The Brigadoon Pub in Greenwich

Ashburnham Arms

I first visited the Ashburnham Arms in Greenwich’s Ashburnham triangle about 17 years ago, and it’s been lost to me ever since.

I was tak­en then by my flat­mate, a Green­wich native, who had heard that the pub had won some award or oth­er. I seem to recall it took us a while to find that time, too.

Lon­don streets rarely run in straight lines so two roads that seem to run at right angles can slow­ly curve to meet, while what feel like par­al­lel lines can turn out to be sub­tly angled spokes off a hub. At the same time, the hous­es are made of the same Lon­don stock brick, to sim­i­lar designs, deny­ing the wan­der­er the nec­es­sary points of ref­er­ence.

Even as you draw near, the Ash­burn­ham can be hard to spot, its sig­nage hid­den behind shrubs, and its exte­ri­or oth­er­wise resem­bling the grand 19th cen­tu­ry hous­es that sur­round it.

Which, of course, makes it all the more charm­ing – a kind of secret reserved for locals, not tourists.

So secret that when I’ve tried to return, I’ve failed, pop­ping out in Green­wich Park, or on the high street, or in Dept­ford, thirsty and scratch­ing my head.

Of course Google Maps spoils the fun. This time, I walked straight there with only a bare min­i­mum of con­fu­sion and back-track­ing.

It was much as I remem­bered it – mul­ti-roomed, just; mod­ernised, a bit; respectable, but not posh; friend­ly, with­out over­do­ing it.

It’s a Shep­herd Neame pub and this time the only cask bit­ter on offer was Mas­ter Brew, their ‘ordi­nary’. It cost some­where north of £4 a pint but tast­ed extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good – light, bright, and snap­ping with earthy, vivid, tea-like hop char­ac­ter.

I sat in a cor­ner with my book and enjoyed the atmos­phere. Out­side, intense sun­light tem­pered by a breeze that car­ried the smell of the city and the jan­gle of ice cream vans through the open door; inside, the mur­mur of soft Lon­don accents, the sis­ter­ly chat of the bar staff, and the rustling of news­pa­per pages, all wrapped up in warm wood and scent­ed with fur­ni­ture pol­ish.

As din­ner ser­vice fin­ished bowls of crisp, salty left­over roast pota­toes were dis­trib­uted around the pub – a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of unpre­ten­tious hos­pi­tal­i­ty.

I had to stop for a sec­ond pint, didn’t I? After all, I might nev­er find the Ash­burn­ham again.

Bad beer or an acquired taste?

Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale

We’ve had an inter­est­ing and rather edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence with Shep­herd Neame in the last few weeks which all start­ed with this review of their Christ­mas Ale. We thought there was some­thing wrong with it – some­thing beyond a mat­ter of house style or ‘char­ac­ter­ful’ yeast. SN’s ever-patient in-house mar­ket­ing man, John Humphreys, was dis­ap­point­ed we hadn’t liked it and asked if he could send us a few more beers to try, which is how we end­ed up with sam­ples of the new India Pale Ale (6.1%), new­ly brown-bot­tled 1698 (6.5%) and Dou­ble Stout (5.2%).

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, what­ev­er it was that we found ‘wrong’ in the Christ­mas Ale was also present in both the IPA and 1698: nei­ther of us could stand to drink them and they end­ed up down the sink after about half a bot­tle of each. At this point, we con­tact­ed John to break the bad news and let him know that we thought there was a pro­duc­tion issue.

This trou­bled him and he decid­ed to inves­ti­gate. In a very civilised exchange, we shared the batch num­bers of the bot­tles in ques­tion, along with more detailed notes on the ‘off’ flavours (‘bad breath’); he ini­ti­at­ed the qual­i­ty assur­ance (QA) process at their end; and kept us informed of progress. The con­clu­sion, after bot­tles from those very batch­es had been retrieved from the QA ‘archive’ and tast­ed by brew­ers and QA man­agers, was that there were no detectable faults, and that the beers in ques­tion were excel­lent.

It’s pos­si­ble that some­thing went wrong on the long jour­ney down to Pen­zance, though it seems unlike­ly. Far more like­ly, as John has sug­gest­ed, is that Shep­herd Neame beers have an intrin­sic char­ac­ter we not only dis­like but read as ‘off’.

