Monday, 29 May 2017

BRAPA - Sandstone Dreams in Rural Cheshire.

Behind the bar in Bunbury (see pub 1129)

When I completed North Yorkshire a couple of months ago with the help of esteemed BRAPA Chauffeur B.G. Everitt, I thought perhaps chauffeur days were coming to an end.

After fake "crisis talks", I realised South Durham and North Derbyshire might not be beyond the realms of possibility which was great, but when he suggested he might be able to stretch to some of Cheshire's more remote outposts, I thought this was "above and beyond", but was never going to turn down an offer of that magnitude.

What most of the "no bus, no train" pubs in Cheshire had in common was their closeness to something called the Sandstone trail, a walking route from Whitchurch in Shropshire to Frodsham where I once visited in the rain and my phone died.

So after an early start and long drive on a sunny, warm and breezy Saturday morning (SatNav man had, during the week, had his 'verbosity' settings altered - am not even kidding) we eventually found ourselves at the remote village of Burwardsley, but we had to fight to get in as a combination of vintage wedding bus, horses and hidden car park make for a difficult entry.  Eventually, we got settled and admired the views, and I strangled a poor sandstone pheasant......

Nice views from up here.....

Someone's gotta stranglehold on me (says pheasant in UK Subs tribute act)

Vintage wedding bus pisses off to local church, good news for BRAPA.
1128.  Pheasant Inn, Higher Burdwardsley

It was a peculiar set up, in that it felt like walking into a complex rather than a pub with all these guest rooms, laundry room etc slightly annexed from the pub itself.  We wandered in just as the wedding gang had buggered off, and a large collective of pristine white shirted immaculate staff were busy presumably preparing for the post-wedding lunch, the clamour of knives and forks and busy-bee behaviour all in evidence.  What set them aside though and made this a positive experience was the friendly welcome we got.  In so many situations like this, I've had noses turned up at me, an 11am drinker when the pub is in a state of pre-lunch disorganisation.  Not a bit of it here.  Our barman was a lovely chap, complaining he thought he'd been given the Bank Holiday off only to be roped in at the last minute as he served us some fairly standard Cheshire ales.  A talkative chap without his own access to the cash till, I did wonder if he may be straight out of Borstal, but Dad told me "just because he's got a scouse twang, you can't assume such a thing".  I was just about to argue otherwise, but before I could get in trouble, our attention was drawn to some of the most horrendous piped pub music ever.  "Worse than Ed Sheeran" was one damning critique, piped pub music rarely throws up nice surprises like George Formby, Rancid, Gimp Fist or Chas n Dave, so curiosity got the better of me so I downloaded the "Shazam" App to find out what it was.  Result came back - "Boyce Avenue", never heard of them, but did lead us to do some 'Boycie Only Fools' impressions which perhaps scared the barmaid who'd tentatively put some forks on our table, with an apology "we are preparing for later".  Although she returned with knives for every other table, she didn't put them on ours, perhaps noting our suicidal expressions.  And yes, our table was marked 'reserved' like every other.  We left to more nice staff interactions, proof that pubs really are 'all about the people'.

"MARLENE" says Dad (probably)

Dining style pub, yet didn't annoy!

Some ales and the barman's shirt.
We drove on, noticing the wedding party at a church nearby, to our furthest point at Broxton, where there was a 12 noon opener imaginatively called the Sandstone.  A dickhead local postman tried to kill us (twice) but the pub looked VERY shut and I saw a hastily handwritten sign declaring the pub was closed until further notice.  It all looked a bit ominous.  But just glad I hadn't walked 10 miles along the Sandstone trail to get here!

Onwards to our next pub, just off the trail a tiny bit east in a place called Bunbury.  It was open, all I ask at this stage, though a bit confused by a 'Horse  & Groom' pub sign so it must've had a name change ......

Me and some various heads of nags.

