Friday, May 31, 2013

A Stap-ale Diet?

Prior to the trip I made for this blog, I knew 2 things about Stapleford. The first was that my girlfriend's mum was born there and the second, and more worrying, is that the town is known colloquially by locals as 'Stabbo'. Despite this, and following a few hours waylaid there last week whilst the car was repaired, I decided that the pubs of Stapleford warranted further investigation and so, on Wednesday, Matt and I jumped on a bus and made an afternoon of it.
The town of Stapleford lies on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, close to both the River Trent and the River Erewash, which divides the town from nearby Sandiacre. The origins of Stapleford can be traced to before Norman times. There is a Saxon stone cross in the churchyard of St. Helen's Church which is said to be the oldest stone memorial in the Midlands. Stapleford owes much of its development to the proximity of the two rivers, which made it an important area for trade. It also expanded in the 18th Century when the stocking hose trade thrived in the area, evidence of which can still be found in the Stocking Knitters Houses that still exist on Nottingham Road. The central crossroads of the town is called The Roach, a name that derives from the time when French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars were set the task of cutting through rock to create roads and this was referred to as 'La Roche'. The town also features two significant landmarks, The Hemlock Stone on Stapleford Hill and, more recently, the excellent Full Mash brewery.
The first destination on our survey was the Man of Iron, situated on Pasture Road, on the edge of the town.
After some bus stop related confusion, we entered the premises, which is operated under Hardy & Hansons and named for the local term for a blacksmith. It soon became obvious that this is a traditional locals pub, with lots of sofas and low seating, a pool table, dart board, jukebox and a TV, currently showing Bargain Hunt with the volume up. The bar is situated to the immediate left of the entrance and there is a significant shortage of the good stuff. There are 2 standard hand pumps, 1 of which is not in use, the other being Abbot Ale. There are also 2 smooth flow pumps, containing Greene King IPA Chilled and Hardy and Hansons Dark. Matt opted for the latter whilst I swallowed my pride and went for a pint of Abbot Ale, which was in good condition thankfully. This pub was more or less what I'd imagined it would be, although it could've done without the landlady shouting at her son as soon as we entered but you can't have everything. We moved on to our next target, hoping for better things.
Next up was The Chequers Inn on the corner of Nottingham Road and Church Street, which I'd heard rumours about being rather good. Sadly, I can't remember where I heard these rumours, which is just as well.
This roughly L-shaped, white building has peeling paint on the exterior but, not wanting to judge a book by its cover, we were undeterred. The pub has two bars, one on a lower level and one at ground level. Our attempt to enter the lower bar was thwarted by someone, presumably the landlord, telling us that the downstairs bar was closed and to head upstairs. This, again, was not a problem, as it was still early in the day. Upon entering the top bar however, we were unimpressed. The bar is small, rectangular and situated in the corner immediately inside the door. Despite our high hopes, there were no handpulls on show, with 2 rows of standard taps greeting us. The only thing remotely ale related was something called Mann's Chestnut Mild. We both decided on a pint of this, hoping at least that the beer was good. As you can probably gather, this again proved to be a false dawn. The mild was dark and creamy but distinctly watery and rather bland. The bar area itself was of a standard layout with bare wooden floors and seating and a raised area at the back with a pool table and dart board. We discussed this place later and are of the opinion that perhaps we'd come at the wrong time of the day and that the good rumours I'd heard perhaps related to the lower bar, which may have had hand pumps for all we knew and, obviously, they presumably would've been considerably busier in the evening. So far though, our ale trail through Stapleford was not going according to plan. I knew things would improve though, thanks in huge part to our next destination.
Situated almost opposite the Chequers, The Horse and Jockey is CAMRA LocAle pub of the year 2013 and it shows, almost upon entry.
