Monday, 29 February 2016

BRAPA - February Review / March Preview (2016)

February Review 

Evening all!  A grand total of 32 new pubs were visited in Feb. making for a really productive month, more than doubling my regular monthly target of 15.  It is also just one pub off being the best BRAPA month ever (I did 33 twice, but both were in summer so it's a new winter record at least).

I also visited 3 other new pubs, one was pre-emptive, one post-emptive(!) and one a (quite rubbish) heritage pub but you never know, all three may well be in the GBG sometime before 2042 when I'm due to finish my challenge.

The standard of pub was noticeably better than in January so picking three to go into my reckoning for 'pub of the year' was very difficult but here they are in no particular order:

1.  Major Tom's Social, Harrogate
2.  Dun Cow, Sunderland
3.  Brewery Tap, Ipswich

Plenty more were really good too, the Rifle Volunteer in Burnley, the Hare & Hounds in Hindley, the Eagle and Child in Auckley, the Nag's Head in Sunningdale and the Spotted Cow in Malton, and that's only 5 of them.

A bit of time off work for brilliant trips to Sunderland and Ipswich helped get the numbers up.  Even the boilerman couldn't stop me.  It was nice to start my South Yorkshire evenings and get Berkshire underway, and have a first NFFD (Non-football football day) trip to Greater Manchester.

March Preview

Although March is generally seen as the start of spring, and lighter and milder weather, I'm not expecting to manage quite so many new pubs as in Feb.  Only one day off work you see!

I should be able to crack on with the South Yorkshire midweek trail on (mainly) Tuesday nights throughout the month with villages around Barnsley and Doncaster high on the agenda.

On Saturdays, we start with a trip to some pubs just south of Birmingham centre, that should be a productive day and I'm looking forward to it.  I love West Midlands pubs.  We then have a second trip to Berkshire though April will see the really big "liver busting" trip to this county.  The following Friday sees a trip to Middlesbrough, which will more be about pre-emptives and football than hardcore BRAPping.  And the weekend after that is Easter, one of those annoying times for BRAPA what with people wanting to "do stuff" and silly bank holiday transport fouling things up, but I have two mellow North Yorkshirey ideas sketched in.

So I'm looking at 22 maximum number of pub ticks, which isn't amazing, but April is going to be huge so am happy to take the (relative) 'hit'.  I did 18 last March so if I can manage 19 I'll be happy.

See you all on Wednesday for my latest South Yorks write up plus my (exciting) survey results.

Carry on pubbing ya bastards!  Si

Sunday, 28 February 2016

BRAPA - Malton, Scagglethorpe & Leavening

A pleasing scene at the Ham & Cheese
After the high standard of Ipswich pubbing on Tuesday, I didn't think the quality would be quite so good today.  After all, rural North Yorkshire is hardly been the most 'giving' of pub places since BRAPA began, so I was skepitcal to say the least.  It was a 'Dad chauffeur' day though, so at least I could sit back and make no effort whatsoever!

Staking out our first pub, from the safety of the car!
824.  Ham & Cheese Inn, Scagglethorpe

Scagglethorpe was just off the main Scarborough-Malton road, and we had to wait for 11am opening, but Dad noted lights on and smoke billowing out of the chimney, good signs that they were on the ball.  When a member of staff arrived in a car, we took our chance and ambushed the pub.  We were greeted by Arthur the two year old dog, who may as well have served us because the other staff were occupied by decorating for a 40th surprise birthday bash.  Luckily, an outgoing young barman appeared and he was a friendly soul, quizzing us on Brass Castle brewery who made the local 'Ham & Cheese' ale which I'm glad to say, didn't taste of ham and cheese.  We sat in front of a roaring fire (the best of all 4 we saw today) on some low leather settees whilst the decorating continued.  Arthur came to sleep at our feet but we suspected he was a gun dog, for every time a balloon or party popper went 'BANG', he ran to far end of the pub looking for the obligatory dead pheasant.  And then he'd return to us, looking rather sullen.  Some regulars came in and asked for a pint of the 'usual', which here was Brown Cow by Farmers, probably the best 'regulars' ale I've ever seen - it's normally John Smith's or Fosters in this situation.  If you were being ultra picky, the clarity of the piped music (high fidelity, Dad said) was a bit intrusive, and there was no complimentary fresh ham & cheese pieces on the bar.  Dad had accidentally parked in front of a driveway, so after taking the non-threatening note from the windscreen, it was time to leave Scaggs for ever and ever.  Very good pub.

Arthur makes an early bid for pub pet of the year in Scagglethorpe
Malton was just 3 miles away, but I had two new ticks to do despite having gone there on my "F is for Filey" day in 2013, and once before, when I had a job interview working for a boiler company!

It was farmers market day so all you could hear was 'cock-a-doodle-doo' as we walked up to our next pub and we then had a BRAPA first as my pub photo was put on hold as a farmer who looked like Father Jack (RIP) carrying a box of hens walked past.....but finally we were in.

Mind the hens!  Dad arrives at our second pub.
825.  Spotted Cow, Malton

And this was our pub of the day, mainly because we chose to go into the empty tap room, with another roaring fire, low beams, old bric-a-brac, truly one of those magical old pub rooms which felt it's 300 years old.  We were served by a characterful old landlady who was busy working and ordering (bossing) around her teenage assistant, a malnourished looking girl in a Sunderland Bidvest home shirt.  We spent much debating whether this was a Marston's pub (it served their new world pale) but also a Roosters Blind Jack (named after the fantastic Knaresborough pub of similar interior) which went down nicely, whilst Dad decided to be 'good' and have a J20, though our ordering of these has always been reluctant since the Nag's Head in Preston fiasco.  There was lots of references to an old brewery called Rose's and some interesting ornaments - Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale, Larry Grayson playing cricket and General Napier.  All of whom presumably got drunk in here, together.   Landlady smashed a glass just as we were leaving, we didn't cheer, this was certainly not Wetherspoons on a Friday night, and it was time to move on.  