1129.  Nags Head, Bunbury

Ah, this was the tonic to the first pub if we needed one - probably benefiting from not being on the Sandstone trail, it was a proper no nonsense drinkers type of pub, deliciously dimly lit, with football scarves and pool to the left, and some classic bench seating and comfort to the right.  Again, we got a warm welcome from the blonde barmaid of Bunbury (which sounds like the forgotten Chaucer tale if ever I heard one) and the slim landlord, with his green shirt, phantom pint of Carling (which kept appearing at various locations within the pub like a sentient being) and dry wit, correcting anything which wasn't quite right under his breath like when the barmaid said 'good morning' and he kinda breathed 'grrrr it's actually afternoon now gnnnggg'.  Dad appeared from the loo and thought the Carling was his, but I wouldn't be so cruel.  On taking a "pub tourist" style photo of the scarves, I felt the need to justify myself with a BRAPA explanation, and the pub LOVED it.  Even more than Ivinghoe last week.  Soon, another jolly barman appeared and we were behind the bar for photos, all over Facebook, and even got our money back from the drinks.  How lovely is that?  We were both a bit emosh, as the kids say.  Utter superstars.  1129 is my new lucky number.  And the barmaid's pushing of the Facebook envelope did make me wonder if she was Mark Zuckerberg in a mask but who knows, just an utterly fantastic pub experience.  And the ale was first class too.

Some of Europe's top clubs, and Everton.

The most characterful pint of Carling you'll meet

The staff being amazing.
Well, that was all about as heart-warming as BRAPA can get, but no time to relax as we carried on north to our next pub, described in less than glowing terms by both pub ticking legend Martin Taylor, and the Blonde Barmaid of Bunbury, though both obviously far too professional to give it the kind of slagging off that I probably would.  But let's be open-minded .....

The pub (maybe).
1130.  Egerton Arms, Little Budworth

It must be said, despite following the GBG pushpin to the exact location, we do not have sure-fire 100% proof that we were actually in the Egerton Arms, for there was no pub sign we could see.  And when we drove into the gravelled car park and saw a bunch of people outdoors next to a marquee called "Kev Fest" which looked the remnants of some beer festival, we half wondered if we'd walked onto someone's private property.  But a pub-esque stained glass door which Dad loved, promised better things and we walked in to find a pub with exciting ales, some on taps at the back of the bar, and quite an old creaky quirky feel, as the BBB had indicated.  We were the only customers indoors, but when me and Dad tried to be jovial about the difficulties from selecting from so many great sounding ales, the barmaid remained stony faced, eventually snapping at poor Dad to make a decision, as though she had a long line of people to serve.  Dad commented that she had all the people skills of Adolf Hitler, but this seemed harsh on the big German.  It made us wonder if the Kev Fest marquee was a gas chamber, and almost as an act of defiance, Dad retrieved our sandwiches from the car to eat at an outside bench.  I tried to compare the setting to Criggion's Lord Rodney on the Welsh border, but just then the Oulton motorbikes started up in earnest, and with a stiff breeze blowing across the carpark, it kind of put you in a bad mood.  Nothing like!  The barmaid came out to clear some tables and do some top scowling, despite me smiling sweetly at her, but all was not yet lost as Dad discovered a beautifully hidden cricket pitch alongside the beer garden.  First delivery I witnessed, clean bowled him!  I think that sums up this pub.  Should've been lovely, but failed.  Oh, and if you want a laugh, read the first line in the 2017 GBG description about this place.

With Broxton being closed earlier, we needed a bonus Cheshire tick in the direction of home.  Lower Stretton doesn't open til a ridiculous time on a Saturday, Davenham looked potentially unreliable plus I was cricketed out, and I didn't want to go anywhere with a railway train station I could do easily on my own like Winsford or Hartford, so we rested on Moulton.  Or Moulton-le-Fylde, as Dad kept calling it - which to be fair, wasn't even funny the first time.