 The pub dates from 1740 and is a two-storey, white, brick building with a small staircase heading up to the front door. Inside, the layout is roughly square with wooden floors, high tables, low sofas and the bar at the back of the room. The bar is fantastic both aesthetically and because of its products. One half of the back bar is all spirits whilst the other is devoted entirely to whiskies and there are very many of those available. Ale is the reason we've come though and we're certainly not disappointed, with 10 hand pulls from a variety of breweries, both local and further afield. There is also a selection of real ciders available, something which impressed Matt no end. After a few moments of deciding, we made our selections. I went for the pub's own ale, called simply Horse and Jockey, and brewed by nearby Full Mash. At 3.8%, this is pale, very clear, hoppy and smooth with a decidedly fruity finish. Matt likes dark beer where he can get it so he went for Woild Moild from Norfolk's Wolf Brewery, which was very dark, creamy and smooth with a soft finish. They were both very tasty, so much so that we decided to have a second pint here, largely to erase the memory of the previous 2 places we'd visited. My next choice was Beau Douro, brewed by The Wellington Inn in Hull. This is pale, citrusy and has a hop kick that belies it's 4.3% ABV. Matt opted for Tuck, a porter from Hucknall's Lincoln Green brewery. This was brimming with coffee flavours and hint of chocolate malt and went down very well indeed. The Horse and Jockey had certainly banished the issues of the day so far and we were in much better spirits by the time we headed to our next destination, The Pavilion on Derby Road.
As the name suggests, this is an old cricket pavilion with a mostly open plan layout, with a large proportion of high seating, a long bar opposite the front windows, pool tables and a table football set. The main sign out the front advertises FREE BEER, only for it to read Free Wifi and Guest Beer as you get closer and the small print becomes more obvious. There are 4 hand pulls on show, all in use and all, uniquely for Stapleford it seems, containing real cider, including Old Rosie, Country Perry and Matt's choice, Weston's Wild Wood. My initial survey only spotted Caffrey's on a normal smooth flow tap until I noticed a small range of bottled ales in the fridge. The selection wasn't bad: Hobgoblin, Spitfire and Thwaites' Wainwright (4.1%). I went for the latter and it was quite good, golden and very sweet with a citric backbone. Bottled ale is an unusual thing for me to drink in pubs so this was worth the visit for the novelty alone. All in all, The Pavilion wasn't too bad, not perfect but considerably better than a few other places.
Next up, was the local Wetherspoons, located just down the road from The Pavilion. The Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren shares its name with a pub in Nottingham, as well as another, now closed in Loscoe.
 It occupies a site near where Stapleford Hall used to stand and is named after Stapleford's local hero, who was born at the hall in 1753. He joined the Navy and rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming Admiral. He was also Ambassador to the Russian Court and an MP for Nottingham from 1796-1806. The hall itself was demolished in 1935 and The Warren Arms, built in 1750 and named for the family, used to stand opposite the Wetherspoons until it was demolished in 2009, despite protests. Inside, this is one of the nicest Wetherspoons I've ever been in. The layout is almost that of a manor house, with a long staircase to the upstairs toilets, lots of booth-like seating and ornamental cannons, both in the toilets and the bar, as well as full size relic greeting you upon entry. Several of the mirrors around the room are done in the style of portholes. Wetherspoons are certainly doing their bit to promote real ale and this one is no exception, with 10 hand pumps, split between 2 groups of 5 on either side of the till points. The bar is at the very back of the room, so there is plenty of time to decide what you want on the long walk over. 5 of the offerings are mild, with the other 5 being a standard selection. I shelled out for Nautical Mild from Titanic brewery and it was very nice indeed, malty and smooth with an unusual but welcome hoppy tinge to the aftertaste. Matt opted for Burton Bridge's Moorish Mild (3.9%), which he seemed to greatly enjoy, with its slightly fruity nose, low bitterness and pleasant aftertaste.
We were both rather hungry by now but decided to negate food in order to reach our last pub, with the promise of a trip to Gregg's on the way back to the bus stop. At the very end of Derby Road, just before the bridge that crosses the Erewash into Sandiacre, is our final destination, The Midland.
 I was hopeful that this would be impressive and the pub itself wasn't too bad. The choice of ale was disappointing however. The layout was much what we expected, with a central U-shaped bar and seating around the edge spreading across the room. Of the 2 hand pumps available, 1 is not being used whilst the other is promoting Doom Bar which, in the absence of other options, we ordered a pint of each. The quality of Doom Bar has declined noticeably in recent years and whether this is too with its seeming prevalence in  many premises. Following the quick consumption of these, we thought it was time to head home, with the aforementioned Gregg's stop taking first priority. On our bus journey back, we were able to discuss our day and agreed, that whilst Stapleford is, with a couple of notable exceptions, lacking in decent real ale outlets, it has certainly been an enjoyable afternoon and much more fun than doing the same thing alone. Next week, we expect to be doing something similar around the upper echelons of Mansfield Road, which I'm rather excited about, as it will include several pubs that I've never visited. However, as always, nothing is certain, but watch this space, as another excursion, somewhere, will be taking place regardless.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Lion-Hearted Effort

