Wednesday, 12 March 2014

BRAPA Pre-Season Tour Part 2 - London : The Northern Line

Springtime is here!  Or so I thought as I arrived in a surprisingly mild London on Sat 8th March to tick off some more pubs all in the BRAPA cause.  This time, I had the added complication of a fellow traveler (Tom) potentially hijacking my day, but was secretly glad of the companionship.

Last time out en route to Brighton, I'd forgotten my Oyster Card which was a silly oversight.  Although I didn't make the same mistake twice, it had zero balance on it so was practically useless as I arrived at a heaving Kings Cross, and after a short walk, an equally heaving Euston to queue for what seemed like an eternity at the ticket machines.

Lessons learned: make sure I'm topped up during the preceding week and if not, top up online on - and if I do need to use a machine at peak times, try Euston Square - so Tom n Dad advised after the event.
I did say these early BRAPA trips were about fine-tuning, luckily this was as bad as the day got.

Highgate (pronounced High-gut apparantly) when i finally got there, really was the deepest underground as I'd been told, the escalator up, the number of stairs, the uphill walk to Highgate village was absolutely knackering and when I finally arrived at the GATEHOUSE Wetherspoons at approx 11:15am, I really was in need of a pint.  After making that schoolboy error of choosing a beer "coming soon" (Why do Wetherspoons do this?  And why is it always the most tempting beer? ), I was kind of forced into a 4.8%, totally unsuitable for that time of day.

It was served by a female fronted brigade of bar staff, a bit of a scary bunch and reminded me rather fittingly that it was International Women's Day.  It was with some trepidation that I smuggled a Scotch Egg from my bag, but that strong ale on an empty stomach was murder.  Am i really too pikey to even buy a Wetherspoons breakfast?  You'd better believe it.

Lovely pub though, all old beams and historical feel, a theatre upstairs - very un-Wethers - but I have nothing against the chain (I might when I've finished BRAPA and visited shitloads of them!!)

It was time to find Tom (who had been doing his own micro-gricing or whatever the dickens he calls it) and I was relieved both the walk back to Highgate tube and the journey to my next pub in East Finchley were effortless.

So much so that the BALD FACED STAG (reportedly an 11am opener) was still shut come 12noon - you can never trust opening times in the beer guide, the one thing I wouldn't take as gospel from it - but after a short wait in the garden, they opened and I had a very convivial chat with a barman who had that bohemian London air about him, and after explaining BRAPA, he offered me a sample of all 4 real ales without me even asking!

This was a lighter, airier pub but nice nonetheless, and Tom soon was in tow.  I quickly nipped in the bud that I wanted to stay on the Northern line regardless (the Edgware branch was closed) and despite limitations, I still had plenty to go on between here, High Barnet and Kings Cross.  Between us with all our pub and train "literature" splayed out on the tables, a barmaid knew we were planning a pubby day out.

Pub 3 was the ELEPHANT INN at North Finchley after some doubt whether one called 'Bohemia' was still in the guide or not.  This was a Fullers Pub and for some reason, I'd had a hankering for my first London Pride in ages and here seemed like the best bet, and I wasn't disappointed.

I was twittering away to my small band of followers about the pubs, and putting the beers on Untappd, Tom got us sitting in this front patio area in the sun, I was totally in my element, despite the proximity to a busy road.

Pub 4 took us to the end of the line, excitement for Tom no doubt as he pointlessly moved us from carriage to carriage (but I'm a pub geek so can't really talk).  I think he was ticking off carriage numbers or something but I didn't really ask!  So High Barnet it was, and after the sad news Barnet are no longer at Underhill (which we could see), we were soon in the award winning OLDE MITRE INNE.  Beer range was good but felt a bit tied, it had a lovely olde worlde interior but again we sat out, at the back patio, but less of a suntrap than the last pub.  Still, when Hull City are back in the non-league away at Barnet, I'd recommend here before bussing it to their new Edgware home!

