Wednesday, 16 August 2017

GBBF - in need of a little TLC?

Anyone who has been following this blog recently, will be aware that I didn’t attend CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), this year. I won’t repeat my reasons for not attending the Campaign's flagship event, but without wishing to sound smug, I’m rather glad I didn’t.

Last Friday, at Fuggles Tonbridge for their official opening night, I bumped into a friend, and over a few beers, the subject of GBBF cropped up. My friend had attended the festival two days previously, and he was not exactly brimming over with praise for the event. His two main gripes were both cost-related, and were the exorbitant entrance fee and the equally high price of the beer.

GBBF 2012
Now he is not strapped for cash, by any stretch of the imagination, so I was slightly surprised when he said, “I’m a CAMRA member, yet I still had to pay £11 to get in!” With programmes a pound each (£2 for non-members) and glasses £3 each (ok we know this cost is refundable if you don’t want to keep the glass), my friend complained that he’d coughed up fifteen quid before he’d even had so much as a taste of beer!

He then moved on to the price of a pint, saying he’d been charged the equivalent of £4.40 a pint, for a very ordinary, mid-strength stout. On the plus side, the festival wasn’t too crowded, which was perhaps not surprising for mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

Now I know it’s fashionable to knock CAMRA at the moment, but with GBBF remaining one of the largest and most successful beer festivals in the world, what’s not to like?

Food offerings
I went along to last year’s festival and after my visit made the following observations here on the blog. “The organisers have got the whole event off to a tee. Years of practice, and fine tuning, means the phenomenon which is the Great British Beer Festival is a slick, highly polished and ultra-professional event, which runs like clockwork to a well tried and tested formula.”

All good, positive stuff; I even went on to say, “I couldn’t fault it at all. There was plenty of seating; something the festival lacked just a few years ago. There was a huge variety of different food stalls, selling all manner of different foodstuffs - essential at an event like this for soaking up all that beer which people imbibe. There was adequate room in which to circulate and, for those of us who remember the greenhouse effect, back in the 1990’s, from that massive glass canopy at Olympia, air-conditioning! Consequently, customers remained cool as did the beer.”

So what has changed, and as someone who didn’t bother to attend, am I the right person to be asking these questions? Well over the years I’ve been to quite a few Great British Beer Festivals, including the first one at Alexandra Palace as well as the one held under canvas following the fire which destroyed much of that particular venue.

Earls Court 2009
I’ve also attended two excellent GBBF’s in Brighton, plus a disastrous one at the Docklands London Arena. Olympia was always a good venue, and the installation of air-conditioning, which was a real godsend when it eventually happened, makes it ideal. However, I was never keen on the now demolished Earl’s Court, which was more like drinking in an underground car-park. I was also present at the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, which took place in 1975, and was the forerunner of GBBF.

In short, I’ve been to a fair few festivals, and have seen GBBF evolve from a slightly shambolic, and at times totally chaotic happening, to today’s slick and thoroughly professional event. And therein lies the rub, as having reached this state are the organisers now just content to rest on their laurels and lie back whilst the money rolls in? Is this strategy starting to unwind, and does GBBF offer sufficient to attract an increasingly discerning audience of beer lovers?

Champion Beer of Britain finalists 2016
On the face of it, an event which showcases 900 different beers might be exactly the sort of thing to bring in the punters; but ironically, this vast selection represents far too much choice.  My own observations from previous years, that there are just too many “samey” beers, have been backed up by other observers; one even pointed out, "There were far too many insipid golden ales from too many uninspired micros."

So where were the really interesting beers  and where were the really great beers? The answer appears to be on the foreign beer bars, with the American Cask Bar not only taking the lead, but proving so popular that it ran out of beer by the end of Thursday evening. Isn’t this a rather damming indictment of a festival designed to showcase the very best of British beer? The popularity of the American Cask Bar demonstrates there is a demand for complex and challenging beer, and there is no reason why such beer cannot be British real ale.

GBBF 2013
There were complaints about the live entertainment, which now seems to be made up of cover’s bands and tribute acts. A decade or so I saw the Acoustic Strawbs play an excellent set, and there have been other well-known acts, including Chas'n'Dave, Steeleye Span, the Bad Shepherds, and the band which featured the late John Bonham's sister.

Some have argued that this is down to cost; CAMRA is rumoured to be strapped for cash, and the decision to charge for programmes – especially when they are packed full of adverts which will have more than covered the cost of printing, seems another penny-pinching way of trying to reduce the reported deficit. I also saw a comment that the decor was “minimalist at best”, with just a few banners in support of CAMRA. The same observer claimed that the only splashes of colour and excitement were those provided by the brewery bars!

American Cask Bar 2013
These may sound like pretty minor points, but small changes can often have big effects, and also unforeseen circumstances. Charging what you think the market will stand, or what CAMRA thinks it can get away with, is not going to win the organisation many friends; especially when those prices are often in excess of those charged by many London pubs.

