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.

Ode to Sheffield

The perfect snog

The perfect snog

First of all I have to admit to being biased – three formative years long ago at Sheffield Hallam (and more recently for my son) and it has a hold of my heart. I’m never quite sure what makes any town or city feel safe but Sheffield city centre has always seemed welcoming for a night out. I suspect a city, where burly bus drivers call you love, Richard Hawley calls home and where Hendo’s is a life-blood, has to be good.

Way back when, I remember standing in a queue for a club with snow falling and a local lad in a T-shirt laughed and said, “I see bloody students are back” and looked at us disdainfully in our thick coats and then chatted to us – we were the gowns owned by the town. Similarly, I remember a late night when me and my mates, all in fancy dress, were chased on foot around a city centre car park by a copper. He eventually caught up with us, laughed at our daft outfits, and explained that he wasn’t going to arrest us, he just didn’t want us to drive a car in our state – good policing did exist in 70s Sheffield.

Our latest reunion with South Yorkshire started in deepest darkest Rotherham to watch United being thrashed by the Boro’. I’d not been to watch Rotherham (in Rotherham) since the 70’s when Malcolm Allison’s Crystal Palace were the visitors and Big Mal was in his Fedora hat era.

Back to the beer – I’ve decided that if you want to be in a pub where supporters of both football teams will mingle happily you need good beer and no blokes on the door. (On this basis I fully expect a CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ article soon suggesting that real ale can be shown to reduce football hooliganism when compared to the wicked effect of keg consumption – see earlier blog on village pubs). Pubs like the Derby Tup in Chesterfield, Finborough Arms (Chelsea) and The Great Northern (Burton) offer the best in decent beers and decent folk.

Anyway, the Cutlers Arms in Rotherham provided a good couple of local pints before the game and the New York Tavern with its full range of Chantry brews and other ales offered a post-match warm down. Both supplied beers in good nick and fast, friendly service. Perfect for a game at the tidy new home of the Millers – and many thanks to the supervisor who, after the match, generously escorted my mate from the Rotherham end to meet us at the Boro’ end and for good chat from the friendly copper from South Yorkshire’s finest on the walk from the ground. In the search for bad news, it’s not often reported that you regularly hear away fans thanking stewards and police after a game and the return of “have a safe trip home”.

Back to Sheffield…the night focussed on Sheffield city centre’s heritage pubs. First off it was the Thornbridge-owned Bath Hotel, with a wide range of its own beers and others in fine form, followed by The Red Deer. Somewhere along the way was a pint of Abbeydale’s Deception but why do I never see Brimstone in Sheffield?

The Grapes followed offering good ales & Guinness, a jukebox of excellent tunes (Sheffield songsters a speciality) and the interesting JFK memorabilia room. Strange to think that once upon a time an ‘Irish’ pub was about a friendly well run pub with live music rather than the mock ‘oirish’ nonsense found across the globe. Long live The Grapes.

After an excellent curry at Aagrah, we finished off with the cosy welcome that is Fagan’s – tuneful melodies, perfect Tetley’s and a wonderful snog (see gable end for details). A place guaranteed to make you smile & chat.

Sheffield never disappoints. Here’s to the next time love.

The Strathmore Challenge – a walk via the breweries of England

For those of you who have asked about the 300 miles walk in September 2015 for a rough outline please click here or look at the image below. I’ll be blogging en route (e.g Day 1 twisted ankle, caught bus, went home) when I can get wifi. I am walking between the start at The Strathmore Arms at Holwick near Middleton-in-Teesdale and the finish at The Strathmore Arms in St Paul’s Walden near Hitchin – the only pubs of that name in England.

The Stroll

A bit of a stroll

And to all who’ve asked…yes I have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – it would have been a good story if he’d have visited more pubs and breweries.