Monday, September 23, 2019

Browsing Belper

A week or so ago, having once again been blessed with a Friday off that also happened to be payday, I decided that the time was right for another solo trip, this time back into Derbyshire, an area that I have a considerable soft spot for. Taking advantage of the great early Autumn weather, I would be visiting a place that is renowned for having one of the best high streets in the East Midlands. Time would tell whether this also applied to its pubs. The stage was set for my trip to Belper.

Belper is a town and civil parish in the local government district of Amber Valley in Derbyshire, located about 7 miles (11 km) north of Derby on the River Derwent. As well as Belper itself, the parish also includes the village of Milford and the hamlets of Bargate, Blackbrook and Makeney. As of the 2011 Census, the parish had a population of 21,823. Originally a centre for the nail-making industry since Medieval times, Belper expanded during the early Industrial Revolution to become one of the first mill towns with the establishment of several textile mills; as such, it forms part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site
At the time of the Norman occupation, Belper was part of the land centred on Duffield held by the family of Henry de Ferrers. The Domesday Survey records a manor of "Bradley" which is thought to have stood in an area of town now known as the Coppice. At that time it was probably within the Forest of East Derbyshire which covered the whole of the county east of the Derwent. It was possibly appropriated by William de Ferrers, 4th Earl of Derby at some time after it was disafforested in 1225 and became part of Duffield Frith. 
The town's name is thought to be a corruption of Beaurepaire – meaning beautiful retreat – the name given to a hunting lodge, the first record of which being in a charter of 1231. This would have been the property of Edmund Crouchback, 1st Earl of Lancaster who died in 1296, the record of his estate mentioning "a capital mansion". The chapel built at that time still exists. Originally consecrated in 1250 as the Chapel of St Thomas, it was rededicated to St John during the reign of King Henry VIII. St John's Chapel is still in use today and is thought to be the oldest building still standing in Belper. 
The coal deposits of Derbyshire are frequently associated with ironstone within the clay substrate. Initially obtained from surface workings, it would later have been mined in shallow bell pits. It is thought that this was important for the de Ferrers family, who were ironmasters in Normandy. By the reign of Henry VIII Belper had grown to a substantial size. It is recorded that in 1609 fifty-one people died of plague. However, in a Parliamentary Commissioners' report of 1650 regarding Duffield and its chapelries, Belper is described as "a hamlet appertaining to Duffield". 
From at least the 13th century there were forges in the Belper and Duffield areas and iron-working became a major source of income, particularly nail making. By the end of the 18th century there were around 500 workshops in the town supplying nails to the newly built textile mills. The workshops were eventually superseded by machinery during the 19th century. Some of the nail-makers' houses are still in existence and form part of local tours of the town. 
The industrialist Jedediah Strutt, a partner of Richard Arkwright, built a water-powered cotton mill in Belper in the late 18th century: the second in the world at the time. With the expansion of the textile industry Belper became one of the first mill towns. In 1784 Strutt built the North Mill and, across the road, the West Mill. In 1803 the North Mill was burnt down and replaced by a new structure designed to be fireproof. Further extensions followed, culminating in the East Mill in 1913 – a present-day Belper landmark. Although no longer used to manufacture textiles the mill still derives electricity from the river, using turbine-driven generators.
Strutt had previously patented his "Derby Rib" for stockings, and the plentiful supply of cotton encouraged the trade of framework knitting which had been carried on in the town and surrounding villages since the middle of the previous century. Mechanisation arrived about 1850, but by that time the fashion for stockings for men was disappearing. However elaborately patterned stockings, for ladies especially, were coming into vogue, and the output of the Belper "cheveners" was much in demand.
The construction of the North Midland Railway in 1840 brought further prosperity. Belper was the first place in the UK to get gas lighting, at a works erected by the Strutts at Milford. Demand was such that in 1850, the Belper Gas and Coke Company was formed, with a works in the present Goods Road. Electricity followed in 1922 from the Derby and Nottingham Electrical Power Company's works at Spondon. The first telephones came in 1895 from the National Telephone Company. The end of the century also brought the motor car, CH218, owned by Mr. James Bakewell of the Elms being possibly the first.
Belper remained a textile and hosiery centre into the 20th century. Meanwhile, other companies were developing: iron founding led to Park Foundry becoming a leader in the solid-fuel central-heating market; Adshead and Ratcliffe had developed Arbolite putty for iron-framed windows; Dalton and Company, which had been producing lubricating oils, developed ways of recovering used engine oil proving useful during the Second World War. In 1938, A. B. Williamson had developed a substance for conditioning silk stockings; the introduction of nylon stockings after the Second World War seemed to make it redundant, but mechanics and fitters had discovered its usefulness in cleaning hands and it is still marketed by Deb Group as Swarfega. 

