Last week, I decided to make my way out to a destination from which I was unsure of what to expect. Taking advantage of Nottingham's excellent tram network, I used a pleasant Thursday to head out to Hucknall for a bit of an explore of the local real ale scene.
Hucknall, formerly known as Hucknall Torkard, is a town in Nottinghamshire, in the district of Ashfield. The town was historically a centre for framework knitting and then for mining, but is now a focus for other industries as well as providing housing for workers in Nottingham. The town is notable as the site where Rolls-Royce made the first demonstration of vertical take-off (for a plane). It is also the final resting place of Lord Byron and his estranged daughter, the mathematician and pioneer computer programmer Ada Lovelace.
Hucknall is 7 miles (11 km) north-west of Nottingham on the west bank of the Leen Valley, on land which rises from the Trent Valley in the south to the hills of the county north of Kirkby-in-Ashfield. The Whyburn or 'Town Brook' flows through the town centre, and Farleys Brook marks its southern boundary.
The town’s highest point is Long Hill, (although Beauvale estate has a higher elevation and is situated at the base of Leivers Hill, commonly mistaken for Misk Hill) at 460 ft (140 m) above sea-level, with views over the city and Trent Valley, which descends to between 22 and 24 metres AOD, flowing just beyond most of the city centre.
The town is surrounded by farmland or parkland. To the north-west lie Misk Hills and Annesley. To the north-east town are the villages of Linby and Papplewick beyond these two is Newstead Abbey and its grounds, once the residence of Lord Byron. To the west lies Eastwood, birthplace of D. H. Lawrence, and the inspiration for many of his novels. To the east of the town is Bestwood Country Park.
The contiguous settlements of Butler's Hill and Westville often appear as distinct entities on maps, but are generally regarded as part of Hucknall, and are part of its historic and present-day Church of England parish, although the town itself has no civil parish council, however the identity is reinforced by being part of the post town and by being shared wards of Hucknall.
Hucknall was once a thriving market town. Its focal point is the parish church of St. Mary Magdalene, next to the town’s market square. The church was built by the Anglo-Saxons and completed after the Norman Conquest, though much of it has been restored during the Victorian era. The medieval church consisted only of a chancel, nave, north aisle and tower but it was considerably enlarged in the Victorian period. In 1872 the south aisle was added and in 1887 the unusually long transepts, while the rest of the building apart from the tower was thoroughly restored. The top stage of the tower is 14th century as is the south porch. There are 25 fine stained-glass windows by Charles Eamer Kempe which were added mostly in the 1880s. There is a modest memorial to Lord Byron.
From 1295 until 1915, the town was known as Hucknall Torkard, taken from Torcard, the name of a dominant landowning family. Signs of the old name can still be seen on some of the older buildings.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, coal was discovered and mined heavily throughout the Leen Valley, which includes Hucknall. This brought increased wealth to the town along with the construction of three railway lines.
The first was the Midland Railway (later part of the LMS) line from Nottingham to Mansfield and Worksop, closed to passengers on 12 October 1964 though partly retained as a freight route serving collieries at Hucknall, Linby and Annesley. The Hucknall station on this line was known as "Hucknall Byron" in its latter years. In the 1990s this line was reopened to passengers in stages as the Robin Hood Line, the section through Hucknall in 1993 with a new station on the site of the old "Byron", though simply called "Hucknall".
The second line was the Great Northern Railway (later part of the LNER) route up the Leen Valley and on up to Shirebrook, serving many of the same places as the Midland south of Annesley. It closed to passengers on 14 September 1931 but remained in use for freight until 25 March 1968. The Hucknall station on this line was known as "Hucknall Town".
The third line was the Great Central Railway (also later part of the LNER), the last main line ever built from the north of England to London, opened on 15 March 1899. The stretch through Hucknall closed completely on 5 September 1966, but the Hucknall station here (known as Hucknall Central), had closed earlier, on 4 March 1963.
From 1894 until 1974 Hucknall was the seat of the Hucknall Urban District Council. Upon the abolition of the UDC, local government of the town was transferred to Ashfield.
In 1956 the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Hucknall was built to serve the area of west Hucknall.
