Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Home Town Comfort

Following my successful journey into Fareham (see previous entry) on the previous day, Christmas Eve seemed like the perfect opportunity to do a bit of ale exploration in part of my home city of Portsmouth that I'm very fond of, due largely to the historical nature of it and the welcoming feel of the place in general. I decided to investigate the are known as Old Portsmouth which, as the name suggests, is the oldest and original part of the city of Portsmouth, encompassing areas in and around the harbour that served as the basis of the city itself. The name Portsmouth reflects the city's location at a harbour mouth looking out into The Solent, the mile wide section of water between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. Portsmouth is a contraction of 'Mouth of the Portus Harbour'. Old Portsmouth is covered by the area originally made up of the old town of Portsmouth as designed by Jean de Gisors. The area includes several parts of the original fortifications designed to protect the naval headquarters within the harbour. These fortifications include the Round Tower, Square Tower, Point Barracks, Portsmouth Point and the entrance to the harbour itself. Other notable landmarks nearby include Portsmouth Cathedral, the John Pounds Memorial Church and the famous Garrison Church, site of the marriage of Richard I and without a roof since being hit by a German bomb during the Second World War.
Into this wealth of history, much visited by both locals and tourists, I set out on a bright and sunny day much different to the torrential downpours of the previous 24 hours, with a clear itinerary in mind. However, for reasons that will soon become clear, that itinerary soon went out of the window. My first destination was in a suitably picturesque location overlooking the harbour entrance from a spot nicely enclosed behind a sea wall. My first stop on this journey was the Fuller's operated Still & West.
This traditional pub is spread over 2 floors in a cobbled square that lies in the shadow of Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower. The beer garden and windows on one side look out across the harbour entrance in the direction of Gosport. The pub features are traditional inside and out with mullioned windows at the front and exposed beams and authentic wooden features internally. The pub prides itself on homemade fish and chips and the smell of this is delicious as it permeates the building. It was a bit early for lunch so instead I opted for the ale menu. The 4 hand pumps are mostly supplied by Fuller's in the form of Bengal Lancer, London Pride and Chiswick Bitter but Gale's HSB is available too. To break myself in gently, I opted for Chiswick Bitter at 3.5%. This was golden, clear and refreshingly bitter tasting with underlying flavours of malt and a smooth, dry finish. I sipped this leisurely whilst looking out of the windows at the front facing the harbour. The last time I came here was for my late nan's wake last year, so I had lots to reminisce about as I sat there enjoying the warmth and the atmosphere.
My next stop was literally next door across the square at The Spice Island Inn.
This 2 storey square building faces directly into the mouth of the harbour and takes its name from the local nickname for the area during the time of smugglers. The pub was actually known as The Smugglers Inn for a time and is currently run by Greene King. Inside, the bar is slightly off-centre against the back wall with a nice abundance of seating around the room, mostly by the windows. IPA is available on smooth flow and there are also 4 hand pumps. Available for consumption are Abbot Ale, Old Speckled Hen, Hardy & Hanson's Rocking Rudolph and Mole Brewery Mole Catcher. Intrigued by the name, I went for the Mole Catcher only for this to run out as it was being poured. I then went for the Rocking Rudolph, which I'd had before but this ran out as well! With little choice left, I reluctantly went for the Abbot Ale. Thankfully, this was in very good condition and went down quickly.
My next stop was a place I'd been past on numerous occasions but actually never been too. The Bridge Tavern is located right at the centre of Camber Docks.
 Another Fuller's property, this is the last remaining public house of 9 that used to stand in this relatively small area. The Bridge is named after a bridge that used to span the expanse of the dock on which it now sits. Like a number of Fullers sites in the city, the pub has a traditional country feel with original features around a central L-shaped bar. The bar includes 5 hand pulls, 2 of which contain HSB. The others offer London Pride, Gale's Seafarers and Bengal Lancer. I chose the Seafarers on this occasion, a 3.4% bronze coloured beer with hoppy top notes, undertones of bitter malt and a smooth, crisp and refreshing finish. The pub was nice and warm, which helped keep the chill out, as I located myself in a corner and admired a memorial plaque nearby that is dedicated to the crew of a fishing vessel that was sunk by a Cypriot freighter in the English Channel back in 1991. The list of ages and names of the crew was displayed on the plaque and it was poignant for me that 5 of the 6 who perished were my age and younger. This was certainly a grim and moving reminder of the fragility of life, especially at this time of year. The beer went down very well indeed and I soon ventured out again with the intention of visiting a couple of pubs further down the street. My plans were altered a couple of times on the way however. Of my next 2 destinations, The Wellington and the Sally Port Hotel, I managed not to visit either. The first sold no ale and had unusual opening hours and the second was closed and up for sale. I'm disappointed about the Sally Port being closed as I've not been there in many a year and it is the only location on route with a certified ghost. The spirit of Buster Krabbe, a renowned diver and alleged naval spy is believed to reside here after he disappeared whilst allegedly attempting to spy on German ships that were moored in the harbour.
The next place I ended up going too was unexpected. I hadn't known about it at all until I saw it and then I had to go in. This was Monk's or, to give it it's full name, Monk's House of Ale and Wine.
This turned out to be a pleasant surprise, with its olde worlde interior, bar along one side of the room and a general long and narrow layout that made it seem very traditional and otherworldly. The ceiling above the bar was decorated with interesting mosaic style tiles and the bar included 5 hand pumps: 2 each of London Pride and Tolchard's Devon Storm and one pump of London Pride. In this case, I went for Devon Storm. At 4.7% and bronze in colour, this was dripping with malt flavour backed up by a bitter finish. The head was smooth and creamy and the whole thing had slight zesty quality detectable underneath. After a while of enjoying my pint, I was joined by my brother, who I'd made the decision (read 'mistake') to invite along for a beer.
Now with Luke in tow, we ventured a little further down the street to what claims to be Portsmouth's oldest pub, The Dolphin.
This is another pub carrying on the traditional theme, where its obvious that the general appearance hasn't changed much over time. It's a look I love in pubs and here is no exception. Even for Christmas Eve, it's very busy and seems to contain a surprisingly large number of children. It's very much standing room only, which doesn't bother me too much as it means I can lean on the bar and admire the piano located in the corner of it. Of the 6 available hand pulls, 2 are not in use. The others offer London Pride, Tim Taylor Landlord, and Invincible and Frigate from local Irving brewery. I opted here for the Frigate at 3.8%. This is bronze with a malty flavour, a bitter finish and a slight, fruity undertone. Whilst very much enjoying this particular brew, I took the opportunity to fill Luke in on my blog and the kind of notes that I take in pubs. He seemed decidedly unimpressed, which isn't really a surprise.
I made the mistake of allowing Luke to decide on the next location instead of sticking to my plan. Luke chose The Pembroke around the corner, which I wasn't overly impressed with to begin with but that was because I hadn't been and hadn't really heard of it.
 This traditional street corner pub is actually quite nice, with an overall squarish layout and central bar. The seating is around the edge of the room, and 2 chairs nearby are occupied by 2 very friendly cocker spaniels belonging to one of the regulars. We were also reacquainted with a Christmas jumper wearing Jack Russell called Spartacus, who we'd encountered in Monks. Only 1 of the 3 hand pulls was in use and this held London Pride which was very well kept. By this point, I became very conscious of how much beer and how little food I'd had but resolved to at least make it to one more pub. This was a venue that we'd actually been in for a family meal a couple of days before: The Duke of Buckingham.
Named after a 17th century aristocrat who was assassinated in a nearby building, this pub continued the theme of olde worlde charm, with a low ceiling, low tables and chairs and a raised section to one side. The bar is L-shaped and too the left hand side of the room. The food here is notably excellent and the beer is rather good too. The 3 hand pulls provide London Pride, Old Speckled and Irving Invincible. The Invincible is excellent: 4.6%, chestnut coloured and full-bodied with an initial malty hop bitterness and a finish of bitter spice and subtle hops. As I contrived to lose Luke money on the ItBox, it was suddenly time to go home. It had been a productive afternoon, even though I had had to get my journey short with 2 of my planned pubs still to go. There's something quite nice about being able to do this kind of thing in your home town even though, in all honesty, the East Midlands is my home now. I also deeply regret Jade not being there with me over Christmas as I think she would really have enjoyed it. I definitely won't be making that mistake again! Next time I'm down this way, she should definitely be with me though so that will make it all the more enjoyable. Thankfully, the Christmas Day hangover I was expecting never materialised which makes me wonder whether I could have made those other pubs after all. Oh well! Maybe next time. Still, the older areas of Portsmouth have a lot of charm to go with their extensive maritime history and a lot of good beer to go with it too! Home sweet home? Maybe not anymore but it certainly runs a strong, affectionate second.