Mirror and ornaments at the Spotted Cow
The silence in the street told us one thing, the chickens had all been strangled, mutilated and the farmers market had finished.  Why they hadn't all come to the pub was anyone's guess, but probably a good job my vegan sister hadn't come along to witness the blood thirsty scenes (well, in my imagination).

Pub three, me and my orange garb are going in! 
826.  Blue Ball, Malton

And it was another multi-roomed, low beamed heritage cracker from Malton, I had no idea this town had pubs so good apart from that Crown/Suddaby's thing and the one in Old Malton which might have been called the Royal Oak.  Anyway, this slightly more modernised but it had one of the smallest bars I have seen in any pub, EVER!  A friendly older lady shuffled around it, and you could
forgive them for not having their much anticipated guest ale on, I doubt there's room for 3 handpumps even!  The more characterful rooms around the bar were sadly full, so we sent to a charming little lounge with nice carpetting and of course, a real fire though in here, I was getting a draught from some ghostly presence to my right (not Dad) and it had only just been lit so wasn't generating a great deal of heat.  We were facing 3/4 of a female University Challenge team (Malton College?) who were discussing travel and boring stuff but had some very nice food.  Sadly for our own sandwich expectations, they had a Nazi style "don't eat your own food on our premises" sign which is something I simply would not do if I ran a pub (RIP the Welly in Hull!)  But then again, I'd only do simple bar snacks.  If you ordered the game, you were warned it might contain the shot.  If you ordered the kangaroo or ostrich, who knows.  I wondered if such creatures had been bouncing around at the farmers market earlier.  

Best quality pint of Landlord I've had in ages, at the Blue Ball.
Our final and 'key' pub of the day was in Leavening, about 5 miles south of Malton in no man's land going back towards York.  It was one of those "how on earth do you do this on public transport?" places a bit like Ellerton's Boot & Shoe from last year.  

Arriving at our final pub of the day, note my Sainsbury's sponsored  BRAPA survival kit bag!

827.  Jolly Farmers, Leavening

And just like Ellerton last year, we entered the pub expecting to be the only people there but found an absolute hive of activity.  First thing that stood out, the barmaid's pink jumper.  I've never worn pink, it's always seemed weird, but I had a sudden urge to get one exactly the same (Dad said I should ask for it, she'd probably say yes, but I didn't want to give her the wrong impression!)  Second thing that stood out, real fire number FOUR and there's the full house - bingo.  We sat in the main bar, though again there were a few side rooms off although I think these were more done out for dining (spit!) but the pub had a lovely atmosphere.  The door through to the loos had a sign "shut that chuffin' door!" and you could see why, as it just kept opening itself.  The pint of Wolds Way from localish Wold Top brewery was really good, and with a menu saying 'bar snacks', we caved in and were soon eating black pudding fritters which were just what you need to soak up the ale/J20.  The locals were getting very impassioned in a Trump v Obama debate, which I found hugely entertaining and irritating.  Maybe they are conscious of their lack of globalism living in such a remote place, but my response to them would have to be "Who gives a shit?  Enjoy it.  No-one's bombing Leavening any time soon!" This view was backed up by a friendly local woman who got talking to us, and compared this pub to the fantastic Goodmanham Arms in that place I can't remember(!)  You can definitely draw parallels, it is that good. 

If you are going to the loo / play the piano, be careful re the door.
So, that was that.  All the country through roads were closed so we had to go all the way back to Malton to get to York just to accentuate the remoteness.  But who'd have though all 4 pubs would have been this good?  I think I need to start being kinder about my home county.

Right, I'm off to order a pink older ladies jumper from Bon Marche.

Pint, fire and pink jumper - perfect stuff at the Jolly Farmers

Oh, and see you all tomorrow for the month end review.


Wednesday, 24 February 2016

BRAPA - Ipswich at it's very best.

Urinals reminded me of 'Scream' masks in the Briarbank Tap
Tuesday night saw me get my first Suffolk pub 'ticks' in four and a half years, doubling my total from 4 to 8, all of which are in Ipswich.

The players materialise at Portman Road on a ghostly, cold night
And I like to start with an apology to this glorious town.  On previous visits, I may have described the town in less than complimentary words, but this time, with the sun shining on the quayside area through the occasional sleet shower, it was like a cross between Ely, Knaresborough and Monaco.  No sign of the drab greyness, the inwardly looking yokels, the hatred of away football fans or any chips on inbred shoulders or aggressive toothless chavs jealous of Norwich.  No, this was delightful Ipswich.

Early signs weren't amazing though.  After a slightly fraught start with our train being cancelled in York, we were thankful to still arrive on time but with my 'trickiest' pub closed from 3pm-6pm in an annoying weekday afternoon pub move, Dad came up with the good idea to ensure we made it by getting us in a taxi.  The taxi driver was the most sinister man of 2016 yet, and when he drove us towards the quay behind some unloading lorries, I was convinced he was going to store our bodies in a shipping container a la Shetland......

