Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Observations on Oakham

Happy New Year one and all! And I suppose I should also say Happy New Decade as we've somehow dragged our way into 2020. I tried to keep up my promise to post more in 2019 and, by and large, I'm confident that I succeeded. So why not carry on into 2020 the way we left 2019? Just before the turn of the year, just this past Monday in fact, I once again embarked on an excursion to a place that I'd never been to see what pub delights may be found by those who seek them out. My destination this week? Oakham.

Oakham is the county town of Rutland, 25 miles (40.2 km) east of Leicester, 28 miles (45.1 km) south-east of Nottingham and 23 miles (37.0 km) west of Peterborough. It had a population of 10,922 in the 2011 census. Oakham is to the west of Rutland Water, one of Europe's largest man-made lakes, and in the Vale of Catmose. Its height above sea level varies from 325 ft (99 m) to 400 ft (120 m). Traditionally, members of royalty and peers of the realm who visited or passed through the town had to pay a forfeit in the form of a horseshoe. This unique custom has been enforced for over 500 years, but nowadays it only happens on special occasions (such as royal visits), when an outsize ceremonial horseshoe, specially made and decorated, is hung in the great hall of the castle. There are now over 200 of these commemorative shoes on its walls. Not all are dated and some of the earliest (which would doubtless have been ordinary horseshoes given without ceremony by exasperated noblemen) may not have survived. The earliest datable one is an outsize example commemorating a visit by King Edward IV in about 1470. The horseshoes hang with the ends pointing down; while this is generally held to be unlucky, in Rutland this was thought to stop the Devil from sitting in the hollow. The horseshoe motif appears in the county council's arms and on the local Ruddles beer labels. Recent horseshoes commemorate visits by Princess Anne (1999), Prince Charles (2003) and Princess Alexandra (2005).

Despite its relatively close proximity to Nottingham, travel to Oakham by train takes roughly an hour and includes a quick change at Leicester. However, with it being a rather bright and pleasant, albeit chilly Monday, the journey was barely noticeable and I arrived in the town around 11.45am. I was excited for my first ever foray into England's smallest county and even more excited for what I may find amongst the local pub scene. Leaving the railway station, I turned right onto Station Road and then a few seconds later left into Northgate. Following to this road to the very end, I soon came upon my first destination, nestled almost in the shadows of the impressive church. My trip to Oakham would properly begin at The Wheatsheaf.
Image result for wheatsheaf oakham

This attractive Everards pub has two entrances leading to a central bar. To the left is the public bar and to the right, through which I enter, is a smaller lounge bar. The lounge features a log fire, brewery artefacts in display cases and is very homely indeed. The larger public bar is more of the same with scrubbed wooden tables and plush settles. A small set of steps leads from the lounge to a small pool room and this then leads both to the public bar and to a corridor which contains the toilets. A large, well-kept garden occupies the rear. It is much too cold for outside drinking though so I contained myself within the lounge bar where the log fire provided needed warmth. Being an Everards pub, the bar was well appointed, with 8 handpulls. 5 of these faced the public bar whilst 3 others faced into the smaller room where I was. Of the 7 that were in use most were, unsurprisingly, occupied by Everards beers but a guest was also present. My options for my first beer of the day featured the following Everards offerings: Beacon Hill, Tiger (on 2 handpulls), Sunchaser, Old Original, and Sleigh Bell with the final pump given over to Adnams Southwold Bitter. I'm a sucker for seasonal beers and with it being just about suitable for the time of year, I opted for the Sleigh Bell (4.5%). This is a ruby coloured beer with aromas of berries and spice and a rich, fruity and almost wine-like flavour. It's certainly very warming and goes down a treat as I sit at a table facing a cabinet filled with old Wadworth tankards. The Wheatsheaf was certainly an excellent place to start my day and it's cosy and comfortable ambience is hard to tear myself away from. Needs must however!

Leaving The Wheatsheaf, I reached the end of the road and turned right into Church Street. Following this to the end, I reached the main high street where I turned left. A short walk away, another left took me to the Market Place where my next 2 stops are located. The first of these, tucked into a very picturesque corner amongst old buildings, is the Lord Nelson.
Image result for lord nelson oakham
This Good Beer Guide listed pub is a sympathetic refurbishment of a former restaurant that has kept its traditional stylings, both inside and out. Part of the Knead group of pubs, it certainly has a welcoming feel and a TARDIS-like interior. The small step down into the pub took me by surprise as did the sheer scale of the place. A door to the left leads into an area with traditional oak tables with the bar area beyond. A staircase leads to more seating upstairs and another door leads into a snug like space at the rear, near the kitchen, which is also accessible through a doorway from the bar. A bigger step down takes you directly to the bar which takes up most of the rear wall underneath traditional beams and with a large alcove space filled with logs for the real fires. The bar is very well stocked with wines, gins and all manner of products and, to my delight, 5 handpulls sitting front and centre, offering a varied choice. On the day of my visit, I had a choice of Thornbridge Market Porter, Butcombe Chris Moose, Framework Enigma, Oakham JHB and Fuller's London Pride. As much as I'm a fan of both Christmas beers and awful puns, I chose the Enigma from Leicester-based Framework. At 4.7%, this is styled as a New England pale ale and is unfined. This makes it juicy, hazy and fruity with big hop and tropical flavours as well as hints of white grape from the use of Australian hops. It's certainly big on mouthfeel and is an absolute belter of a beer. It's not difficult to see why the Good Beer Guide features this place if all their beer is kept as well as this! I thoroughly enjoyed as I sat at a high stool at the bar, taking in the traditional fixtures and fittings. This is a cracking pub and I heartily encourage everyone to go there now. Yes, right now!

