Sunday 21 February 2016

BRAPA - Berkshire Part 1 (Under Starter's Orders)

A whole month has passed since I ticked off my final GBG pub in Bedfordshire, it felt like longer, and I'd been itching to get started on Berkshire.  My only previous experience of the county was on Hull City away days in Reading, where I'd visited the excellent Hobgoblin (now, Alehouse) and the wonderful Nag's Head so it was actually over 5 years (22nd Jan 2011) since I'd been to a new pub here,  It needed rectifying ......

An unpromising view of the first pub. 
I started in Bracknell, after all, it is on the first page of Berkshire's pubs and you know by now that I have alphabetical OCD.  Bracknell seemed a strange place, on the plus side it smelt like hot cross buns but on the downside, it looked like Milton Keynes without as much character and the people all looked manically depressed or simple, or both, in the centre of town at least.

815.  Old Manor, Bracknell

After much negotiating of nicely decorated subways and underpasses, I finally found a way into the pub and despite the above picture, I approached it from a beautiful Tudor angle which really did the building justice and must be unique for 'Spoons.  Inside, a low roof and a gentle hum of breakfasters (funny how the only time I find pub meals acceptable is breakfast in 'Spoons) added something of a unique ambiance not usually associated with this chain.  The staff were bored but competent, and a delicious pint of Bingham's Vanilla Stout was soon mine.  If this is a sign of the local ale to come, I'm looking forward to Berks.  A lot.  A group of young lads who looked and sounded like Spurs reserve team were feverishly planning a trip to Cardiff Bay behind me, and I've seriously never seen any group so excited about a trip to Cardiff, maybe that says a lot about Bracknell.  There were some nice side rooms off this pub too, and you could certainly imagine Henry VIII bringing Anne Boleyn here for Eggs Royale in a happier stage of their relationship. 

A better view of the Old Manor
A short bus ride to the south of town (Handworth) followed and I was delighted to see that that my next pub had it's own bus stop and had to chuckle when the automated announcer said "next stop, the Cannie Man public house!" but I wasn't chuckling when it stopped 0.4 miles away!!  Turned out this route was closed for something, having done further research at the correct bus stop.  Why is nothing ever bloody straightforward in BRAPA??

Arriving at my next pub after some bus confusion.

816.  Cannie Man, Bracknell

I think this is what they refer to in the trade as an "estate pub".  I guess there was a time when unashamedly 70's/80's pub like this were sneered at by pub enthusiasts, but nowadays with the emergence of Micros and 'Craft' bars, these will probably be lauded by English Heritage in the next few years, if not already.  It had a certain charm.  All eye watering carpet patterns, swathes of open space with one raised area, decor in the form of each flag of the home nations, all presided over by a friendly old couple, the old boy telling my T.E.A. was the only ale on despite the pump clips suggesting otherwise, plus he assured me it was a fresh barrel as though I was some CAMRA investigator.  Some locals lined the bar, looking expectantly at me as though as a visitor, I should perform an initiation dance.  I didn't.  I sat in the raised area where I could choose whether to watch my beloved Hull City get stuffed at Arsenal (it never happened), or watch Cardiff rain in the goals against a woeful looking Brighton.  Men ignored both and played darts in a serious manner, it was verging on WMC territory.  Some kids, muddy from football, came in to a hero ovation (they'd won 6-3) and ordered coke with NO ice thank you very much,  It was that kind of a place.

Estate pub joy at the Cannie Man
Due to the bussing issues, I had to walk a bit to the 'Qualitas' stop a few streets away, but was soon back in Bracknell and from there, on to Ascot.  One thing I'd learned from the locals in the Cannie Man was that it was race day at Ascot!  How could I be so silly not to have realised?  After all, Tim of Newbury fame had recently warned me my planned Newbury day in April clashes with the races, it's almost like I'm deliberately seeking out trouble! 

I was luckily unaffected, and with the rain unrelenting, a kind taxi driver (no busses in this area) took me past the racecourse.  He was very much like Barrington from Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, with the spirit of Little Ron.  

