During my seven and a half years of pubs ticking, I cannot recall anyone recommending Winchester to me as a leading UK pub town. But after visiting the six pubs that appear in the 2022 Good Beer Guide, I can safely say it it must be one of the most underrated. I'd class five of those six as being 'above average' or even 'well above average'.
And it was here, where I started my six pubs, six days (that is 36 pubs - I work in a bank you know) BRAPA challenge to crack Mid and North Hants, even straying south by the end of my time there.
Winchester was a gorgeous place to walk around too, the Travelodge was cleaner and comfier than many Premier Inns, people smiled, and Google Maps took me through the cathedral grounds to reach pub one, 2:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon two weeks ago.
Wykeham Arms, Winchester , and the locals took great delight in telling me when I got it wrong on many occasions, is pronounced 'Wycombe' rather than 'Wyke-ham'. Just to annoy the northerners I guess. I mean, you don't call the hapless lower league striker Charlie Wick do you? As aesthetically pleasing a pub as you could imagine in a 'trying to impress tourists' kinda way, two rooms, a roaring fire before you reach the door, shiny brass, dark woods, plenty of decor. The staff outwardly beamed, the schoolteacher marking books in the corner wasn't, scowling at Colin, the BRAPA lens, and me in general. He looked like Teacher from Bash Street Kids and Mark E Smith at the same time. He was further irked by the presence of two suited Chinese businessmen, who tried in vain to loiter without standing out. Finally, a pub official arrived, though asked them to 'take their masks down so I can get a proper look at ya both!' when the firm handshakes began. Chinese investors turning this pub into a Brewhouse Kitchen Canteen Gin Emporium? Very Premier league. If a pub seems too good to be true, it probably is. That's the pub cynic in me. Our schoolteacher was scowling further as I unwisely lean back for a selfie with Col, hitting my arm on a huge shiny plate behind me, which then reverberated like a dinner gong in a rural country seat. In a pub with more giving customers, I'd have announced "dinner is served" like Lurch from the Addams Family, but this pub was far too watchful and perhaps a bit snooty, so I didn't. Still, if you turn a blind eye to all that, on the surface, it is a cracker.
|The first of many fabulous Flower Pots ('you wouldn't pour Flower Pots beers in a flower pot' - slogan)|
|Dinner gong selfie moment|
|Schoolteacher's pint is visible|
The only other Winchester pub open before 4pm on a Tuesday (the midweek work shy pub tickers struggle is real) was the only one I'd judge in the 'slightly lame' category.
Old Vine, Winchester was always going to be a bit of a wet lettuce as soon as I saw the sign telling me it was one of those "Eat. Drink. Sleep. Die. Miserable." chain pubs. I'd been to one in Mousehole, and been presented with a pint of snot. And I went to one in Upper Upnor, so remarkably dull, it was one of the few 2020/21 pubs I was busting to sit outside at. The outside was dull too. This, was better than both of those, but everyone was very genteel, watery eyed and entitled, and it felt more like being in a Zizzi or Betty's Tea Rooms than a pub. Busy though. Busier than the Wykeham anyway. We were saved by the presence in the corner of a suave Italian chap wooing a local lady. Luckily, she had a voice like a foghorn so it was a bit like watching an episode of First Dates with bluetooth headphones in, on full volume. Cringe at times, I gave them a smile and the thumbs up when I came back from the loo which definitely probably helped. Two men from a local guttering company came in, stood at the bar, in a desperate attempt to inject some centuries old pub life into the place, but it didn't.
|My first of many Eastleigh Steam Towns, got this in honour of that maniac football guy (no, not Joey, I mean Tom Irvin)|
|Aaah, like being in the Moorbrook in Preston, but also not|
Didn't take long for me to get restless. I'm not very good at staying in one place and doing a load of easy pubs, I wanted to get something a bit more awkward in. Not something totally impossible, just on a bus route.
So as dusk became full on pitch black as we ticked past 5pm, a tortuous 35 minute bumpy bus ride took us east in the direction of Alton. I'd seen a 'pub' recently changing their hours in favour of a Tuesday opening .......
The narrow side lane had no street lights, I couldn't see a thing, apart from a man and woman who seemed to be getting into each others cars which seemed a bit odd.
I reached a building, was this it?
"Hello? HELLLOOO?" I cry, but my voice echoes back towards me. The floor is wet. Everything smells of beer. There is a bike propped up on a wall. And a few random bottles not doing much. People pay shitloads for brewery tours like this.
If this was Byker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it'd definitely be the right place. I climb a little wooden ladder, and walk across this plank. Maybe the bar is up here? I've been to stranger places.
But all I'm faced with is a bubbling vat of beer, and not wishing to take a bath in 'Pressed Warthog', I decide the bar must be elsewhere, so I retreat. It was all starting to feel like that real ale episode of Midsomer Murders.
Across the yard, I see some sexy neon lights screaming cask ale. Huzzah!