Our 5th pub was my pub of the day, but we had to work for it.  After a fairly long jaunt back down the line to Archway, we had to wait til 4:30pm for the CHARLOTTE DESPARD to open - the staff were apologetic and kept us informed through the window, while I had a sly pee down a subway.  It sobered me up all this waiting around, but at least it was sunny.  Tom was loving it.

This pub was a lovely old one roomer, serving great beers and I had a Redemption one that was only 3% but you'd never have known.  The experience was made by "Legs" the three legged cat who we played ping pong with and got a brief rundown of his background from the friendly staff.  They even re-tweeted my photo and comment - wow, fame at last!  Suddenly, Twitter felt worthwhile but as we were still in the pub when they did it, maybe a note to only write kind things about your experiences!

Our final pub, Tom assured me we had time, was the PINEAPPLE at Kentish Town, pretty much equidistant between this tube station and another one whose name escapes me.  Smallish but another contender for pub of the day, great range of unusual ales and a lovely back bar sign and mirror type thing.  I wanted to savour the experience but Tom was on an earlier train out of Kings Cross and wanted noodles so I tried my best to down it, reminding me of my last pint on X&Y day at the Jolly Judge, Edinburgh where I had to rush on a bloated beer belly, thanks a bunch!

I needn't have rushed as my train was 25 mins late out of KX, so snuck into Parcel Yard for half an Ossett Red, decent quality, before the Grand Central took me (and a load of celebrating York City fans) home, where I'm glad I this time resisted last orders in York Tap.

A very successful day again, 6 pubs ticked off, not too drunk, a couple of lessons learned, onwards and upwards to the next big day.  Boom!


Monday, 3 March 2014

BRAPA Pre-Season Tour Part 1 : East & West Sussex

We have BT Sport to thank/blame (delete as appropriate) for getting BRAPA off to an early start in Feb as Hull City's trip to Brighton was moved to an impossible Monday night and my trains were already booked for the Saturday.  Well, I wasn't going to waste £60 so it was off to Brighton I headed on the Saturday 6:01am out of York station.  I must be mad.

I was determined in my meticulous planning in the build up the week before, even working out a complex bus journey to a pub in the middle of nowhere  - knowing full well I'd be relying on buses on the Bedfordshire weekend in April, I wanted to test the waters.

Speaking of waters, you'd have to have been living on Mars to be unaware of the recent flooding and gale force winds of the south, cue plenty of messages from home telling me not to walk along Brighton pier in hurricane force winds taking pictures of tidal waves .... that's the degree of intelligence i'm credited with by my nearest and dearest.

I'd packed a rucksack up - my survival kit if you like including a bit of food and soft drink to keep me rehydrated (so I could keep then going back to the ale), my iPhone so I could get on brilliant Beer App "Untappd" to check in my beers, and Twitter (spit!) to give live updates of the pub i was in/place i was at/journey i was on (driving my 10 faitfhul followers mad!).  I also took my EasyAcc charger (best thing ever!) which I learnt about from a group of walkers in Ribblehead so you can charge up without being plugged in.  I packed my heavy beer guide and a highlighter pen so i could get the satisfaction of ticking off the pubs while i was in them.  Am i taking this too seriously?

After a hearty breakfast at Kings Cross (gotta line that stomach!), I was on the tube to London Bridge and across to Brighton by about 10:30am.  Some slightly waterlogged lines caused mini delays, but the sun was out and it was positively tropical as I arrived in a town I've got a lot of time for.

Sadly, I had to forgo my fave pub The Evening Star in place of, of course, my first pub tick of the day.  This was THE MITRE TAVERN as it was an early opener.  Harvey's isn't my favourite brewery but this was a stronger premium one called "Kiss" and a bit tastier than usual.  The locals seemed a quirky bunch, there was no love lost with the barman who had to go and change the barrel for my ale so i couldn't criticize him.  Didn't really like the one room pub layout and ended up squashed near the bogs reading a leaflet about bus trips to Devil's Dyke, food for thought for a future trip I thought as I spotted a pub near to it.

