Friday, 29 April 2016

BRAPA - Manchester Punk Festival - Day Two

The day dawned bright and sunny and after my fifth Premier Inn breakfast of the last week (better sausages here than in Reading and mercifully, no fake Bubble and Squeak, but sadly, no Pia either), I hopped on a Deansgate tram to Salford Quays where punk festival goers were at a premium in Media City.  Probably eating rats in their squats.  I must try and be more punk.

Shut pub alert - Craftbrew, Salford Quays
If normal Salford yesterday looked spruced up, this was like some futuristic vision of the country where rowers, jet skiers and the like, did their Saturday morning activities.  Whatpub, the pub website and the GBG all told me Craftbrew opens 10am, it wasn't and a sign told me there'd been a private party the night before.  Cleaners were inside, lights were on, I waited til 11am.

I found a posh looking woman peering in, she didn't look like your stereotypical BRAPster so I went over to ask what her game was.  Well, it was her son who'd had the private party last night, he'd lost his scarf, so she'd come along to see if she could get it back for him.  I'll just let you digest that sentence for a minute. 

We chatted on BRAPA, she told me she was from Lymm, I asked if it was in Greater Manchester and she looked mortally wounded and told me Cheshire.  He husband appeared, didn't seem to trust BRAPA as a concept, and they left.  I found a barman, he told me pub wasn't open to after 12, he wasn't apologetic, I was not happy, I got a tram back to Manchester.

After that palava, I was dying for a pint and I finally found a pub ,,,,,

Feel the quality 
886.  Vine Inn, Manchester

And it was another little city centre gem in the Grey Horse ilk,  I'd been in a pub next door called City Arms before which was spoilt by a local who slagged off my job cos I wasn't a biochemist, so I much preferred this place.  It had that happy Saturday morning feel that 11am openers do, putting a brave face on the hidden chaos, as it to say "yes we are open and we are pleased to serve you" whilst secretly scurrying around looking for a clean glass.  The barmaid and landlord (who was doing some paperwork) where both very welcoming, and as always happens in a new pub, I walked in the opposite direction to the loo and had joke "they are always in the last place you look".  I climbed some stairs and enjoyed a quality Tim Taylor Landlord in the pre-punk calm.  A large group came in and after another pub singalong (this time Inspiral Carpets, so an improvement on Sade), they debated whether or not it was true that Shakespeare died on his birthday.  I'd like to have added that he was more likely to be a Staffs Aleman than a writer of all those tales, but I know people get very sensitive about such possibilities.  Lovely little pub this.

My Landlord strategically positioned by the stairs.
My next pub was right next to the venue, so a good place to base myself before the music restarted.  But hang on, this looked familiar, 99% sure I'd been here before without realising! 

Looks lovely, isn't.

887.  Salisbury Ale House, Manchester

It was my birthday in 2014 when in the Lass O' Gowrie (a pub I'd like to review one day), a jolly barman waxed lyrical about this fantastic new real ale place under the arches near Oxford Road.  We got there and were left unconvinced by dodgy Holt's Two Hoots and some miserable locals at the bar who we even tried to chat to.  Today was much the same.  Despite the beautiful looking building from the outside, freshly watered hanging baskets, and an old mutli roomed interior, history repeated itself.  Despite obviously looking at the handpumps, the 5 or 6 barflies refused to budge even when I was peering around them (this is in a near empty pub) so I can only assume they'd wanted to hold their territory against a potential punk invasion, meaning anyone with a festival wristband was treated as the enemy.  My J W Lees was near vinegar, but I didn't return it mainly cos I didn't like the pub atmosphere.  And it was all a bit dreary and dirty feeling otherwise, a bit like an extension of the railway arches looming over the pub.

Interior shot of Salisbury proves it could be a very good pub.
And what an idiot I felt when I finally left, crossed the road to the Thirsty Scholar where acoustic punks like Emma Hallows and Blackburn's finest, Edgarville, were treating us all to some deep and harrowing tunes.  FOUR Little Valley beers, I tried 3 and all very well kept, if you ignore the plastic cups.  I know there was a vegan festival on in here too, but I'd like to think this is a normal range for this cosy little bar which surely belongs in the GBG a lot more than the Salisbury.

Unlikely pre-emptive?  Thirsty Scholar bar.
There was no more GBG opportunities from here as music took over, more great Holt's bottles in Sound Control, and a nice last orders St George's Day ale from the always reliable Phoenix in Lass O'Gowrie where we watched a dreadful pub band 'play the classics'.  

Worse for wear?  Enjoying a Joseph Holt's bottle with the sis towards end of festival
Great fest, productive pubbing.  Join me next time for a review of Tuesday's trip to South Yorkshire.


Thursday, 28 April 2016

BRAPA - Manchester Punk Festival - Day One

If my sister and her boyfriend thought that inviting me to Manchester Punk Festival meant that I'd be happy to stand around drinking out of a plastic 'glass' watching crazy bands in equally crazy venues for two days solid when there were EXCITING BRAPA PUBS to be had within a couple of miles, then they had another think coming!

I'd still not recovered from Berkshire, never mind Fenwick, and my decision to get a cheap ticket via Leeds to Victoria was a silly decision as it was delayed, I should've sucked it up and gone straight to Piccadilly.  Oh well, that's life.