Bank Holiday weekends seem to be prime time for beer festivals. With that being said, I hadn't planned on visiting two different beer festivals in 2 days in 2 quite different places. Following an invitation to celebrate the fact that I will soon be employed again, it was deemed necessary to make the journey to the annual beer festival at The White Lion in the Derbyshire village of Sawley. Sawley sits at the point of convergence of the rivers Trent and Derwent and The White Lion is at the heart of this small but thoroughly pleasant village. A whitewashed front façade gives way to a twin bar layout interior, with a bar on either side of the main entrance, separated by a wooden partition and the back bar display itself. The interior is wooden, with a few round tables and plain wooden chairs. The walls are decorated with photos of the local area and a couple of pieces of artwork from the Romantic era. To the rear is a gravelled patio style area with hexagonal picnic tables and substantial room to accommodate a small car park. A small stage had been set up in order to provide the festival with entertainment from a variety of local bands. Each of the 2 bars inside has 4 hand pulls, the only regular being Bass. One side contains 3 beers from Hartshorns whilst the other includes 2 beers from each of Dancing Duck and Blue Monkey. These beers are all part of the festival, with the rest set up on a racking system in the upstairs function. Great pains have been made to ensure that all the beers available are local in origin and the food being sold in the car park is all sourced locally. The weather could not be better for the festival and the rest of the beers come respectively from Lincoln Green, Brunswick, Navigation, Mallard, Muirhouse and Castle Rock. The pub is now in the process of installing their own microbrewery called Old Sawley Brewery and the fruits of these labours are also available. The festival took place over the entire Bank Holiday weekend so by the time of our visit, on Day 3 of 4, all the real cider ordered in had already been sold. That didn't matter to me though as I was fascinated by the variety on offer.
My first taste of the brews on offer was Stormin' Auburn from Hartshorns. With a strength of 4.5%, this is an amber ale with a perfect amount of bitterness to the taste. It goes down quickly, perhaps too quickly, as we sit in the sunshine in the very full beer garden, watching a local band of young lads perform a mixture of their songs and some covers of songs by the likes of Oasis and Kasabian. The beer buying process is slightly simpler than that at Newark Beer Festival (see previous blog), as pints can be purchased, either through the use of tokens or cold hard cash. This is a nice touch, especially for those of us who are a tad overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people, variety of beer and the significant heat. For my next pint, I changed tack slightly and opted for Duck's Courage (5%), courtesy of Dancing Duck Brewery. This is pale and bitter with hints of spice that add a nice touch to the flavour. I made every effort to take my time with this pint, whilst enjoying the music of a quartet of local rock musicians executing some very good cover versions, including a storming cover of 'I Died in your Arms Tonight'. More of the extended family and friends had arrived by this stage and it was enjoyable catching up with old faces and meeting new ones, including the myriad of dogs on show at this canine-friendly venue.
By the time my glass was empty again, I decided that I'd have a crack at the offerings that Blue Monkey had provided. My option on this occasion was simply called Monkey (5%) and is the brewery's 500th brew (hence the name, which is slang for 500). Golden blonde in colour it carries an unusual mix of toffee and mango, proving once again that Blue Monkey certainly know what they're doing. I thought it was about time that I ventured to the upstairs room to see what else was on offer. This decision was justified all the more by my being able to talk to a member of staff who was in charge of the racking system. He explained to me that the weather had been a big saviour of this year's event, following a wash-out last year which resulted in at least 2 musical acts being cancelled. He certainly knew his stuff and was very helpful at describing the wide choice of beers in front of me. My eventual choice was Stumbling About from Muirhouse brewery. At 5.2% it is a ruby red ale with a distinctive kick that makes it strangely refreshing. Flagging somewhat by this point, due largely to the sheer quantity of ale I'd managed to consume in the previous 24 hours or so, it was about time to call it quits for the evening and we soon made our journey home.
The White Lion is by no means the only pub in the village and there are a few more drinking establishments very close by that I will definitely visit in the foreseeable future. It would be rude not too check out nearby places to see what they have to offer in comparison. At present, I haven't been able to find out much on the history of the pub, however I'll be attempting to find out more about the village as a whole (and any hauntings) before my return visit.
Overall, I'm very impressed by the commitment and knowledge of the staff here and the effort they've made to continue on with one of the lesser known beer festivals in the local area. The pub certainly deserves to do very well from its efforts and, if things continue in this way, they'll certainly be getting even more notice very soon. Obviously the weather has played a significant part in ensuring that the festival is a success but, when small, community-driven pubs like this put so much effort and thought into their work, it's the very least that they deserve. I will certainly be making every effort to keep an eye of developments at the site and the addition of their own microbrewery will only serve to enhance their prospects. All-in-all, if you visit one new pub this summer, you could do considerably worse than Sawley's White Lion. 