I couldn't afford to hang around so it was back to the train station to Falmer (firstly, I saw a man shin up a lampost and start playing a flute!), where Brighton play of course so I wondered if I was rubbing it in for myself but the SWAN INN doesn't usually allow fans in so I convinced myself I was having the last laugh.  It was a tricky trek to the pub, hadn't been expecting that, but the pub itself was in an area of Falmer that felt very villagey which was nice, considering the football stadium and Sussex university are probably all most people see of Falmer.

The pub contained a group of Blue and White clad lunchers, did they know the game was on Monday night now?  Surely.  I sat in the back room, hiding in case they picked up some trace of Hull fan about me, and watched an engrossing curling game from the Winter Olympics.  The toilet was outside - I always hate finding toilets in new pubs, bain of my life (stupid weak bladder!)

There was still a bit of train chaos as I headed back into Brighton so I contemplated finding another new pub there but with my Dad's words ringing in my head about not getting stranded, I decided to get back up the line as soon as I could.  This meant Burgess Hill and a trip to a trendy sounding bar called QUENCH.  The wind was causing chaos for the staff when I arrived and they had to lock the main door, I like that lock-in feel!

I was chuffed that the beer was great quality, staff friendly, clientele friendly and the place was nowhere as pretentious as I had feared from their website and other descriptions!  I settled down with the sun shining through the large windows and watched a bit of Sunderland v Southampton.  It was as relaxed as I felt all day looking back.

My solitude didn't last long, as I had to pull myself out for it for the trickiest leg of the day - as i mentioned earlier, involving a bus!  I was one stop up the train line to Wivelsfield, but the train station was actually nowhere near Wivelsfield, never mind Wivelsfield Green where my next pub was, grrrr.

So I had to negotiate the number 40 bus to something called the Ote Hall Chapel - this was made worse by a torrential downpour where a friendly jogger stopped for shelter and tried to offer good local advice though he'd never been to the pub in question.  The bus eventually arrived and after the driver struggled to walk out what fare i should be paying(!), I was soon at the Chapel - still with another mile walk to the pub.  The puddles meant i was constantly dodging splashage (if that's a word) and when I finally reached THE COCK INN, I felt I deserved a round of applause.

I was actually greeted by a few indifferent locals and a room of people cooing over some babies which was incredibly annoying as I was soaked and fed up anyway - such is the life of someone taking on this self-imposed BRAPA challenge, I reminded myself.  I stayed for a pint and a half of overly southern ale but again, what did i expect?  I warmed to the place a bit, but glad i've got that journey done with.

Another long walk and bus ride later, I was delighted to see an earlier train had been delayed so I didn't have long to wait for my train to Three Bridges - i deserved a break after that last leg of the journey!

Sadly, my plans to change trains and give an intriguing sounding Crawley pub a try were scuppered by yet more train cancellations.  It was dark by now, time was getting on, so I headed back into London and although i've done a few pubs around London Bridge station, I gave SHIPWRIGHTS ARMS a try.  I didn't really catch it at it's best as it was full of grunting armchair Premier league supporters, but I sat under the screen and enjoyed a pint of Spitfire, you can never go too wrong with that ale.  The staff were excellent considering how busy the pub was and I made myself pretty at home considering the atmosphere.

I'd have liked to tried another pub somewhere near Monument/Bank area but I was conscious of my 21:00 train from Kings Cross so decided to be sensible (boring), play safe and get back there.  Typically, I was back in a flash with time to kill, so I found a pub I'd not seen in the guide before.....

