Tuesday 29 December 2015

BRAPA - Finishing East Yorkshire, Preston, Lancs & End of Year Appraisal

Through the looking glass : curved mirror fun in Preston/
Hope you all had a fine mini holiday celebrating the birth of Isaac Newton.  BRAPA was low key over the festive period, as I'm still trying to get my ankle fully recovered for 2016, particularly my final trip to Bedfordshire on 16th Jan which will be it's first major test.

Boxing Day was a great day though, and with "2015 Chauffeur of the Year" Dad in the driving seat, I finally got that East Yorkshire monkey off my back .....

767.  St John's Hotel, Hull

Yes, after Dad's elaborate 9 year long April Fools trick finally expired, we finally made it to the correct pub on Queens Road, NOT the Queens itself but this more homely, pleasing Marston's effort.  Christine was outside looking like an autumnal owl, also awaiting the 'grand opening' at 12 noon which would see me complete a county for the first time since I previously completed East Yorkshire back in August using the 2015 GBG, at the New Adelphi.  Sadly, this moment lacked the same feeling of anticipation, excitement and magic and I think that's because nothing really happened.  We walked in, it was multi roomed, I confirmed I hadn't been here before, we picked some stereotypical Marston's beers from a stereotypical squash-nosed barman, whilst a stereotypical friendly but nervous local shivered at the end of the bar acting polite, and a rugged woman briefly came into to say "ey up" and then disappeared again.  A locals corner pub for local Hull people, good they've slapped an ACV on it because you could just picture a pointless mini supermarket on this very corner.  I liked it in a vague kind of way, the snuff on the bar was the quirkiest feature.  Even getting Dad to "tick off" this final pub was a lame duck because of course, I'd erroneously highlighted it before.  Oh, and if Marston's think "Christmas Pudding" is a plum flavoured beer, they seriously need to pay a visit to Titanic brewery.

By 12:30, we were heading for the rest of our pre-match session in the Whalebone, now there is a truly brilliant Hull pub.

About to make the East Yorkshire GBG clearance in Hull.
Two days and a lot of water later, we were mercifully in Preston on time for more Hull City based fun...... I have a soft spot for Preston since I used to use the premise of visiting my sister at Uni to explore the GBG pubs around 2003/4 time.  Classics from then like Black Horse, New Brittania, Dog and Partirdge and the Market Tavern still seem to be around, but like everywhere (apart from Durham), the pub landscape has changed in 10 years so I had plenty to do.

768.  Grey Friar, Preston

I'd walked past this depressingly modern looking JDW house several times before, but now it's in the GBG, I could ignore it no longer.  It served the usual pre 11am purpose, and we entered a vast typical Spoons with a real post-Christmas lull feeling, as if Preston had taken one huge collective sigh into this one building.  Getting served and sat down with two pints was as excruciating as only an early morning 'Spoons can be on a Monday.  Dark Star Hophead seemed the obvious choice, but it had just gone, and then Otter Claus was bottom of the barrel so Dad had to have a Tinsel Tits or something suitably Christmas themed.  The barman was a lively jolly chap, telling us he lived in Blackpool and still didn't know how to get to work here, needing a friend to drive him.  Worse though, some familiar voices behind told us Hull City fans were present, it was no other than Mr Sparkler and his mates!  To give you the background, we see Mr Sparkler at most away games.  Down south, he'll withdraw a sparkler from his pocket and demand the poor bar staff put it on (Colchester postponed game being the prime example),  Up north, like he did here, he asks for the sparkler to be removed!  It makes me cringe and laugh, but mainly cringe.  Pain in the bum.  When we finally sat down with our drinks, we'd been in the pub for almost 20 minutes!  We watched some more rolling news on the floods and soon it was approaching 12 noon.

Good job I wasn't thirsty!  Arriving at Grey Friar.
769.  Moorbrook, Preston

Wow, just when you think you can start working out 'pubs of the year', an 11th hour contender comes along to ruin everything!  This was a splendid pub from the moment we walked in, Dad's initial pleasure was possibly at the lack of other customers, mine was for an interesting beer range including Colchester, First Chop, Blackjack and a magnificent house beer which was as classic pale as you can get.  The barman was a quirky guy, reminiscent of a young Elton John with his cowboy hat and shades, whilst brunette barmaid was smiley and they both had a toy gun fight just to reinforce the fact that we were in a fun and quirky environment.  Dad alluded to the 'Not Going Out' Christmas Special but barmaid hadn't seen it yet, I'm sure it would've been classic Brunette 'bantz' otherwise.  We found a fantastic side room with William Morris-esque wallpaper and some fine etched glass, through which you could watch a high class heritage version of Bolton v Blackburn and the loos were above average too with the nice curvy mirror (see above), I definitely try and pay attention to architectural details since i got my GBG heritage book.  A classic pub in every way.

Moorbrook - my dream pub set up!

Arriving at Moorbrook

Had my ankle (which I'm not mentioning), been able to cope with the longish walk between railway station and Deepdale, Ale Emporium would have been a good shout either pre or post match but as it is, I'll save it for next season as I'm sure we'll be coming here.  We briefly sampled the "delights" of the Unicorn Hotel, pre-emptive in a loose sense, but the Doom Bar was decent, the landlord was very good, and whilst our drinks were settling, he took us to the corner to point out the corner of the football ground - now that is customer service!   

Post match we simply cut our losses and joined some friendly Preston fans who (half) sympathised with our scandalously disallowed goal for more Moorbrook fun.  We even got sat in the comfiest seats in the pub despite it heaving with football fans.

End of Year Appraisal

So there we go, 2015 has been a fantastic first full BRAPA year.  My aim was 750, I've managed 769 and that was allowing for a 73 cross-ticking shortfall.  Gotta be pleased with that.

I'd barely considered East Yorkshire a year ago, now I've finished it.  And only 2 more in West Yorkshire and 3 more in Bedfordshire, all 5 achievable by the end of Jan.  I should be able to continue stumbling on with impossible North Yorkshire, whilst really getting stuck into both Berkshire and South Yorkshire for 2016.

