You'd have to ask Former Si (version Jan '22) why he thought it would be a good idea to land in Stevenage as late as 12 noon today, rather than in the nice familiar early/mid morning slot.
It sure made no sense to Current Si (version Apr '22) who felt that Former Si was just putting needless pressure on the day's ticking.
Okay, so four of today's five pub ticks were dotted along the same regular train route, but from a Stevenagely arrival point, Sandridge (a quiet village just north of St Albans with bus service of some description) had become an awkward 'outlier' in today's plans.
'Get Sandridge done early and then I can relax' was the morning mantra, but the next hourly train to Hatfield (from where I could get a bus close to Sandridge) was cancelled. Bummer! Quick change of plan required, do Sandridge last.
The morning had been confusing enough. Lost Geordies, bound for Norwich, inexplicably got off the train at Doncaster rather than Peterborough. A new group got on. Who did these support? A quick check of my 'Flash Scores' told me Forest were at Peterborough. Must be! But no, they stayed on to London.
I was already doubting they were football fans at all. One passed bottles of WATER around his mates. One of them alluded to 'staying hydrated'. This wasn't 'football laaaadz' behaviour. Cluedo Championships in Boreham Wood? Kerplunk World Final in Chesham? Who knows?
|Colin's confused expression says it all|
The irrepressible and highly personable figure of John Depeche Modem, Hitchin's finest, greets me off the train at Stevenage. First time I'd stepped on Stevenage soil in my life. Solid underfoot, fumes in the air, a bit like stepping off the plane at 5am, pitch black in Dubai, but cooler and with marginally less disappointment.
We took the slow stopper to my most northerly point, Letchworth Garden City, another BRAPA debut town.
It was prettier than I imagined (well duh Si, it is called Letchworth GARDEN City, not Lecherous Arse End Shitty) and after some heavy lifting where the lift was broken so I had to drag a buggy up the steps, the first tick was on the horizon .....
Something about John with pretty pink blossom lapping about his feet which I just found amusing, welcome to Garden City Brewery & Bar, Letchworth (2172 / 3735) , a place so inoffensive it was hard to find anything to dislike, or indeed like, about it. The cluttered bar set up and perspex screens made getting served unnecessarily tricky. The older crowd seemed at odds with the 'vibe' that the place seemed determined to create. Another BRAPA day, another pint of Mild from a brewery who wouldn't have been doing this sorta thing twelve months ago. And it ain't even May yet. Straight from the barrel too. Nice drop, looks like flat dandelion & burdock. John hands me a wedge of CAMRA mags, ancient CAMRA newspapers and a hefty tome about Non League Football in 07/08 which was as heavy as two GBG's with five brewery sections in each. The saving grace? A signed Craig Finn poster. One of my favourites. Today's message was clear, stay positive.
Our next stop south was John's hometown of Hitchin, and he showed off his local prowess by walking me through the market giving me a guided tour of his barbers and then the garden of his favourite 'Spoons and his favourite outdoor seating area .....
Did I find it fascinating? Sort of. Does it make me want to up sticks and leave York for Hitchin? Not quite. Nice town though, not unlike Hertford I thought from certain angles. Next, and I really should've done this pub last GBG but for some reason, I swerved it ......
|"Oi, John, concentrate! Do the pose! No, too late"|
Despite the unpromising name and exterior, BB's Bar, Hitchin (2173 / 3736) HAD something, to the extent where despite spending the majority of time outside in the smoking area, a staple of John BRAPA days, I'd vote it my second favourite today. Not that the bar was 'Burton' high. Talking of not very high bars, I was searching around in vein for any sign of cask pumps to no avail. Then I spot a lower bar in the corner, dedicated to cask, and it is an Oakham love-in. LOVE Oakham. And Green Devil IPA on cask, my biggest regret of the day that I didn't go for in, you don't see it often, it is magnificent. I could've even do what the locals do in Dewdrop Ilkeston, and have a Little Devil or whatever they call it (half Green Devil, half Citra) but that might upset the purists. When I got back from the loo, John was struggling. Wanting to pay cash only, but this was a card only place. I joked about it being a ploy to make me buy every round, the staff were lovin' it (really nice folk in here) but when I span round, John obviously sick of my micky taking, was already heading for outside. Then we drank quick cos I'd spied a bus to Stevenage 20 mins away. On the way out, Man Utd have just won a penalty v Arsenal. 'Fernandes looks petrified', I murmur to John as we hang around to see the outcome. He misses! And the pub, previously seemingly oblivious to the plasmas, supping coffee and talking tractors, all let out a ROAR and rip off their jackets to reveal red & white. Classic Herts behaviour this, hate the northern team at all costs. Would DEF do the same had it been Spurs, West Ham or Chelsea.
We race to the bus stop, and are relieved to see a lady waiting. Bus is delayed so we get chatting. She's from Turkey. John asks her about some politician and I ask her about Hull City's new owner. She knows both. We then tell her how much we like the Turkish flag but describe the Tunisian flag by mistake, realise, says 'oops' and I Google the correct one .....
... show her and she's like "yeah, cheers Si, I know what my own country's flag looks like ya flagsplaining dummy".
Bus just ISN'T arriving. Her and John are both aware of another one around the corner (but not visible from this stop), but my phone says that it isn't due for 40 mins. I need a wee by now (obviously), John knows some in the market, so I tell her 'don't worry we're coming back!'