Note the men in the doorway, the second one slipped over and found it hilarious
817,  Duke of Edinburgh, Ascot

Despite the foody nature inside, it wasn't rammed down my throat on arrival as I declared "I am looking for a pint of real ale!" (I must be getting braver) and my bravery was further rewarded when a nice brunette liked the fact I shunned any 'try before you buy' nonsense and dived straight in to the premium Kingsdown special ale.  The bar chap David was a great lad too, telling me their strawberry guest beer was "gimmicky" and basically telling me not to bother!  I like honest staff.  In fact, the camaraderie of these two and a waitress girl really made this a happy pub, despite the diners.  In fact, if it wasn't for all the people buzzing about, this could have been pub of the day - a real cosy old feeling building, and various people kept coming over and asking if I was alright or needed anything else, as though I couldn't possibly just be happy sitting on my own with a pint and my book!  This was all that stopped me reaching my "state of contentment" for the day.  On the upside, they were quick to whisk away cutlery, placemats, condiments etc from my table once they knew I wasn't eating, so one up on the Gerrard Arms in Aspull last week. 

Inside the Duke of Edinburgh, a very good pub indeed.
A combination of lacking phone signal, lack of busses and being 3 miles from Ascot on a race day were all factors in my next decision, to walk all the way to Sunningdale instead.  Bit of mistake, no pavement for much of it on a busy B road, plus the teeming rain, meant I was drenched when I finally arrived in this little village which I'd been expecting to be some characterless urban sprawl, glad I was wrong!

Geoffrey in the door way at the Nags Head 

818.  Nags Head, Sunningdale

It was worth the effort, this was my pub of the day.  and with the barman having wandered into the carpark, I found myself alone in an empty pub with the smell of a real woody fire to my right, and what seemed like a full range of Harvey's ales (so you know you are down south!) immediately facing me at the shallow bar.  The barman returned and with my soggy state, a pint of Armada seemed appropriate but annoyingly, and like the Cannie Man, half the beers weren't on!  So I had an IPA which was pleasant, but like most Harvey's ales, a bit of a yawn fest from my experience.  Barman introduced himself as Geoffrey, he thought I was called Sandy (never mind!) and although he was fairly interested in BRAPA, he was more impressed in the fact that I'd got a 7:01 train down south and was due back in York the same day, like I was a time traveller.  He was a lovely chap, and even brought the chair with my coat in front of the fire to help it dry off.  It's touches like this that win staff awards.  He had friends in Poppleton, but hadn't visited them in years thinking York is so far away (it's really not).  He even accosted some locals in the street to give me directions to the next pub, very above and beyond.

Probably my moment of the day, in Nags Head.
819.  Royal Oak, Sunningdale

And it wasn't much of a walk at all, but here was where all Sunningdale life was - a hive of bustling activity as I struggled to the bar to get a Bingham's porter, so the day had pretty much come full circle.  How do you account for a pub as a nice as the Nags Head being empty, and this (admittedly with better beer choice) being choc a bloc?  I settled in front of Jeff Stelling, with two young lads playing darts perilously close to my head.  Then a dog, Lily (a Cairn terrier I was told) wandered over looking for a head scratch and some food, sulking because the darts players ignored her.  She went the long way around so the lead created a kind of spiders web around the right hand side of the pub, meaning going to the loo was like being in the 800m hurdles.  I got chatting with her owner, a local lady who admitted it was her first time here too, she didn't think women really came into pubs on their own, but she was past the point of caring, and she was nice but not one you'd argue with!  I'd got so wrapped up in the chat, never mind Lily's web(!), that I suddenly had to dash for my train back to London. 

Dodging darts and dog leads at the Royal Oak
It was a longer walk to the station than I realised, and I was so lucky the door was closing as I snuck on to the Waterloo train (had I missed that, I doubt I'd have made my 19:11 connection to York).  Phew!