I appreciate the necessity of the entrance fee, given the prestigious nature of the venue and the fact it is in the heart of our capital city, but with the festival relying on an army of unpaid volunteers, surely the double figure entrance fee is unjustified. CAMRA is a large, powerful and influential organisation which is more than capable of putting on a much more inspiring festival if they chose to. With so many interesting and, at times, amazing home-produced beers available, it's disappointing that instead they appear to have kept with the same tried and tested “safe” formula of previous years.  

Foreign beers again finding favour
Playing safe, whilst trying to make as much money as possible,  surely isn’t what GBBF and the Campaign for Real Ale are all about, but it's not too late to turn the festival around. The Great British Beer Festival is a long-established event which commands a large attendance, a massive profile and an enormous amount of goodwill, inspired by the 1,200 odd volunteers who every year, give up their time to ensure the festival is a success. This side doesn’t need to change, but the thinking behind the event definitely does. 

With no overall strategy, or even an attempt to see the bigger picture, the inertia of years of doing things a certain way has left the festival floundering and unsure of its real purpose in an increasingly crowded beer market. So please, let’s  have less bland Golden Ales, Ordinary Bitters and “ordinary-tasting” milds, and let us really celebrate all that is good with British beer. 

If this means less involvement in the ordering process from local branches, with their politics and individual prejudices, and more input from people who really know about beer, then so be it. It may even mean the involvement of a company which specialises in organising events. There are plenty of them about, or is this a step too far?

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A rather beery week

Several years ago I wrote a post in which I described my reasons for staying in, and doing my drinking at home, rather than venturing out and socialising with my fellow human beings in the surroundings of a pub. The main reason was there weren’t any decent pubs left in Tonbridge; the town where I have lived for the past 30 plus years. 

Things are changing though with the opening on Friday night of the beer café  Fuggles, as I reported earlier and there are reports of another exciting beer venture opening in the town, later in the autumn.

The past week though has seen me out on more occasions than I can remember for many a year. Monday started with a trip up to London for the British Guild of Beer Writer’s Summer Party. The event took place on the Tattershall Castle; a former river ferry, moored on the Thames, just off the Victoria Embankment. It was a good event, and despite doing my best in order to pace myself, bearing in mind I had to work the following day,  I still felt slightly jaded the following morning.

On Tuesday, I wisely had a day off the sauce, but come Wednesday, I had an invitation for the "soft opening" of Fuggles Beer Café in Tonbridge. Thursday was another alcohol free day, but on Friday lunchtime I called in at the recently re-opened Greyhound at Charcott.

The pub wasn’t overly busy, and seeing as I was on my lunch hour I only had the one beer; a very good pint of Dark star Hophead. The lull gave me a chance to chat to landlord Richard about how plans for the pub’s kitchen were progressing. The kitchen was coming along slowly, was his honest reply, but he has been careful to involve the local authority in the project from the start, thereby ensuring full compliance with the various requirements once everything is up and running.

I felt very rather tired that evening; the sort of usual end of week feeling after a busy time at work. Despite my tiredness I wanted to visit Fuggles Tonbridge again for what would be their official opening. So I wandered along to the north end of the High Street, arriving at around 8.45pm.

Fuggles opening night - photo by Jon Collins
The place was absolutely heaving, with customers spilling out onto the pavement, but I managed to make my way to the bar and even to find a seat alongside one of my CAMRA friends and his son, who were enjoying the excellent beer (and gin, in the case of my friend’s son), in the rather noisy, but good-natured atmosphere of this welcome addition to the town.

I only stayed for a couple; Kent Brewery Simcoe 4.5%  on cask and Burning Sky Aspire 4.4% on keg, but both were good. My friends left a little earlier, so I chatted briefly to the two couples who came and sat at the recently vacated table. They were from the same area of Tonbridge as me, and all were really pleased that the town at last had somewhere decent to drink at.

Saturday saw a friend and former work colleague visiting Eileen and I. Our friend moved to London twenty-plus years ago, following the closure of the company where we all worked. He is a Tonbridge lad though, although he said that after his mother died, he had little reason to visit the town.

We met at the station, and the idea had been to visit a few pubs and for our friend to have a look around the town. Unfortunately he had badly sprained a few ribs and was having difficulty in walking far, so we put  plan B into action and headed for the Punch & Judy; the nearest pub to the station.

Posing tables - naturally
I knew the pub had been closed for renovation, so was not overtly surprised by the smell of new paint which greeted us as we walked through the door; even so was rather surprised to learn from the landlady, that the Punch had only re-opened the night before. It had undergone an extensive re-decoration, on the outside as well as in, but the pub has been given a pleasing contemporary look without distracting too much from its 19th Century origins.

