given that their suppliers won’t give guarantees about the content of their products.

Of course a joint rant with the landlord’s son about ‘nanny state’ led to some good tales that publicans have always specialised in – the customer who told them she couldn’t eat the salad she’d ordered as it had been contaminated by the tomatoes on the plate, and the local Chinese take-away who’s been told by council officials that she now needs to list the contents for every dish on her menu. True or not, they do reflect the problems of small businesses in dealing with regulation and the culture of the British in imposing EU legislation compared to other countries.

While I’m on intolerance, here’s one of mine. Why do some pubs bother with having their own ‘house’ beer usually characterised by a bland bitter. The Green Man (above) has its own Heartwood Bitter and I was recently in the Vaults pub in Rutland’s Uppingham and they too had their own bitter (and a very good Starless Stout from Nene Valley). I guess there’s a financial benefit for the pub but for me house beer usually means a feeble tasting pint when they could have something more interesting with a pedigree rather than the real ale equivalent of yellow snow.

Fyne views and home brews

It’s sometimes good to get away from the influence of the Great Wen and its increasing hinterland. For us folk down south it’s easy to go all London-centric and think nothing is happening to beer and pubs elsewhere.

The minipin of Chiltern Foxtrot ale had run out at home, only one bottle of Burry Porter was left (see later) and it was time to get on the road. After a quick stop to watch the ‘Brewers’ in Burton (sadly it doesn’t have that overpowering smell of yeast extract and beer any longer) we headed to Leek. We had a saunter around Tittesworth Reservoir on the edge of the Staffordshire Peak District and a return for a lunchtime pint in Leek.

We passed the Blue Mugge (an innovative community pub with its ‘discussion in pubs’ meetings) and went into the Earl Grey. Last time I saw the Earl Grey it was a depressingly decrepit Marston’s street corner boozer well beyond its sell-by date. It looked closed even when it was open. Post-closure and a neat development of the site, the little pub has had a new lease of life from cheery folk offering a fine range of hand-pulled and keg beers. In fact just the sort of pub a modern consumer organisation promoting all types of good beer should be supporting – anyone know of one? The Earl Grey even had a friendly chap and dog at the bar ready to chat to incomers. London craft beer pubs have to hire them in you know.

Earl Grey

Essential man with dog

The Earl Grey bitter from Whim was fine and the keg Rednik Stout from Buxton brewery was a mighty beer – described by Mrs WickingMan as tasting of railway sleepers soaked in creosote. A reasonable description and good enough for me. The award-winning Reckless Pale Ale from Redwillow, much enjoyed by others in our group, was just too much Citra for me but it was complex enough to get me looking at the brewery website.

We headed on to Scotland via the wonderful Tebay services – it has to be the best range of local craft ales in a motorway service station as well as excellent pies. We picked up some Allendale beers (Wolf ruby ale was very good) to remind me to get fit for my 310 mile Strathmore Stroll.

The following day gave us a tour round the lochs to the north of the Firth of Clyde. The lunchtime stop at the original Loch Fyne Oysters was near to the Fyne Ales brewery. The remoteness seemed to make it even more of a find.

Fyne ales

A nicely fashioned brewery tap and shop (meat from the estate often available) and a half of Highlander was a good combination. Interesting to note that our designated driver wouldn’t even have a half-pint given the new Scottish legislation and concerns about the previous night’s consumption.

Apologies for the philosophical and literal wandering around the craft beer by-ways of Britain but there is a point to all this meandering. It’s the exuberance of these new brewers – skilled, innovative and willing to have a go. As my friend, Stewart, from the Wharfedale brewery once said ‘craft brewers have to remember that we’re living the dream for many of our drinkers’.

The Red Willow brewer, Toby, describes it thus, “I started brewing as a hobby one day, canʼt remember why now, but it was fun and the initial results were passable. Slowly but surely the hobby started to take up increasingly large amounts of my time and before I knew it I was experimenting and brewing most weekends.” And the tale of Tom Hick from the AllendaIe brewery is that he “was inspired to brew by a love of home brewing…and my mini-brewery at my parent’s home got more and more complicated”.

Which brings me back to my solitary bottle of Burry Porter. My daughter arrived on Christmas Day with a couple of bottles from a home brewing friend. Despite their protestations that he’s brewed freebies for friends’ weddings I thought back to my own home brewing kit days of yesteryear and wondered how to respond to the inevitable smelly muck from their mate, Aled.