A Fare Shout!

Greetings again folks! Compliments of the season to all of you and may I start with an apology for my extra-long absence from these fine pages. Having teaching as a job has made it hard over recent weeks to get out as much as I would have liked too! Hopefully, I should be able to find some time to update this more frequently in future. With Christmas now a memory and New Year looming large in the coming hours, I'm taking some time to fill you in on a couple of jaunts that I did over Christmas week when I returned down south to visit the folks. The first of these visits took place last Monday in a little town called Fareham in Hampshire, the town just over from where my Mum and stepdad live.

Fareham lies in the southeast of Hampshire, close to my hometown the city of Portsmouth and roughly in the centre of the South Hampshire conurbation, which also includes neighbouring Southampton (boo!). To the south lies the town of Gosport, to the east Portchester, to the north the M27 motorway and Wickham, which is part of Winchester. West of the town lie the settlements of Titchfield, Catisfield, Locks Heath, Warsash and Whiteley. Fareham traditionally relied on its clay soil for industry, producing bricks, tiles and chimney pots. This past is commemorated through the names of places such as Kiln Road. The most famous example of a building constructed from Fareham red bricks is London's Royal Albert Hall. The main economic activity in the town these days is retail, which employs 15% of the population, and it has also become a popular choice for the location of business call centres. Fareham is situated at the north-west tip of Portsmouth Harbour where the River Wallington joins it. Small industries still operate, reflecting the town's maritime past. HM Royal Navy operate in Fareham, training over 2000 British and foreign sailors at a time at the Maritime Warfare School HMS Collingwood.

Archaeological excavations around the old high street and at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, on high ground over the Wallington estuary, have yielded evidence of settlement on the site contemporary with Roman occupation. However, due to the historic nature of the buildings in this area, intensive investigation has not been possible. The town has a recognised and documented history dating back to the Norman era when part of William's army marched up Fareham creek before continuing to the Anglo-Saxon capital of Winchester. Originally known by the name Ferneham (reflected in the name of local entertainment centre Ferneham Hall), Fareham's location was determined by the ford of Fareham creek at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. This ford was also the location of the Bishop of Winchester's mills: the foundations of these mills were subsumed in the A27 near the railway viaduct. Commercial activity continued at the port until the 1970s and continues to this day on a smaller scale. By the beginning of the 20th century, Fareham had developed into a major market town. In the 1960s, Fareham experienced a huge amount of development as it was one of the areas highlighted in the South Hampshire Plan. The idea was to create thousands of homes to serve as a base for the many people who were looking to move away from the traditional urban centres of Portsmouth and Southampton (boo!). Fareham is now at a stage of maturity as a town. It is increasingly popular as a place to live, with plentiful housing and open space. An urban renewal initiative began in 1999, renovating the town centre and historic buildings to include a new entertainment and shopping complex. It featured a major iron sculpture park, installed in 2001 to celebrate the work of Lancastrian iron pioneer Henry Cort, who lived in neighbouring Gosport but had an iron rolling mill in Funtley, on the outskirts of Fareham.

It was a horrendous night for weather when I ventured from the safety of my mum's house to make a trip into Fareham by bus. It was blowing a terrible gale and had been raining almost non-stop for half the day, making me very glad that I'd chosen the previous day to make my trip home for the festive season. I'd visited some of the pubs on this trip on previous occasions but this was my first proper journey around them in the name of research. After arriving in the precinct, which by now resembled a paddling pool thanks to the weather, I headed to my first pub of the evening, the Smith & Jones managed The Vanguard, located in a converted church.
An independent church has stood on the site since 1693, and was founded in 1691, 2 years after the Act of Toleration made freedom of worship available in England. It met first over stables in Meeting House Alley, almost opposite the present building, which was erected in 1836 to replace the original one. The first Sunday School in Fareham began here in 1786 and a British school was established in 1833, under the direction of Rev. G. Dempster Mudie. During the church's bicentenary year, the School Room was rebuilt and other rooms were added. By October 1972, when the United Reformed Church was created, the church was the prevailing beacon for this faith in Fareham. Inside, the pub is very much a mix of styles. One half of the building is the old church, complete with long, narrow windows, overhead galleries and seating arranged in booths along both sides, reminiscent of pews. The centre of this room has also had seating added but is surprisingly spacious. The evidence of the high eaves and chapel-like features still remain. The other half, where the main bar is located, is a roughly diagonal modern extension with lots of glass facing out into the high street and a small, outside seating and smoking area. Both floors of the pub have a bar, but I settled for the main downstairs bar, which includes 5 hand pulls. On this occasion, all were being used to incorporate Old Rosie, Wychwood Hobgoblin, Sharp's Doom Bar, Courage Best and Ringwood Fortyniner. I'm a big fan of Ringwood beers as a rule. They're brewed locally and I'm very pleased that they're becoming more widespread nationally. The Fortyniner is one of my favourites. At 4.9% , this is a chestnut coloured beer with a malty aroma, a smooth, slightly nutty flavour and a dry, crisp finish. It went down rather well indeed and got the evening off to a good start.
My next location involved braving the elements again, but thankfully was very close by and the first of 2 Wetherspoons pubs on the trip. The smaller of the 2, this particular venue is The Crown Inn.
Situated in the pedestrianized part of West Street, The Crown Inn was first recorded in 1841 as the Crown Brewery and was then the nearest inn to the old market site. From around 1870 to 1900, the Crown Brewery was run by the Cawte brothers. In the 1911 trade directory for Fareham, the premises was listed as the Crown Inn and its licensee was Mrs Clara Frost, who remained in charge for almost 20 years. Nowadays though, J.D. Wetherspoon run the place! The building is small, fairly square and surprisingly busy for a Monday evening! Faux glass chandeliers hang above the central bar which is rectangular and fairly short. There are 6 hand pulls on offer, most of which appear to provide local beers. Alongside Ruddles Best and Abbot Ale are Pure Gold, Winter's T'Ale from Upham Brewery, Kings IPA and, my eventual choice, HPA (Hammerpot Pale Ale) from Hammerpot Brewery over in Sussex. This is a pleasant beer, pale, hoppy and fruity with a creamy head and a smooth finish, all at 4.1%. It certainly makes the presence of a random weirdo telling me about his aborted attempt to get the train to Haslemere more bearable. Not enough to stick around though, so I drank as quickly as I could manage and was on my way.
The rain had stopped by now but my next destination wasn't far away: The Red Lion Hotel.
Now operated by Greene King under their Old English Inns arm, The Red Lion Hotel was originally recorded as a coaching inn in 1736. It is now a Grade II listed building and retains many of its period features with an added modern twist. Inside, there are areas of original brickwork exposed to an atmosphere of low seating and a low, rustic-looking bar. Ale-wise, this was a bit of a disappointment. Only GK IPA was available and, although this was very well kept and rather nice, I was expecting a slightly wider range when I entered, especially after what happened next. Following the end of my pint, I headed out to my next intended stop, just down the road. The Golden Lion is a traditional pub operated by Fuller's that is located just around the corner from my previous stop. However, I misjudged my timings slightly. I knew the pub closed at 9 on a Monday but, as I stepped through the door and my eyes fell on the 3 gleaming hand pulls, I realised that I had missed last orders! The apologetic landlord seemed to understand my predicament, which lessened the blow somewhat, but I need to make sure I visit this place next time!
Not too downheartened, I instead headed to my next port of call. This involved looping back around the main high street, past the aforementioned Ferneham Hall theatre and onto Trinity Street. There stands The Fareham.
This traditional pub is elevated above the pavement with steps leading up to the main entrance. The interior is large and expansive, with seating to the right of the entrance and further back in the room. There is a pair of electronic dartboards to the left of the door. On my last visit, there was a darts match in progress but thankfully this was not the case this time. The bar is opposite the door, curved in layout and extending away down the room opposite the toilets. There were also some frantically flashing Christmas lights in one of the interior bay windows, which were impressive but potentially seizure-inducing if left unchecked. Of the 4 handpulls present, 3 were in use, housing Thwaites Yule Love It, Wychwood Bah Humbug! and, surprisingly, Castle Rock Snowhite. I opted for the Bah Humbug! at 4.3%. This was bronze in colour, with a nice mix of malt and hops, a long-lasting creamy head and a very smooth finish. I also ended up getting it for free as it was the last pint in the barrel! Even though I thought it was very good, the landlord didn't like to charge me for something that he felt might be sub-standard. I was surprised by this altruism but impressed that this kind of thing still goes on! There's not enough pubs that value their drinkers in this way and they could all learn something from the folks at The Fareham. What I did not enjoy, as I relaxed in a quiet corner, were the trio of drinkers nearby who had the nerve to say negative things about Doctor Who! Thankfully, I had the beer to occupy my attention or else there would have been trouble!
My last venue on this enlightening journey was the 2nd, much bigger Wetherspoons premises, The Lord Arthur Lee, back on the high street.
Opened in 1999, this former Co-Op store is named after a former MP for the town of Fareham. Later created Lord Lee of Fareham, he left his country estate Chequers as a retreat for future Prime Ministers. This Wetherspoons is considerably bigger than its sister premises down the road and also has more a standard Spoons layout with lots of seating arranged around an L-shaped in the corner of the main room. The bar contains 10 hand pumps, all in use and displaying an interesting mix of standard Spoons fare and festive guest beers. On offer during my visit were Old Rosie, Christmas Stuffing, Santa's Darkside, Bateman's Rosey Nosey, Divine Yule Saison, Abbot Ale, Ruddles Best, Marcle Hill Cider, Twelve Days and, a joint effort with an American brewery, Righteous Ale. Easily attracted by the flashing festive pump clip, I swung in favour of Rosey Nosey. This was ruby coloured, suitable for the season but with a fruity flavour and a distinctive hop aroma backed up with a zesty finish and a flavour belying its strength of 4.9%. I spent a few well-earned minutes savouring this and reflecting on all the joys of the festive season. Up until around this point, I hadn't really felt festive so it was nice to finally be in the mood for Christmas, even if a little belatedly.
Soon though, time was up on my trip to Fareham and I wound my weary way back to the bus station for the journey home in the rain, which was back with a vengeance. Overall, there is a lot to commend about Fareham's ale scene, and I was surprised how much it had to offer as it is not somewhere that would make it onto many automatic lists for a pub jaunt. I'm tempted to investigate this area again, largely to go to The Golden Lion but also because there are a couple of pubs that I left out due to time constraints that could definitely warrant a research-related visit. Fareham, in my book, is one of Hampshire's hidden gems and certainly worth a punt if you're ever down this way and fancy a quiet pint of something local and delicious. We southerners might not do a lot but we do good beer!