Our friend remembered the Punch as the Gardener’s Arms, and so do I – just about. Back then it was a small, two-bar, back-street local, but now the interior has been completely opened up, and the former conservatory area at the rear has been incorporated into the main pub. This, of course, happened years ago, and the recent renovation was more of a cosmetic paint-job than anything else.

As the sun was at last finally shining, we decided to sit out in the small, courtyard garden area at the rear. This also enabled Eileen, who doesn’t drink btw, to indulge in her own individual vice of a cigarette or two. There were two cask ales available; Harvey’s Sussex Best and Tonbridge Coppernob. I went for the Harvey’s whilst our friend opted for the more local beer. Both were in excellent condition.

We spent several hours catching up, reminiscing and putting world to right, but after a few pints were feeling a trifle peckish. I enquired about, but the Punch’s landlady said they not in a position to serve  food yet, as  they had only opened the night before. A quick look on line revealed that the Forester's Arms, just up the road, had pizza available at all times, so given its proximity to the Punch, we decided to give the place a go.

Eileen didn’t join us, as she had some shopping to do, but my friend and I wandered up to the Foresters, which is the only Shepherd Neame pub in town. Neither of us were strangers to the pub, although my friend’s association with the place goes back 50 years or more.

I had been in the Foresters much more recently; in fact I wrote about my visit here. My friend was impressed by the alterations which had taken place, turning what was once an ordinary two-bar pub, into a bright and airy pub, with a friendly welcome and something for everyone.

We ordered some beers; Whitstable Bay Pale Ale, served up in dimple glasses. We also ordered a pizza each; a small one for me plus a large one for my friend. The pizzas are specially prepared by landlord Tyson Marshall, and were delicious. 

We had one final beer before it was time for my friend to depart, and this time we went for the Whitstable Bay Blonde, which was rather good. After finishing our beers I walked back to the station with my friend and said goodbye. I am sure I will be meeting up with him again, but in London’s Kentish Town, next time.

So ended a rather beery (for me at least), week. Today was spent doing housework, gardening plus a spot of shopping, and tomorrow it is back to work.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Fuggles comes to town

Well it’s been a long time coming, but boy it was well worth the wait, because on Friday evening Fuggles, the well-known Tunbridge Wells beer café, finally opens its outlet in Tonbridge; the town I have lived in for the past 30 plus years.

I was actually treated to a sneak preview on Wednesday evening as, along with a number of local beer enthusiasts, I was invited along to a so-called “soft opening”; a sort of trial run, if you like, to check everything is working as it should and that the staff know what they’re doing.

The weather on Wednesday was England at its "summer best" – that is to say, it was pouring down with rain. I have never quite fathomed out why people who don’t have to, take their holiday in August, as the month is often unsettled and some years can prove a total wash-out. Small matter, armed with an umbrella, a brisk 25 minute walk from my house saw me arriving at Fuggles newly converted premises at the north end of Tonbridge High Street.

Fuggles founder, and owner, Alex Greig, had been looking for suitable premises in Tonbridge for a long time. A couple of years ago he tested the water by booking a “pop-up” slot at the town’s Old Fire Station; a local “event location” which can be hired out for various functions, on a short term basis (typically Thursday through to Sunday). This trial run by Fuggles was an immediate hit with the good people of Tonbridge and proved, beyond all doubt, that the town was crying out for such an outlet. I wrote about this event, here.

Having established the demand, the search was on for suitable premises, but these proved much harder to come by. Eventually Alex settled on an attractive, late Victorian building, which was home to Bonner’s Flooring. This was a family-run business, and when the shop became available following the retirement of the owner, Alex managed to secure the lease. A lengthy planning process then ensued, followed by an even lengthier period of renovation and alterations, to turn the building into today’s attractive and well-appointed beer café. 

I arrived looking slightly bedraggled, but Alex was waiting to greet me at the door, as he was for all the guests last night, for this invitation only event. We had a brief chat and he told me how relieved he was that Fuggles Tonbridge was finally open. The project had over-run by a couple of months, due to a number of unforeseen circumstances and in fact there were still ongoing electricity works, taking place on the pavement outside, when I arrived.

I made my way to the bar and perused the extensive selection of beers available. Following the same format as the original Tunbridge Wells Fuggles,  the beers  available are chalked up on a large blackboard behind the bar. This is also where the keg taps are located; something which is very much in the style of American craft beer bars.  I started off with a couple of cask beers first; Gun Scaramanga 3.9%, followed by Hawkshead Bitter 3.7%. Both were good. There were another three cask ales on tap, plus around a dozen keg beers.

I met up with three friends from my local CAMRA branch, and also with a former branch chairman who I hadn’t seen in years, plus his partner,. We based ourselves at one of the tables at the far end of the room, from where we could see the comings and goings. Tonbridge Fuggles follows the same layout as its older counterpart, with an L-shaped bar and serving area along the right hand wall. Unlike Tunbridge Wells there are windows along part of the opposite wall, which although of frosted glass, allow a decent amount of natural light in (apart from when the skies are black with clouds and it’s pouring down outside!). The toilets are downstairs, along with the extensive cellar area.