1131.  The Lion Hotel, Moulton

If it hadn't been for the hospitality at Bunbury, this would've been pub of the day for it had quality oozing from it's every pore from the word go.   We got a proper welcome from the green shirted, grey bearded host, who was so on-the-ball with his service, that later on when I crept back to the bar to remember what beer I was drinking (Engine Vein), he leapt out of a dark back area two minutes later like a hospitable Peter Sutcliffe to ask if I needed him for anything.  Before you could say "is that a hammer in the back of my skull?", Dad had sat us in the "grumpy old men's club", (not to be taken as literally as the Wheel Inn's Grumpy Old Man Corner in Naphill) and was quizzing me on whether I'd read the 'Beer' magazine he'd picked up.  Without wishing to offend any twitter followers who write for it and slightly rhyme with Croak and Snaily, I told him I wasn't a huge fan of said publication. "Oooh hello female beer somellier,  let's pair a blue cheese with a Belgian Tripel".  No thanks.   Even the toilets were great here with European maps on the walls, tried to get a piccie but there was always a map-reader lurking close by.  Just a shame we didn't get to witness the "Saturday Video Jukebox" which sounds a delight.  Really top pub this, would recommend it to anyone.

Barman being incredible despite guantanamo escapee wandering in.

Dad trying to look grumpy

After a 5 second conflab, we'd decided we'd done so well for time that we could squeeze in a Greater Manchester area pub on the way back over t'hills to sunny Yorkshire.  Same rules applied, nothing too easy to do by train/Metro etc. but we came up with a solution and were soon in the very Mancunian feeling town of Denton.  The pub was also classic GMR.

1132.  Lowes Arms, Denton 

In keeping with BRAPA 2017 rules (outside Dukinfield which has it's own laws, and was not too far away from here), the right hand room which sounds usually like the more no nonsense side of the pub with that delightful Manc term "the Vault", was a sea of pink decoration and old biddies celebrating someone's 70th though they all looked about 110 to me, perhaps Denton offers a hard existence.  The left hand bar was loungey old fashioned Mancunian bliss, with swathes of grey carpet - perfect for twilds to skid across the floor at regular intervals which they did, whenever their Prosecco Mum's took a swig and were temporarily distracted.  The service was friendly and efficient, and despite the challenges, enough room to swing a non literal cat and find some comfy bench seating at the near end of the room.  I can't tell you much more than that, I'd had 5 pints and listening and observing so I was not as focussed as earlier but never mind, it just had the hum of a solid old pub.



Hidden biddies.
So that was a very satisfying day, a great one to write up.  I had a bonus day in Tyne & Wear yesterday which I will write up when time allows, plus I'll have the month end review to do before we get cracking on June.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

BRAPA - Bucks IV - Heading Out East

Last Saturday (20th May), I was back in Buckinghamshire for the first time since my crazy April 4 day session, and this was one of the days I'd been planning on doing.  However, I soon found out you could only get to Cheddington by train from Euston and not Aylesbury (who knew?), so I postponed it until this day.

The train was a sea of Claret and Amber, as the Teesside branch of Bradford City fans were heading down to London for Play Off Final fun/misery, and with my Claret and Amber BRAPA "third choice shirt", I looked like an honorary fan.  I sat next to a nice teacher man, who had even brought kids spelling tests to mark, 100 words on each page.  Now that is dedication.  He wished he was doing BRAPA instead.  So I told him I had a feeling in my bones that they'd win.

In London, I somehow stepped into some weird time vortex outside Kings Cross and managed to make the Euston train and hour earlier than planned.  Which was perfect considering I had some fairly serious walking ahead of me.

I was overjoyed to find paths and pavements all the way from Cheddington to my first pub of the day in Ivinghoe (take that Oving and Quainton you life endangering scumbags!), and was there at 11:55am, hidden down an unassuming narrow lane.  I tried the door, the outer one opened but the landlord shouted through that he'd be open bang on 12 noon.  Can't blame me for trying.

