The Lesser-Spotted True Red Lion

Last weekend, we stumbled upon The Red Lion overlooking the Dart Estuary in High Dittisham, Devon, which is not only a true inn, offering both booze and accommodation, but also the village shop and Post Office.

Approaching from the road, our first impression was of rustic dishevelment: the sign has faded in sun and rain, the whitewash and weatherboarding have streaks of rust, and a bench outside is fashioned from upturned milk crates and a warped plank.

Did it look much different in 1944 when the estuary below teemed with landing craft preparing for D-Day? Probably not.

Inside, the trappings of its multiple functions, and preparations for the upcoming holiday season, gave a somewhat chaotic feel. There was a pile of parasols here, racks of children’s toys there, cakes and pastries balanced on the end of the bar, while furniture in the process of being moved from one place to another made the back room feel like a house clearance auction. But it functioned perfectly well, and the clutter was at least authentic — far preferable to a job lot of horse brasses, ‘vintage’ nautical or agricultural tat, and old Reader’s Digest abridged novels being arranged about the place.

Though there were hand-pumps on the bar, pints of Palmer’s Copper Ale (Dorset, 3.7%) were fetched from the cellar. They were perhaps too cool for some people’s tastes, but not ours, and were otherwise in perfect condition. An amber-brown, vaguely toffeeish beer with the accent on bitterness rather than aroma, it was hardly exciting, but fit the mood admirably.

We drank on a deck at the rear of the building which provided a Cinemascope view of the busy river buzzing with tourist boats and yachts, and of the lush green, intermittently wooded hills on the opposite bank. (Greenway, once the country home of crime writer Agatha Christie, is a minute’s ride away across the water.)

Though it was in need of a tidy and a lick of paint, this back yard came closer to the feel of a Bavarian beer garden than anywhere else we’ve been in Britain and yet, at the same time, could not be anywhere but in England: above the purple-grey slate rubble tower of St George’s church to our left fluttered the red cross of the national flag, while downhill was the high thatched roof of a cottage around which newly-arrived swallows were swooping.

We’d hesitate to call the Red Lion something special — it is too hard at work serving the community to pretty itself up — but it is somehow perfect in its imperfection, and refreshingly honest.

pubs real ale

A Kingsand-Cawsand Pub Crawl

A short way across the water from Plymouth, in what is sometimes called the forgotten corner of Cornwall, lie the conjoined coastal villages of Kingsand and Cawsand, blessed with four pubs between them.

We arrived on foot along the South West Coast Path just as the day was growing dimpsy and the evening fires had been lit. Dipping down from the cliffside into town we passed pretty pastel-coloured cottages, mostly holiday homes shuttered and hibernating.

We were momentarily anxious: what if the pubs are seasonal? Then we passed the Rising Sun, with its old Courage cockerel and peeling paint, the windows of which glowed with orange light. Someone with their back to us in the window seat laughed so heartily their whole body heaved. This seemed to bode well for our pub crawl.

Beer history pubs

Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide, published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.

2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bottom right… And here’s Mr Sheppard on Twitter.

3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.

4. It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.

5. There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.

8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.

(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)

We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!


Three Decent Pubs in Plymouth

In the past, we’ve struggled to find great places to drink in the old naval city of Plymouth, just over the border from Cornwall in Devon.

The trick, it turns out, as in many other cities, is to look outside the central ring-road: two of our new discoveries are in the suburb of Mutley, which is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The Fortescue, Plymouth. Leaving the station and heading along the bustling Mutley Plain, we stumbled upon the Fortescue by chance. The building dates from 1905 and has a couple of nice Art Nouveau touches, but inside is a bare-bones and rather old-fashioned CAMRA pub.

On the way to the Plymouth Argyle football ground on a match day, it was crammed with mostly middle-aged men minding their own business. The beer line-up wasn’t what we’d call exciting — several from Hunter’s of Devon, Jennings’ Cumberland Ale, and St Austell HSD — but we couldn’t fault the condition in which it was served.

The pricing was pretty keen, too: a pint of c.4% bitter is £2.98, but the barmaid asked if we had CAMRA membership cards on us (we did) bringing it down to £2.68. If we’d had also had some CAMRA Wetherspoon’s vouchers on us, that would have knocked off another 50p.

If you’re, ahem, ‘cost conscious’, like brown bitter, and the company of blokes, then this is the place for you.

Double Diamond at the Hyde Park. Sitting proudly at the top of Mutley Plain like a down-home Palace of Versailles is the Hyde Park Hotel. Recently the subject of a preservation battle, it re-opened last week as a 1970s retro theme pub. (With thanks to Sam Congdon for the tip-off.)

