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!