Monday, October 21, 2013

Laying Siege!

The time had finally come. After missing out last year and the year before and all the years before that, it was finally time to break my duck and experience the delights of the one and only Robin Hood Beer Festival! It was an event greeted by much anticipation, not least by myself and Jade, but also by her family who we were attending with, as they had been in previous years and waxed lyrical about how much fun I was in for. With Matt snapping up our spare ticket and ignoring the warnings of bad weather, a grand total of 10 of us made our way to the venue which has hosted this magnificent event over the past few years, the majestic grounds of Nottingham Castle.
The castle is located in a commanding position on a natural promontory known as Castle Rock, with cliffs 130 feet high to the south and west. In the Middle Ages, it was a major fortress and an occasional royal residence. In decline by the 16th century it was largely demolished in 1649, but enough fragments remain to give an impression of the original layout of the site. A ducal mansion later occupied the site until it was burnt out by rioters in 1831, and later adapted into a museum and art gallery which remain in use today. The earliest documented castle on the site was of the Norman motte and bailey type and constructed in 1067, the year after the Battle of Hastings, on the orders of William the Conqueror. During the reign of Henry II, this was replaced by a much more defensible stone castle which was both imposing and of strong architectural design. For centuries the castle served as one of the most important in England for both royalty and nobles alike. It was in a strategic position due to its location near a crossing of the River Trent and was also a place of leisure as it was close to the royal hunting grounds at Tideswell and the royal forests of Barnsdale and Sherwood. Whilst Richard the Lionheart was away at the Third Crusade, the castle was left derelict and occupied by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The castle is the scene of the dramatic showdown between the Sheriff and legendary outlaw Robin Hood in many tales. In 1194, a historic battle took place here when the supporters of Prince John captured it. A decisive siege took place when Richard I returned to reclaim it with siege machines that he had used at Jerusalem. Shortly before his 18th birthday, Edward III staged a coup d'état against his mother Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, following their murder of his father Edward II. The king was aided by William Montagu, castellan of Mortimer's castle, who allowed them entry through a secret passage, allowing Mortimer to be arrested and his guards killed, whilst Isabella screamed in protest. This event has led more than an historical impression on the castle, as the sound of a woman screaming has been heard in the caves beneath the building and in Brewhouse Yard nearby. The screaming is believed to take the form of words in a foreign language, possibly Isabella's native tongue of French, crying out for her son to 'have pity on gentle Mortimer'. Anguished pacing has also been heard in the cell in which Mortimer was imprisoned before his execution in 1330, leading some to speculate that he may not be content in his death. A phantom child has also been reported on the site and the gallery within the castle is allegedly haunted by the Countess of Nottingham, who is said to only appear to those who will die within a year.
It was into this background of history and intrigue that we staged a siege of our own, on a rainy Saturday afternoon. What followed was the consumption of much beer a long with a healthy dose of fun, hilarity, impromptu renditions of Toto songs, and a rubber duck called Bethany. Having wisely purchased our tickets in advance, we made our way inside, an act that led to the first bone of contention for the day. The 2013 commemorative glasses had run by the time of our arrival, meaning that some of us, including myself, ended up with older additions. Mine was from 2010! This slight low point was rectified by the fact that I was given extra vouchers upon presentation of my CAMRA card and the promise that we could swap the glass for a new one on the way out. Following the winding path through the castle grounds, and past a myriad of food and craft tents, led us to the main beer tent which, in a nutshell, is what I hope heaven is like. The tent was enormous with racks and racks and racks of beer as far as the eye could see, along with more food tents and temporary bars for the likes of Navigation, Nutbrook and Blue Monkey respectively. I was genuinely a bit overwhelmed and wasn't entirely sure where to start my adventure. After a few minutes to let my sense acclimatise I let my head for names do the talking and found a beer that I decided would be the day's first tipple, namely On The Beer City (4.4%), from Norwich's Winter's Brewery. I've found out since that the beer is dedicated to Norwich City, but in no way detracts from the quality, as the beer was light and golden with fresh aromatic hops. I decided to opt for halves throughout the day, largely because it's more than a third and also because the number of vouchers I had was easily divisible by 3 (the price of a half). It also meant I could 'savour the flavours' of each selection by consuming more of it. Who said there was no logic in beer tasting?
Following this, the quest was on for something darker. Both Jade's dad and brother are fans of dark beer. Matt is as well to some extent and I've been getting into it more recently myself. After a moment of inquisitive searching, and a brief pause caused by a rather attractive member of the serving staff, we'd located a good place to start. The option this time was Night Watchman from Welbeck Abbey and it proved to be a good one. This is a slightly smoked porter with strong aromas and flavour and a strength cranked up to 5% that made sure it went down easily. Doug liked it so much that he had another one. The festival magic was well and truly on us by now and we were eager to move along the rows of beers in search of other tasty treats. Whilst the Morris dancers started up behind us and Jade wandered off in search of real cider to wet her whistle, we relocated to another position further into the tent, in site of the novelty T-shirt stall, which I had to resist the urge to visit. I opted for something different for my next beverage when I was swayed by Shiny Brewery's Haysi Fantayzee, a 5% cloudy wheat beer which dripped with fruity flavours and a tang of citrus zest and went down a treat.
It was around this point that we invented a fun game to delight ourselves and brighten the lives of those around us. It basically involved mercilessly jabbing the person in our party who ended up in the centre of the rough circle that we habitually arranged ourselves into, whilst simultaneously shouting the word 'Middle!'. It sounds rubbish but was in fact genius. I decided that it was time to ramp up the percentage a tad more and my next 2 choices reflected that. The first was Dark Ruby from the Sedgeley-based Sarah Hughes brewery. This was exactly what it sounds like, being a classic dark mild with a strength of 6%, that packed a surprising punch. Other members of the group had a go with this as well and we all agreed that it was excellent. I was equally proud of my next choice, largely because I managed to sway people into choosing it for the description alone. From the Howard Town brewery, Dark Peak is a strong, dark ale with hints of liquorice and a rum kick, all at a noticeable 6%. This went down a storm with pretty much everyone, especially Jade's stepbrother Marc, who is a bit of a rum fiend. I was well on my way to tipsy at this point so I decided to opt for something slightly weaker before the inevitable break for food. This time it was a 5% beauty from the Gyle 59 brewery in Devon. EXB No.1 is a strong ale brimming with bags of hop and malt flavour. Following this, food was calling, so we made our decision to wander out into the grounds for some much-needed sustenance, although we did make sure to stock up on vouchers on the way.
We couldn't have chosen a worse time to go for food. Our decision to fill our bellies coincided with the heavens fully opening and down came the rain. Bucket loads of it. This was a small inconvenience but didn't dampen our spirits, especially when we saw the range of unusual meats available in burger form, springbok, zebra and ostrich included. Whilst Jade plumped for the springbok, I tried something I knew less about, in the form of kangaroo. Very tasty it was too, juicy and soft and very firm to the taste, especially with the welcome addition of salsa and salad. Two things happened after this. Firstly, we lost both Doug and Matt on the way to the toilets, and secondly we found ourselves in the smaller and proportionally busier beer tent, whilst we waited for the rain to ease and the party to regroup. There was still time for a beer in this kind of situation though and, on Jade's insistence, I went for an interesting sounding brew from the Double Top brewery. At 5.2%, Madhouse was another dark one, in this case a modern style porter with coffee notes. It certainly helped to combat the wetness from the October downpour happening around us.
With the party finally gathered in the same place, we retraced our steps to the main tent again and found a spot in the middle where the concentration of people was significantly less and then, right on cue, the singing started. Our attempt at doing our best versions of both Africa and Hold The Line (complete with fuzzy guitar) were interrupted by repeated games of 'Middle!' and the need for both toilet breaks and more beer. The other plus was that the people around us seemed to be enjoying it though. The next beer on my list was another 6%er, this time Hook Island Red from Five Points brewery in Hackney. This was a red rye ale with tons of flavour packed into its intimidating appearance. By the time I returned to the group, an attempt to get the whole room to sing Bohemian Rhapsody was in its infancy and didn't really show signs of developing further. It definitely wasn't from lack of effort on our part! I needed to slow things down again by now so I went for something with a less threatening percentage, namely the 5.1% Ragnors Beer'd from Kinver Brewery in Staffordshire. This was copper coloured and well hopped and tipped me dangerously close to being off my trolley. I managed to persevere though and carried on for a while longer. Next up I was drawn to Tunnel Mouth (4.8%), a dark winter ale with hints of chocolate, coffee and liquorice, straight out of Barnsley's Geeves Brewery and perfect for winter nights as the year draws in.
The evening was drawing on now and our group started to disband, almost in time with the water that started to seep in through less secure parts of the marquee. I decided that I should use my last 3 vouchers on a beer that I felt was aptly named, given the circumstances. At 5%, I went for Reckless Danger from Fool Hardy. This is an amber ale with a hoppy finish and a moderate fruity aftertaste. Upon returning from the bar, Jade showed me a rubber duck that she had somehow pilfered from the Dancing Duck area of the tent. The events surrounding this avian abduction are lost on me, although the duck did have 'Bethany' written on the bottom, a name which it was quickly christened with. And with that, and the consumption of the last dregs of beer, the game was up. We said our goodbyes and made our wobbly out, making sure to exchange our vintage glasses for brand new, though not necessarily clean, 2013 ones on the way. The day had been wonderful and more than fulfilled my expectations. It's easy to see why this particular beer festival is getting more and more popular and why more and more beers are being introduced for it. It's because of the strength of the values that it embodies, the togetherness of beer drinkers and the collective yearning for discovery for the perfect beverage. It was certainly something that I reminisced about on the bus trip back to Long Eaton and will remember for a long time. If next year is anywhere near as good, it'll be beyond incredible. The Nottingham Robin Hood Beer Festival has signed off for another year but it has certainly left an indelible mark and some unforgettable memories. Roll on 2014!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mansfield Road II: The Return