It seemed a shame to leave the Lord Nelson but my next destination was a literal stone's throw away at The Whipper Inn.
Image result for whipper inn oakham

This former coaching inn is now a hotel and restaurant, the latter of which operates under the name The George, the name by which the pub itself was known between 1985 and 1994. The traditional exterior gives way to an updated modern interior with the bar and restaurant entrance to the right of the main door. The bar sits approximately 3 quarters of the way down the long corridor at the front of the building with tables for dining opposite and to the right as well as a larger area to the rear. The bar hosts just one handpull which, luckily for me, was in use offering Triple B from the local Grainstore Brewery (more from them later). The beer is very nice indeed. At 4.2% it's a lovely brown beer with hops to the fore followed by a malty sweetness, all rounded out by a fruity aftertaste. I once again sat at the bar to enjoy this one. My time in Oakham thus far had been going swimmingly.

What followed next was a bit strange and certainly a bit different to what had happened so far. I had initially intended to visit Mill Street Pub & Kitchen for my next stop but this pub is unfortunately currently closed and awaiting a new leaseholder. Any takers? So, I now retraced my steps, making my way back to Church Street to visit the Merry Monk.
Image result for merry monk oakham
This red-brick building is a former John Smiths pub which has been completely renovated, leaving only the façade remaining. I still expected good things from this place based upon what I'd read about it. Imagine my dismay when I was proven wrong. The former is now more or less completely an Italian restaurant, complete with faux brickwork on the back wall and tables set up for dining throughout. The wall opposite the bar is still decorated to resemble the inside of a chapel as per it's previous life. The aforementioned bar is small and square, occupying a space against one wall next to the kitchen. The hand pumps which had apparently previously been there are all gone. There is a bank of keg taps on one end serving basic lagers and Guinness with everything else in spirit or bottled form. I enquired as to whether real ale was available and the best that was offered was a bottle of Harper's Medusa, a 5% red ale. I don't tend to like leaving places without buying something so I bought the proffered beer and drank it sullenly at the bar. I have no issue generally with real ale in a bottle when it's a bit of a damp squib when I was expecting something. The place is certainly nice enough as a restaurant and did indeed remind me of places we ate at in Cyprus back in the summer but it wasn't what I was looking for. Based on the pub's Whatpub listing, I feel like the change away from cask must be fairly recent as the local CAMRA branch didn't seem to be aware of it. I have since updated them so we'll see if anything comes out of it.

Thankfully, it was back to the norm from this point on. Going back to the end of Church Street, I this time turned right onto High Street, where my next location sat just over the road. I now visited the Admiral Hornblower.
Image result for admiral hornblower oakham

This pub and restaurant also offers accommodation and occupies a listed building by the side of the main road. The interior is broken up into different sections by clever positioning of doors and internal walls. A drinking and dining area sits roughly opposite the bar with another, slightly smaller snug, to the right. The restaurant area is to the rear and accessed down a corridor that runs alongside the bar. It being a Monday in the weird zone between Christmas and New Year when most people are off work and nobody knows what day it is, the pub is fairly busy and it is now mid-afternoon. I made my way to the bar which features 4 handpulls, 3 of which were in use offering Castle Rock Snowhite, Grainstore Ten Fifty and Triple B again. I opted this time for the Ten Fifty (5%) and managed to grab a chair at a low table for 2 nearby, next to a radiator and underneath a gin board. This is another excellent beer from the local folks at Grainstore. Banana and malt on the nose and rich malt and fruit on the palate with a dry malt aftertaste and fruit flavour that lingers. It was a delicious drop and enjoyed even more so in the surroundings. This is another excellent pub with the kind of friendly atmosphere that you hope for, especially as a visitor from out of town. Again, it proved very hard to leave but, ultimately, I found the strength to do so.