Still alive!  Arriving at the Brewery Tap.
820  Brewery Tap, Ipswich

....thankfully, we were dropped in a car park of a grand old pink building, and with no pub sign, I could only assume this was our destination by a 2016 GBG sticker in the window.  Early signs weren't great as we had to interrupt a business meeting involving red wine and mobile phones to find the bar, where a local pervert was complimenting the blonde barmaid before devouring a sticky toffee pudding with his shopmobility scooting parents.  However, once we'd settled down to a cracking local pint of Tolly Roger by the local Cliff Quay (Tolly Cobbold) brewery, we knew we were in a great place.  Without sounding too much like Derek Acorah, you could feel the presence of centuries of history, I'm sure Sam would have agreed.  To see pickled eggs, olives and crisps being advertised more forcefully than pub meals was reassuring.  Dad spotted an old hatch which we thought might be an old 'off sales' window, so he reminisced on being a child in 50's Hull picking up bottles to take away for his parents.  That reminded me of a heritage pub I'd read about just around the corner, but not GBG listed.  As for this pub, a real gem - as they say, "for fans of  .... Whalebone in Hull, West Cross near Mumbles, Artillery Arms in Stonehouse area of Plymouth!"

Facing the bar in the Brewery Tap
Margaret Catchpole, Ipswich

So, answer me this.  How can a pub, so friendly on arrival from both staff and locals, with a roaring real fire, amazing windows, and "the most unspoilt 1930's interior in the country" still manage to be quite shite?  I can't even blame the Doom Bar, as well kept as I've ever had it, though the only ale on.  They even had a local Suffolk dialect poster up which sadly I didn't have time to study.  I can only think the TV, fruit machines and adverts for live sport managed to totally ruin it.  

Heritage Guide pub doesn't always equal fantastic pub. 
We took the school bus back into town where we checked in at our comfy, soundproof Premier Inn (cheers Lenny) before heading to the Briarbank Tap, which was not opening for another half an hour despite what the GBG said, so we walked to pub three instead!  

821.  Mulberry Tree, Ipswich

Paranoid from the last place being closed, my half-hearted efforts at getting into this closed looking pub were not very successful.  Luckily, the barman was on the ball to chase down the street after us and joke about my lame door opening technique, though I think he was showing off to the nice Aussie barmaid.  As it was, a nicer range of beers than Doom Bar greeted us and we found a nice booth which could almost be described as a 'settle' to 'settle' into in front of a wood burner.  The radio was on, which didn't do much for the ambiance, but again, a lovely old pub which begged the question "what have I been buggering about at in Ipswich all these years going to rubbish/average pubs?" Dad treated me to a Jamie Cullen sing-a-long (delightful), and I then kept my door problems going as the toilet one was just as jammed as the main one.  Probably warped 16th century/1980's wood or something?!  In the melee, I didn't even get a pub photo!  

Back at the Briarbank, in front of the brewing equipment window!
822.  Briarbank Tap, Ipswich

With their unspecific "16:30 til Late' opening times, we had to get this one in pre-match in case 'late' meant "when we feel like closing" which for all I know could've been 7pm!!  We climbed the stairs to the first floor bar to this modern place, only opened in 2013 but wow, what a fantastic job they've made of it with shiny brewery mirrors displaying all the beer names making the long, thin room seem a lot bigger than it actually was.  No need to show my CAMRA card or be signed in, like the GBG reckoned, and whilst you could be forgiven for thinking we'd be served by a bearded man who loved cycling, it was actually an old woman, and what a star she was.  She really made the experience, nothing was too much trouble whether it was advising on the ales, opening a tab for us, getting us sausage and mash with the biggest amount of cabbage I've ever seen on one plate ..... she even identified us as Hull City fans!  So much for my disguise attempts, fake accent, and blue and white outfit.  And we didn't even get escorted off the premises.  Okay, the Briarbank ales were a bit hit and miss, but the Six Nations IPA was lovely, and we even had time to get a pre-match coffee to sober us up which I never do, it was that kind of place. 

Interior shot at the Briarbank Tap
After a pre-match bovril and the kind of wonderful away game experience which reminds you more of League Two than the Premier League (oh, and temporarily losing my phone in the ground!), we had time for celebratory last orders.

Dad arrives at our final pub of the night
One of the upstairs rooms in the Wolsey.
823.  Thomas Wolsey, Ipswich

You've got to love those crazy Tudors, and high on victory and the 16th century, I had to remember to wipe the big cheesy grin off my face and look like a sulky Tractor Boy as we "fought" our way to the bar after the match, not far from Portman Road.  It wasn't busy, it's just everyone insisted on standing at the bar, blocking it (PET PUB HATE number 1!) though Dad, with the air of a yokel local, quickly found some stairs leading to at least two totally empty, and I must say, magnificent Tudor style creaky uneven old rooms.  Feel the quality.  I followed with the pints and it felt just like being upstairs in the Black Swan in York (not always open to the public though).  We wandered around like being in our own private museum, even finding a view down into this little courtyard where the ghost of Catherine Howard could be heard clearing away glasses from behind a door.  Or was it me, it had been quite a long day! 

Quality stuff in the T.W. 

After a good night's sleep and a great breakfast on the quayside, I managed to solve a couple of Wetherspoon issues before the train home.  Firstly, I needed a dump quite urgently so went in the Golden Lion 'Spoons, probably can't call it a pre-emptive tick, it certainly didn't take 27.5 mins!  

Great relief at the Golden Lion!
And then, we worked out (and I've discussed this in the archives) that it was indeed the Cricketers and not the Robert Ransome 'Spoons we visited on 4th May 2008 before the Greyhound FINALLY decided to serve us.

So, great work from Ipswich.  Dove Street Inn is a great pub in my eyes, but don't waste your time on the boring 'Spoons, rip-off charmless Greyhound, the 'up it's own arse, self-satisfied' St Jude's or the 'passive-aggressive scenester' Fat Cat.  Get yourself to the four I did on Tuesday, much better! 