Not the pub, but the village church

Approaching the pub

Five minutes til opening time.....
1123.  Rose & Crown, Ivinghoe

So I got inside and felt it only right to apologise for being a bit too eager before, but the landlord was a jolly soul, and had only been under new owners for the past three weeks or something, and you could see they were keen to impress.  It was time to put a BRAPA hoodoo to bed, and order a pint of Tring's quite famous "Side Pocket for a Toad".  Problem was, only time I ever had it in 2007 at the Sportsman in Croxley Green, it was vinegar.  But it was superb here.  Funny how time and circumstances can so influence how much you enjoy a pub.  An hour later, I'd have walked into a mass of walkers and cyclists lunching, the small pub heaving, and I'd have lurked in a corner cursing things like the gin blackboard and modern dining feel.  But as first customer, I got a cracking welcome, so friendly, they loved BRAPA,  They even took a photo of me for their Facebook!   Someone rang up wanting to book a table for twenty!  The barman rolled his eyes, they'd obviously not googled the pub's dimensions like a true pub goer.  One of the local 'characters' arrived - you can tell cos he greeted the pub with the words "I'm knackered".  Turned out he was the local pub sign man, they were getting a new sign as the old one was faded and mentioned Adnams for no apparent reason!  I was asked for my input, I liked the faded old one (first thing that struck me as I approached the pub) and chose the design closest to it.  They nodded politely, so expect to see a Rose & Crown encrusted in a Beef Rib Wellington coated in Raspberry Jus if you visit here in the future!   The first silent brunette barmaid (possibly a mute) had been replaced by a bubbly live-wire one, who told me I should visit Tring as they have a zoological museum with dressed up fleas.  Now that's the kind of local knowledge I like.  As I drank up and chatted to the (deaf) pub sign man, the walkers and cyclists started descending like a zombie plague, I'd timed my visit perfectly.

A very Bucks/Herts beer range, great quality.

Helping to pick the pub sign

Gin of the Week?  You don't get that in Barnsley.
It was therefore with a spring in my step that I walked onwards to Marsworth where I had two pubs to tick off.  Which was nice!  What wasn't nice was that the rain had started, and the pavement gave up somewhere west of Pitstone and I had a fairly fraught roadwalk in the wet.

To add to the damp feeling, the next pub was badly plotted on my GBG App, but just over a river, just past a dodgy looking pub called the White Lion and some poncy looking tearooms.  

A pub sign on each side of the road - needed a sign going over the road like Olde Starre Inne in York!

The pub looking fairly non-committal 
1124.  Anglers Retreat, Marsworth

I wandered in to a bustling atmosphere of barking dogs (twogs) with yelps that echoed through an extended conservatory, to a load of hunched over old men blocking the bar, as I squinted to see what ales were on offer.  No apologies, just extended hunching!  As this is one of my pub pet hates, I could only deal with it by telling myself they were all local anglers, retreating from the inclement weather - but don't anglers like fishing in the rain?  No, I had to convince myself otherwise.  Luckily, the young barmaids were friendly and attentive, up there with the best.  I found a side room, empty apart from a female parrot in a cage.  As soon as I approached, it pretended to be asleep.  I tried talking to it but it wasn't having it, in fact it didn't even take food from the blonde or brunette barmaid, but as soon as the ginger one approached, it was well up for a bit of scran.   The pub had a deep red colour scheme, and that combined with our feathered friend put me in mind of a well maintained version of Pickering's Royal Oak, a pub which was a total shithole on my last visit but things may be different now.  As soon as I got up to look for the loo, the main barmaid (we'll call her Kelly Richardson as she looked like one) looked concerned, and that's because it was a tiny little building outside - so I crossed the carpark in the rain, but outdoor toilet = classic pub in my eyes, so wouldn't complain.  Back inside and one of the locals, Ray, was being naughty.  "I work in a care home, so I'm very patient .... but don't push me!" warned one of the barmaids, possibly our Kelly, we can only guess what Ray had said.

Baby Twog comes for a cuddle with the bar blockers

Boring parrot

View towards kitchen, parrot may have escaped.

Classic outdoor gents.
It was milestone time, and I don't mean the boring midlands brewery.  No, I was on the verge of a landmark but just to prove I'm still inexperienced, I photographed the pub sign then totally forgot to see it on the other side of the road!