I wasn't entirely where my next location was but it turned out to be just opposite. It's been a little while since Wetherspoons featured in these pages so it's time it made a comeback. Oakham's member of the chain is The Captain Noel Newton.
Image result for captain noel newton oakham

The pub occupies a building that was formerly the Royal British Legion, a status it had held for more than 60 years after being bought from the man after whom it is now named, a locally born army officer who served in World War 1 and was awarded the Military Cross. In later life, he was a member of Rutland County Council. The premises is built on a surviving part of a house called The Limes, named after tall trees in its walled garden. The interior of the pub, in its current form, is divided into two rooms, with the central larger room to the right and a smaller room to the left. The standard Wetherspoons décor is present throughout, including local historical notes and information about famous locals throughout history. There is also a large garden space to the rear but the majority of customers are all inside when I arrive. This is another pub that is quite busy on the day in question but that's no surprise given the time of year. The long bar is to the side of the main room and holds 2 banks of 6 handpumps, all of which are doubled up. My options here were Abbot Ale, Ruddles Best, Kansas Avenue Wise Donkey, Rudgate Evil Elf, Sharp's Doom Bar and Old Rosie for the cider drinkers. A Christmas beer won me over again here and I went for the Evil Elf (4%) from York based Rudgate. This is a pale ale with biscuit hints and an overall tropical fruit flavour. It tastes stronger than 4% is very nice indeed! So good, in fact, that I had another after finishing the first. I whiled away quite a bit of time here, largely to kill some time but also just for a bit of a breather. I also carried out my good deed for the day when I gave up my table to an elderly couple who were struggling to find one. I ended up perched on a high stool at a pillar with a drinking ledge on it. I also got much more exercise than expected when I decided to go to the toilet. Of course they were upstairs.

Soon it was time to move again. The last leg of my journey would take me back to the train station as my final 2 stops of the day are more or less adjacent to it. The first of these was a place I'd been excited about all day but had deliberately left until later on. Now it was time for the Grainstore Brewery Tap.
Image result for grainstore brewery tap oakham
The home of Grainstore Brewery, which is located to the rear, the tap house occupies a cleverly converted warehouse, over four floors, that was formerly owned by Midland Railway. The interior is quirky and filled with bric-a-brac, breweriana, old brewery signs and novelty posters. Dogs are welcome throughout which is always a massive plus. The racking room can be seen through glass panelled doors to one side. Seating occupies much of the floor space in the form of picnic style benches and scrubbed wood tables. When I arrive, all of these tables are full and it is very much standing room only. The long bar sits between the racking room area and another doorway that leads to the toilets. 11 handpulls occupy its length, not surprisingly taken up with Grainstore products. It took me a while to make a choice and there was quite a lot of choice! On offer were Daniel Lambert, Cooking, Rutland Osprey (on 2 pumps), Nip, Ten Fifty (also on 2 pumps), Rutland Panther, Steelback IPA, Triple B and their own Rutland Cider. Once my head stopped spinning, I went for Daniel Lambert (4.3%), named after the 18th century Leicester-born gaol keeper and animal breeder who was famous for his enormous bulk (at the time of his death, he weighed 52 stone). This is a deep dark, malty and creamy brew with a heavy roasted and smoky flavour and aromas of vanilla, chocolate and coffee. This a beer that certainly befits it's namesake! I could have spent all afternoon here. I love brewery taps in general and when they're as good as this one, it's no wonder! Clearly all the locals agree as well as the place was rammed! There is no doubt that I will come back at some point in the future. It's too good a place not to revisit.

Once again, the urge to stay in the warmth and merriment was strong but time was getting on and I had one more stop to make. Across the road from the taproom, virtually opposite the station entrance, is the aptly named Railway.
Image result for the railway oakham
This traditional pub, with glass to the front, has a single entrance that leads to a lounge-style bar with a smaller area to one side. Internal pillars divide the 2 sections from each other. The small bar sits slightly off centre to the rear of the larger room. Tables and chairs are spread around the edges of the room and take the form of small, scrubbed tables and banquette style settles under the windows. 3 handpulls sit on the bar, with 2 in use at the time of my visit, offering a choice between Gale's Seafarer's (brewed by Fuller's and an unusual find this far north) and Hardy & Hanson's Rocking Rudolph (brewed by Greene King). Based on nothing but the slightly stronger ABV I went for the Rocking Rudolph (4.2%). This turned out to be a mistake. I've had the beer elsewhere fairly recently and on that occasion, it was warming, treacley and with distinct malt character with a bittersweet aftertaste. That's what it's supposed to taste like. On this occasion though, it was a different story. There was a distinct vinegary taste in the mouthfeel that ruined the whole thing. I suspect that either the cask was coming to an end or the beer had been on for too long and so had begun to turn. It was barely drinkable but I didn't want to make a fuss so I finished it as quickly as I could and left. The Railway, for all its charm as a pub, had ended the day on a slightly low note.

There was a lot to ponder as I waited for my train back to Leicester to change for the train home. Overall, Oakham had delivered. There were some spectacular highs (Lord Nelson, Grainstore Brewery Tap) and some disappointing lows (the Merry Monk and to a lesser extent, The Railway) but ultimately it had been interesting. The beer range was very good and where the beer was good it was second to none. The largest town in England's smallest county deserves praise for those who are helping to drive it's cask ale scene forward. It certainly seems to be, more or less, going from strength to strength. Now someone just needs to put a toilet in the train station.