Festival time in Newark

With the Bank Holiday weekend turning out to be a very nice one weather-wise for the 2nd time in a month, it would've been rude not to make the most of it. Earlier in the week, I decided that it was a good time to head off to yet another beer festival, this time at Riverside Park in Newark. This annual event, now in it's 18th year, promised a fun weekend of live music, good food and over 140 real ales and ciders. Sounded exactly what I wanted to do on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon! My best friend Dean and his wife Harriet live in nearby Collingham so I thought it would be excellent to have a meet up with them so that we could all go to the festival together. It had been quite a while since we'd last seen them so arrangements were quickly made for us to drive to their house and from there make our way to the site.
The market town of Newark-on-Trent grew up around the now-ruined Norman Castle, which sits on the bank of the River Trent, upon which the town is located. The castle itself was besieged by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War and is the location at which King John died in 1216. Literally just across the river, is Riverside Park, the venue for this event and we arrived to find a long tent thronged with people with outdoor seating areas fenced into a single enclosure with food vans, cake stands and a stage also present. Oddly, the toilets were outside of the actual fenced-in area which made for some interesting issues which I will come to again later. With Newark Castle looming over the site from across the river it's a very attractive site to spend a few hours in the sun with friends and beer. Upon arrival, we paid our entry fee (£10 each with £2 refundable for a commemorative glass), accepted our tokens and I picked up a program which contained an extensive beer list. Tokens were allocated to 3 per person upon entry, with 9 tokens for CAMRA members (hooray for me!) and more tokens available to purchase within the festival. As the only ale drinker in our company I was very excited by what awaited me. 120 ales racked on both sides along both sides of the tent, arranged alphabetically by brewery. Jade and Dean are real cider fans but they weren't disappointed either with a large selection of cider and perry from across Britain, with a significant quantity from Somerset. The only downside of the whole day was Jade was required to drive later, limiting her alcohol allowance. After a few minutes perusing the extensive list of beers, I finally managed to reach a decision upon where I would start my journey. Prices were categorised as follows: 2 mini-tokens for 1/3 of a pint and 3 for 1/2. This rose to 3 and 4 respectively for brews above 5%. With this in mind, my first choice of tipple was Tricerahops from Wiltshire's Hop Kettle brewery. At 4.1%, this was a good place to start as it was a very fruity, triple-hopped, golden ale with an excellent all-round flavour and finish.
I mostly drank 3rds whilst I was there, largely because it enabled me to try more things without exhausting my supply of tokens too quickly. The only problem is that I did seem to be returning more beer quite often! Apparently 3rds don't last very long! As much as possible, I did my very best to slowly increase the ABV of the beers I drank as the day wore on so as to make the most of the flavours on offer. This was a good plan in theory but, this being the 2nd day of the festival, some beers had sold out so a hasty rethink was needed on occasion. My 2nd beer of the day was from my neck of the woods. The Wild Weather brewery is based in Silchester, Hampshire and my choice of their Stormbringer was wise indeed. This premium ale boasts well developed hop flavours and a very good all round taste. With a strength of 4.5%, this seemed like a good progression up. I followed this with a rare treat. Oxymoron is one of those strange beasts: a black IPA that had been dry hopped for extra flavour. This was surprisingly subtle for a beer of 5.5% and originated from Otley brewery in Pontypridd. So far, so good. I went back a step with my next choice. My original selection had run out so I switched to Cavendish from Welbeck Abbey. At a softer 5%, this was a strong blonde ale and barely touched the sides on the way down. At this point, a food break was required.
Heading out of the tent and back into the beautiful sunshine we decided to partake in some food from the on-site burger vans. I opted for a 1/2lb beef burger, which I shared with Jade, Harriet opted for wild boar sausages in a cob, which I finished off and they were excellent. Dean decided on a venison burger, made better by the cheese apparently and we took a well deserved rest on some plastic seating whilst our food went down. Having made the rookie mistake of 'breaking the seal' on the way into the festival, I now needed another bathroom trip and this is where things got slightly ridiculous. I exited the tent, went to the toilet and then attempted to go back in, only to be forced to queue as there was now a '1 in, 1 out' policy in place due to the number of people. This was despite the fact that I was wearing a wristband that indicated that I had already paid and I saw other people being let back in whilst I was waiting. I understand that the security on site have a duty to adhere to the capacity guidelines and it might be I tried to go back in through the wrong side of the partition but it was a little frustrating. Thankfully though, I wasn't waiting for any longer than a couple of minutes.
Shortly, it was back to the beer and I had already earmarked my next choice: Sumo, from Market Deeping's Hopshackle Brewery. This is a golden, amber beer with an aroma and flavour brimming with hop resins. At 5.2%, it was very refreshing after the food and the queuing. By now, the tent was rammed with all manner of people and I was now onto my 2nd set of tokens, available for purchase at the price of 50p each. With my next choice no longer available, I settled for Benedictine Groove, an unusual concoction from Edinburgh's Elixir brew academy. This was unique with it's distinctive taste of smoked malt and a hint of tonic wine, all encompassed in a very dark beer with an ABV of 5.5%. I followed this with Sutherland, the latest Wicked Women beer from Brewsters. Whilst 4.8% is considerably weaker than my previous choice, it was well worth it. It was at this point that peer pressure persuaded me to try a taste of the strongest beer available over the weekend. Baz's Bonce Blower is a staggering 12.2% and I took a lot of persuading but eventually made my way over to the counter, only to find that it had all been sold the previous day. Not really a surprise and a lucky escape for me! Unperturbed, I went for an unusual choice instead; a mango, wheat beer called Wit Less II from Cheshire's Redwillow brewery. My gamble paid off and the beer was excellent, the fruity flavour and aroma balanced nicely throughout the 4.8% concoction.
With 3 tokens remaining and the sunshine and alcohol starting to have an effect, and myself running out of cash, I had the opportunity for one more half before we called it a day. I made the choice of an American-style pale ale called Old Colony from the 8 Sail Brewery in Heckington. At 5.3%, it did the job nicely and brought the day to a very good end. After ensuring that we had all of our belongings and that our commemorative glasses had been either refunded or safely wrapped up, we headed out and made our way back to the point from where Dean's mum was collecting us. It had been a very very good day and, from a personal perspective, a good insight into a proper beer festival. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I think everyone else did too. From a haunting perspective, the most well-known stories are confined to the nearby castle, with reports of stone throwing, strange flashes of light and disembodied footsteps. King John's spirit is believed to remain in the area where he died. Whilst these are not pub-related tales, Dean did share an interesting anecdote concerning the building that is now the Just Beer Micropub in the town. Back in the 1980's there was a case of kidnapping in which a one-legged kidnapper held a woman hostage in the flat above where the pub is now located. Although this is not a ghostly story, it is certainly a gruesome one as the perpetrator kept his unfortunate victim in a wheelie bin for a year, an event which would obviously have been very traumatic. There are other stories of ghostly happenings amongst the pubs of Newark and I will certainly be returning in future to investigate these and partake in their excellent beers. With this year's Newark Beer Festival done, I am resigned to visit again next year. If this year's is anything to go by, it will definitely be worth the effort!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wanderings in Wollaton

With my first few blogs being mostly centred around Nottingham City Centre and its environs, I thought the time was right to visit some places that were slightly further afield, yet close enough to get to easily. With that in mind, I made the short walk into town and hopped onto the Trent Barton Rainbow 2, headed for the Nottingham suburb of Wollaton. The suburb has Wollaton Village at its centre, unchanged for several hundred years with the Admiral Rodney pub at its centre (more on that later). The surrounding area is known for its proximity to Wollaton Hall, an Elizabethan mansion house and museum with its own deer park, which recently found fame for its portrayal as Wayne Manor in the latest Christopher Nolan Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. There are several fine pubs in the immediate vicinity and it is these which are the focus of my trip on a relatively mild, but significantly overcast, Tuesday afternoon.

