Tuesday, 11 November 2008

How is it I don't know The Queen?

During my camping and tramping years of the 1980s, I once spent a night in the High Pennine town of Alston. After pitching my tent (with permission) at the ruined mill down by the river, I set off on a round of the pubs and ended up at the "top of the town", The Swan.
There was a guy sitting there looking very grumpy and depressed, so I tempted him into conversation and it turned out that he was a landscape gardener of sorts, a designer of water features. Apparently he was in the Pennines looking for ideas and inspiration.
His name was Dougie Knight and he told me that he was responsible for designing the artificial waterfall and water displays at the Chelsea Flower Show each year. In fact, the Show was coming round again soon and he gave me his card, and wrote down the date that the Show would be televised.
He said that he would meet The Queen again there and that each year they had a little chat together. This was all true, by the way, as I did remember to watch it on T.V.
On the following morning, as I was having breakfast at the little cafe in the ancient Market Square, which is reputed to be the highest market place in Britain, I was sharing a table with an elderly couple. By way of conversation, I told them about my meeting with Dougie Knight. When I came to the bit about The Queen, I noticed the old lady giving her husband many digs and kicks and urging him to "go on, tell him!"
Eventually, the old bloke spoke up. He knew The Queen very well, he said, having been a member of a platoon of soldiers whose sole duty during the early part of WW2 was to guard the "Royal Children". Naturally, they spent many hours in each other's company and The Queen addressed them all by their first names. He still got a Christmas card off her each year!
What a co-incidence, could you believe it?
When I got home, I was telling my family and couldn't help bursting out with "how is it I don't know The Queen? Every bugger else does!"
With characteristic lack of sympathy, my eldest son replied;
"Get yourself back to Alston, somebody might introduce you."

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Mountain Marathon

The absurd media furore over the recent Mountain Marathon event (competitors are meant to endure extreme conditions and to spend the night on the mountain) reminded me of the time I took part in it over twenty years ago.
Two man teams participated and, since the starting time was at some ungodly hour in the morning, my mate and I turned up the night before and camped near the starting line. Some enterprising bloke had set up a makeshift bar in a nearby barn, where flat beer was being sold at inflated prices.
My mate Billy advised that we should have "a couple of pints before turning in to help us sleep". After more than a couple, I dossed down around midnight but Billy stayed on "for a nightcap" which lasted until after two in the morning.
Needless to say, he was in a terrible state the next day, hoying up behind every bush, and we slipped further and further behind in the race. It was all down to somebody splashing milk on to his breakfast, he explained (apparently he is allergic to milk) and nothing whatsoever to do with the eight pints and four whiskies he had consumed the night before.
Anyway, by the time we arrived at the first day's finish line, all the decent flat tent pitches were gone in the valley of the overnight camp site and we had to camp on a slope halfway up the hillside. During the night it hammered down with rain and, in the delirium of my exhausted slumbers, I was vaguely aware of howls and cries of distress from the valley below, but I didn't get up to investigate.
On the following morning, I saw how lucky we had been to have arrived so late.
The latrine trenches had overflowed and washed down into the valley among the tents. It was like a flow of yellow lava and many people had been virtually submerged as they slept!
Rock on, Billy, have as many pints as you like.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Stonch's Descent into Hell

After our highly successful afternoon visit to the Big Lamp Brewery in Newburn, I overplayed my hand by taking my beer-expert son Stonch to the Maltings, home of the Jarrow Brewery.
I have to say in my own defence that all of my previous visits have been in the calm of midweek afternoons and early evenings, when I had a very favourable impression of the place.
But Saturday night was hell.
The place was packed with people drinking foreign lagers and there were very few real-ale drinkers at all in the place.
Two old guys, laden with sound equipment, were endlessly tuning-up and proving they could count over the microphone (they had the nerve to describe themselves as an "accoustic" band, by the way), every now and again giving forth a riffle of music ("this is what you're going to get, folks, can you possibly wait for it?").
When these ageing would-be pop stars finally got going (after a full HOUR of tuning-up), the amazing thing was that their sound balance was all to hell. They might as well have just walked in off the street, plugged themselves in and started without any preamble.
Anyway, they drove us out of the place

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Descent of Stonch

My son, the famous Stonch, descended on us this weekend to check out the Big Lamp Brewery and as many other real ale haunts as he could cram into a boosy whirlwind tour.
Consequently, I learned many of the fashionable expressions of London youth. Apparently one "canes" beers in order to become "lashed". Well, I won't spoil his thunder by discussing the beers we downed, except to say that the birch grew red hot with the severity of the caning and I myself became more lashed than Spartacus and his mates ever were!
Oh yes, and next time I visit the Big Lamp, I will definitely order the mince and dumplings.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Salopian Oracle

Today I had the marvellous experience of trying a pint of Salopian Oracle at my local Wetherspoon. The beer was excellently well-kept, clear as a bell and retained its head all the way down the glass as I drank it. It had a VERY hoppy taste and, as such, was refreshingly sharp and bitter, but with a lovely flavour and aftertaste.
At 4.0% strength, this golden coloured ale is just about admissable as a "session" beer, which is just as well, since I couldn't stop drinking the stuff. Normally, I don't like to get "tanked up" in the afternoon as it makes me sleepy and ruins my evening, but the Oracle was really tempting.
I can see that I will have to consult it again (and again) in the future!

Apologies to my readers for the long delay in continuing this blog, but I have been very busy completing my latest booklet "Irish Myths and Legends" (see left-hand column).

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Scotchmen's Paradise

Not only did these guys come from north of the border, but they were definitely Scotchmen and not just Scotsmen, they were pickled in the stuff. Striking a match near their lips constituted a grave risk of explosion!

In the 1960s, before foreign holidays became the norm, they used to decend in hordes on Whitley Bay every summer and take over the town. All the pubs were full and the promenades were heaving with drunken humanity. Special re-inforcements had to be shipped in by Newcastle City Police, six-foot "flathats" who stood no nonsense. The local lads, if they had any sense, migrated to other towns for their nights out and the girls.....well, they donned their best frocks and lived dangerously!

Yesterday I went over the river to see how things are nowadays in the once-popular resort. It was very sad. The pubs were virtually deserted, despite the fact that it was a Friday night. The old haunts like the Spanish City fairground (see pic) were closed and "under redevelopment". No more rough romances will be sparked off by a ride on the Waltzer, tough dudes sitting unconcerned without holding on as it whirled round madly.

The dance halls and cinemas, like the one pictured here, where local lasses trapped the holidaymakers (and their holiday pay) are crumbling ruins.

