Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Spire & Spoke, Watlington

My first new tick in Oxfordshire from the 2022 Good Beer Guide

I was happy to see the latest edition of the beer guide pop through the letter-box earlier this month, complete with the obligatory bit of postal damage in the corner which everyone seems to have suffered this year.

Looking at the local changes in Oxfordshire, I spotted the chance to make my first trip to somewhere new, picking a thoroughly dull grey November Saturday to head to Watlington.

According to Visit South East England, Watlington is reputed to be England's smallest town. 
On the eastern edge of the county, close to the Bucks border, it's a peasant little market town, home to around 3,000 folk. 

We arrived mid-morning, with a plan to do a bit of walking along the Ridgeway which passes nearby.
Oooh - that's an interesting white mark on the hillside, I wonder if it's got a name.
Yep, it's called the 'White Mark'
No long-distance hikes this time, as we just aimed to cover the 2¾ miles to Lewknor, mostly under autumnal tree cover with the Chiltern hills to one side and farmers fields to the other.
The appeal of walking to Lewknor was the chance to visit a Beer Guide regular which has appeared in all but one edition.
Leathern Bottle (1 High Street, Lewknor, OX49 5TW - web)
The Leathern Bottle is a Grade II listed 17th century country pub, set back from the main village road with picnic tables scattered across a lawn in front of it.
We entered through the door under the Brakspear sign (note the sheltered smokers table for the locals, complete with craft Stella Artois bottle). This leads to a homely snug in front and a small bar to the right.
There's an additional larger room on the other side of the bar with it's own separate entrance.
Trad beer choice
It's a fine place.  They serve food without it having become a dining pub.  There's a no nonsense choice of beers.  No music, no TV, no fruit machines - just the hubbub of conversation.  You could settle here for the whole afternoon, except you couldn't because they'd turf you out at 3pm due to the old-school opening hours.
I stuck local with the Brakspear 'Gravity' to accompany baguette and chips which would fuel us for the walk back.

There are lots of good footpaths in this area - in the summer months we'd be more adventurous, but on this occasion we simply retraced our steps.
It just so happened that our new beer guide pub was hosting a beer festival...

Spire & Spoke (21 Hill Road, Watlington, OX49 5AD - web)
The spire is a reference to the 'white mark' on the nearby hillside, which resembles a church spire from a distance.
The spoke has something technical to do with bicycles, this being a popular area with the lycra-clad two-wheelers.

In the past this was the Carriers Arms, before it closed in 2019, was given a complete refurb (and name change), re-opening with end-of-lockdown fanfare on the 4th July 2020.
The new decor sees chunky slabs of wood and a bit of air-raid shelter style corrugated iron making up the walls, whilst the furniture is canteen style with some funkily decorated tabletops.
Perhaps not for everyone and personally we were happier outside in a great garden.
There was plenty of covered seating, plus an outdoor pizza oven (and wow, those pizza's looked good).  A wooden walkway led to another space with a tee-pee, plus the beer festival barrels under a couple of gazebo's.
They had around 20 ales, mostly local, including Loose CannonXTWest Berks, plus the not so local Timothy Taylor.

I enjoyed a smoked porter 'Shmoke Shtack by Loddon and a hoppy pale ale from XT-offshoot Animal, before being tempted into the dangers of locally produced strong cider by the sales pitch of the chap behind the bar.
In non-beer festival times there are usually three or four cask ales on the bar from similar breweries, whilst you can follow your pizza with rocky road and flapjack from the cake stand.

As it began to get dark we were sat outside next to a fire-pit, with the fields to the side of us, reflecting that this had been a pretty good first Oxfordshire 2022 GBG tick.

I'll leave you with a final picture of one tragic individual who's brought his new beer guide to read in the pub.
Oh, that's me. 

Saturday, 20 November 2021

The Buckingham Beer Guide Trio

I tried to look for some interesting facts about Buckingham by way of an introduction, but this was made tricky by...
1. Internet search engines being determined that I wanted to know about Buckingham Palace, rather than the county town
2. Um...there not being much of interest about Buckingham.

An article in the Guardian property pages about potentially moving there sums up the pros and cons: "The Case Against: Dull"

With a population of around 15,000 folk it's surprising there are only 7 pubs.  But 3 of them get in the beer guide, so we made the 1-hour trip on the X5 bus to check 'em out.

First up, handy for the bus stop, the Kings Head...

