My first trip of the year is one that had been on the backburner for quite some time for reasons that I hope make sense. Last week, on a cold and inclement Wednesday afternoon, I was finally able to make my way to a location that has long eluded, in hopes of carrying out an exploration into the pubs of Alfreton.
Alfreton is a town and civil parish in Amber Valley, Derbyshire adjoining the Bolsover and North East Derbyshire districts. It was formerly a Norman Manor and later an Urban District. The population of the Alfreton parish was 7,971 at the 2011 Census. The villages of Ironville, Riddings, Somercotes and Swanwick were historically part of the Manor and Urban District, and the population including these was 24,476 in 2001.
Alfreton is said to have been founded by King Alfred and to have derived its name from him. The placename appears in different forms throughout the ages, such as 'Elstretune' in Domesday, but the earliest appears to be in AD1004 in the will of Wulfric Spott, the founder of Burton Abbey. Amongst his bequests was 'Aelfredingtune', or 'Alfred's farmstead', which is believed to relate to Alfreton. However there is no evidence that this Alfred was the aforementioned king.
To the south-west near Pentrich was a Roman fortlet on the major road known as Ryknield Street. Another Roman road known as Lilley Street ran from there to the southern end of Alfreton, suggesting that settlement in the area predated the time of King Alfred by several centuries.
The initial settlement was centred at the top of the modern King Street hill, where the original market place developed. On the hilltop there was also an ancient meeting hall (the 'Moot Hall') until 1914, and several inns became established over the centuries, some of which survive today. To the west was a manor house, and the nearby Church of St. Martin, parts of which date back to 1200. The manor of Alfreton spread over lands to the south and east, including the parishes of Somercotes, Swanwick, Riddings and Ironville. The first Lord of the Manor was Earl Roger de Busli, who delegated the position to Baron Ralf Ingram. The position was passed down variously through heredity, gift and sale over the centuries up until William Palmer-Morewood, the last Lord of Alfreton, who died in 1957.
The economy during the medieval period was centred on agriculture. However, the presence of readily accessible and extensive deposits of coal and ironstone in the area meant that mining and iron-working grew in importance. In some parts of the manor coal seams were so close to the surface they were often ploughed up, and numerous small workings developed. Pits developed throughout the Manor, with those in Swanwick and Alfreton being the most productive. Alfreton colliery was sited to the north-east of the town. Rope-making was allied to this industry, and the locality became famous for the quality of its ropes. In the 18th century Alfreton was the chief coal-mining centre in Derbyshire, and the third-largest town in the county. The pits closed in the late 1960s and their sites have been reclaimed for other development.
Local iron working began in the low-lying land to the south of the current town in the vicinity of the A61, where a dam was made to power a water mill. This would have been quite a small operation, along with another at Lower Birchwood, and it was not until the 18th century that iron working was expanded into major enterprises, centred on Riddings and Butterley in the south and south-east of the manor.
The growth of these industries formed the basis of the area's prosperity, and attracted huge numbers of workers in the 19th century, rapidly swelling the local population. The extensive brick terraced housing in the area dates to this period, and brick-making and tile-making were significant local industries. Boot-making and repairing, and tanning of leather, were also substantial employers due to the need for footwear for these heavy industries. According to Census figures, in 1801 the population of the area that would become the Urban District stood at 2,301, rising to 21,232 in 1931. It has remained within about 3,000 of that number ever since.
After the closure of the pits and Riddings Ironworks in the 1960s, local employment shifted to factory, retail and service-based enterprises, many of which grew up on industrial estates occupying formerly despoiled colliery lands. Initially only a few major employers were present, such as Aertex and English Rose, but this was to change with the development of several industrial estates to the east of the town.
The development of transport in the area followed much the same pattern as elsewhere in England, with roads being vastly improved by turnpiking from the late 18th century onwards. Turnpike Acts affecting the area were obtained in 1759, 1764 (amended in 1790 and 1812), 1786 and 1802. These provided Alfreton with good road links to Derby, Nottingham, Mansfield, Chesterfield and the High Peak. The town became a coaching centre, which accounts for the inordinate number of inns that were formerly in the vicinity of the market place. A legal requirement on turnpike companies to provide milestones resulted in a local curiosity, a cast-iron marker on the town cross-roads with the notation 'Alfreton 0 Miles'. Around the same time as turnpikes were introduced the coal and iron industries benefited from the building of canals in the southern and eastern parts of the area. The Cromford Canal was built in 1793, and had a 3,000-yard long tunnel. In the 19th century, coaching and canal transport were rendered increasingly obsolete by railways built to the east of the town and along the eastern and southern boundaries of the former manor. The canals fell into disuse, and road and rail transport burgeoned. Rail underwent a temporary decline in the 1960s due to the Beeching cuts, which included the Alfreton station, which was re-opened in the 1970s.
