A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

QUICK POST: Gathered Round the Fire

The fire at the Farmer's Arms.

The Farmer’s Arms opened a bit late on New Year’s Day. Can an entire pub can have a hangover?

The weather had finally, at last, come cold, and we were hoping to find the fire lit. It was, just, but struggling along, with too much blackened paper and damp wood refusing to catch.

One of the regulars, unlit roll-up in mouth, was trying to fix the problem and engaged our friend in a discussion about tactics. Eventually, he left her in charge.

We sat pitching in advice as she moved some logs around to give the fire air. Between us, we spectators retrieved a dryish log from the store under the bench and hacked it into smaller chunks with a pen-knife while she rolled some paper into twists. The paper went up, the wood steamed and then started to blacken, and smoke was sucked away up the chimney. Confident it was off and away our friend loaded the fire up and, for the next hour, kept a watchful eye, making occasional adjustments with the shovel (the only implement at hand) to keep the flames healthy.

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

The photo is actually from early December and isn’t our finest work but you get the idea.

Smoke

On walking through the door of the Rusty Bike in Exeter we noted with pleasure the comforting aroma of wood smoke.

It’s an earthy, wholesome kind of smell that triggers certain assumptions in the primitive human brain:

I am home, I am warm, food is one the way.

Open fires have long been associated with proper pubs. The Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide used to be sponsored by the Solid Fuel Advisory Service during which time a symbol appeared to show whether a pub had a real fire or not. The 1984 edition was a ‘real coal fire’ special with a two-page advertorial on their appeal.

As it happens, though, there is no open fire in the Rusty Bike.

‘Oh, yeah — we’ve been smoking pigeons all afternoon,’ said the red-eyed young man behind the bar, possibly suppressing a sooty cough.

But it turns out that doesn’t really matter: the smell was enough to make it feel as if we’d walked into a snug village pub, possibly via a 100-year time warp, rather than a modern gastropub a five minute walk from Exeter Prison.

(PS. We’re no food critics but the great big hunks of corned beef at the Rusty Bike struck us as astonishingly good, as did the pig cheek fritters. It’s part of the Fat Pig brewery estate and, though the beers are quite homely, a strangely coconutty cask ESB was just the job. We didn’t try the smoked pigeon.)

A crawl in Clapham

We’re not going to let the fact that most of the tube doesn’t work at weekends at the moment stop us from exploring. A couple of Saturdays back, we decided to go to Clapham and investigate some of the interesting sounding pubs mentioned in various guides and websites.

What did we know of Clapham before this visit? Well, it used to be home to around 300 dreadful stripped-pine and chrome contemporary beverage appreciation spaces — the kinds of place which we suspect soured a lot of CAMRA types on modern pubs for good, with their cold atmospheres and selection of identical and bland ‘world lagers’. On the high street, at least, those are still in abundance, but now looking increasingly careworn and old-fashioned. All the men were wearing little hats and skinny jeans; the girls were in Uggs. Style over substance.

Off the high street, however, there’s plenty to enjoy — the kinds of pubs which fall between full-on trendiness and catering purely to old men.

Summer Lightning and Downton German Pale Ale Face/Off
Summer Lightning and Downton German Pale Ale Face/Off

Our first port of call was the Mason’s Manor Arms, which is in the Good Beer Guide and has been for years. It made the trek worthwhile. It’s a small, cosy pub set back from the street behind a small beer garden. The only concessions to 1990s-style Clapham trendiness are some well-worn sofas and a rather nice contemporary frontage. All the cosiness in the world can’t make up for terrible beer, but the Mason’s Manor has nothing to worry about on that front. Their Summer Lightning was astoundingly good. Downton’s German Pale Ale, their current guest ale, was a fascinating, confusing and delicious beer, evidently brewed with all-German lager-type ingredients and fermented English-style. Similar to Summer Lightning, but fresher and crisper. Timothy Taylor Landlord and Ringwood Bitter were also on offer and beyond criticism in their freshness and condition.

The Bread and Roses
The Bread and Roses

Comfortable as we were, we managed to haul ourselves up and out to make it along the road to the Bread and Roses. Now, on paper, this sounded like our kind of place: a pub run to raise funds for left-wing causes which offers a large range of guest ales and specialty beers. And it exceeded expectations.

First, the interesting beers on tap: Sharp’s Doom Bar, Sharp’s IPA, Purity Pure Gold, Budvar, Budvar Dark, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stiegl (from Austria), Erdinger Weissbier and Maredsous Blonde. Then in bottles: Maisel’s Dunkelweiss, Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and Anchor Steam. Nothing we hadn’t tried before, but lots we were pleased to see on offer and, once again, all those we tried were fresh and tasty. We also liked the fact that there were lots of explanatory notes on the pumps and boards to explain what the various beers were like, and there were also suggestions on the menu as to which wine or beer would match with the food.

The pub itself is an old Victorian building decked out in late 90s trendy pub style, except that it also has paintings of left-wing orators in 19th century London, big screen football, copies of the London Drinker and numerous other things that undercut any sense of pretension. Why is this place not more famous? Why was it not crammed? Maybe being neither wholly trendy nor designed for old men makes for a hard-to-sell pub? It makes a point of being child-friendly, so perhaps that scared the GBG off. And, of course, it’s not right next to a tube station.

One caveat: the food was great and cheap (especially given the quality) but took a while to arrive (35 minutes) so don’t build your visit around a meal.

Our crawl was cut short at this point when we moved on in the drizzle to find that Microbar doesn’t open on Saturday afternoons. Another time. Clapham has a lot to offer, and we’re coming back for another session!

Notes

Both the Manor Arms and Bread and Roses are on Clapham Manor Street. The nearest tube stops are Clapham North or Clapham Common; alternatively, trains to Clapham High Street leave from Victoria and London Bridge approximately every half an hour. Microbar is technically Battersea, rather than Clapham, but it’s a fairly short stagger from the Bread and Roses; if you go along the Wandsworth Road you’ll pass the Plough Inn, now a Young’s pub, and an old, defunct brewery that goes back at least to 1869, before being bought by Simmonds and then Courage. Google map here, showing all the locations mentioned.

In search of the authentic tapas bar experience: (1) North West London

Olives and Estrella Galicia in a shady bar in London
Olives and Estrella Galicia in a shady bar in London

En espanol

We tend to go to Spain around this time each year. However, due to starting new jobs etc we haven’t been able to plan anything, and so we started thinking about how to replicate some of the best Spanish experiences in London. In particular, we’re on a mission to identify all of the authentic tapas bars in London, ideally gathered together in convenient tapeos (tapas bar crawls).

Let’s make it clear: we’re not talking about restaurants that serve tapas or Spanish food. We’re talking about places where you can have a nice chat over some drinks and a tapa or two. Ideally, we’re looking for places where you can sit up at the bar and listen to old men bickering in impenetrable dialects, to get the real feel of being in Spain.

So, after a bit of internet research, we put together the following tapeo in north west London, an area we barely know. Continue reading “In search of the authentic tapas bar experience: (1) North West London”