There was an "ill-wind" blowing around Manchester which I always find a real mixed bag of a city.  It's like Russian Roulette.  One minute, you are greeted warmly in a beautiful cosy pub like you are an old friend, you have a great pint and watch a superb band.  The next minute, a crazy woman is running down the road after you claiming you've tried to stamp on her dog, whilst a drag queen comes along to try and help, a girl from Burnley ditches you for a pop-punk club night, you get locked naked out of a hotel room, and the pub you are in becomes a virtual toilet late on a Saturday evening as grey buildings loom above and suffocate your soul.

Or may be that is just my own personal experiences.

Bet this solicitors makes some interesting business decisions!

882.  Cask Bar, Manchester

This pub was notable for meeting pub ticking extraordinaire Martin Taylor, or RM (they are the same person after all, Mrs RM was randomly painting a wall somewhere).  I was immediately showered with the generosity of a retro Hull City shirt ("Sportscard!), an Exploited record and a copy of Central Lancs beer mag which mentions BRAPA!  With such excitement, no wonder I couldn't find the hand pumps though the Euro bar style array of Belgian stuff (which I'll come back to) and those huge fonts always make me lose my focus.  Cosy little Euro style cafe bar, but didn't quite feel it had the magic of North Bar in Leeds (on a quiet afternoon).  Barman had a serious case of dropsy, smashing one glass whilst we were talking, he later wrestled one to the floor, and then juggled one for a finale!  Probably a solicitor masquerading.  The ale we tried, from Squawk brewery was perhaps my finest all weekend.  What didn't help the comfort was them leaving the door wide open despite the chilly wind, it's like the owners of Greyfriars of Reading had followed me up north just to annoy me.  I understand this policy at last orders when they are trying to flush out the dregs (the Vernon in Liverpool springs to mind), but mid afternoon, I just don't get it man!  I was off to Salford, Martin was off to St Helens, so we didn't have too long to chat but it was great to talk pub ticking with someone who understands the complexities(!), I could imagine him holding niche workshops in the Arden Arms in Stockport for newbies (telling any diners to piss off as they try and sit in the back room) on how to get the most out of your pub ticking experience.

Martin's gone, I'm left to contemplate this quite okay European style bar
I went to drop my bags at my Premier Inn before heading from Deansgate to Salford and who should I see checking in ahead of me but Martin.  how amusing!  He rightly told the receptionist to stop asking so many daft questions and that 4 flights of stairs does not require a lift when you are one of the UK's top pub visitors (though I paraphrase here).

I ended up walking to Salford, inspired by the 4 flights of stairs, and was glad to see it wasn't as bad as I remember.

April 1997 and oh my lord, I had a university interview here and I have to say it was grey, soul destroying, and by the time I got in the interview, I'd made up my mind I didn't want to come here.  Dad waited for me in a pub called the Peru Arms(?) on Lima Street(?) and it had signs up saying no guns, no drugs, no knives etc etc.  He feared for his life!  I meanwhile incurred the wrath of my interviewer by saying TFI Friday was my favourite programme (it wasn't) and he went mad, claiming sections like "freak or unique" and "ugly bloke" were shallow and degrading.  Good lord!  Never have I been so glad to get back to my York slum(!)

Sorry, back to the pubbing and Salford seemed to have had a facelift.

New Oxford - an absolute cracker
883.  New Oxford, Salford

Wow, though the location was in a posh kind of pedestrianised square, this was a proper backstreet boozer and I entered to find a local old character called Bob telling the pub he was an expert when it came to the weather, but he was not Fred the Weatherman!  (a joke it took me far too long to get).  Really friendly place, the landlord all Irish and toothless, nice smiley barmaid, other locals were pleasant.  So nothing like the Cask Bar you might think, well it actually was in that it had a HUGE selection of continental beers.  As I looked around, all these grizzled old boys were drinking Belgian beers in funny shaped glasses, whilst I supped my pint of porter by the door like the last bastion of English sense.  I just don't get this Belgian beer thing, 99% of ale/beer drinkers seem to rave about them, but to me, it's all fizz, high percentages, glasses not designed to get your lips around, high prices - I don't see the attraction, winter or summer, pub or a bottle at home.  I just don't.  But back to the pub, it was lovely.  A bit like King Charles Tavern in Newbury, you could sense the history but feel a few modern tweaks may have been best left alone.  Had they had proper old bench seating instead of the shiny swanky black leather toss, I shudder to think how wonderful it'd have felt.  Oh, and a note to the locals, you WILL say bye to me when you leave, I'm sat by the door smiling.  There was quickly time for the pub to have a Sade sing-a-long before I left, it was that kind of a place.

Bob sat to the left, and I'm drinking proper ale (but not Black Bombardier!)

Best pub colour in the UK, great curving building, but what is within?

884.  Salford Arms Hotel, Salford

The green exterior and curved corner was an encouraging start, and the barmaid (cute, blonde, typically sulky, think Xanthe from Neighbours but with that Salford stare i.e. "don't come any closer of I'll cut you!" humoured me as I spent ages choosing from all these Manc microbreweries I've never heard of, eventually opting for "Cut Like a Buffalo" cos it had a funny name, I'm not that discerning when it comes to ales.  Pubs though, I like to think I can judge and it was soon apparent that the shabby interior I thought was promising, was the dreadfully self-conscious 'shabby-chic', an awful concept that anyone who's visited Newcastle's 'Pleased to Meet You' can testify to. (oooh, I'll have a gin based cocktail under this faux rusty fan heater - no thanks).  I sat amongst decor of vinyl records, old maps of the world and beat-up 80's television sets and noticed the pub was trying to combine old man pub with student dive, and failing at both.  It smelt of puke mixed with disinfectant, the pool table and fruit machines jostled for attention, and how can you enjoy a relaxing pint with loud background hip-hop music about 'popping caps in the muthafuckin' bitches head?'   It's just not cricket.  Still, I've been in plenty worse.

