I first visited Ashbourne many years ago and it instantly became one of my favourite places and I made a mental note then to one day return and give it's many drinking establishments a proper explore. On an unsettled, but not cold, Monday, that day had finally arrived.
Ashbourne is a market town in the Derbyshire Dales. It has a population of 7,112. It contains many historical buildings and many independent shops and is famous for its historic annual Shrovetide football match.
Due to its proximity to the southern edge of the Peak District and being the closest town to the popular area of Dovedale, the town is known as both the 'Gateway to Dovedale' and the 'Gateway to the Peak District'.
Ashbourne is a market town and was granted a market charter in 1257.
In medieval times Ashbourne was a frequent rest stop for pilgrims walking 'St Non's Way' to the shrine at Dunstable in Bedfordshire.
The forces of Charles Edward Stuart passed through Ashbourne during the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Ashbourne is located at
53°01′N 01°44′W / 53.017°N 1.733°W / 53.017; -1.733. Ashbourne Green and Sturston are hamlets close by. Henmore Brook, a tributary of the River Dove, flows through the middle of the town.
From 1910, Nestle had a creamery in the town, which for a period was contracted to produce Carnation condensed milk. The factory had its own private sidings connected to the railway station goods yard, which allowed milk trains to access the facility, and distribute product as far south as London. After milk trains ceased in 1965, the railway track was lifted and the railway station fully closed. The factory closed in 2003, and since demolition in 2006, has been redeveloped as housing and a light industrial estate, although the old loading ramp from street level up to the factory floor is still in situ.
Water from a borehole on the site was first marketed as Ashbourne Water in 1975, and was sold mostly to the catering trade. Nestlé retained the borehole after the factory shut, taking water by tanker to Buxton for bottling. Declining sales (1.3m bottles in 2005, compared to 90m for Buxton water) meant that they could not justify further investment and the brand was discontinued in 2006.
The town's proximity to Dovedale and the Peak District means that tourism has always been important to it, now more than ever.
The cobbled market place hosts a traditional outdoor market every Thursday and Saturday throughout the year, complementing the wide range of individual shops in the town. Although its market heritage is important, it came under threat of closure from Derbyshire County Council in November 2012. The people of Ashbourne have opposed any such moves by the council and started an online petition. Ashbourne became the 97th Fairtrade Town in March 2005 after many businesses, cafes, shops and community organisations started supporting Fairtrade.
Ashbourne has a large number of public houses for such a small town centre: there are currently 10 pubs trading, as well as 2 social clubs. However, the town's most famous establishment, the Green Man & Black's Head Royal Hotel, closed in 2012 and underwent a change of ownership in 2013. Part of it is being redeveloped into retail units and a bistro, and some of the hotel bedrooms are being restored but, as of February 2014, plans are also afoot to restore a pub function to the complex. The famous and rare 'gallows' sign across St John's Street does, however, remains a focal meeting point in the town. Local historians have noted that almost 1 in 4 buildings in the town have at one time or another been an alehouse, pub or inn or were redeveloped on the site of such an establishment.
The 215 ft (66 m) spire of St Oswald's Church dominates the town. The church is Early English in style and was built around 1220. There are a few remnants of earlier Norman construction and in the south aisle is part of a Saxon cross shaft. The church of St John was built on Buxton Road in 1871 in a neo-Norman style. Ashbourne Churches Together (ACT) has a link with the Diocese of Patna in the ecumenical Church of North India. Regular visits take place in both directions and members of ACT are currently sponsoring the education of children in a school in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India.
Ashbourne is known for its annual two-day Royal Shrovetide Football Match, in which one half of the town plays the other at football, using the town as the pitch and with the goals three miles apart. As many as several thousand players compete for two days with a hand-painted, cork-filled ball. The game is played by two teams, the Up'ards and the Down'ards, over two eight-hour periods, subject to only a few rules. Shrovetide football has been played for centuries, perhaps even over 1,000 years. It is a moving mass (the Hug) which continues through the roads of the town, across fields and even along the bed of the local Henmore Brook. There were intermittent attempts to ban the game until the late 19th century, but none was successful.
Before the 1966 Football World Cup, the West German squad stayed at the nearby Peveril of the Peak Hotel and trained on one of Ashbourne's town football pitches (near the park).