My first destination is The Wollaton Pub & Kitchen. Situated on the main Wollaton Road, with its main entrance on the adjacent Lambourne Drive, The Wollaton occupies a premises that was previously known as The Willoughby Arms after the family that built, owned and occupied the nearby Wollaton Hall. The pub takes the form of a modern bar/restaurant combo with brick exterior and green and cream paint my initial introduction to the place. The pub is owned by Moleface Pub Co., who also own Larwood & Voce in West Bridgford amongst their small portfolio. The interior of the pub is split into designated drinking and dining areas. The restaurant is modelled loosely on the design of an orangery with a decidedly open appearance. The bar area is more enclosed without feeling claustrophobic, and features several classic touches including leather sofas, bare floors, an abundance of wooden furniture, gilt mirrors and exposed brickwork on the wall towards the rear car park. The pub is very nice to look at, with a significant emphasis on food but definitely not lacking in the drink department. There are 6 hand pulls on show, 2 each of Timothy Taylor Landlord and Black Sheep Bitter and guest appearances of Castle Rock Harvest Pale and Navigation Pale, which I decide upon. The beer is in excellent condition and I take a seat at a nearby table, the legs of which are constructed from the stand of an old Singer sewing machine. There are several pieces of promo material advertising their food offers around the walls and I shall definitely be returning to sample the food in the near future. The only slightly strange thing about this otherwise fantastic place is the toilets. The urinals remind me distinctly of the toilets at most football grounds, consisting of a long, porcelain, trough-like structure. The whole experience is made more unnerving by the varying close ups of a woman's face that adorn the walls in the gents. Thankfully, I'd only had one pint by this stage or it might have been more than a little disconcerting. Overall though, this is an excellent venue to which I hope to return soon.   

My next destination is a somewhat different story. Situated literally a few yards down the road from The Wollaton, The Wheelhouse is situated on the same main road, at this point designated as Russell Drive, opposite the local police station. The unusual name is essentially a description of the building's layout as it is basically circular in shape, having been originally constructed in the 1960s. It is currently run by Greene King, under its food-driven Hungry Horse brand name and this is reflected in the general layout of the interior. The bar is central and roughly semi-circular, with an abundance of seating throughout reflecting the strength of the food sales. The pub is marketed is a family friendly establishment, with its large seating areas, pool table and food deals. There is still ale on offer, although the selection is fairly bog standard Greene King fare. The 3 hand pumps feature Old Speckled Hen, Abbot Ale and Hardy & Hansons (a Greene King subsidiary) Kimberley Bitter. I opt for the latter and whilst I'm not disappointed, I always find it a shame that Greene King have such an obstructed vision of which ale they should supply to their managed outlets. Kimberley Bitter is a 3.9% brew with a nose of hops and flowers, a fruity finish and a consistent bitterness that compliments its copper colour. The beer itself is fine, as evidenced by the Cask Marque plaques throughout the bar area and, whilst I appreciate that this particular part of the Greene King stable is food-centric, I feel that the casual drinker is missing out. The food on offer sounds delicious though, enhanced somewhat by the revolving dessert cabinet near to where I'm sitting, crammed full of delicious cake products. After a few minutes of enjoying my pint, I decide to move on to my next venue, not before being accosted by a very cute Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the outdoor seating area though.

The convenient thing about this area of the greater Nottingham region is its proximity to Wollaton Hall. The outer walls of the park are situated opposite both of the pubs I've just visited and this creates an attractive panorama as I leave the main road and start towards the village proper. My next visit is the Admiral Rodney which sits directly in the centre of the village, where the main road through the village transects nearby Bramcote Lane at a small roundabout, close to the neighbouring Anglican church of St. Leonard. The building is very old, with lots of very nice character features, including original wooden beams and flagstone flooring, all made slightly crooked by the layout of the building's foundations. Named after the head of the Admiralty at the time of Lord Nelson, the overall impression is one of olde worlde charm with the interior evoking images of bygone times with its pictures of old houses from around the local area. There are 2 entrances to the pub, the main entrance which leads to the central lounge, and the side door, which I enter through, which leads to a smaller bar area and a very nice snug complete with dart board. The bar is L-shaped, with 6 hand pumps, 5 of which are in use at the time of my visit. There is an interesting variety of beers on offer, in this case Harvest Pale; Sharp's Doom Bar; Bateman's XXXB; Courage Director's and London Pride. I'm quite partial to a pint of Director's (as I've mentioned before), so this was my tipple of choice on this particular occasion. This is a pub of considerable charm and character. As I sit enjoying my pint, my eyes drift to the menu, which includes amongst it's offerings Venison Pie and Wild Boar Pie, all of which sounds wonderful. This is the kind of pub that I love, one which has retained it's period features, more or less unchanged, for a very long time. In a village of this kind, it only serves to add to the atmosphere as well as reflecting its status as a hub of the community. With all of it's intact décor comes a cautionary tale, one the I feel is specific to visiting unfamiliar pubs without company. On a journey to the bathroom, the myriad of internal doors confused me to such an extent that I almost ended up behind the bar. Thankfully, I don't think anyone noticed.