Quirky but shite decor at the Salford Arms....
....great beers though!
I really wanted to get out to the Eagle next (3pm opener so ordinarily a more difficult one to tick off) but the sister had checked in and wanted me to be in the vicinity of the Manchester Punk Festival.  I wouldn't mess with her so I headed back into Manchester, had a quick burger from some strange cafe/restaurant place, but she still wasn't ready so I had time for another pub!

Final BRAPA tick of the day - it's a gem.
885.  Grey Horse Inn, Manchester

Yes, this was more like it.  From the offset, I knew this place epitomised all that is great about Manchester pubs.  Very central, yet tiny, unspoilt, really warm friendly welcome from the staff, the locals even trying to move so I could see the guest ales.  The pub wasn't busy, yet it was full - yet somehow I managed to get a prime seat facing the bar.  Perhaps the old crones took pity on me, I'd walked in with a bottle of fruity Volvic in a vain attempt to keep myself sober-hydrated for all the punk music / festival ales ahead of me.  Not very pubby behaviour, but they looked at me sympathetically like they realised when a chap was struggling!  The toilets were outdoor and I read something about this pub being linked to the circus (I'd been to an even tinier one before on same street called Circus Tavern), but what can a grey horse do, jump through a ring of fire?  You'd have the punk vegan animal activists on you before you can say hummus, which is partly why I pretended to my sister that I'd lost signal for a brief 40 minutes!  I drank a Hydes Old Indie, dirt cheap, dark and flavoursome and I paid a (back-handed) homage to Tim Burgess of the Charlatans who's music had saved me from the hip hop back in the Salford Arms, which was now a distant memory.  I was rejuvenated, and I hadn't touched the Volvic.  Time for punk rock. 

Ignore the Volvic, I'm still hardcore really!
Of the venues I then visited for the MPF on day one, Sound Control had no cask but three excellent bottles by Joseph Holt - Triple Crowned Hat Trick, 1849 and something honeyed.  And in Retro Bar, I got a really good pint of Robinson's Trooper - a beer I either seem to love or hate.  Could I class them as BRAPA pre-emptives, after Blackpool's Rose & Crown, anything is possible!

Join me tomorrow for a review of day two in Manc.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

BRAPA - Fenwick, South Yorkshire

Baxter Arms, Fenwick
The first of my thrice yearly attempts to prove I can play golf were about as successful as you can imagine(!) but I think everyone knew that the main aim of the day was to get a visit to a normally impossible to achieve BRAPA pub, courtesy of Dad's chauffeuring skills and Mrs Sat Nav;s inability to distinguish a right turn from a 'third junction' on a roundabout.

After a polite request to drop me at the Shropshire/Powys border was declined, South Yorkshire seemed more within reach and after a strange route through Howden market place and Askern (a town that time forgot), we were waiting for level crossing after level crossing to raise as the mainline trains whizzed to and from Donny.  So frustrating, reminded me of the time when me and Tom took a bus out to Arksey and had much the same problem.

Made it at last.  Hi Joshua!
881.  Baxter Arms, Fenwick

I had a feeling that this most rural of South Yorkshire pubs would prove a classic, and not just because Yorkshire Bank's favourite Donny ale fan Mark Bennett cycles here with his Dad and was raving about it last year.  We were the only customers on a Thursday lunchtime (obviously, you might well add) but the eager young barman seemed pleased to see us, and First Light from York brewery was very much the crack cocaine of 2016 real ales so far.  I drank the first pint in about 10 minutes, the second nearer 15 and the third nearer 25 mins.  I never do this, and I hadn't needed a wee in three pints which is highly significant as a BRAPA bladder record (BBR).  A sign of great quality beer?  Or still dehydrated from Berkshire and a round of golf in the sun?  I'll let you decide.  The inside of the pub was glorious, especially the side room with full size snooker table (take that Wargrave!)  Dad had (somewhat controversially) packed up some beef sandwiches as it turned out, and with the weather so sun-soaked, the equally wondrous pub garden (with goalposts for a very small goalie) was the perfect place to be, only the occasional chug of a train or chilly blast of wind threatening to spoil the Utopian Green Owl-esque vibe.  I even found a bonus bit of malt loaf secreted away for pudding.  A classic pub experience that you don't even have to go to Inkpen or Waltham St Lawrence for.

Beer garden bliss.
The 147 break of real ale pubs.
A great pub to get completed, we headed back home a bit sad we couldn't stop in Howden for their pub revolution - which only kicks off at 5pm on weekdays, so the two pre-emptives are on hold for now.  

I will catch up with my pub blogs eventually, another one due tomorrow night you lucky unfortunates.


Monday, 25 April 2016

BRAPA - Berking Mad - Day Four (Beenham & Newbury)

Tuesday morning was drenched in sunshine as I 'enjoyed' my Premier Inn breakfast, by now getting used to the quirks of the toast machine, the fruity tomatoes and the fact that dispensing a glass of fresh orange juice is a bit like milking a stubborn cow.