Hucknall was recorded as Hokeuhale (n.d.) and Hokenale (n.d.), suggesting “nook of land of Hōcanere” (a tribe), from Old English halh (haugh). This same tribe’s name occurs in Hook Norton, Oxfordshire. It has been suggested that the name Hucknall once referred to a larger area on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. Two other settlements in the locality are called Hucknall; Hucknall-under-Huthwaite, in Nottinghamshire, (known today as Huthwaite) and Ault Hucknall in Derbyshire. It is likely that Hucknall Torkard marked the Southern Boundary of this larger Hucknall Area.
In the Domesday Book (AD 1086) the name appears as Hochenale (volume 1, pages 288-290).
Hucknall had already proven itself to have more history than I had ever realised so the question now was in relation to the quality of its pubs and beer. Leaving the tram station upon my arrival in the town, I headed towards the main street through the centre, where the majority of the drinking establishments are located. Despite arriving in Hucknall before midday, I was pleased to see that my first intended stop was already open. Without further ado, I got the day underway at the Plough & Harrow.
Now owned by Amber Taverns, the pub was extensively renovated and improved in September 2015, with the one year anniversary scheduled to take place 2 days after my visit. Carpeted throughout, the pub is essentially a single room but has been cleverly arranged to create several snug-like drinking areas. Several TVs are located throughout and there is a heated patio and smoking area to the rear. The bar is opposite the main entrance and features 4 handpulls, 2 of which are in use at the time of my visit. Facing a choice between Tetley's Gold and Doom Bar, I opted for the latter and took a seat in one of the aforementioned snugs as I looked forward to the day ahead. The Doom Bar was in top quality condition and very refreshing. It went down very easily, so much so that I decided on a second pint. This was partly driven by an annoying email from an estate agent so extra alcohol was definitely needed so I could calm down.
Feeling calmer and optimistic about the rest of the pub trip, I moved on to my next stop, which happened to be just opposite. It was now time for the obligatory trip to a local Wetherspoons. This one is The Pilgrim Oak.
The origin of this pub's name links back to Lord Byron. He is buried in St. Mary's Church, which lies close to this pub, named after a famous tree that once stood outside Newstead Abbey, Byron's ancestral home, which isn't too far away from Hucknall itself. The interior is the standard Spoons décor with old pictures and local historical information displayed on the walls. The bar is roughly central to one wall and slightly curved with low tables throughout and a number of booths along the opposite wall. There are 12 handpulls present, all of which are in use, and these represent doubles of the 6 beers that are currently on. My options on this day are Abbot Ale, Bradfield Blueberry Ale, Magpie Six For Gold, Dukeries Bolt Out of the Blue, Lincoln Green Available Soon and Kelham Island Pale Rider. I'm an enormous fan of Bradfield and their beer portfolio so it was no time at all for me to choose the Blueberry Ale (4.4%). This is a delightfully refreshing session beer with fruity, spicy overtones and an interesting blue tint to the head. It's like Christmas in September! This was a very tasty beer and a pleasant atmosphere to enjoy it in, as I sat in one of the booths and watched the lunchtime regulars go about their business.
Next on my list, was a pub that was just down the street. I made my way to the Red Lion.
In the 18th Century, the Red Lion Inn was the rent house of Lord Byron. Refurbished and reopened in 2013, it is laid out as a series of 'living rooms' that act as separate drinking areas, as does the rear beer garden. The bar is small and sits just to the side of the main entrance. The single handpull offers Lion's Pride Bitter, which is rebadged H&H Bitter. I took my pint and moved into one of the adjacent rooms and took a seat at a small table near a window that looks out onto the junction of the high street and an adjacent road. The beer is malty and smooth and goes down well considering the low ABV. Hucknall was proving to be an interesting place and I was intrigued to see what else was in store as I reached the halfway point of the day.
My next stop was on the corner at the end of the high street at a place called the Half Moon.