Although the bar was fairly quiet to begin with, it didn’t take long for it to fill up. I moved onto the keg beers next, starting with the exceptional The Kernel Mosaic IPA 6.9%, followed by the 9.1% Cloudwater Double IPA. Now much has been written about Cloudwater, and this was my first experience of their beer. Even so, I much preferred the offering from The Kernel, most probably because 9.1% is a little too strong for my liking and a beer of that strength is not especially thirst-quenching.

I thought it  best to have something to eat so went for one of Fuggles legendary toasted cheese and ale sandwiches. Complete with a handful of rocket and a dish of miniature gherkins, this was just the right accompaniment for the beer. One friend was particularly hungry, so he opted for the rather splendid looking Ploughman’s.

It was time to switch to the dark-side, so to start with I went for a Belgian offering which I have drunk many times in bottles form, but never on draught. Westmalle Dubbel 7.5%, is a fine example of a Trappist Dubbel. I followed it with a 9.5% Imperial Stout from Weird Beard.

I should add here that the four stronger keg beers listed above, were consumed in quantities of one third of a pint. The two weaker cask beers, were enjoyed by the half. The reason for this, work the following morning, with our regular monthly management review meeting starting at 11am.

We left at around 8.45pm, in order to make room for the second group of people invited for the “soft opening". It had been a truly excellent evening and I can’t even begin to tell you how pleased I am to have the Fuggles experience, right here in the heart of Tonbridge. I can certainly see me making regular trips along the High Street to see what’s on offer.

So congratulation to Alex and his team for their hard work and dedication in getting the place open,  and best wishes for their future success. Fuggles Tonbridge opens for real tomorrow evening, Friday 11th August at 5pm. I suspect it will be very busy!

Disclaimer and apology: my three friends and I each received a voucher from Alex in respect of drink or food, up to a certain value. I redeemed mine for beer and paid for my food.

Sorry, but there are no external shots of Fuggles. Yesterday evening’s rain was of biblical proportions and there was no way I was going to stand outside, getting myself and the camera soaking wet, whilst trying to take a photo!

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Commemorating Michael Jackson at the Beer Writer’s Guild Summer Party

Like in 2016, this year’s British Guild of Beer Writers pre-Great British Beer Festival Party, took place on the Tattershall Castle; a converted former river ferry moored on the Thames just off London's Victoria Embankment.  Once again the ship proved the perfect setting for this social gathering of beer writers and bloggers.

This year’s party was preceded by a special event held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the passing of  Michael Jackson, the pioneering and hugely influential Beer Writer. Michael was not only the inspiration for a whole new generation of beer writers (including me), but was the person who almost single-handedly turned a drink which had long played second fiddle to wine, into the global phenomenon it has become today.

It is no exaggeration to say that Michael was the man behind the dramatic rise in craft breweries, particularly in the United States (over 5,000 now), but also increasingly in other parts of the globe. Veteran beer writer Roger Protz, who was a good friend of Michael, had put together a special presentation in honour of his achievements and, as this kicked off at 4.30pm,  I took the afternoon off  work, and caught the train up to London Charing Cross. From there  it was just a short walk along to where the Tattershall Castle  lies moored.

The presentation took place in a large room, below deck, at the stern of the ship. I don’t want to say too much about  it at this stage, as I am planning to include part of what was said in my own tribute to Michael; but one thing worth noting is two of Michael’s favourite beers were available in cask for attendees to enjoy. The beers were Fuller's Chiswick Bitter (now sadly reduced to a seasonal special) and Batemans XB. The latter was ably dispensed by none other than Jacqueline Bateman herself.

Like all present, I found the presentation a very fitting, and at times very poignant, tribute to a man who was not only a real legend, but a very accomplished journalist, who was meticulous in his research and who had the knack of bringing out the best in people. This was the point which was emphasised over and over during the presentation; Michael always tried to bring a human element into his writing.

After inviting comments and memories of Michael from the floor, Roger rounded off the presentation just after 6pm. This allowed time for the chairs to be cleared away, ready for the party to begin.  Shortly afterwards the room started to fill up, with those guests who had come along for the evening's festivities.

Unlike last year, when we had the choice of above or below deck, we were confined to the latter, as the upper deck remained open to the paying public. The self-serve beer stations, with the portable "keg-machines" were also absent, leaving the casks of Chiswick and XB as the sole draught beers.

There were plenty of chilled bottles and cans though to go round, including examples from Wadworth and Brains. The latter had a dedicated stand, offering  samples from their"craft" range in canned form. They even handed out presentation packs, at the end of the evening, for people to take home with them.