One of the calmer parts of my walk from Aldermaston
I was back on a train out west, this time to Aldermaston, where I had what looked like a nice gentle 2 mile stroll to the village of Beenham.  What I hadn't allowed for was a near flooded dirt track, full of pot holes where I kept getting accosted by strange vehicles.  First, people dressed in black asked me where the crematorium was, then at the height of the flooded road, some Vietnamese Boat People (ironically in an SUV) asked me something I couldn't quite distinguish.

It was still my favourite walk since Inkpen, but I was glad to reach the pub nestling in a lovely village.  My sore foot (which I don't like to talk about) was playing up for the first time this holiday.

Arriving at the 'key' pub in my Berkshire 4 day adventure
877.  Six Bells, Beenham

The bright glass conservatory at the front of the pub was the first sign that maybe this wasn't going to quite be the Aldworth-esque gem I'd be imagining.  The landlady wasn't the sunniest people person that you almost come to expect in such a rural village, and she certainly didn't appreciate my "joke" about how fitting it was to drink Mr Chubb's Lunchtime Bitter on a lunchtime - must do better Simon.  Humouring me might have been worse.  Two posh old ladies came in for a conservatory lunch (think a posh female Coogan and Brydon), and it might have been my imagination, but did she make more effort with them?  I sat in a room as far away from the glass monstrosity as possible and was confronted by a range of Asian and African statues so frightening, it made the Queen's Head in Reading's collection look like a token gesture.  The landlady came over to light the fire next to me and we finally bonded, over chilly April weather, though in truth, lighting two pub fires was OTT.  She warned me about 'smoke' and she wasn't kidding, soon the room was a total fug and the lunchtime bitter was tasting like a smoked porter.  Must have been the jackdaws from Waltham St Lawrence relocating.  I had to move to the central bar, which I found more pub-like a genuine, and was soon reading a local magazine about avoiding wolves (the animals, not the football team's fans, though you wouldn't want either of them jumping out of you in rural Berkshire woodland).  A wide-eyed family of diners arrived, it was time to leave.

Smoked out at the Six Bells
Page 1 of Berkshire, page "8" (in BRAPA world) of the GBG completed!
It was a properly warm day by now, rendering the fires even more pointless, but it'd been an interesting pub experience.  I continued out west to Newbury, and reflected that with the amount of walking done this weekend, I felt like Eddie Izzard on his South African marathon, which I suppose makes Tim Thomas the Nelson Mandela of West Berkshire.

I was far too early into Newbury, but what a delightful town it was - glad I avoided the race scum.  Especially on a sunny day with the town centre pedestrian only, it was fantastic and I did some window shopping in a beer shop that Tim recommended to me......

...and I'd have bought some too if the Madjeski had more relaxed rules!
Still, you can't keep a good pub ticker down and I was soon back on the trail .....

The Newbury in errrm, Newbury.
878.  The Newbury, Newbury

Has a GBG description ever helped more?  I was aware I was entering gastro-central so was able to set myself mentally for what lay ahead.  Two young lads were propped on precarious looking stools enjoying a pint,  but there was no disguising that this was the least pubbiest pub I'd so far encountered in Berkshire.  Or so I thought.  Some interesting ales were on, I went for a King John because I like Maid Marian and her Merry Men, served by a gloomy version of Lily Allen, mid-stalk (sorry, too soon).  I asked about a 'hidden' roof terrace I'd heard about and she reluctantly revealed the pubs best kept secret.  Past the open fronted kitchen, dangerous close to the ladies loos, up a thin staircase, the kind where you might find skeletons of the princes in the tower.  And what a fantastic place it was, ok so I got a bit carried away and went out of bounds (i.e. on the roof!) but I soon settled down to my drink and a smuggled Tesco sandwich and some Doritos  (take that gastro!)  No one else up there, I wondered if it could be a bit open, and then a lovely young chap came along and said "excuse me sir, would you like the roof opening?" and before you know, a remote controlled thing was sliding back, and the sun was beating down on me, in a room decorated with old beer signs like Thwaites which you'd never have dreamt of from the downstairs.  I often talk about the ultimate point of contentment on a given BRAPA day, well this half an hour was it for my whole weekend.  Wonderful.

Enjoying the roof terrace in the Newbury
If you'd have said over breakfast I'd have enjoyed the Newbury more than the Six Bells, I'd have been highly skeptial.  And isn't that the true joy of pub ticking?

879.  Hatchet Inn, Newbury

Even the market place Wetherspoons has a sense of decorum in Newbury, and I've barely ever been in a quieter one.  I was tempted to chant "just like a library" but one old chap was looking very irritated already by something, it was hard to say what at this stage.  The staff were bubbly and jolly souls, all young and three of them fought over serving me which again, just doesn't happen in 'Spoons.  Being a sucker for a gimmick, one beer had an actual feather on the pump clip, it was a Cromwellian ale so I kept my recent historical theme.  The only 'outburst' I heard was a woman in the background giggle like Babs Windsor and screech "stop it Tim you pervert!" but I am pretty sure this wasn't the Tim I was meeting later!  I sat in a proper old man leather armchair by the window looking out into the market place, near irritated chap - he was waiting for a friend who was very late who came in apologising profusely, but wasn't forgiven for the duration.  It was awkward to watch, as Mr Irritation made a point of drinking his pint and leaving, shunning any offers of a drink, a lift where he needed to go, or anything else, as the poor late-man squirmed.  I loved it obviously. 

