Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Doning My Drinking Cap

Festive greetings one and all! Can I just begin by pointing out that the perceived spelling mistake in this blog's title is deliberate, for reasons that will soon become clear. Hopefully this will prevent any fellow grammar Nazis from getting on my case about it. Last week, on a chilly, December afternoon I made my first foray into Leicestershire on behalf of this blog. My intention was to investigate the pubs in the village of Castle Donington, an area I first became accustomed to due to my regular commute when I worked at East Midlands Airport. I wasn't sure what to expect but, as you're about to find out, it was a worthwhile afternoon.

Castle Donington is a village and civil parish in the North West Leicestershire, part of the Derby postcode area and on the edge of the National Forest. It is the closest town to East Midlands Airport.
Castle Donington stands on the former Nottingham to Birmingham trunk road. The town is a mix of the old and new, with modern shops mixed with dignified Georgian and Regency houses. Several timber framed houses dating from the 17th century and earlier survive along the main road.
The town has no rail station, but East Midlands Parkway opened early in 2008 at Ratcliffe-on-Soar providing links on the Midland Main Line.
In 1868 the Midland Railway opened the Castle Donington Line, which included Castle Donington and Shardlow railway station, on the northern edge of the town. The station was closed to regular passenger traffic in 1930, and closed completely and demolished in 1968. The access driveway still exists but for pedestrians only, and is the start of a footpath to Hemington, running past the site of the old goods yard, now a scrap yard. The railway remains open for some freight traffic.

King's Mill, the nearby crossing on the River Trent, is mentioned in a charter issued by Æthelred the Unready in 1009 regarding the boundaries of Weston-on-Trent. Dunintune or Dunitone is mentioned twice in the Domesday Book of 1086 as having land belonging to Countess Ælfgifu and land assigned to Earl Hugh. It is called Castoldonyngtoin in a duchy of Lancaster warrant of 1484.
Castle Donington also had its own power station later operated by Powergen from 1990, which when originally built in 1958 was one of the largest coal-fired power stations in Europe, and was officially opened by Nikita Khrushchev then leader of the Soviet Union. It was closed in September 1994 and demolished in 1996.

Castle Donington has two primary schools, St Edwards and Orchard Primary School, each serving roughly one half of the town. A high school — Castle Donington College, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on 10 September 2007 — takes students from ages 10–14 and then moving on to either Hind Leys Community College or Ashby, as there is no high school in Castle Donington.

East Midlands Airport is served by several major airlines including BMI, whose headquarters are nearby, Ryanair, Jet2.Com, Thomson Airways (who have a training centre at the airport) and many others. DHL also has a base at the airport. Castle Donington is also home to the Donington Park motor racing circuit.
BMI (British Midland), an airline, is headquartered in Donington Hall, Castle Donington. The airline moved its headquarters to Donington Hall in 1982. Excalibur Airways had its head office on the grounds of East Midlands Airport in Castle Donington, as did Orion Airways.

Once a year on May bank holiday Monday a medieval market is held on the main shopping street in Castle Donington. This event comprises local stalls selling various kinds of produce and goods accompanied by dancing and music.
Usually during the last week of October each year the town hosts a travelling fair called Donington Wakes.
On the second Saturday of every month a farmers market is held on the playground of St Edward's C of E primary school.
A very large market known as Donington Sunday Market takes place virtually every Sunday at Donington Park.
Donington Park was the original venue for the Monsters of Rock festivals through the 1980s and 1990s, and is now the home of the annual Download Festival. It also hosted a Formula One Grand Prix – The European Grand Prix – in April 1993, which was won by Ayrton Senna. It was also set to be the home of the British Grand Prix from 2010 for at least 10 years, but the agreement was cancelled due to financial problems. The circuit also hosts the Donington Grand Prix Collection, the world's largest collection of Formula One and Grand Prix vehicles. Brian Henton, an F1 driver, was born in Castle Donington.
The village is easily accessible by public transport and by car as it sits near a slip road connecting it to the M1 at Junction 24. This area itself was the scene of a terrifying ghostly encounter in October 2009. A motorist driving here at around 7.45am was shaken by the sight of a man in a green jacket, dark trousers and headwear standing in the middle lane of the motorway. The driver looked away briefly to check her rear view mirror in an attempt to see if she could safely brake and upon returning her gaze to the road, was shocked to see the figure had vanished.

Whilst Castle Donington may not be as big or as well known as previous blog locations, I was certainly intrigued by what it had to offer. Initially however, things did not quite go according to plan. Having braved 2 buses to reach the village from home, I intended to start my journey at the top of the central hill along which the village is built. Handily, the first and last pubs in the village are at opposite ends of this incline and so I sensibly decided to begin at the top and work my way down. The pub at the top of the hill, The Nags Head, was my planned first destination but this quickly hit a snag when I arrived to find that it was closed and all the lights were off. Further research quickly revealed that there are a number of pubs in the village that are closed in the middle part of the day, presumably to save money during quieter periods. Peeved, but not to be deterred, I decided to reverse my itinerary and trudged down to the bottom of the hill to begin my investigations at the pub that was originally scheduled to be my last for the day. Anxious to get underway, and having found my bearings, I kicked things off at The Lamb Inn.

Owned and run by Marston's, The Lamb is a small, pleasant building with a cream exterior and an interior tastefully decorated in shades of red and cream. A TV, dartboard, fruit machine and jukebox are present, as are 3 older gentlemen playing cards, the day's only other patrons. There is lots of seating throughout with access to both sides of the central bar from doors on either side of the main entrance. The bar is square, with service available on both sides. 4 handpulls occupy the bar, 2 on each side, featuring Marston's Pedigree and Burton Bitter, Jennings Cocker Hoop and Ringwood XXXX Porter. I opted for a pint of the Pedigree, poured by a burly, but very pleasant bar man. I took a seat by  a nearby window, looking out into the room, watching Moto GP highlights on the TV opposite. I admit to being a bit wary when I first entered due to the lack of customers but everyone seemed very pleasant and were happy to keep themselves to themselves. As I took in the surroundings, including the car park and smoking area to the rear, I took a deep sip of the Pedigree, which was very well kept, as you would expect from a premises run by its parent chain. The Lamb Inn has the feel of a friendly community pub, serving regulars from the village but happy to accommodate visitors. I took my time with this particular pint as I refreshed my plan of action. Once the glass was finally empty, I took my leave and moved on.

