Sunday 6 September 2015

BRAPA - Bedfordshire Part VII - Fuzzy in Leighton Buzzard

A disturbing amount of dogs - but which pub was I in?  Read on to find out ....

With the 2016 Good Beer Guide ticking still going on, I again couldn't allocate a number to any of yesterday's pubs - of course, I cannot even confirm which ones are in the new GBG - roll on 10th September but you can probably guess!

All of this has distracted me a bit from a thorough planning of my days out - last week I didn't make a very good job of working out how to do Raskelf, and this week I was 'surprised' to learn I had to change at London Euston for Leighton Buzzard.  This made my connection from Kings Cross tight so I strode down the main road in the rain (trusting my legs more than the tube!) and still had to eat a Choux pastry before the 09:24 departed.  Phew!

I was in LB for about 10am, which seems to be the current Bedfordshire hub of real ale housing a new brewery, a new micro pub and the Beds pub of the year.  Even better, the three pubs I did know about from the 2015 GBG were 10am or earlier opening.

Golden Bell, Leighton Buzzard

My concerns about whether this little old pub had stuck to it's 10am opening time where answered emphatically as I entered a fairly bustling morning scene.  There was much breakfast and coffee going around, but the friendly landlady was only too happy to serve me a Golden Hen - the beer range was typically Bedfordshire i.e. a bit lacking imagination.   The hunched over bar flies actually turned out not to be 80 year old men, but a group of kids with colouring books.  I assume they were exterminated before 12 noon.  I sat on a leather sofa and watched a rain delayed build up to the cricket on a huge plasma screen, with a faux-fire to the left of me.  The atmosphere was warm, relaxed and friendly, probably the best of the day.

10am and all is well, at the Golden Bell.
Swan Hotel, Leighton Buzzard

It was market day in LB, so after an interesting wander down the high street and look at busses for future reference, I found myself at this dramatic looking 17th century coaching inn, renovated by Wetherspoons but they didn't spoil it enough for it to lose it's Grade II listing.  Despite the vast and fairly dark interior, it was absolutely heaving and it was a challenge to just find one seat.  Most people were breakfasting, which after the last pub, made me wonder if there's an ancient Leighton Buzzard rule whereby you aren't allowed to eat in your own house on a Saturday.  I squashed in next to an old couple, who were relatively friendly, but where immediately replaced by a couple who looked identical in what appeared to be a geriatric version of speed dating (slow dating?)  I ordered a Bishop's Finger because it's an old classic bottle from my early ale days, but it is well over 5% and I felt it as the day went on!  In fact, for a 'Spoons, the beer range was poor with 5 on, all standards.

Grade 2 listed 'Spoons fun at the Swan Hotel
Now, it was spitting with rain again as I took the delayed 70 bus to the village of Stanbridge, just out east.  Although I can't reveal why I chose to came here, let's just say it was a late decision and hadn't originally been on my agenda for today (nudge nudge, wink wink).

Five Bells, Stanbridge

And the award for "most startled barmaid to see a customer in her pub wanting a pint" goes to the girl here.  This is a Fuller's pub, and quite a sensitive refurb with wooden floors and some old nooks and crannies, with a totally separate food area.  In some ways, it was very reminiscent of the Totternhoe Fullers pub I visited in May, but that had a bit more of a happy rural vibe, though Stanbridge did seem a very attractive little place.  I ordered a new Fuller's ale they are pushing called Oliver's Island, and it was easily my best so far with some nice citrus flavours, I'm not so anti this brewery since BRAPA began as they do tend to do things to a fairly high level of quality.  I was sat in a cubby hole, overlooking 2 parents, a pregnant daughter and a little dog, of which many boring anecdotes were told.  They were waiting for another daughter before going to the restaurant, but the Dad insisted on listing the entire menu which became a bit grating once he got to the desserts!  