You'll do well to find a better to do Wetherspoons than this.
It was time to meet Tim, West Berkshire CAMRA's main man, according to other Berkshire CAMRA oracles, and he was meeting me at the highly pre-emptive and formerly GBG listed Catherine Wheel.

Catherine Wheel, Newbury

Tim was there near the door, and I recognised him from various award presentation photos in the likes of Ullage and various Berks CAMRA websites.  He was armed with a healthy selection of Ullage CAMRA mags for my perusal.    Like Sir Quinno before him, he gave me a whistle stop guided tour of the pub, details of which I can't remember despite my best attempts to be totally focussed and sober, and we ordered the highly anticipated Wild Weather Mud Slinger, which was just way too sweet we both agreed.  The staff seemed a lovely bunch, well aware I'm sure that they were entertaining pub royalty(!) and it was CAMRA discounts but no free pints so at least they weren't trying to bribe their way back into the guide.  In fact, I asked about it's GBG potential and it turned out beer scores had been inconsistent, hence the current omission.  Still, you could see the potential and why Mrs Three Mile Cross spoke highly of it when I was in Aldworth and am sure it was a valuable pre-emptive to get.

Pre-emptive pubbing at the Catherine Wheel
880.  King Charles Tavern, Newbury

Or the "KC" as apparently the locals sometimes call it, poor pub, with that horrible noose round it's neck, it has done even better to become a recent award winner.  At least it doesn't make you enter a membership scheme before you can buy a pint!  Nice small multi-roomed pub, Tim told me it used to be a bit of a 'knocking shop' (my words, not his) back in the day when American airmen and the like used to come over and 'charm' the local ladies.  A bit like the Catherine Wheel before it, some attempts to modernise it and make it suitable for diners meant it had perhaps lost a little bit of it's spark of old, it was hard to tell.  I was recently talking to Martin Taylor about how it is much easier to review a pub when you are in our own company cos you observe more, and I think that is true with these two.  Not that I was complaining, Tim was a great host, and another CAMRA discount lead me to a nice old fashioned brown pint of Dundas Best Bitter by Kennet and Avon.

Tim makes his official BRAPA debut at the "KC" (not Stadium)
 Cow & Cask, Newbury

The whole point in me being in Newbury at 5pm on the Tuesday despite Hull City playing in Reading at 8pm was this new micro pub, Newbury's first and it seemed to be the place of the moment judging by the interest generated.  It doesn't open Sunday or Monday, or til 5pm on a Tuesday, and with me thinking Newbury was best avoided on Saturday due to the races (which, as it transpired, was waterlogged!) The locals were eager for a drink, not just me and Tim, but two chaps and a young lad (Oxford fans mainly adding to the week's interesting mix of Woking and Bristol Rovers) joined us, and there were other tables too, probably supporting Caersws, Alloa and Ards if the pattern continued.  The barman was a Reading fan, proof that not all Reading fans make bad landlords (see Hop and Vine in Hull).  The beers seemed to take a bit of effort to get them from barrel to glass - I sampled halves because it somehow seems more appropriate in a micropub than a pub (discuss!) and both Itchen Valley and Downton were on great form, and I'm not a huge fan of beer straight from the barrel hence my reservations over most beer festivals.  Well, it was a jolly little session and I told some Hull City v Oxford and BRAPA tales, said farewell to Tim and moved on to get my train back to Reading, hell I even would've had time to pop into Greyfriars for about three swift ones (I didn't!)  Like a lot of micros, somewhere between Sherlocks and Dr Phil's I'd say on the Micrometer.

More pre-emptive ticking at the Cow and Cask
After a nice Bovril (the nearest thing to real ale I could find in the "Mad Stad"), something weird happened and Hull City played well for at least 30 minutes and won with a brilliant goal.

Madjeski staff trying a bit too hard to please the away fans
I half thought about some crazy post match Three Mile Cross effort but I'll need to come back to Reading for plenty of surrounding ticks (Hurst, Swallowfield, Ruscombe to name just three so didn't risk being stranded.

It had been a wonderful 4 days, really felt the love from the county of Berkshire which is eclipsing Bedfordshire already.  I may not finish the county by the time we get to September's edition but it has rocketed up to 7th (32 pubs done) in the BRAPA league table and I'm looking forward to my May trip already!



Sunday, 24 April 2016

BRAPA - Berking Mad - Day Three (Maidenhead, Waltham St Lawrence, Wargrave & Wokingham)

Despite the brilliance of day two, I woke on Monday morning with a grey cloud hanging over my head.  It followed me all the way to Maidenhead, a town I had been warned about by every single person who'd offered an opinion.  I was hoping I could prove them wrong and write about a beautiful town, sadly, I couldn't.  Though it wasn't all bad .....