Something about the appearance and feel of Derbyshire mill towns has always made me feel welcome so I was filled with a feeling of excitement and anticipation as I arrived in Belper just after midday following a train journey of less than 45 minutes from Nottingham. It was time to dive in and see what the town had to offer. Leaving the train station, I made my way up a slope that leads to the rear of the nearby shopping precinct and, as I soon discovered, the rear of my first destination. Negotiating my way to the front entrance, the day's escapades began at The Railway
.Image result for the railway belper
Formerly known as The Railway Hotel, the pub has benefited from a recent high-quality refurbishment after being taken over by Hucknall based Lincoln Green brewery. The interior is light with areas of seating to either side of the door and opposite the bar, all with a comfortable feel and a mix of modern and traditional features. To the rear, there is access to an impressive, large garden with lots of picnic table style seating and old road signs mounted on a wall. The bar runs along one wall, facing into the main area of the pub and features 8 handpumps. This being a Lincoln Green pub, half the beers on offer are from their own range, namely Marion, Hood, Archer and Tuck. The remaining 4 feature guest beers, on this occasion being Timothy Taylor Knowle Spring, Theakston XB, Lincoln Green Strawbeeries & Cream (a seasonal) and Front Row Respect. I'm a fan of Lincoln Green's beers so I opted for the Archer (4%). This is a citrusy golden ale, brewed with American hops and rounded off by a moderately bitter finish. This was certainly a light and refreshing beer to start off a day that would involve lots of retracing of steps due to various differences in opening hours amongst the pubs on the itinerary. Having thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of Belper, it made sense to venture further in.

Leaving The Railway via the attractive garden, I made a left into a small road that runs between two rows of buildings, went through an archway and then emerged onto Bridge Street, part of the main A6 road that runs through the town. Turning right, I continued walking until my next destination emerged ahead of me. The second pub of the day would be The Rifleman's Arms.
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This wooden slat fronted pub is now a freehouse that is owned and operated by the licensees. The interior is reasonably small but comfortable and well appointed. A snug is immediately to the right upon entry, featuring a mix of seating and a TV. The bar is roughly U-shaped and sits directly ahead as you enter, facing another seating area that consists of banquette seating and wooden tables and is overlooked by an impressive collection of wall clocks as well as a signed and framed England football shirt from the 1966 World Cup final. To the rear is another small seating area as well as access to the toilets. The bar features 4 handpulls, 3 of which are in use at the time. These feature Marston's Pedigree doubled up as well as Falstaff 3 Faze on the third. On this occasion, I decided on the Pedigree and I'm glad I did as it was kept very well and was very easy to drink, which I did so whilst sitting in the area that I christened the 'Clock Room' and listening to the landlady chat with a regular. The Rifleman's is very much a traditional locals pub and all the better for it. 

