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!!