Time for a Monday morning pint

871.  Grenfell Arms, Maidenhead

10am openers which aren't Nicholson's or 'Spoons often seem too good to be true, so when I found the door slightly ajar with a Henry Hoover smiling back at me, cleaning buckets on each side, I had flashbacks of Robin Hood Bay's Dolphin pub.  Luckily, I spied a jaded looking older couple smoking in the garden so asked if the pub was open.  "It is if YOU want it to be!" came the reply from the kind lady, and soon I was perched by the bar as the landlord took me through the beers (lowhanging fruit by Paradigm was one of the best of my weekend), and told me about upcoming "Meet the Brewer" events, where I stifled a yawn and pretended I gave a shit.  Anywho, our cosy chat was disrupted when it transpired the floor polish had run out and our friendly landlord was a bit slow on the uptake about where his secret stash was, infuriating Mrs Grenfell.  Now was the time to sit in the corner, trying not to get in the way, though I did have to lift my legs for 'Henry' and a squirt of cleaning spray did seem to end up in my pint, only adding to the flavour.  The landlord's son looked surprised to see a customer, and then conducted the most casual job interview ever with a random chancer who'd wandered in off the streets.  "We might be in touch" suggested it hadn't gone so well!  So a weird experience in a weird town, but the efforts of the staff didn't go unnoticed.

Monday morning pub cleaning at the Grenfell
872.  Bear, Maidenhead

Back in the centre of town, for I'd had to walk about 10 minutes out, was this rather grand looking old coaching inn, now masquerading as a 'Spoons.  The clientele in these establishments is often varied and interesting, but it was ramped up a notch in Maidenhead.  Firstly, a young barman looked shocked as a former Major in a tweed suit barked his breakfast order in the most regimental way imaginable.  I was cowering under the bar, but still chose to sit next to him!  Then, a group of loud chav lesbians who all had colds were either sniffing, blowing their noses or talking with their mouths full, one in particular reminded me of the ghost of Jade Goody and scared me as much as the Major.  The staff looked emotional throughout, the younger men on the verge of tears, though I nearly made a connection with a tanned blonde girl who cleaned my table, only for her to see my descriptive 'Jeremy Kyle' twitter check-in, and like all blondes, she soon became sulky and uncommunicative when I went to return my glass by way of apology.  There was time to have a poo (it seemed fitting) before catching the no 4 bus (at least it wasn't the number 2 haha).

The Bear - a nice Spoons to look at from the outside.
I sat at the bus stop where, out of the freezing cold wind, I had a captive audience and chatted happily of BRAPA to the locals who were surprisingly generous and giving souls.  Maidenhead may well be a shithole of the highest order, but the people seemed nice and perhaps a bit quirky.

873.  Bell, Waltham St Lawrence

Waltham St Lawrence was your quintessential old English village, the Bell looked like the picture postcard perfect pub, and pretty much was.  Best of the long weekend?  It'd be hard to argue against it.  The ancient interior had such a profound effect on me, I was happy for the barman to recommend me a beer and I never do that, far too dangerous.  He had an honest face, and the red Hampshire concotion went down well.  Ok, so there were a couple of groups of diners in but because they'd not really made much attempt to modernise the pub in hundreds of years, it didn't matter.  And the pub was split into two small rooms so I could chill with the old locals near the bar.  I'd have got an even nicer window seat if a young chap hadn't been fiddling around with candles.  Listening to the conversation, every single one had the running theme of Jackdaws nesting in chimneys, or at least, had it as a tagline, even if they'd started off on the U.S Presidential election or West Ham's new stadium.  It was all a bit bizarre, as I stood outside and struggled to get through to what turned out to be the dodgiest taxi company ever (all heavy breathing, fake fares, unmarked vehicles).  I had considered a walk to Knowl Hill but had to pace myself for the 'evening session' and called it quits for now.

The Bell - a fantastic village pub.
Fast forward to 7pm and I met Hull City supporting supremo Christine Andrew for a trip out to Wargrave, and what a fantastically posh and beautiful village/upmarket suburb of Reading this was.  Finding the Snooker club was an effort, even when we located the building, it was a case of pushing every door until one opened and to reveal the best club since, errm Hungerford yesterday! 

Me arriving at Woodclyffe Hostel, housing a hidden snooker club.
874.  Wargrave & District Snooker Club, Wargrave

Make no mistake, this was a valuable 'tick' for me to get with it's restricted opening hours 7-11 weeknights only.  Being a club, I tentatively asked if we could ("CAMRA members travelling in peace!"  no, i didn't say that) come in for a drink, and we were guided around a corner where a personable young bar lad served us superbly well kept Otter Bitter and more randomly, Nine Standards No 4 ale all the way from Settle!   Best Otter I'd in ages, then half a Settle as we waited for the train back to Twyford.  We chatted BRAPA and Hull City and turned out that like all good Wargrave club stewards, he had family from Hull.  One very niche pub complaint I'd like to raise here cos it's the 4th time it has affected me - I have a serious peanut allergy and sometimes, staff can be eating nuts or even serving them to customers, then grab a fresh glass by the rim to serve me, I take drink, lips/mouth start to swell.  Education needed, though I guess it isn't even in their thoughts!  Luckily, my Settle was served in a wanky half glass with a handle so I poured it into the original anyway.  It did nothing to detract a good experience, behind a door all 3 tables were by now in use, they have 104 members, future is bright, and they don't want to advertise too widely cos frankly they don't have the room for all-comers so one of those "best kept secrets!" 

Snooker in action, quiet please!
Christine had work the next day so sensibly didn't join me on the late night train to Wokingham, though it all felt a bit eerie embarking on a BRAPA trip in an unknown town on such a quiet, dark Monday evening......