Sunday, 21 February 2016

BRAPA - Berkshire Part 1 (Under Starter's Orders)

A whole month has passed since I ticked off my final GBG pub in Bedfordshire, it felt like longer, and I'd been itching to get started on Berkshire.  My only previous experience of the county was on Hull City away days in Reading, where I'd visited the excellent Hobgoblin (now, Alehouse) and the wonderful Nag's Head so it was actually over 5 years (22nd Jan 2011) since I'd been to a new pub here,  It needed rectifying ......

An unpromising view of the first pub. 
I started in Bracknell, after all, it is on the first page of Berkshire's pubs and you know by now that I have alphabetical OCD.  Bracknell seemed a strange place, on the plus side it smelt like hot cross buns but on the downside, it looked like Milton Keynes without as much character and the people all looked manically depressed or simple, or both, in the centre of town at least.

815.  Old Manor, Bracknell

After much negotiating of nicely decorated subways and underpasses, I finally found a way into the pub and despite the above picture, I approached it from a beautiful Tudor angle which really did the building justice and must be unique for 'Spoons.  Inside, a low roof and a gentle hum of breakfasters (funny how the only time I find pub meals acceptable is breakfast in 'Spoons) added something of a unique ambiance not usually associated with this chain.  The staff were bored but competent, and a delicious pint of Bingham's Vanilla Stout was soon mine.  If this is a sign of the local ale to come, I'm looking forward to Berks.  A lot.  A group of young lads who looked and sounded like Spurs reserve team were feverishly planning a trip to Cardiff Bay behind me, and I've seriously never seen any group so excited about a trip to Cardiff, maybe that says a lot about Bracknell.  There were some nice side rooms off this pub too, and you could certainly imagine Henry VIII bringing Anne Boleyn here for Eggs Royale in a happier stage of their relationship. 

A better view of the Old Manor
A short bus ride to the south of town (Handworth) followed and I was delighted to see that that my next pub had it's own bus stop and had to chuckle when the automated announcer said "next stop, the Cannie Man public house!" but I wasn't chuckling when it stopped 0.4 miles away!!  Turned out this route was closed for something, having done further research at the correct bus stop.  Why is nothing ever bloody straightforward in BRAPA??

Arriving at my next pub after some bus confusion.

816.  Cannie Man, Bracknell

I think this is what they refer to in the trade as an "estate pub".  I guess there was a time when unashamedly 70's/80's pub like this were sneered at by pub enthusiasts, but nowadays with the emergence of Micros and 'Craft' bars, these will probably be lauded by English Heritage in the next few years, if not already.  It had a certain charm.  All eye watering carpet patterns, swathes of open space with one raised area, decor in the form of each flag of the home nations, all presided over by a friendly old couple, the old boy telling my T.E.A. was the only ale on despite the pump clips suggesting otherwise, plus he assured me it was a fresh barrel as though I was some CAMRA investigator.  Some locals lined the bar, looking expectantly at me as though as a visitor, I should perform an initiation dance.  I didn't.  I sat in the raised area where I could choose whether to watch my beloved Hull City get stuffed at Arsenal (it never happened), or watch Cardiff rain in the goals against a woeful looking Brighton.  Men ignored both and played darts in a serious manner, it was verging on WMC territory.  Some kids, muddy from football, came in to a hero ovation (they'd won 6-3) and ordered coke with NO ice thank you very much,  It was that kind of a place.

Estate pub joy at the Cannie Man
Due to the bussing issues, I had to walk a bit to the 'Qualitas' stop a few streets away, but was soon back in Bracknell and from there, on to Ascot.  One thing I'd learned from the locals in the Cannie Man was that it was race day at Ascot!  How could I be so silly not to have realised?  After all, Tim of Newbury fame had recently warned me my planned Newbury day in April clashes with the races, it's almost like I'm deliberately seeking out trouble! 

I was luckily unaffected, and with the rain unrelenting, a kind taxi driver (no busses in this area) took me past the racecourse.  He was very much like Barrington from Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, with the spirit of Little Ron.  

Note the men in the doorway, the second one slipped over and found it hilarious
817,  Duke of Edinburgh, Ascot

Despite the foody nature inside, it wasn't rammed down my throat on arrival as I declared "I am looking for a pint of real ale!" (I must be getting braver) and my bravery was further rewarded when a nice brunette liked the fact I shunned any 'try before you buy' nonsense and dived straight in to the premium Kingsdown special ale.  The bar chap David was a great lad too, telling me their strawberry guest beer was "gimmicky" and basically telling me not to bother!  I like honest staff.  In fact, the camaraderie of these two and a waitress girl really made this a happy pub, despite the diners.  In fact, if it wasn't for all the people buzzing about, this could have been pub of the day - a real cosy old feeling building, and various people kept coming over and asking if I was alright or needed anything else, as though I couldn't possibly just be happy sitting on my own with a pint and my book!  This was all that stopped me reaching my "state of contentment" for the day.  On the upside, they were quick to whisk away cutlery, placemats, condiments etc from my table once they knew I wasn't eating, so one up on the Gerrard Arms in Aspull last week. 

Inside the Duke of Edinburgh, a very good pub indeed.
A combination of lacking phone signal, lack of busses and being 3 miles from Ascot on a race day were all factors in my next decision, to walk all the way to Sunningdale instead.  Bit of mistake, no pavement for much of it on a busy B road, plus the teeming rain, meant I was drenched when I finally arrived in this little village which I'd been expecting to be some characterless urban sprawl, glad I was wrong!