This was QUEEN'S HEAD not far from St Pancras, old and with a great pub feel but full of student bohemian types and the kind of hoppy beers they are in to.  Still, it was nice to get an interesting range after the last two pubs and despite keeping my bobble hat on throughout, I felt pretty comfy here and the pub was a real find for my many future trips to Kings Cross .... oh hang on, I can't really afford to visit a pub more than once anymore can i?  Damn!

I slept most of the journey back, didn't need a pint in the YORK TAP but had one, well you live n learn.  Overall, a successful intro to BRAPA and lots to take from it for future journeys.


BRAPA Roots - The A-Z Challenge UPDATED (in progress)

The first seeds of the BRAPA shoot were probably sown in the Volunteer Arms, York on a cold, dark Monday night in January 2012 when a productive pint with my sister yielded a few lifestyle changes.  One of the least serious but possibly most telling was not to renew my Hull City season pass for the next season.

There were many reasons behind this, a greater need for independence was one but I was getting sick of the same City, same pubs, same faces, same 3pm match experience.  I love the away games, but was getting disillusioned with the home games.

So once I'd upset my Dad with this decision, the questions was "how to create that 'away day experience' every other Saturday?  And that's where the A-Z idea was formed.  The rules were simple.  I'd go to a place beginning with each letter of the alphabet, try and get a few friends along, each place would require (a) a train station (b) a point of interest, historical, cultural etc and (c) a pub in the good beer guide must exist!

Due to "logistics" (i.e. train bookings), I somewhat annoyingly started on the letter "B" before "A".  A trip to lah di dah city of Bath on a glorious summer day in July 2012. No takers for this trip, a bit too far.

The Bell in Bath on my first ever A-Z trip in July 2012.  Nice hops!
So after a longish but straightforward journey, I was soon doing my cultural bit around the Cathedral before having a picnic in one of the few parks you didn't have to pay to sit in! I felt like a dirty Northern tourist cluttering up a beautiful town for most of the day.

I then hit the pubs, firstly the excellently business-like Salamander, then the lovely little Old Green Tree, the Raven where I wasn't keen on the general vibe, then the wonderful Star which was probably pub of day before finishing at the Bell, another cracker.

I scared a Chinese girl on the train journey back but overall, it had been a successful start to the A-Z campaign.  Hugging her at Paddington station was not my smoothest move ever!

Train journey back from Bath.  Poor lass!
Bath Cathedral - me doing culture!
All of that meant that Altrincham, my eventual "A" in September would be a bit of a come down culturally at least, I'd dragged two friends along and for our 'cultural' event, we'd watch Altrincham v Histon which I think finished 5-0 to the home side after a rampant second half which Cambridgeshire's finest just couldn't live with.

The town itself disappointed me in that after a Metro journey from Manchester, it felt little more than a glorified suburb of Manc, a pretty bog standard one at that with a small shopping area.  It had one pub in guide at that time, the Old Market Tavern.  Luckily, it was an absolute peach with a glorious range of ales on looking suspiciously like a football team sheet!

Amazing range of beers in Alty.

Me and the Boyz in the beer garden.
 We aimed to get through all 11 ales, some went off and were replaced so we referred to them as 'substitutions' and injuries and such like. Saddos that we are.  The weather was nice so we took advantage of the sun and their mini outdoor drinking area for the last 30 mins before the short trek to the football ground.

Post match, we had a drink in a pub near Piccadilly and a bite to eat before the train back to York.  Another good  A-Z day.
Pre-match Altrincham v Histon
Next up, just two weeks later, C was for Carnforth as I again got my friend Jig to buy into my meticulously planned day out which never quite lived up to the billing on paper, I have to admit looking back.  The culture element of the day was in Carnforth itself.  With no Carnforth pubs in the 2013 beer guide, we were happy with a breakfast in the Brief Encounter cafe from the film.  The station was a mini museum so we had a great time exploring, before the need for real ale kicked in!

Me and Jig share a Brief Encounter - ooo err, where's Anton Bell?

