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”