On a not unpleasant Saturday night last weekend, we finally decided to return to Mansfield Road and make an attempt at joining up the end of our last visit to one of Nottingham's main thoroughfares by starting from the bottom and working our way up to the parish church opposite Rock Cemetery. There were several pubs on our agenda for this particular excursion and so we had a productive evening planned. By 'we' I mean myself, Matt, Jess and George, with Jade joining us later after a meal in Derby with work colleagues. The rendezvous point from which we would begin our journey was The Peacock at the bottom of Mansfield Road, opposite Victoria Centre. This was chosen as our first port of call after we decided to give the Rose of England a miss following Jess' claim that it had gone downhill in recent months. Still, The Peacock proved to be a good choice.

This traditional Victorian pub, which retains its original exterior, was frequented by D.H. Lawrence during the period in which he was writing 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. Locally known John Harvey, a former Nottingham University professor and die-hard Notts County fan was a patron here until his death. The Victorian interior still includes frosted windows, leather sofas, plush furnishings and dividing curtains between rooms. The carved, wooden bar is central and located behind a partition wall on the other side of the entrance porch. The walls are decorated with large, ornamental photos of bygone days. The bar includes 6 hand pulls with a variety of interesting options namely Theakston Best Bitter, Butcombe Bitter, Hobgoblin and Golden XPA from Caledonian Brewery with 2 of the pumps not currently in use. After a bit of a wait to get served due to the fact that it was busy and there was only one person serving, I received my pint of Caledonian XPA (4.3%). This was golden in colour with a soft, hoppy aroma, a smooth, fruity taste and a dry finish. I took a seat opposite the bar and wondered where everybody was as we had agreed to meet around 6.30. A few minutes later Matt appeared and escorted me to the rear smoking area, situated on the external fire escape, where he and Jess had been sat from the start. I might have known this if I'd been able to get in touch with him but he is still without a phone and I don't have Jess' phone number. We were soon joined by George, who was running slightly late and conversation quickly turned too my new job and the recent trip to Yorkshire. With George's arrival being when it was, we  opted for a second pint here and this time I went for one of Matt's favourites, Butcombe Bitter (4.0%), originating from the valley near where his parents live. I'm pleased to say that it was in excellent condition!
Our next location was a toss up between the Golden Fleece and the Nag's Head, which has recently reopened after a period of refurbishment. The look from outside swung us in favour of the Poacher though as The Nag's Head seemed to have more staff in it than customers. The Golden Fleece is a pub that I've visited previously and I've heard reports that the food is awesome.
One of Nottingham's oldest licenced premises is a red brick traditional structure with a traditional interior and a roughly square central bar. There is wooden furniture and traditional soft furnishings as well as a considerable upstairs smoking terrace with heat lamps, located on the roof. The bar contains 4 hand pulls featuring Doom Bar, Bombardier, Harvest Pale and Old Rosie. After a few moments deliberation Matt and I both went for the Doom Bar which surprised me with how high quality it was. We opted for sitting in the terrace area and were intrigued by the conversation that soon developed between George and guy at the adjacent table who decided that we needed to be made aware of the benefits of the sound of rainfall as a sleep aid. As interesting as his points were, they were also slightly odd for a Saturday night pub conversation especially when white noise was mentioned. George has since tried, successfully, to get to sleep by listening to rain fall but has yet to try white noise, which is probably for the best.
After a second pint, we moved on again, this time to the first of 2 Castle Rock pubs on the trip, The Lincolnshire Poacher.
 Named after a regional cheese, The Lincolnshire Poacher has been part of Nottingham's real alescene for so long that a lot of people don't realise that it only opened in the late 1980s, rising from the shell of the Old Grey Nag's Head, which had been closed by Shipstones. In partnership with Wainfleet brewers George Bateman & Sons, the 'Poacher' quickly earned a reputation as one of THE places for quality and choice of ale, a distinction that it has never lost. The bar, located opposite the entrance door, contains 13 hand pulls with a wide selection of brews from local breweries and further afield. The rear includes a conservatory built as an extension that leads out into the high-walled beer garden. Amongst the offerings on this particular evening are Two Hoots, Bateman's XXX, Titanic Stout and Plum Porter, Everards Tiger, Elgood's Black Dog, Full Mash Bhisti IPA and, as you would expect, a number of concoctions from Castle Rock. My choice for a pint on this occasion was Outstanding Red, a Castle Rock brew that lacked a normal pump clip but did not lack quality. At 4.4% and ruby coloured, it comes with a malt aroma, a slightly bitter taste and a dry, roasted finish. The Poacher is a big favourite of mine and with many others who enjoy a decent pint of ale. Like all Castle Rock pubs, it's obvious that the staff really enjoy what they do and have a genuine passion for the real ale scene.
The next location on the trip was a place that Matt had often recommended but somewhere that I had never been personally, Fade or, to give it its proper title, Fade and the Hard to Find Café.
Fade is a café/bar with a glass fronted façade that gives way to a brick interior with decorative features and a nice, minimalist approach to décor. At the rear there is a large smoking area, accessible through a maze-like set of corridors. There are 2 hand pulls on the end of the long bar that occupies one side of the room. Both ales are from Springhead brewery and the ones available on this occasion are Robin Hood and Maid Marian. The Robin Hood was my particular choice here and it was excellent, bronze coloured with a roast finish and undertones of subtle caramel. We stayed here for a good while, with the conversation going in the direction of dangerous territory and somehow spent a worrying amount of time focusing on feminism. Shortly, we were joined by Jade who was happy to partake in our unusual brand of discussion.
Our final stop was the 2nd Castle Rock premises on the road, the double whammy of The Forest Tavern/The Maze.