The preponderance of drinking venues, as well as the picturesque surroundings, are what drew me back to Ashbourne and I expected it to be well worth the 2 hour journey on 3 different buses to reach there from home. I arrived in the town just after lunchtime and immediately set about getting my bearings and locating my first stop. The first pub on the day's itinerary was actually located outside of the town proper on the main A52 road between Ashbourne and the neighbouring community of Mayfield. By the side of the road, facing an Aldi supermarket is the Stepping Stones.
This is a large, relatively newly-built Marston's run premises with an accompanying Travelodge next door. The large entranceway gives way to an expansive dining area with a central bar and designated drinking and dining areas arranged throughout. There is also an outside seating area consisting of picnic tables and parasols. Marston's are usually a fairly safe bet with regards to beer and it was no exception on this occasion. The 6 handpulls offer 3 beers doubled up, namely Hobgoblin Gold, Pedigree and the Olympic-themed Hoptathlon. I decided that the Hobgoblin was a good place to start my day and this was in excellent condition, tasting very fresh and smooth. I took a seat at a table in the drinking area, facing the bar. The Stepping Stones is certainly a pleasant place, even on a largely unsettled day with drizzle coming down. The beer was well earned after my journey and barely touched the sides. I was now faced with a short walk back into Ashbourne itself, made easier by following the bus route that had brought me here in the first place.
Walking back past the bus station, reached the end of the road and turned left to where my next location sat on the end of a bridge over the Henmore Brook. Next up, was the aptly named The Bridge.
Marketed mainly as a wine bar, this is a cosy split level property with a small dining area to the front, a small bar tucked into a corner of the second level and a third level to the rear that includes the toilets. The solitary handpull offers Pedigree during my visit. This is well kept and well poured, as the barmaid pulls a full pint off before pouring mine, to ensure that I'm getting the best bits. I took a seat on a high table opposite the bar, next to a window with a view out to the brook and the aforementioned bridge. I enjoyed my beer as I pondered what may be in store for the rest of the day whilst enjoying the singing of Bonnie Tyler (on TV, not in person, although that would have been a treat). This isn't a bad place to pop in for a pint and the food sounds and looks great as well, although it is clearly not aimed at the ale drinker but you can't have everything.
Next on the list, was a pub a couple of doors down, again facing the road into the town centre. I was now at the Coach & Horses.
This is a very friendly, fairly small pub with a bar in line with the main entrance, facing into the largest of the rooms where low wooden tables and benches provide the furniture. Something that immediately drew my attention is the Cask Ale Club, an offer run here every Monday where every pint of cask ale is discounted by 20 pence. Not a bad scheme at all! Speaking of the beers, 3 of the 4 handpulls are in use, providing a choice of Adnams Samba City, Sharp's Doom Bar and Old Speckled Hen. Always up for something new, I was swiftly drawn to the Samba City, a limited edition beer brewed to commemorate the Rio Olympics. I was intrigued to discover that this is in fact a wheat beer, golden in colour with vibrant citrus aromas and a touch of banana on the palate and wheat providing creamy, spicy notes on the finish. At 4.2%, that's a decent amount of flavour! There is certainly a comfortable, cosy atmosphere at the Coach & Horses and it seems a shame to leave, but there are many more pubs to visit before my bus ride home.
The next pub is one that I've heard a lot about and was looking forward to finally visiting it. Located just off the market place, facing up the hill that leads out of town, is Smith's Tavern.
This is a small, highly traditional pub that usually provides a wide range of beers from the Marston's portfolio and a large selection of malt whiskies. The pub was named local Sub-Branch Pub of the Year in February 2015 for the 3rd year in a row. The sign above the door depicts a blacksmith, which is slightly misleading as the pub is actually named after a former owner from its time as a wine merchant. Smith's Wine Vaults and Smith's Wine House are amongst its previous names. The bar in here is small and sits just inside the door, opposite what appears to be the cellar entrance but is labelled as the kitchen. 8 handpulls are in evidence, half of which are in use, offering a choice of Pedigree, Sunbeam, Ringwood Forty Niner and Cumberland Best. Being a massive fan of Ringwood beers, I was always going to opt for the Forty Niner and this was very well kept indeed. I took a seat at a small table tucked just to the right of the entrance and admired the artefacts and old photographs on the wall. I was very interested by a framed page from a Bill Bryson book detailing his own visit to the pub where be endured a frosty exchange with the landlord after daring to suggest that Ringwood produce a decent a lager. It turns out that was sat in the very seat that he had himself sat in, a year or so before, under a photograph of the time when a lorry with failed brakes had gone through the front of the pub. Not so much a claim to fame but I'll take it.