Further up the street, on the opposite side of the road, was my next destination, The Tudor Hotel.

This family run hotel and restaurant boasts a traditional interior with mock Tudor décor. The ground floor is divided into a restaurant (closed during my visit) and a bar, with the hotel reception located between the two. The restaurant is open between 12-2 and 6-9pm so at the time of my arrival, is not currently serving food. The bar area is a fairly large, open space with lots of seating, a games machine and a fruit machine as well as a TV and a jukebox. The bar is small but well stocked and includes 2 handpulls, on which Doom Bar and Pedigree are normally available however the Doom Bar was off on this occasion. Happy to settle for another pint of Pedigree, I took a seat on one of the stools at the bar whilst my pint was poured by the receptionist who also doubles as bar staff. I was the only customer in the bar at the time of my visit but this didn't put me off too much and I bided my time by getting trounced on the nearby games machine. However, I would have my revenge later. The Pedigree here was also very well looked after and tasty so I was finding little to complain about in Castle Donington so far. Following another defeat at the hands of my electronic opponent and the last drops of my pint going down smoothly, I once again set off. The next phase of my journey involved moving off of the main road and up a neighbouring hill which leads towards the village centre proper. This particular route is considerably steeper than the main path so it is just as well that my next location is situated halfway up.

Billed as a friendly, street corner pub, the next premises on my list is The Jolly Potters.

This is a small, traditional boozer with old décor and the requisite Toby jugs hanging from the ceiling throughout. The main room is small and roughly rectangular with a snug to one side and breweriana placed around the interior. Old books and framed flower cuttings are also in evidence and there is a real fire near to the bar, which is slightly off centre from the main doorway. A few locals are around when I enter and they exchange polite hellos as I peruse the bar. The 4 handpulls are all in use and offering Bass, Pedigree, Doom Bar and Fuller's London Pride. After a brief moment of indecision, I decided on London Pride as I haven't tried it for a while and still have fond memories of my brief spell at Fuller's. I perched myself in the corner snug where I was briefly befriended by two whippets belonging to a local. I always like dog friendly pubs as they tend to be a bit more relaxed, although they do make me wish I had a canine companion of my own. This pub has a very welcoming, homely feel to it and is my favourite place at this stage in the day, helped by the condition of the London Pride which lives up to its name.

As reluctant as I was to pull myself away from the Jolly Potters, I was extremely excited about the place I was going to visit next, even though I had only recently been made aware of its existence. Further up the hill lies the central shopping precinct for Castle Donington and approximately halfway down this street sits a premises that has only been open since April. Introducing Castle Donington's very own micropub, The Chequered Flag.

Named after the device that signals the end of a motor race in honour of the nearby Donington Park circuit, The Chequered Flag is motor racing themed and features racing memorabilia displayed throughout. The original owners have recently sold the business to a local man named Bert and they still pop in regularly to oversee things, as they do during my visit. The day of my visit is the day on which Bert has officially taken over. The main entrance is slightly elevated above the street level and the beer is visible through a small window behind the cash register. The beer is served direct from the casks which are kept in a temperature controlled room to ensure quality. The pub features 4 ales, one of which, Shardlow Reverend Eaton's is always available. The 3 guests on offer during my visit are Burton Bridge Stairway to Heaven and XL Bitter and Scribblers Hoppy Potter and the Goblet of Ale. 7 real ciders are also available, along with a small range of wines. The welcome I am given here is a good one, very friendly and polite and also curious as my identity. This gives way to respect when I make it clear that I have come all the way from Nottingham to try the beer. I started off with the Reverend Eaton's (4.5%), named after a man who was rector of Shardlow for 40 years. This is a smooth, premium bitter, bronze in colour with a hop forward taste and a malty base. It is certainly very well kept. During my time soaking up the atmosphere, I engaged in conversation with the other patrons, all locals and learn a bit more about the area and village as a whole. As I've experienced throughout the day, everyone is very welcoming. I decided that it would be almost rude not to have a second pint here so I went for a pint of Stairway to Heaven (5.0%), pale, smooth and hoppy, brewed with Fuggles and Goldings hops. I immensely enjoyed my time here and it was with a hint of regret that I finished my pint and my way out into the winter evening, with the intention of visiting one more venue before catching the bus home. This meant making my way back down the hill towards the main road. With the evening now fully upon me, I happened to catch a glimpse of the parish church of St. Edward King and Martyr which is located just uphill from the precinct and also has a ghost story associated with it. As the story goes, a brother and sister visiting the church in 1950 to lay flowers spoke at length to a vicar who told them that he had once been based at the church but had left in 1906. Once they returned home and related their tale, they were informed that the vicar had in fact passed away in that year. A suitably creepy tale for this time of year I think!

Having decided to write off The Nags Head due to reasons of distance, the last place on my list for the day was The Cross Keys.

This is a low slung building with a mock Tudor interior and a wide array of seating throughout, to both sides of the main entrance. The seating is a mix of booths and comfy chairs. The bar is U shaped and includes 5 handpulls, 2 of which are not in use. The 3 remaining offer Pedigree, Doom Bar and Bath Ales Gem. Being a fan of Bath Ales, there was no way that I wasn't going to opt for Gem, which was exactly as it should be -- well-kept and delicious. As I enjoyed my pint, I noticed a games machine opposite me and, seeking revenge for earlier, I succeeded in winning £14 from it. Take that machines! With the last dregs of my pint remaining and the night noticeably colder, I reflected upon the day's events whilst I whiled away the minutes before my bus was due. Castle Donington is by and large a very pleasant place with friendly people and welcoming pubs. Whilst the quantity of ales available is not as wide as elsewhere, the quality is very good indeed! At no point was I left wanting for an improvement in taste and general refreshment from any of the pints I consumed. The range of pubs in the village is varied and interesting in their different approaches to cask ales. Whereas The Lamb and The Cross Keys will do very well with locals and those passing through, The Chequered Flag will certainly gain in popularity through word of mouth both from those in the village and further afield. With micropubs a growing commodity in these times, The Chequered Flag is a welcome addition to the fold and I have no doubt it is in safe hands. If there's one pub you have to visit in Castle Donington, make sure it's this one! If my recommendation is enough to get people down there visiting the pub, and the village in general, then it will only benefit the village, its people, economy and the wider ale community as a whole. Villages like this can offer a lot.