My aim is 950 pubs by the end of the year.  Nice and conservative estimate that, but the 'ticking' will get harder as the Yorkshire options run out. but I'm hoping September's cross ticking will be a bit more kind than the last 2 years (less than 50 please!)  

As the year has gone on, I've really had a glimpse of how the power of social media can assist, especially Twitter, and I must make this more of a routine and 'get my name out there'.  My new iPad will help me to be able to do more "on the move".

900 will be the key pub number as that is 2/10 of the GBG completed so I'm expecting Party Poppers, free beer and balloons at whatever pub that turns out to be!  

Plenty of plans in place for the start of the year, plus I have two "overnight" away days in mind for Spring/Summer time.  Jan will start with an East London knees-up, then a bit of North Yorkshiring with my chauffeur, before we finish Bedfordshire, a trip to Twickenham (6 to do!) plus more midweek mayhem as and when my ankle is back to 100%, but I'm no Richie Appleby.

I'll also be releasing the "BRAPA 2015 Awards Ceremony" blog in the next week so stay tuned for that, 

See you soon, Si

Monday 21 December 2015

BRAPA Special : The Soundtrack to BRAPA Part One

One of my first pledges during the creation of BRAPA back in January '14 was to compile a playlist of some great songs that I could see as relevant to my BRAPA trips and play them (preferably on train journey's to and from my solo Saturday trips, most notably Bedfordshire ones which involve a fair drag).

Using mainly my own music library, but with a bit of inspiration taken from good old iTunes (spit!), I created a 15 song list, and then getting carried away a couple of months later, a "second album".

Problem is, I recently realised looking back through BRAPA's formative months (see last week's blog entry) that I've never actually shared them with anyone, and I do so now, in the hope that someone, somewhere, whether it be a music fan or dare I say it, a BRAPA fan, might find this of interest!

1.  Richard Grainger - The Old Pubs 

Brilliant local folk song from a chap with his roots in a town where old pubs being knocked down to make way for plastic ones has probably been felt more strongly than most.  I'm talking about Middlesbrough where he was born.  No instruments, just a good honest short folk ballad, perfect intro as I often feel like BRAPA is some archaic trip down memory lane when you read things like "pubs aren't relevant in today's society" which truly saddens me.  I bet though that Richard is embracing the micro pub revolution in his home town.  In fact, he was probably one of the chaps sat at the bar in Infant Hercules near me recently! 

2. Claim the Throne - Set Sail on Ale

Folk music is where you are really likely to find songs about pubs and drinking, but what about Australian folk metal?  Not my first choice musical genre perhaps, but love the accordion and most of all, the song title and chorus.  Perfect warm up song on any early morning train or bus journey to the first BRAPA 'tick' of the day.  "It's time to tell our tale, and set sail on ale!"

3.  Dagmar and the Seductones - As Long as I'm Moving

Brilliant upbeat 50's throwback rockabilly female fronted song.  "North, East, South, West, every which way!"  pretty much sums up how BRAPA is going to have to be if I'm going to make a success of it, and it's another one to gear me up for the day ahead.  As soon as JW2 copied it for me, I thought "right, you're going on my BRAPA album!"

4.  Red Alert - Somewhere in England

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Duke!" introduce Sunderland's finest.  I love oi skinhead street punk for the same reasons I love a good proper pub, it's tribal, it's basic, it's honest.  A bit like the message of the last song, I like to sing my own lyrics for the chorus pre-BRAPA "it's an every day pub, in an every day town, i'm everywhere, i'm somewhere in England!" though I'd do it properly if I saw them live at the punk festival cos the lead singer looks a bit mental.  

5.  Singing Loins - The Pub on the Corner (r.i.p the Roebuck)

The Medway's finest folk-punk duo (trio by the time they split up) appreciate a proper pub obviously and remember "the beer's never bad" though you do wonder if the Roebuck was ever GBG listed, though "the pumps are full of magic, the barmaid's real hot!"  It sounds a bit like a story of their Green Owl, though a bit more rough and ready.  

6.  Village Green Machine - This English Summer

A bit camp, a bit northern, a bit indie but with amazing 50's guitar solo and I downloaded this really when I was looking for songs that summed up England, i.e. the perfect little village which of course the BRAPA pub would be an integral part of.  A great beer garden song! 

7.  June Tabor - a Place Called England

Probably the best song in my collection about what England is (and was), folky, great lyrics , gentle but cutting at the same time.  Without getting too deep, I feel so rooted in England like I've had so many happy past lives in a country that was a lot more rural than it is now.  It's a weird feeling, but when I'm there say, walking on a country lane in Bedfordshire, it feels like I've come home!  

8.  Greenland Whalefishers - Put Me on a Train

Norway's finest folk-punkers can't do much wrong as far as I'm concerned (apart from one of them supporting the White Shite) and this is a great tired, drunken song though probably more journey there than back ....  "put me on a train and send me where the action is" "hope another town will at least set me free, well set me free from my own company" with their own amazing blend of Irish instruments.  One of my fave bands of all time.  Oh, and it had a beat like a train getting slowly faster as it goes on (though we are probably talking Northern trains from Ulleskelf - Church Fenton).  "Well, I like to drink, a bit more than I deserve, but I hate the dehydration and the nerves!"  

9.  Long Beach Dub Allstars - My Own Life

Very unique song, so chilled out, Brazilian style!  Well, apart from the punk rock ending which is worth waiting for.  "All I ever wanted was someone to let me live my own life".  Pre-BRAPA, I was feeling stifled by routine, and it's so liberating to do something unique every Saturday, and do something that most people seem to find interesting when you tell them about it.  But there'll always be people trying to get me to do things differently / slow down a bit / go on some other social occasion - and this is what I have to fight against for BRAPA to work!

10.  Lonnie Donegan - Lonesome Traveller

Lonnie D (king of Skiffle) is an absolute legend in my book, such a catchy soulful song, and I can sing this on the way home if the carriage is empty! "I'm just a lonely, and a lonesome traveller, and I'm travelling home!"  Yes, BRAPA can be a bit lonely at times but I wouldn't change it for the world.