Even in pitch blackness, you could Wokingham was a nice looking town, though the people were every bit as peculiar as their Maidenhead counterparts. 

Arriving at the Queens Head
875.  Queens Head, Wokingham

Seeing this was an award winner, I was hopeful of big things coming here first and I was initially very impressed.  a smiley barmaid offered me tasters (which I obviously declined with my usual "I am going to be brave" gambit) and a nice pink trousered man at the bar joked I could have a taster of all and leave - which I incidentally know someone who got barred from a local 'Spoons for doing.  Interestingly, the pub had those little jam jars to show the colour of the beer, but the pub was so dark, it rendered the exercise even more pointless than usual.  The pub was small, bare boarded and felt delightfully ancient, with the smell of wood smoke from a fire that was on it's way out.  So it all felt very heavenly, and then we hit a snag, the local joker arrived in paint stained overalls.  Now if one type of person puts me on edge, it's someone who is unpredictable.  One minute, he was pretending to be gay to unnerve the quiet new trainee barman, then he was riding around the pub on an imaginary ostrich saying giddy-up.  He does stand-up comedy apparently, I'd advise 'avoid at all costs'.  He scared me to death, and I was on edge for the whole of my time there despite the greatness of the pub.

Focussing on my Railway Porter, ignoring the madman. 
876.  Crispin, Wokingham

I couldn't wait to leave the last place, and felt like a nervous kitten skulking in the shadows as I tentatively made my way to the final pub of the night.  I pawed nervously at the door, entered silently, the barman had his back to me and for about 5 minutes, was totally oblivious to my arrival!  How odd.  He was apologetic and a nice young chap when he turned round, but his line "to be honest, I wasn't expecting any customers" was to probably sum up everything that was wrong with the Crispin.  It smelt of rotten fish, it had 2 old men apart from me, the red carpet had holes in, the toilets looked like they could have been magnificent pub loos of old but they were so rusty and unkempt, the whole pub just felt a bit of a sleazy decaying mess.  I'm all for "real and old", but a damp cloth doesn't go a miss.  It wasn't even shabby chic, just shabby.  With the red carpets, old beer guides and pub games, it should have been a match for Reading's Hop Leaf but fell a long way short.  Even my pint of Surrey Nirvana (a beer I absolutely loved in London's Dispensary pub last year) tasted a bit lacking in life.

Arriving at the Crispin, 10:20 on a Monday night
Lone drinking, but no wankers in paint stained overalls, at the Crispin.
So there you have it, day three complete.  Liver & bones aching by now but one final push on the Tuesday and then it'd be home time for Sime. 



Thursday, 21 April 2016

BRAPA - Berking Mad - Day Two (Inkpen, Hungerford and more from Reading)

Sunday morning, and as I picked disconsolately at my Premier Inn breakfast with the worst hangover for years (well, weeks), I'd learnt the lessons of Saturday and needed some fresh air and a slower day.  So after downing as many tiny glasses of orange juice as seemed socially acceptable, I was on a train out west to Kintbury.....

Looks nicer now than it did then!
My GBG App told me it was 2.3 miles to Inkpen, not too bad but half an hour later, I realised this was an "as the crow flies" calculation and the distance had gone up to 2.5 miles!  Oh well, great weather, beautiful scenery and quiet roads made for a good de-tox session.

866.  Swan Inn, Inkpen

Rural was not the word - this was one of those ultra remote pubs though I do believe it has the odd bus during the week.  Not on a Sunday obviously.  I was sweating by this stage so I'd already decided to sit outside on the bench you can see in the above picture.  The staff were two young females (possibly Eastern European) who looked at me suspiciously from behind the curtains.  One brightened up when I paid for my pint of Butts Organic Jester in twenty pence pieces, they like change in these parts.  The other carried on looking like something from a bleak Scandinavian crime drama.  Despite the pubs olde worlde feel, it had a restaurant area to the right and an anxious looking Mum to the left, where her child was using the ramp down to the toilets as a diving board.  The loo door had a great stained glass swan but I forgot to take a photo.  A family of bikers were on the other bench, they also had kids with a deathwish, seemingly determined to cycle into oblivion at any given opportunity.  The ale was traditional and most welcome after the trek, and in the sunshine, this was one of the more serene sessions during my Berkshire holiday.  

Opposing view from the Swan.
Sadly, I had to be ultra strict with my 27.5 minute "minimum pub time rule"because the GBG said my next place closed at 3pm, and being 3 miles from Hungerford, it was a race against time to get there before they called afternoon last orders.....

The walk was straightforward and I found my way to the 'village' green where I walked into a parallel community with a barbecue and lots of people stood around being merry.

867.  Hungerford Club, Hungerford

Being a club and having to potentially be "signed in" as a CAMRA member, I couldn't assume anything, so in the most pathetic voice I could muster, I asked if I could come in and have a pint of their London Pride?   "Of course ya can luvvie!" came the reply from Mags, former steward of the club wearing a superb owl jumper, who I think thought she was still in charge unofficially.  I was asked to sign a guest book to complete the formalities, Yorkshire clubs never do this (far too relaxed/lazy) but it's nice to have my name attached to such a great friendly place as this.  It just seemed like a festival of fun throughout, I didn't even mind the kids running about, or the Dad's in tight cycling shorts, though I declined the offer of a barbecue sausage.  Mags invited me to sit with them, and soon I was chatting to locals like Louisa and Johnny about women's jugs and Hertfordshire and BRAPA (obviously), I was asked if I had taken any photos - it seems CAMRA and cameras had been mistaken!    A man from Cheshire was very excited about my BRAPA challenge, but he seemed disappointed I hadn't been pub ticking in Warrington and that his fave pubs weren't in the GBG.  The beer was top quality and with the exception of the ghost of Charles Dickens and his wife, everyone was having a whale of a time.  Sadly, BRAPA stops for no one so I had to move on.  Friendliest place ever.  Oh, and so much for it closing at 3pm!