So that's all for this time. I'm hoping to squeeze another trip in between now and New Year but, in the event that time and money prohibit this, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2015!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Give It Up For Lenton

For my first proper excursion since I returned to the wonderful city of Nottingham, I decided it was high time that I made the effort to get out to Lenton and explore the available drinking dens, something I'd been planning for a rather long time and am now pleased to say that I have finally achieved. This seemed as good a place as any to begin my regular trips again. I intend to make these trips at least every fortnight to begin with, going back into regular weekly visits once money becomes more stable, Having regular days off certainly helps with the planning. Anyway, to Lenton!

Originally a separate agricultural village, Lenton became part of the town of Nottingham in 1877, when the town's boundaries were enlarged. Nottingham became a city as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria in 1897. The name Lenton derives from the River Leen, which runs nearby. Lenton and its mills on the Leen get a mention in the Domesday Book in the late 11th century: 'In Lentune, 4 sochmen and 4 bordars have 2 ploughs and a mill'.

Lenton Priory was founded in the village by William Peverel in the 12th Century. A Cluniac monastery, the priory was home to mostly French monks until the late 14th Century when was freed from the control of its French mother-house, Cluny Abbey. From the 13th Century the priory struggled financially and was known for its 'poverty and indebtedness'. The priory was dissolved in 1538 as part of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. Following dissolution, the priory was demolished and the lands passed through private hands. The Priory Church of St. Anthony is thought to incorporate elements of the chapel of the priory's hospital. In 2005, Lenton celebrated the nine hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Lenton Priory. The centrepiece of the celebrations was a special festival held in the grounds of Priory Church of St. Anthony on 21st May, 2005.

King Henry II granted permission for the priory to hold an annual fair on The Feast of St. Martin: November 11th. Lenton Fair originally ran for 8 days before being extended to 12. The fair caused numerous disputes with the mayor and burgesses of the town of Nottingham as no markets could be held in the town during the period of the Lenton Fair. In return, the people of Nottingham were given special rates to hire booths at the fair. The Fair continued after the demise of the Priory, though its length was gradually reduced. Its emphasis slowly changed and it was described as a horse-fair in 1584 when servants of Mary, Queen of Scots attended. By the 17th Century, the fair had acquired a reputation as a great fair for all sorts of horses. In the 19th century, it was largely frequented by farmers and horse dealers. The Fair finally ceased at the beginning of the 20th Century.

From the closure of the priory in 1538 until the 18th century, Lenton was primarily a rural agricultural village. In the 1790s, the Nottingham Canal was constructed, passing through the village. This led to industrialisation and population growth, with a number of factories being built and the population increasing from 893 to 3077 between 1801 and 1831. The area known as 'New Lenton' was developed on agricultural land separate from the village to accommodate the expanding residential and industrial needs, both of the village and the town of Nottingham. As with many other villages surrounding Nottingham, many of the residents were involved in the manufacture and trade of lace. Both the University of Nottingham and Queen's Medical Centre are in Lenton.

For such a small area, Lenton has quite a history and a number of interesting pubs as well. It was into this backdrop that I immersed myself on a surprisingly pleasant November afternoon. My first location on this particular endeavour was the Waters Edge. Named after its convenient location on the bank of the Nottingham Canal, the Waters Edge is a part of Castle Marina Retail Park and is operated by Greene King under its Hungry Horse arm. This means that it has a large emphasis on food but the bar itself is very well stocked. The building is very square and has two entrances, a main entrance in the adjoining car park and an entrance direct to the bar that faces onto the canal. Internally, the layout is large and square with a wide variety of seating including booths, high tables and chairs, lower tables, a canalside area of large picnic tables and some more lunge-chair like contraptions decorated with faux cow skin. The large, central bar is horseshoe shaped and provides service to 3 sides. Th bar is brimming with lager and cider taps but also includes 2 handpulls offering IPA and Old Speckled Hen. I decided on IPA as a nice opener to the day. This did not go according to plan however as the member of staff that served me was either unable to read or couldn't tell the pumps apart and poured me Old Speckled Hen instead. It's times like this that i wish I wasn't too polite to complain. The saving grace was that the Old Speckled Hen was well kept. That's not the point though. If the bar staff don't know what they're doing, it makes you wonder what else might be wrong. The beer was OK though and I was in a good mood, helped by the fact that the weather was better than you would expect for a Tuesday in November. I pulled up one of the aforementioned cow-skin chairs and enjoyed my pint, whilst watching a very cute toddler intermittently try and get behind the bar. Say what you like about Nottingham, we do get them drinking young.