11.  The Copper Family - Good Ale

Absolutely amazing folk song, just vocals only, no instruments and the song title means I don't need to say any more about Rottingdean's finest who seem to have been around in one form or other since the late 19th century.  Not sure when this is from but you probably couldn't sing about giving your wife two black eyes if she stopped you having a pint nowadays!  So glad I found this on iTunes. 

12.  Gus Elen - 'Arf A Pint of Ale

Brilliant music hall working class costermonger East End of London stuff from Gus (though he was actually a lot more well spoken, from Pimlico don't you know!) and again I found this browsing iTunes and was glad that he'd come out of retirement in the 1920's so there are recordings of his brilliant 1890's songs and in true CAMRA style, this is about how ale in moderation can actually be very good for you (with a crust of bread n cheese!) ,which is always reassuring on a big BRAPA bonanza!

13.  Magpie Lane - November Drinking Song

Proper folk goodness from some chaps of Oxford (I actually found 'Magpie Lane' amongst the Uni buildings on last year's BRAPA trip to the city).  "Get yourself to a cosy inn, and drink the winter away" and such lyrics, remind me that winter is my favourite time of year to be in a pub, preferably in front of a real fire!  And if all the young women all drank quarts of porter, the boys they would all run away.  Perhaps.  

14.  Wild Colonial Bhoys - Home for a Rest (live)

A great one for the journey home, actually my ultimate BRAPA anthem.  They might be Glasgow Celtic supporting Canadians, and this might be a cover version, but let's not hold it against them.  It describes a knackered touring band in England travelling and wanting to be back home, which can be perfectly applied to a BRAPA journey home :

"Euston Station the train journey north
In the buffet car we lurched back and forth
Past odd crooked dykes, through Yorkshire's green fields
We were flung into dance as the train jigged and reeled"

"You'll have to excuse me, I'm not at my best
I've been gone for a month, I've been drunk since I left
These so called vacations will soon be my death
I'm so sick from the drink, I need home for a rest...

15. Cute Lepers - Adventure Time

Don't forget, BRAPA is an 'adventure' as in British Real Ale Pub Adventure and I loved this song anyway with it's 70's power pop punk feel, backing vocals and piano bits.   I love the attitude, and I can walk around twice as tall (maybe not literally) and look everyone in the eye and smile when I've got this in my headphones.  

So there's your lot!  Join me on a Monday in the New Year for the "follow up" album which I did around April / May time.   

For now, a happy BRAPpy CHRISTMAS to all of you!  

Sunday 20 December 2015

BRAPA - Rotherham away

The Millers, far too mighty for the Tigers - New York Tavern

Although Hull City managed to plummet to new depths, I think that 'come what may' (May 2016 to be precise), this will be a strong contender for away day of the season thanks in great part to the quality of pubs and locales.

The train journey was straightforward enough, changing at Donny from York and rubbing shoulders with the Gooligans where we learnt a young Hull City striker recently was sat on Selby railway station wondering why he couldn't get a direct train to Brighton!
With Tom, Dad and my sprained ankle in tow, I was soon hopping cross town towards our first pub, just before 11am.

763.  Bluecoat, Rotherham

There are three 'Spoons in town, but this one, up a steep footpath next to the job centre, is the GBG listed one and one of more impressive ones I've been to this year.  Okay, so it was typically identikit, but an interesting range of ales and more than one member of bar staff certainly puts it in the higher echelons of JDW houses.  It's nice to think that Tim Martin tours the country, enjoying his own pubs, because whatever you say about them, they are a life saver when other pubs only open at 12 noon.  Despite seeing my most despised Saltaire Raspberry Blonde on the bar, ales like Bradfield Farmers Belgian Blue and Partners Stout made up for it.  Tom got a nice looking veggie breakfast and whilst me and Dad were pikeys by eating our own fruit bread and cheese in the pub, a bit of food mix-and-matching meant I can report that the hash browns, toast and baked beans were up to standard.  Typically, the loos were up about 10 flights of stairs with a 30 person function going on half way up, not good for my ankle all this climbing.  The rest of our gang had arrived so it was time to move on.

Behind bars : me arriving at the Bluecoat
764.  New York Tavern, Rotherham

Arriving here at 12:15pm, we were glad to see the pub still almost empty so we could commandeer in large space in the corner, a main part of the reason we settled down here pre-match instead of deciding to move on again.  However, the main reason we stayed put was that the pub was just so gosh damn good!  In fact, it reminded me of the first time I walked into Barnsley's Old No 7, just a friendly understated gem, very South Yorkshire, with a huge welcoming range of beers from the superb local Chantry brewery.  I've had them before, I've never had a bad one!  And the prices?  £4.20 for 2 pints and a blackcurrant?  Are you watching York city centre?  I moved on from a stunning IPA called Mighty Millers (see top picture) to a Two Magpies Porter, then a 6.3% Special Reserve at just £2.50 a pint!  Wow.    Ben did us a great 19 question Hull City quiz, you could almost have been in Hull's Wellington (RIP) in it's hey day.  As expected, the pub busied up towards kick off time but it happened so gradually, it didn't feel too intrusive!  Great pub.

Me arriving at the wonderful New York Tavern

Pre-match in New York Tavern - note my ankle is out! 
765.  Cutler's Arms, Rotherham

Post match and near the ground, it was perhaps no surprise to find this gem of an old pub (though only re-opened last year) packed to the rafters and it was about 3 deep at the bar.  Again, it was Chantry's all the way but the 'Man of Steel' at 3.5% was a bit mellow that what I'd been used to today!  Forget Superman, the real men of steel are Rotherham's working men of yesteryear.  I spied old work friend / Rotherham fan Tim Milnes at the bar, and he asked the obvious question "can we play you every week?" to which I replied "if these pubs are anything to go by, then yes please".  Prices again were ridiculous, I got change out of a tenner for 3 pints and a blackcurrant, which was free.  This place reminded me a bit of one of those grand Liverpool pubs, like the Lion Tavern for example with it's mosaic tiling, snob screens, etched window glass etc.  I love my heritage pubs, and this is a great example.  The hope was that all the home fans would down a swift half, and go home, leaving me to appreciate this pub in a calmer state, but they'd won and it is nearly CHRISTMAS so obviously, this was wishful thinking on my part!  I'd quite like to come back here though.