Upon leaving the Admiral Rodney, I head straight down Bramcote Lane which is directly opposite the door I entered the pub through. This leads directly to my final destination for this afternoon, The Hemlock Stone & Dragon on the junction of Bramcote Lane and Wollaton Vale. Originally just known as The Hemlock Stone until the addition of a Thai restaurant in the premises a few years ago, the pub is named after an unusual standing rock information on nearby Stapleford Hill. The pub is another that fits in with the picturesque charm of the area, with a traditional English pub feel upon entering and the Thai restaurant tucked away to the right. The décor is plush with a very nice pale green as the overriding wall colour and an abundance of comfortable leather seating. I've visited this premises before, not long after the Thai infusion and the food was excellent then. Although this is one of those pubs that seems to place a greater emphasis on its food menu, it has received Cask Marque accreditation, which means that, despite a limited selection, the beer you get will still be properly served. Of the 3 hand pumps on the bar, 1 is not in use and the other 2 host Director's (again) and Doom Bar. As much as I like Director's, I don't feel like sampling it twice in a row so I opt for Doom Bar. The quality of this ale has noticeably declined in recent years, although there is nothing obvious to complain about with this pint. The pubs on this particular trip to what is a very nice, and decidedly upper class, part of Nottingham are certainly in keeping with the surrounding area. Of the 4 I visited, The Hemlock Stone has an interesting legend associated with the stone formation after which it is named. The Hemlock or Himlack Stone is located on Stapleford Hill and opinion varies as to whether it was carved by ancient human occupants of the site or deposited naturally as a result of geological erosion. The most interesting theory about its origin is that it was deposited by the Devil after a failed attempt to destroy Lenton Priory with a stone thrown from his cave at Castleton. It is alleged that the missile missed its target and landed on the hill where it remains to this day. Certainly an interesting anecdote, whether you believe in the story or not.

My tour of Wollaton complete, I ventured back to the bus stop before the inevitable opening of the heavens (it's May in England after all), after an interesting and very enjoyable journey around an area that, myself, has not been explored nearly enough. I admit I did miss out at least one pub (Middleton's, formerly The Roebuck on Trowell Road, which I intend to feature in a tour of Trowell and surrounding areas) but all in all, I feel like I have a better idea of what pubs in Wollaton have to offer with regard to their real ale scene. There are certainly many places worthy of visiting for their food menus alone and this will definitely ensure that I make a return to this most pleasant of places in the foreseeable future.      

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hearty Tales & Tasty Ales!

There's something about sitting in a nice comfortable pub, nursing a pint of ale and listening to a well told story as the Sun goes down, especially when the pub is renowned for both its beer and its atmosphere and the story telling is for a deserving charity. So, when I found out (big thanks to Leanne from Nottingham's Young CAMRA branch) that the Hand & Heart was hosting an evening of story telling in aid of the Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire Air Ambulance, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to brave last night's fiendish weather and go down and find out what was happening.
Situated on Derby Road, a literal stone's throw from Canning Circus, the Hand & Heart started its commercial life as a brewery in 1866. The building comprised of a Georgian house with stables to the rear and a cave below. The beers were brewed in the converted stables and dropped into the cave for storage. Soon after, when the Victorian shop front was added, it started to retail beer as a public house. Later, in the early 60s, the roof terrace was replaced by a glass conservatory. Whilst it has seen many changes, the building has retained its character and atmosphere. After trading for many years, the pub closed in 2004, and was reopened in 2008. With the addition of a tiled floor in the 1970s and wooden cladding to some of the walls, the cave is still in its original state. The conservatory area is now the Garden Room Restaurant. As a freehouse, the Hand & Heart is famous for its selection of real ales, both hand pulled and direct from the barrel, as well as a large selection of wines by the glass. Since re-opening in 2008, the pub has had several good reviews in local press for its food and reviews in real ale magazines including last year's pub of the year award from CAMRA.

After getting a slight soaking, we arrived approximately 15 minutes before the scheduled start time of 7.30pm. As the event itself was taking place in the upstairs seating area, we had enough time to procure a drink and find a suitable table. I was spoilt for choice with regards to ale. 8 hand pulls are in use at any one time and after a brief period of deliberation, and a taster to finalise my decision, I opted for a pint of Stormbringer from Copthorne Brewery. This was a very good choice. 4.5%, ruby coloured and very smooth with a good sweet balance and a slightly creamy finish. It was very tasty after the rather wet journey into town! Making our way upstairs, we were greeted by the evening's story tellers, Mike and Dave from The Woolly Tellers. They regularly carry out similar events throughout Nottinghamshire and beyond, usually for charity and a quick glance at their list of upcoming events sounds very interesting indeed. We paid our entry fee of £4 each and grabbed a table by the window overlooking a rain-swept Derby Road. Reserving tickets online or buying before the day of the event took £1 off of the fee but, with all the ticket money going to charity, I don't mind shelling out the whole amount. As we settled into the surroundings, we were informed that the telling would get underway around 8pm, giving us time to discuss what to expect. My initial thoughts were that we would be taken into the world of local folktales from Nottingham and further afield but I wasn't entirely sure quite exactly what we'd gotten ourselves into. With 10 minutes to go until the start, I had time to get a 2nd pint in to tide me over. I settled for a pint of Pugin's Gold Bicentenary Ale from Peakstones Brewery. As the name suggests, this was golden in colour, fruity with a hint of citrus, a dry, hoppy aroma and a soft finish. Not bad for an ale of 4.0%!