My next destination was a little bit of a walk away, over the nearby Abbey Bridge, the bottom of which is currently a maze of road works and traffic cones, due to the still ongoing construction of new tram routes which will eventually be finished sometime this century. Amongst the mess and the construction machinery sits the White Hart. The White Hart originally began its life as Lenton Coffee House back in the eighteenth century when premises of this type were very popular. An area across Nottingham Park was a bowling green for customers of the coffee house. Original mounting blocks, believed to date from this period are still present outside the main entrance to the pub. There are a number of grisly incidents associated with this building, most notably in 1793 when an unpopular republican named Thomas Paine was hanged from a tree branch in the village by a group of men, following a mock trial in the prison that once stood behind the inn. The executioners then retired to the building following their exertions. The White hart is named after the royal badge of King Richard II, although when it was first named is not clear. The prison in question was the Court of the Honour of Peveril and had an awful reputation. It was the job of this court to investigate debtors and if they were found guilty, they were simply locked up and left destitute with no clothing or food. Until 1316, this court was held in the Chapel of St. James in Nottingham, before relocating to the Shire Hall and then the White Hart, where it remained until 1849. These ghastly events are believed to have left their impression upon the fabric of the building. A dark figure has been spotted by staff around the building and the sound of disembodied footsteps has been heard on upper floors, attributed with no clear evidence, to a jailer. The White Hart also sits on part of the site of the original Lenton Priory and archaeological evidence of this has been found beneath the foundations. Henry VIII originally tried to close in 1534 but the monks were able to resist until 1538 when access was finally gained. In punishment, 8 monks were hanged. All of this history is well hidden beneath the cream exterior and its tall windows. The interior is plush with lots of seating. One corner includes a pool table and the bar is roughly central and J shaped. There is a glass cabinet in the centre of the pub containing old photos and memorabilia from the local area. The bar features 3 hand pumps, offering Abbot Ale, Old Speckled Hen and Goddard's Scrum Diggity. Being a fan of Goddard's brewery, especially as they're based on the Isle of Wight which is very close to my neck of the woods, I went for the Scrum Diggity (4.0%), a golden ale with a mild, hoppy aroma, a nice citrus and biscuit balance on the palate and a dry finish. It was very tasty and i pulled up a chair in the window, enjoying the mid-afternoon sunshine and soaking up the atmosphere.

Next on my list was the first of 2 pubs that I was especially looking forward too. Tucked away down nearby Priory Street is The Boat Inn. This is a traditional pub with original stained glass windows to the front. Inside, the place is packed with memorabilia and breweriana, mostly of a nautical theme including an entire wall in the smaller of two rooms decorated with photographs of sailors. The Boat is currently run by Angela and Tony Cooper, assisted ably by their dalmatian Pongo. The earliest reference to the Boat is in White's 1832 Nottingham directory, which also lists Richard Widdison as landlord. The Boat was licensed as a beerhouse which meant that beer and wines could be dispensed but not spirits or strong liquour. This class of public house had only recently come into being following the passage of the Beerhouse Act of 1830, so in all probability, it was Mr. Widdison who launched The Boat. In January 1838, local newspapers reported a tragedy. For many years, Mrs. Widdison had suffered from an illness that saw her branded a lunatic. This required her to be kept confined in an upstairs room at The Boat. One evening, a servant carrying food up to Mrs. Widdison, found that the room was on fire. Despite Mr. Widdison's frantic efforts to douse the flames, he was unable to save his wife whose body was discovered burned to a cinder. An inquest was unable to determine whether or not the fire was an accident. The Boat was put up for sale in 1884 and eventually sold for £1,325 although papers did not reveal the buyer. Home Brewery bought the pub in 1916 and it was rebuilt in 1922-23. In the 1970s, the pub was restructured to give the layout as seen today. The pub is arranged into 2 rooms, one featuring the bar and a smaller room to one side, containing a dartboard. The toilets are situated to the rear of the smaller room. The bar sits to the left of the main entrance and includes 6 hand pulls. One of these is out of use during my visit but the others feature Doom Bar, Hobgoblin, Bombardier, Deuchars IPA and their own Boat Inn Quaffing Ale. I began with a pint of Hobgoblin and took a seat on a long sofa in the smaller one whilst I absorbed my surroundings. The Hobgoblin on this occasion wasn't the best. It had more than the slightest hint of vinegar, a suggestion that the barrel may have been close to going. Whilst I dealt with this unfortunate turn of events, I overheard the landlady chatting to some regulars, where I was able to glean yet more historical information about the pub. Apparently, the Boat sits on the site of the former abbey church and contains a wall at the back of the garden that is original and listed as part of the former abbey grounds. Having finished my sadly sub-standard Hobgoblin, I relocated to a spot at the bar in hopes of learning more, biding my time with a pint of Doom Bar, which was excellent. I also took the opportunity to befriend the resident dalmatian, who was very friendly.

With time drawing on, I still had one more location to visit. This was a place that Matt had been raving about and badgering me to go too for months so I was prepared to make the effort to finally break my duck and visit The Johnson Arms, situated back on the main road and behind the rear entrance to QMC. Originally known as The Abbey Tavern, The Johnson Arms is named after the man who purchased the premises in 1904. Unhappy with the original layout, he chose to demolish the existing buildings and build new ones, a task he began in 1912. He submitted new plans to the council consideration and these were accepted, changing very little over the years, even after the pub was purchased by Shipstones in 1953. When Grace Sanders, the long serving landlady, retired in 1981 after 34 years at the helm, Shipstones and their appointed successors decided to modernise the pub, by way of removing internal walls, repositioning the bar and a full internal refit. The garden took a lot longer to redevlop as planned alterations had to be put back when the initial refit went overbudget due to important work that was required on the foundations. The huge pear tree at the centre of the garden has been there at least since the time of Abbey Tavern and is the pub's crowning glory. The pub is very popular with students, employees of nearby businesses and hard-working staff at the nearby hospital. My first visit had certainly been long in coming and it was worth the wait. The traditional exterior gives way to a split level interior, with a raised area to the left hand side and a standard seating area to the right. The bar sits roughly central and includes 6 hand pulls. One is not in use but the others feature a wide range, in this case Doom Bar, Welbeck Abbey Henrietta Grande, Abbeydale Deception, Dancing Duck Dark Drake and Adnams Southwold Bitter. I was instantly drawn to Deception (4.2%), pale, with a dry, hoppy aroma a citrus taste and a fruity aftertaste. I'm very glad that I finally made the effort to come out to The Johnson. The atmosphere is one of comfort and welcome and there is a painting of an exploding TARDIS on one of the walls which made the experience all the more exciting.