There were also a number of interesting bottles from the Brewers Association (United States). I only got to try a couple of these, but the 9.2% Hardywood Raspberry Stout and the 11.0% Eclipse Barrel Aged Imperial Stout were both well worth tasting. Most of the bottled beers were presented nicely chilled in ice-buckets, although as glasses seemed in short supply, it was necessary to rinse my glass out using the bottle of water I'd brought with me to stop myself becoming dehydrated.

There were quite a few familiar faces at the party, including Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman), Ed Wray, BryanB, Steve Lamond and Matthew Curtis; most of whom were in town either to work at or attend GBBF (or both!). There were several other people I caught up with as well, over the course of the evening, including quite a few new faces. The only downside was as well as being rather warm  below deck, it was also rather noisy. I often have difficulty in hearing what's being said, in such situations; almost certainly the result of attending too many loud rock concerts during my youth.

Food arrived in the form of mini-beef burgers, scotch eggs and fish and chips, in paper cones. Unlike last year, there seemed plenty to go round. I was certainly full by the time I left. This was after people had started drifting away; some had other functions to attend, whilst others, who'd spent the day helping set things up at Olympia, headed back to their accommodation for a well-earned rest.

I left some time after 9pm, stopping off on the upstairs deck on the way out for an uninterrupted view across the Thames towards the London Eye. I made my way back to Charing Cross for the train home. I fell asleep on the journey back to Tonbridge, but fortunately woke up just as the train was pulling into the station.

Like the year before, it had been an excellent evening, made all the better by the setting, the people, the food and of course the beers!  I would like to thank the British Guild of Beer Writers, the brewers who provided the beer, and Cask Marque, who are the event sponsors.

Footnote: I decided not to attend this year’s Great British Beer Festival, as for me the event is just too large, and too busy. I prefer somewhere smaller and more intimate, and last night’s  party on-board the Tattershall Castle was just the right size. The event afforded the opportunity to mingle and socialise, without feeling part of some gigantic merry-go-round.

Don’t get me wrong, I think CAMRA do a fantastic job each year in putting on this flagship festival, which showcases the very best British cask-conditioned ales, plus some excellent beers from abroad, but these days I prefer something a little quieter and a lot less hectic.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Norfolk highways & byways - Part Two

Suitably refreshed after a good nights sleep, and only awakened by the clucking of the hens in their coup at the rear of the garden, I showered and then wandered down for breakfast. Full English, of course with freshly laid eggs from the aforementioned chickens.

I then set off to visit dad and then to meet up with my sister. Dad’s care home is situated in the small village of Gressenhall, a few miles to the north-west of Dereham. I stopped off first to do some shopping, and also to ensure my arrival did not coincide with the home’s lunchtime.

Dad was just finishing his pudding when I arrived, and was looking pretty good. Despite him not talking a lot of sense he was pleased to see me. He is still reasonably mobile, but not sufficiently so for me to tempt him outside into the enclosed garden area. “Far too cold for sitting outside”, was his response. I stayed for around an hour, and told him I would call in the following day; although I don’t think that registered.

Dereham Museum & Parish Church
After leaving I drove back into Dereham and dived into Greggs for a coffee plus quick bite to eat. I had the laptop with me, so I spent three-quarters of an hour bashing out a couple of draft blog posts, keeping one eye on the keyboard and the other on the comings and goings in this popular High Street chain outlet. For a decent, freshly prepared roll, and an equally decent cup of coffee, you can’t really go wrong, and my egg-salad sub was just the right size and the right price to keep me going until the evening.

Later, I joined my sister, her new husband and one of my nieces for an evening meal at the Romany Rye; the local Wetherspoon’s outlet in Dereham. We arrived around 7pm, to find the place heaving, but fortunately we found a table tucked away at the rear of the pub. My brother-in-law was keen to try out is newly downloaded Wetherspoon’s App, which worked well for our food order, along with the standard drinks, but as blogger, Jessica Boak pointed out recently, the App falls down when it comes to guest ales. I had to make a trip to the bar to discover what was available, and bought my choice physically rather than electronically.

Although I was tempted by the Forbury Lion Strong IPA from Loddon Brewery, at 5.5% ABV it was a little strong, bearing in mind I would be driving back to Mulbarton later. Instead I settled for the 4.5% Flashman’s Clout  from Dorset Brewing Company (DBC). Now this was a beer whose name I remember from sometime back, and I believe it was one of a range of several beers with a “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” theme produced at a brew-pub. If my memory is correct I imagine DBC, who are a relative newcomer on the brewing scene, must have acquired the rights to the name.

The beer was pleasant enough and went well with my Chicken Tikka Masala. We spent an enjoyable evening, catching up, and the big news is my youngest niece is waiting to hear about a place at Oxford University. This will be a first for our side of the Bailey family, so we are keeping our fingers crossed on this one.

We left Spoons shortly before 9pm. It was raining rather heavily outside, so I gave my relatives a lift back to their place before heading back to the B & B. Although  I eventually become accustomed to it during winter, I don’t like driving along unlit roads after dark, especially when it’s wet, so it was here that the Sat-Nav really came into its own.