Our first train stop of the day was another C, Clapham, though the train station was a good countryside walk from the village so after breathing in some nice rural air, we found the promising looking New Inn.  Sadly, it didn't live up to it's billing.  A rather limited beer range and miserable landlord, it felt a case of "people will come here anyway cos it is a touristy place so why try hard?"  Amazingly, it is still in the guide at time of writing.  Our second pub is no longer in the guide, an impossible to find bar inside the back of a cafe!  Fewer but more interesting ales in a modern atmos was a decent experience.

New Inn, Clapham - looked nicer than it was
Our second stop was further down the line at a place called Long Preston.  After a less tiresome walk along the main road, we came to another pub I cannot remember with an even blander range than the New Inn.  We were both underwhelmed so ordered a meal to while away the time, the pub was very food orientated.  This pub again, is no longer in the guide at the time of writing.   With the trains not very regular, time had surprisingly marched on so we retreated to the safety of Leeds where we enjoyed Ossett beers in the wonderful Hop under the dark arches.  These ales have never been so welcome.

Letter D had to be put on hold as Dronfield FC's football match was postponed (a recurring theme of part one of the A-Z).  So it was quite a wait for my next trip, on bonfire night weekend as E was for Elsecar.

This was Tom Irvin's A-Z debut, being a big fan of anything to do with trains so our 'culture' element of the day was the Elsecar Heritage Centre with steam engines, trains, old skool sweet shops etc etc.  I was pleasantly impressed with the town, 4 real ale pubs in such a small place!  We did 3, meeting at Milton Arms which seemed a good, solid South Yorks ale house with good guests and a comfy vibe.  We then did our culture before a pint in the very characterful and lively Market Hotel before finishing in what I think was the Crown Inn (I revisited recently and even then can't be sure!)  Was a really good A-Z day though.

Me enjoying some steam at Elsecar

I put F temporarily on hold (it was due to be looking for red squirrels in Formby near Liverpool but they were 'out of season'!) so with Glossop North End at home, I travelled to rural Derbyshire with Ric as they were at home to Norwich City lookalikes, Runcorn Town.  Glossop was a lovely positioned town nestling in the Peak District hills and pre-match, we enjoyed beers in the Star Inn next to the station although our attempts to get the staff chatting to us didn't work!  The locals were more friendly as we went for post-match drinks (I can't remember who won but know Runcorn scored a brilliant goal on 46 mins cos we were still in the clubhouse, and late on, Nick Proswitchz scored a 90th minute Hull City winner and I did a lap of honour around the same clubhouse!)  We got one more pub tick in with a longish walk to the Crown Inn, a beautiful old pub which was actually Sam Smith's - woah, wasn't expecting that.

I was cooking on gas now and embarked on my first solo A-Z trip since Bath with a trip to Hampton Court.  I've always been a Henry VIII geek so this was a massive tick for me and despite being alone, I was in my element and spent hours wandering around.  Pubs weren't even high on the agenda during the day, which is surprising for me.  Still, I was on medication for an infected leg so couldn't over do it!  

My one pub of the day, a short walk from Hampton Court station on a posh street full of "I saw you coming" type Harry Enfield shops.....

So out of the ashes of the A-Z came BRAPA (British Real Ale Pub Adventures) - just a glorified huge pub crawl you might think (and be kind of right!), but the challenge of doing all approx 4,500 guide pubs is like an exciting treasure hunt for me, with the planning of these journeys taking up a lot of my time.

To be honest, I'm a bit of a lightweight.  I'm more interested in the pubs than the ale (honest!).  5 or 6 pubs a journey is enough for me.

For now though, I have to start at the beginning - that's the beginning of the 2014 CAMRA guide - the Albion at Ampthill in Bedfordshire on 5th April.  More on that trip in a later post.

I have been able to hone by BRAPA skills(!) with 2 "pre-season" trips (due to the FA Cup run messing up certain weekends).  The first in Brighton in Feb, the next London (Mar).