Geoffrey in the door way at the Nags Head 

818.  Nags Head, Sunningdale

It was worth the effort, this was my pub of the day.  and with the barman having wandered into the carpark, I found myself alone in an empty pub with the smell of a real woody fire to my right, and what seemed like a full range of Harvey's ales (so you know you are down south!) immediately facing me at the shallow bar.  The barman returned and with my soggy state, a pint of Armada seemed appropriate but annoyingly, and like the Cannie Man, half the beers weren't on!  So I had an IPA which was pleasant, but like most Harvey's ales, a bit of a yawn fest from my experience.  Barman introduced himself as Geoffrey, he thought I was called Sandy (never mind!) and although he was fairly interested in BRAPA, he was more impressed in the fact that I'd got a 7:01 train down south and was due back in York the same day, like I was a time traveller.  He was a lovely chap, and even brought the chair with my coat in front of the fire to help it dry off.  It's touches like this that win staff awards.  He had friends in Poppleton, but hadn't visited them in years thinking York is so far away (it's really not).  He even accosted some locals in the street to give me directions to the next pub, very above and beyond.

Probably my moment of the day, in Nags Head.
819.  Royal Oak, Sunningdale

And it wasn't much of a walk at all, but here was where all Sunningdale life was - a hive of bustling activity as I struggled to the bar to get a Bingham's porter, so the day had pretty much come full circle.  How do you account for a pub as a nice as the Nags Head being empty, and this (admittedly with better beer choice) being choc a bloc?  I settled in front of Jeff Stelling, with two young lads playing darts perilously close to my head.  Then a dog, Lily (a Cairn terrier I was told) wandered over looking for a head scratch and some food, sulking because the darts players ignored her.  She went the long way around so the lead created a kind of spiders web around the right hand side of the pub, meaning going to the loo was like being in the 800m hurdles.  I got chatting with her owner, a local lady who admitted it was her first time here too, she didn't think women really came into pubs on their own, but she was past the point of caring, and she was nice but not one you'd argue with!  I'd got so wrapped up in the chat, never mind Lily's web(!), that I suddenly had to dash for my train back to London. 

Dodging darts and dog leads at the Royal Oak
It was a longer walk to the station than I realised, and I was so lucky the door was closing as I snuck on to the Waterloo train (had I missed that, I doubt I'd have made my 19:11 connection to York).  Phew!

As it was, I had time if not for a pint in Scottish Stores but for a 'swift half' in Parcel Yard of an unpronounceable thing from New Zealand which I had a joke with the surprisingly nice staff about, before me and a random football fan laughed at the screen showing L**ds own goal at Watford, only to turn round and find a sullen White Shite fan behind me (oops).  I hid in a side room until my Grand Central departure was ready to take off in a Yorkish direction.  

My swift errm 'half' in the Parcel Yard.
It had been a great Berkshire beginning.  I'd been expecting a lot of rubbish gastro stuff in uncharacterful places with unfriendly people, but I have to say looking back that all 5 pubs were either good, very good or excellent.  I'll look forward to some more Berks adventures next month and then my big 4 day beezer in April.  It doesn't look the hardest county to complete (as Retired Martin said), so perhaps by September I'll be in a good position to cast half an eye in a Bucks direction.  But won't get ahead of myself too soon.

Oh, and for those of you who like stats, Berkshire has shot up from 46th to 30th in the BRAPA league table!

Tomorrow, I have to decide whether to give my liver a rest pre-Ipswich or crack on with the next leg of my South Yorkshire 'midweek' challenge.  I might decide on the night. 


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

BRAPA - Awkward in Auckley

Elaborate tilted jam jar fun at the Eagle and Child
After a rubbish day at work, I needed my South Yorkshire midweek evening BRAPA to be kind to me.  Like all good "SY" places beginning with the letter "A", it required a bus from the lower reaches of Doncaster's depressing Frenchgate centre which I got to see at rush hour for the first time.

Donny bus station had a slight air of menace and think the lack of soothing bus station muzak (see Keighley and Huddersfield) may have been the cause.  It is also worth noting that 84.3% of Donny girls aged 14-21 have greasy hair.  Not my opinion, a scientific fact.  Bus 91 then confused me by turning up earlier than the scheduled Robin Hood airport one.  

All I knew about this pub prior to arrival was that Mark from work (my Donny area contact) once played in a football match away to the Eagle & Child on a pitch behind the pub but despite pressing him, he could not remember the score.

25 minutes later, and with dusk well and truly falling on a cold night, I was trying to cross a busy main road with a friendly couple who'd 'alighted' with me, with Tom's idea of me wearing fluorescent strips and bright colours  ringing very true.  We made it across eventually, the couple also going into the pub to 'have a meal' (spit!)

Note the silhouetted bus couple just ahead of me.
814.  Eagle & Child, Auckley

In the confusion of after work drinkers and diners (and a 'restaurant' i,e. side pub room which no-one wanted to use), I didn't spot the guest ales but luckily a £3.30 Tim Taylor Landlord went down a treat.  The staff were all smiling friendly young females, and really put in the effort with the customers, one who mostly stood out reminded me of a pretty version of WWF legend the Ultimate Warrior.  I found a totally empty side bar with bench seating and the guest beers, it was a no-brainer to sit in here, but even then there was a sign saying that your own food cannot be eaten on the premises - thanks Adolf!  As has been discussed recently on pubby Twitter blogs, the 'jam jars' used to display the colour of the (cloudy version of) ales were the largest and most grand I've ever seen.  Interestingly, or not, whilst the Abbeydale Moonshine and (gorgeous) Stancill India Ruby had them, the John Smith's Cask did not.  The locals as well as staff had seemed a friendly bunch (I was facing the door so was a glorified meeter and greeter) but one older man who came in with wife and daughter told me to "get back in the kitchen!"  I realised not having had time to change from my white work shirt and suit trousers meant I looked like one of my most despised race of people .... the pub waiter!!  I protested my innocence, I mean would they really sit there with a GBG and highlighter pen on their breaks?  One of the local drinker men stood at the bar then couldn't find a barmaid, so nimbly leant across to pour his own Smith's Smoothflow and no-one batted an eyelid.  Proper South Yorkshire, but I'd like to have seen him look so nonchalant using a hand pull.   It was bus time. 