Oh Sunny Spain, you've got a lot to answer for!!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Great North Fun

Sunday was Great North Run day, when 50,000 people descended on our town, on foot.
Unfortunately, a devil of a lot more came in cars to watch the "fun" and all the streets were gridlocked with irresponsibly parked vehicles. People double parked, churned up the grass verges and blocked driveways in their desperation to see "Our Tommy" come staggering in after a magnificent time of two hours forty.
I live close to the finish of the Run, so we have to lock our car in the garage for that day and just give up any hopes of getting the damn thing out.
It was a lovely bright day so I took a walk along to the finish to watch the first few thousand come in. I passed a bar where a crowd of full-bellied fellows were (apparently) staging a lager-drinking contest in honour of the run. They were beside themselves with excitement, chanting and gesticulating like a football crowd, bellies jiggling in time with the words of their rhapsodies.
Runners who had finished began to pass. The lager drinkers mocked them, fingers stabbing the air as they chanted their insults. The runners were dying for a pint but there was "no room at the inn". Wearily, they trudged on by.
When I got back home, the cars were clearing the avenue, bumper to bumper with horns tooting. In the gutter lay a full nappy and many other souvenirs of the Run,
Oh well.....it's only once a year.

Friday, 3 October 2008

The Alkali Hotel

The Alkali is perhaps the oldest pub in Jarrow, dating back to a time (1867) when most of the town's industry was based around "The Slacks" (Jarrow Slake), a saltmarsh mudflat at the bend of the Tyne. The pub takes its name from the big alkali works which was nearby. Everyone thinks of coal, steel and shipbuilding when they think of the Tyne, but in fact one of the biggest industries was chemical production.
This is the area in which Catherine Cookson was born and featured so extensively in her books. I believe that The Alkali was mentioned in her book "The Hanging Man", though I can't confirm that as I've never read any of her works.
After the old houses were knocked down, the area took on a new lease of life as the "Bede Trading Estate" and The Alkali was able to thrive as a factory workers' lunchtime haunt. Nowadays, such are the modern safety regulations that few people have jobs which enable them to take a pint at lunchtime, so it looks like The Alkali has finally come to the end of the road. It's all boarded up and probably awaiting the bulldozers.
Another piece of our local history gone west!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Lunch at The Ridley

Hardly the Ritz, but as close to it as I would like to get!

Those of you who read my blog may remember that, back in July, I discovered a grand rambling pub called The Ridley Arms whilst walking in the countryside around Newcastle Airport.

I remarked at the time that, with its calm relaxed atmosphere and understated but upmarket decor, it seemed an ideal place for businessmen to meet and conduct their affairs over lunch.

Lo and behold, I was invited there for lunch yesterday by two "business class" friends of mine. The food was excellent, well-prepared and beautifully presented and they had a selection of real ales on tap, so I was able to wash it all down with a couple of pints of Black Sheep Bitter, well-kept and as reliable as ever. There were many exotic fish dishes on the menu (the chef must specialise in fish) but, being of a plebeian disposition, I had bangers and mash with onion sauce. The prices were slightly higher than you'd expect to pay for pub fare in our neck of the woods, but nowhere near restaurant prices and certainly only half of what you'd pay for similar quality in London.

What particularly amused me was watching the serving staff. They were all lovely blonde girls, curvaceous and smiling and fetchingly attired in black tight uniforms. Where does the manager get them from? Does he clone them, I wonder? If so, I'd like to buy in on the enterprise, that's for sure!

Yes, I'd recommend The Ridley Arms to anyone who would like to take people out for a meal and impress them.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

"Rupert's Ruin"

Rupert's Ruin is a product of the Springhead Brewery of Newark. I tried a pint recently at my local 'Spoon, The Wouldhave, South Shields, who do great service to the real-ale drinking community by regularly rotating guest ales. The cellarman really knows his business too, and the beer is usually very well-kept, so a fair assessment can be made of it.

It's a beer with a lovely dark colour, full-bodied with an excellent head and fine "legs" as you work your way down the glass (no, I'm not talking about the barmaid).

The brewery advertises it as "full of complex flavours" and CAMRA seem to agree, but I found that the taste is completely overpowered by the bitterness. Of course, I know that "some like it bitter", but this beer is not for me, it's so bitter that I could hardly taste a thing. Bur maybe it's me, maybe it just didn't suit my palate on that particular day.

The name, by the way, celebrates the downfall of the dashing Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who fell out of favour with his uncle, King Charles I, at Newark during the Civil War.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Supermarkets, Pubs and Adolf Hitler

It was supermarkets and chain stores, with the power of bulk buying, which put our corner shops out of business, and now it appears that the same thing is happening to our pubs.

The smoking ban is not the only factor which is driving many of our "locals" to the wall. Many of them, such as the one pictured here, The Brigantine, just off South Shields Market Place, just cannot compete with pub chains, who are able to keep their prices at rock-bottom by bulk buying.

So, while we all like to pay less for our pint, do we really want to see our choice of watering-holes so drastically reduced? It's a conundrum.

Incidentally, in addition to Jews (am I allowed to use that expression nowadays? Is it "politically correct"?) supermarkets were one of Adolf Hitler's pet hates and he severely restricted them when he came to power. This is further proof that he was a bit of a "mixed-up kid", since many of the small shops were actually owned by the Jews!

I wonder what he would have done about chain pubs?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

"The Star", Bishop Stortford

Being unwilling to be challenged about my age (see yesterday's blog), I turned away from The Black Lion and, looking over the road, spotted an equally picturesque pub, The Star. A further attraction was the offer of "2 meals for £8" and, having just come back from gourmet Italy, the prospect of some down-to-earth no frills pub grub appealed greatly.
The food turned out to be just the thing, and the service was truly excellent, but there was no real ale to be had. A pint of John Smith's Smoothflow was the best they could do and, the beer being chilled to the point of tastelessness, I can hardly recommend it. Why the devil people want their beer served so cold nowadays, I cannot understand. I switched to Guiness (NOT extra-cold) for a second pint.

The pub premises had great charm and looked authentically old, but it was a real dump! Wallpaper was peeling off the walls and it looked like it had last been decorated in the days of Oliver Cromwell.
Looking around me, however, I saw real "locals" having a friendly chat and the low buzz of conversation was very peaceful and soothing. Even when some young mothers came in with babies in buggies, I felt quite at home in the benign surroundings.
Yes, The Star could be quite a nice place if they would get some decent ale in!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Legal, but is it fair?

On my way home from Italy yesterday, I was faced with a six-hour wait for my connecting flight at Stanstead. Rather than hang around that soulless place watching the immigrants streaming in, I decided to take a bus to a nearby town and visit a pub or two. Picking Bishop's Stortford simply because the bus was about to depart, I set off.

The place turned out to be quite interesting, steeped in history as it is. They have made a park around the mound on which the Norman Castle stood, dominating the town and cowing its Saxon citizens. In the later Middle Ages, the castle became the prison in which the Bishop of London locked up naughty priests. The place would be packed to the doors if it was still used for that purpose today!