Warmer, and cosier than the brewery, but that doesn't say too much about Offf the Rails, Four Marks which had quite a flimsy, temporary air about it. Smartply, I was informed by Mr Lawrenson, not even chipboard. I guess it is one of those "you're here for the beer" places, a surprising number of people in and quite a vibrant atmos (not forest - haha, look at me with my Hants brewery giggles), a young crowd. Being in a brewery tap, I decide to 'play the game' and ask the barmaid who looks like Cousin It from behind to recommend me an ale. She explains it is her first day here and she doesn't have a clue, but the plasma will help me. She's pleasant enough. Beer ordered, I wish to 'empower' her (as we like to say at work) so I ask her an easier question, namely, where are the loos. She doesn't know this either, a colleague interjects and tells me "it is her first day" (err, I know!) as if my line of questioning has been a bit too demanding! I eventually get sat in a nice sleepery style bench to myself, drink my drink, and that is that.
Another bumpy 35 minute bus ride back into Winchester, inevitably dying for a wee, so I bound down this slippy, slopey sidestreet to the closest pub to the so-called bus station.
Black Boy, Winchester is a welcome return to town, my favourite pub so far in that it felt more of a locals pub than the slightly tourist-centric Wyekham. Utterly bonkers though, you can walk all the way around from front to back bar, through distinct area and enclaves, it feels like every square inch is awash with amusing bric-a-brac accumulated over a number of years, every single piece seems to be on display. A monkey with its hand on two donkeys bums is always going to be memorable. My only slight gripe is that there is so much junk (treasure?), so much 'noise' so to speak, it is easy to lose the true sense of the pub. I mean, there were two roaring fires, my stout was drinking fabulously, the atmosphere had a fabulous thrum of a chilly Autumnal evening, you didn't need much more. It was no coincidence I settled myself down in the far reaches of the bare boarded back room, 'resting my eyes' for a couple of minutes, listening to the locals joking with the barmaids. Then my headache subsided, then I realised I truly was in a really top notch boozer. Quirkiness is great, in moderation.
I hadn't realised what a big place Winchester was until now, for my other required pubs were suddenly well over a 20 minute walk. The first of which, had only opened at 6pm ......
Hyde Tavern, Winchester would prove my absolute favourite of all six Winchester GBG entries. I walk in, the atmosphere is so different from the others, more like a throwback to some centuries old rural outlier. The best fire yet gurgles happily in the grate behind me, and to be honest, the locals (all at least 80 years old) are also gurgling happily. The landlady is friendly old school. "You here for the gig?" she asks. "Ummm, what gig?" I reply. "I'm just after a pint". She smiles more sweetly after that, it is the kind of pub you want to be accepted into the bosom of, without appearing a tit! It is deliciously low key, and with the fifth pub of the day always my haziest, the atmosphere suits me perfectly. I sit in front of the fire and tell everyone I hope I'm not blocking the heat (worse than a bar blocker? A fire blocker!) but everyone is so maternal/paternal like "oooh you get yerself warmed up lad!" like I'm an 18 year old orphan! The perfect calm is only broken when a bloke bursts in and says in a very rushed manner "Is there a gig on?" he demands, and trying to be helpful, I say yes. He dashes through, but he's called back. Landlady needs stamp his forehead or summat. "I'm from Hull!" he protests, like that makes it okay. Well, that perks me up, and soon, I've turned him being from Hull into a full BRAPA diatribe, chatting to this nice couple. The Harvey's in the Old Rosie glass is drinking southernly but good. An elderly fishwife pipes ups with "we are going to Barbados in March" and glances at me sideways. It was a humble brag, and I didn't ask. Magical pub this, interesting to hear Pub Curmudgeon and Quinno have both had less magical experiences here, I could not imagine it being anything other than close to perfection.
One pub to go before last orders chimes, I'd made good time and this final pub was a short walk, right opposite the railway station, from where my Winchester adventure had begun at 2pm.
Albion, Winchester was another pub I've got an awful lot of time for. 'No frills', gloriously unpretentious, which must be quite notable in such prime location in a 'nicey nice' town. A bit brighter than your average Winchester pub which mainly were very dimly lit, the landlord and his lookalike bulldog preside over the place with an unflustered, unwavering eye of a duo who have 'seen it all before, mate'. The dog must be getting on a bit cos watching him try to jump up onto a bench was thoroughly exhausting. He's no spring chicken, and he smelt a bit like blue cheese, but in a nice way. By the way, I've heard the pork pies are fantastic here too whilst we are on the subject of food! More Flower Pots ales, and as usual, on top form. Hardly anyone utters a word til three lively baldies come in. Their train home is delayed, and they think it is fate that their train always gets delayed at Winchester, so that they can pop in here for a quick pint! Cracking boozer, much recommended.
Well, if that is the shape of Hants to come, I'm in for a good week. Still got the Fulflood Arms to do in Winchester, but for now, it was off to buy a big bag of food and watery drinks, have nine solid hours shut eye, and aim for some more obscure pubbing on the Wednesday.
Join me in part two hopefully tomorrow for more shenanigans.
Til then, take care and hope you now feel inspired to go Winchester pubbing.