Instead, I crossed a bridge and noticed a canal - working out I could later walk along here to Cheddington instead of that horrid main road.  I may have had a wisdom tooth removed in the week, but am I really a quarter less wise?  

Well, kind of once I realised i'd lost the pub, but I was finally in! 

The pub sign on the WRONG side of the road

A few minutes later, back where I'd come from.
 1125.  Red Lion, Marsworth

ONE QUARTER OF THE GOOD BEER GUIDE, COMPLETED!!  But where were the party poppers, streamers and balloons on arrival?  If I was more like the Red Lioness lady, I'd have probably got a free buffet, free prosecco and local radio interview laid on, but alas, we'll wait til pub 2.500 for that.  As 2017 BRAPA tradition dictates, I entered through the left hand side and found myself in a tiny snug front bar, only customer, so think I'd done well.  Just as a barmaid appeared, I heard a cheery "hello!" but behind me, I was confused, was this the best example of "voice throwing" ever?  Well no, a posh idiot lady was up some steps and explained to a fellow posho on the phone "I THINK I'M IN THE WRONG PUB?"    "How can she have managed that?" I whispered to our pink haired hostess, rolling my eyes, but she lacked the human touch of our previous two pub's staff, and wasn't about to join in my slagging off session.  Shame.  She'd not read the BRAPA script.  Instead, posh idiot lady ordered fish and chips and waited patiently for her 'friend'.  Problem was, every time someone entered the pub, she bounded down the stairs like a faithful dog waiting for it's owner to return home from work, only to be disappointed having to constantly apologise "sorry, I thought you were my fwend, Claire!"  It was embarrassing.  The whole pub (and most of the action was in the larger right hand room) looked at her like "fuck off you lost posho loser back to your canal boat".  It was kind of painful to observe, but brilliant too.  At one point, she just randomly shouted "Claire, Claire, where are you???" and a local from the far side shouted "HERE!" and the whole pub laughed.  It was getting brutal, and Claire seemed to be an imaginary friend.   I'd been in the front bar alone for so long, I'd become possessive of it and practically growled at anyone who entered. Especially the angry husband who ordered "a pint of bitter ... oh I don't know, JUST ANY" and said "ugh, not new pound coins, ugh, don't give me them!"   I realised I too was waiting for Claire, but I couldn't waste time and it was time to move on.  Weird but good pub.

Beers!  I had the Malt Starry Nights.

A typical BRAPA table scene

Quarter of the GBG celebration selfie!
So I did my canal walk in the beautiful sunshine, and all was well with the world as I headed back towards Cheddington.  It was my favourite BRAPA canal walk since me and Tom walked to Crooke near Wigan to go to that overrated Christmas restaurant menu place with amazing ale. 

Eventually, I was back on the main road, and the cute but quite large thatched pub was in sight.....

Canal walk

Hmmm, the font screams 'modernised village pub'.
1126.  Old Swan, Cheddington

I must confess now I was gearing myself up for the "pub beer festival problem" which occasionally hits BRAPA.  You see, I'd seen signs up throughout the village advertising a "Coastal Beer Fest at the Old Swan" just like in Leighton Buzzard's Black Lion (Sept 2015) when I embarrassed myself by falling asleep and needing to be brought around with a pint of water.  So I walked in expecting to have to say...  "No, I just want a pint of normal beer in a normal glass, and to pay normal money as I'm just a visitor staying for one drink!"  So imagine my surprise when I entered a near deserted pub.  I was greeted by a friendly auburn haired barmaid, though I must confess my initial thought on meeting her was whether she was ginger enough to be accepted by the parrot in the Anglers Retreat.  As she ran me through the ales, I was sure she'd tell me about the festival, as I could hear a bit of a commotion outside, but despite trying to use mind control, nothing doing, think I just looked weird and starey.  I went to explore and realised, after all that, it was next weekend instead.  Bank Holiday obviously!  Duh.  The outside commotion was a man talking to some cattle over a fence, from what I could gather.  I sat down in the near empty cool indoors, with it's low beams, metrosexual youths, and old loners who looked like cross between taxi drivers and porn stars.  Two young posh men called Giles and Henry (probably) with posh snorting laughs sat behind me, most of the chat was too inane even for the BRAPA pen, I couldn't sully my blog with it, though the lines "the people I'm going to Glastonbury with are REAL festival specialists" and "Guns n Roses, ya, at the O2, I've heard of them, ya" were particularly stand out.  I'd had enough.