Ambling off towards the town centre, I passed a very picturesque pub, The Black Lion, with a startling sign on the door reading "OVER 21's ONLY".
Well now, this may be legal, but is it fair?
After all, if the sign read "No Blacks" or "No Homosexuals", there would be hell to play and the owner would probably be prosecuted.
Why should anyone be allowed to discriminate against people just because they're young?
If they are over the legal age of 18, they should surely be allowed to drink.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Westoe Netty

Bob Olley, our local Geordie artist who has become world-famous for his sculptures and paintings depicting Tyneside life, was recently honoured by The Jarrow Brewery who named a beer after one of his most famous works.
The work in question "Westoe Netty" has become an icon of the North-East, so much so that the original "netty" (public toilet) upon which he based the work has been dismantled brick by brick and transported to the Beamish Museum.
I once had a signed print of the painting but my son "Stonch" pinched it and hung it in his dining room. Complaints from his prissy London friends soon forced him to relocate it to the staircase outside his flat, however, where it hangs to this day, a constant reminder to visitors of Stonch's Northern roots.

And the beer? It was truly excellent!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Man on the Horse at the Market Tavern

The Market Tavern is in the centre of Durham City is a gourmet bar nowadays, serving quite upmarket meals for tourists. I have seen it advertised on American holiday and travel websites. Of course, it was a real down-to-earth miners' pub in the old days, a right old dump where a rough-house barney and a clip round the ear were more likely to be on the menu. In fact, the first Durham Miners' Union was formed there in the mid-nineteenth century, when such "combinations" were still against the law.

It's all the more surprising that, given its background, a statue of one of the miners' worst enemies should be plonked firmly outside its front door. The Man on the Horse is Castlereagh (pronounced Castle-Ray), who owned many of the local pits and was so hard on his workers that he earned their undying hatred. My Grandad used to spit if he were ever obliged to say the name.

Even fair-minded men of the upper classes were shocked by his heartless behaviour, so that the poet Shelley penned the following lines when he saw the statue:

"I met with Murder one fine day, he had a face like Castereagh
His eyes were dark, his lips were grim, and seven bloodhounds followed him.
Aye they were sleek, as well they might be in the very prime of life,
For one by one and two by two, he cast them human hearts to chew."

Monday, 15 September 2008

"Sports Bars"

Compared to last season, there are hardly any venues in my local town of South Shields where live football can be watched on T.V.
I used always to go to a bar known locally as The Zoo, because of the rather exotic characters who frequented the place, but they don't show live sport there anymore. I'm told that it is because Sky T.V have astronomically raised their charges to levels way beyond the possible profit potential of small bars. It's a pity, because there was a great atmosphere at The Zoo, packed as it was with a standing-room-only crowd on match days. It was almost like standing on the terraces in the old days before seating was imposed on football grounds.

Still, at least The Zoo are honest and have removed all the posters which used to plaster the windows, advertising forthcoming games, unlike some other bars. I went into the bar pictured here, attracted by the huge banner displayed outside, and had already ordered my pint before I was told:
"No, we don't show the matches here anymore".

It was bloody annoying, as, no real ale being available, I was stuck with a pint of John Smiths.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Another Cast-Iron Doorman

Further to my previous article about cantankerous doormen at workingmen's clubs, the toughest doorman to get past that I ever knew was a guy who kept the door at The Whiteleas Club. This club, tucked away in an obscure corner of an estate, halfway down a railway cutting, was also notoriously difficult to find.
I remember once a comedian on stage cracking the joke:
"I dunno, if the Jarmans (Germans) ever do invade, I'm coming here 'cos they'll never find me!"
Much laughter and muted applause.
"And, if they do, the doorman won't let them in."
Roars of laughter and thunderous applause.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Old Club, Rookhope

To stephen, who has contacted me by email to ask for information about The Old Club.
Your email address step131@weardalien.com does NOT work with my hotmail and my response to your request has been returned by the "postmaster" as not delivered.
Sorry, but you'll have to try to use another email address.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Off to Find the Sunshine

I'm off to Italy, folks, I can't stand this rain any longer. I will be back in a fortnight's time and have left a few articles scheduled to appear during my absence.
Normal service will resume when I get back.

Monday, 8 September 2008

The Great Flood

When visiting the Big Lamp Brewery last week, I passed by a pub called The Boathouse (see pic), which is right on the bank of the river.
The pub has a claim to fame because of a tenuous connection with George Stephenson, the father of railways. He worked at a pit nearby, tending the pumping engine.
Of more legitimate historical interest are the marks scored into the stonework on the side of the pub, indicating the levels reached by the water during successive inundations of the river.

The weather having been so wet this summer, I thought it quite topical to reflect on this. No matter how bad the weather has been, it has not yet approached the levels of the Great Flood of 1771, which swept away all the bridges over the Tyne, including Newcastle's medieval bridge which had many houses and shops on it, except the "new" bridge (as it then was) at Corbridge.

Standing beside the mark, I found it to be over my head and on a level with the extractor fans in the pub windows as shown in the photo above. Incredible to imagine the water reaching such a level, especially as the bank outside the pub is quite steep and the present river level some feet below the riverside footpath.

Global warming? I don't think so!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Beer at the Big Lamp

When I arrived at the Big Lamp Brewery many people were sitting outside, enjoying the unaccustomed sunshine. The brewery is in a lovely setting, with no shortage of outdoor space and they even have a separate building where they offer Bed & Breakfast.
The brewery occupies part of the site of the Civil War Battle of Newburn, where the Scots forded the Tyne to ravage the North (a bit like Celtic supporters in the modern day).

When I entered the bar, the barmaid offered me a very generous "taster" (it was about a third of a pint!) of Keelman Brown and I was immediately hooked.

Heavy, creamy, tasty....heaven! How do I describe this beer? It was one of the best I have tasted in my life, but with a strength of 5.1%, it is no session beer. Unfortunately, I couldn't stop drinking the stuff, so I never even got around to trying any of the other ales on offer, even though there was a poster in the bar advertising a "tasting tray" (see pic).

"Next time" I kept thinking, whilst sunning myself and wallowing in the dark brown nectar. Some blokes near me were wallowing in sorrow for Newcastle United, and seemed to be discussing the murder of some people called Wise and Ashley. They drove the sun behind the clouds, so I went inside.

By the time I left, I was too befuddled to continue with my planned walk.

But there'll always be another day....

The Big Lamp Brewery

Yesterday I decided to try to follow a circular walk set out in a leaflet I had picked up at the bus station. The walk would take me past the Big Lamp Brewery, so I could have a very appealing little "refreshment stop" (haw-haw) on the way.

Being confused by having taken the wrong bus to the start point, however, I arrived in the little town of Newburn with no idea where to begin. The leaflet seemed to make no sense, so I decided to fasten on one of the landmarks along the way and start from there. Of course the most congenial landmark was the Big Lamp Brewery, so I hailed down a local and received instructions on how to get there.

