Sunday, 29 March 2015

Carshalton

If there's one thing Boris Johnson should have sorted out in his tenure as London mayor, during which he appears to have done absolutely nothing except waste newspaper pages with his buffonish "antics," he should have spent millions of pounds joining up South East London (and even Croydon) with decent transport links. Carshalton is 12 miles away from my house in SE London, a 40 minute car journey. However to get there by public transport took 1 hour 30 minutes, as I had to go into London and out again which is ridiculous. After trundling through the cultural desert that is Mitcham, I arrived at Carshalton, a nice enough little town nestled on the main road between Sutton and Croydon which is blessed with three decent pubs.

First up was the Windsor Castle, a Shepherd Neame pub although you wouldn't know it from the outside as it doesn't appear to advertise itself as a Neame. This imposing street corner pub on a busy junction has an exterior clad in wonderful green tiling, and inside the traditional feel continues. It's a surprisingly large place with a central oval bar dishing out Neame ales, plus three guest ales. As I've drunk far too much Neame in my lifetime I tried out the guests, and went for a half of Legless Rambler from the Beachy Head microbrewery. This award winning ale was a little rough around the edges, but there was plenty of promise and it was a pleasant enough bitter sup. Only two other customers were in and Smooth FM was being played so the atmosphere wasn't exactly electric, but the pleasant decor made this a nice enough place for a lunchtime half and possibly a nap. Food was available as well with standard pub grub options.

Next up was The Sun. From the outside this was another imposing street corner boozer, but the inside was nearly the exact opposite of the Windsor Castle. Modern decor and furnishings gave it a boutique feel, and although the focus was mainly on good looking food, I felt comfortable just having a drink. There was a well chosen selection of ales on offer and my Off Beat Brewery Kooky Gold was a solid example of a British pale ale. There were slightly more customers in this one, so there was a bit of atmosphere going. The light and airy style of pub isn't usually my favourite, I prefer my boozers dark and dank so I'm not distracted from the serious business of drinking ale, but I did quite enjoy the look and atmosphere of this pub, even if the dramatic black patterned back bar wallpaper looked like it may be more at home in a hairdressers. Nice little pub and I'd like to return to try out the food.

The last pub was the main reason I made the trip out to Carshalton. The Hope is a CAMRA favourite, and was voted Pub of the Year 2013. This old school boozer was bought out by the locals, and a beer revolution is happening inside. Some well chosen ales were on offer and there was also a smattering of craft beer offerings on keg, such as the Pale Ale from Five Points brewery. I ended up going for the Arbor Triple Hop, which was a fruity, hoppy treat. A few regulars were in hogging the bar but they were friendly enough. Preparations were in place for a beer festival which, just my luck, was due to start the next day. There's no music, no fruit machines, and the decor and furnishing look like they haven't been changed in years. No wonder CAMRA love it so much. Luckily it's my kind of pub as well. A very simple food offering was available, and I was pleased to see a billiards table in the back. A classic and welcoming boozer, and the excellent beer on offer makes it even more worthy a visit.

I carried on to Croydon to meet up with The Lovely Jemma and try out a few new pubs, but I'll tell you all about those in my next blog post as I desperately need the content. Until next time!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

SE London Pub of the Year nominees

Being a paid up CAMRA member I recently received an email from my local South East London branch about nominations for the branch Pub of the Year. Depressingly I had only been to one of the pubs on the shortlist, the excellent Park Tavern in Eltham. I had been meaning to visit the other pubs on the list and the email gave me the kick up the arse I needed to go out there and give them a go. Of course a single visit isn't enough to get a true feel for a pub and nominate it for the award, unless the place serves free pints of perfectly conditioned real ale served by dazzlingly beautiful bar staff in a opulent Grade II listed interior. But at least I could say I'd visited these pubs, and I get a blog post out of it as well.

First up was the Blythe Hill Tavern. I'd heard good things about this place but I'd never visited even though it's only a 30 minute bus ride from my house. This is probably because it involves going to Catford - an area that always seems to be on the brink of "gentrifying" but the hipsters and professionals just can't bring themselves to do it. The Blythe is a good looking traditional street corner boozer from the outside, and I gingerly went to one of the three entrances hoping I wouldn't have to face the locked door of shame. Luckily I chose wisely and walking in I was greeted by a small seating area and bar. Initial looks proved to be deceiving, as there was another room behind the bar and a further room around the corner, making the pub surprisingly spacious - and also explaining the numerous entrances.