Dad, Tom and random smoker outside Cutlers.
766.  Bridge Inn, Rotherham

There'd been so much talk pre-match about this pub (very close to the station) having police, doormen, and idiot football fans swarming about, that I'd never stopped to contemplate that it might actually be excellent.  So when me and Tom had given the football rush enough chance to clear, we were amazed to see a beautiful interior, with stained glass, partitions and some of the best pub toilets I've seen all year!  It's details that matter and whilst we are on the Liverpool pub comparisons, this was like an understated version of the Philharmonic with those huge old Adamant urinals though I'm not sure Japanese tourist girls would like to take photos in these ones!  Okay, so Old Mill cannot be classed as good as Chantry brewery by any stretch of the imagination, though the Fire & Brimstone guest was certainly better than the likes of the Blonde Bombshell and Bullion (besides, they did have a Chantry guest on anyway!)  The atmosphere was very much winding down by now, just a few old chaps with bulbous noses looking up in a bored fashion at Newcastle v Aston Villa.  Another stunning pub from Rotherham's fine selection.  

Arriving at the Bridge Inn in the murky evening mist of Miller-land.
After a meandering journey home via Leeds, I popped into York Tap for a little night-cap and tribute to Jimmy Hill (though I have him on my celeb death list so can't be a hypocrite!) before Fish & Chips and an early night.  Great day.

Sad to see the Prince of Wales in Greasbrough removed from the electronic GBG, my plan was to visit this too but the landlord had an accident so hope it's not the end for that pub.  I'll be doing South Yorks on Tuesday evening's in the New Year so watch this space.   

Up next, I'm determined to FINALLY get to St John's Hotel in Hull on Boxing Day before a little trip to Preston to end the pub ticking year.  I'll not be doing anything midweek until the ankle is properly healed (heeled!), but got a few special BRAPA features coming up on Monday's soon, starting tomorrow so see you then,



Sunday 13 December 2015

BRAPA - Bedfordshire Part 10 & Cambs

Map of East Bedfordshire in the New Inn, an area I now know well!

My penultimate trip to Bedfordshire for pub ticking purposes (well, until September's GBG cross-ticking exercise at least) began with a third trip to Biggleswade, which makes it one of the most visited destinations so far.  Not bad for a happy well-heeled bustling market town where you might think real ale pubs aren't really the specialist subject.

It was pouring with rain but my familiarity with the centre of town meant I didn't even need a map to get me to my pub, approaching it down a side passage behind the marketplace.

Arriving at the New Inn
758.  New Inn Ale House & Kitchen, Biggleswade

Despite it's ever so slightly pretentious official moniker, this pub was already a hub of activity when I arrived dead on 11am, with breakfasters, drinkers and evil old women asking for hot drinks, all escaping the rain / Christmas shopping (delete as appropriate).  It took me a while to get the attention of the bar staff who were chatting with locals at the bar, the main character being a man with the croakiest voice ever witnessed on my pub travels, and hearing him sing Mumford and Sons down the phone to his grandson was both heartfelt and ridiculously amusing at the same time.  Despite the time, a 5% porter from Worksop felt like the only sensible thing to do, though the 'glass' I was served in definitely did not seem appropriate to what, at the end of the day, was an English ale.  Belgian 10%er, maybe so.  The barmaid (making a late push for "brunette barmaid of the year award") was ultra friendly and was soon over cleaning my table and replacing my candle because someone had apparently "robbed me", I'd never have known.  Not for the first time recently, I was in an unashamedly blatant Greene King local hero pub but the beer and atmos made it a strong contender for pub of the day, certainly the best Biggleswade pub since Golden Pheasant in my eyes.

Great pub, shame about the glass.  New Inn, Biggleswade.

It was time for a bus to Moggerhanger, where I believe I was about to become their first official tourist!  Typically of Bedfordshire busses, a diversion was needed around town and then the double loop deja vu at Sandy meant my bladder was straining by the time we finally reached the "Mogg".  

759.  Guinea, Moggerhanger

"We are NOT a gastro pub", their official website proudly states.  So a bit confusing then to be greeted by a manically smiling young lady with pristine white shirt and menu clipboard, who almost proceeded to rugby tackle me as I simply made a b-line for the bar.  No wonder the only other drinker, a craggy old local Fosters only man, looked as bewildered as me.  To be fair, this was a cracking old building with low beams, uneven floor and a homely lived in sense.  Take away all the festive decor, and put me here on a Tuesday afternoon rather than a Saturday lunch before Christmas and I might have had a totally different experience.  The range was very Young's based, and a Winter Warmer at 5.5% meant I was certainly not going to stay too sober today.  It took a long time to get served, with the diners taking priority, the female gang of staff were all friendly, but seemed to eye me with a degree of suspicion as I sat in a twee 'reception' style area, all floral patterns and cushions.  A conversation within earshot revealed that not only had a couple gone out of the way to say how special their meal had been, but someone before had obviously complained and they were still reeling from it, stating "nice to see there's at least SOME decent people in the world!" which just scared me to be honest.  As a nice touch, instead of beermats (which would have been preferable), they had trivial pursuit cards so you could quiz and drink together,  Needless to say, I added a BRAPA card to the pack before leaving. 

Outside and in at the Guinea in /Moggerhanger
A bit of a conundrum next as I was sure I was waiting for a 13:09 number 73 bus to take me back to Sandy.  However, when it didn't show, my phone suggested it had actually been 13:04 and I'd missed it.  Silly me, I thought, but at least 13:33 wasn't too long to wait for the next one.  But then an old woman appeared about 13:20.  She's early, I thought, and then a 73 bus arrived at 13:24 and took us back to Sandy!  I still have no idea what happened there, it didn't fit any timetable I'd seen. 