Alfreton Hall was the successor to the original manor house, and was built c.1750, with an additional wing added c.1850; it is now a conference centre and restaurant. Alfreton House just off the High Street dates from c.1650 and is now occupied by the Town Council. The former George Inn at the top of King Street dates back to the 18th century, and was used as the meeting place for the local Turnpike Trust and local Assizes. On the west side of the southern approach to Alfreton is a small and distinctive stone-roofed building known as the 'House of Confinement'. This was built in the 1820s and was the local jail. There are also several churches, the oldest of which is St. Martin's at the west end of the town, part of which dates back to 1200. Beyond the town but within the ancient Manor are Carnfield Hall (15th century, now a private residence and events venue), Riddings House (now a nursing home), Swanwick Hall (c.1690, now a school), Swanwick Old Hall (1675, private residence), The Hayes (c.1860, now a conference centre), Newlands House (19th century, now flats) and the Jessop Monument (1854) at Ironville.
It seemed fitting that the first trip of 2019 should be somewhere easily accessible and Alfreton is just that, being less than half an hour from Nottingham by train. So it was that I arrived in the town shortly before 12.45pm on the day and immediately set out to get my bearings and begin the day's survey. I made my way out of the station and headed right onto the main road until I came across a left turn onto Prospect Street. This is the location of 1 of the town's 4 micropubs, 3 of which are closed on Wednesdays. Luckily I was aware of this situation and had already made plans to visit pubs that I knew would be open with a view to return to others at a later date. My path continued towards the town centre where I was obliged to change my initial route as some of the pubs pencilled in for the day were operating at different hours than advertised online. This would ultimately result in my day taking a rather non-linear, but no less enjoyable, route.
I decided to start my day by walking to the end of the main street through the town and taking a left onto King Street where I would find the first pub of the day, an always reliable Wetherspoons, namely the Waggon and Horses.
Known as the Waggon and Horses since 1818, this red and white painted building was previously a café bar in the 1990s during which it operated under a different name. In 1818, it was the property of Henry Case Morewood of Alfreton Hall, under the tenancy of Thomas Stanley. It was taken over and converted by Wetherspoons in 2003 when its previous name was restored in honour of the horse fairs that previously took place at the top of the hill near to where the pub stands. Upon entering the pub, there is seating to the front with a long bar along one wall to rear with further seating opposite and in a raised section nearby. Somewhat inevitably for a Spoons, the toilets are located upstairs. The bar itself boasts 10 handpulls, 8 of which are in use on my visit. Available to choose between are Abbot Ale, doubled up Doom Bar, Flack Manor Flack Catcher, Loddon Forbury Lion, Peerless Oatmeal Stout, Bowman Yumi and a guest cider. I swung for the Flack Catcher (4.4%) from Romsey, Hampshire-based Flack Manor. This is a clean and rich golden ale with initial sweetness that gives way to a crisp bitter finish and a lingering zesty aftertaste complimented by a subtle spiciness. It's a good way to start the day off and not just because it reminds me of home. I'm a Hampshire lad after all! As far as Spoons goes, this is a nice, friendly example of the chain that does everything you'd expect from them and reaffirms that they do certainly know how to look after their ale.
I now had to retrace my steps, heading back to the main shopping area where, roughly halfway down, is my next destination, the King Alfred,
This is a large pub in the brewers' Tudor style, dating from the 1930s. Inside, there are two interconnecting rooms, both with exposed brick walls and old brewery posters as decoration. The main seating area is broken up by a slightly higher area with banquette seating and a lower area to one side with a pool table. The bar is arch shaped and takes up a large portion of the floor space. Two entrances open onto the main high street and a nearby side road. There are 8 handpulls on the bar, in banks of 3 and 5 with just the 2 in use at this time of the week, both offering Doom Bar at a more than reasonable £2.50 a pint. It's certainly worth it as it may be the best pint of Doom Bar that I've ever had! Even if I am the youngest one in the building by a good quarter of a century, the only exception being the barman.
My next stop required a further retread of my route and saw me heading back towards the station again, albeit staying on the main road. After a few minutes walk, I arrived at the Victoria Inn.