Beers we do like, such as those from Harvey’s, have flavours that might be con­sid­ered off – we’ve occa­sion­al­ly referred jok­ing­ly to Sus­sex Best as ‘the Eng­lish Orval’ – and oth­er blog­gers and writ­ers have cer­tain­ly enjoyed these par­tic­u­lar SN beers.

We can’t change our minds – we still found them undrink­able – but maybe we need to think a bit hard­er before call­ing ‘wrong’ in future, and per­haps also get our hands on some­thing that can help us under­stand off-flavours in a more sci­en­tif­ic man­ner.

Strong, fruity, wrong and funky

Two beers: Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale and Bateman's Vintage Ale.

Last night, we got round to drink­ing a cou­ple of strong beers we were sent by Shep­herd Neame and Aldi respec­tive­ly in the run up to Christ­mas.

In one sense, Shep­herd Neame’s Christ­mas Ale (7%) is a cause for rejoic­ing: it comes in a prop­er brown bot­tle, rather than the clear glass they’ve been using to dis­as­trous effect for the last decade or so. This is a huge turn­around and a ‘pos­i­tive behav­iour’ (thanks, Dr Tanya Byron) we def­i­nite­ly want to encour­age.

It’s a shame, then, that the beer itself seemed to be… wrong. There was a whiff of elas­tic bands when we popped the cap, and it tast­ed waxy, rub­bery and, final­ly, of slight­ly singed card­board. An intrigu­ing minty hop flavour we detect­ed ear­ly on passed too quick­ly and, unfor­tu­nate­ly, we only got half way through before giv­ing up.

We’re not huge fans of SN’s beers in gen­er­al (though we have a soft spot for their porter) but this par­tic­u­lar bot­tle dis­agreed with us on a lev­el beyond ‘house style’ – a tech­ni­cal issue, per­haps? We won’t write off the beer alto­geth­er, though we’d want to wait a few months before try­ing anoth­er from a dif­fer­ent batch.

Bateman’s Vin­tage Ale (7.5%) comes in a card­board box with a stick­er seal­ing the lid – these appar­ent­ly, thanks to Fuller’s, are the uni­ver­sal indi­ca­tors of ‘vin­tagey-ness’.

On pour­ing, we were imme­di­ate­ly remind­ed of Black Sheep Progress, anoth­er strong ‘spe­cial’ from a British region­al brew­er that we got to try at a tast­ing do run by Dar­ren ‘Beer Today’ Nor­bury. Where Progress caused one of our fel­low tasters to men­tion “armpits” in his notes, this beer’s aro­ma gave us (bear with us) old socks and white cheese rind. The taste was sim­i­lar­ly odd, with some savoury veg­e­tal char­ac­ter com­ing up against a tot of salty, cop­pery sher­ry-vine­gar.

We didn’t love it, and, no, that doesn’t sound appetis­ing, we admit, but the beer’s not wrong, just funky, in the same way Harvey’s or Adnam’s beers can be. If we drank enough Bateman’s, we could prob­a­bly get to like it, and it cer­tain­ly kept us inter­est­ed, if not delight­ed, to the end.

The Prince of Wales, Kennington

The view from inside the Prince of Wales pub

It’s a shame Shep­herd Neame’s stan­dard beers are so bor­ing, because a lot of their Lon­don pubs are real­ly nice­ly locat­ed and friend­ly.

The Prince of Wales in Ken­ning­ton in south east Lon­don is hid­den off the main road in a square which looks like it hasn’t been touched since ear­ly in the reign of Queen Vic­to­ria. There’s a chalky, sandy square sur­round­ed by trees where peo­ple play boules on hot after­noons. The pub itself has lots of win­dows, a beau­ti­ful frontage and hang­ing bas­kets. As long as you can put up with posh peo­ple shout­ing about RADA and crick­et, it’s absolute­ly charm­ing.

We drank slight­ly tart Spit­fire (it was in good con­di­tion – that’s just how it tastes) and grassy Mas­ter Brew and felt very hap­py to be alive.

Weird­ly, on the table by the win­dow was a mid­dle class fam­i­ly we last saw in a beer gar­den in Wuerzburg last sum­mer. Are we under sur­veil­lance?