Still, if this had been a good slice of fortune, it was brutally evened up when the 14:07 train back towards Peterborough was cancelled.

This afforded me chance for a revisit of the Sir William Peel, Sandy and what a cracker this is.  If you remember, my summer visit was a bit of a whirlwind but now I got chance to enjoy it as a quiet indoor experience, where the landlady was chatting with an Irish guy called Brian, his local wife and their baby who loved Christmas lights.  The Oakham Citra was superb, so when a wedding finished and the men came in asking if Guinness was on, I could only shake my head in despair!  A bit more controversy followed as the baby pooed himself (possibly upset by the Guinness conundrum) and then Brian tried to put it in with the general pub waste as babies poo is milky and sweet.  Landlady didn't agree, but a wheely bin around the back provided the answer!  

Phew, the next train was on time so I skipped St Neots in favour of Huntingdon, and a short taxi from here took me to the pretty little village of Hartford.

760.  King of the Belgians, Hartford

And what a uniquely shaped little gem this pub was, glad I made the effort to think a bit outside the pubby box.  An ancient 16th century jewel, I approached down some steps behind the bar and was met with a few smiling faces of customers and staff, always a good start.  The ales seemed interestingly micro, having broken the 'tied' shackles of Beds and now in the freer Cambridgeshire area, perhaps - Tydd Steam, I'd never heard of them!  The talk was about online dating, and let's just say the locals were of the age where it made absolutely no sense to them at all, so why discuss it at all I'm not sure.  From Plenty of Fish to Tindle (I think they meant Tinder), they had it covered, and it was interesting to see both a Geordie and a Scotsman at the heart of things.  This was my most contented moment of the day, I hadn't even noticed the giant Plasma screen showing Sky Sports News about an inch from my head.  A shame really because Dad told me Hull City were winning and I had spent ages on my phone wasting battery, trying to work out who'd scored.  

Scenes from outside and in at King of the Belgians.
As dusk fell, at least it had dried up a bit which apparently wasn't the case oop North, and 15 minutes later I'd walked back to the edge of Huntingdon for pub number 4 of the day .....

761.  Old Bridge Hotel, Huntingdon

Any "pub" that has to be approached by ascending some stone steps and turning a brass door knocker has surely got to be viewed with suspicion!  It reminded me of taking my old cat to the vets.  A vast multi roomed interior of kitchens and dining rooms awaited me, so I had to ask a helpful looking young waiter where the bar actually was!  Right at the bottom down some carpetted steps, I finally found it which was heaving with hysterical mainly female wine/coffee  drinkers.  The staff were on the ball though, and I'm sure the barman treated me with a certain reverence once I'd become the first person in ages to order beer, a Lone Star Red, from Nene Valley not too far away - it was as good a beer as I had all day.     A little table just at the top of the stairs was all that was free, but it served my purpose.  It was hard to take everything in with all the shouting, laughing and general merriment but a good atmosphere, though it made me feel maybe i'd been a bit churlish about the Guinea earlier on!  

Arriving at the Old Bridge on the banks of the River Great Ouse

762.  Falcon, Huntingdon

There was a theme developing in Huntingdon as I squeezed another one in before the train back towards Peterborough and then York.  I entered a grand entrance, only to be swarmed around by five young women (wish I was always this popular!) in what seemed to be a hotel lobbey.  Again, I asked where the bar was and one of them marched me down two staircases announcing "here it is, 12 handpulls on!" wow, well this was a bit unexpected but surely there's a more obvious entrance?  This place was again vast, with an olde worlde feel despite a recent refurb, and Oliver Cromwell used this pub as his recruitment post so I wonder what he'd have made of all the festive merriment in the main bar, probably would not have been too happy!  I deliberately ordered the most obscure beer  I could see, a "Nobby's Claridge Crystal" which I described as an awesome pale at the time but let's just say my memories were a bit hazy by now. 

Probably not the entrance you should be using if you want ale at the Falcon
So that was that, the journey back went relatively smoothly and I am only three Bedfordshire pubs (Luton, Renhold and Salford) away from finishing that county.

HOWEVER, I sprained my ankle putting up some decorations this morning (fell off a chair!) and can hardly walk.  I really hope this doesn't impact Wednesday's trip to St John's Hotel, Hull or Saturday's trip to Rotherham but can't see me getting to work tomorrow, it'll need to heal quite quickly!  As a precautionary measure, I'm postponing the Stanbury midweeker until further notice.

Typical, you get through a Beds/Cambs big pub day unscathed an injure yourself at home!


Wednesday 9 December 2015

BRAPA - Rishworth

If you are going to be stranded in a gusty West Yorkshire downpour, waiting for a bus for 50 minutes, you could do a lot worse than Sowerby Bridge.  A brilliant real ale town, I was spoilt for choice so I plumped for a return visit to Firehouse as it was nearest the bus stop - it made sense.

There was only one other couple in, and they seemed to making their way through a 10 course meal, when a young chap brought a big plate out, they laughed hysterically and said they could eat no more.  Wifey almost offered me an onion ring but thought better of it.  Had they forgotten how much they'd ordered or was this some set menu banquet?

Anyway, I sat in the corner on my "favourite" green settee and supped half a Dark Star Espresso Stout, partly because I'd had a coffee on the train and didn't want to confuse my tastebuds.  Luckily, time moved on quite quickly and as a couple came in inquiring after tea and coffee (spit!  Errm this is a pub isn't it?!), I made my way through the rain to the trusty 560 bus.

Although the bus did go to Oldham Road in Rishworth where my pub was, I was reminded that BRAPA is never straightforward as the bus annoyingly used a turning circle 10 minutes from the pub, so a nice dark walk was required - at least there was a pavement or I wouldn't have fancied my survival chances despite my snazzy luminous hat.