The Kings Head (7 Market Hill, Buckingham, MK18 1JX - web)
This is billed in the guide as 'The Kings Head Coffee and Gin Bar', but just retains the nice shortened version on it's signage.
Pub diversification, it serves as cafe, luncheon spot, cocktail bar, gin emporium... there are even a couple of beers.
Just a glimpse of the bar is a giveaway, with the cake displays and a whole shelf of syrups with which to spoil your cup of coffee...
Cake stand, poppy appeal, coffee machine and flavoured syrup stockpile
We had to wait for our beers to be delivered to the table as half of Buckingham's pensioners streamed out the back room and argued among'st themselves about who was going to pay for whose cappuccinos.

My local pick - a 'Triple Goat IPA' by MK-based Hornes Brewery was very so-so.
The other available ale, Rev James, turned out to be in decent condition and a much better option.

We grabbed a bit of food in the pub to keep us going...
Moving Mountain hot dogs and hefty portion of fries
There's no denying that the centre of town has some charm, with the Kings Head being right next to the photogenic Old Gaol...
Next, scooting past the market and out into the quieter streets...

The Woolpack (57 Well Street, Buckingham, MK18 1EP - web)
We entered into the Woolpack to the sounds of Shania Twain singing 'that don't impress me much'.
Which is, coincidentally, exactly what Mrs PropUptheBar said upon seeing the choice of St Austell 'Tribute' or Robinson's 'Dizzy Blonde'.

Perhaps the old boys sat by the roaring fire had the best idea with their bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Two original rooms at the front, extension to the rear and a pleasant looking garden out back.  I just felt it needed a little bit more pub tat clutter and rickety furniture.
The Woolpack is on lovely streets, spoilt only by bumper to bumper parked cars
Heading up onto Church Street, our route took us through the multiple buildings that make up Buckingham University as we headed over the river in the hunt for the third of the Beer Guide pubs.

The University.  That makes me wonder what the students here do with themselves?
There doesn't seem to be a wealth of entertainment options for evenings out.
Maybe they have a secret student bar selling Mad Squirrel beers and hosting gigs by Porridge Radio?

At least those who are looking for a good traditional pub have got The Mitre just a few minutes walk from the Uni...
Dating back to 1610, The Mitre is the oldest pub in Buckingham
The Mitre (2 Mitre Street, Buckingham, MK18 1DW - web)
There was initial disappointment as we arrived to find it closed, before realising it's a mid- afternoon opener, even on a Saturday.
Fortunately just 8-minutes to loiter outside waiting for the door to be unbolted, along with six lads who were eager to secure a table next to the fire and in front of the TV.

PropUptheBar bucks the usual trend of visiting empty pubs and finds himself in a queue to get in!!!

Once we were admitted, there was a decent choice of beers...

Five casks, a little bit pale ale heavy, but nice to see a stout and a Tim Taylor that isn't Landlord.
I opted for the Thornbridge 'Crackendale' which was the subject of several comments to the bar staff from later customers, all along the lines of "wouldn't have had so much of it last night if I'd realised it was 5.2%".
It was very nice though, as was the Goffs 'Black Knight' which I popped back to the bar for.

Great to see the landlord pulling a pint of beer through the lines prior to serving the first of each.  Wish everywhere would do that.
There were a steady number of arrivals after we'd settled down in a corner, many there for the rugby on TV, with plenty of cask being sold.

The Mitre is a local CAMRA award winner, which comes as little surprise. 
Our Pub of the Day by a country mile.

I tried to take Mrs PropUptheBar into the White Hart Hotel, but she turned down the Greene King IPA point-blank.
But they've got Ghostly Ghoul, I implored, pointing out the guest beer.
"Greene King IPA with a Halloween pump clip" she replied, demanding to be taken back to Oxford for craft beer.
Sorry White Hart - I wasn't allowed to stay...
And so our day out ended in Oxford in the Grapes which was bustling and busy like I haven't seen it in some time and which had some ridiculously strong Left Handed Giant stout alongside the West Berkshire beers.

Buckingham's a pleasant enough town, but shame there's nothing to really make it a destination for the fussy pub fanatic.  But I'm glad we had a look for ourselves.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

(Brief) Stafford Pub Explorations

Brief because I just had a couple of hours breaking my train journey, so was limited to a few central pubs on a visit where time whizzed by alarmingly quickly.

Hence I just aimed to check out the a couple of picks from the Beer Guide and a Spoons cinema conversion that really appealed to me.
And that's where I started...

