There Are Other Pubs in Helston?

We’ve given the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, plenty of attention in the past and so last Friday, in town for Flora Day, we decided to make a point of drinking elsewhere.

Of course, this is no normal trading day, and all the pubs were on an emergency footing to cope with crowds of visitors and thirsty locals, so we’re not going to pass judgement based on these single visits. Still, there is something instructive in how they handle the chaos.

Our first stop was the Red Lion — not a common name for pubs in Cornwall where the default tends to be the Star or the Seven Stars — on Church Street. It’s a plum spot for watching the dancers emerge from the museum in the ‘Ancient Furry Dance’ at midday (the main event). It also seems to be the preferred destination for members of the Helston Town Band to wet their whistles and, before we could enter, we had to make way for a procession of merry blue-coated brass musicians off to join their colleagues.

Hand-drawn Tribute pump-clip.

Though the pub was busy, it was very orderly, and we got served immediately. We were tickled by the handmade pump-clip for St Austell Tribute and, as we took our photo, the person serving us chuckled and said:

Good, isn’t it? We can’t draw, but we know how to spell. We’re not really a real ale pub, as such — more a lager pub. We find if we serve real ale, it goes off in the lines. Today’s different, though — we know we’ll sell it. So we’ve got Tribute and Doom Bar in, special.

(She also told us the pub was for sale and asked if we were interested in buying it. We are not.)

It was not, to be honest, the best Tribute we’ve ever tasted, and was served at near-freezing temperature in plastic glasses, but we didn’t mind, especially as we sat drinking it in a coveted window seat with a view of the parade. A classic ‘not about the beer’ moment.

Next, we tried the Angel Hotel on Coinagehall Street. Tried is the right word because we couldn’t actually get served and, as our buzz began to fade, decided that we didn’t want to spend any more time waiting for two pints of St Austell Trelawny, and left.

A little further down the street, effectively acting as overspill for the Blue Anchor, is the Seven Stars. (See?) Like its near neighbour, it is housed in a cavernous historic building but seems to attract a different, younger crowd. Big screens were showing distinctly un-fun General Election post mortem coverage. The bar staff seemed overwhelmed, though they remained resolutely friendly, and pints of Caledonian XPA were all but undrinkable — gritty and acidic. Normally, we’d take them back, have a discreet word, and so on, but a Friday afternoon masquerading as Saturday night wasn’t the time. We abandoned our glasses and scooted.

The Rodney on Meneage Street is nominally a St Austell house and we had high hopes of finding trusty old Korev lager. We had no such luck so instead ended up with a bottle of Hoegaarden for Boak and a pint of Proper Ansome from (gasp!) Devon for Bailey. The entertainment was a huge TV tuned to a music channel while completely different tunes were played over the PA system — torture! The atmosphere was rather pleasant, though, with extended families occupying the front of the pub, grandparents fussing over babies and toddlers while young mums and dads partied moderately hard. Everyone seemed to be eating piping hot pasties, taking advantage of a ‘bring your own food’ policy.

After all that, we had to finish up the Blue Anchor. There were bouncers on the door, and the entrance corridor, which seems cute when the pub is quiet, was a moving game of sardines with plastic pint glasses in the mix, just for fun. That ordeal over, however, we managed to get hold of two beers without any waiting thanks to several temporary bars, including one marked BEER ONLY operating out of the stable-door to the pub cellar, underneath the brewery. We had pints of Flora Daze, served by Gareth himself, that tasted drier and more citrusy than in recent months. Spingo Middle, which we’ve sometimes found a bit rough around Flora Day, presumably as production is stepped up to meet demand for the big event, was also on impressive form.

There’s a reason the Blue Anchor is the only pub in Helston you’ve heard of.

Beer for Breakfast on Flora Day

At a little before 7 a.m., as the first dance nears the centre of Helston, its arrival heralded by the brass and drums of the town band, we see our first pints of Spingo Middle.

They’re in plastic glasses and the man and woman drinking them look like they need strong coffee rather than beer, but that’s not what today is all about.

We hit the Blue Anchor at not much after 8:30 a.m. and find it busy already. Breakfasts are being served to the small army of temporary staff and to tourists. Some lads from up country make macho noises but slyly nurse their pints, not wanting to fall by the wayside too early in the day. Some older local men, experienced drinkers, aren’t being remotely cautious. This is, after all, Helston’s great debauch — bigger than Christmas and New Year put together. We don’t, in all honesty, enjoy our pints. Our mouths taste of coffee and toothpaste and we end up feeling slightly queasy.

Back outside, with the seemingly never-ending children’s dance underway, we notice the crowd parting, not for a top-hatted local VIP, but for a pin of Spingo — a blue-striped metal cask — being wheeled from the Blue Anchor to a private party somewhere in the back streets by two grinning men who look like they’ve won the lottery.

It’s not all Spingo. Youngsters sitting on walls and first-floor windowsills neck Budweiser, Corona and Magner’s cider. Before long, every alleyway we cut down is scattered with empty bottles and cans. Wedges of lime squish under our feet. Through back garden gates, we catch glimpses of parties where everyone is holding a glass of wine or a small green bottle of French supermarket lager.

