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Cumbria Way Pubs: Coniston-Elterwater, The Britannia Inn, Coniston Britannia Inn Special Edition and No 9 Barley Wine

September 19, 2012 9 comments

Day two of our Cumbria Way walk started with a filling breakfast at the Black Bull in Coniston: thick bacon and poached eggs for me; an almost Germanic cold ham and cheese platter for Kate, before we started the walk up and out of Coniston in the rain. The first few miles of the walk were mostly gently ascending through pleasant farmland and woodland, with some spectacular views of cloudy fells beside and ahead of us. Despite the showers, the walk up to Tarn Hows was a very pleasing introduction to an area with some of the most striking views in the Lake District.

Unfortunately, at that point, Kate’s knee started to cause her a lot of pain. However, using two walking poles she valiantly struggled through the rest of the walk on access roads and through woodland to Skelwith Bridge. The walk from there along Elterwater (from the Norse for “swan lake”) was thankfully relatively easy and flat, so we decided to end the day in Elterwater village, rather than continue on for the last three or so miles to Dungeon Ghyll.

This meant that we were able to end the day’s walk in the Britannia Inn, an excellent coaching inn in the beautiful village of Elterwater. Three quarters of the residences in the quiet village are holiday cottages, but the Britannia Inn is a real pub and one of the best places to drink in the Lake District.

Unlike some other pubs, it continues to serve a small selection of warm food to hungry walkers and tourists between lunch and dinner service. We enjoyed a decadent basket of chips with melting mature cheddar, along with a couple of pints of Coniston Brewery’s Britannia Inn Special Edition Ale. The helpful description on the pump described it as Coniston’s take on a beer with the profile of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and so it is: a solid, satisfying, robustly-hopped English best bitter.

After enjoying that and waiting for our lift, I decided to have a half of Coniston No. 9 Barley Wine, which I’d had in bottle the night before at the Black Bull, but which the Britannia Inn had on cask. It was even better from a handpull, adding to the existing smoothness, balance and warm drinkability of the strong beer that I’d enjoyed in the bottled version. The barman came out for a chat to see if I was enjoying it.

The Britannia Inn is one of those warm, well-stocked, happy pubs that you could cope with being stranded in for hours (or even days) if the weather happened to turn. Just so long as the beer, and cheesy chips, didn’t run out.

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Cumbria Way Pubs: Ulverston-Coniston, The Black Bull and Coniston No 9 Barley Wine

September 17, 2012 3 comments

After enjoying our Dales Way walk so much, we decided to try out the Cumbria Way, a 72 mile walk from Ulverston to Carlisle. The walk didn’t go entirely as planned and was curtailed due to injury after three sections, which was also a bit of a relief given the ever-changeable weather. However, we still got some great walking done through some lovely countryside, and got to visit a few nice pubs and drink some lovely beer along the way.

The Cumbria Way is traditionally done from south to north and starts at a square called the Gill in Ulverston, marked by a modern sculpture. We had a sunny morning and a really pleasant start to the walk through fields, small villages and farms, with great views back down to Ulverston, the beacon that overlooks it and Morecambe Bay beyond.

We remained in good spirits as we started to ascend into wilder territory in the Blawith Fells. The walk got a bit more difficult at this point, as we had to carefully pick our way through boggy ground around a tarn before descending through some bleaker landscape towards Coniston Water. Around this time the sky darkened significantly and it felt like dusk from around 3pm, before the clouds opened just as we approached the lake.

The final few miles of the walk, mostly close to the water’s edge through woodland, were very wet and it was difficult to appreciate the full beauty of Coniston Water in poor visibility. However we finally got to our stop for the night, The Black Bull at Coniston, damp and sore but relieved.

The Black Bull is an old Lakes coaching inn with a traditional oak beam and carpeted interior. We were staying in one of the ensuite rooms, which was spacious and clean. After a hot shower, we changed and hobbled down to the bar for a pint and dinner.

The Black Bull is the brewery tap for Coniston Brewery, much loved for their Bluebird Bitter, presumably named after the water speed record breaking boats of Donald Campbell, who drank at the Black Bull during his attempts on Coniston Water, the final of which resulted in his death in 1967. All of the Coniston range was on the bar, in cask, keg or bottle, so whilst I like the consistent, pale, refreshing, sessionable Bluebird, I appreciated the ability to try the US-hopped variant Bluebird XB and the more robust and malty US-influenced Infinity IPA on cask, both of which were very good examples of New World-hopped cask ales.