I don’t think I could have found the narrow turning off the A140 without its assistance, and even then I almost missed it, so I was glad to get back to my room and crack open one of the bottles I had left in the fridge. I fired the laptop up and did some writing, until my eyelids became rather heavy and I found myself drifting off.

After another good night’s sleep and another equally good breakfast, I paid by bill and checked out from Meadow Farm Cottage. The place was definitely one of the nicest I have stayed at for a long time, and if it was nearer to Dereham I would consider staying there for future visits to Norfolk.

Beers of Europe
I headed west along the A47 and made my way back to the care-home at Gressenhall, in order to say goodbye to dad. I then headed for home, but not before diverting towards Kings Lynn for a visit to Beers of Europe, in order to satisfy my Rauchbier fix.

The Sat Nav took me along a much quieter route to the north of A47, through some very pleasant country side, through the village of Litcham with its attractive flint-built houses,  and then across Massingham Heath. People who don’t know Norfolk that well have a preconception that the county is totally flat, and whilst it is in places, there are some hills towards the northern coastal area. My drive through a long, gradually sloping, dry valley, with the sun shining and hardly another vehicle in sight, was very pleasant, and I was sorry when I had to eventually leave this pleasing landscape and join the much busier A47.

Former maltings - Bishops Stortford
I picked up a few bottles at Beers of Europe, including several Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbiers, before heading south on the A10 towards Ely. The Fenland countryside looked quite different from my visit earlier in the year, as the bare, dark black soil had been replaced with fields of fully grown crops; particularly wheat. I skirted Ely and turned off towards Soham, before picking up A14 to the north of Newmarket. 

I stopped briefly at Bishop’s Stortford for a look round and to stretch my legs, before continuing my journey south via the M11 and the M25. I arrived home just after 4pm, just in time to collect my son from work, and to enjoy the rather tasty lasagna which Eileen had prepared for us.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Butt & Oyster - Pin Mill

When the  author Arthur Ransome’s name is mentioned, people automatically think of his classic children’s book,  "Swallows and Amazons". In 1937, Ransome published "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea",  which was the seventh book in the series about the Walker family (the Swallows). The book is set in a new location, on the other side of the country from the Lake District, and sees the Walkers staying at Pin Mill on the River Orwell just downstream from Ipswich.

Like many people, I have fond childhood memories of "Swallows and Amazons", although I never progressed to reading any of the other books in the series. The reason though, for me mentioning  "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea" is that last Friday I managed my first visit to Pin Mill, and its famous waterside-pub the Butt & Oyster.

Pin Mill is a hamlet on the south bank of River Orwell, which is tidal at this point. It is close to the village of Chelmondiston on the Shotley peninsula. The settlement was once a busy landing point for ship-borne cargo, a centre for the repair of Thames sailing barges and home to many small industries such as sail making, a maltings (now a workshop) and a brickyard.

Like my home county of Kent, the east coast of England has a long history of smuggling, and Pin Mill and the Butt & Oyster pub allegedly played key parts in this. Pin Mill has  been the subject of many paintings and photographs, and is a popular yacht and dinghy sailing destination.

The Butt & Oyster is best described as a traditional 17th century inn. It is famed for its setting on the bank of River Orwell and the fine views it offers across the estuary. To take full advantage of this, there is a substantial amount of outdoor seating to front of pub, and this is very popular on sunny days.  The Butt & Oyster can get very busy in summer and also at weekends, and has been long renowned for its food menu, which includes a number of fish dishes.

There are three separate rooms inside, connected by a corridor with flagstone floors, and along with the main bar, there is a small snug, plus a much larger dining room. There are some high backed settles plus a large open fire in main bar area, making it very cosy on cold winter days. The pub has featured in a number of films and was once used as a filming location in an episode of the TV series Lovejoy, when it was known as "The Three Ducks".

I’m not quite sure when the Butt & Oyster Inn first registered on my consciousness, but I imagine I think I must have come across it in a book of old inns. Looking back through my collection of pub books, I noticed the pub is listed in Classic Country Pubs, written by former CAMRA Good Beer Guide editor Neil Hanson, and published in 1987.

Back then the pub belonged Tolly Cobbold who were the dominant brewery, not only in the Ipswich area, but across wide swathes of Suffolk, and even spreading into adjoining counties. Tolly of course, have long gone to that great brewery graveyard in the sky, and their impressive Cliff Brewery, fronting on to the waterfront in Ipswich, is currently the subject of a number of redevelopment plans, which could see the buildings converted for residential  or commercial use. Somewhere along the line, the Butt & Oyster was acquired by local brewing heroes Adnam’s, and is now one of the Southwold brewer’s flagship pubs.