The Big Lamp is a marvellous place (see pic). It is the oldest micro-brewery in the North-East and was founded in 1982, more or less as a hobby. By developing the buildings of a derelict pumping-station on the North bank of the Tyne, the present brewery was gradually formed. Built up from virtually nothing, the brewery is a true testament to business enterprise, an example to everyone of what can be achieved.

What I particularly like about this brewery is that, unlike most enterprises which expand and grow complacent as their customer base increases, the quality of its products has actually improved over the years. In the mid 1980s I used to frequent one of their early outlets, The Old Fox in Felling and, quite frankly, I was not very impressed with their "home brew", as people called it. Now, as a result of hard work and experience, I would say that they are the premier microbrewery in the North East and their beers can stand comparison with anyone's, nationally.

Anyway, I've written enough for today, so I'll tell you more about the beer tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

All Power to the Doorman

When I used to go regularly to Workingmen's Clubs, it always used to amuse me to witness the internal politics and the eternal struggle between the doorman and the Committee Men.
Once, when I was on a bike run deep in the heart of pitmatic Durham, I dared to wheel my bike into the Foyer of a Workingmen's Club, bearding the lion in his den as it were, and asked the doorman if he would sign me in for a drink.
"It'll cost you 50p, son" he gruffly replied, nodding towards the charity box.
"What about my bike?" says I. The surrounding estate was bandit country and I didn't dare leave the bike outside.
"Just put it up against the radiator over there, lad".
I complied and went to the toilet before going to the bar. As I emerged from the toilet, I was just in time to hear the authoritive voice of a passing Committee Man.
"Whose is this f...ing bike, get it out of here!"
This drew a rapid and belligerent reply from my benefactor, the doorman:
"You leave that bike alone, you nosy count (well, it was another word actually, which decency prevents me from writing).
"Bikes is not allowed!"
"I told the lad he could put it there, you piss off"
Embarrassed, I said:
"It's O.K, I'll shift it"
"No you won't! You go and get your pint, son (I was over 50 at the time, by the way), take no notice of this nosy b.....d."
"Bikes is against the rules!" roared the Committee Man, who had now been joined by another.

I went to the bar and peacefully enjoyed my pint, while the battle raged in the Foyer. Everyone who entered the bar had a big grin on his face. I had lit a touchpaper and the place was alive with the excitement of it all.
When I left, my bike was still there against the radiator.
As always, the doorman had won.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Dr Syntax

Among the most uniquely-named pubs in Britain is a pub in Prudhoe, the Dr Syntax. The pub is one of S&N's chain pubs and, as such, is no friend to the real ale fraternity.
Attracted by the unusual name and being parched one sunny afternoon, I wandered in there recently to see what they had to offer. As far as John Smith's goes, I suppose it was a decent enough pint (any port in a storm, as we old sailors say) and the food was basic but very cheap. It seemed a good enough place for the non-discerning drinker, thought I, and I suppose there have to be such places for Saturday night revellers.

Oh yes, Dr Syntax, who was he?
Well, he was a comic character invented by the eighteenth century poet William Combe (1741-1823) who wrote a trilogy of poetical epics about his hero - "Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque", "In Search of Consolation" and "In Search of a Wife".
Combe, along with his hero, has disappeared into the realms of obscurity but copies of his books are still much sought-after because of the brilliant illustrations, which were the work of the famous cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson.
And, of course, he lives on in the name of Prudhoe's pub!

Friday, 29 August 2008

'Boody' Bars

In 1830, a Beer Act was passed by Parliament, allowing licensed persons to open their houses to the public for the sale of beer and thus the "Public House" was born.
The Act was meant to attract trade away from the notorious "Gin Palaces" which sold noxious spirits which were ruinous to health, often even fatal.
The first Public Houses were often just terraced dwellings and so, to distinguish them from other properties in the row, the owners attempted to decorate them in such a way as to make them stand out. In addition to colourful signs, the front of the house was often clad with bright ceramic tiles and, by late Victorian times, highly decorated and beautiful Public Houses, such as the two I have pictured here, were being purpose built.

When I was a child, growing up in the Irish-influenced town of Jarrow, coloured ceramic tiles were known as "boody" and, consequently, bars decorated with such tiles were referred to as "Boody Bars".
There are very few good examples of these beautiful buildings left now in my area and, belatedly, some have been declared as "listed" buildings to prevent vandalistic owners from "modernising" them.
Too little, too late and, modern architecture being what it is, I doubt if we will ever see such interesting, lovely and ornate structures again.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The True Convert

Yesterday they were brewing again at the Maltings, so took my eldest son (Stonch's elder brother - maybe I should start calling him Big Stonch) along to try to introduce him to real ale. He is normally an addict of unmentionable Australian lagers, along with burgers, chips and kebabs and is presently being victimised by Conservative Party propaganda, so it was no mean task I had undertaken.

As we went up the stairs, however, the glorious smell assailed our nostrils and aroused his jaded taste-buds. We lingered on the stairhead, feigning interest in the memorabilia (see pic) while we savoured the moment.
"What's that they're brewing?" he asked as we entered and the barmaid told us it was Westoe IPA. "I'll have a crack at that" said he, without any urging. Since he has recently changed his "career" and is once more a student, I was paying, so I ordered up two pints.
"It's not bad, that" sez he, seriously bending the elbow at the bar as we made short work of the first pint. "What're we having next?"
I suggested we try the Rivet Catcher and he was even more impressed. He liked the bitterness of the brew and I told him that it was the type and strength of the hops which made it that way.
After a pint of Caulker, he was fast becoming a true convert and expressed the opinion that he wouldn't mind going to one of these CAMRA Beer Festivals, next time it was in town.
"Yeah" I thought "I'll bring my wallet".

Friday, 22 August 2008

Brewing at The Maltings

I was fortunate enough to visit The Maltings yesterday on a day that they were brewing a new batch of beer. A wonderful aroma filled the bar, which is directly above the Brewery, fuelling the desire for ale. I had been amused by the sign (see pic) at the corner of the staircase and needed no further urging to belly up to the bar.
Consequentially, although I had only called in for a casual pint (ha ha, famous last words....), I ended up staggering home after sampling several. I had first class pints of the Jarrow Breweries' Rivet Catcher, Swinging Gibbet and Westoe IPA, besides a guest ale from North Yorkshire's Wold Top Brewery, Wold Gold. This lovely light, fruity beer, made from goldings hops, is deceptively strong (4.8%), so beware!