Five ales were on offer including firm favourites Harveys Best and Dark Star Hophead. I went for Whitstable Centinneal, a single hop beer which was very pleasant. I took a seat next to a telly showing the (Irish) horse racing, and was amused by the posters advocating temperance dotted above the bar. The pub was very quiet with only three other punters in - but it was a Thursday lunchtime, or perhaps those temperance posters did have an effect. The beer was good, the pub was good and I imagine on a Friday evening quite an atmosphere gets going. A decent boozer.

Next up was a pub that wasn't up for nomination, but as it has received a lot of good buzz and was nearby I thought it rude not to drop in. The London Beer Dispensary is the tap for trendy brewery Late Knights. Even though I knew that this place didn't have a traditional "bar" I was still amused by the set up. In one corner of the pub there is a wall with some handpumps, a barrel with a keg dispensary stuck on top and a rack with some cask ales lined up. This is all out in the open, so you walk up, the friendly bar staff pours a beer for you - as this place is "on trend" only jugs are available - and you enjoy the beer. I went for a Late Knights Penge Porter which was really rather good, but unfortunately the keg delivery meant it was served far too cold. After a few minutes to settle the pleasant mocha and chocolate flavours starting coming through a treat. I also enjoyed a half of Crack of Dawn, also from Late Knights, which was on cask and was very good - an easy drinking, hoppy pale ale.

The place had the feel of a craft beer take on the micropub - with the focus on ale and the tables close to each other to encourage conversation it shared some of the same ethos. A food menu of burgers and, inevitably, pulled pork was available, plus some bar snacks. Sadly they were out of black pudding pork pies. A second room at the back of the bar was done up like a posh living room, complete with stately leather sofas, and an impressive fireplace with a stags head looming above. The cheery staff made me feel welcome, and overall I was impressed with the place, although I imagine it gets a bit cramped on a busy evening.

My final stop on this mini pub tour was the one I was looking forward to the most, a pub with a heart-warming history and a splendid interior. The Ivy House is a barn of a pub nestled in a residential area of Peckham. Walking in you're first greeted by a small room with cosy furnishing and a serving area in the corner. Walk through the doors at the back though and you enter a much larger, and very impressive, main room complete with a stage. The fit out is very plush, all deep dark woods, and the stage area is very ornate. It looks absolutely fantastic. Being a pub in a rapidly improving area of London it was due to be converted to flats but thankfully a local campaign managed to secure around a million quid in funding and it was bought by the residents of the area. It is now run as a co-operative. A wonderful story for a wonderful building.

The beer selection was top notch with a good collection of traditional ales and more crafty selections as well. I enjoyed half of Cottage Brewery Aphrodite, a straightforward pale ale. The pub does food as well, a small menu with pretty much every pub classic represented - pies, fish and chips and so on. I went for the bangers and mash and they were superb, three plump meaty sausages on a creamy mash bed. Great stuff.

A couple of days later I paid a visit to the final pub on the nomination list, The Fox on The Hill. This is a very large Wetherspoons in leafy Denmark Hill. The first thing that struck me was the impressive size of the garden, and it was packed with drinkers doing the traditional British thing when the sun comes out for the first time in months - sitting outside and enjoying a beer even if the weather is actually a bit chilly. Inside the pub is split into several large rooms, with a L-shaped bar dishing out drinks to thirsty punters.

I had a few beers here, for research purposes of course, and also because the beer is keenly priced thanks to it being a Spoons. Clarence and Fredericks Cascadian Black was a highlight, a "Black IPA" that maintained the malty goodness of a stout with the hoppy madness of an IPA, a very solid effort, and a steal at £1.75 a pint after using my CAMRA 50p off voucher. I also enjoyed Wettons Golden Taff, a crisp pale ale from Wales that had a very pleasurable dry finish. Spoons full "craftwork" offering was available, and I enjoyed a Sixpoint Bengali with my chicken burger. You can't really complain about getting a well made 6.5% IPA free with a meal. I gave the Devils Backbone IPA a try as well, a good interpretation of the classic American IPA by the Banks Brewery.

I enjoyed my time at all the nominated pubs, and to be honest it would be difficult to pick a winner. They're all cosy, welcoming boozers that are an asset to the community they serve. Definitely worth popping into them if you're nearby, and The Ivy House is worth a special trip for the amazing interior alone.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Chelmsford

With London house prices continuing to skyrocket with no end in sight, it really is outrageous what a sorry mess the housing situation in the capital is at the moment. In South London houses in former no-go areas such as Peckham and Hackney now cost a fortune where well off professionals find themselves living in enclaves with upmarket coffee shops and trendy craft bars uncomfortably close to poverty and crime stricken estates where the residents will never see the benefits of "gentrification." West London is now a joke where rows of grand houses stand empty as foreigners use them as a safe investment, rather than them being used as family homes. North London has long stopped being a place where anybody could hope to own a house - unless you bought it forty years ago and are now living off the profits off an "investment" that went up in value by dumb luck.