Shortly after I returned to my seat, the evening proper got underway. It quickly became clear that whilst it wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind, that we wouldn't be disappointed. The stories took the form of childhood anecdotes from the 2 main storytellers and some more macabre, ghostly tales from elsewhere. Helpfully, the evening was divided into 2 segments with the stories in each varying considerably. Firstly, we had the heart-rending tale of Jack, one of those stereotypical 'local weirdo' types who, it turns out, was the lucky survivor of a crippled submarine in WWII, an experience that affected him greatly, and probably a few of us listening too. The second story was a comical tale of chaos caused in a 1950s Sneinton street, by a Swedish exchange student taking a play performed in English class rather too literally. The next tale on offer was a very atmospheric, and gruesome, tale of a Medieval Scottish community and their repeated failed attempts to kill a witch who was destroying their livelihoods. This last tale came complete with a moment that made everyone in the room jump and was a perfect end to the first half.
Following a short interlude, which gave everyone time for a toilet break and a return to the bar, the 2nd half began. Accompanying me for the next stage was a pint of Gold from the John Thomson Brewery based in Ingleby, Derbyshire. At 4.5%, this golden ale had a soft hop aroma and an unusual tangy taste, with hints of malt. By the time the next collection of stories began, the Sun had set and the addition of candles on every table added a nice, cosy touch to the atmosphere, despite the cold permeating from the single glazing behind us. Next up, guest teller Mark regaled us with the tale of a Polish gold hunter and his attempt to trick his way out of being tortured by Indians in the frozen hell of the Klondike gold rush. This was followed by a connected tale, 50 years in the future, of the dying reminiscences of one of the chief antagonists. The final 2 tales were chilling in their own way, helped substantially by the atmosphere and the flickering candlelight. Firstly, we were treated to the tale of a down and out farrier whose life was turned around by possession of a pair of murderer's boots that were kept in storage in an old jail in 19th century Nottingham. This was followed by the story of an Ashbourne reveller's terrifying encounter with a ghostly car after missing the last bus home. And then, in what seemed like a flash, the evening was over.

A quick glance around the room proved that all of those present had been enraptured by what they had witnessed. The applause rang out, email details were scribbled down by those of us who wanted details of future events and we managed a heartfelt thank you as the atmosphere cleared and we made our way out with promises to return for the Halloween event which I, for one, am very excited about. As we made our way back into town in search of a taxi, we discussed the evening. We had both thoroughly enjoyed the event, the only exceptions being the cold and the wobbly table leg that made our choice of seating structurally suspect. However, despite these minor quibbles, everything was excellent. Stories are not heard like this as often as they should be. The oral tradition as it used to be known is dying out and it's a shame. Stories have always been, and always should be told face-to-face, in pubs or around camp fires, as the sun comes up or the sunset tinges the sky to orange and pink. There really are not enough people doing things like this. I'm a big believer in the power of a good story and, even though I'm a big reader, you can't beat the atmosphere and the feeling you get from stories told as they were meant to be told. This is the reason why Shakespeare should be performed and not read. I would urge anyone with the slightest interest in stories, be they ghostly tales, love stories, tales of heartbreak or heroism, or even their favourite book read out loud, to experience story telling in this way. I can promise you that you certainly won't regret it.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