Five Bells is so named because Stanbridge church as five bells! Fact of the day.
I got a bit too clever next as Google Maps indicated by bus was delayed, so only sauntered towards the stop a minute after it was due.  But it must have made up some time cos it came whizzing round the corner.  I ran and managed to flag it down a few yards in front of the stop.  Bus driver was NOT amused and said "you shouldn't leave it til the last minute mate!"  I apologised and didn't mention Google Maps lying to me.  At least he made me feel like a local.

Red Lion, Leighton Buzzard

I'd read a lot about this small old pub being an institution of the town, and it certainly had a real community feel.  If there was one pub today where I was going to stand at the bar and chat BRAPA with the locals, it was here but it didn't quite happen.  One man seemed to dominate proceedings and it was hard to know if he was trying to involve me or talk to the deaf guy next to me at the bar,  The friendly landlady served me a pint of Sharp's Atlantic, the only guest of any interest from three beers - again, typical Bedfordshire.  It was a nice ale, but the sheer volume of dog artwork and photos adorning the walls was so off putting, I had to temporarily focus on the football and pretend I was a die-hard Welling / Tranmere fan - delete as appropriate but why do Sky/BT insist on interviewing managers mid-game.  Poor Gary Brabin, wouldn't happen in the Premier.  Anyway, I digress.  Shoppers kept coming in, smokers kept coming and going, I think the landlady left the bar unattended for about 30 mins whilst she joined them outside.  Personally, I felt I'd missed a good opportunity here to spread the BRAPA love.

Proper community boozer at the Red Lion
As I was on the north side of town, now was the time to walk the 1.5 miles to Heath & Reach.  After all, I'd had such a productive day so far, I needed to slow down!

Axe & Compass, Heath and Reach

Just like Stillington last week, I passed a wedding procession down the street (who apologised for blocking my path) and then reached the pub to find they'd 'taken over!'  Well, I went in the room they'd booked by mistake but luckily the barmaid indicated I should go round the totally blissful other side with the line "I thought you were a bit under-dressed for a wedding!"  Surely not luv, you've not seen these red leather jacketed weddings??  This pub's recently become a freehouse and was my key pub of the day as it is on page 4 of the GBG, you know I like my alphabetical ordering with BRAPA!   Being close to MK, I got to sample a new ale brewed in Stonebridge called Bucks Star.  I didn't like the marketing "Artisan, Unfiltered, Vegan friendly,  solar powered, natural probiotic, organic malt" etc etc.  Is this a beer or a health drink?  Anyway, it tasted unusual but very refreshing so got the thumbs up from me.  This room was lighter, airier and more modern than the wedding one but it had a good community feel all the same, my only interaction was with drunk wedding guests in the loo! 

You wouldn't know from this picture, but wedding chaos reigns in the left hand side.
I took the bus into town because the timing worked out perfectly. But what is this sign I see, a beer festival!

Black Lion, Leighton Buzzard

I'd read so many great things about this pub, and seen it had won the Bedfordshire 'pub of the year' award, so to have a festival on too just seemed like cheating!  To be fair, the pub felt like a pub and the festival element was all out the back which I never explored.  That isn't to say I wasn't part of it, even though I explained to the bar chap (a really good lad) I was just here for one, he let me pick from any of the 54 beers on offer, making up for some of the beer ranges.  We got chatting about stouts and porters, and before I knew it, he was bringing me amazing samples of all these 7% plus beers like Glasney College Porter, Baltic Trader Export Stout, Smoked Chilli Porter and Keltek Beheaded.  And what a time for Mum and Dad to ring and bid me farewell before their Canadian Adventure.  I eventually got sat down and realised the festival was called "Leighton on Sea" and all the breweries were based on the coast, they even had one from Hull (well, Brough to be exact but I wasn't feeling up to being pedantic).  In fact, the next thing I knew was bar chap was waking me up - I'd dozed off.  Ooops, how embarrassing, but a nice pint of water with ice cubes brought me round.  It was kind of his fault anyway, for being so good as to give me all those samples.  A middle aged couple were now looking at me in a concerned way too, it was time to leave this wondrous place. 

