Monday, 20 July 2015

Norfolk Part 1 - The North of Norfolk

Last week I was up in Norfolk, in the Great Yarmouth area. The Lovely Jemma's parents had booked a cottage and we joined them for a week of relaxing, walking and maybe even some beer drinking. Norfolk has an excellent reputation for real ale and I was looking forward to trying out the goods. The cottage we stayed in was in the charming chocolate box village of Winterton-on-Sea, featuring pretty houses, a well kept village green and an impressive lighthouse. There was also a pub and it seemed rude not to visit.

The Fishermans Return with its classic red brick fa├žade, homely furnishings and traditional wood backed walls inside fits the part of the traditional village pub. However it has a secret, a large and modern extension to the back, which looks a bit out of place and was empty on the few visits I made, it is presumably mainly used for functions. The small serving area in the main pub had four ales on offer, including the "house ale" Skippers Tipple. A 4% bitter the brewery wasn't displayed on the pump clip, but according to the internet it appears to be a Greene King "house beer," a generic beer which they ship out to pubs who slap a custom clip on the handpull. It was tasty regardless. The Adnams Ghost Ship I tried was also in excellent nick. I didn't get to try the food but the menu looked appealing with plenty of pub classics.  Sitting outside on one of the wooden benches in the sunshine and surrounded by the sweet little village was a great way to start the holiday.

About a thirty minute walk along the beach from the cottage is the seaside resort of Hemsby. It's like a miniature Blackpool, with a small selection of gaudy, neon lit arcades and little shops selling all kinds of seaside tat populated by sugar filled kids and tired parents. The arcades were depressing to visit, all of them packed with two penny pushers and claw machines offering the same tacky "prizes" - I miss the video games and pinball from arcades of my childhood back in the 80's and 90's. On the outskirts of the Hemsby prom is the rather grand looking The Lacon Arms. A large family pub, on the few visits I made the pub garden was usually full of groups enjoying a pint and/or eating lunch. As it was billed as a "family pub" my pub snobbery kicked in and I wasn't expecting much of the beer selection but it was actually pretty good. Alongside the ubiquitous beer from the Norfolk Woodforde brewery, there was also another Greene King house ale and a beer from the recently reopened Lacon brewery, who are based down the road from the pub in Great Yarmouth. Their Encore was a fine, citrusy pale ale which was a joy to drink and possibly the best beer I had on the trip. I would have another run in with the Lacon Brewery later on in the trip.

Another half hour walk on from Hemsby is the cosy seaside resort California, which again has a small prom with a smattering of arcades and cafes, which no doubt get a lot of custom from the large holiday park nearby. There's also a pub, the California Tavern. Rather generic looking inside and out, this was a good spot for a drink and a meal. The Ploughmans Lunch I shared with The Lovely Jemma was very tasty, and my half of Wolf Brewery's strangely named Granny Wouldn't Like It was a rich ruby ale that went down a treat. Sadly my follow up pint of Woodforde Wherry wasn't so great. With a strong aroma of old socks and a taste that was marginally better, this was a disappointing pint of a normally reliable bitter.

On the Tuesday we took a walk in the opposite direction, across the beach and through the outskirts of the broads to the Nelson Head, a picture perfect country pub nestled in the tiny village of Horsey. This small two room pub has a wide range of ales and cider, plus a tempting if pricey food menu. The cider according to TLJ was very good, and the food was very tasty. Sadly the ale was hit and miss. Tom Wood's Best Bitter was either in poor condition or just a poor beer - slightly sour and a otherwise flat tasting profile. There was a lot of sediment at the bottom of the glass as well. I was desperate to drink anything after the long walk but I wasn't impressed. Cheddar Bitter Bully, which was gravity dropped rather than hand pulled, was a million times better, a clean, refreshing and hoppy pint that was a treat to drink. I tried my luck with another gravity dropped beer, but sadly my final pint of Arizona from the Tombstone Brewery was a return to average form, but the very pleasant walk back to the cottage cheered up my mood.

That's enough rambling for now. Over the next couple of weeks I'll be telling you about the pubs I visited in Great Yarmouth and Norwich. Hope you can join me!

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Old Red Cow, Farringdon

I work in the Farringdon, an area in London which is bereft with decent pubs. I've visited several in the past and you can read my thoughts in the blog archive. Last Wednesday I popped into a pub in the area that I hadn't visited previously which was highly recommended by the Craft Beer London app. The Old Red Cow is near Smithfields market, a two floor pub with a small area downstairs and a dining area upstairs. Walking in on a Wednesday evening the place had a smattering of punters in, and the cosiness of the room made it feel busier than it was. Similar to the Euston Tap there are ten keg beers dispensed from taps on the back wall, plus four beers on handpump. I was pleased to see a strong selection of beers available, with plenty of bottles to choose from as well.

All was looking good and there was even a tempting food menu. I was ready to settle in for the evening with a friend of mine who was due to join me and I ordered a pint of Blond from Nene Valley brewery, a refreshing session pale ale at 3.8%. Sadly the night hit a snag when I was charged £4.50 for the pint. Now I don't mind paying a premium for a craft beer especially if it has a high ABV, but £4.50 for a 3.8% cask session ale is, in my opinion, taking the piss. Even worse was that I couldn't see this price advertised anywhere, only the keg beers appeared to have their prices listed on a blackboard to the side of the bar. They were also very highly priced, averaging around £6 a pint for beers in the 5-6% ABV range.