I spent a while here, enjoying my pint and the surroundings, pleased that I can do this kind of thing again. In the end, as always, it was time for me to make my weary way home. Eyes slightly glazed, head slightly foggy, but overall very content, I made my way out into the encroaching November darkness and wandered back into town for my bus. My opinion of Lenton is two-fold. Firstly, the amount of history for such a small location is remarkable and this is emphasized in the history and atmosphere of its fine pubs, the majority of which are welcoming and homely. Secondly, the area as a whole is one of interest and I'm wondering how many people have never been for a closer look. It's definitely worth making the effort to explore The Boat Inn and The Johnson Arms at the very least, even for a one off. On a personal level, I will definitely go and visit these particular venues again. Hopefully, once the infernal tram works are eventually complete, more people will take the time to investigate this small area of this fine city. It's worth it, I promise you that. I apologise again for the lack of photos in this edition. I',m using a different laptop that I haven't quite got to grips with. Fingers crossed, after my next excursion, which I intend to be next week, I'll be able to provide visual records of these trips on a regular basis. Until then, keep drinking! Cheers!      

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Feeling Festive

Good news to begin this entry! I'm now officially back in Nottingham and have been for almost two months. I don't intend on leaving ever again so I guess you're stuck with me now which at least means that I'll be making use of my spare time to make regular excursions of the local drinking scene. One of the perks of being back is that I was here for one of the highlights of the local real ale scene, namely the Robin Hood Beer and Cider Festival at Nottingham Castle. Many of you may remember my debut at this event last year in which, although the heavens opened and people were not obliged to join in with a Toto sing along, much beer was drunk and a good time was had by all.

For my second trip to this fabulous event, I was joined by a different ensemble cast from that of 12 months previously and the weather was significantly better. On a calm and surprisingly warm Saturday morning in mid-October Amy, Matt, Chris and I arrived at the castle before the doors opened and joined the moderate queue that was starting to build. We were all feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement for the obvious reasons, trepidation because Matt and Chris had been unable to obtain advanced tickets. Needless to say, fingers and toes were crossed that they would still be able to join us inside what I decided last year was my idea of heaven. In the end, we needn't have worried. The queue was considerably shorter and quicker moving than this time last year and it wasn't long before we were at the front. Matt and Chris had no trouble getting in and soon we had exchanged money and tickets for our tokens and commemorative glass. I took great satisfaction in flashing my CAMRA card at the entrance to ensure that I obtained 5 extra tokens. The perks of being a member!

Once we were inside, opinion was divided as to where we should begin. Chris wanted food, I was happy to start with beer and Matt and Amy agreed. We began with a wander around the numerous food tents to see what was on offer in case the hunger took hold later. Arriving so early was definitely a good idea as it meant that not only did we have all day to kill but we also missed the larger crowds that would be in evidence later. Once we had gathered our bearings, it was time for drinking to commence! We made our way to the main tent, where we would end up spending the majority of our time throughout the day and tried not to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of beverages on offer. Until this day, Chris was a beer festival virgin so Matt and I had taken it upon ourselves to introduce him to how things worked and find him things that we knew that he would be able to cope with. Amy is a cider girl but she was more than happy to help! I was unsure where to begin and it took me a few minutes to decide what my first beer of the day would be. For reasons of proximity, I was eventually drawn to a nice sounding one from Bakewell's Thornbridge brewery. I am familiar with Thornbridge beers and they are nothing short of excellent. My choice on this occasion was Sequoia (4.5%), a pale ale with heady citrus and pine notes. I chose this because the name sounded interesting and also because it would probably be easier to say the name whilst I was still sober. This was a good way to start the day and, after Amy had chosen a cider, we headed back outside to allow Chris to grab some food and for us to make the most of the reasonable weather. Discussion quickly turned to the plan for the rest of the day. Amy's best friend and her house mates would be joining us later but as we didn't have a definite time, we decided that we would play it by ear until they arrived and then meet up with them at some point. Already this early in the day, the atmosphere was relaxed and brimming with excitement.

One thing I noticed this year was what appeared to be a larger number of bars run exclusively by local breweries. The cataclysmic weather at last year's event meant that not much time was spent outside so it is possible that these bars were overlooked then. All the more reason to investigate them more closely this year! Matt was determined to try a brand new beer from Castle Rock, largely because the badge included the emblem of local band Evil Scarecrow. Determined to sample this for myself, I followed Matt to the Castle Rock tent, which wasn't far from where we were currently located. The beer in question, Red Riding Hood (4.3%), is a reddish best bitter with a character of new world hops. It was certainly very tasty and, two beers in, the day was shaping up very nicely. We made our way back to the main tent for our next choices as Amy wanted to have another look at the cider and perry range that was on offer. Another pleasing site was the number of new breweries that were present at this year's festival. One of the new crop is Scribblers based in Stapleford. It had clearly been a good festival for this team as they were already onto their reserve casks. It soon became clear that one factor in their popularity was the puns included in their beer names. Examples included 'Beyond Reasonable Stout' and 'One Brew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'. I was drawn instead to a beer named Rebecca (4.8%), a smooth ruby beer with hints of chocolate. I offered Amy a taste and she initially refused but then changed her mind. She didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped.

With glasses refilled, we headed out the back of the tent so that everyone apart from me could have a cigarette. The air was fresh, the company was jovial and the beer was excellent. We used this opportunity to check on George who had been at the festival the day before. He eventually replied to confirm that he was still alive but was suffering considerably from the previous day's exertions. The festival was starting to get a bit busier by this point and there was a clear atmosphere of happy contentment and joy in the air. I was already enjoying this year's festival more than the visit 12 months prior and I think that was down to the relaxed feel of the whole event. Soon, it was back to the beer. After a perusal of the rows of casks I opted for a beer from the Cerddin brewery in Maesteg, Mid-Glamorgan. Cross Eyed (5.3%), is their winter beer and this was the first cask to be released of this year's batch. It certainly went down very quickly and can definitely be classed as a winter warmer! I had already started to move up through the ABV of the beers I was trying, a tactic I always try to employ when I'm having a proper drinking session. That way, you can enjoy the lower ABV beers and then move on to the stronger ones without drowning the weaker flavours as you tend to do if you do things the other way around. Depending upon range, this can be a difficult rule to stick too as will become clearer later.