 This hidden gem is a hub of diverse, colourful and thoroughly unique entertainment, boasting one of the most popular live music venues in the city in the back room behind the main bar. The bar, despite being relatively small, is well stocked with ales, continental beers and European lagers. The pub itself has a long history and this is reflected in the old fashioned exterior and design of the building. Inside, the bar is slightly off centre with a small amount of seating strategically located around the room. 4 of the 5 hand pumps are Castle Rock ales, specifically Harvest Pale, Elsie Mo, Black Gold and Preservation, with the 5th being Wyld Wood organic cider. Flagging by this stage, this seemed like a good place for the final beverage of the night (for me anyway) so I decided on a pint of Elsie Mo. It was served exactly as it should be and was thoroughly delicious! With the drinking done for another night, we headed off in our separate ways: Matt to join the earlier departing Jess at home; George to head off to meet other people before venturing to Rock City and Jade and I to catch the bus back to Long Eaton, where we were house/dog sitting for her mum. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening and reaffirmed the quality of ale pubs in this particular area of the city. One of the oldest thoroughfares in Nottingham is certainly living up to its reputation as a haven for real ale drinkers. Whilst the pubs mentioned in this entry don't appear to have anything spooky happening in their gentle surroundings, Mansfield Road does boast a story from the mid-70s of a former antiques shop that was haunted by the spirit of a young girl around 10 years of age with a pale face and large eyes, wearing dark clothing, a white pinafore and boots with holes in the toes. This particular phantom allegedly vanished following a visit from a medium. Stories like this are suited to this area of the city and blend nicely with the history of this most ancient of roads. From a drinker's perspective, the pubs in this area should be treasured, respected and enjoyed by those in the city and from further out, who enjoy not just a good night out with great things and great beer but also enjoy the spirit of community that is all so prevalent in proper pubs. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Brewing Up A Storm in T'North

