On a recent business trip to Cheshire, I got billetted in Frodsham. My taxi driver volunteered the information that the pubs in town were decent and recommended the Helter Skelter.
It’s pointedly a “real ale pub” but with an extremely mixed clientele and a genuinely relaxed atmosphere. There were lots of lads and ladies drinking lager, some middle-aged couples on a double date, a few old ladies on a night out and, of course, a huddle of men with beards having an earnest conversation over a notebook.
The beer was in astoundingly good condition. Phoenix’s West Coast IPA offered a late taste of summer and lived up to its marketing (a weaker Liberty Ale?) and Dark Star Espresso Stout was sweeter and chewier than from the bottle.
The beer was served with a sparkler, as you’d expect in that part of the world, but here it just seemed to give the head some body without turning it into shaving foam. I’m coming round to the idea.
What is this pub getting right? Friendly staff, for one thing. Lots of information, for another — a board behind the bar with a guide to the colour of the beers on offer is a stroke of genius. It helps that they’re not trying to beervangelise to anyone: there are no scary signs telling people off for not liking real ale, for example, and you can get a pint of Stella if that’s what you want.
And a bit of quiet background music doesn’t hurt, either.
CAMRA guides to pubs often praise the absence of a TV screen, and indeed, a big sign outside a pub boasting Sky / Setanta sports and a big screen is usually synonymous with mediocre beer.
I can see why people hate TVs in pubs, because they can distract people from conversation and detract from the atmosphere.
But occasionally, I do want to watch a football match in the pub, and I always have to compromise on the quality of the beer (and pub) to do so.
Has anyone got any suggestions for places in central London that are really good pubs with nice beer that just happen to have a screen? Or are the two mutually exclusive?
I suppose what you need is a pub that has several sections, where you can keep the football in a discrete area, so everyone’s happy. In Germany, both during the World Cup in 2006 and the European Championships this year, loads of cafes and bars got in screens, but put them outside, helping to create a fantastic street party atmosphere.
Incidentally, Zeitgeist is pretty good for big sporting events, but you have to choose your night carefully, as Bundesliga and Germany qualifiers get priority!
But what I’ve noticed about myself is this: when I’m in those “mixed-company situations,” those “meet a new person situations,” those “whatever the heck situations,” and yes, those “sitting around the house with my own darned wife situations,” it always comes back to Beer.
This is my topic of choice. This is what’s on my mind. This is the way I make connections to people, places and things.
I’ve been meeting a lot of new people recently, for various reasons, and have noticed how quickly I try and get the conversation round to pubs. Trouble is, that just makes me sound like an alcoholic…
Read the post, and see how many symptoms you recognise! I particularly liked the bit about spotting beer names in cemeteries…
The Three Mariner’s pub sits in a maze of dark cobbled alleyways not far from the Thames. The smell of fish, tar and sea-water is powerful, and you can hear the shouts of Thames boatmen, the clattering of masts and the clatter of cargo being unloaded on the dockside.
The pub looks inviting, candlelit and cosy, promising shelter from the gloomy and rather intimidating wharfside rat runs.
It’s small — there’s only one table and two chairs — but there’s plenty of leaning space at the bar.
Behind the bar, there are tankards and stone mugs, and four unlabelled hand pumps. There are crates filled with bottles of porter stacked against the back wall.
It’s like the pubs Sherlock Holmes visits in the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s and the atmosphere is terrific.
Sadly, you can’t actually have a pint at the Mariner’s Arms. It’s part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum in Docklands, near Canary Wharf, and represents a typical 19th century sailors’ pub. It’s worth a visit if you’re interested in the history of London, especially as they’ve got an exhibition on Jack the Ripper until November. It’s not as creepy as it sounds — it’s really an exhibition of East End life and policing in the 1880s. We especially liked the map of London’s pubs produced by the Temperance Society in the 1880s. It’s entitled simply “The Modern Plague of London”. There’s an extract of it available here.
Richard Keverne’s guide to England’s historic inns was first published in 1939. Hammond Innes revised the book in 1947. In his introduction, Innes makes the rather poignant observation that a new edition was needed not only to help returning servicemen reacquaint themselves with the country they’d fought to defend, but also to edit out mention of pubs which were destroyed by bombing during the war.
There’s further poignancy in reading about pubs which have great histories; which, in 1951, were still charming; but which are now plasticky chain pubs selling microwaved food (The Ferry Boat Inn, Tottenham, for example).
For all this book has about it the whiff of conservatism (there are lots of wistful comments about the simplicity of life in the ‘old days’) the author is surprisingly sympathetic to the motives of generations of innkeepers who destroyed the historic interiors of their pubs for commercial reasons.