By the evening, as we return to the Blue Anchor for a last pint before the bus ride home, we find a huge bouncer in attendance. Physically intimidating, yes, but his manners are impeccable, and he shows great diplomacy in steering one drunk after another out of the pub and pointing them back towards their houses to sleep it off.

They keep coming, the happy inebriates, walking imaginary tightropes, chuckling to themselves, hands on the walls for support. A glass smashes and we tense momentarily, but there are apologies and laughter, and the guv’nor, whose pub has been heaving for twelve hours, clears it up with a huge smile on his face.

This last pint of Spingo is not the best we’ve ever had — it’s a little warm and rather buttery; an inevitable result of upping production for the Big Day, perhaps — but it’s a pleasure just to be there amid the warm glow of a community at play.

Top Ten Cornish Pubs (So Far)

Vintage sign at the Blue Anchor, Helston.

UPDATED APRIL 2013: a new list of our favourite Cornish pubs is now available here.

As more beer geeks start to plan summer trips to Cornwall, we’ve been getting odd one-off queries about breweries, beer and pubs and so thought we’d put together a couple of posts with advice for visitors, of which this is Part the First.

The following list is of Cornish pubs we like and can recommend a visit to, if you’re in the area. Those we’ve starred are worth going out of your way to get to.

Note: we’re based way out west, so our choice is influenced by that.

The Driftwood Spars, St Agnes*
You often have to choose between great beer and a great view, but the Driftwood Spars does both. It’s a fabulous old, multi-room building with its own brewery, overlooking a beautiful secluded cove. A must visit. (Blog post.)

Star Inn, Crowlas (Penzance)*
Home of our beer in the year for 2011. The on-site brewery produces clean, precise and characterful real ales; both those and guest beers, usually from up north, are perfectly kept. You’d be mad not to drink Pete Elvin’s own stuff, but it’s also your best chance of getting non-Cornish beers in Cornwall. (Blog post.)

The Front, Falmouth*
Friendly staff, great range of ales and cider, bring your own food — what’s not to like? (Blog post.)

The Dock Inn, Penzance
Our usual choice in Penzance — one of the few places you can get Spingo beers other than at the Blue Anchor, often in better condition than on their home turf. Friendly welcome and good food, too. (Blog post.)

The Blue Anchor, Helston*
The beers brewed on site might be an acquired taste, tending towards West Country sweetness; and they reportedly had a bad patch a couple of years ago (but before our time); but this is nonetheless a Cornish institution, and a truly characterful pub. (Blog post.)

The Watering Hole, Perranporth
The beer is by no means great (it’s fine) but this is a pub on a beach. Not overlooking a beach, or near a beach — on a beach, with tables on the yellow sand. The teenage staff were a bit diffident last time we went but we can’t help but love a pub which feels so unusual and relaxed. (Blog post.)

Logan Rock Inn, Treen
A St Austell joint selling almost the full range; cosy in bad weather, with a bona fide beer garden for nicer days. A good place around which to plan coastal walks.

Old Ale House, Truro
Recently taken over by Skinner’s, this is the place to try their beers and stand a chance of enjoying them. It’s a nice cosy pub with some lovely old furnishings. Free peanuts too. (Blog post.)

Hand Bar, Falmouth
Where we go for an indulgent treat. Cornwall’s only craft beer bar. Classics from USA and Belgium are supplemented with occasional specials. If you’re from anywhere else in the country, you will probably have easier access to a better selection at cheaper prices, but we don’t, so it makes our list. (Blog post.)

St Austell Brewery Visitor Centre, St Austell
The obvious place to try St Austell beers, which occasionally offers the opportunity to try Roger Ryman’s experimental brews. For best results, go on a Friday afternoon when the staff knock off: there’s a great buzz and you might get to discuss your pint with the people who made it.

If you’ve got other first-hand recommendations, feel free to mention them in a comment below. If you’re a publican wondering why we haven’t mentioned your pub, why not drop us an email?

New Variant Spingo

The sign of the Blue Anchor pub and brewery, Helston, Cornwall.

The Blue Anchor in Helston has been brewing for several hundred years. Its Spingo ales are a Cornish tradition, available in only a handful of select pubs, and something of an acquired taste.

Generally, they play to a West Country palate — sweet, brown and not too ‘light’ (hoppy). One of their range, in fact, is ‘Bragget’, with no hops at all and a good slug of honey.

Their brewer, though, has begun to feel the urge to experiment, hence Flora Daze. At 4%, it’s the weakest beer on offer; it’s also the lightest in colour, by far the hoppiest, and being launched ahead of the summer arrival of ‘foreigners’.

By the standards of many other UK breweries, it is not a remarkable beer, being similar to Harvey’s session-strength IPA or Fuller’s Chiswick, but it was certainly generating conversation amongst the chaps spoofing at the bar in the Blue Anchor: “It tastes… like a pint with a slice of lemon in it.”; “I’ll be sticking to Middle.”

As far as we could tell, they were only drinking at all because the first few pints were free. Not everyone is drawn towards the new, and the point at which a beer seems ‘extreme’ is culturally defined.

We really liked Flora Daze and hope it does well this summer, though we know that brewers have to make cask ales that will sell. The Blue Anchor Beer Festival runs until Sunday 1 April.