Onwards to Euston then, but I'd done well for time and as May's going to be a real disappointment in terms of 'number of pubs visited' I had time for one more stop.  Hemel Hempstead?  Berkhamstead?  I looked at which pub looked closest to it's station, and went with the latter.

The rain was teeming down by now, at another pub based on the river ..... 

1127.  Rising Sun, Berkhamstead

A few folk huddled in the doorway helpfully pushed the door for me with the warning "brace yourself, take a deep breath!" as the place was absolutely rammed due to some party event thing that had been going on.  And the weather meant that spilling out onto the river at the front of the pub wasn't really an option.  I edged my way to the bar, which had a big slice of Tring on offer, I chose a guest one and it actually turned out to be my pint of the day.  I reversed out into the porch, which I shared with a typical selection of Hertfordshire vapers, all loud and thinking they are comedians with their amusing southern accents - or so it seems when you are practically in their faces.  The pub had left a bucket inconveniently placed in the doorway, just to minimise the room further!  Though the increasingly heavy rain dominated the conversation, the men were well impressed with BRAPA though the same could be not be said for the lady folk, and when I was left alone with the blonde one and dog walker, an awkward silence ensued.  The blokes had gone in to retrieve a lost female indoors who'd become too sociable and got trapped!  We did get some brief respite which allowed me to take some photos from the front of the pub, but 5 mins later it returned quicker than ever and I was back, alone this time, in my trusty doorway.

Worst photo of day, but my arm was being jolted by the crowds

One of my doorway buddies.

When the rain briefly eased.

The walk back to Berkhamstead station saw me get about as drenched as is possible and everyone was chuckling when they saw the state of me at the station.  I think you have to go back to Doncaster, July 2014, for the time I was this drenched on a BRAPA day.   Luckily, my train companions were so dead-eyed, no one really judged me til I arrived back at Euston.  

Scottish Stores, Kings Cross (classic revisit)

I was still making good time so time for a return to my new "go-to" place, Scottish Stores.  It's been a bit up and down of late, but was on great form today reminding me what a wonder it is.  I was soon at "my" corner table, and offered to take a photo of two sexy Spaniards who were struggling with the "selfie" concept, much to their credit.  Opposite me, a desolate Bradford City couple received 'bad luck' messages from up North, the bloke clutching his Wembley ticket and staring at it in disgust for the duration.  At the bar, they were teased sporadically by four Millwall/London blokes, the loudest and most obnoxious looked like a young Chris Moyles, like so many people tend to do.  He then spied the Spaniards and tried to chat them up, in very limited Spanish.  Cringe.  He then asked me "are you Spanish too, or are you just a bloke in the corner having a quiet drink?"  I assured him I was latter.  The Spanish girls made a hasty retreat, I implored them not to leave me with the Millwall scum, and they laughed sympathetically.  I went to the loo and on the way back up, I bumped into young Moyles on the stairs.  "HERE HE IS!" he growled with a manic look in his eye.  Yes, there I was.  I ran upstairs, downed my drink, and ran all the way back to Kings Cross. 

Bradford couple with shattered dreams, note "match ticket clutching".
On departure, we had an announcement which basically said "Can any Bradford scum get off the train and get on the football special because your loser vibes are ruining it for normal passengers".  So they did.  And after a fidgety man from Stevenage with too many wires got off, I had a spacious and easy ride back to York.

Another step in the Bucks puzzle completed, I'll be back there second Saturday in June.