The Picture House (14 Bridge Street, Stafford, ST16 2HL - web)
As you walk through the doors, the original ticket booth is still in place, which is a nice touch.
I tried to capture it in my picture, but there's rather a lot going on to obscure it - Spoon's deals, hand sanitiser station, Tim's rage against the media magazine special, wet floor sign...
Too much clutter!
The Picture House opened in February 1914 and entertained the folk of Stafford with movies until March 1995 when the credits rolled for the final time.  The last film shown was a 3-week run of erotic thriller 'Disclosure', but I'm not sure we can hold Michael Douglas wholly responsible for the demise of this cinema.
JD Wetherspoon purchased the building, which had been designated a Grade II listed building by this point, and opened it as a pub in 1997.

There are seating areas in the old lobby, then on four levels from the balcony down to the bar at the lowest point, which still has a screen above it.  All underneath an impressive barreled ceiling.
Amazing building.  Less amazing beer list.
I picked the Lymestone 'Ein Stein', which was nice enough and a bargain with a CAMRA voucher, although I didn't really need a 5% pre-midday beer.
In such a stunning building it should be easy to take some brilliant pub pictures.
So how did I manage to cock it up completely?

I headed up to the balcony intending to take a stunning shot of the whole pub from the highest point.
Only to fail miserably to take it properly whilst managing to press the button mid-way up the stairs...
Not the great pub pic I had in mind

Oh well.
Onward to the next pub, a short walk away, up to the main shopping street then past the council offices.
Shrewsbury Arms (75 Eastgate Street, Stafford, ST16 2NG - web)
This has been part of the Black Country Ales estate since 2016.
It consists of three rooms and a conservatory surrounding a central bar, meaning you can do a full circuit of the pub whilst trying to decide where to sit.

Plenty of choice for me, early doors.  There were just a couple of solitary drinkers reading the weekend papers and the barman flicking the early Premier League match onto the TVs.

All the usual Black Country ales on offer here, alongside a couple of guest beers.
I was interested to see the Allsopp's pale ale.

The Allsopp family were Burton-on-Trent brewers from 1730 onward, who saw their fortunes boom when they were one of the first companies to perfect an India Pale Ale recipe.  The brand disappeared in 1959, but has now been resurrected 62 years later by Jamie Allsopp, seven-times great grandson of founder Samuel Allsopp.  
I'm a sucker for the recreation of those old Burton beers.

Sticking to the Beer Guide entries in the centre, Slater's was my next pick.  Located on the main shopping drag, it's right next door to Stafford's second Wetherspoon pub.
Which is where I suspect everyone was on a Saturday afternoon - they certainly weren't in Slater's.
Slater's Bar (28 Gaolgate Street, Stafford, ST16 2NT - web)
This was a simple single-room bar, with modern decor, converted from a former shop unit.

The music appeared to be a whole album by Charlene Soraia - not someone I'd have recognised without Shazam, and not music that brightened up my visit in any way.

If they really want me to pretend it's 1995 we need a bit of Coolio, Radiohead and Oasis... 
I slipped up picking this bar, although I may well have enjoyed it at a different time with more customers than just me.
I'd guess my Slater's 'Premium Best Bitter' was the first pulled of the day and it wasn't really up to GBG standards.

My final pub of the afternoon was handy for scooting back to the railway station in time for my train.
Bird in Hand (Victoria Square, Stafford, ST16 2AQ - web)
I'd saved the best 'til last.
A good bunch of cheery customers creating a fantastic pubby atmosphere.
Nice comfy bench seating.
Cheese and onion cob for lunch.
And a very tasty stout from Derbyshire's Little Eaton Brewery.

Finishing my drink, it was time to head off to catch the train.
Call this a taster of Stafford...  I need to come back and do it more justice.

Manchester Round-Up

Just a quick round-up of some of the other pubs visited whilst in Manchester.
Then I'll get back to safer territory round Oxford-way, where I don't get my Holts and Hydes mixed up!

Returning from Eccles, where I finished the last post, I alighted the Metro at St Peter's Square and called in to the Britons Protection
This was the morning sunshine photograph, snapped as I predicted a return visit later...

The Britons Protection (50 Great Bridgewater Street, Manchester, M1 5LE)
I made my way into the small front room, with bench seating underneath the windows and four small tables and stools facing the bar.

Beers on offer on this occasion included a Saltaire stout, Pennine 'Amber Necker', an IPA by Three Brothers and two ales from the local Black River Beer Co.
I went for the Black River 'Passion Fruit Pale', which may not be a proper beer but had that refreshing touch that I was craving at the time.