Burry Porter

One of Aled’s Finest

I’ll leave it to Aled Price to describe his Burry Porter (malts – Golden Promise, Carapils, Biscuit, Black Patent, Chocolate, Caramalt; hops – Target, Cascade; IBU – 56; ABV – 5.2%), “I was going for the middle ground between the really malty traditional porters (which can sometimes just taste like ash) and the new craft beer type porter/stouts, which while packing a hoppy punch, can lack the balance of a good beer.” Suffice to say my concern was seriously misplaced and the man has considerable talent. As Aled is looking to expand capacity in his new garage there may be a time when his various beers reach the pubs of nearby Manchester. Lucky Mancunians. I’m off to finish the last bottle.

All hail the enthusiastic hobby brewers who’ve transformed the beer landscape of Britain as their talents have developed into full-blown craft breweries.

Lunch with Dave and SamCam

Proper hill walking and the northern home counties aren’t easy bedfellows but the Chilterns give a decent opportunity to stretch the legs and get a good view or two. It’s a bonus that it’s an area packed with decent pubs.

We parked at the Plough at Cadsden (more of that later) with a plan to do a circular walk around Chequers (country house of the UK Prime Minister). We headed east on the Ridgeway with a testing hill to wake us up as the Red Kites swirled around checking us out as likely carrion. We strolled through old woodland, crossing a lane to Chequers with just a ‘Private Road’ sign to stop an incursion.

Another incline and we reached the Coombe Hill memorial. Although it’s only 260m above sea level, it offers some of the best views in Southern England and luckily for us the sun started to break through giving us views out to the northern horizon. The walking was now easy, the chatting was good but the inbuilt satnav started failing. It was a fine day so not a problem and we picked up the track down towards Dave & SamCam’s place. We walked across the main drive with just a couple of cameras watching us and a helicopter drifting overhead.

Coombe Hill

Atop Coombe Hill

Whilst we didn’t get invited into lunch we did ponder that our most senior politician resides in a country house estate covered in public footpaths with only a warning that crossing a low fence means you’ll be subject to terrorist offences or some such. We speeded up as our ‘pint’ visualisation techniques put us on a par with elite athletes. Quickly down the hill into Cadsden, boots off and into the Plough.

Good to see a packed pub in the middle of relative nowhere – you could feel a well run pub as you walked through the door. Very friendly folk on the bar with Marlow’s Rebellion IPA on offer as well as Brakspear’s Bitter. Excellent beers kept really well, topped up with very good freshly cooked food from a kitchen that coped admirably with the rush. It’s the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind. I’m sure they kept her entertained and at least the Camerons support their local.

It was a perfect morning walk, 7 miles (after an initial ‘estimate’ of 5.5 miles) and an excellent pub stop but there are days when life just gets better and we set off for the Chiltern Brewery to buy the Christmas beer. (I refuse to pay to go in a pub.) As one of the UK’s oldest micro-breweries you’re served by people in brewery ties and aprons rather than hipster beards and you’re unlikely to find a mango-infused American IPA (8.5%). As I’m scribbling I have a glass of their Foxtrot helping the words to flow – a rich dark ale that’s surprisingly low in alcohol. Their beers are traditional in their taste and quality – not a bad combination. If you want a brewery trip for a day out from London their tutored tastings with beer and food are very good value and informative.

As the only non-driver I was the allocated taster for a range of fruit infused gins – we’re reckoning that Foxdenton‘s Winslow Plum with Aldi Champagne could be a good Christmas cocktail combination. A bit like mixing Benylin cough mixture with fizz. They had a good range of beers on draught as well as specials in bottle and unlike many micros they offer the choice of rough or bright for polypins. I still think there’s something magical about settling a beer – the wait is always worthwhile. As Sting might call it – tantric beer drinking. The Chiltern Brewery with its drinks, food and friendly chat would even bring a smile to old Scrooge’s visage. Happy Christmas to one and all.

All the gear and ready for a beer

It was pointed out to me recently that my blog was supposed to be about walking as well as beer and it was about time I removed myself from the bar. Loins girded we started off from our friends’ place at Clough Mill in Little Hayfield to go round Kinder Reservoir (and then Lantern Pike on the following day). I still have a touch of the puritan attitude and feel that a beer should be earned and a decent stroll obviously qualifies. (The pint of Landlord at The Lantern Pike on Thursday evening was weakly justified by a long drive northwards. As the pub where the first Corrie scripts were written by Tony Warren it had to be worth a visit.)