Originally a Shipstone's pub, the building dates back to 1868. Reopened in Spring 2014 after a lengthy period of closure, it has been extensively refurbished to make it light and open. One side of the central bar has tables and chairs for diners and drinkers, with the other side housing the pool table. At the back is a small raised area with comfortable seating. 3 handpulls occupy the bar, 2 of which are in use whilst I'm there, offering H&H Olde Trip and Greene King London Glory. I decided on a pint of the London Glory (4%), a traditional bitter with flavours of burnt toffee and caramel and a fruity finish. I took a seat at a table just opposite the bar and enjoyed my beer as I took in the décor with its promotional posters for upcoming DJ and karaoke nights.
I was very excited to get to my next location as it was the premises that I'd been most looking forward to when researching this trip. Located around the corner from the Half Moon, on the corner of Derbyshire Lane and Watnall Road, is Hucknall's very own micropub, Beer Shack.
Formerly a shop, this is now a friendly, TV-free beer and cider pub where the emphasis is very much on good conversation. The unique Flying Bedstead pub sign, from a nearby pub that closed before Beer Shack opened, adorns one wall. In addition to its 5 handpulls, 12 real ciders are available and high quality pork pies are available to eat in or take away. The pub was awarded the accolade of East Midlands Cider Pub of the Year in 2014. I'm immediately given a warm welcome by the bar man and the small group of regulars a I peruse the beers on offer. The choice is certainly interesting: Cottage Honey Bunny, Spire Whiter Shade, Brentwood Summer Virgin, Everard's Tiger and Nightingale Tres Bien. I opted for the Summer Virgin (4.5%), a summer seasonal beer from Essex's Brentwood Brewery. This beautiful blonde beer is packed with refreshing grapefruit and citrus flavours. I took a seat on a comfy sofa at the back of the room and was instantly befriended by a small, cute dog called Yoda who made me welcome by climbing onto my lap. I engaged in conversation with the regulars where I could but sat and listened for the most part as I drank my beer. The atmosphere here is so friendly and the beer so good that I could easily have stayed here all day but, I had 2 more pubs to visit and time was getting on.
Thankfully, my next location was just around the corner, next to the training centre for Nottinghamshire Police. I was now at the Green Dragon.
Tastefully renovated in 2012, the pub has both bar and lounge areas despite its open plan layout. The bar contains the pool table and dartboard whilst the lounge is split level, with the emphasis on comfort. A number of pictures of past Hucknall adorn the walls. A tarmacked patio area is at the front and there is a separate function room at the side. The pub is rumoured to have ghosts but I've been unable to find any further information about this, more's the pity. The bar features 6 handpulls, 3 of which are in use offering Pentrich Death Valley, Castle Rock Green Dragon and Ringwood Forty Niner. After a moment's deliberation I decided on the Death Valley (5.5%), which turned out to be an American pale ale with vibrant citrus flavours from a cocktail of US hops. It's heavy hitting and very hoppy and I was certainly glad that I'd decided on this beer. The soundtrack in this pub was also rather good, as I was treated to an unexpected bit of the Offspring.
There was one premises left to go and this meant making my way back towards the tram stop and visiting the nearby Station Hotel.
Built between 1892 and 1893, this former Home Brewery pub was refurbished in March 2015 and consists of a traditional bar and a large, comfortable lounge. The lounge wall displays a series of old Hucknall photographs including one of the pub from the 1920s. The opening hours have recently been extended and so the hotel is open daily from midday and has recently made a commitment to stocking real ale continuously. This is something that is still in the early stages as there is currently just the single ale available. At the time of my visit, this is Caledonian Best Bitter, which is in very good condition and the perfect accompaniment to live coverage of the England v Pakistan ODI.
The beer was finally done and my list of venues was exhausted for the day so there was nothing else for it but to jump back onto a tram and make my way home. What were my impressions of Hucknall? It had certainly provided more than I had been expecting and the variety of pubs was an interesting mix. Whilst some of them were the standard town centre fare with a small variety of beers, there were others that stood out, specifically the Green Dragon and the excellent Beer Shack, to which I will most certainly be returning. Hucknall is doing its best to keep real ale working and with the number of pubs that are situated in the town, I can see no reason why it should end any time soon. Hucknall is one of those places that will keep ticking over, striving hard and doing its best. Things aren't so bad in this small corner of the county!