I must have felt in the mood for light beers that day, because I also particularly enjoyed the Westoe IPA, a very light summery ale which went down dangerously smoothly. I thought it ironical that IPAs, or India Pale Ales, were brewed especially for the troops and exported to India in the days of the Raj, conventional heavy beers being considered dangerous to their health in the hot climate.
My Grandad was out there at the time (1890-99) serving with the Highland Light Infantry (he's the tallest bloke at the back in the pic) and I'll bet he sank many a pint of this golden nectar.
He was fighting the Afghans at the time, on the North West Frontier.
Some things never change.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Bar Talk 3

In the late 1960's the shipowners conceived of the daft idea of putting bars aboard ships. The idea was to stop secret "cabin drinking", which was considered to be responsible for alcoholism among ship's crews.
Of course it didn't work and just caused a lot of trouble for all concerned.

I remember one occasion when I was a very junior officer, that the Captain came to the bridge when I was on watch. He was cowardly sort of bloke who was always sloping the shoulders and dumping tough jobs on other people, so I wasn't surprised when he said;
"There's too much noise from the crew's bar. Go down and tell the buggers to close it right now".
Imagine that, telling a crowd of hairy-assed sailors to stop drinking!

Anyway, I went down and found riotous proceedings taking place. An old sailor called H.P Mason was staggering between the tables singing tunelessly at the top of his voice. He was clutching an empty beer can stuck on the end of a broomstick for a mike. Others were regarding him sourly and hurling abuse.
Meekly I suggested to the Bosun that the Captain wanted him to close the bar. He told me to f... off, but he said it very politely.
I had just returned to the bridge and told the Captain that they were "closing soon" when a tremendous uproar broke out, with cries and howls and sounds of splintering furniture. I scuttled back down and found a huge free-for-all taking place. H.P was somewhere at the bottom of the pile and the Bosun was sitting calmly watching the melee.
"What's going on" I asked.
The Bosun sighed.
"It's H.P's fault. As usual, he was hogging the mike".

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Eclectic 'Spoon

One of the things I like best about Wetherspoons is their eclectic taste in their choice of premises.

In the ancient market town of Hexham, for instance, the local 'Spoon is housed in an old cinema, The Forum. Many of the old cinema's features have been retained, such as the split-level floor leading down from the former foyer, and I imagine it is quite a nostalgic trip for some of the older folks who visit the pub.
Anyway, I notice that it is often packed in the afternoon with senior citizens. No doubt they are enjoying a sort of "race memory" ritual of the matinee!

In Durham, the 'Spoon is the Water House, an historic building which was once the headquarters of the Weardale & Shildon Water Company. There is a plaque on the wall commemorating the fact and a lively pub it was indeed when I visited it recently.

In the bar, there was a big party of deaf people (sorry if this term is no longer "politically correct" - I am constantly being bollicked by my sons on this subject) and it was very interesting to watch them signing. I've never seen such a quiet argument and what amused me most was that everyone seemed to be "talking" at once. Mind you, I think that everyone was "listening" too!

I sat back and enjoyed two excellent pints, Black Moss and 5th Anniversary from the High House Brewery of Matfen, Northumberland. Both went down a treat and I would recommend these brews to anyone. In fact, I must get up into Northumberland as soon as possible to hunr down any other brews that this little "cottage brewery" produces.
A real treat to look forward to!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Steamboat Days

I remember the days when The Steamboat at Mill Dam was a disreputable sailor's bar. They used to have "lock-ins" (there were strict licensing laws then), when the heavy drape curtains were drawn and "guests" used to drink long and deeply into the night.

My brother was at one such gathering which was so crowded that getting into the rather small toilet became a problem and a queue had formed.

Being unable to wait, he slipped out into the back lane (on the right of the accompanying picture) to relieve himself under the stars but, when he tried to get back in, he found that the latched door had closed behind him.

Disaster! No amount of tapping at the windows or banging on the door drew any response from the riotous company within, who assumed that he was a latecomer trying to horn in.
Finally, spotting an upstairs window slightly open, our hero was shinning up the drainpipe when he felt a tug at his trouserleg and there was a policeman standing below, crooking a finger at him. Despite his protests, he was arrested and banged up in the cells overnight.

Fortunately for him, he was released without charge the next morning when the pub manager came round to explain that he was "a friend of his who had left his coat in the pub".
Actually, I suspect that the police knew very well what had happened (after all, some off-duty policemen occasionally attended the "lock-ins") but they were "firing a shot across the bows" of the pub manager, letting him know that things were going a bit too far. There were no more "lock-ins" at The Steamboat for a while after that.
As for my brother, when he left the sea he spent many years in jail - on the other side of the bars!
He retired recently as a deputy governor of Wormwood Scrubs.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

CAMRA's 2nd South Shields Beer Festival

The Festival was held in a dusty old Masonic Hall and I entered with trepidation, fearing to meet men in strange garb with their trouser legs rolled up.

To my amazement, the place was fairly full of normal-looking people. Not only that, but there were very few beards or pregnant-looking men in sight. This couldn't be a CAMRA Festival, thought I, I've landed in the wrong place.
Beam me up, Scotty, toot de sweet, and the tooter the sweeter!

But the line of beefy guys behind the row of hand-pumps at the bar reassured me, so I bought my tickets, hired my glass and joined the fray.

I was soon in deep conversation with a pleasant couple who had motored up from the monkey-free zone of Hartlepool, about forty miles away, especially for the Festival (what some people will do for beer!).

They were Mike and Dorothy (see pic) and he told me he was a fiddler.
I said that he didn't look much like a Councillor, but he explained that he meant a violinist, a violin teacher at that. Fascinating stuff. He was one of those guys who disbelieves everything you say, but he laughed at my jokes, so I forgave him. Suddenly a guy who looked like Rasputin came in and we all felt finally convinced that this WAS a beer festival after all (doubts had lingered, tormenting our minds).

Meanwhile the beer was having its effect and a feeling of benign well-being set in. First I tried Orkney Red MacGregor, a bitter, fruity, hoppy ale. Nice enough, but not quite to my taste. Next came Thornbridge Jaipur, an IPA and, as such, light and pleasantly sweetish with a bitter aftertaste. It rather "grew" on me. Then I tried the Houghton Brewery's new version of that old favourite Double Maxim, which the now defunct Vaux Brewery used to produce. It was a pleasant enough drink with a distinctive taste, but did NOT compare with old "Double-Max" that I knew and loved. It certainly did not have as much body and was nowhere near as creamy as its predecessor.
After that I had an excellent glass of Nethergate Old Growler, a full-bodied porter, dark and powerful with a sort of coffee aftertaste. Finally, and best of all, was Ironbridge Brewery's Shropshire Gold. Now there's a session beer for you, cool, sharp and light. I had found my ideal and I got no further........

Saturday, 16 August 2008

No smoking, no pubs?

I am becoming a bit disturbed about how many pubs are being forced out of business in my local area. Recently, ALL four pubs which once served the Boldon Lane area of South Shields have closed down.

One has already been demolished and is being replaced by residential units. The other three are pictured here, one having been converted to a Fast Food Takeaway and the other two being up for grabs at any price. All boarded up and silent, they make a pathetic sight.