It’s impossible to describe Kinder Scout without heading into the word box for ‘brooding presence’. It just suits a day with a touch of mist, drizzle and a breeze to chill you down. Whilst I’m all for a sunny day in the hills (usually in thewickingman shirt and shorts) it felt good to be wrapped in multiple layers following in the footsteps of the mass trespass folk from Manchester way.

We started off through the grounds of Park Hall where we came across the sadly decayed elegance of the hall’s heated outdoor pool. Even in the 1960s it seems to have been in use by the locals – I’m sure it made an interesting alternative to the municipal baths.  Out of the hall grounds and we soon had Kinder looming above us as we joined the Snake Path. The white-painted shooting cabin on Leygatehead Moor always reminds me of a cricket pavilion for what I imagine would be a game involving ‘hit a grouse and it’s 6 and out’.

kinder

Good on you, Benny Rothman

At the bottom of William Clough (named after the son of the Blades manager I wondered) we paused to let the pure damp air fill our nostrils. It was a good moment to think about my 250 miles of the Strathmore Stroll in 2015 as I knew I’d be walking down the said Clough in early September. Note to self – it’s time to plan the route in detail.

We headed round the eastern side of the reservoir and met the Kinder Road and sped up to reach the The Sportsman. It’s at such times that I think most walkers use sports’ visualisation techniques – imagine a full pint (straight or jug) and you’ll be in the pub at double quick time. The Sportsman was like most pubs we visited in our trip to the Peak – solid, reliable and short of customers.

I noticed in Monday’s Morning Advertiser alert that Roger Protz is telling us that, “The country deserves better than just leaving our dwindling pub stock to market forces.” I’m just not sure who is supposed to run ailing pubs at a loss. As alternatives should we frogmarch young folk to grubby back street boozers, arrest people who leave supermarkets with a bag of beer or operate a massive state subsidy. Perhaps not.

Anyway rant over and back to The Sportsman, a Thwaites’ pub – a fine pint of their Original Bitter and a very substantial sandwich & chips, but we were the only customers on a Friday lunchtime. They have bedrooms so it’s not a bad choice for a Kinder walking weekend. (I was amused recently to read in the London Standard that Thwaites’ Wainwrights was named after the Lake District walking books. AW would not have been amused.)

Next morning it was a stride up Lantern Pike through pasture fields with millstone grit walls. Very much a traditional Dark Peak walk and none the worse for that. The Little Mill Inn  at Rowarth was a welcome sight – feeling very much in the middle of nowhere but only about 8 miles from Stockport as the crow flies. As a man for tradition (boring says son) I’m not keen on supposedly amusing names for beers – I prefer the beer to do the talking. However in a wild thirst induced moment I went for the Jennings World’s Biggest Liar – a 4.3% bitter that veered nicely into roasted malt territory, honest. Brewed to celebrate their hosting of the recent competition it’ll be a shame if it disappears. Another pub with good fresh-cooked food and well-kept beer but we were the only customers for a while.

A short walk to Hayfield in the evening and it looks like The Village TV drama has given Hayfield a lift. The Royal Hotel has had a polish but it’s kept its three-sided bar to deliver a pint of Thwaites and also a pint of Kinder Falldown, nothing special – must remember to stick to beers with sensible names. The Royal refurbishment seems to have done the job. It was a packed Saturday night and its function room was in full swing with an 80s fancy dress night. I imagine a summer walk over Kinder, a pint or two outside and the tail end of a cricket match on the adjacent ground would be a fine day.

We wandered over the road to The George for a final pint – a surprisingly decent Adnam’s Old Ale given its long journey from Southwold and the Marstons’ EPA was also doing well. As we headed back to our beds we passed The Packhorse – a sad scribbled notice reporting its last day on Sunday. Much as I love a pint in a Peak District pub I realise they can’t all survive just for my occasional pleasure. Some will thrive, some will struggle and some will be lost forever. It’s illuminating to note that a vacant freehold pub in the Peak now sells for less than the equivalent residential property. Please explain that one CAMRA.

“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.