It was only a short walk to my next destination which is located further down Bridge Street and requires crossing the road, something which is a lot more difficult than it originally appears. Having successfully managed to get across with the help of a slow lorry I ventured to pub number 3, the George & Dragon.
Image result for george and dragon belper
This Grade II listed Georgian building is a former coaching inn with an attractive portico entrance, that is located not far from the town's famous East Mill. The interior is deep and open plan with a number of seating areas near the central, small, L-shaped bar. A couple of round tables with chairs are to the left of the entrance, a larger area with sofa style seating and a TV is to the right. This area leads to a spacious rear area with unusual airline style seating that was rescued from the old Derby Rugby Club. A side corridor leads to the toilets as well as the car park and a skittle alley. The pub is also dog friendly and has water bowls at canine height located throughout. Formerly just known as the George, this is a very picturesque and comfortable place to while away a few minutes, hours or days. Beer-wise it's not bad either. 7 handpulls are split into banks of 3 and 4. 5 of these are being used on the day I'm there, offering a choice between Bass, Abbot Ale, the house North Mill Bitter (brewed by Falstaff), Whim Ales Hartington IPA and Pentrich Lone Pine. It's been a considerable while since I encountered Whim Ales so it was only fair to break the drought. Hartington IPA (4.5%) is pale coloured and smooth on the palate with a predominant malt flavour. The slightly sweet finish combines well with distinctive light hop bitterness. I was very glad to have rediscovered this delicious beer and enjoyed it whilst watching coverage of the 2nd day of the final Ashes test which England would eventually win to draw the series, albeit without reclaiming the urn. After 3 pubs, this was certainly my favourite so far. The aesthetic and the atmosphere combine for a very homely feel, helped by the very jovial Geordie landlord. Joviality is certainly required here if stories are anything to go by. The landlord and his wife sought guidance from both mediums and paranormal investigators last year after a series of alarming events and poltergeist activity. Door handles have been rattled when there is known to be nobody on the other side, the presence of a child has been felt in and around the bar and the spirit of a lady who hanged herself in an upstairs room is believed to still reside. The landlord once observed a strange dot of white light moving around the bar before it disappeared out of the front entrance. His cat was knocked down and sadly died the following day on the road outside. Coincidence? Possibly, but connect all this with the medium who reported that the activity was linked to a long bricked up doorway and you can't help but wonder if something still lingers here. It's a cracking place nonetheless!
The retracing of steps would begin as I headed to the next pub. Leaving the George & Dragon, I turned right and headed back down Bridge Street, passing the Rifleman's Arms on the opposite side of the road. Situated slightly further on is The Devonshire.
Image result for devonshire belper
This prominent food-led pub has recently reopened and benefited from renovation. Inside the pub is cosy with restaurant style seating to both front and rear as well as in a small snug off to one side. There is a split level area to the right and behind the entrance and a long corridor leads to the toilets and rear. The bar is relatively long and curves around one wall with a few smaller tables surrounding it. The walls feature a number of unusual decorative features include framed insects, pots and pans and a decorative swan sculpture with a metal crown. I was very pleased to see a bank of 6 handpulls located at the far end of the bar. These handpulls had one given over to cider in the form of Snails Bank Mango and the other 5 featured ales from both Marston's and Dancing Duck. The options here were Dancing Duck Dark Drake, Marston's Pedigree, Marston's 61 Deep, Dancing Duck Ay Up and Dancing Duck 22. At 4.3%, 22 is a delicious beer. This is a well balanced best bitter with a good malty flavour and notes of dark fruit that are offset by strong hop flavours and a clean finish. I consumed by beer sat at a high round table near to the other end of the bar where I unsuccessfully attempted to get the attention of a dog (Milo) in the adjacent restaurant area who looked a bit like an Ewok. 
My next location required a bit more of a walk. Walking further down Bridge Street until I reached the junction with King Street, I crossed over and made my way up King Street, passing the Railway again as I did so. Upon reaching the Market Place, I took a slight left onto the aptly named High Pavement where, after traversing a small hill, I reached the Nag's Head.
Image result for nags head belper

This Marston's pub consists of 2 large rooms, with a smaller third one to the rear, all clustered around a central bar. Seating is largely around the edges of the rooms and there are TVs and a jukebox predominating throughout. The bar is L-shaped and features 5 handpulls, 4 of which were in use at the time of my visit. One of these featured Rosie's Pig Cloudy Strawberry Cider with the other 3 optioning Pedigree, Ringwood Boondoggle and Ringwood Razor Back respectively. In terms of numbers, the Nag's Head was much busier than the pubs up to this point, likely due to it being Friday afternoon and there are several regulars chatting at the bar or keeping themselves to themselves on banquette seating in the lounge area. Taking the opportunity to grab a stool at the bar, I ordered the Boondoggle (4.2%), a golden coloured beer packed with zesty hop aromas and flavours. This is another clearly very community-oriented pub with lots of footfall among locals occupying as it does a prime location on the brow of a hill. There would be more hills yet to come!

Leaving the Nags Head, my journey took me the short distance downhill to the Market Place where the first of 3 micropubs in the town is located. Tucked away in a narrow corner is the Angels Micropub.
 Image result for angels micropub belper
This Good Beer Guide listed pub is small and friendly to both humans and dogs. Entrance is into a corridor where the toilets are located and leads down into an almost chapel-like room with a vaulted ceiling and tables laid out across both parts of a split level arrangement. Beer is served on gravity here and a large serving hatch has views of a temperature controlled room beyond, where casks are stored. On the day in question, 8 beers are available along with a similar number of ciders and perries. The choice of beers is very interesting indeed and I'm faced with a choice between Falstaff 3 Faze, Lenton Lane 36 North, Oakham Citra, Thornbridge Kipling, Thornbridge Jaipur, Falstaff The Good, The Bad & The Drunk, Titanic Plum Porter and Titanic Cappuccino Stout. Regular readers will know of my love for Citra so it was an easy choice to make here. I chose to sit in the raised area of the split level with a table to myself. There were a handful of regulars and their canine companions in already and I was content to let conversation flow and observe from a distance. This is the epitome of a well-run, good quality micropub with great beer and a growing reputation. I was eager to see what the other 2 micropubs in the town had to offer but more on them later.