Food at the Black Bull is pub grub done superbly and generously, and even after a long walk neither of us could quite finish the massive plates of succulent gammon. After dinner I tried a bottle of another beer, Coniston No. 9 Barley Wine, 2012’s Champion Beer Of Britain, following Coniston’s previous success with Bluebird in 1998. It was everything you could want in a barley wine and a nightcap: sweet but not oversweet, mellow and warming. A fitting end to a tough day in a very nice pub.

Bitter and Jaded: Changing Tastes and Blogger’s Ennui

Like a fasting, beatific saint from the early middle ages, I have seen wonderful things. Colours not previously experienced anywhere in my mundane, cruel, mud-sodden, stinking, warty, short, pox-curtailed real life. I have seen gods, angels, demons and castles in the sky: nothing else compares.

More specifically, I’ve caught myself in the middle of a lot of mediocre beer experiences recently, possibly due to increased expectations after 18 months of beer blogging. Pints of slightly earthy brown water no longer satisfy. I find myself trapped in market towns where the pubs only offer endless pumps of perfectly-kept, virtually identical cask boredom.

I used to settle for Guinness. More recently I won’t even tolerate that. I reluctantly opt for the least worst pilsner before quickly moving on to whisky. I’ve even turned to wine in the desperate search for flavour in a flavourless climate. (It’s alright, I’ve discovered).

Recently I ranted a little on Twitter late on a Friday night (tellingly) about how people could possibly have given two shits about cask beer before some genius thought to put New World hops in it. That’s an unfair exaggeration and a slur on many excellent traditional (and yes, even subtle) English beers, but it reflects my increasing view that the majority of cask beers don’t merit my enthusiasm or loyalty. Nor do the majority of keg beers, or the majority of bottled beers.

I seem to have turned myself into a snob. Now there is interesting beer and there is uninteresting beer. Thankfully there’s still a hell of a lot of the former, thanks to hardworking, thoughtful, innovative brewers. These people deserve my money and support.

But as for the rest, I’m no longer prepared to settle for boring cask beer just because it’s cask beer, whether it was brewed in a shed or an aircraft hanger. Nor will I settle for any dull beer, just because it happens to qualify as beer and I’m a “beer drinker”.

Alternatively, perhaps I just need a holiday.

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BEER is proof that CAMRA loves us and wants us to be happy

November 8, 2011 2 comments

Kate and I are back home after our honeymoon in Scotland, all wed up.  The wedding went pretty much perfectly, as did Summer Wine Covenant, but I’ll come on to that in a separate post.

One thing that’s taken the edge off returning to Leeds after a very relaxing 10 days in Scotland is the new Winter 2011 edition of BEER magazine which was waiting for me, with a snowscene cover as festive as the Christmas Radio Times.  I’ve enjoyed BEER since I first bought a copy in Borders a couple of years ago, with its quality beer writing and clean design, so I was very glad to be able to respond to a Twitter appeal for a few hundred words on “My Local” with a short piece on Mr Foleys.

I’m thrilled that they published it and was surprised when they sent a photographer to take some photos of me in the pub to go with the article.  It was a bit daunting to see that the photographer, Will Amlot, had taken portraits of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan for publications such as the Sunday Times Magazine.

As Dean can testify, Will had me in quite a few poses for a number of hours getting the photos right.  It included flipping beer mats; catching slopping pint glasses slid along the bar; and even pretending to have pork scratchings for claws.  I asked whether Will had given the same treatment to Mandela, but apparently not.  Certainly a man of Mandela’s age would probably have felt even worse after the afternoon drinking (for art’s sake) than I did.

I think it’s mainly down to Will’s excellent photography that they ended up with three pictures of my awkward, doughy face in the magazine.  My little article was knocked off in less time than this post after work, but it reflects that there are no shortage of good things to say about Mr Foleys.

I’m just glad to have a bit of writing published in a beautiful magazine alongside that of a writer of the quality of Adrian Tierney-Jones, not to mention a few of my favourite bloggers in Simon Johnson, the CAMRA-shy Mark from BeerBirraBier, and Bailey of Boak & Bailey.  It’s a lot more than I could have hoped for a year ago when I started this blog.