Things were in full swing now and the beer was flowing merrily. I'd already decided that I would soon be requiring more tokens so I wasted no time in finding candidates to take the ones I already had. Next on my list was Speciale (5.8%) from Chesterfield's Brampton brewery. This is an ale in the style of an IPA with a fruity hoppiness and a residue of sweetness. By this point, I had 3 of my original tokens left so I was looking for something to splash out on a half of. I was instantly drawn, largely by name alone, to a brew from Cheshire's Merlin brewery, the excellently monikered Dragonslayer (5.6%). This was a delicious dark brew with lots of complex flavours working through it. No sooner had I had a sip then I was already queuing to purchase more tokens. After parting with a tenner, I was left clutching an unfeasibly reasonable 20 tokens and already perusing the guide catalogue for potential options. Amy had already upped her token quantity by this point and had found a number of ciders that she was thoroughly enjoying. She was obviously having an excellent time as were the rest of us. Once token purchasing was complete, we ventured once again to the outside of the main tent, where the children's play area is and linked with Claire and Harry, friends of Matt who I know from a long time ago but haven't seen for ages. We had received word that Sarah and her housemates were on their way so the anticipation was building to fever pitch.

My next beer was another intriguingly named concoction. Sharks Against Surfers (4.8%), is brewed by Hopcraft, another brewery from the wilds of mid-Glamorgan. This was an extra pale and extra hoppy beer with US and Australian hops in abundance. I think in this case it was a dead heat between extreme sports stars and killing machine of the seas. I rattled through my next couple in quick succession. Next up, from Hinckley's Elliswood brewery, was a lovely brew called Shipwrecked (5.4%). This is crisp and dry yet surprisingly smooth with a clean, hoppy taste. I fancied something darker for my next drink so I changed tack and went for Black Horse Porter (5.0%) courtesy of, confusingly enough, Oxford's White Horse brewery. Sarah had arrived by this time so we made our way back down towards the band stand where we had been previously so that we could meet up with her and the rest of our motley crew. The band stand was surrounded by an ever-growing crowd as the entertainment was in full swing and we spent a good long time in this area listening to a duo perform impressive renditions of Hendrix classics. Earlier on the same stage, we had witnessed an old gentleman singing songs accompanied by a ukulele. Whether he was supposed to be there or not, nobody seemed to mind and there was something quite charming about the whole spectacle.

Being encamped in this area for a while, gave us an opportunity to try things from some of the other tents and bars. We had managed to procure a bench and some space around it in which to stand and chat which at least gave us a landmark to look for in the event that any of us got separated. I had developed a considerable thirst again by now and was drawn towards a beer from a brewery with an excellent name. Howling Hops do their business down in Hackney and I gave their Ruby Red Dinner Ale a try. At 5.6% this is red and hoppy with Citra, Centennial and Galaxy hops at the forefront. I decided to have an explore of the nearby tent which had a range of beers from breweries not represented in the main area. It was interesting to me to see the different options on offer, both for ale drinkers and for those who prefer their alcohol made from apples and pears. The breweries represented here were generally smaller and less well known but no less impressive in the range of produce they had provided. After a brief exploration, Amy headed to the cider bar to see what she could find whilst I was attracted to a range of beers named after themes from Norse mythology. Fownes brewery is based in Sedgley in the West Midlands and I opted for a half of King Korvak's Saga (5.4%). This is a traditional porter with roast, chocolaty flavours. I have to say that I'm enjoying my branch out into darker ales. I think it is worth having a try of ales from different ends of the spectrum and I feel that I can say that my palate has widened from I first became a concerted real ale drinker. This is definitely helped by festivals of this type, although I have to say that this particular event is probably the best of its type, at least locally.

With the day now at the mid-afternoon stage, it was safe to say that people were getting merry but in a cheerful and well-paced way. Indeed, no one appeared to be roaring drunk which I think is a sign of how well we planned and carried out our approach to the day. Opposite the bench that we had claimed as a base was a caravan containing a bar operated by Elston's Funfair brewery. Matt and I took the opportunity to investigate this further and also to discuss life in general. I'm a huge fan in general of Funfair and their beers and I tried one that I'd never had before, Ghost Train (5.0%), a stout that certainly lived up to its billing as dark and scary, although it was delicious and had strong coffee aromas. Following my return from the 'Caravan of Funfair' which I've just this second decided to call it, we spent a while chilling out and having a chat around our commandeered seating apparatus. Whilst exploring the smaller tent earlier, I had been pleased to see that one of the bigger breweries represented was Oakham, one of my favourite breweries. Now based in Peterborough, the Oakham part of the tent was incredibly well stocked and I was swayed towards the unusually named Hawse Buckler (5.6%), a black beer with chocolate, raisin and dark malt aromas. I was disappointed that The Kraken's Ink, an even stronger dark beer, had sold out but I had gone for a more than adequate replacement.

The entertainment had taken a temporary break by this stage so we vacated our bench and moved closer to the band stand, largely to get back onto our feet again. It was suddenly clear by this point that Cheryl, Sarah's friend was quite drunk and Sarah appeared to be going much the same way, which would lead to some hilarious consequences later. I was ready for a stronger beer again by this point so I selected Calista IPA (6.1%), from Dover's Time & Tide brewery. This golden/copper ale had an intense hop character but also managed to be really refreshing. With no sign of entertainment beginning again soon, we made a consensus decision to head back to the main area. We took up our position in the outside area, alternating between leaning nonchalantly against the slide and sheltering from occasional drizzle under a surprisingly small gazebo. A beer with another unusual (but awesome) name took my attention next. Submissable Anarchy (6.4%) from Cwmbran's new Mad Dog brewery is billed as a winter juniper IPA, something I was unfamiliar with. The flavours within were reminiscent of citrus with juniper berries. It was an interesting yet enjoyable mix. Conversation was now in full flow, people were noticeably drunk and photos were being taken by pretty much everyone. Sarah attempted, unashamedly encouraged by me, to get everyone singing Bohemian Rhapsody with limited success. At some point she'd also got talking to a lad that she would later end up going on a date with, although nobody remembers her talking to him so that's a mystery for another day. I was now down to 4 tokens, which meant I had to choose my final 2 beers wisely.