My next stop was a mere stone's throw away, across the Market Place. Leaving the Angels, it was no time at all before I was at the Black Swan.

Image result for black swan belper

This oddly shaped building occupies a curved plot of land on a slope that makes up part of the market place area. The pub is family run and has a distinct wine bar with a central space from which 3 rooms lead off. The bar sits at an angle in the back corner of the central area and is well stocked with gins, whiskies and champagne. It also features 3 handpumps. These offer a choice of Wychwood Hobgoblin Gold, Northdown Merry Margate and Kelham Island Best. As tempted as I was by the presence of Kelham Island, I decided instead to go for the Merry Margate (3.8%) brewed by Northdown in the Kent town for which the beer is named. I was unfamiliar with this brewery and research suggests that they're a relatively new arrival. The beer itself was excellent. Pale on the eye, with aromas reminiscent of marmalade and passionfruit, the flavour is light and hoppy with citrus coming through in droves. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The Black Swan is a rather nice place with an almost continental feel and a chilled out atmosphere.

It was back onto King Street for my next destination, at a pub I'd walked past on my way up the hill earlier. Attention now turned to the Green House.

Image result for green house belper

Occupying property that lies above shops on the road below, the Green House is accessed up a short flight of steps from the pavement outside where the road rises up. A Stonegate property, the pub boasts a well-appointed outside area complete with dining tables and parasols and a large space inside with a mixture of standard scrubbed tables as well as booths which occupy one wall. The long bar runs almost the full length of the back wall and features 4 handpulls which offer a selection of beers from more mainstream breweries. On the day of my visit, the options were Wainwright, Sharp's Doom Bar, Abbot Ale and Hobgoblin Gold. It was Hobgoblin Gold for me this time and this was kept well enough. Whilst the range was fairly mediocre, the quality was very good which is half the struggle! The Green House allows for good views down the hill back into town and this made for good people watching territory whilst the beer went down. Soon though, I was headed back down the same hill and retracing my steps once more.

I now headed back to Bridge Street, almost to where the day had begun where I had identified a premises that would be a late addition to the itinerary. This was The Lion Hotel.Image result for the lion belper
Recently renovated and now operated by JC Hotels, The Lion is a large, white-washed building on the main road. The central entrance opens into a foyer with hotel access to the left and the bar/restaurant area to the right. A central bar serves an area of traditional seating, with a small raised area in one corner. The separate restaurant space is to the rear but food is able to be eaten in the bar area. The bar's 5 handpulls are generally given over to beers from the Marston's stable but with the occasional guest also getting a look in. My quintet of choices ran thus: Ringwood Boondoggle, Pedigree, Hobgoblin Gold, Thornbridge Jaipur and Northdown He-Bru IPA. Having thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of Northdown beer, I wasn't going to pass up the 2nd so I went straight for the He-Bru IPA (4.9%). This is another cracking beer! In the style of an American IPA, it boasts big flavours of mango, pineapple and citrus. It's a definite winner and I'll definitely be paying close attention to Northdown in future. I'm thoroughly impressed with the 2 beers I've tried and even more impressed that a town in Derbyshire is serving beers from Kent!

There was more walking and more hills involved for the next leg of the trip. Leaving The Lion, I turned right and continued down Bridge Street before taking a right into Field Lane. Following this to the end, I then took a small footpath that runs alongside St. Peter's church. At the end of this path, I turned left onto Chesterfield Road which runs uphill. After passing a care home on the left, my next destination stood at a junction on a triangular plot that faces downhill. I had reached the Thorn Tree Inn.
Image result for the thorn tree belper

Reopened last year under the ownership of a mother and daughter team, the Thorn Tree Inn has the prestige of being crowned winner of the 2019 Amber Valley CAMRA Winter Ale Trail. The interior is an homage to beer and has the feel of a traditional ale house about it. There is a lounge area to the front where the bar itself is located. A set of steps leads up to a rear snug where there is further seating. The walls and ceiling behind the bar are adorned with hundreds of pump clips representing all the beers served therein. The choice for the day is between 4 of the 5 available handpumps featuring Bass, Hardy & Hanson's Kimberley Bitter, Bad Seed Ground Patrol and Froth Blowers Hornswoggle. After some deliberation, and a handy taster, I went for the Ground Patrol (4.1%) from Malton based Bad Seed. This is a New Zealand style pale ale with lots of earthy, piney and citrus flavours. I'm a big fan of this style of beer and this is up there with the best I've tasted. The pub was quiet, having opened at 4pm, and I was able to have a conversation with the very helpful barmaid (one of the owners) who even allowed me a taster of the Hornswoggle to compare. Sadly, I didn't have time to fully enjoy both beers. I'm glad I made the effort to find the Thorn Tree. It's an excellent addition to the Belper beer scene without being too well known. A hidden gem indeed!