View of the bar.
Except it wasn't.  30 mins later and it still hadn't arrived!  No phone signal meant my plan to ring for a taxi was thwarted, so all I could do was return to the pub for a slash and a swift half of Moonshine.  I vented my spleen to the barmaids but it was an old couple behind me who heard and informed me there'd been an accident and huge delays - nightmare.  

Ever the optimist, I acted as though the next hourly bus 19:36 would be on time and luckily, it turned up bang on schedule.  And who should rush to get on at the last minute but the couple I'd arrived with, full up from their meal and blissfully unaware of the traffic and 18:36 heartache?!  Life isn't fair.

And back at the Donny end, I had further delays getting back to York, eventually home about 9:15pm.  A lot of effort for one pub, but it was a good one & good experience.  If this is a blueprint for all Berkshire pubs (which isn't logical I know), I'll be well away!  

My private secluded drinkers room in Auckley.
Pub Survey

I recently did an unscientific survey on my blog to try and find out what you all think is the most important factor to enjoy a pub.  In a slightly surprising but pleasing result, STAFF came out on top and I certainly think good, friendly staff are an underrated factor in pub enjoyment.  Beer Quality, Pub Hubbub and Atmosphere were runner up categories.  Interestingly, nobody who responded thought Beer Range or having FOOD or games in a pub significantly enhanced their enjoyment.

In my next survey, I'll be asking about the people you drink with in a bid to find if the type of company you keep during your pub time makes a difference to your pubbing experience.  Results at the end of this month.  


Sunday, 14 February 2016

BRAPA - Swiggin' in Wigan

Jam jar pub fun at the Berkeley (see pub 813)
Aspull was next up alphabetically for Greater Manchester, though in truth, the next GBG could easily 'relocate' the three pubs to Haigh, New Springs and 'Twixt Macron Stadium & Springfield Park. It all started though at Hindley after some excitement involving TB and Manc Oxford Road.

Me & Tom arrive at this little gem in Hindley
808. Hare & Hounds, Hindley

Like Armthorpe on Wednesday, the best pub of the day proved to be the first.  Ultra traditional, it had some great beers from Wigan's Allgates, a bored barmaid with immaculate make-up and a Wigan facelift (hairstyle), a vaping old man with a terrible cough which meant that we entered through a fug of sweet smelling smoke, very much like being on 'Stars in Your Eyes'.  Dad had wondered if the smoking ban just hadn't reached this part of the world.  We sat in a lovely lounge room which screamed "YOU ARE IN THE NORTH WEST!" with a fantastic 'Smoke Room' stain-glassed window, which investigation led us to realise that it had previously been attached to a door, or at least some other part of the pub.  As I went back to the bar to get a swift half as we waited for a taxi, I made an old local in a Motty style Sheepskin jacket jump out of his skin, for he was watching iPhone footage of a fork lift truck accident complete with blood curdling screams, which was unnerving our barmaid and her still stoic expression was wavering somewhat.  Incidentally, the local CAMRA mag we picked up was called 'Swiggin' in Wigan' - best name yet!

Pints of Allgates in the Smoke Room, perfect! 
Hindley Taxis can be best described as 'not terribly tardy', 'silent' and 'quite efficient' as we were soon being beeped at by traffic on the Bolton Road as we had our 'photo shoot' of pub number two.

I had my reservations about this place - ha ha ha

809.  Gerrard Arms, Aspull

Dad's horrified expression on entering here said it all, the revenge of the restaurant disguised as an old fashioned pub.  Well, that was our initial thought and it's no exaggeration to say that EVERY table was bedecked with condiments, menus and holders for knives and forks.  These 'holders' soften the blow for me, it's when the knives and forks are laid out with a place-mat that it hits hardest!  I decided to lay our cards on the table to the affable young barman about being here for drinks only, and that was a turning point.  He was later asking us if we needed anything else, how was the beer quality etc etc - wow, to be treated like first class citizens in a diners pub is indeed a rare treat, and this barman must be an early candidate for 'staff of the year', great rounded Lancs accent too.  It even took the edge of an electronic blackboard 'screen' offering specials - perhaps the most hideous thing I saw all day (and I walked through Manchester at 9pm!) Just goes to show how important people are in pubs.  We sat in the furthest corner under the horse racing on a table that was (like most) reserved but only from 6:30pm.  I thought it was good to show times, but as Dad argued, was it necessary when 6:30pm was so far off?  They could "take all the shite off our table" I think was a direct quote.  Still, we could've been planning on a 6 hour session here.  All in all though, a positive experience due solely to being treated well!  We don't ask much.  

Watching the cars go by, at the Gerrard A**s
Our bus was a teeny bit delayed but we were soon 'alighting' in the Haigh area of Aspull.  Typical BRAPA this, the minute you relax and think all is well with the world, it comes back to bite you on the ball-sack.  Well, it said 2pm opening on Whatpub, it was nearer 2:30pm now.  

We decided to cut our losses and get the next bus (every 15 mins allegedly) to our next pub BUT it didn't turn up either!  Was Haigh on strike today?  I engaged a miserable old man at the bus stop in conversation who admitted the pub sometimes just opened the back door when Wigan were at home as they were today.  Well, for the love of BRAPA, i just HAD to check!  The guy said "dunno why you wanna go anyway, it's shite .... Gerrard Arms is much better."  Errrm, whatever old man!! 

