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".