The penultimate choice of the day for myself was from Nottingham's new Totally Brewed brewery. The Simcoe Kid (6.0%) is a strong, hoppy ruby ale with stone fruit character. Based upon the quality of this beer alone, Totally Brewed are definitely one to watch in future. I was starting to feel the effects by this stage and darkness was beginning to descend, conversation was going down some increasingly bizarre avenues but I still had another beer in me. My final beverage at this year's festival needed to be up to the standards of the others that I'd had throughout the day. I found a worthy concoction from the Fell brewery, based in Flockburgh, Cumbria. Tinderbox IPA (6.3%) is a heavy hopped IPA and it felt like it, all citrus flavours and zesty finish. It was an excellent way to end what had been a wonderful day.

And that was that. A full day enjoying the best beer festival in the country with some of the best people in the world. The entirety of the staff, volunteers and breweries at this fabulous event deserve full praise for an amazingly successful weekend with an even more impressive range of beers than last year. It is events of this sort that prove that, not only is cask ale and real cider alive and well, it is developing a stronger, sturdier, more determined and more ardent following. Over the hours we spent in the shadow of one of Nottingham's most famous historic landmarks, I learned many things: slides and climbing frames aren't just for kids; trying to start a sing along isn't the same if people have to keep reminding you of the words; there are only so many times you can shout 'chocolate plums' before it starts to sound like a safety word; beer is excellent; I have the best friends in the world; life is brilliant right now in all its forms. With my return from the ashes of earlier this year and my relocation back to the city that feels like home more than any other, long may it continue.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Great British Bakewell

A month or so ago, a social event gave me an unexpected opportunity to explore the pub scene of a particularly picturesque part of the country. An invitation to the wedding of two of my old uni friends saw me heading to Derbyshire on a thoroughly miserable Sunday afternoon in which the motorway resembled a river basin, traffic was a nightmare and the sat nav I happened to be using seemed to decide that Hull was where I wanted to go. It wasn't and thankfully it didn't take me long to correct the error which I'm partly putting down to the weather. Anyway, the wedding itself was taking place at Chatsworth House in the beautiful Peak District and I was staying in the nearby town of Bakewell, mostly for ease of access and general cost effectiveness. My invite was for the evening reception only which meant that, when I arrived in Bakewell at around 1pm, I still had a considerable amount of time to kill before I was required to be at the venue. Following the nightmare drive and apocalyptic weather I had experienced in the journey up, I was pleasantly surprised to see the sun come out as I pulled into the car park near my hotel. This, to me, was certainly a sign that I could do worse than to explore the local drinking establishments of this fine part of the world before the evening's more formal events got underway.

Bakewell is a small market town, well known for the local confection Bakewell Pudding, which is often mistaken for Bakewell Tart. The town is located on the River Wye, about 13 miles southwest of Sheffield, 31 miles southeast of Manchester and 21 miles north of Derby. Nearby towns include Matlock to the southeast, Chesterfield to the east and Buxton to the west northwest. In the 2011 census, the parish had a population of 3949. The tourist attractions of Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall are close by.

Although there is evidence of earlier settlements in the area, Bakewell itself was probably founded in Anglo Saxon times, when Bakewell was in the Anglian kingdom of Mercia. The name Bakewell means a spring or stream of a man named Badeca (or Beadeca) and derives from this personal name plus the Old English wella. Bakewell Parish Church, a Grade I listed building, was founded in 920 and has a 9th-century cross in the churchyard. The present church was constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries but was virtually rebuilt in the 1840s by William Flockton. By Norman times Bakewell had gained some importance: the town and its church (having two priests) being mentioned in the Domesday Book and a motte and bailey castle was constructed in the 12th century.
A market was established in 1254, and Bakewell developed as a trading centre. The Grade I listed five-arched bridge over the River Wye at Bakewell was constructed in the 13th century, and is one of the few surviving remnants of this earlier period. A chalybeate spring was discovered, and a bath house built in 1697. This led to an 18th-century bid to develop Bakewell as a spa town, in the manner of Buxton. The construction of the Lumford Mill by Richard Arkwright in 1777 was followed by the rebuilding of much of the town in the 19th century.

I began my visit with a brief saunter around the town, largely to get my bearings and determine where the closest cash machine, pubs etc. were in relation to where I was staying in order to make my slightly tipsy wander back to my accommodation that much easier. With this recon mission complete for now, I identified my first pub for the afternoon, The Red Lion.

Originally built as a coaching inn in the 17th Century, The Red Lion sits next to the main artery through the town, the A619. It also boasts the most common name for a pub in the UK. That's one for you fact fans and potential use in a pub quiz. Internally, the layout is split into two distinct sections, a split level bar/restaurant area and a ground level bar/tap room. The central bar serves both areas with a partition wall providing a physical divider between the two. The décor is traditional with lots of period charm. There is an old brick fireplace with tankards hanging above, original ceiling beams, wooden tables and chairs and a long, curved sofa in one corner. There are 6 handpulls on the bar, 2 of which are not in use with the remaining 4 being doubled up. My choice on this occasion is between two beers from the nearby Peak Ales brewery, namely Chatsworth Gold and Bakewell Best Bitter. I decided that the Chatsworth Gold warranted a try. This is a golden bitter with a dry, hoppy aroma, a nice bittersweet balance and hints of citrus and caramel which give way to a smooth finish. At 4.6%, it's also surprisingly drinkable. After how my day had gone up to this point, it was nice to be able to sit in a pub on a Sunday afternoon with a quiet pint and admire the décor and atmosphere of this quaint market town. The first pint of the day went down rather too quickly which is a suggestion of how desperate I felt for a drink after my epic journey. I decided that it was time to investigate my next venue.

My next stop was a little bit further back down the main road, on the opposite side of the high street. This was The Wheatsheaf.