Now some would say good riddance, the pubs were seedy and served a run-down area of the town. But variety is the spice of life, say I, and I used to occasionally enjoy going back to my disreputable roots and visiting again the haunts of my youth when I was an under-age drinker.

It's very sad for me to see them gone, like a part of my life disappearing forever.

Now I know that there have been tremendous pressures on the pub trade in recent years which have led to a steady shrinkage in the business. But it can hardly be a coincidence that the rate of pub closures has accelerated since the no-smoking ban came into force.

At the time, I was greatly in favour of the legislation. It was marvellous to come home after a night out and to be able to actually hang up your clothes in the wardrobe rather than the back garden, but now I'm not so sure.

I'm beginning to wonder which is better - no smoking or no pubs?

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Steamboat, South Shields

When I visited The Steamboat recently they were having a weekend beer festival and I was impressed with the list of guest ales on sale. As can be seen from the blackboard pictured here, there was a really good choice of fine ales on offer, with a nice balance and variety.

I sampled three, Butcombe Gold, a lovely blonde hoppy beer I had had before and liked, Cornish Mutiny and Hancock's HB. All were clear as a bell, cool and very well kept, but I think that the Hancock's HB took first prize on the day. I cannot say the same for my photography, as I seem to have suffered from the shakes when I pictured the blackboard. All I can say is that I took the photo after I had drunk the beer!

The atmosphere of the pub, with all the "olde worlde" nicknacks and photos, was great and there was good, relaxed conversation to be had for the asking.
This is the favourite watering hole of the locally-famous "Erasmus Bottle", raconteur and storyteller extraordinaire so, as a bonus to drinkers, a very entertaining free show is sometimes to be had.

An old bar dog lay across the doorway panting (it was a hot day), eyeing me enviously as I sank my beer.

It was a dog's life for him, but for me the world seemed a great place to be in.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Stonch : Where it all began

For those of you who follow the very popular beer blog of my son "Stonch", I thought you might like to see and hear about the pub in which he first worked and learned about the bar trade.

The pub in question is The Steamboat in South Shields (see pic) and it is located in the ancient former seafaring quarter of the town called Mill Dam. Here, in days gone by, sailors would revel just yards from the gangways of their ships and the old cobbles of the street outside the pub have witnessed much riotous behaviour and skullduggelry.

Even in my young seafaring days in the 1960s, the pub was still a sailor's bar and my brother and I (who was also at sea in those days) had many a disreputably good time there. Enough said on that topic.

Nowadays, though disappointingly respectable, the pub still retains something of the atmosphere of those more interesting times. Tomorrow I'll take you there.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The new-born beer

When I was in Italy in June, I visited the beautiful University town of Urbino.
During term-time, the population of this ancient walled city triples as thousands of stylish young people throng its streets, bars and cafes.
Just walking through the crowded, narrow medieval streets at about 6 p.m, the time of the passeggiata, is an experience never to be forgotten. At this time, everyone is out, dressed at their best, like peacocks displaying their attractions. And in the case of some of these young people, the attractions are considerable!

In the main square, however, before the Palazzo Ducale, there was a hideous advertising blight.

A new beer was being launched and a massive nest from which a newly-hatched bottle of ale was emerging had been plonked down, ruining the lovely view.

"Che bruto!" said many who passed by, but it was effective, I had to admit. After all, you couldn't help but notice the damn thing!

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Frequent Imbiber

My previous article should have included a picture of Steve, the "frequent imbiber" I met at The Alum House. I'd hate to disappoint the bloke, so here's a nice shot of him occupying his accustomed seat up at the bar. He is the well-proportioned gent on the left.

The Alum House once adjoined the historic residence of Sir William Hamilton, a Merchant Adventurer who, in order to fulfill a religious vow, locked himself away in a single room with curtains drawn and spent the last twenty years of his life in this self-imposed prison.
It is said that the floorboards were worn into a groove by his pacing up and down from corner to corner.

Similarly, the floorboards in the Alum House are worn into a groove leading to Steve's seat at the bar........
Sorry, mate, I couldn't resist that!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Alum House, South Shields

The Alum House is the oldest licensed premises in South Shields. Some parts of the building date back to the seventeenth century and the quaint and higgledy-piggledy layout of the interior reflects its antiquity.

The alehouse stood on what was originally Alum Ham, the public landing place where scullermen once gathered to row passengers across the Tyne. The river was more of a thoroughfare in those days than a barrier, and intercourse between North and South Shields was much more frequent.

On the day I visited, there were no fewer than EIGHT real ales on tap and they all looked very well-kept. I sat up to the bar and drank three pints of Thwaites' Lancaster Bomber. I had only intended to have the one, but the beer was so well-kept and tasty that I couldn't help myself (know the feeling?).

There was a bloke called Steve there with whom I fell into conversation and I could tell by his shape and style that he was a frequent imbiber. He was knocking back Wychwood Brewery's Beewyched like it was going out of style and kept urging me to partake of it. I've had the stuff before and found it a bit sweet for my palate ("honeyed" is the right word), although I'm sure it's a fine pint for some people's taste.

Anyway, it was a fine afternoon and I promised myself that I'd return some evening for a session, taking you with me, and write more about the place.

Monday, 4 August 2008

I fought a Grizzly Bear with one arm tied behind back

Yesterday my brother turned up from Cyprus, where he now lives. He was wearing horns and a tail and dragged my off to the Ben Lomond Hotel in Jarrow, the town of our birth. There we found a beautiful cask of the Old Speckled Hen and we set to work to empty it. After about the sixth pint, I was "feeling no pain" (as we used to say in my seafaring days) and I remember very little of further proceedings.
What I do remember is that, glancing round the bar, I saw many of my contemporaries, blokes who had been real tough guys when I was at school, the sort who used to take your marbles off you. They were all knacked, hollow-chested, coughing, and walking with sticks. I felt that I could wrap them all up single-handedly (the beer was talking to me). Fortunately, I didn't try, otherwise I suspect that I would be writing this from hospital.
By the way, the headline is from an old Mad magazine and the article began:
"How the devil it got its arm tied behind its back I don't know......etc, etc, etc".

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Emperor's New Clothes

I've just got back from The Wouldhave, my local Wetherspoons, where I had a couple of pints of Titanic Red Ensign, a lovely dark beer with excellent body and a sweetish, rich taste. And, furthermore, it cost only £1.69p a pint!

Of course, if I was a true "real ale" officiado, I could have despised my local 'Spoon and drank a far inferior pint at twice the price at one of the "true" real ale pubs in my home town.

Sometimes when I read and hear the remarks of some members of the real-ale fraternity, I wonder if I'm on the same planet. What is it that some people have got against Wetherspoons - or any other chain pub, for that matter? If the place serves good beer at a very good price, why should it be shunned and despised?

The picture which accompanies this rant is that of an emperor wearing his most wonderful clothing.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The Country Park, Penshaw.