As we walked back to the pub, the bus was rounding the corner and Dad looked on, wistfully at the bus that might have been.  Me and Tom are made of more adventurous stuff but I knew I'd be in for a bollocking IF the pub was actually shut.   But the gamble paid off as we saw the landlord opening just as we were coming down the street, phew!  It was 3pm.

810.  Victoria, Aspull

"You were lucky I was just opening!" declared the friendly landlord, and he wasn't wrong.  He explained how he'd been tinkering with his opening times for a while now and decided 3pm on a Saturday suited him best.  After all, he said, he knew his locals drinking habits and he's got to cater for them first and foremost, even if they do drink John Smith's Smoothflow!  And right on cue, one such man walked in at that moment!  We were soon chatting on BRAPA and pubs, his wife was confused by a missed call she'd received but I realised it was from me wondering why the pub hadn't been open so I cleared that up.  This was another cosy intimate no frills pub with some superb ales, again from Allgates, perhaps the pub didn't quite have the class of Hindley earlier on.  Mr Smoothflow is a local pub expert and was not holding much hope for our next pub being open either, so he told me when on the bus, look out of the right hand side, if you see a big white door, pub is shut, and if you see a black hole, it means the pub is open so press the bell to get off!  Top local knowledge.  But, opening times, the curse of the pub explorer!

Happy times, seconds before we realised the pub was closed! 
The next bus thankfully did arrive and with our eyes peeled, we could see the pub WAS open so Tom pressed the bell and we bid Dad farewell who wanted to be home in time for tea.

811.  Crown, Aspull

And he didn't miss much to be fair, although the couple running it were very friendly and interested in visitors such as ourselves, it never felt GBG quality to me.  Jennings Cumberland (yawn) was the only ale I could see, better quality than I've had in York, apparently Prospect Silver Tally was on too but he couldn't the pump clip.  The pub was cold despite a not-too-raging fire in the far corner, which as Tom said, didn't really belong there.  Entertainment was in the form of a Mum, Dad and daughter who had heated discussions about things like who was buying the next round and the perils of modern technology.  Good news came through that Hull City were 2-0 up, and I smuggled a celebratory pork pie from my bag.  And that was as good as it got. 

Black hole rather than white door means pub is open! 
Another walk and bus took us back into Wigan central, and after Tom stocked up on Morrison's Pain Au Chocolat, we were ready for pub number five.  

812.  John Bull Chophouse, Wigan

And we were both suitably impressed by this quirky little side street pub.  It was bustling with a Saturday evening crowd and the bar was situated in a tight corner, where I was served by a man strangely not wearing many clothes, maybe this was Wigan's Canal Street area?  Still, I'd have to say the Symphonic Ale by Thwaites' was pint of the day, best I've had from that brewery too.  There was an amazing old style jukebox, and as we went upstairs, it had a hidden pool room though sadly not big enough to hold more than one group, so we stood on the balcony eating Pain Au Chocolat and reviewing the football results.  Hull City had won, hurrah!  An excitable group of pool players started an enforced karaoke session and you could tell things were warming up for a crazy Saturday night in Wigan town.  

View from the balcony at John Bull's Chophouse
813.  Berkeley, Wigan

Bouncers on a BRAPA pub?  Crikey, it really was Saturday night now as we popped in here via the North Western railway station.  This seemed to have quite a'Spoonsy feel to me but don't think it was, vast layout with a big screen showing N*wcastle getting hammered by Chelsea and Diego Costa's stupid mask, but somehow the pub felt real and kind of homely despite everything.  Staff were very on the ball, and I was soon enjoying a pint of Panner's Gold from the excellent Greyhawk, more common to East Yorkshire than here but not sure where they are from.  Unsurprisingly for a pub like this, they had those little off putting jam jars so you can see what colour your ale is, well, in "cloudy off form" anyway - you wouldn't wanna drink those jars.  I'd just been talking to Retired Martin about this subject, so fitting I should see it.  My drinking speed was seriously dropping off anyway, but Tom was spurring me on and as Andros Townsend got a late consolation, everyone yawned and it was time to go back to Manchester.  

Me hanging with the bouncers at the Berkeley
So, that was a superb and productive BRAPA day, let's ignore the monumental train farce in Manchester trying to get back over t'hills but all's well that ends well.  Let's hope Hull City get promoted and we can have plenty more NFFD's (Non football football days) in Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside later this year! 

Back on the South Yorkshire trail on Tuesday, then our Berkshire debut next Saturday.  I can't think of a better hobby. 


Friday, 12 February 2016

BRAPA - Outer Doncaster (warning - glamourous pub content!)

Mr Boilerman was here earlier than expected on Wednesday (12 noon) so I should really be thanking the lady who randomly decided to have a lunchtime bath, meaning he couldn't sort her plumbing out (it's gone Confessions of a Boilerman already!) which in turn meant he could sort my boiler first, in time for this bonus afternoon BRAPA trip......

With West Yorkshire complete and no more of North Yorkshire possible on weekday evenings, I've decided to focus on the deep South, perhaps interspersed with a bit of East Lancs/Greater Manc to see if I can complete SY before the 2017 GBG comes out.  And I started at the beginning.....(well, not including Arksey, done in 2014).

After an 'interesting' journey from Donny's bus depot where I passed B&B's with names like 'The Caribbean', I avoided the rush hour traffic (if Doncaster has a rush hour, it is hard to tell), avoided an old man who sounded like Jimmy Savile trying to talk to me about guide dogs "Now then young man", and avoided some shifty looking street youths who all resembled Adam Johnson, to arrive in Armthorpe in beautiful clear blue sunshine!  Phew, that's a sentence you'll never here again.