This is a traditional 2 bar pub situated on Nottingham Road, the main thoroughfare between Alfreton and Swanwick. Upon entering, doors to the left and right lead respectively to the public (left) and lounge (right) bars, both of which are served from opposite sides of a small bar just inside the respective rooms. The public bar, where I end up, is a fairly long room with benches and stools as seating and a drop down area that includes a pool table and dart board as well as access to the substantial beer garden. Pump clips adorn the ceiling and there is also a jukebox along with old photos of the town and exposed beams. It's a very nice place with a definite traditional pub ambience and the feeling that the pub hasn't changed much over time, but that's certainly a positive thing as it's a charming place. Each side of the bar holds a single handpump offering a different beer. On the day of my visit, these are Dancing Duck DCUK and, unusually for this far north, Fuller's Off Piste IPA. I had to have a go at the Fuller's and I wasn't disappointed. This is a 4.6% seasonal winter IPA with lots of citrus and big hop flavours. It's delicious and, for a moment, makes me forget that I'm in Derbyshire in mid-January.
I was sad to leave the Victoria behind but I had high hopes for my next stop, which involved walking back into town again and past the Spoons I visited earlier before continuing further on and taking a left into Park Street. On my way, I passed a few sad remnants of Alfreton's old pub scene, Earlier I had seen The Station, long closed and converted into apartments with only its name and old sign remaining for posterity. Add to this, the closed and boarded Four Horseshoes and the recently closed Devonshire Arms, the latter displaying an advert for a live in management couple to run it. Fingers crossed the offer is taken up as nothing is sadder to me than a closed pub in an area where they are desperately needed. My next location is the perfect example, I had now arrived at the Miners Arms.
This former Marston's pub is now a free house at the end of a row of houses in a residential street and run by a local couple. The interior is that of a traditional 2 bar pub but with a knocked through passageway between the two areas, both of which are served by a square central bar. The décor features a mixture of banquette seating and low tables and there are photos and artefacts of a mining theme throughout, including a figure of a miner with a mock lantern. A bank of 3 handpulls occupies 2 sides of the bar facing the respective seating areas and each offers the same beers, namely Marston's Pedigree, the house Miner's Ale and Rudgate Ruby Mild. I opted for the Pedigree and took a seat on a stool at the bar as I soaked up both the beer and the atmosphere. The pint was excellent and very well kept and the atmosphere was relaxed for myself and the couple of regulars (and their dogs) who also happened to be in attendance. As well as being a stalwart of the local area and for good reason, the pub made local headlines for a much more otherworldly reason last year. In September, the landlord was awoken by the intruder alarm going off in the early hours of the morning. Rushing downstairs to find no one, things got even stranger when he viewed the CCTV and saw a chair at the bar, not unlike the one I was sat on, move several feet across the floor on its own, apparently unaided. Add to this the fact that the apparition of a former landlady has occasionally been seen (although no name has been offered as to her identity) and CO2 canisters in the cellar have a habit of turning themselves off overnight, then it becomes clear that something very odd appears to be going on.
I had one last stop that I was determined to get to before the train back home. I had every intention to go much earlier in the day but on this particular occasion, the location in question was opening at 4pm instead of the usual midday. Still, with the time now right, I headed back to the high street and the What's Your Poison Ale House.
Another of Alfreton's 4 micropubs, and the only one open on Wednesdays, this is larger than your average micropub with a bar to the front and centre, a curtained off area to one side that leads to the gents and a longer area to the other side that includes seating and the ladies toilet. There is also seating on low sofas directly the opposite the bar itself. On the bar, 6 handpulls have pride of place offering a variety of beers from relatively close by but also further afield. On my visit, the choices were Grasshopper Cricket, Castle Rock Elsie Mo, Blue Monkey Chocolate Guerrilla, St. Austell Tribute, Leadmill Echo Beach and Abbeydale Moonshine. Moonshine is one of my absolute favourite beers so I wasted no time in ordering a pint and I'm glad I did because it was almost perfect with hop notes and maltiness in all the right places. I thoroughly my beer and even got into a brief discussion with a local about the progress of a refurb at the Blue Bell located opposite, which was originally on my itinerary but is currently undergoing a facelift. Needless to say, I could offer very little to the conversation.
And with that, my day was done. I made my way back to the station with a feeling of satisfaction about the day I'd had. Alfreton, with it's closed pubs, could easily have been a bit of an ale wasteland. Instead, it's moving in the right direction. The addition of the aforementioned micropubs has definitely compensated for the loss of bigger, more traditional venues which may yet, hopefully, be revived. Whilst I didn't get the opportunity to visit all of the said micropubs on this specific occasion, there's definitely scope for a return visit. The pubs I tried were a good mix of tradition and innovation and the beers were strong in both quality and quantity. If handled well, the Alfreton beer scene could very well be a significant success story and I'm glad I made the effort to have a glimpse at what's been accomplished so far. Not so much Alfreton as Ale-freton!