Yesterday I went to Penshaw, to get up close to the famous Monument and also, of course, to get up close to a couple of pints of beer at a nearby pub (more of that later). The Monument atops a prominent hill which can be seen almost all over Durham and South Northumberland.
There are many legends concerning its origin, one being that the local squire was so good to his tenants, keeping their rents low etc, that they decided to erect a monument to him. When they were halfway through the construction, the squire asked them what they were up to and they told him. His response was to say that, if they could afford to waste money on such a folly, they could afford to pay him more, so he put all their rents up! Needless to say, the Monument was never completed.
Anyway, the National Trust have spoiled it all by putting up a plaque declaring that , in reality, the Monument commemorates a Grand Master of the Freemasons called Thomas, Earl of Zetland. Blooming spoilsports!!

It was a lovely day, with an almost cloudless sky, and the Monument was surrounded by a most colourful display of wild flowers. The weather this year has been wonderful for the vegetation here in the North of England, if not for the people.

It’s quite a toil to get to the top of the hill so I was really ready for a pint when I finally came back down. Nearby is a fantastic development, which has been landscaped over acres of former pit land, and there is a pub, The Country Park to serve it.
In I went at the double, almost treading on my tongue (I must have looked like a Spaniel) and was most gratified to find that they had that fine brew, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, on tap. The pint they served me was a bit cloudy, but as tasteful as ever, and I was very impressed with the friendliness of the bar staff. What impressed me more was the segregation of the pub, a spacious room being set aside for drinkers, with no meals or children allowed in. Marion and I sat in a lovely window seat and enjoyed a couple of drinks in perfect peace. This is how it should be in a pub.
All landlords please note!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

He was in the Northumberland Fusiliers

Conversations overheard in pubs whilst silently drinking are often very interesting, especially those overheard in country pubs.
I remember some years ago when I was in Allendale Town at the King’s Head, a Marston’s pub which serves a reliably fine pint, that I overheard a tale about a certain member of the Royal family who had just days before visited the place. This HRH, who is very interested in farming and country affairs, had been looking around the estate of Lord Allendale and had called at the King’s Head to have a crack on with the local farmers before leaving the area.
A beefy, grizzled old farmer in a check shirt was telling the tale:
“Aye, the lad was talking to Big Alisdair and he was really enjoying the conversation, but this poncy fella kept coming in and saying things like ‘really, sir, we must be leaving’”.
Growls and grumbles all round.
“Well, ye knaa, the lad’s really knowledgeable an’ all, he knaa’s what he’s talking about”.
Nods and general mutters of agreement.
“But this poncy bloke kept spoiling things and finally he gets hold of the lad and kind of hustles him out the bar.”
Shocked exclamations and roars of “Nivva in the world!”
“Wye, Big Alisdair followed them out and, after the lad had driven off, he gets aholt of this poncy bloke by the scruff of the neck and puts him up against the wall. ‘Ye leave that lad alone in future, he’s a friend of mine’ he says, an’ ye know what?”
“The poncy bloke pulls his jacket apart and he’s got a gun on.”
Sensation all round and cries of disbelief.
“Wye, what did Alisdair do?”
“Nowt, man, he’s not frightened of no guns, he was in the Northumberland Fusiliers.”

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The Ridley Arms, Stannington

After forcing myself to leave The Mason's Arms, I set off on what proved to be quite a long tramp to Stannington, all of five miles I would say, by the winding country roads and former cart-tracks. It was, as the old bloke in the Mason's had said "a canny walk".

Before I had even left Dinnington, however, I was beset with temptation when I had to pass The Bay Horse and the village CIU club, both of which looked to be fine establishments. Never mind, there will always be another day!

The day was really bright and sunny by now, a lovely afternoon for walking, and I much enjoyed the rural scenery on either side of the road. This is barley country, the heavy clay soils of the north favouring that cereal, rather than wheat. Much of the barley used by our brewers is grown here and I rejoiced to see it thriving so well.

I passed a place called Bellasis Bridge, which crosses the River Blyth. Hereabouts there are many "Private" and "Keep out" signs, a peculiarly English obsession. In Italy, farmers and countryfolk are always pleased to see walkers and rarely let you pass without exchanging a few friendly words. In Scotland too you are legally free to walk anywhere, providing you do no damage....but NOT in England.

When I finally arrived in Stannington, I was growing footsore and was glad to call it a day. There, immediately before my rejoicing eyes, was The Ridley Arms, a huge country inn which, like so many such establishments, is more of a restaurant than a pub nowadays. Nevertheless, they didn't try to push any food on me and I was able to buy an excellent pint of Black Sheep Bitter at a reasonable price.

As I said, the place is huge, with many nooks and crannies, interesting artifacts and pictures of local scenes among the decor. There was a very calm and up-market atmosphere and I imagine that it is an ideal place to bring visitors whom you wish to impress for a business meeting or lunch. Having said that, the menu didn't interest me, as I prefer plainer fare. For gourmets, however, I'm sure the place would have a definite appeal.

I sipped my Black Sheep, had another, and enjoyed the rest before catching a bus homewards.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Mason's Arms, Dinnington

After I had visited The White Swan (see previous post), I walked on a very short distance and came in sight of what had once been the village green. And here I discovered a pub which looked more to my taste - The Mason's Arms.

They had no real ale, but I haven't exactly signed the pledge in that respect, so I settled for a pint of McEwan's Best Scotch. This dark, fruity beer, with its fine head, reminded me of my youth. Of course, in those days, all beers were real ale, delivered in wooden barrels and served through hand pumps. Despite the fact that the beer was slightly cooler than it ought to be and slightly less full-bodied than the beer I remembered, the taste was the same and brought back a flood of memories.

Memories of "spit and sawdust" old dives where no food was to be had apart from crisps and the odd pickled egg crowded into my mind as I sat and drank in good company. This was a real pub with real people in it and I certainly felt more at home there than I had in The White Swan.
A general conversation was being held in which anyone could participate. Someone asked if I was walking far and I told them my plans to push on to the next big village, Stannington.
"It's a canny walk to Stannington, mind you," I was informed, "but there's a pub there, The Ridley Arms."
The familiar temptation came over me to abandon the rest of my expedition and just knock back a few pints in The Mason Arms.
But I resisted and pressed on when I had finished my pint.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The White Swan, Dinnington Village

The weather being at last a bit more reliable, I decided to take a stroll around the small villages which lie around Newcastle Airport. After rather a nightmare walk along a surprisingly busy minor road leading northwards, cars zipping past me at tremendous speeds, I came to a little country lane leading to Dinnington Village. Why does everyone drive so fast along country roads? I even had some prick who flashed his lights at me as he bore down at about 80 mph in his 4x4, as though I had no right to be a pedestrian, encroaching on "his" domain.

But soon my spirits were restored by the leafy lanes, resplendent with wild flowers and venerable old trees. This part of Northumberland is flat, broad, rich agricultural land under big skies - it lifts the spirits.