It was a pub I had wanted to visit for a long time, but despite making regular trips up to Norfolk, there never seemed sufficient time to divert across to the Orwell estuary, and the tiny riverside settlement of Pin Mill. It wasn’t until I looked at a more detailed map of the area, that I realised just how do-able it was to divert off the A12 - A14 junction at Copdock to the south of Ipswich. The acquisition of a Sat-Nav made the whole process even easier.

Last Friday therefore saw me diverting off the A14, convinced at first that the Sat-Nav was taking me the wrong way. However, when I saw a sign for Chelmondiston followed by an initial glimpse of the River Orwell, I knew my instincts were wrong and I needed to put my trust in technology and follow the instructions. (This has actually been the case on several other occasions, and I have slowly learned to trust the device).

I passed under the impressive Orwell Bridge which carries the A14 over the river, and before long found myself driving along a relatively peaceful B1456. I soon reached Chelmondiston, and just past the centre of the village I turned off down a narrow lane towards Pin Mill.

As I approached the end of the lane, I saw a sign for a car park along with a notice advising motorists there was nowhere to park along the shore, so I followed the instruction and found a small “Pay & Display” area. I actually managed to grab the last free space, so that was a bonus; as was the fee of just 30p for an hour’s parking.

I then walked the couple of hundred yards to the end of the lane and down a slope to the shoreline.  The River Orwell lay straight ahead, whilst to my left was a motley collection of old boats. On my right, was the legendary Butt & Oyster, with its outdoor dining area appearing to rise straight out of the water.

After stopping to take a few obligatory photos, I hurried inside and headed first for the Gents. On he way back I took a quick look into the small and cosy snug, before turning right into the main bar. I was pleased with what I saw, specially as the bar was everything I imagined it to be. With a tiled floor and wood-panelled walls, the crowning glory was the bay window which looks out over the estuary. There was a family group sat at the table which occupies the window space, whilst on the opposite side was a rather jolly party of walkers.

I made my way to the bar, and whilst waiting patiently to be served, had time to admire the row of beer casks stillaged behind the bar. There were four Adnam’s beers available; Southwold, Ghost Ship, Regatta and Broadside. As I was driving, I opted for the Southwold which at £3.90 a pint was better value than the pub I would visit later in the day; see previous post. I scored it at 3.0 NBSS, and the only thing spoiling it was the "stylised" Adnam’s glass.

I found myself a seat, just along from the window, and sat down to enjoy my beer and to soak up the atmosphere of this timeless old inn. The bar staff were fairly busy, as were their colleagues in the kitchen, but both seemed to be coping admirably. The dining room, which leads of from the main bar, also seemed busy, but was nowhere near completely full; even though the food offer looked really good. Perhaps the dull and overcast conditions outside had deterred any fair weather visitors, but I was just glad the pub wasn’t totally packed out.

I only stayed for the one pint, as I still had a fair way to go to reach my pre-booked bed and breakfast place, a few miles to the south of Norwich. Before returning to the car, I took a short walk along the shoreline, stopping to admire the views and the boats, whilst soaking up the atmosphere of this almost hidden nautical haven. I took quite few photos; some of which you can see on this post.

I am certainly pleased that I made the effort to visit both Pin Mill and the Butt & Oyster, and can clearly see why, eighty years ago, Arthur Ransome fell in love with the place and used it as the setting for one of his best known books.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Norfolk highways & byways - Part One

It’s nice to get away sometimes, especially when there’s been a lot going on both the work and domestic fronts, so a long-overdue trip up to Norfolk to see dad seemed a good idea. After selecting a free weekend, I booked Friday off; the idea being to spend two nights in the county and to make a decent break of it. Unfortunately my plans for an early departure were delayed somewhat as we ended up having to have a new washing machine installed, and that Friday was the most suitable day.

As it happened the “Know-How” team from Currys arrived reasonably early, and seeing as we’d ordered a built-in “integrated” machine to replace the one which had died, it was well worth paying for it to be installed by a professional team, rather than me crawling on my hands and knees trying to connect the various pipes.

After some clearing up and putting a few things away, it was 11am by the time I left; although it took me another 10 minutes to programme the Sat-Nav! Despite my reasonably early start, I still hit six miles of queuing traffic on the approach to the Dartford Crossing. This seems a regular occurrence, as I got caught in the same place on my previous trip to Norfolk, and on the way back on Sunday, I noticed the same lengthy, northbound queues.

Once through the tunnel, the traffic thinned out (where does it all go?), and I made good progress, but obviously not sufficient to make up for the 40 minute delay. After turning off onto the A12 (not my favourite road) just south of Ipswich, I made my way to the riverside settlement of Pin Mill, and the famous Butt & Oyster Inn; a pub I had wanted to visit for a long time, but had never quite managed to. It was here that the Sat-Nav really came into its own.

I am writing a separate post about this famous, National Inventory - listed pub, so I won’t elaborate further, but I was pleasantly surprised that my visit there only involved a deviation of 15-20 minutes both ways. I took the A14, towards Newmarket, before turning off onto the A140, just before Stowmarket.

