Sunday, 10 November 2013

Chester

Last weekend I was in Chester to attend the wedding of two close friends. It was a wonderful ceremony held at the historic Chester Town Hall. Two things are inevitable at any wedding I attend.. First I will blub my way through the vows, especially when either the bride or groom (or both) start weeping. Secondly at the reception I will dance like Mick Jagger having a seizure while trying to dance on a ice rink wearing bowling shoes. Chester Town Hall was a lovely venue to hold the wedding and the whole day was awesome, the only downside being that only Boddingtons or Stella 4% were available at the town hall bar. Neither appealed so in the end I stuck with wine, before obviously moving on to the gin. If there's a finer spirit than gin I've yet to find it.

For some foolish reason I decided to travel from London Euston to Chester using London Midland. Actually there was a pretty good reason - it would of cost about £100 return to use Virgin Trains rather than the £30 return to use London Midland. At that price I knew the journey would be grim but in typical British train operator style they managed to make it even grimmer then it should have been. On the way up our train to Crewe instead decided to give up at Northampton, which is understandable as Northampton does have have that effect, but it was annoying having to change trains. In total it took about fours hours to get to Chester, which felt like an eternity on the cramped London Midland trains. Coming back was pretty straightforward but again being wedged into a seat with precious little legroom for 3 1/2 hours wasn't much fun. Next time I'll just pay the beardy bastard his ransom.

This was my first visit to Chester and I took the opportunity to visit some pubs up there. The night before the ceremony a few of us met up for a drink at the Brewery Tap. The building used to be a Jacobean meeting hall and it has been preserved (or restored) very well indeed. The bar had an enticing number of hand pumps on display. Eagerly I went up to the bar to order and was met with the cold, hard stare of a server who didn't seem to want to be there at all. I politely ordered a beer and attempted a bit of light hearted humour and was met with a look so fierce I thought I might burst into flames on the spot. The pub is the tap for the Spitting Feathers brewery and I went ahead and ordered a pint of their own Thirst Quencher. This was a easy drinking ale with a flavoursome hoppy finish that tickled the back of the tongue. Business as Usual from Derby Brewing Company was up next, and this aptly named bitter was a solid, workmanlike beer that got the job done. The final beer, and sadly the most disappointing, was Celtica from Great Orme, with limp insipid flavours that failed to excite.

The place was packed on a Friday night although one table was filled with customers who appeared to be about 15 years old. It was like being in a scene from Hot Fuzz and I half expected Simon Pegg to burst in and arrest the lot of them. Despite the cold service a very pleasurable evening was had here, although I don't know if I would be rushing back.

On the day of the ceremony itself there was a gap between lunch and the reception, and a group of us managed to sneak off to a cosy little pub near the town hall called Pied Bull. We blundered in to this small three room pub, a bit merry from the festivities and managed to grab a table in what appeared to be the "dining area" judging from the fact that every table had place mats and cutlery, and perhaps the most obvious sign, everybody sitting there was eating standard pub grub. Unlike some pubs the staff didn't seem to mind that we were only having a drink in the dining area. The wedding lunch had left us well lubricated and our conversation was getting a little bit loud. I got the feeling we were pissing off some of the other customers who had clearly come in for a quiet drink and to avoid oiks like us. The main clue was that most of them left the vicinity about 10-15 minutes after we'd sat at the table. I'm not proud of our behaviour, although I've seen much worse, but the friendly staff seemed fairly laid back about the whole thing.

As for the ale, as luck would have it they had a mini beer festival on. They must have known I would be in town. Things got off to a good start with a Marble Bitter. I always enjoy Marble beers and you don't see them too often in the South, so I always take the opportunity to have a half. Marble rarely do things wrong and this was an accomplished English bitter which went down very well. The Pied Bull is also a microbrewery creating a wide range of beers, all of them named with a terrible pun revolving around bulls. I opted for a half of Quaffa-bull (hnnngh) and it certainly lived up to its cheesy name. This was a easy drinking golden ale with a pleasant hoppy taste. Last was the Magic Rock Carnival, a delicious session pale ale which was on excellent form.

The following day after the wedding I thought I would treat The Lovely Jemma to lunch to what was described in the Good Beer Guide as a "upmarket" pub. Now a "upmarket pub" in the guide can mean anything from a place that actually uses real fish in its scampi to a place where the customers houses are worth more than a small African country and it's going to cost you six quid a pint and a large glass of wine requires a credit check. The pub was the Old Harkers Arms, a large place with a lovely position alongside the canal on the outskirts of Chester town centre. It certainly was upmarket but in a good way, with the pub furnished with lovely oak tables and chairs, the walls lined with little antique trinkets, and the place just had an overall feel that it attracted people with a little bit of money. I knew this place was truly upmarket when an older gentleman came in to read the Sunday Times, although he let the side down a little bit by ordering Weston's cider.

There was a good selection of ale on offer with blackboards displaying what's on. The Snowdonia from Purple Moose and Cheshire Cat by Weetwood were both on excellent form and immaculately kept. The Snowdonia was an excellent, easy drinking bitter and the Cheshire was a creamy, light beer with a stand-out dry finish. The food was excellent, although the portions were a bit too big. TLJ went for a roast beef lunch where the chef appeared to put any vegetable he could find in the kitchen on to the plate, while my haddock had clearly led a good life as it was huge, and there was a very generous portion of chips and mushy peas to go with it. I don't often get defeated by pub food, being used to miserly London portions, but this meal got me.

All the pubs I visited in Chester were of a good high standard, and as we walked around the historic town centre there were plenty of other places which looked good which we may have to visit if we ever visit Chester again. A great weekend and the only disappointment was that I didn't see any cast members from Hollyoaks out and about. Maybe next time!

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