As I entered Dinnington village I immediately came across the White Swan, a large sprawling building advertising good food and real ales. Nothing could have been more welcome so in I went with great alacrity. They had Black Sheep Bitter and Ruddles County on tap and I ordered a pint of Black Sheep, one of my favourite brews. After some kerfuffle, I received the answer I have grown accustomed to in my ale-wanderings.

"I'm sorry, that one's not on today".

Never mind, I tried the Ruddles County, which turned out to be a dark, fruity old-fashioned type of beer with a good head. It was none too clear, but that's the way of it with real ales. It's a mistake to think that a rather cloudy beer is undrinkable. In fact, I have read that many years ago, most real ales were a bit opaque. It was a good pint, though rather expensive for my part of the world at £2.60p. Glancing around, I could see that this was one of the "gastro-pubs" that have become a feature of the modern drinker's world. There were menus everywhere (quite pricey for bar fare) and the bar was a tiny enclave compared to the "restaurant" section. As a simple drinker, I felt a bit out of place, especially as the loaded question "Anything else?" was asked so pointedly when I ordered my ale.

A nice enough place, the White Swan, but not exactly my idea of a pub. I decided to push on and see if the village had anything else to offer.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Golden Lion, Allendale Town

Pushing my way past the smelly old bar dog, I made my way to the bar (see pic). The smelly old dog followed, fraternising with my leg and sniffing dangerously at the parts most valued by mankind.
There were several real ales on offer and I asked the bored-but-friendly barmaid for a pint of Allendale Wolf. No wonder the barmaid was bored, by the way, as there was no-one in the bar apart from myself.
I had hardly taken my seat, however, when a group of three noisily entered the bar. Two were men whom I had just seen outside on the green, busily engaged in erecting a marquee for that weekend's Fair. The third was a trim lady, colourfully dressed in a red trouser-suit. She was no chicken, but she was certainly attractive and had the two men whipped to a frenzy of excitement. Peals of laughter rang out after every sentence and they filled the bar with sound. It was all very entertaining and I much enjoyed the floor show as I sipped at my pint of Allendale Wolf, a dark sweetish brew which was none too clear but not bad enough to be sent back. There's no excuse for this, thought I, a flagrant case of bad cellaring.

The almost-hysterical conversation turned to "San Tropez" and "seafood" and some tale about waiters which led to the lady in red doing a most alluring shimmy, causing eyes to pop and the volume to escalate.
Really, I was exhausted by the time they left, leaving behind a trail of shrill laughter which seemed to hang in the air.
Meanwhile, I had passed on to a pint of Allendale Bitter, which turned out to be indeed bitter, though not sharp enough for my taste, and served too warm. However, it was clear enough, so it was better than the Wolf. I shall have to give the Allendale Brewery another chance in the future, as I'm afraid that the Golden Lion was not a good advertisement for its products on the day I visited.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Allendale Town

After my visit to the Tap & Spile, Hexham, I decided to push on into Allendale. Availing myself of Mr Precott's free transport, I caught a bus to Allendale Town. This place is famous insofar as, from time immemorial and right up until the present day, they perform the pagan fire ceremonies on New Year's Eve. A huge bonfire is lit and everyone files past, hooded and carrying burning brands, before hurling their flaming torches into the Great Fire. All tremendous fun, I'm sure, but the house insurance companies are less than impressed.

The bus hurtled through the countryside at a breakneck speed and we were there in 20 minutes. It was marvellous to see the fields so well stocked with animals. The horribly bungled response to the Foot & Mouth outbreak some years ago had resulted in the wholesale slaughter of our entire livestock population and I never thought to see animals grazing so peacefully in our fields again. The trauma of that year will never be forgotten.

Allendale Town has four good pubs, two of which face directly on to the village green, where they were erecting a big marquee for the summer fete. In the near future, I will review all four pubs but I decided to try the Golden Lion first, as it advertised itself as the home of the Allendale Brewery. At least I'll be sure of getting some real ale, thought I, so I pushed my way past a rather smelly old border collie and entered the bar.

(Continued tomorrow - I have to go to the dentist now....oh joy!)

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Tap & Spile, Hexham

The Tap & Spile, as can be seen from the photo, is a very traditional old pub in the very traditional old market town of Hexham. It was here that, some years ago, I heard three farmers discussing, in hushed tones, the possibility of an outbreak of Foot & Mouth disease. A few days later the disease broke out, with devastating consequences. I wonder (as they said about President Nixon) what they knew, and when they knew it. But all that is now history.

I arrived in Hexham by bus as, thanks to Mr Prescott, I now qualify for free travel on public transport. It was a fairly hot day, so I made straight for the Tap & Spile, knowing that they would have a good selection of real ales on offer. Six beers were chalked up on the board and I asked my standard question: "Which of these are actually ON at the moment, please?" "Why, all of them" answered the barman "we ALWAYS have all our ales ready when we put them up on the board." A welcome change, I thought. I get fed up with ordering a pint only to be told "that one isn't on".
I had a pint of Jennings' Cumberland Ale and it was in perfect condition. A lovely refreshing drink, clear and sweetish but with a manly bitter aftertaste. I felt that I could sink a few of those and was tempted to shelve my afternoon's schedule and just settle down to a session! Resisting, I decided to give Deuchar's IPA another chance. You may remember from one of my previous articles that I had a vile pint of this brew at the Newcastle Hotel in Rothbury. Well, my second attempt at appreciating this beer convinced me that it just doesn't suit my palate. The pint I was served was VERY clear, mildish and light, with a bitter, hoppy flavour, but there is just something in the aftertaste that I don't like. I've given it a fair trial and I shall avoid it in future. It's a question of individual preference.
Glancing round the bar, I could see that this was a bar for those who appreciated good, down-to-earth living. Dogs were very definitely allowed and everyone seemed to have one except me. I briefly thought of kidnapping one from the street to cover my nakedness, but decided to leave instead. I had other things to do that afternoon (as you shall hear in due course) so, complimenting the barman on the quality of his cellar, I tore myself away and left.
The cellarman's name was Fred, the barman told me, so here's to you mon ami, I'll be back!!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Off to Tuscany (10)

One of the things I find very charming about "my" part of Italy is how old folks cling stubbornly to the rural life in the villages in which they are born. Even if they move away to work in their youth or middle life, they long to return to the old village to end their days.

As a consequence, some of the hill-villages are like old folks homes, with fitter neighbours looking after those less fortunate than themselves.

Sometimes, when I have passed through a village such as this one, Aiola, all sweaty and weary from a long hike, the old folk have appeared at their doors, clucking their tongues at the state of me and offering ice-cold drinks.

On Sundays, the winding roads up to the hills are often packed with cars as families make the weekly trek to see to their old parents and grandparents in the villages. It's an Italian way of life