For those unfamiliar with the A140, it is an old Roman road, so it is fairly straight, although most of it though is single carriageway, with speed restrictions along much of its length. This was always my least favourite route up to Norfolk, but needs must and all that. During the course of my journey I noticed there were a large number of pubs lining the road; some in quite isolated locations. The term “roadhouse” springs to mind, but most of these pubs looked much older than the “between the wars” establishments which sprang up to cater for the growing motoring trade.

I imagine that most were old coaching inns, which acted as staging posts along this ancient route towards Norwich. There are some quite famous old inns along this road, although not all have survived as pubs. Several appear to have been converted into upmarket gastro-pubs, or even restaurants. For example, the Yaxley Bull is now an up-market restaurant called the Aurberge, the Countryman was once the Bird in Hand and the former Dun Cow, is now the strangely-named Sugar Beet Eating House.

Fortunately traditional pubs, such as the White Horse, the Old Ram and the Walnut Tree still survive, and the Magpie at Stonham Parva, which had a gantry sign spanning the carriageway, has re-opened following a lengthy period of closure. I had noticed many of these establishments on past journeys, and in an effort not to doze off, I started thinking it would be interesting to do a pub crawl along the A140, stopping off at whichever of these old pubs took my fancy. Obviously I would need the services of a tame, non-drinking driver, but if I lived locally a min-bus trip with a group of friends, would be an idea worthy of serious exploration.

I arrived at my pre-booked bed & breakfast establishment shortly before 5pm; having stopped off at a Co-Op supermarket to stock up on a few items such as bottled water – for me and chocolate biscuits for dad. I’d had trouble finding somewhere at a reasonable price, that wasn’t booked up, but with the school summer holidays in full swing, this was perhaps not surprising. My chosen abode for the weekend (I was staying for two nights), was some distance from the Dereham area, where dad’s care home is situated and my sister also lives.

Fortunately I found the delightfully named Meadow Farm Cottage, a cosy and comfortable establishment just outside the village of Mulbarton. I checked into my room, with its view out across the garden and hen coup to the fields beyond, unpacked and then decided it was time to do some exploring.

I knew there was a large Adnam’s pub on the other side of the village, as I had already checked out the locality on Google Maps. The landlady had told me the pub was quite walkable, and that she and her husband quite often went there on foot. It should take around 45 minutes, so I decided to give it a go, and set off armed with a torch, a pre-downloaded route map on my phone and a shower-proof coat. The torch was important for walking back in the dark; not some much to see where I was walking, but to make sure any on-coming cars were aware of me. The coat was essential, because rain was forecast for later.

I found the pub without difficulty, even though it seemed further than I thought. The walk afforded me the chance of seeing Mulbarton close-up, and it reminded me of Swanton Morley; the village where my parents had retired to when they first moved up to Norfolk. Many of the bungalows were constructed in a similar style, and were obviously of the same era (late 70’s – early 80’). More than a few had that tired look about them, which characterised my parents’ bungalow in the later years. I also noticed that several were in the process of being renovated or even extended.

Mulbarton was also considerably larger than I expected, and there were a couple of new housing developments taking place. I noticed that some of these new dwellings were constructed in a Flemish-style, with those Dutch-looking gables which are quite prominent in parts of East Anglia. There is a reasonable sized Co-Op in the village, along with a separate Post Office and convenience store. The impressive, flint-built parish church is the other side of the expansive common area, and it is here that the World’s End pub is situated.

The pub dates back to the 1600’s, and in its time was an important Coaching Inn.  It has obviously been enlarged over the years and today offers fine locally sourced food and drink, along with bed and breakfast accommodation. Adnam’s are the owning brewery, and on entering the spacious main bar, I noticed Ghost Ship and Regatta on sale alongside the staple Southwold Bitter.

I opted for the Ghost Ship, which was in good form (3.0 NBSS), but rather pricey. £4.20 seems more like London prices than what one might expect for rural Norfolk. All the same, I had two pints along with a rather delicious fish pie which was every bit as good as the description on the pub menu.

There were various groups of diners seated in various strategic positions, but I managed to find a table close to the door to the attractive and well-laid out rear garden, where my eardrums wouldn’t be overwhelmed by other people’s conversations. There is also a games area at the far right of the pub, which seemed quite well used. The pub seemed quiet for a Friday evening, and I heard the manager remarking to his colleague behind the bar, that it was a bit of a contrast to the previous week.

Obviously the unseasonably cool weather, we are experiencing at present, hadn’t helped trade, and having to walk back in the pouring rain didn’t really help me either, but I arrived back at the cottage in one piece. I hung my trousers up to dry, although they were still a trifle wet the following morning. I slept like the proverbial log, until being wakened some time after 6am by the rather noisy chickens, in the coup at the end of  the garden.

To be continued…………………………………………..