Twinkling in the gloom - Booth Wood Inn, (South) Rishworth

757.  Booth Wood Inn, Rishworth

It wasn't a bad walk but I still tried to look like a knackered traveller in the hope of a free pint from the kindly looking barmaid - it didn't work.  I'm glad I accidentally chose an "Oates" beer (Dun Rushin'), as this pub is the brewery tap for this Halifax brewer.  The big challenge was finding a seat that wasn't geared up for dining which I've sadly come to expect from such remote roadside inns such as this.  Having said that, I found a rather grand red leather chair facing a roaring log burner and I've not been much comfier on my West Yorkshire midweek travels this year.  The chair reminded me of Harry & Paul in that gentleman's club, and I soon felt the need to grab the nearest broadsheet and speculate on who was the most "frightful quair" in the pub!    I was facing a high-spirited group of elderly walkers, who seemed to enjoy letting everyone know how much walking they'd done today.  Despite the almost gastro feel to the pub, the food was incredible down to earth - £5 for everything apart from the £6 fish n chips, including things like pie and mash.  They called the food "retro", but short of wheeling out a fondue set on a hostess trolley, I wasn't quite sure what this meant.  A gaggle of busy, smiley brunettes ran around clearing tables and serving retro grub, and if a good barometer of a pub is how happy staff and clientele are, then this pub is doing pretty well.  My Oates ale was pale, fresh and grassy - slipping down quickly enough for my to make the last bus back to "Sorbs" (as I call it).

Menu above wood burner at Booth Wood Inn, Rishworth
Happily, train delays in both SB and L**ds worked in my favour, and I was back in York for 9pm which would not be possible 99% of the time.  

So, another one off the West Yorkshire list and only two to go.  I still harbour faint hopes of getting them both done this month but with those festive vultures circling as predicted, it won't be easy.  I'll be back on Sunday for a report on my penultimate trip to Beds (well, for this edition of the GBG at least!) and a gentle meander up through Cambridgeshire's finest railway towns (perhaps).  

See you then, Si

Monday 7 December 2015

BRAPA Special - The Birth of BRAPA

*Disclaimer - I'd only read this if you are really hardcore, really bored or a geek like me!*

The Birth of BRAPA

I was travelling home from the ridiculously posh Virginia Water on Saturday 11th January 2014 after completing the letter "V" of my A-Z adventure, and it suddenly dawned on me that the A-Z was coming to an end in two months time and I needed a new challenge.  

After immediate panic ("what am I going to do with my life?") it didn't take me long to come up with an idea, so simplistic yet so difficult, it captured my imagination from the off.  "THE BIG 4500!" I exclaimed in my notepad on Monday 13th Jan, "One man ... one ale guide ... one dice .... a smart phone ..... a sense of adventure .... a reliable charger ..... a local bus timetable .... a beer App ..... a Twitter Account!"  Maybe not the catchiest mission statement but it was the first thing I came up with. 

From the get-go, my plan was that the only fitting pub to start at was the very first pub in the Good Beer Guide 2014, the Albion in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, and also to get this thing properly off the ground, I'd make a weekend of it and have an overnight stay, hence double pubbing!  I spent ages planning the logistics of this particular trip. 

Actually, I was so into the Big 4500 idea, that by 20th Jan, I was telling my friend Krzb Britain that my heart wasn't in the final few A-Z trips anymore and it was just a case of rushing through the final few as quickly as possible.

Wed 29th Jan was quite a watershed day (excuse the pun) as floods and heavy winds delayed the journey back home from a Crystal Palace away game but at least I was in first class comfort (remember those golden East Coast reward point days aaaah?!) and I was desperately trying to bottom out my Bedfordshire plan.  As soon as I got home, I typed an official "Mission Statement, Rules and Regulations" but it was quite a rambling monologue.

I wrote about the difficulties of finding a 'cultural' element to some of the A-Z trips and how most people thought they were glorified pub crawls anyway!  Which they were.  I revealed other ideas people had suggested to me were to either visit all 92 football league grounds, finish the Scottish lower league ones, or even visit every cathedral in the UK.  Ideas I was all open to until the advent of the "Big 4500".  

I answered a few early FAQ's which I assume were my own questions!  I said it wouldn't significantly increase my drinking amount, wondered if I'd be a hypocrite for not joining CAMRA,  and that I wouldn't be doing the pubs in order as some people had actually asked(!) (though I did do the first two in order at least!) 

I talked even at this early stage about cross ticking the Good Beer Guide every September when a new one is released and that if I'd already visited a GBG pub on a football day for example, it would NOT need revisiting i.e. I wasn't starting from a totally clean slate cos I needed the encouragement of a head start!

I wrote about the survival kit i.e. what I'd take on a day out (someone at work suggested 'a clean pair of undies' might be a good addition!), and I spoke about brilliant beer App, Untappd, and also how I'd "tweet 'em to death" on Twitter with the quote ".... and encouragement from the likes of Ben and John will help!"  

I also spoke about the 'official soundtrack', as I complied a selection of songs on iTunes which are relevant to the challenge which I could listen to on the way there and back on the train (I will do a separate special feature detailing these). 

I decided to use a "county planner" to randomly decide where I'd go.  I used a 20 sided dice to select from a "near" county, and then a "far" county, two trips a month on Saturday's normally.  I'd get people at work or friends to roll the dice to add an element of interactivity, then tag them in on social media.  I admitted the "far" counties would be done less frequently, and although train travel is my primary source of transport, 2 - 3 mile walks and bus services would be implemented.  

The southern county planner - March 2014
I even turned a corner of my sitting room into a "Big 4500 Nerve Centre" and pinned up a huge map of the UK, monthly agendas, historic GBG's, and all sorts.  Dad said "just don't let it consume your life" but it was too late for that.
On the same evening, I emailed Tom to say "Though I am rushing through the last few A-Z letters now ... the BIG4500 is my top focus now and can't wait to get started on my plan to visit EVERY pub!"  It sounded Jack the Ripper-esque!  I did Wakefield the following day (30th Jan) so had only X, Y (one combined Scottish trip) and Z (Zouch - Loughborough) left.  I was already asking Tom travel advice about a May trip to Isle of Wight, proof I was planning ahead for my next 'far' Big4500 trip after Bedford.