Maybe I'm out of touch and this pricing is normal, but these were the highest prices I'd ever seen in a pub as far as I could remember, and I've had plenty of experience getting stung in Central London pubs. My friend arrived and although we reasoned that we could just stick to halves the prices were just too unpalatable to spend a lot of time in the Cow. Additionally, and although it's not the fault of the pub, a group of braying City boys hogging the bar were getting loud and spoiling the atmosphere. One of them bleated about ordering "the most expensive beer the pub had.' I hate to think how much he paid for it.

My friend and I ended up going down to the Wetherspoons near Farringdon station (The Sir John Oldcastle) which was as gloomy and sticky as usual, but at least I could enjoy a can of SixPoint for £2.98. We then moved on to Smiths of Smithfields for dinner, where I enjoyed a burger along with a pint of their house beer, a refreshing pale lager that went down a treat. Even though Smiths is a restaurant for those on expense accounts it still felt more reasonable than the Red Cow. It's a real shame that the Cow was so expensive, as it could be a lovely cosy respite away from the hustle and bustle of Farringdon, but the prices were bordering on exploitative. With so many other decent pubs nearby I'm a little bit surprised they're getting away with it.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Blackpool

Last weekend I was up in Blackpool or the "Vegas of the North" as it's known by absolutely nobody. My nan lives in nearby Cleveleys so I have had many visits to Blackpool over the years. Three or four years ago things were not looking good for the town - they missed out on the "Super Casino" bid, development plans had stopped and the tourist attractions were outdated and slowly crumbling away. But in the past few years it has gone through a bit of a renaissance - Merlin (who own Alton Towers and Thorpe Park) have come in and bought up the Blackpool Tower and the hilarious Louis Tussauds, whose waxworks were so bad that I once had to ask a friend why Paul Merton was on the Titanic, and they had to point out it was actually Leonardo DiCaprio. It's now an official Madame Tussauds and both it and the Tower are looking much better for themselves.

With Merlin throwing money at the resort and the council also starting to wise up and continue developing the town, the town centre is now looking much better, although the area around the Blackpool Pleasure Beach is looking a bit forlorn and forgotten. Hopefully the cash will start to make its way there. Along with Merlin another company making its way into Blackpool is Wetherspoons, who now have three blockbuster pubs in the town. In a way Spoons are a perfect fit for Blackpool, as their giant pubs serving cheap booze and food make it perfect for hungry families and the thirsty stag and hen do's.


The first Spoons of the weekend was The Velvet Coaster, a short walk away from the Pleasure  Beach. This is by far the biggest Spoons I've ever visited, spread over three floors and featuring a roof terrace and a glass lift. Each floor has a bar and they were serving different ales at different bars, which got a bit confusing. The location used to be an amusement arcade, and the decor is designed to evoke memories of fun at the seaside fair. For my first beer I went for the local offering of
Lytham Gold from the Lytham brewery which is only a 15 minute drive from the pub. It was a solid pint once it had time to settle. While ordering my second beer I noticed that New Zealand craft beer superstars Yeastie Boys had a beer on cask. I was initially excited but a little bit of research revealed that the beer was actually made at the Wadworth brewery in not so exotic Wiltshire, although the pump clip didn't indicate this. Bit disappointing but it's nice to see Spoons continuing to try and cater for the craft crowd, although I didn't see anybody order it.

My second drink was the Gold from the Ramsbury brewery which was a very refreshing and hoppy sup. On a Saturday afternoon the pub was in full swing with an eclectic mix of couples, parties and families and the barn like acoustics meant the downstairs was very noisy, although things were a bit quieter upstairs. Staff were friendly and serving as quickly as they could, the toilets were clean, the atmosphere was typical Spoons and quite frankly I liked the place. It's a great option for families who want a decent value lunch away from the expensive Pleasure Beach eateries.

Next up was the Spoons outlet in the centre of town, the Layton Rakes. Not as big as the Velvet Coaster, but still boasting a roof terrace, this was a more traditional Spoons experience, with slightly worn carpet and somewhat sticky table and chairs. Music was being played on a Saturday night which was unusual but actually welcome in this Spoons, as otherwise the atmosphere would have been pretty dead. The place was rather quiet punters wise, and I thought more would be coming in for a cheap drink before hitting the clubs. Although to be fair Blackpool clubs tend to be quite reasonable with their drinks prices, probably because there's so much competition.

I initially ordered a Bengali Tiger from SixPoint, but after the confused barman bought me back a bottle of the Singapore Tiger beer I had to point out in the cabinet what I wanted. Turns out they were all out of Bengali anyway, so I settled for SixPoint The Crisp at a wallet satisfying £1.99. Curiously the "premium" lagers such as Heineken were priced at around £3.40 which I found a bit high for a Spoons - maybe that's why there weren't many punters in. I find The Crisp to be the weakest of the SixPoint offerings but it's still a well made and very tasty pilsner. After a drink me and The Lovely Jemma headed on down to Funny Girls, an amusing drag cabaret and Blackpool classic that has to be experienced at least once by every visitor. I stayed away from the beer their though - I wasn't in the mood for a fizzy lager or Worthington Creamflow.

It's great to see Blackpool doing a bit better for itself and I hope the regeneration continues. The town centre is looking much smarter and they've even got a Pizza Express and a Nando's - things are truly on the up! If you find yourself there it's well worth a visit to the Coaster or the Rakes - to be honest there's precious little else you can go in town to get a decent pint of ale. On the way back home we stopped in Preston to enjoy lunch at The Continental, a fabulous pub nestled on the banks of the River Ribble. The food was excellent and my pint of Brewers Gold from Pictish was a superbly refreshing session pale. An excellent pub and a very pleasant end to an entertaining weekend.