Of particular interest to beer geeks are the rare passages which actually touch on beer. The Bell at Orford Hill in Norfolk, for example, was apparently a pioneering outlet for porter in the 1750s:
Sam Barker [the landlord]… also appreciated the use of advertisement. He advertised the then comparitively new malt liquor, porter. “A truly British liquor,” he called it, of which he had “a large quantity always bottled and fit to drink.” He offered it at five shillings a dozen (thirteen bottles to the dozen) or three shillings if you returned the bottles.
Keverne also tells us that the Sun Hotel in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, was typical in having its own brewery in the 18th century:
You should not leave the Sun without wandering through its big gardens, and seeing how the old malt and brew houses, alas! no longer in use, reminders of the days when the inn brewed its own beer. Then you will realise how vast were the resources of the big coaching house.
On the whole, it’s just a long list of pubs connected by vague anecdotes, usually unsourced, about Regency dandies and pub landlords. It’s not much use as a travel guide unless you are particularly interested in pub architecture. Nonetheless, it does give a great sense of just how much of a part of Britain’s infrastructure pubs (but specifically inns) really were, and reading about one village pub after another is almost as relaxing as spending an afternoon in one.
Why do pubs make their staff wear uniforms? If anything signals corporate, chain-like soullesness, it’s three young people dressed in faded polo shirts glowering from behind a faux-wood bar-style beverage service area.
If I want that, I’ll go to McDonalds.
My favourite pubs have slightly too many people behind the bar, dressed in their own clothes, looking relaxed and happy.
It’s time to say no to battery farmed bar staff and go free range.
A Jewish friend of mine recently said he hated going to his favourite kosher restaurants with non-Jewish friends because he felt accountable for the terrible time they would inevitably have: “If it wasn’t for me and my dietary requirements, they could be in a nice restaurant eating food they’d actually enjoy!”
The funny thing is, I feel very much the same about pubs that cater for the beer geek.
I go to those kind of pubs frequently with Boak, and with those of my mates who are bothered about beer, but the couple of times I’ve gone with people who aren’t that fussed — normal people — they’ve really hated them.
A pub which, on previous occasions, has felt as relaxing and cosy as my own front room suddenly becomes cold and rather lonely. I find myself trying to make people like the pub; making apologies for it; defending it.
It’s just like when I made my brother watch Peep Show and he didn’t laugh once.
The pub should be fun. Being (perhaps justifiably) berated for making people go out of their way to get to a “weird, silent pub full of weirdos”, just isn’t.
The small Welsh hamlet of Solva has three pubs within a hundred yards of each other, and there’s at least one more up the hill in Upper Solva. Only the Harbour Inn is mentioned in the Good Beer Guide (2007) but the other two are also worth some love.
The Harbour Inn has the best location, and therefore the lion’s share of the punters. It has fine views across the harbour and an ambitious menu. Beer-wise it’s a Brains place, offering the regular bitter and Reverend James. I have to say, I’m not a massive fan of these two. Perhaps I’ve never had a really good pint, but they really don’t do very much for me.
It’s cosy, and the young chap behind the bar was very friendly, although I didn’t much care for the older chap chasing families with children into their own special ghetto. “Dogs are fine, it’s children I can’t stand,” he said cheerfully to a couple on the next table from me. That’s Britain summed up for you.
Almost next door to the Harbour Inn is the Ship Inn, which also doubles as the Spice Galley, an Indian restaurant/takeaway. I’d never been in this place before, and rather expected it to be an unfriendly locals’ place. The barman ignored me initially, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, as he may not have seen me. I’m quite small.
It’s a Marstons pub, so had Pedigree and Long Hop on. They’d just had a beer festival, so on the other two taps were specials from that — something by Banks, and Golden Thread by Salopian. I went for the latter, and it blew my mind. I don’t think I’ve had a better pint this summer. It was in perfect condition, with a creamy head, and a gorgeous hop aroma. Flowery hops dominated the flavour but there were also hints of banana and clove in it. Wonderful stuff. I would have stayed to drink more, but I had one more pub to check out before the bus was due.
The Cambrian Arms looks a bit like a hotel bar and also has interesting food. On tap they had Tomos Watkin’s OSB which has a lovely heavy malt & marmalade flavour. They also had Bevan’s Bitter, from the Rhymney Brewery. This was a good deal hoppier than the TW, but beautifully balanced. I also had their Rhymney Bitter in the Farmers Arms earlier in the week, and was impressed. I reckon that the Rhymney brewery is a welcome new addition to the Welsh brewing scene.
The Cambrian Arms also had Butty Bach, by the Wye Valley brewery, but I didn’t have a chance to reacquaint myself with this delightful drop as I could hear the bus coming down the hill.
Solva is served by semi-regular buses Mon-Sat between Haverfordwest and St Davids. It makes an excellent end point for cliff walks from Newgale or Caerfai, St Davids. Just give yourself more time for the beer before the last bus leaves…
The Rhymney brewery is a comparatively new Welsh brewery. It was started in 2005, but is keen to draw links between it and historic breweries from Merthyr Tydfil. It has an interesting page about these breweries on its website.