5th Feb and I renamed the Big 4500 as BRAPA - the British Real Ale Pub Adventure, originally "British" was "Big".

Also at this time, an FA Cup game at Brighton was annoyingly moved to a Monday night, so rather than waste my already booked train ticket, I arranged to go down on Saturday 15th Feb anyway and treat it was a BRAPA fine tuning session, the key being a bus and long walk to a pub at Wivelsfield Green.  I was still a bit skeptical as to how much I'd enjoy it and whether I'd felt it'd be something I would want to do regularly, so luckily I came away feeling the day had been a success.  

The Cock Inn at Wivelsfield Green, key BRAPA pre-season pub tick.

A week later, I ticked off two new pubs in Cardiff as part of an away game and for the first time had half an eye on the fact that these would count towards my BRAPA total.  The same was presumably true a few weeks later when I visited many pubs in the Glasgow area for the X&Y A-Z day on 1st March though I had no idea of my "number of GBG pubs visited" at this stage.  I hadn't started physically highlighting Good Beer Guide entries.

More televised football mayhem found me and Tom in London a week later for another for a second pre-season BRAPA friendly.  I enjoyed this day even more than the Brighton one, got through lots of pubs early in the day and didn't feel too worse for wear as I learnt to take BRAPA snacks as part of the survival kit and stay hydrated. 

One of my favourite pubs on BRAPA's pre-season day in London 8/3/14, since de-guided

A week later on 15th March 2014, the A-Z mercifully came to an end inb Zouch.  Out of respect for the competition, I tried not to think of it in pub ticking terms but by the time me and Krzb were in a Loughborough pub with tonnes of historic ale guides, we were debating the concept of pre-emptive pub ticks for the first time, having also passed some promising looking pubs not currently listed.  I couldn't hide where my passion now lay.  

Even so, a trip to Stoke for football two weeks later didn't find me wondering what new GBG pubs I could go to, we were quite happy to go to White Star and stay there thank you very much!  That attitude wouldn't last for long.

So April came around and suddenly we were there, the official start of BRAPA and a fantastic 13 pub weekend in Bedfordshire to get me going in style .... it didn't all go smoothly (my bus back from my first Ampthill pub tick broke down due to an oil leak!) and I learnt a lot that weekend.  It made me realise that BRAPA was here to stay.

Where's the welcome party??  Arriving at my first official BRAPA pub in Ampthill.

It's only right that the Albion in Ampthill is the first pub given a "number" in the pubs visited list.  Although I didn't have figures until much later in April, it would have been number 381.  In fact, the first pub I officially allocated a number to was King's Head at Earls Court (398) before Fulham away, probably when I'd finished ticking the GBG.

Stone Jug in Clophill - pub 10 of my Beds trip
Good Friday the 18th April was my next chance to get some BRAPA ticks in as we had a gang day out to Nottingham.  The idea was to go to a beer festival at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem but when we learnt the fest wasn't starting until evening (one of the weirdest pub festival decisions ever!) I guided us towards some new pubs - though I didn't push BRAPA down the throats of my fellow travellers for fear of scaring them.  I even alluded to a pre-emptive visit for the first time when we visited the Crafty Crow, stating that it's not in the GBG now but am sure it will be in September!  I was wrong, but it did finally appear in the 2016 GBG.  

This was the same week I decided my "near" and "far" county randomiser was flawed. I needed to "think locally and fuck nationally", to quote me at the time (based on a Gogol Bordello song),   This led me to an idea of visiting West Yorkshire pubs on a midweek after work, starting Tuesday 22nd April with a short walk (yes, a  short walk!) from my workplace to two pubs in Holbeck - how could I have been so foolish as to not have thought of this sooner? 

BRAPA was well and truly up and running now and I brought up the 400 at the wonderful Regent in Chapel Allerton the following Tuesday, and the ultimate pub challenge to end all challenges has been gaining momentum ever since.

Sunday 6 December 2015

BRAPA - Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge

Half a day off work on Friday allowed me to return to Greater Manchester, my 5th most visited pub county, now just one behind East Yorkshire after a productive five pub afternoon.

The bar at the Dog & Pheasant, Ashton-under-Lyne

The Huddersfield - Wigan Wallgate stopping train did it's usual trick of arriving early, filling up late, and then being inexplicably delayed but at least it allowed me to relax and line my stomach with some M&S overpriced goodness before the session ahead.

In true BRAPA style, I decided to get the most difficult pub done first and had a fair trek down the Oldham Road when arriving into Ashton.  Let's just say this isn't the most salubrious town I've ever visited, reminding me a bit of the Beeston/Middleton area of L**ds.

752.  Dog & Pheasant, Ashton-under-Lyne

And the "no tracksuits, strictly over 21's, no caps" warning on the door didn't exactly scream out "real ale utopia".  However, a banner proudly proclaiming "21 years in the Good Beer Guide" meant they are obviously proud of their commitment to real ale.  Known as the "Top Dog", just a few minutes down the road I'd walked past a 'Dog and Partridge' and with my recent St John's Hotel debacle in mind, you can see how the wrong pub can be visited at times!  I wondered if a Dog & Ptarmigan was situated a bit further north.  You have to keep your wits about you in this game.  This was a Marston's pub, and as I chose a seasonal Wychwood Snow Belle (lacking Oomph I thought), the landlady seemed distracted, reading the food menu down the phone and then serving me pretty much with her back turned at all times.  A roaring little real fire in the front bar so I perched as close to it as possible, without disturbing three pensioners enjoying some fish & chips.   This was a very cosy multi roomed pub though, full of old fashioned charm, probably more of a winter time place.  It was 'Christmas decoration putting up afternoon', and it's amazing what you can do with some old tinsel and an industrial staple gun!  All had seemed calm and perfectly civilised until one of the pensioner women wailed "I'M TRYING MY BEST!" and stormed off to lock herself in the loo, upset with something the man had said, who then got a telling off from the other woman - high drama and I looked at them as if to say "this is going in my blog you know".