Next up, I wandered up into the market place proper where my location sits next to a chip shop. The next premises under scrutiny was the White Swan.
This is a lively pub with a faux Tudor frontage covering what is a very old original building. The interior is considerably more modern, consisting of a single room that features a pool table, a TV, a jukebox and high wooden tables. Upon entering, I realised that I had actually been here before when I was last in the town. The bar takes up the majority of one wall and boasts 3 handpulls, featuring Pedigree, Leatherbritches Y Not Festivale and a Moonshine Cider. The Festivale was my beer of choice on this occasion, brewed as it was in honour of the nearby Y Not Festival which has recently taken place. This is a 4% brew with a mountain of hops to give a very fruity, delicious kick. I remembered this pub for having very good customer service and this still remains as I am offered a second pint as I'm about to finish my first. Unfortunately, the time had once again come to move along.
My next stop was my favourite pub in Ashbourne, the place where my love for real ale was properly cemented during my last visit here. Situated just across the market place, I give you the George and Dragon.
Under new management since 2014, the George and Dragon is an extremely welcoming place. The bar is more or less opposite the door, with seating areas arranged the edges of the rooms. I can vouch for the quality of the food here and there are even 5 rooms set aside for guest accommodation if you can't bare to tear yourself away too soon. The bar features 4 handpulls, 3 of which are in use and providing a choice between Dancing Duck Gold, Marston's New World and Pedigree. I went for the Gold (4.7%), a modern IPA with a good, hoppy bitterness and aroma balanced with strong malt notes. First Gold hops give peppery, plum like and orange zesty flavours. It's a delicious beer indeed. This pub oozes charm and character and I'm so glad that I've had another chance to visit. The table that I choose to sit at comes with a cat curled up on one the chairs. Named Skylar, she is cute but largely indifferent to my presence and my attempts to get her attention. I relaxed here for a while, engaging in conversation with a regular and the barmaid about the limited time off for pub managers. It was incredibly tempting to spend the rest of my afternoon here, and perhaps even move in, but I reasoned that I should probably fit in my last 2 pubs before I headed home.
The penultimate pub on my list was up a steepish hill that leads out of the town and into the countryside. Just before the town terminates, situated almost at the top of the hill, with a separate car park opposite, lies The Bowling Green.
I have fond memories of the food here. The pub is also a steak house and the steak is incredible. Less incredible was getting a puncture in the car park. The semi circular bar greets you as you enter and there are a couple of tables set up for dining nearby, with the rest tucked away in a back room. The pub features both a public and lounge area, both served by the bar with a partition wall partially obscuring one from the other. 4 handpulls occupy the bar, 2 in each area, featuring doubled up Doom Bar and Pedigree. The Doom Bar was excellent and I took up a bar stool to enjoy it as took in my surroundings and had a chat with a couple of regulars and the barmaid. I've made a mental note to bring Amy here, not just the pub but the town in general, as I'm convinced she'll love it and I know she'd love the steak here.
It was time for the last pub by this stage, and this meant retracing my steps back towards the bus station. Once again back on the main road through town, just down the road from The Bridge and around the corner from the bus stop was my final destination, The Wheel Inn.
This is an old, low-set building located next to the police station. Operated by the same landlord (a former mayor) for many years, the pub has a main bar area to the right and a smaller darts and pool room to the left. The 3 handpulls feature Draught Bass, Old Speckled Hen and Pedigree. I again decided to have a go with the Pedigree and this was very well kept indeed. There were a small group of regulars in the pub during my visit but I took a seat at a low table opposite the bar to enjoy and reflect upon my afternoon. My trip to Ashbourne had been excellent. I had been concerned that my anticipation about coming back and my enjoyment of my previous visit would build my hopes and I would be left disappointed. In the end, this was an excursion that more than lived up to expectations, not just for the beer but for the feel and appearance of what is a lovely little Peak District town. There is no way I would not recommend it for a day trip or longer and definitely no way that I won't be going back. Where else could you sit where Bill Bryson sat and feel like a local when you are anything but, all whilst supping delicious beer from near and far? As I returned to the bus station (scene of sightings of a phantom Roman legion) in preparation for the long journey, I felt content and satisfied that this one of the best trips I had ever done, in one of my favourite places ever. And I didn't even visit all the pubs! Reason enough to give it all another go in the future.