An L-shaped corridor leads around the back of the bar, past a serving hatch, to two more rooms.  This corridor has some fantastic tiling, whilst my heritage pub guide tells me the "massive urinals and tiled walls in the gents are worth inspection".
So inspect I did, although refrained from taking urinal pictures this time.

I initially arrived in Manchester in a pretty persistent downpour of rain.
The kind of weather in which you need big pink monsters lurking next to office blocks to brighten things up...
My first point of call was to a Heritage pub that I thought I'd been to before, but it turns out I haven't.
Probably because much of my time spent in Manchester was as a fresh-faced student and WhatPub tells us that the Hare & Hounds 'appeals to the mature customer'.
The Hare & Hounds (46 Shudehill, Manchester, M4 4AA)
Dating to around 1800, the pub was remodelled in 1925 and has pretty much stayed the same way since.  A corridor along the side connects a front door on Shudehill and back door on Salmon Street, expanding in the middle to create a drinking lobby.  The bar, with glazed glass screens above the counter, also serves the basic and comfortable front and back rooms.

Holts bitter, in fine form, at £2.70 a pint.  I can't complain about that.

The Halloween decorations reveal just how long it's taken me to write up this trip... 

So, into the Northern Quarter where foolhardy strong craft beers would tempt me in Beatnikz Republic...

Beatnikz Republic (35 Dale Street, Manchester, M1 2HF - web)
Located in an old office building, this place has an impressive entrance, up a flight of steps at which point you have to decide if your vice is flat whites in Idle Hands to the left or double-IPAs in Beatnikz Republic to the right.
Coffee shop or craft bar conundrum
Beatnikz gets into the Good Beer Guide by having a run of three hand pumps to one side of the bar.  These cask ales were reduced to £2.95 when I visited, which did make me wonder how much of it they shift when there's 20-odd craft keg concoctions leaping out at you to be picked from the colourful beer menu. 

I visited twice, finding it a nice comfortable place with great beer range, although it was quiet on both occasions.

Second time around it was end-of-evening and I was making a beeline for the Holy Goat Brewing 'Goatsmoker', a proper heavyweight smoked beer weighing in at 12.7%.
(Actually too strong in my humble opinion - the only smoked beer you ever really need is a Schlenkerla).
Just around the corner is the Manchester outpost of Northern Monk Brewing Co from Leeds.
Not that I could find it.
I walked past twice, before realising the local builders had cunningly hidden it so as to keep all the chocolate caramel biscuit porter to themselves.
Behind there somewhere
Northern Monk Refectory (10 Tariff Street, Manchester, M1 2FF - web)
Uh-oh.  A dangerous beer list, both for my sobriety and wallet.
Lots of tantalising things on offer here, ready for you to join the Untappd elite on the 4.5 rated West Coast IPAs and pastry stouts.

Having come across the wonderful morbidly named Sudden Death brewery on my German explorations, I picked their collaboration with Sweden's Duckpond - 'Djooz', a chewy, piney double IPA which I very much enjoyed.

That's two heritage pubs and two craft bars - now for something that sits somewhere inbetween...

Crown & Kettle (2 Oldham Road, Manchester, M4 5FE - web)
This is an old pub that dates back to the early 19th century, spent a period closed in the nineties, then re-opened in 2005 after an extensive conservation project.
There was a DJ spinning tunes in the corner, a decent mainly youthful crowd, and screens showing the beer list - around four on cask, with more on the kegs.
I ordered some Italian-style street food ('inspired by Naples, crafted in Ancoats') and a stout on cask from Brew York.
'Fairytale of Brew York 2021' is a Christmas beer - a very, very nice 4.9% milk stout,  but far too early for a Christmas beer!

The real marvel in the Crown & Kettle is the ceiling...

Shame I didn't get to see any live music on this visit - my noisy psych rock gig in Salford was cancelled just a few days after I brought a ticket.
I had to make do with the musical history depicted on the side of buildings...
And after the initial rain I was happy to get some sunshine and blue skies in which to explore the city centre and take a few photographs...

Finally, following a week of solid pubbing in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, here's what I'll be drinking for the next week or two...

Cheers! 🍺

Sunday, 14 November 2021

From a Bury Micro Pub to an Eccles Holts Classic

There's a bit of randomness to this post, in which I make the most of a £4.90 Metro pass and veer from classic pub heritage to the modern developments of Salford Quays.

I felt I should really do something a bit cultural in Manchester to prove I do more than just sit in pubs.
Surely that box could be ticked by hopping off the metro at Prestwich to admire the wonderful Mark E Smith mural...