Hello again folks! Firstly, my apologies for the longer than usual delay between blogs. Due to the demands of my AMAZING new job as a trainee teacher, this is the first time that I've had a spare moment to share the exciting experience I had last weekend. It was considerably different than the things that I usually do in that I was actually making beer as well as drinking it for a change! As part of my birthday present back in February, Jade bought me a present that any real ale connoisseur would die for: a day brewing my own beer at a Yorkshire microbrewery! It took a while to find an appropriate weekend to use my gift but we finally settled on the second weekend in September, after the tourist season had died down and the weather was likely to still be promising. With the brewing itself booked for a Friday we decided to make the most of the chance for a weekend away and spend a couple of extra days and nights enjoying the countryside and hospitality of that particular part of the world. The Thursday of our northward excursion was busy one in itself as we had to fit in both a house viewing and a long overdue trip to the dentist beforehand. However, after depositing the animals at their respective holiday homes for the weekend (cat to a cattery, dog to Jade's mum's), we were finally on our way to northern climes.
The trip northward was relatively uneventful with the exception of a surprisingly busy A1 and a couple of small detours caused by slightly confusing Google directions (what a surprise) but, after approximately 3 hours, we arrived safely at our destination, the village of Cropton, just outside the market town of Pickering. Cropton is a small village on the edge of the North York Moors National Park with a population of around 254 according to the 2001 census. The village includes the site of a former Norman motte and bailey castle on Round Hill and is also the site of a set of Roman training camps. On the edge of the village, by the side of the road is the New Inn.
Upon arrival, we pulled into the large car park and went inside, introducing ourselves to the bar maid and explaining that we were there to stay for the weekend. In a change from our normal holiday routine, we were not actually staying at the pub, which caters for B&B customers but were instead camping in a nearby field owned by the pub and provided for the purpose for the small sum of £5 per person per night. Relocating the car to the campsite, we set about assembling our brand new 4 person tent which was made significantly easier by Jade's ninja-like camping knowledge. Sadly, we were without our accompanying airbed at this stage as I accidentally broke the foot pump whilst attempting to inflate it. By the time the tent was up, we were desperate for a beverage and made our way back to the pub where the ale selection is strictly provided by the brewery that sits behind the trees at the bottom of the car park, on land that was reclaimed from a quarry. The brewery was known as Cropton Brewery from 1984 until last year when it became, locally at least, The Great Yorkshire Brewery and this name is across all of the available beer pumps. The brewery does a varied selection of ales as well as its own lager and cider. I decided that it was only fair to start working m way along the bar from one side to the other and started with Pale, followed by Golden and Blonde. We were soon introduced to Alan, the head brewer, who informed me that I was the only person taking part on the brewing day! Fine with me! He also gave me some general health and safety advice and instructions to meet him back at the pub for breakfast the following morning. He was a very pleasant, very knowledgeable man and I was very excited to meet him and brew beer with someone who clearly knew what he was doing! We were hungry by this stage and decided that food was required. After some moments of discussion, I opted for the Steak and Ale Pie and Jade went for the 8oz rump steak. The food was delicious and well worth the price tag! Thoroughly stuffed, I just about had room for a pint of Blackout, the brewery's own porter, 5%, with flavours of chocolate and coffee, surprisingly heavy but delicious. It just about tipped me onto the side of tipsy and it was at about this point that we decided to retire to our berth for the night. This proved to be a good decision as the heavens then decided to open!
After a rather cold night's sleep that was occasionally interrupted by the sounds of various wildlife, in particular disconcerting screams from the nearby pig farm, we awoke with a few minutes to spare until breakfast. Making our way sleepily to the pub, we were soon joined by Alan who kindly allowed Jade to join us for breakfast before she headed off on a horse riding trip at a location nearby. During the obligatory full English, Alan and I discussed the brewing industry, the British hop shortage and a number of other things that would turn out to be wholly relevant as the day went on. Following breakfast, it was soon time to get to work and Alan led the way to the brewery at the end of the proverbial beer garden. Alan gave me a quick history of the brewery, which moved to a bigger building in 2006 after the original building (now used for storage) became too crammed to cope with demand. The current building is already full to capacity so a third building is being planned nearby to cope with the sheer volume of beer required. Whilst being walked around the vicinity, I was introduced to other members of the brewing team: Dave, Alan's number 2 in the brewery; Pete, Dave's brother who is largely in charge of brewing lager and kegging the products, and Daz who deals with bottling and maintains the almost fully automated bottling machine. The team is small but very close knit and they certainly know their stuff, evidenced almost immediately when Alan showed me the equations to calculate the strike temperature of the particular beer I'll be helping with. Strike temperature is the temperature at which the malt is added to the water. I knew I was going to learn a lot but the sheer volume of knowledge I obtained was phenomenal. Straight away, Alan explained the importance of using the same water in each brew to maintain both the quality and consistency of the beer. The 3 main things that need to be exactly right every time are temperature, pH and water. The slightest variation in water content or purity can severely affect the quality of the product and everything is done to ensure that this is maintained.
My first task of the day is to ensure that the water in the copper reaches the right temperature for the malt required. Whilst we waited for the water to reach the boil, I was given a tour around the rest of the brewery where I got see how much machinery and piping is actually involved. It became apparent that a lot of the brewing process is cleaning, as water is constantly being drained from one vessel and flushed into another or used to hose down vessels that are not currently in use. After an hour or so, the water had finally reached the required boil and the next stage was adding the malt, important in the brew for adding bitterness and consistency. We used a number of malts in the brew, with an emphasis on caramalt and crystal malt but with small quantities of some others added in to provide a roasted aroma and flavour. This was added to the second vessel in the process, the mash tun, into which the boiling water from the copper was pumped whilst the malt was dropped into it from the hopper above. Once the malt had been completely added, the important thing was to keep the temperature at 75C as this was the optimum heat needed to allow the compounds in the malt to activate. Whilst this was going on, we occasionally had to spray the malt-water mixture ('mash') with more water from a metal bar attached to the roof of the mash tun. This washes down between the malt grains to ensure all of the possible enzymes have been enabled. The important I learned about malt is that the stage at which the germination is halted is critical. The malt is allowed to mature to the point where it is just about to sprout and then the germination process is killed off to ensure that the enzymes within the grains are not used up. The process of washing the malt inside the mash tun is known as 'sparging' and incorporates the sparge arm which is rotated slowly for a few minutes at a time. During this process the mixture was sampled every 15 minutes. This allowed to taste the change in flavour as the sugar molecules started to develop. The mixture was then tested in a saccharometer which calculated the exact number of sugar molecules in the brew. The mixture is then cooled down and the pH is measured and recorded. Together these two values allow the specific gravity of the beer to be predicted. This is pivotal to obtaining the correct ABV for the final concoction. The thing about brewing that surprised me is that the brew is carried out with the desired ABV already in mind so that conditions can be carefully monitored to reach the target value. The mash is allowed to mix in the tun for approximately 2 hours before the next stage can begin.
The next part of the process involves adding the hops inside the hop kettle, with yet more water. But first, it is important to work exactly what percentage of each particular hop to add. I'd never done hop calculations before but they were easier than I expected. I was planning on adding 3 hops to the brew and Alan spent some time explaining how hop calculations work and what function each hop has in the mixture. First up was Brewer's Gold hops, a change from the regular recipe, as it would normally be First Gold, a British grown hop from the same family. The Brewers Gold provides the distinctive sweetness of the brew. The second hop on my list was American Cascade hops, which help to bring out the rounded fruit flavours throughout. Finally Styrian Bobek hops were added to flesh out the fruity aroma. The importance of adding hops is ensuring firstly that the ratios of hops are correct with relation to each other and, secondly, that they are added at the correct time so that the particular sugars can react for the required length of time to fulfil their role. In this case, the hops were added at 10 minutes, 45 and 55 minutes and then left to brew for another hour. Whilst this was happening I got to carry out the most physical part of the day: clearing out the mash tun. Armed with nothing but a snow shovel I had to lift out all of the used up malt, made all the more difficult by the fact that the floor was wet and that the copper was close enough to the mash tun that it severely restricted my arm room. However, the task was soon complete and my arms were sufficiently aching.
We next needed to ensure that the fermenter was properly sterilised. The danger of not doing this properly is that bacteria inside the vessel can have an adverse effect on the yeast that is used to produce the alcohol. It wasn't long before there was water all over the place as we successfully hosed down both inside and outside the fermenter and sterilised with a special compound to prevent any unwanted colonies of yeast from growing inside. Then it was time to correct the hose that would pump the hop-malt mixture from the hop kettle to the fermenter. It would take a fair while for all of the liquid to be moved from one vessel to another so, whilst we waited, we made an attempt to clean up the copious amounts of water that were somehow accumulating everywhere and used the opportunity to sample some of the brewery's other offerings as there was a fair amount of bottling going on at the same time and some bottle required 'control testing'. With the brewery clean and relatively dry for the time being, our next job was to prepare the yeast. This was done by using a specific strain that the brewery use for all of its beers and exposing it to small amounts of the eventual brew for a few minutes. This allows the organisms in the yeast to acclimatise to the conditions in which they will eventually be growing. It is this process that causes beer to be developed as yeast feeds off of sugar and creates ethanol as a natural byproduct.
After a time frame of approximately an hour and 20 minutes, all of the processed sugar solution, at this stage known as 'wort' had been transferred to the fermenter. The yeast was added, the fermenter door was closed and the beer was now being safely developed. It would stay in the fermenter for 7 days which means that, at the time of writing, it should be ready! Whilst we were in the process of once again cleaning up the excess water, malt and any extra residue, and sterilising the pipes, buckets and other equipment, Jade arrived after a successful day in which she had been horse riding and somehow found time to inflate the airbed by herself and go for a nap. She was thoroughly impressed with the day I'd had and more than happy that the present had gone down well! With business down for the day, we retired to the break area for a couple of beers (or ciders in Jade's case) and I got to try a pre-made bottle of the beer I'd brewed. It was delicious, with honey flavours, fruity aromas and a dry, smooth, hoppy finish. I was thoroughly impressed with the day as a whole; both the hospitality and effort of the guys at the brewery was second to done and it's clear that they clearly love and enjoy what they do. They're certainly very very good at it and it's no surprise that the beer is in such high demand, even as far as Japan where a third large order has just been dispatched. They're certainly not afraid to sample the fruits of their labours and they joined us back at the pub for a few beers, which was certainly unexpected, although it did give me a chance to try a couple of beers that I'd missed out on the previous evening, in particular Chocolate Orange and the still Cropton-branded Monkman's Slaughter, a 6% strong, dark bitter with a malty finish and a strong bitter flavour. It was delicious but didn't quite agree with me, a the vomiting later certainly proved. I spent a lot of time over the rest of the weekend thinking about everything and I admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of knowledge I've obtained as a result of this trip.
It had been an amazing weekend despite that though and gave me tons to think about and consider for when I finally get around to brewing my own stuff at home. I never realised how much science, and certainly how much maths, is involved in brewing the perfect beer but it is obvious to me now that doing things properly and consistently is the name of the game to ensure that the quality of the beer remains at its highest. Water, malt, hops and yeast, treated and perfect in exactly the right way, all combine to make beer a thing of beauty. Brewing isn't just a job or a hobby or a skill. It's an art and I feel truly privileged to have been a part of it. The following day saw an improvement in the weather and we used this as an opportunity to visit the town of Whitby and its beautiful ruined abbey and fantastic heritage, all of which inspired us to join English Heritage in the process, before we headed back to the pub and the tent for our last night in the wilds of Bronte country. I can honestly say that this was one of the best, most fun and most rewarding weekends that I've ever experienced. It's certainly inspired me to further my own skills and hopefully create something as amazing as the beer that I helped to brew at one of Britain's most up and coming breweries. A big thank you to everyone at The New Inn and The Great Yorkshire Brewery for a fantastic time and a wealth of skills and experience, not to mention a weekend, that I won't forget in a hurry!
Normal pub trip/beer festival related service will be resumed this weekend! Get to the bar! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Quartet in Carlton