An afternoon at the Circus

Due to a combination of a bad choice of puppy-sitter and a broken water pump on the car, we were forced to return early from our short holiday down south and, as a result, never made it to Winchester. Maybe next time. The plus side of this is that it gave me time to have a think about where my next Nottingham pub jaunt should be. After much deliberation I finally decided to visit a few pubs down in the Canning Circus area of the city, somewhere I've been too a few times but haven't been able to find the time to get to for a little while. The area of what is now Canning Circus started life as a series of intersecting muddy tracks above Chapel Bar, the old main entrance to the city of Nottingham. As with most similar locations, the area was a final resting place for people who were not allowed burial in the consecrated ground within the city walls. Suicides and felons hanged at the gallows were buried here, the superstition being that the confluence of paths going in different directions would prevent the spirit finding its way back to haunt its family and friends. Much of the area remained undeveloped until it was incorporated into the city itself following the Municipal Reform and Enclosure Awards of 1835-1865. Nowadays, the area is still a conjunction of routes in and out of the city but now includes some rather nice drinking establishments, including one or two with a story to tell.
My first location was the Portland Arms on Portland Street, just off of the main Circus area. This is a traditional, street corner pub, filled with locals and, despite me feeling slightly out of place, I'm made to feel quite welcome. The staff are friendly and welcoming and it's clear that this is a rare example of a kind of pub that isn't really around any more, the classic locals pub that caters specifically to the local community. The pub has an overall square layout, with the bar L-shaped and roughly central. There are seating areas opposite, with a raised area containing a solitary pool table in one corner. 4 hand pulls are present on the bar. The Portland is run by Hardy & Hanson and their Olde Trip is available, as are 3 offerings from Full Mash Brewery; Séance, Warlord and My Old Dog, their offering for this year's Mild Trail. I went for the Séance and it was a wise choice; at 4% it's very pale, has a noticeable hoppy aroma and a very smooth fruity taste. As I leave, the assembled customers are engaged in some kind of card bingo with the landlord, having already sung a rousing rendition of 'Happy Birthday' to someone called Mary.
My next location was significantly safer ground, the Organ Grinder on Alfreton Road. For those that don't know, this is the brewery tap for Giltbrook's Blue Monkey brewery. It opened in June 2011, on the site of the old Red Lion, the sign of which is hanging up on the wall opposite the bar. As you would expect from Blue Monkey, the pub is renowned for excellent ale, both from the brewery they represent and elsewhere. This is a must visit for any real ale fan visiting Nottingham. The pub is sqaurish, with lots of floor space and seating areas arranged around the internal walls opposite the roughly rectangular bar. The pub benefits hugely from a roof top beer garden which is the perfect place to sup a pint on lovely spring days. The ale on offer on my visit leaves me spoilt for choice. There are 9 hand pumps, 5 of which offer beers from Blue Monkey (BG Sips; Infinity; Sanctuary; Monkey See, Monkey Do and another that I've forgotten the name of!) a pale ale from the little known Hand Drawn Monkey Brewery, a dark beer called Darkness from Sussex's Dark Star Brewery and 2 milds (Bateman's Mild and one from Barnsley's Acorn Brewery, confusingly also called Darkness). I eventually opted for a pint of Sanctuary (4.1%), one of their Blue Monkey beers that I've never tried before. It's copper coloured, with a nice, smooth creamy head and a perfect balance of malty bitterness and hoppy flavour. It certainly went down a treat, so much so that, by the time Matt arrived to meet me, I was ready for another pint and I couldn't let him drink on his own! For my second, I went for Monkey See, Monkey Do (5%). This is another new one to me and it's pale, fruity to the nose and very hoppy with a smooth, almost citrusy taste. It was very nice indeed!
Our next stop was just around the corner, on Canning Circus proper, at the junction with Derby Road. The building that is now the Sir John Borlase Warren has existed at the site since 1796, before which time a wooden stile stood at the site. The history of the building following this is uncertain but it was apparently built as a private house before being converted to a coaching inn in 1814. In layout, it still resembles a residence, with a warren of rooms and stairways over 3 floors. The servants' rooms still exist, unchanged, in the roof. The pub has recently been purchased by Everards and their influence is obvious amongst the hand pumps on the bar. The bar is situated along one wall, on the left as you enter the building and there were an interesting number of choices amongst the 8 hand pumps. Everards Tiger, Sunchaser and Original were available as were 3 other beers from different breweries. One of the pumps contained a beer that was still settling and the other was not in use. I don't mind Everards beers per se but they are available almost everywhere so, at least to begin with, I was in the mood for something else. The beer that first caught my eye was FGA from the little known Gold Course Brew. FGA stands for Fine Golden Ale and that is certainly what I got. At 4.5%, with a sweet aroma a fruity taste and a refreshing malty finish. Jade's arrival from work prompted the decision to have another pint here too. Second time around, I thought I'd try the Everards Original (5.2%). It was in excellent condition but I would've preferred more choice on the pumps. The Sir John is known for its excellent beer and food, a fantastic beer garden and a legacy of hauntings. An investigation by UK Paranormal in 2005 attempted to unravel the truth behind stories of violent poltergeist activity in the private staff flat. An unsettling atmosphere has been reported to suddenly come and go in the same area. UK Paranormal investigated these claims and also conducted a study of the caves beneath the building. These extend for 3 stories below the main structure and spread out in a series of long alleyways with a single, long passageway running through the middle. The team left a Dictaphone in a corridor a fair distance away from where they seated themselves in hopes of capturing EVP (electronic voice phenomena). During this period, one of the team members joked that the ghosts were rummaging through the personal belongings that they had left in the bar many floors above. Upon listening back to the tape, they found the unmistakable voice of an unknown male uttering 'There is plenty of that!'
Moving on from the Sir John, we decided our final stop should be The Ropewalk almost opposite. This building, and the restaurant next door, date from the 1850s when they were originally used as a livery stables and then a home for monumental masons before becoming a funeral home run by the Palethorpe family. It repeated this purpose, both for the Co-Operative and, more recently for Lymms' funeral directors. The mortuary was located in what is now a Chinese restaurant next to the pub. The use of these buildings for this purpose was made easier by the cemetery located opposite. The Ropewalk is named after a piece of equipment used by medieval rope makers to intertwine the different rope strands. A year or so ago, The Ropewalk was renowned for its excellent choice of ales but, due to several changes of management since then, the available choices are mediocre at best. Of the 5 available hand pumps, 4 are in use, containing Greene King IPA, Wychwood Hobgoblin, Bass and, the only acceptable choice for me and Matt at this stage, The Mild Side from Nutbrook Brewery. At 3.6 %, this is an unusual golden mild with a traditional malt taste and fruit notes. It is very nice and, as someone who is still new to mild, certainly something different. It is just a shame that a pub that previously had a renowned reputation for decent ale has been forced to resort to such simple options. I can't help but feel that more effort is needed if The Ropewalk is to still be considered a must-visit destination for cask ale. Having such an unusual choice of mild was definitely interesting though and I will be making a concerted effort to embark upon my first proper mild trail in the near future. Their quiz machine robbed us blind though! By this point, we all decided that it was better to head home and try our fortunes another day. All in all, it was certainly an interesting excursion in an area of the city with a chequered history.