Back on the tram, it was just a few more stops to Bury at the end of the line, where I decided to make my way to Good Beer Guide entry, the Thirsty Fish.
This micro pub is actually very easy to find from the Interchange, unless you're me and you walk the wrong way around the shopping centre and market in a search for it.
Thirsty Fish (Unit 1a Princess Parade, Millgate Shopping Parade, Bury, BL9 0QL)
As I arrived the gaffer was on the phone making a very angry call, his mood not improved by muggings here standing underneath the 'table service only' sign at the bar.
During his phone call he threatened to "just shut the pub" which would have made this an epic pub ticking fail.
Not sure what had upset him so much, but looking at my picture maybe he was on the phone to the company that looks after the shutters.

Here's the beer list...
Local brewery Deeply Vale was well represented with three beers and it was their  'Equilibrium' that I picked at a respectable £3.20 a pint.

I was the second person to arrive, but another half dozen fella's came in shortly after, drawn in by the cheap Bavarian pilsner and classic rock soundtrack.
We got the Stones, Bruce going down to the river, Neil Young and a bit of Elvis.

A couple arrived, the woman settling the man at the end of my table with a pint before going shopping, just like those 'husband creche' blackboard signs, except I never thought it really happened.

From somewhere that's been open a couple of years, to somewhere with a bit more heritage...
I walked up past the Robert Peel statue onto Bolton Street to the Old White Lion.

My picture was scuppered by the sunshine/shade combo...
Old White Lion (6 Bolton Street, Bury, BL9 0LQweb)
You enter through a fine revolving door, which has recently been restored, taking you into a single open room with the bar to the left.  Now a listed building, the Old White Lion was built in the late 19th century on the site of an earlier pub.
Lovely white lions on front of the bar, proper pub carpet and a nicotine yellow ceiling second only to the one my Uncle cultivated over many a year of pipe-smoking in his front room in Plymouth.
The heritage gem is the oak room to the rear, which I poked my head into, but didn't photograph because all the folks sitting there were watching me suspiciously with hawk-eyes.

Ales on the bar were Tim Taylor 'Landlord' or Brightside 'Odin'.
I picked the Odin which was incredibly just £2 a pint, but not great value as it was a tad too warm and I struggled through it.
Moving on from Bury, I caught the Metro back through the centre, changing trams at Cornbrook.  The Eccles tram twists and turns through newly built glass fronted buildings of Salford Quays.  There appears to be an insatiable appetite for city-living apartments and budget hotels in this neck of the woods.

I hopped off at Media City with a desire to see where BBC Match of the Day and the Breakfast News comes from.
On the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, this was once the Manchester Docks, which closed in 1982 and has now been transformed beyond recognition.

My intention was purely to marvel at the modern architecture, not to visit any drinking establishments at Media City.  Then I spotted the Seven Bro7hers Beer House and was lured in by the evils of craft beer.
Seven Bro7hers Beer House (Media City, Salford, M50 2EQ - web)
There were actually more people in the beer house than my photo suggests, tucking into food in the booths to the side and a few hardy souls taking their drinks out onto the chilly outdoor seating.

My pick here came from the specials - a Chocolate Honeycomb Stout, well balanced and not too sweet, weighing in at a sensible 5.5%.
I missed Mrs PropUptheBar's text instructing me to buy a can to bring home for her, for which I don't think I've been forgiven yet.
Following this distraction, I caught the next tram and continued on my way to Eccles at the end of this branch line.

The Heritage-listed Lamb Hotel was what brought me here and I was chuffed to see it lit up in the late afternoon sunshine...
The Lamb Hotel (33 Regent Street, Eccles, M30 0BP - web)
This reminds me of the red-bricked Heritage pubs in the West Midlands.
It was built in 1906 for Joseph Holt's Brewery, a large multi-roomed pub designed around a central servery and lobby.  It's full of character and a quite wonderful place.

The locals in the small front bar were distracting the girl at the bar from serving me by trying to convince her that spaghetti was made out of dead worms (?!).  When she did spot me she pulled a superb pint of Holt's 'Best Bitter'.

It's a shame to see that the full size billiards table has gone from the Billiards room to the rear.  Regular tables and stools fill the room now.  Around the sides is raised bench seating  on which you could once have sat watching the game and pressing the bell behind you when you were ready for more drinks.
The same architects designed a couple of similar fine pubs in the area.
Sadly the Royal Oak nearby has recently closed, whilst I deemed the Grapes a bit too far to walk this evening.