On Monday, with the weather still excellent and myself still minus Matt due to him being largely uncontactable because of a phone malfunction, I embarked on my last midweek ale trip before October half term. From this point on, I shall mostly be heading out on trips at the weekend due to the demands of my new teacher training post. Anyway, my target for this week was to visit half a dozen pubs in the Nottingham suburb of Carlton. As the title of this blog probably indicates, things didn't quite go according to plan but this will quickly become clear and the reasons for this will be revealed.
Carlton is a suburb to the east of Nottingham, in the borough of Gedling. It is close to the suburbs of Bakersfield, Colwick, Gedling, Mapperley, Netherfield, Sneinton and St. Ann's. Situated near the level Trent and with an NG4 postcode, Carlton appears in the Domesday Book as Carentune. The main shopping area is Carlton Hill which has several shopping chains and smaller stores, such as newsagents, chemists and grocers. There is also a fairly large shopping area in Carlton Square, the traditional centre of Carlton and where Carlton Urban District Council was based before Carlton became part of Gedling Borough Council in 1974. There are a number of churches of various denominations including Pentecostal, Anglican and Greek Orthodox. There is a large Tesco supermarket at the bottom of Carlton Hill, built on the site of St. Paul's Primary School which stood from 1869 until 1983. The school was built next to a 17th Century graveyard which was relocated when the Tesco was to be built on the same land. This allegedly produced ghostly activity at the Tesco, presumably caused by the energies of the deceased who had been relocated from hallowed land, and this may or may not have been dealt with by an exorcism.
As I live in Mapperley, Carlton is close enough for me to walk so it wasn't long before I found myself on the main high street of Carlton in search of my first destination, the local Wetherspoons pub, called The Free Man.
Opened in 2010, The Free Man takes its name from part of the old Saxon name for the area. It''s name is believed to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon words 'Ceorl', meaning a free man, and 'ton' or 'tun', meaning settlement or enclosure. Carlton, therefore was a 'settlement of free men'. The two-storey detached building was erected for the Greater Nottingham Co-Operative Society in around 1960, and traded here until its closure in 2007, after which it was bought by Wetherspoons. Inside, the normal Spoons layout greets me, with the bar along one side and lots of seating. There is a small alcove, containing seating, just inside the entrance and the toilets are located upstairs. On the bar are 10 hand pulls and these include standard Spoons offerings (Abbot Ale, Ruddles Best) and 6 guest ales from Nottingham Brewery (Bullion, Rock Mild, Hill Top Bitter) and Milestone (Summer Breeze, Hoptimism, Old Oak). I'd brought along a couple of my Wetherspoons ale vouchers so planned on sampling a couple of the guest brews and it made sense to have one for each guest brewery. My first option was Hill Top Bitter, a special edition ale brewed specially for The Free Man by Nottingham Brewery. At 4.5%, this is golden with a zesty aroma, a hoppy taste and a crisp, dry finish with hints of citrus. It's certainly a very nice way to start, although it took me a bit longer than normal to finish as my Mum phoned me after a couple of sips and engaged me in conversation about my new job. For my second pint here, I opted for something slightly different, Milestone Summer Breeze (4.5%). This golden ale is infused with wild berries, has a soft, tangy aroma and a smooth, creamy head. The taste is noticeably fruity and very delicious to say the least!
I had intended that my next destination would be The Nags Head, further down Carlton Hill. As I approached the pub, I managed to glance through the window and noticed two things that struck fear into my heart. The first was the absence of hand pulls and the second was the large, menacing shapes of locals perched at the bar. Even from outside, the atmosphere felt slightly threatening and, with no ale on offer, it didn't seem worth it. Instead, I kept walking to the bottom of the hill, popped into the aforementioned haunted Tesco for a quick snack, and found my next destination waiting for me nearby: The Blacks Head.
This traditional two roomed pub has the bar in the centre of the room with plush seating and wooden tables on two sides. Frosted glass windows occupy the front wall and there is further seating through a doorway to the rear. Old brewery posters and prints decorate the walls. On the bar there are 6 hand pulls offering Doom Bar, Harvest Pale, Springhead Roaring Meg and Tetley's Blacks Head, brewed especially for the pub. I began with Blacks Head (3.7%), golden in colour with a hoppy aroma, a smooth, sweet taste and an undertone of zest. I took a seat at one of the wooden tables and soaked up the relaxed atmosphere. There were a couple of regulars and employees in the place as well and they were engaging in pleasant conversation whilst leaving me to mind my own business, although I was given a pleasant goodbye when I eventually moved on. I decided that the trauma of The Nags Head warranted a second pint here so I opted for Roaring Meg (5.5%), which was in perfect condition. As I finished the last drops of this, I was intrigued by watching a couple of employees attempting to change the channel on the TV. This was unsuccessful as it would appear that the device in question seemed to be developing a mind of its own and had apparently switched itself on earlier that morning. As interesting as this tidbit was, it was time for me to venture elsewhere.
My plan at this point was to visit The Old Volunteer, a pub which, according to the sign outside and its own website, was Carlton's premier live music venue and provided a good choice of real ales. When I arrived, slightly after its 2pm opening, there appeared to be nobody home and the door was closed. I waited around for a further 10 minutes, aware that sometimes it can a bit of effort to get a pub open on time, but to no avail. The doors remained steadfastly shut and, suitable miffed, I moved on. Next up was a pub that I had been apprehensive about but turned out to be a pleasant surprise: Inn For A Penny.
The pub boasts a fairly traditional interior with decorative exposed brickwork and white plastered walls and standard wood and leather seating. There is a small, raised area which breaks up the layout a little, a dart board, games machines and a number of TVs, on this occasion showing Sky Sports News coverage of transfer deadline day. There are 6 hand pulls, 1 of which is not in use, but the other 5 have an interesting mix of things. Available are Weston's Strawberry Twist Cider, Abbot Ale, Harvest Pale, Navigation Traditional and, my choice, Holden's Buffalo Soldier. This is one of Holden's seasonal ales based around famous musicians, in case Bob Marley for those of you who have no taste. The ale itself is golden, with a citrus aroma and a very fruity flavour with distinctive hints of mango and peach and a smooth, creamy finish, all at a strength of 4.5%. It's very nice indeed and sets me up nicely for my final location.
It ended up being further away than I thought and involved turning back on myself and walking quite a way further into the Carlton outskirts than I planned but eventually I got there. Located on Westdale Lane is the Greene King operated Westdale Tavern.

 This cream paint and traditional brick building is part of Greene King's Meet & Eat chain. The bar is central and there is lots of high seating, a pool table, a fruit machine and some TVs. My heart was buoyed as I arrived and saw a sign at the entrance advertising a celebration of real ale. Imagine my disappointment then, when I entered and saw that the one available hand pump was out of use and I was forced to resort to Greene King IPA on a smooth flow tap. It was refreshing after my long walk and was tastier than I expected but that really wasn't the point after what I expected from the advert. I can only hope that the month-long celebration that was advertised is now in full swing and my arrival on September 1st was the only reason that there was nothing better on offer. I spent time mulling over my pint about my day and using Google maps to find the quickest route home. I'm confused by Carlton. It has a strange mix of pubs that are better than expected (The Blacks Head) and pubs that should be better than their reputation would suggest (Westdale Tavern), all in relatively close proximity to both home and Nottingham city centre. After the massive success of Beeston and Sawley, Carlton was a taste of suburban reality. On my surprisingly long walk home I reflected on this and pondered the benefits of a return trip here. Suburbs like Carlton struggle to make real ale pubs because of their surroundings, their inhabitants and their economic conditions. It's a shame but I'm glad I visited. At least I've done my best to put these particular pubs on the map.
I've got something a lot different planned for next week and I'm very excited. Watch this space!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Trail of Two Sawleys

For the second time in a week, I ventured out to places slightly further afield to investigate the real ale scene and the pubs that support it. This time I journeyed over county lines into neighbouring Derbyshire to visit the village of Sawley and its many drinking dens. Unfortunately, Matt was again absent from festivities this week, due to a combination of uni work and last minute preparations for a stag do he was attending in Sheffield over the weekend. Nevertheless, I felt that Sawley had much to offer a real ale drinker, so I hopped on a bus and made my way there. Whilst the bus took considerably longer than it took to get the train to Beeston earlier in the week, it was also a lot hassle once I arrived. All in all it was a good start to the day and I was confident of an exciting and interesting afternoon.
Sawley is both a village and a civil parish in the borough of Erewash. Located in southeast Derbyshire, it lies very close to the boundary with northwest Leicestershire and is technically the amalgamation of two settlements; the more residential and commuter-heavy New Sawley and the original village with its wide square and parish church, now referred to as Old Sawley. The parish as a whole has a population of around 6,500 people with a higher than average number of people over the age of 65. Sawkey Marina is one of the most prominent features of the village, with access to the region's many waterways. The old name for Sawley was Salle. Between Sawley and Church Wilne and Great Wilne lies the junction at which the rivers Trent and Derwent meet and it is to this that Sawley owes its position. The Church of All Saints is 13th Century and contains Norman and Saxon work and commands a position on a small rise near the river. Up until the 19th Century, Sawley was the most important village in the area, commanding the first river crossing, Harrington Bridge, above Nottingham.
For my first locations on this trip, I had settled onto an area slightly outside the village centre but still classified as part of it despite being very close to the neighbouring town of Long Eaton. Trent Lock is an area where 3 waterways, and three counties, meet making it an interesting place to start, not least because of the two public houses in the vicinity. Trent Lock is south of Long Eaton, on the borders of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. It is a major canal navigation  junction where the River Trent and River Soar meet each other and both meet the Erewash Canal. The name Trent Lock refers to the system of canal locks that form the passage through the area where the River Soar flowing northwards meets the eastward flowing Trent. Travelling as I was from Nottingham, the easiest way for me to get here was to get off the bus at Draycott Road on the edge of Old Sawley and walk down Lock Lane, a winding country lane that is longer than it looks, especially when you need the toilet, like I did at the time. Eventually, after some mild confusion and a brief pause to figure out my bearings, I arrived at my first pub of the afternoon, The Steamboat Inn.
Originally known as the Erewash Navigation due to its prominent location on a purpose built brick rise on the canalside, The Steamboat is a pub that I hold close to my heart as it was here that I filled in my application form to join CAMRA. Upon becoming known as The Steamboat, it had an artificial funnel as part of its façade, although this sadly no longer stands. The interior is cosy, comfortable and traditional with exposed beams, whitewashed walls and an original flagstone fireplace which, at colder times of year, contains a roaring log fire. The seating is minimal inside with plush furnishings and small tables. There is a large outside area to the front consisting of a number of picnic tables spread out over two levels. The pub is very dog friendly, both inside and out and contains a pool table, a couple of games machines and televisions. It also has the unusual distinction of having its beer delivered by boat as there is no road access to the pub! The bar is rectangular and sits roughly in the centre of the pub, which is divided into two separate rooms by a partition wall, and includes 5 hand pumps. On offer are a variety of interesting things including 2 beers from Titanic (Capt. Smith and Stout), Shardlow Brewing Co. Golden Hop, ECH Brewery East Street and Fireside from Black Country Ales. I went for the Golden Hop (4.1%), golden in colour with a citrus nose, a hoppy taste with undertones of fruit zest and a smooth, sweet finish. Coupled with a generous CAMRA discount of 20p, it was certainly a good way to start the day!
Walking to Trent Lock in what were quite warm temperatures had certainly summoned a thirst in me and it wasn't long before my pint was gone and I was ready to move on. My next destination lay back over the canal near to the bank of the adjacent River Trent and sharing a name with its geographical location: Trent Lock.
The pub has been known in previous times as both The Navigation and the Trent Navigation but now goes by the name of Trent Lock, marketing itself as a venue for country pub dining and run by Vintage Inns. The garden to the front, the only area on which dogs are allowed, was formerly part of the river, where boaters would  moor up whilst taking a well-earned refreshment break. The interior is all wooden and very rustic in appearance with exposed beams and brick fireplace that bears miniature coats of arms. The main room is broken up nicely into smaller sections by wooden pillars and partition panels. The bar is opposite the main entrance and includes 5 hand pulls. One of these is not in use but the others feature Batemans XXXB, Lancaster Brewery Lemon Grass, Butcombe Great Grey Owl IPA and Wold Top Golden Summer. The Lemon Grass instantly drew my attention and I'm glad I chose to partake of a pint as it was delicious. 4.0% in strength, golden in colour and very hoppy with a citrus aroma, an expected lemon flavour and a nice softness on the palate. The pub was busy with lunch time diners during my visit and the food smelled amazing but I thought it best to relinquish my seat to those who might need it and dragged myself away from Trent Lock with regret in my heart and a promise to return.
My next stop involved a walk back up Lock Lane and a right turn that eventually brought me out on Tamworth Road, the main thoroughfare through both Long Eaton and Sawley. On the edge of New Sawley, before the residential areas open out into countryside between Old Sawley and Sawley Marina, lies The Bell Inn.