BUT, as we cross the road having weed, we see the OTHER bus on the horizon. 'That lady is gonna hate me' I'm saying to John as we dash for it, but to my surprise, she's made her way to the stop and is stood in front of us, smiling back!
I really dunno what happened there, far too many questions unanswered, but main thing is, all three of us had caught an unexpected bus.
The brilliantly named Broken Seal. Stevenage (2174 / 3737) is the destination for my debut Stevenage tick, it fails to get the juices going if I'm perfectly honest, but a jovial curly ginger chap serves us the one cask ale, another Oakham and I think this is the same one I enjoyed so much in Henley on Thames 'Spoons recently. Someone on Twitter said I should've gone Verdant Keykeg which I think is 'allowed' but am always on look out for Cask really. The barman is LOVING whatever he's watching on his phone, laugh a minute, and I'd ask what it is if John wasn't regaling me with tales of non league football in Marske and Stockton, his spiritual home is very much that Northallerton-Teesside belt where people are so friendly. I tell him he should go out west sometimes, but he doesn't fancy it. He reckons the only other customer, perched at a high stool looks like Christine Taylor, but I can't see it myself, not drinking enough 10% craft for one thing. An airy, colourful place, but failed to spark.
Oh that's a point. John, must've highlighted my GBG entries before, surely, he's been on quite a few BRAPA trips but the way he pressed down so hard, proper scratching the page, hesitating as he goes, well definitely more practice needed as I tell him off for wasting precious green ink!
Next stop, another one of those 'places you've heard of but never been' Knebworth, or Knobworth as John claims people in rival towns call it, but today I also learned that rival Beds towns call Biggleswade 'Big Les Wade' who might be a darts player.
Our pub was just under the railway bridge so no time to get a sense of the true delights of Knob.....sorry Knebworth as an all time UK great destination.
Station, Knebworth (2175 / 3738) was a different flavour of 'underwhelming Herts' from the other pubs we'd done so far, as I cast a misty eyed glance east towards Essex, feeling nostalgic for Chelmsford, Colchester, Leigh on Sea, Saffron Walden, but not Southend. Never Southend. Okay, so it had a range of beers but that never made a good pub alone. A kitsch dining pub, balloons being put up by happy ladies for a 21st birthday party, possibly for a L**ds or AFC Wimbledon fan, or just a Ukraine enthusiast. Hard to tell these days. Kids and Mums dominate the seats around us, John holds Colin up for photo of the month, maybe year, and the Mum of the kid returning with a pair of J20's asks us about the myth behind the legendary Cauliflower. Sadly I have to rush for the next Hatfield train, but John happily reports they kept the Col chat going after I'd left when a staff member tried to clear away his half pint before he'd finished with it. But I only had one thing in my mind, and that was Sandridge!
Once in Hatfield, I was conscious that with time ticking before my train back to York from Stevenage, I could do with speeding myself up a bit so I hopped in a taxi for the 3 mile journey. Pretty cheap thankfully, so I asked if he'd wait 27.5 mins and he was like "what? you are in there for 27.5 mins? then you are coming back out and want dropping back in Hatfield?" And I was like, 'yup you got it in one buddy . Hashtag PubTickersLife' though I may be making the last bit up.
Time to drop my grudge against the Green Man, Sandridge (2176 / 3739) ('hey, let's say we open 11am nearly everywhere, not open til 12, and then when it is pointed out our hours are wrong, do diddly squat about it'). But never mind. This pub was PUB OF THE DAY, proper bustling community local. Forgotten what the tread of a pub carpet felt like underfoot. Forgotten how beautiful glittering stained glass could be. Forgotten what guttural laughter of southern 50 a day smokers sounded like. Sad that John didn't come with to witness it, he'd have loved this, admitted CAMRA are amazing decision makers, AND most importantly, could've split the taxi fare. A pint of Side Pocket for a Toad, probably my most ordered Herts ale. After a shaky start in 2007 in Croxley Green when it was vinegary, I'm enjoying it more and more. Here , I was told they'd gone to a side room to pour it from gravity cos the pumps are just for show but I'd never have noticed! Good quality but still not quite as good as the pint of it I had in Gibraltar Castle, Harpenden, that one was 100%. A tough guy keeps peering at Col but never is quite brave enough to come over and ask for a cuddle. He does have a dog though, he seems to be teaching it to talk! "Teach him to say 'Harry Kane is my favourite player!" says some wag, but the best it can manage is a muffled bark that sounds like 'Son'.
Taxi still outside, always a relief! Back in Hatfield, and then Stevenage in plenty of time for the train so bought some snacks and listened to a bit of Hold Steady. DELIGHTED to have got Sandridge done.
Annoyingly, I had to change trains on the way back. At Newark Northgate! Gulp. I didn't really need a wee but I was determined to do it properly this time. An emotional moment, and the abandoned sink Asahi added a bit of theatre to the occasion.
Weird feeling when I got home. I was incredibly sober, awake, a feeling of clarity. So this is what a lack of Parcel Yard ESB does for you? I even did some housework before bed!
The Hertfordshire quest is nearly done. "One more trip, just one more trip, so go on Si and sip", that is what the fans are singing. In my head.
See you all either Friday or Sunday (or Monday) as I tell you how part one of outer Wigan went.
Take care, Si