Monday 3 March 2014

BRAPA Roots - The A-Z Challenge UPDATED (in progress)

The first seeds of the BRAPA shoot were probably sown in the Volunteer Arms, York on a cold, dark Monday night in January 2012 when a productive pint with my sister yielded a few lifestyle changes.  One of the least serious but possibly most telling was not to renew my Hull City season pass for the next season.

There were many reasons behind this, a greater need for independence was one but I was getting sick of the same City, same pubs, same faces, same 3pm match experience.  I love the away games, but was getting disillusioned with the home games.

So once I'd upset my Dad with this decision, the questions was "how to create that 'away day experience' every other Saturday?  And that's where the A-Z idea was formed.  The rules were simple.  I'd go to a place beginning with each letter of the alphabet, try and get a few friends along, each place would require (a) a train station (b) a point of interest, historical, cultural etc and (c) a pub in the good beer guide must exist!

Due to "logistics" (i.e. train bookings), I somewhat annoyingly started on the letter "B" before "A".  A trip to lah di dah city of Bath on a glorious summer day in July 2012. No takers for this trip, a bit too far.

The Bell in Bath on my first ever A-Z trip in July 2012.  Nice hops!
So after a longish but straightforward journey, I was soon doing my cultural bit around the Cathedral before having a picnic in one of the few parks you didn't have to pay to sit in! I felt like a dirty Northern tourist cluttering up a beautiful town for most of the day.

I then hit the pubs, firstly the excellently business-like Salamander, then the lovely little Old Green Tree, the Raven where I wasn't keen on the general vibe, then the wonderful Star which was probably pub of day before finishing at the Bell, another cracker.

I scared a Chinese girl on the train journey back but overall, it had been a successful start to the A-Z campaign.  Hugging her at Paddington station was not my smoothest move ever!

Train journey back from Bath.  Poor lass!
Bath Cathedral - me doing culture!
All of that meant that Altrincham, my eventual "A" in September would be a bit of a come down culturally at least, I'd dragged two friends along and for our 'cultural' event, we'd watch Altrincham v Histon which I think finished 5-0 to the home side after a rampant second half which Cambridgeshire's finest just couldn't live with.

The town itself disappointed me in that after a Metro journey from Manchester, it felt little more than a glorified suburb of Manc, a pretty bog standard one at that with a small shopping area.  It had one pub in guide at that time, the Old Market Tavern.  Luckily, it was an absolute peach with a glorious range of ales on looking suspiciously like a football team sheet!

Amazing range of beers in Alty.

Me and the Boyz in the beer garden.
 We aimed to get through all 11 ales, some went off and were replaced so we referred to them as 'substitutions' and injuries and such like. Saddos that we are.  The weather was nice so we took advantage of the sun and their mini outdoor drinking area for the last 30 mins before the short trek to the football ground.

Post match, we had a drink in a pub near Piccadilly and a bite to eat before the train back to York.  Another good  A-Z day.
Pre-match Altrincham v Histon
Next up, just two weeks later, C was for Carnforth as I again got my friend Jig to buy into my meticulously planned day out which never quite lived up to the billing on paper, I have to admit looking back.  The culture element of the day was in Carnforth itself.  With no Carnforth pubs in the 2013 beer guide, we were happy with a breakfast in the Brief Encounter cafe from the film.  The station was a mini museum so we had a great time exploring, before the need for real ale kicked in!

Me and Jig share a Brief Encounter - ooo err, where's Anton Bell?

Our first train stop of the day was another C, Clapham, though the train station was a good countryside walk from the village so after breathing in some nice rural air, we found the promising looking New Inn.  Sadly, it didn't live up to it's billing.  A rather limited beer range and miserable landlord, it felt a case of "people will come here anyway cos it is a touristy place so why try hard?"  Amazingly, it is still in the guide at time of writing.  Our second pub is no longer in the guide, an impossible to find bar inside the back of a cafe!  Fewer but more interesting ales in a modern atmos was a decent experience.

New Inn, Clapham - looked nicer than it was
Our second stop was further down the line at a place called Long Preston.  After a less tiresome walk along the main road, we came to another pub I cannot remember with an even blander range than the New Inn.  We were both underwhelmed so ordered a meal to while away the time, the pub was very food orientated.  This pub again, is no longer in the guide at the time of writing.   With the trains not very regular, time had surprisingly marched on so we retreated to the safety of Leeds where we enjoyed Ossett beers in the wonderful Hop under the dark arches.  These ales have never been so welcome.

Letter D had to be put on hold as Dronfield FC's football match was postponed (a recurring theme of part one of the A-Z).  So it was quite a wait for my next trip, on bonfire night weekend as E was for Elsecar.

This was Tom Irvin's A-Z debut, being a big fan of anything to do with trains so our 'culture' element of the day was the Elsecar Heritage Centre with steam engines, trains, old skool sweet shops etc etc.  I was pleasantly impressed with the town, 4 real ale pubs in such a small place!  We did 3, meeting at Milton Arms which seemed a good, solid South Yorks ale house with good guests and a comfy vibe.  We then did our culture before a pint in the very characterful and lively Market Hotel before finishing in what I think was the Crown Inn (I revisited recently and even then can't be sure!)  Was a really good A-Z day though.

Me enjoying some steam at Elsecar

I put F temporarily on hold (it was due to be looking for red squirrels in Formby near Liverpool but they were 'out of season'!) so with Glossop North End at home, I travelled to rural Derbyshire with Ric as they were at home to Norwich City lookalikes, Runcorn Town.  Glossop was a lovely positioned town nestling in the Peak District hills and pre-match, we enjoyed beers in the Star Inn next to the station although our attempts to get the staff chatting to us didn't work!  The locals were more friendly as we went for post-match drinks (I can't remember who won but know Runcorn scored a brilliant goal on 46 mins cos we were still in the clubhouse, and late on, Nick Proswitchz scored a 90th minute Hull City winner and I did a lap of honour around the same clubhouse!)  We got one more pub tick in with a longish walk to the Crown Inn, a beautiful old pub which was actually Sam Smith's - woah, wasn't expecting that.

I was cooking on gas now and embarked on my first solo A-Z trip since Bath with a trip to Hampton Court.  I've always been a Henry VIII geek so this was a massive tick for me and despite being alone, I was in my element and spent hours wandering around.  Pubs weren't even high on the agenda during the day, which is surprising for me.  Still, I was on medication for an infected leg so couldn't over do it!  

My one pub of the day, a short walk from Hampton Court station on a posh street full of "I saw you coming" type Harry Enfield shops.....

So out of the ashes of the A-Z came BRAPA (British Real Ale Pub Adventures) - just a glorified huge pub crawl you might think (and be kind of right!), but the challenge of doing all approx 4,500 guide pubs is like an exciting treasure hunt for me, with the planning of these journeys taking up a lot of my time.

To be honest, I'm a bit of a lightweight.  I'm more interested in the pubs than the ale (honest!).  5 or 6 pubs a journey is enough for me.

For now though, I have to start at the beginning - that's the beginning of the 2014 CAMRA guide - the Albion at Ampthill in Bedfordshire on 5th April.  More on that trip in a later post.

I have been able to hone by BRAPA skills(!) with 2 "pre-season" trips (due to the FA Cup run messing up certain weekends).  The first in Brighton in Feb, the next London (Mar).


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