As it was, I had time if not for a pint in Scottish Stores but for a 'swift half' in Parcel Yard of an unpronounceable thing from New Zealand which I had a joke with the surprisingly nice staff about, before me and a random football fan laughed at the screen showing L**ds own goal at Watford, only to turn round and find a sullen White Shite fan behind me (oops).  I hid in a side room until my Grand Central departure was ready to take off in a Yorkish direction.  

My swift errm 'half' in the Parcel Yard.
It had been a great Berkshire beginning.  I'd been expecting a lot of rubbish gastro stuff in uncharacterful places with unfriendly people, but I have to say looking back that all 5 pubs were either good, very good or excellent.  I'll look forward to some more Berks adventures next month and then my big 4 day beezer in April.  It doesn't look the hardest county to complete (as Retired Martin said), so perhaps by September I'll be in a good position to cast half an eye in a Bucks direction.  But won't get ahead of myself too soon.

Oh, and for those of you who like stats, Berkshire has shot up from 46th to 30th in the BRAPA league table!

Tomorrow, I have to decide whether to give my liver a rest pre-Ipswich or crack on with the next leg of my South Yorkshire 'midweek' challenge.  I might decide on the night. 



  1. "It was a good start" as they say in 300, perhaps a good analogy.

    Well done on the walking. I thought the same, Nag's Head great pub, the Arkells best beer in the Duke. You can make yourself a CAMRA outcast by praising Arkells I hear.

    They must think you're a CAMRA inspector when you declare "My name's Simon and I want a pint of real ale", although the TV cameramen behind you must be a giveaway too.

    "Try before you buy nonsense" - very correct, worse than jamjars.

    I think you realise this; southerners don't travel, northerners (and me) do.

    Give your liver a rest; you'll need it for the half-time Carling at Portmanteau Road.

    1. Do CAMRA dislike Arkells? Now that is interesting. Are they an evil brewery? I've always liked it, but I'd quite like to be a CAMRA outcast as long as they let me in the clubs! Never had to shown a membership card once. They seem just glad for the customers.

      Haha, BRAPA the documentary is going to be huge when BBC4 commission it.

      They seem to have good busses (see I'm learning) in the south east, yet they don't know how lucky they are!

      I took both of your advice re Monday's trip to outer Barnsley, and glad I did!

    2. He lives ! Stowmarket bobbies on their way to investigate your decapitation can stand down.

      Arkells are fine, just an intense dislike by CAMRA branches for their own breweries (outside of Manchester !).Try it in Aldworth Bell if you've that to do.

      This is one thread on Pub Curmudgeon on the theme of unloved bitters - Wadworth and McMulllens similarly under represented in GBG.

      Fact: Doom Bar crops up more often than Arkells and Wadworth in the Wiltshire section.

      I'm not very beery but be interested what you make of 6X once you get to Wiltshire.

      I guess 1 in 5 GBG Clubs ask for my cards. As you've seen they're rarely busy, unless there's a meat raffle !

    3. Aldworth in Bell may well be on my horizon! Cannot wait for that one. It's in my heritage guide too, though I hope it is better than Marge Catchpole.

      McMullens especially have always been good when I've tried them. There's a lot of modern beer snobs around. I'll read Mudgie's blog cos I tend to agree with what he says (apart from smoking ban!)

      Wiltshire might be a long way off, but I'll hope I've got more of a taste for the Doom by then. Sure I must have had Wadworth 6X years ago, perhaps Swindon football in 2004 - do they do 3B's and 2B's etc?

  2. I disagree on the food in pubs. Whilst 'Spoons breakfast about works, beyond that I find 'Spoons food more instrusive than in other pubs. And less good, it comes out of a microwave.

    Are any of the Duke of Edinburgh staff in contention for an award at the end of the year?

    May I make an unconventional suggestion for the midweek conundrum? Have a rest Monday, then if your liver is up to it have the South Yorkshire day on Thursday, giving Wednesday as recovery.

    Dagger for Duncan

    1. Funny, I find 'Spoons food the least intrusive, probably because I'm always expecting it.

      Not in contention I'm afraid. Too much of a team effort.

      Ooh look it's Thursday and I'm still resting! Hurrah.