BEER magazine is free to all CAMRA members either in hard copy or online (which is reason enough to join CAMRA), or you can buy a copy in some larger newsagents.  However you can’t get it in the WH Smith in Oban, where two shop assistants, due to a conflict of accents, thought Kate was asking for “Bear” magazine (about teddies) and then, increasingly red-facedly, “Bare” magazine: “Och, no hen, we dinnae stock that sort of magazine” (or similar).

CAMRA v Yorkshire: The Myth Of The Local

July 28, 2011 8 comments

On 12 July 2011 the winner of a Yorkshire Post/Welcome To Yorkshire vote to name “Yorkshire’s Favourite Pub” was announced at The Great Yorkshire Show.  The winner, by public vote, was The Shibden Mill Inn, near Halifax.

The shortlist of 12 was as follows: “The Adelphi, Leeds; The Angel Inn, Hetton; near Skipton: The Anvil Inn, Sawdon, near Scarborough; the Black Swan Inn, York; The Black Swan, Driffield; Durham Ox, York; Farmers Arms, Upper Swaledale; George and Dragon, Hudswell, near Richmond; The Milestone, Sheffield; One-Eyed Rat, Ripon; Shibden Mill Inn; Shoulder of Mutton, Harrogate.”

What I find interesting is that, unlike a lot of the other entries, the Shibden Mill isn’t actually in the current edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, according to my iPhone app.  I wonder what it was that meant that a public vote for a favourite pub selected a Cask Marque pub which serves real ale (“a wonderful selection of cask ales”) and yet has been overlooked by CAMRA?

The thing that sticks out to me from the website, having not actually visited, is that it looks like a very nice place to go for dinner, or to stay in one of the rooms.  Basically it sells itself more as a venue for eating than for drinking, and perhaps this is the reason that it’s not included in the Good Beer Guide, with the Halifax/Huddersfield area offering quite a few excellent pubs that are obviously pubs. I would assume that most of the other finalists have a good bar menu as well.

This might be indicative of a general disconnect between the general public (or perhaps casual pub-goers) and CAMRA/beer geeks.  Many of the casual pub-goers go to the pub once a week for a hearty weekend meal and one or two pints of a beer at a sensible ABV, perhaps before driving home.  By contrast, I imagine most of the latter group (whether at the CAMRA or bloggerati end of the spectrum) would view The Grove in Huddersfield as close to a Platonic ideal: a huge, ever-changing selection of good beer, some bar snacks and staff who know their stuff.  Essentially, we want Dave and Barbara to refer us to the blackboard.

I may be reading too much into it, and it’s simply that the average Yorkshire Post reader wants different things from the pub than an average active CAMRA member.  Another illustration might be my reaction to the recent Leeds Bar & Club Awards 2011, where my favourite Leeds pubs were largely overlooked in favour of what I would class as weekend music venues.  It’s probably just the case that the people who voted (including Leeds Guide readers), unlike myself, view a Saturday night on Call Lane as something other than the third circle of hell.

I think my conclusion is the rather mundane one that different groups of people frequent different types of pub.   Our idealised view of the pub as a place where the whole community comes together, the ultimate “Third Place“, is probably a fallacy.  There have always been different drinking venues for different people: working men’s clubs, political clubs, gentleman’s clubs, student’s unions.  The “local” wasn’t always welcoming for all and many people would never have been seen dead in one.

Basically, what makes a good pub for me is probably not to a lot of other people’s tastes.  When people talk about “the pub” they can mean vastly different things.  I’m fortunate that, at the moment, there appear to be enough like-minded people who are interested in variety and what I regard as good beer to keep the places I love going, and that these pubs in turn support a thriving craft brewing industry.

Hardy Boys and Girls: Chorlton Beer Festival, Manchester

July 10, 2011 11 comments

I do like beer festivals.  CAMRA are subject to a lot of criticism (some of which is justified) and stereotyping (some of which is hard to disprove), but the organisation and volunteering behind local beer festivals is a testament to a common interest that these people are willing to sacrifice their time pursuing and promoting.

So, in Chorlton-Cum-Hardy at the weekend, I went to a beer festival in a churchyard and tried a lot of nice beers, the best of which (to my mind, and of those that happened to be still on in the four hours I was there) was Moor Illusion, a nice hoppy porter/black IPA (Who knows?  It smelled great and tasted really good).