Top Dog drama in Ashton-under-Lyne
753.  Ash Tree, Ashton-under-Lyne

A good 25 minute walk back into the centre of town allowed me to form an idea in my mind of how this Wetherspoons would play out.  It was 2:15pm so I expected a post-lunch lull before the after work weekend revellers swelled the bar at 4pm.  Nothing of the sort!  This place was positively heaving with young and old, male and female, shoppers, christmas shoppers, students, people from the tanning salon, yes it felt like "all Ashton life" was here.  I often think a Wetherspoons is a good social barometer.  Under the circs, I was pleased to remember my 50p off voucher, making the pint one of the most ridiculously cheap of the year at £1.39 or something, and being a local Stout from Millstone, it was strong and delicious.  I took a table of 4 to myself and felt a bit guilty as the people just kept on arriving, but I'd been on the other side of it in York's Trembling Madness the day before so felt it was justified.  I then had the typical problem of locating the gents, I wish someone would invent a "phone App" for this - I always manage to walk in every direction except the correct one.  I can't say it was the comfiest experience, but always nice to see a pub busy.  

Busy 'Spoons fayre in the Ash Tree, Ashton-under-Lyne
My train was again delayed, but time was on my side and it was only mid afternoon still.

A bit like Dewsbury, I've never thought of Stalybridge as anything more than a railway station with a rather cracking pub on it, so I had to take a deep breath and push on past the Buffet Bar or else I may never have got into the town centre!  

754.  Society Rooms, Stalybridge

A second 'Spoons on the spin as I decided to strategically forgo the White House in case I'm passing Stalybridge in the future, but this was a far nicer 'Spoons experience than the Ash Tree.  Firstly, a note on the ales - both Oakham Green Devil IPA and Acorn Old Moor Porter.  Two of my all time faves, both in 'Spoons where sometimes I don't know what to choose - typical!  I went with the Porter as I was having a dark beer day.  The place was quiet, and I had to choice of several large leather booths in this impressive former Co-op store.  Even the toilets were clearly signposted.  It was school chucking out time, so quite surprisingly, a gaggle of primary schoolkids with parents came in, ordered their tea, a soft drink, did homework for about 2 minutes, before getting too excited by the surroundings and running around like maniacs!  I didn't mind at all, which is testament to the Old Moor Porter and relaxed booth area.  There was one unsavoury incident as a little boy went flying across the floor, another boy looked accusingly at 'Mum' who claimed "he pushed me, so I pushed him back, it's only fair!"  Hmmm, you don't get this in York, darling!  An older couple near me then argued, and the wife stormed off elsewhere saying "I'm divorcing you!"  When their food came out, the hubbie had to gingerly explain that his wife was now sat at the far end!  I don't know if Storm Desmond was putting the locals on edge, but this was three 'dometic' incidents now.....

Great ales, great seating, but more domestic mayhem in the "Soc".
As dusk fell, I carried on south to Acres Lane where two pubs were listed, but only one "dot" on my GBG GPS meant I was confused - maybe I should return to old fashioned maps?  

755.  Old Hunters Tavern, Stalybridge

After two Spoons houses on the spin, it was a refreshing change to be in a characterful old pub, full of friendly happy staff, after work local chaps and a fine range of Robinson's beers like Trooper and Unicorn which I always welcome around these parts but would probably yawn at if I say, saw them every day.  As it was, I ordered festive guest Frosty Frolics and it was delightfully dark and full of winter berry flavours.  The pub was quite shallow, so even sitting in a far corner, you feel very much part of the pub ambiance and atmosphere - though a music channel showing some of the most terrible Christmas hits I've not even heard of did actually distract the majority, Luckily, Shakin' Stevens saved the day!   I could very imagine the locals thinking that the Buffet Bar is good but for tourists, whilst this place is the real heart of the Stalybridge ale scene. 

As dusk falls, it's time to get back to a real old fashioned pub experience.
A fine pint of Robinsons in the Old Hunters.

756.  Stalybridge Labour Club, Stalybridge

 As predicted, I got a bit confused trying to find this place as it was set back off the road, and quite a large club,  As usual with these GBG Clubs, I was armed with my Beer Guide, CAMRA card and reasons for being here, but they were so welcoming, I didn't have to show anything as with every club I've been to with the exception of the West Herts one in Watford.  Firstly, an old local said "how do" at the door, the friendly brunette barmaid was smoking but said she'd follow me in and serve me, and then apologised for the lack of ales on but I wasn't complaining, and after a taster, was enjoying a Stockport Ginger Tinge.  She even gave me a CAMRA discount,   Now I'm not a big fan of ginger ales but this was a lot more palatable than most, excellent in fact.  This was a big place, and most of the action was in the back room which was home to a few snooker tables and some serious looking players, who kept rolling up with their own cues and stuff.  I sat opposite a halogen heater (my Mum has the same one so it must be good!) and just basked in that unique clubby atmosphere, chuckling along to what the locals were saying though I was quite merry by now.  

Halogen heater, a nice ginger and a great carpet - what more could you want?! 
The wind had really picked up by now so I was unsurprised to see the trains delayed when I arrived back at the railway station.  There was only one thing for it, I'd HAVE to join the masses in the Buffet Bar for a quick half of "Coffee Anise Porter" to pass the time.  My Dad did his usual trick of ringing me to discuss plans for the weekend just at the drunkest, most chaotic moment of the day, but I was soon on a train wending it's way directly back to York for a bit of Salford v Hartlepool and fish & chips.  

Another good BRAPA day out, and a good start has been made to December's pub ticking with nothing new in the offing on Saturday due to only going to L**ds.  Still I got a fantastic new pre-emptive tick in the shape of new Leeds brewery pub, the Lamb and Flag where I can report friendly staff, excellent Reindeer Porter, and some comfy if overly modern surroundings.  

Me arriving at the Lamb and Flag yesterday morning. 

The West Yorkshire midweek trail rolls on on Tuesday, only three to do now but running out of chances before the end of 2015, so this will be a good opportunity to get another done.  

See you tomorrow for a special feature on the 'formation of BRAPA' and those early days!