I left the Thorn Tree and headed back downhill, taking a side route that splits off from the road I was on. Following this and turning left takes you slightly back uphill where the next pub sits over the road. Next stop, The Grapes.
Image result for grapes belper

Another pub in the Marston's estate, The Grapes occupies a position on a hill, which provides excellent views of the town and surrounding countryside. The main entrance is accessed through an outdoor seating area, itself accessed by steps from the pavement. The bar occupies a small space in a larger lounge room and contains 4 handpulls, offering beers from the usual Marston's stable. On this occasion the options were Pedigree, Jennings Head Point, Courage Directors and Wainwright. Head Point seemed like a good choice so I went for this and then decided to sit in the substantial outside area to enjoy the sunshine. The beer is perfect for a sunny day. At 3.8% and brewed for the Rugby World Cup, it's a pale golden ale with a light, citrus finish. It's certainly easy to drink and goes down very well in the shadow of the pub's stonework and the 'weather stone' that hangs by the front door.

I had 2 pubs left to visit, both of them micros and both of them thankfully downhill. The first of these was not too far away. Making my way downhill, I turned left into Campbell Street where the next pub sits on the ground floor of a building that also contains the Strutt Club. I had now reached Arkwright's Real Ale Bar.

The second of Belper's Good Beer Guide listed pubs (at least in the 2019 edition), Arkwright's is named after the famous local mill owner. Consisting of a large single room, there is seating around the edge facing a fairly large bar that takes up most of one wall. The TV in the bar area is only used for special occasions with the toilets being located down a short corridor. The bar includes 6 handpulls with 5 of them in use and another being cleaned at the time I arrive. The choices here are certainly interesting and my option are Furnace Fun Sponge, Potton Nightspear, Black Iris Bajan Breakfast, Black Hole Supernova and Milestone Green Man. The name alone draws me to Nightspear (4.8%) from Bedfordshire's Potton Brewery. This is a black IPA which, although a controversial style in some circles, is a big hit if done well. This certainly ticks all the boxes. Citrus, pine and soft fruit hops combine with dark malts for lots of complex flavours. It's a New World beer with Old World style and I'm a big fan!

It's easy to see why Arkwright's and Angels have been honoured with inclusion in the Good Beer Guide. They are both cracking examples of micropubs done properly. It was now time to see if Belper's 3rd micropub was up to the same standard. Heading back down to King Street, I once again ended up on Bridge Street where the final pub of the day is located. My Derbyshire jaunt would conclude at Pump It Up.

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Previously a butcher's and a cake shop (not at the same time), Belper's third micropub sits opposite the carved lion of the aforementioned Lion Hotel. There are 2 small rooms within, the largest is visible through the front window and features a corner bar and a couple of small tables. The smaller room is to the rear and a nearby passage leads to the unisex toilet. This is by far the smallest of the micros in the town and another good example of the micropub aesthetic. It's standing room only at the time of my arrival which gives me plenty of time to peruse the beer choices from amongst the 6 handpulls. All 6 of the available beers are more or less local which is impressive enough, as are the styles represented. My choices are Shiny Disco Balls, Amber Ales Wild Water, Littleover Hollow Legs, Amber Ales Barnes Wallis, Muirhouse Magnum Mild and Black Iris Snake Eyes. After a few moments to make my decision, I finally opted for Hollow Legs (5.2%) from Littleover. This is a full-bodied traditional pale with a heady aroma, a fruity mouthfeel with a nice malty balance and a delicate, fresh finish. I enjoyed it leaning on the bar and listening to the handful of regulars discussing football and the like. I also made friends with a very nice Staffie who seemed to enjoy the pub just as much as the human contingent. 

And with that it was time to depart. My short walk back to the station was filled with reminiscences of the day, the pubs I'd visited and the beers I'd drank. It had certainly been an interesting day with lots of positives. Belper's micropubs are excellent! All very different but all dedicated to doing what they do with passion and aplomb. I was thoroughly impressed with the pubs I'd found. The ones that I'd expected to be good were matched with the ones that took me by surprise (in particular, the George & Dragon, Devonshire and especially the Thorn Tree). The beer range was good in most and the quality decent in almost all. This has no doubt contributed to the continued praise heaped upon Belper's high street which appears to be thriving in what are trying economic times. They should be celebrated for holding the fort. Make no mistake, Belper is a belter!