But you haven't come to this blog to read my simplistic ramblings about London's dysfunctional market, you've hopefully come here to read my ramblings about beers and pubs. Because there is now nowhere affordable in London for people on normal wages, more and more people are moving out of town, including good friends of mine who have recently moved to Chelmsford, around half an hour away on the train from Liverpool Street. Me and The Lovely Jemma visited their charming house for a weekend of catching up and maybe visiting a few pubs. Chelmsford has eleven(!) pubs listed in the Good Beer Guide, and I cherry picked four of them that sounded interesting.

First up was the White Horse which I picked more for proximity as it was just around the corner from the house. Marketing itself as a "bar and lounge" it looked like a shabby student pub from the outside, but it turned out to be a friendly and busy locals pub. Apparently boasting Chelmsford longest bar there was the usual selection of lagers and ciders available, but on the handpumps things got more interesting with a couple of Mighty Oak ales available. I went for Captain Bob which was in good form, reminiscent of Timothy Taylors Landlord on a good day. My friends went for the Oscar Wilde which was also in good nick. The rugby was on and the pub was pretty busy, filled with punters loudly enjoying the sport. We didn't stay long but this was a solid locals pub which I wouldn't mind returning to when it's a bit quieter.

We walked past The Royal Steamer which features in the Good Beer Guide, however it seems a new landlord has taken over and the ale selection had been drastically reduced. We decided to skip it and move on to The Golden Fleece, a rock pub which has had a recent makeover and is now targeting the burgers and craft beer market. Craft favourites Beavertown and BrewDog were on tap, plus there was an interesting selection of bottled beer. Like the grumpy bugger I am I ignored the craft beer on this occasion and went for the cask ale, Brentwood Marvelous Maple Mild. It wasn't exactly marvellous but was a well crafted mild, with the malty flavours present and correct. The pub was looking fresh after its makeover but there was something oddly hollow about the place - it was lacking character with its generic decoration and furnishing. The beer was in good nick though and the place was busy with young trendy punters so it's clearly winning over the people of Cheltenham. A nice enough place but not somewhere I would return to repeatedly.

Down the road we popped into The Railway Tavern, a long narrow pub next to the railway viaduct. Peeking through the windows I thought this pub would be a horror show of decrepit old punters and grumpy staff in a crumbling pub, but of course I was completely and utterly wrong. Walking in we got an effusive and friendly welcome from the landlord and barmaid, who helpfully pointed to a blackboard showing the ales available. I went for Farmers IPA from the the Maldon Brewing Co which was a very pleasant sup. In the back of the pub is a quaint area set up to look like a railway carriage - a bit cheesy but it worked. A friendly bunch of regulars were at the bar and overall the atmosphere was very genial. I would of been happy to stay for another drink but time was running short and we moved on to the next pub.

We were going to have a drink in The Plough, a Nicholson's pub across the road from the bus station, but the place was rammed with sports lovers so we went straight to The Ale House under the railway arches. Walking in you are greeted with an interior that is a bit like being in a aircraft hunger, and to the right a long bar serves a selection of 12 ales plus a good range of real cider. We were lucky to grab a bench in the busy bar and I worked my way through their exciting collection of ales. First up was Wibblers Chocolate and Vanilla Porter, which was basically liquid hot chocolate in a glass. A delicious desert beer.Alright Treacle? a treacle stout from Waen Brewery was sadly nowhere near as good, a bit lifeless and I couldn't detect any treacle flavor in there.

Last up was Rule of Thirds from craft beer darlings Siren. As it's a craft beer it was unsurprisingly an American IPA, and as it's from Siren it's unsurprisingly very good indeed, the best beer of the evening. It's the first time I've had Siren on cask rather than from a bottle and it was very good stuff, strongly hoppy but very drinkable. There are no hot food offerings in the Ale House but I did sample a scotch bonnet pickled egg which was very good but sadly lacking in heat. The Lovely Jemma enjoyed the large selection of real cider available. Apparently the place does live music as well, and judging from the crowd it's clearly a popular hub in Chelmsford. An excellent end to a varied and surprisingly good ale trail.

I was a bit jealous of my friends having such a decent selections of pubs in close proximity to their house and I must admit by the end of the drinking session even I was thinking of moving out to Chelmsford. But the sobering thought of having to pay £3,600 a year for a season ticket soon put a stop to that idea. The pub of the night for me was The Ale House but I'd be quite happy enjoying a pint in any of the boozers we visited. Well done Chelmsford!