The Wheatsheaf is a Marston's operated traditional pub which prides itself on offering locally sourced produce, in both food and drink forms. The premises operates more as a restaurant and this reflected in the internal layout with a largely open plan feel to one side and a cosier area to the other with a number of tables laid out for dining. There is also a separate dining room area to the rear of the property. The pub boasts a pool table, fruit machines, a dart board and a TV, all situated in the more open area of the main room. The 3 sided bar includes 4 handpulls, one of which is not in use at the time of my visit. The other 3 feature beers from amongst the Marston's collection, in this case Pedigree, Sunbeam and Jennings Cumberland Ale. Being somewhat unfamiliar with Sunbeam (4.2%), I decided that this would be my choice on this occasion. This started off ok, with a pale, creamy head, a hoppy aroma and a slightly bitter taste but after about half a pint suddenly became watery and rather bland. Whether this was down to the beer, the glass or my own tastebuds I am still unsure. What I did like about this pub was that, like the majority of the pubs in the town, it was dog friendly and I whiled away a few minutes playing fetch with a lovely Staffie called Meg. Somewhat disappointed with the beer (although the welcome and the atmosphere were fine), I determined to improve my fortunes with the next venue.

Tucked up a side street, off the main thoroughfare, is a gem of a pub called The Peacock.

This 200 year old, traditional inn has been recently renovated and the result is one of high quality that maintains the traditional values and atmosphere of a market town local. The modern interior retains much of the period brickwork. The numerous dining areas are separated by dividing walls and the reverse J-shaped bar occupies the space immediately opposite the main entrance and is roughly central to the room. There is also a Wurlitzer jukebox in one corner which is on random whilst I'm in attendance. It being a Sunday and mid afternoon, the pub is busy with locals and visitors sampling the Sunday roast which smells and looks amazing. I wish I had thought to get some food at some point. I would certainly be paying the price for this decision the following day. Anyway, I took a seat at the bar and surveyed by choices from amongst the 4 handpulls. Peak Ales, unsurprisingly, provides most of the offerings, with Chatsworth Gold, Bakewell Best Bitter and Swift Nick available as well as Adnams Southwold as a guest. With a lower ABV (3.8%) than my choices so far, I felt that Swift Nick could potentially be a good idea at this stage of the afternoon. This is a golden beer with a malty aroma and a distinctive smoky flavour leading to a dry finish. So far, this was my favourite pub of the day and I was enjoying my decision to explore Bakewell from a real ale perspective.

Just down the road from The Peacock was my next stop, The Queen's Head.

Queens Arms

Formerly known as The Queen's Arms, this pub has retained its traditional exterior whilst providing a modern, open plan internal space. Owned by Marston's but family run, the pub is very quiet, more so than you would expect for a Sunday afternoon in the Peak District. The building is long but fairly wide. Traditional beams and floorings have been kept largely intact. The central faces the largest of two entrances and includes 4 handpulls. One of these is not in use but the other options are Sunbeam, Revisionist Red Ale and Pedigree. My initial choice was the Red Ale, only for the barrel to run out during the pouring. Following my previous experience with Sunbeam, I wasn't prepared to make that mistake again so I was left with no choice but the Pedigree. This was, at least, in very good condition. From my time spent in The Queen's Head (that's a strange sentence), I got the impression that the vast majority of their trade is confined to the evening. A large number of posters point towards the pub being popular for live music so I suspect that the pub only really gets busy during these periods. It's not a bad pub per se but would warrant a wider choice of beer and more of an atmosphere.

I had one more pub that I had planned to visit before I made the trip back to my hotel for pre-reception preparations. Situated not far from the bridge that crosses the river out of town is The Castle Inn.

The Castle Inn was built in the 16th Century and is named for the old motte and bailey castle which used to lie in the area and of which only the earthworks remain following it being razed to the ground as a consequence of the Civil War. The pub is operated by Greene King under the banner of its Old English Inns chain. Both inside and out, the traditional feel and layout of the pub has been kept, including beams that, at the very least, have been made to look original. The bar is located at the right hand side of the room and features 6 handpulls. Amongst the standard Greene King offerings of IPA, Old Speckled Hen and Morland Bitter, 3 guests are also present in the form of the pub's own Castle Ale, Abbeydale Moonshine and Castle Rock Harvest Pale. It did not take me long to decide what I wanted as Moonshine is one of my favourite beers ever, if not my absolute favourite! At 4.3%, golden, hoppy and delicious, it was in perfect condition. I spent the majority of my time here standing at the bar, largely to enjoy the banter of the very friendly bar staff. I also tried unsuccessfully to book a taxi to get me from town to Chatsworth in time for the reception. This resulted in a 3 mile (!) walk to the venue from my hotel after which more beer was definitely needed. At least it didn't rain. I followed my first pint of Moonshine with a second and reflected upon how my impromptu afternoon had panned out.

The Peak District is probably my favourite area of the world and I will happily take any excuse I can to speak highly of it. Bakewell is certainly a lovely area and definitely not a bad spot to spend a Sunday afternoon pub-hopping. Whilst one or two of the pubs (The Wheatsheaf, The Queen's Head) didn't quite match expectations, one or two certainly exceeded them (The Castle and The Peacock) and this is the mix that I more or less expected for a small market town. The presence of more than one big pub company in the area bothers me a little, especially as I feel that Marston's need to up their game. Towns like this would benefit from more freedom of beer range, as evidenced by the quality and quantity available in nearby Buxton, but all in all, this was a good day spent exploring and I feel it was a moderate success. I learned many important things from this trip, in addition to the pub side of things: when it rains there, it properly rains; 3 miles is definitely further than it looks on Google Maps; having 6 pints before a wedding reception when you're not entirely sure where you're going or how to get there is not always the best idea in the world. Most importantly though, I have reaffirmed my love for Derbyshire and the things that it has to offer.

Next time I hope to bring details of a long awaited trip around the establishments of Lenton. Now that I'm back in Nottingham long term, expect more trips from this part of the world. All being well, I'll be back very soon! Cheers!