A difficult start, but feel the quality, at the Wheatsheaf
804.  Wheatsheaf, Armthorpe

Quite a grand pub from the outside, it was the old cliche of "walking into someone's front room" (always the best) inside and as I ordered my Sharp's Atlantic, the landlord sat behind me murmured 'good choice lad!'  I was immediately given the 10p CAMRA discount with the landlady's "every little helps" comment sounding a bit supermarkety.  Sadly, the cloudy ale didn't clear and my expression on the 'tangy sourness' said it all, and she offered to change it no fuss.  Even better, the landlord said that if I was willing to wait, they'd put their Purity UBU on and bring it over to me, so I retired to a wonderful 70's style armchair in the sun.  So this was why the only two other customers, old dears no less, were drinking cans of Red Stripe!  You don't get that in York's Pivni I tell you.  The beer when it arrived was perfect quality, sometimes you have to have a bad experience to have a really good one.  And you could tell this pub seriously cared about it's ale.  Or did they just think I was a CAMRA inspector? A bit of drama then as a nice dog got attacked by an evil one in the pub car park, landlady threatening to bar the owner of the evil dog, but it was all done in jest.  Nice dog incidentally was given a free bowl of water, but would rather drink from the dirty puddle outside, showing that 'real' water beats 'craft' water every time!  Perhaps. 

I trotted off up to the next place, Edenthorpe only 1.5 miles and thankfully, a subway allowed me to cross the tricky looking A road.  Subway of the year contender for sure.  Edenthorpe was full of 'professional' dog walkers who I nodded to as a hot-footed it past Tesco across the road to my next pub.

No Garden of Eden at the Eden Arms
805.  Eden Arms, Edenthorpe

The first thing that hit me here was a huge sign declaring this was an Ember Inn, a chain which I'm led to believe is 'not the best' though I'm open minded and also this was never going to be as bad as the Dog & Gun in Wolverhampton.  I entered an almost Happy Harvester type large room, not unpubby but you know the type, 'open plan but partitioned', 'furniture that doesn't belong in a pub', 'eye watering cushion design'.  The young barmaid, a nice lass, was having to be patient as the local nutter was telling her a rambling story about a stolen charity box.  She offered me a (better) CAMRA discount but twice in a row is a BRAPA first!  They obviously like to reward ale drinkers in these parts.  Sadly, the earlier exchange meant she couldn't subtract 20p from £3 which she blamed on a 'brainstorm'.  I sat on the lowest settee imaginable, it felt like someone was about to bring me Sushi and I spent the next 27.5 minutes enjoying a pint of Abbeydale Moonshine, allbeit in pretty much total blandness as women sat around drinking white wine and children shuffled around aimlessly.

For the love of ale eh?  Get those ales racked and ready to go then! 
So not terrible, but just a bit lame.  Onwards and northwards as I walked another mile up to Kirk Sandall with dusk now falling on this productive start to South Yorkshire midweeks.....

806.  Glasshouse, Kirk Sandall

As the GBG informed me, this pub used to have a bar made entirely of glass, "alas, no more" and isn't it sad when they strive to knock any quirky character out of pubs?  It reminded me of my 2014 trip to Doncaster's White Swan which once boasted "the tallest bar in the country", alas, no more there either.  They've kept glass in the name, and on the premises i,e, they have windows!  Otherwise, it was another quite sanitised establishment, though two rare Theakston's ales were on the bar so I sampled both, the staff were young and efficient bringing food out to old people.  I'm not a fan of beer blogging but I will say this, Theakston's bore me and their Noah's Ark (10p of each pint goes to help flood victims in an admirable stance) was cloudy and ironically, you might say, not a patch on a pint of Sam's OBB!  And no, it wasn't a Saison before you ask.  I initially sat on a very squeaky leather chair too near the bar area, felt exposed, but a quick wander revealed a more pubby room which smelt of Leeds Beer Festival's pie and peas.  Wonderful.  This was much more like a South Yorkshire pub but my peace didn't last long as a large family descended, and an excitable young lad beat a strange man called Andy at pool, so I moved back to squeaky chair territory and had a swift half of Theakston's 'Paradise' (it wasn't)  before the train back to Donny.

The more pubby area of the Glasshouse
Back in Donny, I had decided to strategically leave my remaining Donny 'ticks' for another day but the train to York was cancelled so I suddenly was 'forced' into an extra pint, how sad! 

807.  Gatehouse, Doncaster

It took a while to find this peculiar 'Spoons, but that was because the strange pedestrianised area it was in was not showing up on any of my maps!  Priory Walk or something.  It was oh so quiet, so different from your usual main street 'Spoons rabble and I could only describe it to entering a deserted, haunted theme park.  I've never tip toed in and whispered my drinks order in a 'Spoons before, but it was so peaceful, well eerie.  And before you could say 'Scooby Doo', a very thin man who sounded like Shaggy (yes, THAT one) pushed in, said "Zoiks" and returned a pint of lager which was apparently bottom of the barrel.  Lager drinkers complaining on quality, always makes me chuckle!  Anyway, it had a canteen style look to the seating near the bar, but opened up into a larger place behind with some nice bench style settee seating.  My ale incidentally, from local Dukeries, was my pint of the day and the customer's were all old men grumbling about what was on the news.  A strange but not unpleasant JDW experience.

"Hey Scoob old buddy, old pal .... my lager is off!" 
Luckily, my next train was on time and I was back in York to watch a bit of painful WBA v Peterborough penalties with a chicken kiev near a nice warm boiler!  A good day in all, I've now done 40 South Yorkshire pubs in total but lots still to do so hoping to crack on next Tuesday.

Until "outer Wigan" in 12.5 hours time, see you soon!