I had a sixth sense that there's a beer festival on in here - not sure how I knew ....
Bald Buzzard, Leighton Buzzard

This was definitely my most pre-emptive tick of the day, having only opened in July and quiet enough to be apparently still a secret to most of the town, for like all micropubs, they had a great selection of ales on.  They also had the usual unisex loos and am sure if I'd asked for blackcurrant cordial, my luck would have been out!  The few people who were in were friendly and chatty, and seemed pleased I'd "made the effort" to come along.  It felt so new, I think it still needs a bit of time to bed in as it wasn't the comfiest, and leaving the windy back door open certainly didn't help matters.  Again, I nearly got into tasters category but after the Black Lion, I was happy to 'risk' a pint of Black Buzzard, a beautiful local stout from the new brewery.  

I drank Black Buzzard in the Bald Buzzard in Leighton Buzzard.
I think it's fair to say I'd overdone it, and standing on the wrong platform didn't help!  I missed by 7pm train from Kings Cross, and a swift half in Parcel Yard (which I drank like I was on death's row!) and was lucky not to be charged a fortune on the later train - to be fair, he checked my ticket but not the reservation even though I left it on the table for him.  Maybe the group of jolly Geordies in front had distracted him. Maybe he didn't care.  I was punching the air in delight and had a final York Tap pint to celebrate - in fact, I considered buying all the staff a pint til I came to my senses.

So, if yesterday had been a school report, it'd read "must do better".  

But hey ho, onwards and upwards to our next BRAPA mission.  The focus of course is on "book-work" but that shouldn't rule out Tuesday West Yorks midweek possibilities though am so far undecided what, if any, to do.    

Then, we have Brighton on Saturday and am staying in Lewes overnight so hoping to get some ticks in both places, plus some London ones on the Sunday as I head back North.  And then Cardiff on Tuesday, again staying over (obviously).  So all systems go go go!



  1. I think walking actually involves less walking than the Underground, if you get my drift, for Euston - Kings Cross. The only time I have ever bothered going downstairs was for the Kings X Loop producing due to engineering works. I don't actually understand why you were in London in the first place though, my first instinct for York-Leighton Buzzard would be to change at Tamworth and then as necessary at some, all or none of Nuneaton, Rugby, Milton Keynes or Rugby.

    Witherspoons wouldn't be allowed to alter a building to such an extend that it lost its listing.

    Was their a turnip festival on in Stanbridge that you forgot to mention? I can't think why else you would make a late decision to go. Did you speculatively decide to wet your whistle after the bus ride?

    Did Gary Brabin stake the piss sufficiently out of the Sky bloke? I assume he is manager of Tranmere Rovers now and not Welling. Part of me wants him back, the other part doesn't want him to tarnish his legacy at the club. A bit like Boaz Myhill.

  2. 1. Not sure why east Coast website has me changing at London. Do they make more money from that route? Anyway, I always thought going cross country was dearer.

    2. I was joking when I wrote that, I know these grade 2 heritage things are hugely protected.

    3. Turnip fest! How did I forget to mention I was perusing turnips and that's actually why I nearly missed bus.

    4. Brabin was trying to be professional but struggling as tranmere had a lame effort whilst he was still on air. He tried his best to tarnish his legacy by kicking Sneekers in the head in front of Kempton, but his apology was accepted by most after match.

  3. 1. The journey planners are impartial, just a little stupid at times. Going Cross Country often needs acts of cunning with the ticketing.

    3. Was there a turnip shaped like a thingy competition? I think there is a cauliflower show somewhere in West Yorkshire tonight, I forget exactly where. Are you going?

    4. Are you telling me that they interview the manager live on air whilst play is in progress? If so, that could have some hilarious consequences. I remember Gary Brabin being sent off for assault very well indeed. Hadn't he just scored an equaliser for Torquay in a game we went on to win 2-1? Whilst I almost certainly reacted angrily, I remember thinking it was just typical Brabs