I sat outside on garden furniture; chatted with my brother and his girlfriend; listened to some live light jazz; witnessed a dramatic moment when a plastic gazebo was destroyed by the wind; ate a roast pork sandwich; saw two friendly vicars; used a chemical toilet of only moderate eurgh-ness; and was surrounded by people who were having a good time.

Chorlton-Cum-Hardy seems very Nigel Slater: jute bags; yummy mummies; designer cupcakes; and yoga.  I live in a not-dissimilar (but not quite as marvellous) area of Leeds.  Days like this, and the Chapel Allerton festival in Leeds (not strictly a beer festival, but usually served by a Roosters stall) help us think that we live in villages even though we don’t: we live in cities and arguably, in both cases cited, unrepresentative middle class enclaves inside those cities.

We actually live in a massively complex  overlapping Venn diagram comprised of electronically-connected diasporas of shared social and economic interests, rather than simply geographically proximite communities.  As such mutual interests go (knitting; yoga; accountancy; battle reenacting; comics; medicine; death metal; crown green bowls; dogging), beer is a good one for me, and I’m very grateful for the volunteers that allow us to enjoy and share such an interest, in the sunshine with friends, on days like this. Because we all need to feel like we belong, and a good beer or four helps that process immensely.

Small Beer: Micro Bar, Unit FC16, Arndale Food Market, Manchester City Centre

June 14, 2011 6 comments

At 11.17am on Saturday 15 June 1996, a 3,300lb bomb in a Ford Cargo lorry exploded on Corporation Street in Manchester, injuring 212 people.  The bombing was part of a renewed Provisional IRA campaign to cause massive economic damage on the mainland, which had been kicked off four months previously with the truck bomb at Canary Wharf in London that ended the 1994 ceasefire.  This spasm of violence (likely prompted by a stalemate in peace negotiations and a power struggle within the PIRA) was fortunately short-lived, and the Good Friday Agreement was signed less than two years later.

The vicinity of the bomb site at the Corporation Street side of the Arndale Centre has, in the last 15 years, been regenerated into the posh end of Manchester shopping. In fact I was in Manchester a few weeks ago looking in Harvey Nichols and Selfridges (both post-1996 additions) for a wedding suit.  More of a one-off expense for me; but this is just the place to spend your money as a well-paid footballer, or more likely a footballer’s wife or girlfriend (of whom there would seem to be a very much larger number than footballers).

Having picked suits with my brother, and with him having spotted a Manchester City keeper buying designer clothes (I’d never heard of him), we decided to get a drink.  On this wet day (it seems to rain an awful lot in Manchester), I didn’t want to go to the Northern Quarter or up the Rochdale Road, and The Good Beer Guide app on my iPhone had mainly identified a number of uninspiring-sounding Wetherspoons pubs in the area.  However it also mentioned the following interesting possibility.

Micro Bar is in the Arndale Food Market, at the other end of the shopping centre from the regenerated bling of Manchester Exchange.  It’s currently owned by Boggart Brewery  of Newton Heath (birthplace of at least one empire) and is, as the name suggests, a tiny bar and beer shop surrounded by the other food outlets, including both prepared food and a excellent-looking fishmongers and butchers.  This small stall/bar has apparently been going for some time under the control of Paradise Brewery (no, me neither) although Oh Good Ale and Tandleman’s reports suggest that it has improved massively under Boggart.  

The selection on the  five or so hand-pumps was varied and we tried Dark Star Saison (very pleasant and an interesting style to try on cask) and Pictish Brewer’s Gold.  The bottled selection was also good; obviously not as comprehensive as much larger shops such as Beer Ritz in Leeds or The Bottle in York, it did have a solid variety of American craft beers (Brooklyn, Flying Dog, Goose Island, Sierra Nevada, Anchor) and Belgians, as well a very interesting range from smaller English breweries.  These included some I’d never seen in bottles before, including Kirby Lonsdale.  Usefully these also had little brown paper luggage tags with descriptions.

Anthony Bourdain, in his most recent book Medium Raw, suggests that well-made street food is the way of the future in the West.  Arndale Food Market doesn’t quite have the feel of Borough Market in London or the rather wonderful Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, and despite the football cash Manchester, like most of the North, probably still leans more towards Greggs’ pasties than freshly-made tapas.

However, it’s still a good start, and Micro Bar makes me wish Kirkgate Markets in Leeds had somewhere similar, to drink a good beer whilst either considering your shopping list for that night’s dinner party, or simply munching on a steak bake.

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