This pic looks more like a BNP advert than I first realised!
After a short walk where I had to check out the cat paw prints in the brick work (why, I can't be sure), I was at my next pub ......

868.  John o' Gaunt, Hungerford

In the club, they'd told me that whilst this was a great pub, it wouldn't be as friendly (well, nowhere could be) and the landlord was a little bit of a 'character' (shall we say, being discreet).  Whatever the truth, he runs a good pub.  Firstly, the ales - from the local Innformal brewery were very nice, I drank a stout brewed up the road in Wickham (more on that later).  The pub, a bit like the Bunk in Curridge, had a cosy bare boarded shell of an old building, but quite a lot of modernisation going on.  At least it was multi roomed (of sorts) so I sat in a sunny window where the embers of a fire were going out.  The other reason I approve of the landlord was the staff, all gorgeous young brunettes (apart from the token sulky blonde, but you have to roll with the punches) - the 'crumb cleaner' even stopped to chat with me on BRAPA, and then a perky Scottish thing asked if I wanted another drink - table service at it's best, hurrah, all very North Bar in Leeds.  The pub had a nice woody smell as the fire fizzled out, and folk who'd stayed for a post lunch drink all departed.  I tried ringing FIVE taxi companies to get me up to Wickham to try the second Innformal pub, but each had their own unique excuse so I cut my losses and trained it back to Reading.  Good pub this.

Drinking my Innformal Stout.
Hungerford had truly been a great place, but Reading was really impressing me as a town too, though as I walked out south through studentsville, it all got a little bit more 'real'....

Old meets New at the Queens Head

869.  Queen's Head, Reading

Sir Quinno was waiting as I arrived at the Queen's Head, I'd been expecting some little spit n sawdust backstreet local full of grubby old men rubbing their hands together, so was surprised to see a modernised loungey place with lots of peculiar artefacts, mainly oriental, and Sir Quinno (being the font/fount of all knowledge/wisdom of all things pubby in Reading) told me they had the Thai food to match.  No denying it had a nice friendly welcome and some good ales on, to a non Berkshire ale connoisseur like me anyway, I had summat from Hampshire and was amazed just how many Hampshire beers I saw over the weekend, though I guess you could chant "you're so southern, you're practically Hants" and just about get away with it.  Decent enough pub, but not sure if I lived in Reading I'd walk the mile south from town too regularly when you have so much other competition in the centre, just didn't leave enough of an impression on me. 

Another view of the Queen's Head
We then walked back towards town where Quinno showed me a recently shut pub that appeared in the first  'Fly on the Wall' documentary "the Family" (from 1974) - they used to come to said pub to get pissed.  I went to get some supermarket snacks where I learnt a recurring theme of my holiday - no one in Reading trusts a self service checkout.  

"Hi locals!  This is BRAPA, please remain seated at all times"
870.  Hop Leaf, Reading

I'd been looking forward to visiting here for some time now, and am delighted to say it didn't disappoint.  Knowing the S.S. (Hull City's Southern Supporters) drink here, it's been so far impossible to contemplate coming here on a match day.  First thing that struck me, the red carpet - I love a red carpet in a pub, in fact they should really lay one out for me at all times(!)  Makes it so cosy.  Then you have Hopback beers, great brewery - we both got Citra.  Never been to a Hopback pub before, and if one more person says "but surely you've been to Salisbury??" I'm gonna scream cos no I bloody haven't ok!  Why would I, does Wiltshire begin with a "B", no it doesn't! (Sorry, rant over)  Then, Quinno showed me how to play Bar Billiards.  It is big business in York at the moment, the players of pubs like the Woolpack even have trophy wives and sports cars and you have to be silent when they take a shot.  Because Reading has fewer pretentious nob-heads than York, it is played in the way god intended - by jolly blokes with a smile and a sense of humour, like a traditional pub game should be (sorry, second rant over).  I was terrible, too many rules to remember, and think I lost about 2,000 - 300 in the end!  But it was fun.  The pub also had lots of old beer guides on the shelves, another good sign.  We then sat at the bar and had a night cap - Crop Circle for me, Summer Lightning for Quinno cos he's hardcore.  Another Reading theme was evident, everyone loving Spurs and thinking that cos Leicester failed to win one game, they've blown their title chances!  We'll see.  Loved this pub, loved the pub session.

Me learning to play bar billiards, but not very well.  Bot the GBG's.
And that drew the curtain on day two, and looking back, this was my favourite of my four days.  I even remembered who I was when I returned to my Premier Inn for a late night snack and wondered why they don't knock down the Crucible in Sheffield and make them all play Bar Billiards in Reading instead, but don't get Ronnie on the Summer Lightning, he's enough of a twat already.

I'll be back with a day 3 report hopefully on Sunday, but first I have a Manchester Punk Festival to negotiate.

Si (I love snooker really before anyone complains).