This squarish brick building is very much a 'locals' pub but the presence of a Cask Marque plaque on the wall by the front door had drawn my attention and so I deemed that it couldn't hurt to give it a visit. Inside, the bar is central to the room with lots of seating situated around the edge and in the bay windows. This is mostly standard wooden tables and chairs although the pub benefits from an unusual stained glass feature above the centre of the bar. There are 3 hand pulls, 1 of which is not currently being used, although the others feature Landlord and Harvest Pale. I opted for the Harvest Pale which was in perfect condition and pulled up a seat at a round table under one of the large windows, where a framed photo of an army regiment had pride of place, along with a close-up of one particular soldier, who I assumed to be a relative or regular of the pub's owners or staff. The Bell isn't an unfriendly pub but I got the sense that it is one of those places that thrives more on evening trade from people who live nearby. Whilst I was in there, there were only 3 other people present, excluding the barmaid and they were all middle aged blokes.
The next step of my tour was to venture into Old Sawley and visit the quartet of pubs that serve the village. The first of these is The Nag's Head, the first of two Marston's pub in close proximity to each other.
I don't have an issue with Marston's pubs to the extent that I have a problem with Greene King and this stems from the fact that, more often than not, you're more likely to find guest beers in a Marston's pub and the interior has usually been left relatively unchanged. This is the case for The Nag's Head which boasts a nice interior with cream swirled wallpaper and wooden beams with lots of seating arranged around a roughly pentagonal bar that serves both sides of a room that is divided into a bar and lounge area. There are 6 hand pulls on the bar, 3 on each side, and these feature Pedigree and Marston's Burton Bitter but also have Hook Norton Old Hooky available with Navigation Golden due to come on soon on the one unused pump. Having sampled Old Hooky in bottle before, I was eager to try the draught version. At 4.6% and copper coloured it has a malty aroma and a strong bitter taste but is very delicious all the same! Whilst here, I also made impromptu friends with a border collie that belonged to one of the regulars who, no doubt could smell my dog all over my jeans.
At this stage, with the afternoon in full swing, I decided to visit the 2nd Marston's pub in the village. Sister pub to the Nag's Head, I headed over to the Railway Inn, which is just around the corner.
Behind the slightly more traditional Marston's-style brick exterior, The Railway Inn is a pleasant enough pub. Lots of rooms are separated from the main room by wood and glass partitions and the overall feel is one of lounge bar comfort, with the seating arranged around the edge of the side rooms, to open up the central space more. This layout is perhaps explained by the building's original use as a cottage. There are also pool tables and games machines in this pub, something which was either missing or not noticed by me in The Nag's Head. The square, central bar includes 6 hand pumps, again 3 on either side and the beer on offer is a slight variation on that in the other Marston's premises. Pedigree and Navigation Golden were currently available with Hobgoblin joining them on the pumps in the near future. Being a big fan of Navigation beers, Golden was my choice. This is 4.0%, hoppy with a subtle malt undertone and, disappointingly, a noticeable though slight vinegar flavour which suggested that the beer may have been on its last legs. The only low point of the day so far.
Following this, I had 2 venues left to go and the first of these is a pub that I've extolled the many virtues of in the past after visiting their excellent Bank Holiday beer festival back in May. I am of course talking about the White Lion.

In addition to its previous assets, the pub is now home to its own microbrewery, the Old Sawley Brewery which has been rising in prominence since it arrived earlier in the year. It has also added an impressive array of real cider and perry to the bar and this is available on my visit. Ale wise, 2 of their own concoctions, Toll Bridge Porter and Victory Bell are in evidence, along with Bass and Adnam's Fat Sprat with Blue Monkey BG Sips arriving soon. I thought it stood to reason that, as I was back at a pub that I love, it would be doing them a disservice if I didn't sample the fruits of their own brewing labour and so, after some hard thought deliberation, I decided on a pint of Victory Bell (4.1%). This is a traditional session ale, amber in colour, malty in taste and with a spicy, roasted aroma on the nose. Whilst this beautiful brew went down, Jade arrived from work to meet me and found me in a happy state due to my efforts for the day. I did have a slightly special moment when, with roughly a quarter of my pint left, my flailing elbow knocked if flying. Some of it was salvaged, most of it was not but, thankfully, the barmaid (who went to school with Jade), saw the funny side. I was sad to leave the White Lion but I'm safe in the knowledge that business appears to be thriving and I will certainly be making my way there again!
Jade was happy to accompany me to the final destination of this particular tour, somewhere neither of us had never been before, The Harrington Arms on Harrington Bridge, just around the corner on the very edge of the village.
The pub began its life as a turnaround for coaches using the Sawley to Lenton turnpike road but now occupies an ideal position on the bank of the River Trent. The grey pebble dash exterior gives way to a comfy gastro pub style interior with small areas of exposed brick work and features such as glass wine cabinets free standing in the pump which give it a modernist feel. The pub held a beer festival over August Bank Holiday weekend which appeared to be successful as the barmaid at the White Lion informed us that the beer had run out by the last day! Whilst this shows that the festival was popular, it isn't an ideal situation to be in. It also appears there weren't that many cider drinkers in attendance as there were at least 8-10 boxes of real cider and perry stacked on the back bar at the time of our visit! Thankfully, there was beer available on the bar, spread across 4 hand pumps. This included Abbot Ale, Morland's Original, Mouldon Brewery Golden Adder and Greene King IPA Gold. With a limited choice, I went for the lesser of the evils and opted for Golden Adder, a guest ale with a strength of 4.0%, a very smooth, zesty aroma and a fruity finish with clean, dry tastes across the palate. Whilst drinking my pint and with Jade sipping the half of perry she'd bought, I thought food was probably a good idea so ordered some chips and garlic bread which were brought to us by another of Jade's school friends. Small world! The food was tasty though and filled a whole until I got home and ate a proper meal.
I was very pleased with my foray into Sawley, especially in the wake of my equally successful trip to Beeston earlier in the week. There really are some great pubs out this way with the White Lion and The Steamboat being particular favourites of mine. It also proves that sometimes heading further afield from your immediate surroundings can take you to some places that you never expected and, in a world where pub trade is dropping dramatically, this can certainly help to reinvigorate the whole scene. Sawley is one of those little known places where the real ale scene has certainly found a niche and deserves to be celebrated as haven all by itself.