The building is festooned with breweriana from enamel signs advertising Vaux to an illuminated Brewdog shield. Inside, a cosy, womb-like double-bar set up has walls covered in what must be half a million quid’s worth of vintage signs, keg fonts and advertising materials. On discreet TV screens, 1970s TV ads plays on loop. We spent ten minutes goggling at the museum exhibition before turning our attention to the bar.

The Plymouth Herald article suggested that Watney’s and Double Diamond would be on tap. As we suspected, though there is a  glowing plastic Red Barrel on the bar, it is being used to serve Caffrey’s. To our amazement, however, DD was indeed on offer.

Along with Watney’s Red, it was one of the beers at which CAMRA targeted its ire in the 1970s, nicknaming it ‘K9P’. (Geddit?) Now down at 2.8% ABV and brewed in small amounts for the northern club market, the landlady, Pat, had managed to find a supplier in the West Country. It looked pretty — golden and glowing, with a fluffy white head — but tasted of… nothing. Water, dental fillings, and perhaps vegetable peelings. Here’s the amazing thing, though: after Double Diamond, a pint of Dartmoor Legend, not the world’s most exciting beer, suddenly tasted like nectar, with a sweet maltiness and leafy green hop character amplified in contrast with the blandness of the keg bitter.

Along with more retro keg beers (Worthington Best Bitter), several cask ales and a fridge full of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beers (from Brewdog, Westmalle, and so on), and an onsite brewery is due to start operations soon.

If you’re a beer geek on holiday in Devon, this is a must visit, and would be a great place to read your copy of Brew Britannia.

Bread & Roses, Plymouth. Finally, we made our way back through the city centre and out the other side in search of another Sam Congdon tip, the Bread & Roses.

Housed in another nicely preserved Victorian pub building (The Trafalgar, 1897) on on Ebrington Street, which feels a bit like Hackney in East London did 20 years ago, the B&R opened as a community-run social enterprise last summer. The quirky décor (oompah band LPs, Action Man dolls in knitted jumpers, furniture from house clearances) didn’t strike us as contrived or forced.

There were a couple of local cask ales on offer (a mild from Teignworthy and Avocet from Exeter) along with various ‘world beers’ on keg and in bottles. O’Hara’s stout went down nicely; a bottle of Tripel Karmeliet seemed paler and cleaner than the last time we tried it; and Bristol Beer Factory West Coast Red was a spicy, toasty delight. Laverstoke Park Farm Organic Lager was a dud — mostly bland except where it was a bit rough — and Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale was too much sticky toffee pudding for our tastes.

Neither this pub nor its beer selection would turn heads in Bristol or London these days, but it’s quite exciting for this part of the world, and a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

PS. Can anyone give Justin any more information about a cask version of Double Diamond he drank in the mid-90s?

homebrewing opinion

Lessons for Beer Street from Gin Lane

Plymouth Gin Distillery, Devon, UK.

By Boak

Last weekend, seeking to avoid what could easily have felt like five wet Sundays in a row in Penzance, we spent a couple of days in Plymouth, and made like tourists. Activity one: the Plymouth Gin distillery tour, where we learned a lot about beer.

We don’t drink a lot of gin, but my Mum’s partial, and I’ve been buying her bottles of ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’ gin as presents for a couple of years. Plymouth Gin rates itself as the most artisanal of the big brands, if that makes sense. But… the base alcohol is produced in Scotland; the gin is bottled in Essex; and most of the process is automated. “Here’s where our distiller loads the botanicals himself, through this hatch,” said the tour guide. “That’s what makes our gin handcrafted.” At this point, her voice was drowned out by the sounding of the bullshit alarm.

Lesson one, then: unless you’re talking objects, ‘handcraftedness’ really is a poor measure of quality.

The tasting stage of the tour was the real eye-opener, though. First, we were talked through the various herbs and spices (‘botanicals’) in the recipe and couldn’t help but think of Belgian Witbier when talk turned to coriander, cardamom, lemon and orange peel. It was when things got tactile that a bulb really went on: crushing the small-seeded Russian coriander used in Plymouth Gin, we realised it is nothing at all like the earthy, woody Indian stuff we use at home. It smells more like lemons or lemon verbena, and extremely pungent.

Lesson two: coriander is a more complex variable than we’d appreciated, and we need to experiment more.

We’d never even heard of Orris Root which the guide tells us is used mostly for its ability to help keep essential oils in suspension in the gin.

Lesson three: there are more herbs and spices to play with in brewing than we’d previously been aware, some of which might be very useful.

After all that, we enjoyed our complimentary gin and tonic at the end of the tour, but, being beery people at heart, found ourselves itching to brew a gin-inspired Wit sooner rather than later.

The tour costs £7 per person and takes about 30 minutes. The cocktail bar upstairs also happens to have a small selection of bottled beers including Brewdog Punk IPA and Anchor Steam.